April 23, 2013
Though modern medicine benefits people far and wide, pockets of the world remain untouched by it. In these isolated areas, people don’t know about amoxicillin, and they don’t live with air filters, daily showers or the power of Purell. Diets there favor starch and fiber, with very few preservatives.
María Gloria Domínguez-Bello, a microbiologist at the University of Puerto Rico, thinks that the mix of microbes living within and on people in these places—their microbiome—may be close to that of more ancient humans. If so, studying the populations could tell scientists whether today’s war on bacteria has eliminated some helping hands, organisms that once protected us all from allergies and autoimmune diseases.
To find out, Domínguez-Bello and her colleagues journeyed deep into the Amazon rainforest to the isolated village of Checherta, in Peru. There, her team collected DNA samples from villagers’ hands, feet, cheeks and tongue, as well as from air, livestock and work surfaces. By comparing these samples with similar ones collected in three other towns and cities—all in the Amazon, but with varying lifestyles—the team hopes to identify any microbe species that modern medicine may have wiped out.
Aliens Inside Us, a Smithsonian Channel documentary premiering May 4 at 8 p.m. ET, follows the research effort. As the scientists make contact, they also introduce antibiotics that could transform the microbiomes of the people in Checherta. It would be unethical, says Domínguez-Bello, to bring doctors to an area where people suffer from infectious diseases without offering help. “We spoil the very places we go for our study,” she says, ‘but it is unavoidable.”
March 29, 2013
Smithsonian Channel is about to get some new hardware to add to its fast-growing awards collection. On Wednesday, March 27, the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication announced this year’s George Foster Peabody Award recipients, and the six-year-old Channel got the call.
The Peabody Award is the oldest and among the most prestigious annual awards in electronic media, started in 1941 to recognize exceptional work made for radio, the web and television. Smithsonian Channel won a documentary award for MLK: The Assassination Tapes, its 2012 film by producer Tom Jennings that tells the story of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination in 1968 entirely from historical news reports and rare footage—no narrator or interviews.
“The technique really brings out the raw drama of the narrative,” says the Smithsonian Channel’s Executive Vice President of Programming and Production David Royle, an executive producer on the show. “When you watch the film, it’s as if you’re sitting at home watching it on television for the first time. It has a real visceral immediacy to it.”
Jennings gathered most of his footage from a fortuitous source. When Memphis’s mostly black sanitation workers went on strike in February 11, 1968, several faculty members at the University of Memphis began collecting every piece of media they could find relating to the strike, convinced of its historical importance. King showed up in the city to lend his support, and was shot on his motel balcony a day after delivering his famous “I’ve been to the Mountaintop” address at the city’s Mason Temple. Memphis’s faculty saved all the coverage of his death and its aftermath in their Special Collections Division, so they wound up with a rare, big-picture account of the murder and its elaborate social context.
“It was startling to me just how volatile America was in 1968,” says Royle. “In the film, you see the long-simmering anger on both sides of the racial divide absolutely boiling over. It is intense. It’s not that there aren’t racial issues confronting America today, but what you see is just so out of control, and so angry. It brings it home that I think a lot of us have forgotten about, even people who lived through that; it’s hard to remember just what a knife edge America was balanced on in those years.”
Royle believes that witnessing Americans tackling these issues in King’s time provides a lesson of hope and perseverance for modern viewers. “It’s important for a younger generation that we see people confront what was going on, and to appreciate the courage of the past,” he says. “I think it gives people who are confronting today’s version of injustice courage to also stand up for what they believe in. Even though this story is infused with tragedy, it is ultimately a film of triumph. It’s a film of justice overcoming injustice.”
This year’s 38 other Peabody winners include a This American Life story about Guatemalan immigrant whose supposed father led the massacre of his village, a blog about the daily and historic workings of the Supreme Court and Lena Dunham’s mega-popular HBO comedy-drama “Girls.” The awards will be presented at a ceremony in May, but there’s no need to wait around to see MLK: The Assassination Tapes in action—watch the whole film above!
February 22, 2013
In 1861, with the Civil War at Washington’s doorstep, President Lincoln was haunted by an terrifying dream foretelling his own assassination. Years later, on their last day together in 1865, Lincoln and his wife shared their dreams for the future over a carriage ride. She wished to see the European capitals and he hoped to take in California’s gold mines. Later that night, as the assassin’s bullet cut short the president’s life, Lincoln’s premonition from four years earlier came true.
That poignant piece of history is just part of the documentary, Lincoln’s Washington at War, airing Saturday at 1 pm on the Smithsonian Channel. The new documentary, which premiered earlier this week on President’s Day, features the American History Museum’s Harry Rubenstein, curator and author of Abraham Lincoln: An Extraordinary Life, and follows the transformation of the country’s capital in the midst of a national conflict.
Rubenstein has long been interested in Lincoln. As part of the 2009 team that took apart a gold pocket watch that once belonged to Lincoln, he helped confirm a long-held rumor that a watchmaker had scrawled a secret message behind the dial. The watchmaker, Jonathon Dillon, was repairing the watch in his shop on the day Fort Sumter was attacked by Confederate forces and the Civil War began and later told the New York Times he had left his own premonitory message, “The first gun is fired. Slavery is dead. Thank God we have a President who at least will try.”
In truth, the message was much plainer (“Jonathan Dillon April 13-1861 Fort Sumpter [sic] was attacked by the rebels on the above date J Dillon April 13-1861 Washington thank God we have a government Jonth Dillon”). But Lincoln unknowingly carried the hopeful blessing with him, in his pocket, inside the gold chamber of his pocket watch, throughout the war.
Both Dillon and Lincoln’s fateful visions would come true, transforming a country and its capital forever.
October 16, 2012
This month on the Smithsonian Channel, the award-winning programming continues with a look behind a famous portrait of our first president, a momentous protest that began at a lunch counter and a newly discovered monster predator. The Channel’s program about the promise of youth hidden inside an enzyme, “Decoding Immortality,” recently took home an Emmy for outstanding science and technology programming. Be sure to catch the program about the findings of Nobel Prize-winning researcher Elizabeth Blackburn.
Picturing the President: George Washington
Monday, October 22nd, 9:30 P.M. EST
Tuesday, October 23, 12:30 A.M. EST
Friday, October 26, 5:00 P.M. EST
We all know the many stories of George Washington, but what about the story behind his portrait, one of the most famous paintings in American history? Examine Gilbert Stuart’s unforgettable portrait, which captures the spirit of this victorious general, stalwart leader, and pioneering president of the United States of America. The story of the painting reverberates to present times.
Seizing Justice: The Greensboro 4
Monday, October 29th, 9 P.M. EST
Thursday, October 25, 5:00 A.M EST
Monday, October 29, 9:00 P.M. EST
In February of 1960, a simple coffee order at America’s favorite five-and-dime store sparked a series of events that would help put an end to segregation in the United States. Join us as we detail the extraordinary story of otherwise ordinary young men, four African-American college students whose nonviolent sit-in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter started a revolution.
Titanoboa: Monster Snake
Wednesday, October 31, 9:00 P.M. EST
Saturday, October 20, 2:00 A.M. EST
Wednesday, October 31, 9:00 P.M. EST
In the pantheon of predators, it’s one of the greatest discoveries since the T-Rex: a snake 48 feet long, weighing in at 2,500 pounds. Uncovered from a treasure trove of fossils in a Colombian coal mine, this serpent is revealing a lost world of giant creatures. Travel back to the period following the extinction of dinosaurs and encounter this monster predator.
Sunday, October 21, 5:00 P.M. EST
Saturday, October 2, 2:00 A.M. EST
Wednesday, October 31, 9:00 P.M. EST
The Fountain of Youth may have just been discovered, not in a Florida spring, but in a murky Australian pond. Far from myth, the findings of Nobel Prize-winning scientist Elizabeth Blackburn, an enzyme that can keep cells young, may just prove to be the key to immortality. Join us as we track Blackburn and molecular biologist Carol Greider’s decades-long journey to fully understand this enzyme, which is both amazing and paradoxical, for while it may prove to be an elixir of endless life, it also has the power to kill.
March 22, 2012
In January 2011, the Smithsonian Channel approached Kevin Hockley, an Ontario-based model maker, with a tall (and rather long) order: Build us a snake.
Several years ago, Carlos Jaramillo, a paleontologist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, and scientists from the University of Florida, University of Toronto and Indiana University unearthed fossils of a prehistoric snake in northern Colombia. To tell the story of the discovery, the film producers wanted a full-scale replica of the creature.
The snake, however, was not your typical garter snake or rattlesnake, which Hockley had sculpted before, but Titanoboa, a 2,500-pound “titanic boa” as long as a school bus that lived 58 million years ago.
Hockley’s 48-foot long replica of Titanoboa slurping down a dyrosaur (an ancient relative of crocodiles), is being unveiled today at Grand Central Station in New York City. The sculpture will be on display through March 23, and then it will be transported to Washington, D.C., where it will be featured in the exhibition “Titanoboa: Monster Snake” at the National Museum of Natural History, opening March 30. Smithsonian Channel’s two-hour special of the same title will premiere on April 1.
“Kevin seemed like a natural choice,” says Charles Poe, an executive producer at the Smithsonian Channel. Poe was especially impressed by a narwhal and a 28-foot-long giant squid that the artist made for the Royal Ontario Museum. “He had experience making museum-quality replicas, and even more important, he’d created some that seem larger than life. When you’re recreating the largest snake in world history it helps to have a background in the fantastical,” Poe says.
In fact, Hockley has been in the business of making taxidermy mounts and life-size sculptures for more than 30 years. He mounted his first ruffed grouse as a teen by following instructions from a library book. Hockley spent his high school years apprenticing as a taxidermist in Collingwood, Ontario, and he worked a dozen years at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, creating mounts as well as artistic reconstructions of animals and their habitats. Today, as owner of Hockley Studios, a three-person operation headquartered on the 15-acre property where he lives, near Bancroft, Ontario, he builds bronze sculptures of caribou, lynx and wolves and life-like replicas of mastodon and other Ice Age animals, such as extinct peccaries and jaguars, for museums, visitor centers and parks.
Creating Titanoboa wasn’t easy. Scientists piecing together what the prehistoric creature might have looked like provided Hockley with some basic parameters. “They linked it strongly to modern-day snakes, which was very helpful,” says Hockley. “It was sort of a blend of a boa constrictor and an anaconda.” He studied photographs and video of boas and anacondas and visited live specimens at the Indian River Reptile Zoo, near Peterborough, Ontario. “I could see the way the skeleton and the musculature moved as the animal moved,” says Hockley. “There are all these little bulges of muscle at the back of the head that convey the animal’s jaws are working.” He made sure that those bulges were on his model. Hockley also noted the background colors of anacondas and the markings of boa constrictors. Jason Head, a vertebrate paleontologist and herpetologist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, surmised that the coloration of the prehistoric snake might have been similar. “Of course, this is speculation,” says Hockley. “It could have been pink with polka dots for all we know.”
The first step to building the replica was coming up with a pose. Hockley produced a scale model in clay, an inch of which represented a foot of the actual replica. The snake’s body forms two loops, where museum visitors can wander. “I tried to make it interactive, so you can actually get in and feel what it is like to be surrounded by a snake,” says Hockley. He stacked large sheets of 12-inch-thick Styrofoam high enough to make a snake with a 30-inch circumference. He drew the pose on to the Styrofoam and used a chainsaw, fish filet knives and a power grinder with coarse sand paper disks on it to carve the snake. Hockley applied paper mâché to the Styrofoam and then a layer of polyester resin to strengthen it. On top of that, he put epoxy putty and used rubber molds to texture it with scales. “The hardest part was trying to make the scales flow and continue as lines,” he says. When the putty dried, he primed and painted the snake. He started with the strongest markings and then layered shades over the top to achieve the depth of color he desired. “It makes the finished product that much more convincing,” he says. The snake was made in six sections to allow for easier transport, but devising a way to seamlessly connect the parts was also tricky. Hockley used a gear mechanism in a trailer jack, so that by ratcheting
racheting a tool, he can draw the pieces tightly together.
From start to finish, construction of the replica took about five months. As for materials, it required 12 four-foot-by-eight-foot sheets of Styrofoam, 20 gallons of polyester resin, 400 pounds of epoxy resin and numerous gallons of paint. Smithsonian Channel producers installed a camera in Hockley’s studio to create a timelapse video (above) of the process.
“It was an amazing opportunity,” says Hockley. The artist hopes that his model of Titanoboa gives people an appreciation for how big animals could be 60 million years ago. Since snakes are coldblooded, the size they can attain is dependent on the temperature in which they live, and temperatures during Titanoboa‘s time were warmer than today. As a result, the snake was much bigger than today’s super snakes. “Hopefully they will be awestruck by its realism,” he says. “A little bit of fear would be nice.”