May 23, 2013
In 2009, the Hirshhorn Museum announced plans for a dramatic, glowing balloon that would emerge out of the center of the circular building when inflated seasonally. The “Bubble,” as it came to be called, was conceived by the Hirshhorn’s director, Richard Koshalek, as an architecturally ambitious addition to the museum that would serve as a space for meetings, lectures and temporary think tanks about the arts and culture. But recently, cost projections for the Bubble, officially known as the Seasonal Inflatable Structure, had been reported to be unsustainable.
The fate of the project lay in the balance today as the museum’s board of trustees met to determine if the project would go forward. But at the meeting’s conclusion, Smithsonian Institution officials stated that the board had “failed to reach a consensus.” A final decision will be announced next month.
The museum’s director also announced his resignation to the board and to the museum staff to become effective at the end of the year.
Koshalek came to the Smithsonian in 2009 from the Art Center of College and Design in Pasadena, California with many bold ideas. Koshalek saw the Bubble design as a seasonal venue that would “house pop-up think tanks about the arts around the world,” according to architecture critic Joseph Giovannini in the May issue of Smithsonian magazine.
In an announcement to staff, Richard Kurin, the Institution’s undersecretary for history, arts and culture, said that Koshalek had brought “tremendous energy and creativity to the Hirshhorn.”
The New York-based firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro conceived the blue, translucent structure as an “off kilter dome, jaunty as a beret,” wrote Giovannini, who also described the project as daring and innovative. But costs of the structure and its installation are estimated at $12.5 million, with only $7.8 million raised or committed to date. In addition, Smithsonian officials report that about $1 million would be required to maintain the project, covering the installation, de-installation and storage.
March 8, 2013
In a relatively short time, global emissions of carbon dioxide increased massively. Through the greenhouse effect, they raised temperatures around the planet by an average of 7 to 14 degrees Fahrenheit; they also changed the chemistry of the oceans, triggering a surge in acidity that may have led to mass extinctions among marine life. Overall, during this era of rapid change, global sea levels may have risen by as much as 65 feet.
Reading this, you could be forgiven if you assume we’re talking about a scenario related to the present-day climate crisis. But the previous paragraph actually refers to a 20,000-year-long period of warming that occurred 55 million years ago, an event scientists call the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (or PETM for short). Scott Wing, a paleobiologist at the Natural History Museum who has studied the PETM for more than 20 years, says, “If all this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s essentially what we’re doing right now.”
As we embark on an unprecedented experiment with the Earth’s atmosphere and climate, the PETM is suddenly a hot topic among scientists in many disparate fields. “It’s an event that a lot of people are interested in, because it is the best example we have of a really sudden global warming connected to a large release of carbon,” Wing says.
Although scientists still don’t fully understand what triggered the PETM, it is clear that more and more carbon was injected into both the atmosphere and the oceans, initiating the climate change. This carbon may have been supplied by volcanic activity, the spontaneous combustion of peat or even the impact of a particularly carbon-rich comet. Additionally, the initial warming likely led to a release of methane gas from the seafloor, acting as a positive feedback that led to even more climate change. It’s also clear that all this warming wreaked havoc on the world’s ecosystems, leading to extinctions and altering the ranges of numerous plant and animal species.
There is, of course, one key difference: During this previous episode, all that warming took several thousand years. This time, carbon emissions are rising ten times faster than during the PETM, with the warming happening in a century—the geologic equivalent of a blink of an eye.
Scott Wing researches the PETM by digging for ancient plant remains in Wyoming’s Bighorn Basin. Over several decades of work, he has constructed a general picture of what types of plants thrived before, during and after the warming period, attempting to identify the sorts of trends in plant life we can expect as we change the climate going forward.
“During the warm period, essentially none of the plants that had lived in the area previously survived—their local populations were driven extinct,” Wing says. The area had been dominated by ancestors of the types of plants that live in temperate deciduous forests today, such as dogwood, sycamore and redwood trees.
But as the region heated up, these were replaced by a variety of plants related to the present-day bean family, most commonly found in warmer, drier areas such as southern Mexico or Costa Rica. “We believe that what happened is the dispersal into this region of plants that were living somewhere else, probably much farther south,” says Wing. His team has also uncovered evidence that the warmer climate led to a greater level of insect pest damage on the plants that did survive the PETM.
His research has, however, turned up one trend from the PETM that could be a reason to hope ecosystems can someday rebound from climate change. After roughly 200,000 years, long after the PETM subsided and temperatures returned to normal, many of the temperate plants that had lived in the Bighorn Basin finally returned.
“One possible explanation,” Wing says, “is that there were cooler climates in the nearby mountains that served as refuges for these species.” In that scenario—one that he and his research team plan to more closely investigate as they continue to excavate and piece together the fossil record—these types of plants would have waited out the PETM in the relatively cold highlands, then returned to recolonize the basin afterward.
If our climate continues to change as rapidly as it has over the past few decades, though, such a scenario seems less likely—immobile organisms such as plants need hundreds of years to gradually migrate from one area to another. Thus, one key aspect of preserving our planet’s ecosystems, in addition to limiting climate change as much as possible, is slowing it down as much as we can.
February 15, 2013
Today, at around 9:20 a.m. local time in Chelyabinsk, Russia, a massive 11-ton meteor burned up in the sky, triggering a sonic boom that damaged buildings and shattered windows in six cities and reportedly injured hundreds. Eyewitnesses say the meteor’s shockingly bright flash as it burned up (10 seconds into the Russia Today video above) was briefly brighter than the morning sun.
That this event happened today—the same day a 147-foot wide asteroid will whiz extremely close to the Earth at 2:26 p.m. EST—seems to be a coincidence of astronomical proportions, as experts say the two events are entirely unrelated. But unlike the asteroid, which will cause no physical damage, the meteor’s sonic boom as it entered the atmosphere, fractured roughly 18 to 32 miles above the ground and subsequently rained fragments over the region, led to as many as 900 injuries, 31 hospitalizations and widespread damage including the collapse of a rooftop at a zinc factory .
So, what caused this massive explosion? “For one, meteors move extremely fast—faster than the speed of sound—so there’s a ton of friction being generated as it comes through the atmosphere,” says Cari Corrigan, a geologist with the Natural History Museum who specializes in meteors. “If there are any weaknesses in it already, or if there is ice that melts and leaves empty fractures—like freezing and thawing in a pothole—it could easily explode.”
To get a knotty bit of nomenclature out of the way, meteor refers to a variety of pieces of debris—made up of either rock, metal, or a mix of the two—that enter the atmosphere from outer space. Before doing so, they’re called meteoroids. Most burn up entirely during their descent, but if any intact fragments do make it to the ground, they’re called meteorites. Meteors are also called “shooting stars” because of the heat and light produced when they slam into the still atmosphere at supersonic speeds—today’s meteor was estimated to be traveling faster than 33,000 m.p.h.
The distinction between this meteor and the asteroid that will fly past us later today, according to Corrigan, is a matter of size and origin. “Asteroids are generally bigger, and they typically come from the asteroid belt, between Mars and Jupiter,” she says. The size difference also explains why we were able to predict the arrival of the asteroid nearly a year ago, but this meteor caught us by surprise: It’s impossible to spot the smaller meteoroids up in space with our telescopes.
Meteors like the one that fell today aren’t exceedingly rare, but for one to cause this much damage is almost unheard of. “There are events like this in recorded history, but this is likely the first time it’s happened over such a populated area and this level of destruction has been documented,” Corrigan says. Notable meteors in recorded history include the Tunguska event (a 1908 explosion over a remote area in Russia that knocked down more than 80 million trees covering an area of some 830-square miles), the Benld meteorite (a small object that landed in Illinois in 1938 that punctured the roof of a car) and the Carancas impact (a 2007 meteorite that crashed in a Peruvian village and may have caused groundwater contamination).
Much larger meteorites have fallen in prehistory and been discovered much later, including the Willamette Meteorite, a 32,000-pound hunk of iron that fell millennia ago and was transported to Oregon during the last ice age. The largest meteorite ever discovered in North America, it is now part of the collections of the Natural History Museum.
Early reports suggest that remnants of the meteor have fallen into a reservoir near the town of Chebarkul; testing on these meteorite fragments could provide more information on the object’s composition and origin. “It might be an ordinary chondrite—which is what 90 percent of the meteorites that we have are made of—or it could be something more rare,” Corrigan says.
While chondrites are made mostly of stone and result from the relatively recent breakup of asteroids, iron meteorites originate from the cores of more ancient asteroids, and even rarer types come from debris broken off from the moon or Mars. ”Every meteorite that we get is another piece of the puzzle,” says Corrigan. “They’re clues towards how the solar system and Earth were formed.”
December 6, 2012
“What we have here is a failure to communicate,” said G. Wayne Clough, the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, reflecting on the Institution’s role in educating the public about climate change. “We are the world’s largest museum and research center. . .but if you wanted to find out something about climate change and went to the Smithsonian website, you’d get there and have trouble finding out about it.”
In “Climate Change: Connecting the Dots,” a wide-ranging speech the Smithsonian secretary made today about the state of climate science and education at the Smithsonian, Clough conceded that, while the Institution has led the way in many fields of scientific research relating to the issue, it’s been less effective at conveying this expert knowledge to the public. “We have a serious responsibility to contribute to the public understanding of climate change,” he said.
Clough recently decided that communication the issue is a priority, he said, while contemplating the unprecedented damage of Hurricane Sandy and its link to climate change. Previously, while speaking to friends and outside groups about the impacts of climate change in other areas, such as the Yupik people of St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Strait, or the citizens of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, he’d frequently encountered an attitude of apathy.
“I would tell all of my friends, ‘this is a big deal,’ and inevitably, what they told me was, ‘well, those people in New Orleans build houses at places that are below sea level,’” he said. “‘That’s their problem, that’s not our problem.’”
The tragic consequences of Hurricane Sandy, though, have changed the climate of discussion around the issue. “Sandy and some other recent events have made this easier. You cannot run away from the issues we’re facing here,” Clough said. “Suddenly, it’s now become everyone’s problem.”
In response to this problem, he announced a pair of initiatives to expand the Smithsonian’s role in climate science. The Tennenbaum Marine Observatories will serve as the first worldwide network of coastal ocean field sites, designed to closely monitor the effects wrought by climate change in ocean ecosystems around the globe. TEMPO (Tropospheric Emissions: Monitoring of Pollution), conducted by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, will be the first space-based project to monitor pollution in the North American upper atmosphere in real time.
These will join dozens of climate-related research projects that have been ongoing for decades—research on wetlands, oceans, invasive species, carbon sequestration by ecosystems, wisdom on climate change from traditional cultures, historical changes in climate and other fields.
For an Institution that has become embroiled in controversies over public education on climate change over the years, making the issue an overall priority is significant. Clough feels that an inclusive approach is key. ”Let’s start with the idea that everybody’s educable, that everybody wants to learn something, and they’re going to go someplace to try to learn it,” he said. “No matter who you are, I think the place that you would want to come is the Smithsonian. So part of our communications task is to bring as many people to the table as possible to have this discussion.”
December 3, 2012
This week, if you take a stroll through the Haupt Garden, past the Sackler Gallery and into the Moongate Garden, you’ll come upon something you likely won’t see everyday: a 1500-year old intricately painted Buddhist cave from northwest China. Okay, but not really. In a remarkable marriage of the ancient and the high tech, the Sackler welcomes an innovative and precise 3D digital representation of one of the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas, also known as the Mogao Caves, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is one of the finest examples of Buddhist art in existence.
“There are over 600 caves in this escarpment, and they were painted over a period of about 1,000 years,” says Jeffrey Shaw, a professor at the City University of Hong Kong, who created the digital exhibition Pure Land: Inside the Mogao Grottes at Dunhuang, along with the Dunhuang Academy. “It is certainly one of the great art treasures of the world, and what we have here is a prototype for being able to explore the caves using digital data.”
Until you visit the exhibition, now shown outside China for the first time, you might be tempted to dismiss it as a gimmicky sideshow. But once you step inside the darkened tent and position the 3D glasses on your nose, the 360-degree virtual cave comes to life. It is utterly unlike the supposedly 3D experience you get, say, in a movie theater. Standing inside the tented chamber and seeing the richly detailed paintings and rock faces jut out at you from all sides, it really feels as though, if you reached out, you’d feel weathered millennial aged stone, rather than a smooth plastic screen. The digital cave, in short, is unnervingly lifelike.
Located at a natural oasis on the Silk Road—a crucial trade route linking China, western Asia and India from roughly the 2nd century BC through the 1300s—the Mogao cave complex was an ancient holy site where Buddhist monks practiced meditation. Over the centuries, they carved hundreds of chambers into the rock escarpment and filled them with intricate paintings. One cave of note, known as Bhaisajyaguru’s Eastern Paradise (now called Cave 220), is painted with seven figures known as medicine Buddhas, along with other traditional images such as incense burners, animals, dancers and musical instruments—and is now digitally represented as part of the new exhibition.
The virtual project began with painstaking work done by teams from the Dunhuang Academy, located at the site of the caves, in digitizing them over the course of several years. “They do a laser scanning of each of the caves, and they do ultra high resolution photography of the paintings,” Shaw says. The group has collected this data for a few dozen of the several hundred grottoes, but has only produced a fully-interactive virtual 3D exhibit for the one cave thus far.
The digital interface is controlled by a custom app installed on an iPad mini at the center of the room, which allows a tour guide to select from a menu of different options for displaying the work. It initially appears as a dark room, with a virtual flashlight’s beam bouncing around and illuminating small portions of it. Then, suddenly, the virtual house lights come up, and the six projectors and next-generation 3D technology provoke a wave of oohs and aahs from the tour groups crowding in to see it this week.
The fact that the entire experience is virtual gives visitors superpowers when exploring the cave. With a tour guide’s tap on the iPad, the group can suddenly move up to the ceiling, zoom in on a particular element with a massive magnifying glass or even animate elements of the paintings, bringing dancers or musical instruments out of the ancient painting to seemingly hover and perform in midair.
These capacities also allow visitors to experience the work in a pristine form unavailable at the actual cave. With another click, the seven medicine Buddhas are transformed, their dull pigments becoming vivid colors. “Here, the Buddhas have been virtually repainted to match the color quality of the original paintings,” Shaw says. “This is based on research by the Dunhuang Academy looking at what the original coloration would have been.”
One of the key motivations for the innovative project is conservation. “The Chinese want to reduce the amount of tours in the caves, because they are causing damage to them,” Shaw says. “The idea is that this will take some of the stress away from the touristic boom of interest in the caves themselves.” In addition to the touring exhibition, a permanent virtual cave will be installed at Dunhuang, along with the real ones, to accommodate the increasing level of cultural tourists without putting the grottoes at further risk.
“The Sackler is fast becoming a museum of the 21st century, taking the lead in adapting digital technology to a museum context,” said Julian Raby, the Director of the Sackler and Freer Galleries, at an event marking the Sackler Gallery’s 25th anniversary last week. “The ‘Pure Land’ project exemplifies the exhibition experience of the future.”
Pure Land: Inside the Mogao Grottes at Dunhuang will be open through December 9th. Timed tickets are available on a first-come, first-served basis at the Sackler Pavilion. The show will also return in the spring of 2013 for a longer-term installation at the International Center Gallery.