April 11, 2012
Starting in 1984, NASA’s space shuttle missions carried a device that visually captured space travel like never before. The IMAX camera provided sweeping, immersive views of Earth and intimate windows into the minutae of astronauts’ lives in zero gravity. The footage, collected over 17 missions, produced six movies, such as The Dream is Alive and Blue Planet—films that brought moviegoers as close as possible to the experience of what it’s actually like to orbit in space.
Now, with the shuttle program retired after two decades of service, two of the IMAX cameras come to their final destination: the Air and Space Museum, where the idea for filming space with IMAX technology originated in the first place.
“This building had barely opened in 1976 when our first director, Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins, had an idea,” said space shuttle curator Valerie Neal. “He proposed to NASA that an IMAX motion picture camera be taken into space aboard one of the early space shuttle flights. Having been to space himself, and having been to the moon and back, he saw that the IMAX camera could bring that experience to far more people than would ever have the chance to go into space themselves.”
Thirty-six years later, IMAX co-inventor Graeme Ferguson and museum Associate Director Peter Jakab presided over the donation of two of the cameras used aboard the shuttle to the museum last week. The battered black camera on display during the ceremony, which weighs about 80 pounds, made a number of journeys into space, documenting missions all the way up 1998. ”This is a marvelous acquisition for the Air and Space Museum,” Jakab said. “It’s an object that represents the merging of the creative arts with technology—which is the mission of the Smithsonian, the mission of NASA, and the mission of IMAX. It’s an object that allows us to tell a great many stories.”
To understand just how richly these stories can be told with IMAX technology, you really have to sit in front of the museum’s five-story-high IMAX screen and absorb the immense scale of outer space. Seeing a film produced with this camera is entirely different from seeing movies about space travel, or watching on a TV. The screen almost entirely fills your field of vision, so the astronaut’s views become your views, and the entire surface pops with vivid detail.
This is enabled by the cameras’ ability to take in an incredible amount of visual information, shooting film with oversized, 70 mm frames—providing more than eight times the area of traditional 35 mm film. “We focused on two things when designing the camera. The first was that it was a very large format, so it could gather a great deal of information. If it were digital, you’d say it had a lot of megapixels,” Ferguson said. “The other thing we worked very hard at was making it small, because with this format, in which a frame is about three inches wide, if you just scaled up a normal movie camera it would be enormous.”
Astronauts underwent extensive training to use the cameras, since they had been designed to be used only by expert filmmakers. “In some respects, it was an extremely primitive camera,” said Ferguson. “It had no mirror reflex—which movie cameras have had since the 30s—it had no zoom, it had no autofocus, or autoexposure, which every point-and-shoot camera like now has. It was probably the least user-friendly piece of machinery that ever went into space.”
The cameras were minimally altered for flight, with bumpers added to the sharp corners to prevent injuries. But using them was still an ordeal for astronauts: the film had to be re-loaded after every three minutes of filming and extra lighting was required to produce attractive footage.
Still, Ferguson says, astronauts were interested in getting a chance to use the camera from the very start. “They would come up to me and say, ‘Is there any chance of getting IMAX on my flight?” Ferguson says. “That really shows the power that The Dream Is Alive had in conveying the stories that the astronauts wanted to tell.”
Both of the cameras first flew aboard Space Shuttle Discovery. The in-cabin camera will go on display in the museum’s “Moving Beyond Earth” gallery this summer. The payload-bay IMAX camera may go on display at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in the future, alongside the Space Shuttle Discovery, which will be welcomed into the collection on April 19.
April 4, 2012
Sarah Stierch, the Smithsonian Archives’ new Wikipedian-in-Residence, freely admits there are some drawbacks to crowd-sourcing an encyclopedia.
“When you have the world writing the world’s history, you’re going to have: Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, General Custer, John F. Kennedy, maybe Jackie O,” she says. “And then you’re going to have ‘Seinfeld,’ Justin Bieber, The Hunger Games, and Lady Gaga. The end. That’s the history of the world.”
Since Wikipedia’s birth in 2001, the non-profit website has ballooned to almost 4 million articles in English and has versions in 283 languages. Readers write the articles, correct mistakes, and police the database for “vandalism” (by nominating frivolous or unreliable articles for deletion). But not all Wikipedia articles are created equal.
“Seinfeld episodes are some of the best, well-sourced articles out there,” Stierch says in exasperation. “Don’t get me wrong; it’s a classic American television show, I love it. But then you have a stub [a short, unlinked article] for some of the most important female scientists or artists on Earth? What’s going on here?”
Stierch, in conjunction with the Smithsonian Archives, is working to change that. On March 30, shortly after Stierch started her residency, the Archives hosted “She Blinded Me With Science: Smithsonian Women in Science Edit-a-Thon.” Ten Wikipedians showed up, armed with laptops and ready to tackle the significant dearth of articles on notable female scientists. Smithsonian archivists stood by to help the Wikipedians sort through the Archives’ and Libraries’ resources, both online and offline. Each editor chose a name or two from a list compiled by the archivists and started digging through the records. Many articles had to be started from scratch. Stierch has made it her mission to get more women on Wikipedia, both as editors and as subjects.
“This is the most women I have ever seen at an edit-a-thon,” Stierch declared at the beginning of the four hour session, surveying the seven women in the room.
According to the last Wikimedia Foundation editors survey, only nine percent of Wikipedia editors are women, down from 13 percent in 2010.
“The majority of the editors are white males around 30 years old with higher education, a bachelors or masters degree,” Stierch says. “So, we’ve got a group of smart people, but just like history, it’s being written by middle-aged white guys.”
Before starting the residency with the Archives, Stierch had started coordinating edit-a-thons all over the world for Women’s History Month, both to encourage more women to get involved in Wikipedia and to improve the website’s coverage of women. At the same time, the Archives staff had been writing blog posts on women in the collections and updating their Women in Science Flickr set. When Stierch joined, they put their heads together and came up with the Women in Science Edit-a-Thon.
“One of the biggest complaints we get is that women who are involved in science don’t always have a great chance of having their articles saved on Wikipedia, because people don’t think they’re notable enough,” Stierch says. “But if you’re in the Smithsonian Archives, you’re notable. And I’m so happy that the Archives wants to work with us to document that.”
Among the edit-a-thon’s targeted scientists were Mary Agnes Chase, a botanist who funded her own research in South America at the turn of the 20th century because it was considered inappropriate for women to do field work, and Mary J. Rathburn, a Smithsonian zoologist from the same time period who described over a thousand new species and subspecies of crustaceans.
Midway through the edit-a-thon, Stierch tweeted, “We’ve already had numerous articles nominated for deletion. But we’ve saved them.”
This isn’t Stierch’s first stint at the Smithsonian; last year, she was a Wikipedian-in-Residence at the Archives of American Art, which contributed 285 images to Wikimedia Commons, the free image bank of Wikipedia. Now a Museum Studies graduate student at the George Washington University, Stierch sees a lot of overlap between Wikipedia and the Smithsonian’s mission: the increase and diffusion of knowledge. In spite of the need for more demographical diversity, this mission has already connected very different people with many varied interests.
“I have met everyone from people who have their PhDs, who are lawyers, who have books on the New York Times bestseller list, who are jazz musicians, and punk rockers with mohawks,” Stierch says of the Wikipedian community. As Wikipedian-in-Residence, Stierch connects these tech-savvy Wikipedians, who need more resources, with Smithsonian archivists, who are eager to disseminate their vast stores of information to a wider audience (Wikipedia has an estimated readership of 365 million people).
“So many people who aren’t involved in the museum feel distant from the curators and the archivists,” she says, waving toward the Edit-a-Thon “war room.” “Knowing they’re all hanging out in the same room over there makes me very happy.”
March 13, 2012
At the Ripley Center‘s International Gallery is a math lesson masquerading as a video game arcade. Crowds of excited children ride bikes up a mountain, control robotic satellite arms and play computerized musical instruments. What they don’t realize is that the activities are also teaching them about graphing, coordinates and trigonometry. The new MathAlive! exhibition‘s goal is simple: to bring abstract math lessons to students in a fun, everyday format.
“Our design approach was to embrace the notion that math doesn’t necessarily just live in textbooks and on chalkboards, but in the world around us,” says Susan Kirch, the curator and creative director of the exhibition. “By providing activities that students already like—things like sports and music and dance and robotics—we let them be active, so that the math principles inherent in all those pursuits emerge.”
Kirch says the exhibition, which opened on Saturday and will run through June 3, already seems like it has achieved this goal. “Yesterday, we had one teacher come over to us, just absolutely thrilled, saying that one of her students was yelling, ‘I just did an acute angle on a snowboard!’ That kind of delight is contagious.”
The large exhibition features a number of themed galleries—outdoors, sports, entertainment, design and robotics—that include activities specially designed to impart specific math lessons. “When the student first come in, it just feels like a big playground to them,” says Kirch. “Their first reaction is to try to race around and play everything, but then they settle down a little bit, and they start to absorb and appreciate the math.”
The show was designed with middle schoolers in mind, but crowds of younger children—and even some adults—have already been observed enjoying the many interactive displays. “I think it appeals to the kid in all of us, because we’ve been seeing all the teachers and the security guards and the Smithsonian personnel wanting to jump on those snowboards.”
The snowboards are part of Boardercross, one of the most popular elements in the exhibition. As multiple players compete against each other, racing down the mountain, they must make decisions about angles and velocity that get them down the hill fastest without a wipe out.
Other innovative activities include a skateboard design game that teaches participants about fulcrums, a space capsule simulation, where students use a robotic arm to grab satellites by manipulating x, y and z variables, and a music and dancing activity that helps visitors better understand camera angles and timing. Students can learn engineering and science skills, too, at interactive stations that enable them to plan city infrastructure projects or manage limited power and water supplies in emergency situations.
After the show’s finishes its premier run at the International Gallery, it will travel to the Arizona Science Center in Phoenix, and then the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Hunstville, Alabama. It is an element of the Raytheon Company’s MathMovesU program, which uses a range of different learning programs to keep middle and high school students engaged in math and science.
Kirch says one positive effect of the exhibition is boosting students’ confidence in their math skills. “We hear again and again from kids that they think they’re not good at math, but the reality is that they really are but they don’t realize it because they don’t see its relevance to their own lives,” she says. “I think we’re already achieving our goal in that sense—they are starting to realize, ‘Hey, there really is math in all this stuff that I already do.’”
MathAlive! is on display at the Ripley Center’s International Gallery through June 3, 2012.
March 6, 2012
“Two people can sit down at the same table and eat the same amount of food,” says Michael Power, a scientist at the National Zoo’s nutrition lab, which is based at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Virginia. “But metabolically, one will end up depositing more of that as fat than the other one.” This fact is the bane of millions of dieters everywhere. For scientists, it prompts an important question: What makes certain people more likely to put on weight?
Power teamed with Suzette Tardif, Corinna Ross and Jay Schulkin of the Southwest National Primate Research Center in San Antonio, Texas, to take an unusual tack in exploring this question. They looked at one of our relatives in the primate family: a small South American monkey known as the white-tufted common marmoset.
“The marmoset does seem to fit with the potential models of obesity for human beings,” says Power, the lead author of the research team’s paper, published in the March issue of the American Journal of Primatology. “If they become obese, they get the same sort of metabolic symptoms that a human would, so they could potentially be a good model for testing drugs, or other treatments.”
The team of researchers first began thinking about using the marmosets as a model for obesity because, well, the animals started getting obese. The research center’s colony of marmosets was started in 1993, and for several years, their average weight remained roughly the same, with each animal somewhere in the range of 300 grams. But then, says Power, “We started getting 400 to 450 gram marmosets. And, in these later years, we’ve been getting 500, 550, even 600 gram animals.”
“It looked like some sort of ceiling had been lifted off, and we suddenly started getting these very large animals,” he says. “But we hadn’t changed anything in our management.”
The mystery prompted the researchers to begin closely examining the marmosets as a model for human obesity. Because they are able to frequently weigh each animal, calculate its body fat percentage and precisely track its food intake and feces output, the species presents a promising opportunity to probe the mechanisms by which primates put on fat. Additionally, both humans and marmosets begin life as relatively fatty infants, as compared to most other animal species.
Metabolic analysis of the obese marmosets’ blood further indicated their similarity to humans. Obese marmosets had higher levels of glucose and triglycerides, in particular. “These are basically the same things one would get with an obese human being,” Power says. “If it was a person, and you looked at those numbers, you’d say the person is at risk of developing diabetes or cardiovascular disease.”
The researchers tracked these measurements, among others, over the course of years. Their most striking finding, for many, may be disheartening. Overweight marmosets—those with more than 14 percent body fat—had more body fat almost from the start, at just one month old, as compared to normal animals. “It seems like these animals are dividing into two groups at a very early age,” Power says. “It appears that developing obesity is something that can happen to an animal or a human before they have a real choice.”
Examining the marmosets’ feeding habits further complicated the picture. The team began offering higher fat food, in addition to the conventional fare, attempting to see if a preference for fat or an overall tendency to eat more was responsible for the obesity. No such luck.”We noticed that the animals that got fat did not seem to be eating more food, not in any dramatic fashion,” says Power. “One animal could be eating twice as much as another animal, and they could weigh the exact same. So clearly, there are other things going on.”
What, exactly, are those things? Power believes that energy usage, not just food intake, plays a huge role in determining obesity outcomes. “Energy balance is what you take in minus how much energy you expend,” he says. “Clearly, there are two sides of the equation, and it didn’t look to us that the intake side was what was causing the differences.”
The team is currently studying this second half of the equation among the marmosets, and is noticing significant variation in energy use within the population. “When you look at the animals, you notice some are always moving, always bouncing around the cage, and other seem much more relaxed and calm,” says Power. In coming years, they plan to publish studies examining how these differences affect the marmosets’ fat storage, as well as other relevant factors, such as feeding habits throughout the day and endocrine markers in the blood.
Despite these advances, the exact conditions that lead marmosets—or, for that matter, humans—to put on weight are still not well understood. “The energy balance equation looks incredibly simple, but the biology behind it is so complex,” Power says. “It’s really tricky to figure out how all these things fit together.”
February 29, 2012
In honor of Leap Day 2012, we’re featuring some of the leapingest creatures in the Smithsonian Institution: frogs from the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project.
The project is a partnership of zoos, parks and organizations—including the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute—to help preserve endangered frog species in Panama. Over the past few decades, a fungus known as Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (or Bd) has swept through frog populations around the world, causing species in the United States, Australia, Costa Rica and Puerto Rico to go extinct. Eastern Panama is one of the few places left free of Bd, and in order to save the diverse pool of endemic frog species, the project will create protective breeding centers, as well as a new research center at the National Zoo to find a cure for the fungus.
To honor tree frogs, bush frogs, leaf frogs and frogs of all types on this Leap Day, our friends at the project pulled together a list of leaping frog facts:
Not all frogs can leap, or even hop. The desert rain frog (Breviceps macrops) has legs that are too short to hop. Instead, it walks.
Male frogs of the genus Pipa are known to defend their territory by jumping at and then wrestling other males.
The New Guinea bush frog (Asterophrys turpicola) takes jump attacks one step further: before it jumps at a strange frog, it inflates itself and shows off its blue tongue.
Stumpffia tridactyla are normally slow-moving critters, but when they’re startled they can abruptly jump up to 8 inches. That doesn’t sound very far, but these little guys are less than half an inch long!
Read more facts at the project’s website.