April 11, 2013
The first several Soviet and American spacecrafts sent to the moon missed it completely, crashed on the moon or were lost in space, according to a new exhibition at the Air and Space Museum. Navigation is a tricky business and has long been so, even before we ever set our sights on the moon. But the steady march of technological advances and a spirit of exploration have helped guide us into new realms. And today, any one with GPS can be a navigator.
From the sea and sky to outer space and back, the history of how we get where we’re going is on view at the National Air and Space Museum’s new exhibit “Time and Navigation: The Untold Story of Getting from Here to There,” co-sponsored by both Air and Space and the National Museum of American History.
Historian Carlene Stephens, who studies the history of time and is one of four Smithsonian curators who worked on the show, says: “If you want to know where you are, if you want to know where you’re going, you need a reliable clock and that’s been true since the 18th century.”
That interplay of time and space is at the heart of the exhibit—from sea to satellites. As technology allows for greater accuracy, so too does it ease navigation for the average user, so that by World War II, navigators could be trained in a matter of hours or days.
What began as “dead reckoning,” or positioning oneself using time, speed and direction, has transformed into an ever-more accurate process with atomic clocks capable of keeping time within three-billionths of a second. Where it once took roughly 14 minutes to calculate one’s position at sea, it now takes fractions of a second. And though it still takes 14 minutes to communicate via satellite with instruments on Mars, like Curiosity, curator Paul Ceruzzi says, we were still able to complete the landing with calculations made from earth.
“That gives you a sense of how good we’re getting at these things,” says Ceruzzi.
The exhibit tells the story with an array of elegantly crafted and historical instruments, including models of clocks designed by Galileo, Charles Lindbergh’s sextant used to learn celestial navigation, artifacts from the Wilkes Expedition and Stanley, the most famous early robotic vehicle that can navigate itself. It as much a testament to the distances we’ve traversed as it is to the capacity of human intellect that first dreamed it was all possible.
March 20, 2013
Though the long-running CBS television show, “NCIS,” is based on the real-life activities of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, Lou Eliopulos, NCIS division chief of forensic sciences, would rather compare his work to another show: “Chef Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares.”
“If you ever watch, Ramsay in the kitchen where he comes in and analyzes a restaurant, we’ll do the same thing,” he says of the organization’s case work.
The job is a bit more complicated than inattentive wait staff and messy prep stations. A team of 1,876 special agents travel the world solving everything from violent crimes to espionage plots. Though they are specifically tasked with working with the Navy, the group’s global reach and special technological expertise means law enforcement agencies often ask NCIS to partner with them on difficult investigations. Unlike other military investigative branches, NCIS is almost entirely civilian, meaning they’re able to operate in the civilian world of law enforcement much more freely.
Occasionally, NCIS calls on the Smithsonian to help crack a case. “If we have a tough case or a tough question, we go to the best,” says Eliopulos. In particular he says, the Institution’s anthropological expertise aids in identifying skeletal remains, a critical part of the investigation that helps agents understand the timeline of and activities surrounding the crime.
Eliopulos and special agent David Lobb stopped by the Institution for a sold-out Smithsonian Associates event Wednesday, but we spoke with them by phone to bring you the behind-the-scenes story about the job’s challenges and rewards.
What are the challenges of the job?
LE: The entire job is a challenge, it’s unique. When you talk about cold cases, for example, those are cases no one else has solved. If they were easy, they would have been solved. So you’re working cases that are difficult to resolve, that have resisted solving for years and years. You have problems associated with witnesses memories and evidence, so that presents a challenge yet we’ve been tremendously successful not only in our own cases involving 64 cases since we started the cold case program but we go out and train three times a year for local law enforcement and stage agencies. And they’ve been successful using our methods. That’s one of the great benefits of working for NCIS, our job is different, and it’s very challenging, and that’s one of the reasons that drew me here to begin with.
DL: I agree. The expectation that’s levied on our agents and our professional staff is great. You talk about taking a special agent and dropping them in a foreign country, where they’re working and they’re there to support a Navy ship or an exercise that’s taking place in that country, and their job is to meet the local law enforcement, the mayor or the local governor of that region or that country and ensure the safety of the personnel coming into that country and making a call if they think it’s not safe.
Most common misconception?
DL: The biggest eye-opener is how much writing you do. For all the fun stuff you see on TV and for all the fun stuff you get to do in the field, there’s paperwork and other things that go with that, which is an important part of documenting your cases and seeing them through to prosecution.
LE: For me, it’s having everything readily available. . .It’s a little bit more work involved. We are not really permitted to tap into the CIA databases and other databases like that to obtain information.
Do you have a favorite case?
LE: I’ve never won a Super Bowl, I’ve never won a World Series, but when you solve a case it’s got to rival that feeling. That’s like trying to decide which child you like best.
Any one of us that has ever stood over a dead body or put a body into a body bag, that’s ever made the notification of next of kin and heard that primal scream that you can’t hear or duplicate anywhere else, it literally stands that hair up on the back of your neck and to be able to sit there and unravel that mystery and put the case together. . .being able to get the conviction, it would be hard to rival.
We just had a recent case; 28 years unsolved of a ten-year-old that was abducted, a Navy dependent. While her family was moving and her dad is deployed, someone comes and abducts this child and rapes and murders her and we literally had no suspects. Since 1999 we’ve worked the case as a cold case and waited for our first break, knowing that we were due one. Through the different forms of DNA testing and latest technology, we were able to resolve that and going to tell the parents that we made an arrest on the case, all of those are tremendous achievements for our agency.
What was their reaction?
LE: When I came in to talk with them, it had been ten years since we had spoken last. I had already known an arrest was made about 30 minutes before. I went through the process of everything we did in the past ten years, it took about 20 to 25 minutes to go through that. I could see the parents listening to all this, like, here’s the excuses and more excuses and 28 years and it’s still unsolved. Then I told them we did Y-STR [DNA analysis] and we identified the killer, and he was just arrested, and literally you saw the mom’s jaw just drop to her chest and you could see their eyes welling up with tears.
They made me repeat the news and I went into the details. They spoke to me about this person that was arrested and that they knew them. The dad actually has cancer now and I asked if they had any questions and the mom said, “I just have one.” I said, “What’s that?” And she said, “Can I hug you?” I said, “Absolutely and I want the big guy over there to hug me too.”
And your favorite case?
DL: One that stands out for me was a terrorism case that I worked. . .This was an interesting case because it was an insider situation where we had a Muslim convert on one of our Navy ships, who had been turned to extremism. We’re not sure exactly why. He began giving and selling classified information about the movement of the ship and its vulnerabilities to two al-Qaeda financiers and operators in London, with the hope that they would be able to use that to plan an attack on one of our Navy vessels. . .Through years of work and joint work with the FBI we were able to, in 2007, arrest the individual and have him sentenced a year later. He’s serving ten years in federal prison on an espionage charge in New York.
He hasn’t told us much about why he joined the Navy in the first place, that’s one of the things that we continue to monitor as we look at the threat of an insider, and what they can do to damage and bring down our own military. It was an eye-opener for a lot of folks.
When the captain of the ship. . .learned about this, his immediate concern was: ‘How many other people do I have that are trying to do this?’ And the Navy’s concern is: “How many people in the Navy are trying to do this?” You can imagine the pressure that that, then, puts on our agency to make sure that we’re watching those things, and covering those gaps, and it’s a difficult thing to do.
February 27, 2013
Is that real? It’s one of the most frequent questions I hear when I guide visitors through our museum, and admittedly, I stumble. Yes, sometimes it is the real thing, in rock, bone, fur or flesh. But often what you see on display is a replica of an actual specimen, or an amalgam of real bits along with creative layers of plaster and paint—embellishments from a less discerning era in museum curation. Even today, we unfortunately don’t identify these distinctions clearly to visitors, in favor of “making it look good.”
So, what’s the difference between a replica and the real thing? The answer seems pretty straightforward if you deal with one-of-a-kind specimens, like at a museum: there’s an original object; and then there are facsimiles—copies—made from silicone or latex molds or, these days, 3D prints from digital scans (see video, above). Sometimes copies are made for exhibit, or for research exchanges. Or, if the original specimen is too fragile (or unwieldy), high precision replicas are preferred for measurements or side-by-side comparisons.
By making copies, museums function in the same way as a library. Though this analogy falls apart if you consider the increasing rate that books are being sold and process digitally. What happens when an entire book—its cover, binding, marginalia and type—gets digitized and made searchable? What’s a physical book then, other than a doorstop? While the searchable digitized book can be a useful tool, happily, the real thing still does matter: to researchers following the historical trail of a book’s age, owner or reader; or just as a work of art. Ask an antiquarian book seller. As a consequence, there’s a need for places like libraries or the Smithsonian, to archive and protect the real deal.
Lately, making digital copies of museum specimens has become a process far more sophisticated than taking high-resolution photographs. And like digital books, these replicas become extremely useful tools. Bits and bytes are more easily accessible to researchers than specimens looked away in isolated museums. Here at the Natural History Museum, we can supplement traditional 2D methods with CT scanning, 3D surface scans, and we can archive bits of molecular code. We’re in the first stages of building digital avatars of specimens: the digital versions of their DNA, voices, surfaces and innards. And we can even bring the technology into the field, which opens new doors into saving, studying and archiving one-time collecting events.
So keep your eyes peeled. The next time you see something from the Smithsonian, it might be better than the real thing.
Nicholas Pyenson is a curator of fossil marine mammals at the Natural History Museum and records his fieldwork and other activities at Pyenson Lab. He studies the paleobiology of marine mammals with an interest in evolutionary comparisons. This is his first in a series of posts that he will be contributing to Around the Mall.
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.
November 8, 2012
Friday, November 9: Astride Two Ages: Technology and the Civil War Symposium
Something as simple as agricultural mechanization changed the course of military history because it allowed food production to support larger armies. Merritt Roe Smith, professor of the history of technology at MIT and author of the 2006 book Inventing America: A History of the United States, will lead off a symposium to discuss the relationship between technology and war in regards to the Civil War. On the one hand, losses in the war were still dictated by the lack of medical advances but there was also significant differences from past conflicts. The three-day symposium begins with Smith’s keynote address. Free but registration required. Get tickets here. 6:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. American History Museum.
Saturday, November 10: Star Party at Sky Meadows
Escape the city lights for some good old fashioned star gazing. Of course, since it’s a Smithsonian event, it might be a step above your childhood evenings spent on picnic blankets on the school football field. Chances are you didn’t have a high-powered telescope capable of spotting nearby planets and giving you an up close look at stars. Even if rain threatens to spoil the party, don’t fret. Backup plans for “junior astronomers” include a multimedia presentation. Take some time and look up to discover a world of wonders above you and be sure to dress warm. Free, $5 parking fee. 4:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Sky Meadows State Park.
Sunday, November 11: Steinway Series: Peabody Conservatory
Phillip Kolker made his first appearance with a symphony at the tender age of 14 with the Albany Symphony Orchestra. Fast forward to today and the professional bassoon player is now chair of the department of orchestral instruments at the Peabody Conservatory. As part of the museum’s Steinway Series, which brings world class music to the American Art Museum, Kolker will perform a selection of American pieces for woodwinds and piano. Free. 3:00 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. American Art Museum.