Thursday, September 29, 2016

Birds of a Feather are Flocking at Harvard

by Shannon Pender
Summer 2016 Intern

When my parents were first dating, they spent a lot of time going on bird-watching dates. They would trek through the woods on hikes armed with a copy of a National Audubon Society’s field guide, trying to name the birds they saw.

Today, that same book rests in one of our kitchen drawers, right by the window that looks out onto our various birdfeeders. Years after my parents went on those dates, the book still gets plenty of use.

Luckily for my family and bird-lovers everywhere, the Harvard Museum of Natural History has premiered a new permanent exhibit: “Birds of the World.” Visitors will find over 200 representations of bird families inside the museum’s Great Mammal Hall.

The current exhibit replaces the previous exhibit, “Birds of North America.” It has expanded to represent a more global perspective on the feathered species that dot the skies. Developers of the exhibit spent months refurbishing display cases, dusting feathers and adjusting lighting to ensure that the bird specimens put their best feather forward.

Why such an expansive exhibit on birds? According to the museum, birds are “the most diverse land vertebrates on the planet, surpassing the biological diversity of mammals, reptiles and amphibians.”

The exhibit, boasting hundreds of specimens, represents this diversity in shape, size and color. It guides visitors both through birds’ phylogeny—the connections between different species of birds—as well as through birds’ biogeography, or the connections to where they live.

To see this impressive display of birds from all corners of the world, visit the Harvard Museum of Natural History in Cambridge.

Did You Know?
Twenty-five million years ago, the largest seabird known to science ruled the skies. With a 21-foot wingspan, Pelagornis sandersi makes today’s largest bird, the albatross, seem like a common pigeon with its 11.5-foot wingspan. Imagine seeing one of these giants soaring overhead on your next trip to the beach!

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Brain Chip Implants Open New Possibilities

by Moeko Noda
Summer 2016 Intern

Our brains govern our every muscle movement, from reaching out for a cup of coffee to competing in the Olympics. But when something goes wrong with the way the brain transmits messages to our muscles—most often, this is due to a stroke or an injury to the spinal cord—we lose muscle function, a condition called paralysis.

Back in 2004, a study found a pathway to potentially overcome paralysis. In the study, conducted by a team at Duke University, researchers found that there is a link between a pattern of brain signals and certain limb movements. Using this signal, microchips implanted in the brain can make it possible for paralyzed patients to control a robot arm or computer just by thinking about the movement. When this study came out, a researcher at the Institute of Neuroscience in Nottingham said that the idea of brain implants had been around for 40 years, but it was only recently that actually placing implants became possible.

Now, in 2016, the research on brain microchip implants is starting to show its promise. Two years ago, doctors implanted a chip in a patient who was paralyzed from the chest down as a result of a spinal injury. After a year of training, the patient regained control over his right hand and fingers. By thinking hard about moving his muscles, he can pick up a bottle, pour the contents into a cup, pick up a straw and stir. He was even able to play a guitar video game. Although his limbs are no longer directly connected to his brain, the microchip technology bypasses his spinal injury to transmit brain signals directly to his hand muscles.

The amazing news understandably comes with more issues that need to be addressed before the treatment can be used more widely. For one, the patient currently needs to be connected to computers in the lab in order to move; for another, there is much work left before patients can gain significant independence in mobility.

But the potential behind this technology is starting to see the light. From monkeys with brain chip implants steering a wheelchair to paralysis patients voluntarily moving muscles after having their spines stimulated, this work has come a long way. As the patient in this 2016 study says, “Something will come around that makes living with this injury better.”

Did You Know?
The human backbone, or spinal column, is made of 33 vertebrae. But the number of vertebrae varies in different organisms: frogs have no more than 9, most birds have 13 to 25 in the neck, and snakes can have more than 300 that make them slinky and flexible.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Rare Manuscript that Saved a Museum

by Shannon Pender
Summer 2016 Intern

I love collecting old books. My favorite piece of my collection by far is a grammar book from the 1800s. It’s nearly falling apart and held together by unraveling twine. On the inside, you’ll find doodles from its original owner, Agnes. She wrote her name in large, antique cursive and even played tic-tac-toe in the margins. When I flip through the pages, I feel like I’m getting a glimpse into the past.

One museum intern in New York City stumbled upon more than just doodles in an old book. She found an original document from the American Revolution that would become the saving grace of the Morris-Jumel Mansion Museum.

In July of 2013, intern Emilie Gruchow was combing through the museum’s attic, re-cataloguing manuscripts. It was almost 100 degrees in the attic that day, but she stopped to read one of the documents she found anyway. She soon recognized it as “The Twelve United Colonies, by their Delegates in Congress, to the Inhabitants of Great Britain.”

The address was a plea to the British people. Americans hoped to avoid war by reconciling with the empire’s inhabitants. The final printed copy “reveals the strong, conflicted feelings of the colonists in the spring and summer of 1775” on the brink of revolution. The version Gruchow found turned out to be an original draft with edits and strikethroughs, which now gives historians an even clearer picture of the decisions made during drafting and who contributed the most to the document.

After confirming that this was a historic find, the museum then had to decide what to do with the document. Should they sell this piece of history . . . or keep it?

At the time, the museum was in desperate need of repairs and had run a deficit of $30,000. Selling the document would not only save the museum, it would also provide the chance that the address would be preserved and stored in a major institution where the country could see it. The museum voted to sell.

The document was auctioned off by celebrity auctioneer Leigh Keno of Antiques Roadshow fame.

After viewing the famous document, Keno said, “when reading the draft, with its many changes in place, one gets a sense of what was going through the minds of our Founding Fathers. It really is a national treasure.”

The museum expected this treasure to sell for around $350,000. Instead, it sold for an incredible $912,500. A shocking conclusion that will provide enough financial stability for the Morris-Jumel Mansion Museum to serve the people for years to come.

Did You Know?
The contents of an entire library in Herculaneum, buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE, were thought to be too corrupted and blackened to read without damaging them. Now, however, archaeologists are hoping to use digital scanning technology to read texts that would otherwise be lost to history.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The Periodic Table Has Turned: Four New Elements

by Christian Gibbons
Summer 2016 Intern

In high school, I took two different chemistry classes. Although I found the subject interesting and looked forward to every lab, the most advanced thing I ever did with chemicals was conduct experiments with hydrochloric acid.

As one might expect, professional chemists attempt and accomplish a lot more than that. As a matter of fact, chemists around the world haven’t just been working with chemicals—they’ve been creating entirely new ones, too!

Of the 118 elements on the periodic table, several are man-made. Four of those—elements 113, 115, 117 and 118—have now become formally recognized by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC), and are in the process of receiving new names. This latest update means that the seventh row of the periodic table is finally complete.

But it certainly wasn’t easy. The elements—previously called ununtrium (Uut), ununpentium (Uup), ununseptium (Uus) and ununoctium (Uuo), respectively—are all superheavy and therefore decay extremely quickly, making their existence difficult to confirm and study. Their creation was no walk in the park, either. In order to create element 113, for instance, Japanese researchers had to “[bombard] a thin layer of bismuth with zinc ions travelling at about 10 percent the speed of light.”

The process behind the proposed names of the elements reflects how overcoming this challenge was truly an international effort. Ununtrium’s final name may be nihonium (Nh), in recognition of the fact that it was the first element discovered in Asia (Nihon is one way to say Japan in Japanese). Ununpentium and ununoctium might become moscovium (Mc) and oganesson (Og), after the Russian city and Russian scientist behind their discoveries, respectively. And ununseptium may end up as tennessine (Ts), after—you guessed it—Tennessee. Regardless of their final names, these four elements offer a tremendous testament to human ingenuity.

But what exactly are the limits of that ingenuity? Scientists are uncertain about where the periodic table might go next. As a matter of fact, they aren’t sure how far the periodic table can go, either. A previous estimate made by physicist Richard Feynman predicted that it would have to end after element 137, because the electrons of elements past that point would need to violate special relativity to exist. More recent hypotheses place the periodic table’s limit at 173, beyond which atoms may not even resemble what we recognize as atoms anymore.

Even still, each new element created adds to scientists’ understanding of the universe. If element 137 ever appears in classrooms, our understanding of the periodic table will be entirely different.

Did You Know?
The highest temperature recorded in our solar system was produced here on Earth. The Guinness World Record for the highest man-made temperature was achieved in August of 2012 by scientists at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland. Their experiment created a temperature of over 5 trillion kelvins—over 300 thousand times the temperature of the core of our sun.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Bookshare: An Accessible Reading Experience

by Moeko Noda
Summer 2016 Intern

Reading can be a challenging task for people with print disabilities, but an online library is trying to change the situation.

With over 450,000 titles, Bookshare is the world’s largest accessible online library. For people who have difficulty with traditional print materials due to any visual impairments, physical disabilities or learning disabilities, the library provides various functions that make reading accessible to all. This includes high-quality text-to-speech, highlighting functions, digital braille, enlarged fonts, and options to create physical braille and large print.

Students with print disabilities tend to start having difficulty keeping up at school by third or fourth grade, when independent reading activities begin to demand higher expectations. Bookshare strives to bridge that gap.

Sixth grader Kevin Leong is one of many who has benefitted from Bookshare. Leong has had challenges with reading ever since his vision was affected by an organic brain injury. Until he found Bookshare, reading was a great strain on his eyes, and he started to fall behind in school.

But by making use of the various functions that Bookshare provides, Leong started reading more and more. Using Bookshare, he can now engage with books in new ways, such as listening to an audio version or enlarging the print. Because Bookshare also makes books downloadable, Leong now carries his books everywhere. He can catch up with schoolwork and stay on top of his studies, and as a result, his self-esteem has increased.

Another user of Bookshare who is making the best out of its services is Stan Gloss, co-founder and CEO of BioTeam, Inc. Gloss has fought dyslexia his entire life; despite his love of learning, his reading difficulty made studying much harder for him than for other students. He struggled all the way through high school, but he eventually went to college then graduate school to earn a master’s degree. Now he leads a consulting practice in the life sciences market.

Gloss discovered Bookshare in 2015. Thanks to this service, he read more books that year than he had ever read in his lifetime. Gloss says: “Technology is finally catching up to dyslexics. These tools are game changers for children and adults, and I am a living example that it’s never too late to try something new.”

Services like Bookshare can unlock the vast potential of people with print disabilities, creating a new future by making reading accessible to all.

Did You Know?
Carol Greider is the director of molecular biology and genetics at Johns Hopkins University. Along with Elizabeth Blackburn and Jack Szostak, she won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Medicine. She fought with dyslexia throughout her education, and used what she learned from that experience when approaching challenges in her career.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

A Playground for Mathematics: The MoMath Museum

by Shannon Pender
Summer 2016 Intern

I’ll admit it: I’m no math lover.

It never made much sense to me. I couldn’t wrap my head around the numbers and shapes in a textbook. I know I’m not alone in this, and there are plenty of people in the classroom who still ask the math-skeptic’s mantra: When will we use this in the real world?

One museum in New York City is dedicated to answering this very question.

The Museum of Mathematics, playfully named the MoMath, takes numbers out of the classroom and into a multi-level, interactive fun house of algorithms and theorems. Its mission: to foster a love of math in a diverse, curious audience who can learn that math isn’t just about numbers on a page. Visitors will walk out of the MoMath aware of how math “illuminates the patterns that abound in our world.”

It was 2008 when the small Goudreau Museum on Long Island closed its doors. A small group met to collaborate on a new museum, one that would fill the void and provide hands-on math programming that schools around the country desperately needed. Located in Midtown in Manhattan, the MoMath boasts over 30 hands-on exhibits within a 19,000-square-foot space.

If your idea of math is like mine was—that it’s dry and boring—get ready to have your perspective flipped upside down. The MoMath will change your outlook on everything from geometry to calculus.

In the MoMath, you won’t walk through long corridors gazing at art or fragile exhibits. You are the exhibit. It’s easy to forget you’re in a museum and not a high-tech amusement park. The museum allows visitors to interact with normally abstract mathematical concepts.

One exhibit, “Harmony of the Spheres,” showcases how math influences harmony and melody in music. Visitors play notes by touching spheres suspended in the exhibit. As the notes come together, participants watch their music move through colored lights.

The museum covers a broad spectrum of mathematical sciences. This doesn’t just mean addition and multiplication, though. It also involves statistics, computer science, operations research and more.

The MoMath shows that you don’t have to become an engineer or play the numbers game for a living to see where math has its place in the world. It doesn’t matter if you’re a math-lover, a math-skeptic or somewhere in between—the Museum of Mathematics is for everyone.

Did You Know?
The International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO), first held in 1959, hosts an annual competition for high school students. Much like the Olympic Games, the IMO switches host countries and brings people together from all over the world. The 2016 Olympiad was hosted by Hong Kong and consisted of contestants from over 100 countries.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Gold Rush Shipwrecks in the Golden City

by Christian Gibbons
Summer 2016 Intern

One of the more exciting prospects about moving to Boston was the chance to live in a seaside city. Boston has been a port city since the colonial period, when it was a hub of shipyards and bustling maritime trade. Although Boston has an extensive seaside past, San Francisco has perhaps an even greater presence of marine history. As a matter of fact, San Francisco may be the only place in the states where you’ll actually find said history right underneath your feet.

In 1850, hundreds of different ships from both sides of the world arrived in the harbor of San Francisco, attracted by the glittering promise of the California Gold Rush. These ships were left behind as the thousands of forty-niners who had sailed on them moved further inland. As one might imagine, this took up a lot of space. So those ships that couldn’t be used were either bought and sold for parts or were sunk deliberately, then buried when the area was filled in to make more land. Even more were buried over time as the sediments in the bay steadily built up.

As a consequence of this, the San Francisco area is replete with entombed shipwrecks. In fact, archaeologists think that there may be as many as 35 or 40 ships in the Golden City’s financial district alone!

In 2001, for instance, construction workers unearthing the remains of a downtown building found the remains of something else entirely: the wreck of the General Harrison. During another excavation undergone for the Infinity Towers project in 2005, a whaling ship, the Candace, was also found. In addition to that, archaeologists found the remains of the shipyard the Candace occupied, as well as the house of its owner, a shipwrecking site and a great deal of salvaged parts.

“Ultimately, we were able to put together a very detailed portrait of the shipyard and the Candace, and of maritime activity in San Francisco during the Gold Rush,” stated Dr. James Allan, a leading maritime archaeologist who supervised the survey. Dr. Allan and his team were very pleased with the find and are determined to find more like it.

But perhaps the greatest discovery has been the most recent. In late 2014, the wreck of the City of Rio de Janeiro was discovered only half a mile away from the city. The ship was infamous for being the deadliest shipwreck in the region—an accolade that earned it the nickname “the Bay Area’s Titanic”—and its previously unknown location was one of the city’s greatest mysteries for over a hundred years.

Who knows what might be found next?

Did You Know?
Margaret Brown wasn’t the only “unsinkable” woman on the Titanic. Stewardess and nurse Violet Jessop survived the sinking of both the Titanic and its sister ship the Britannic. Violet also was present on board the first sister of the White Star Line’s trio, the Olympic, when it collided with a British warship in 1911.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

An Old Toy Enters Virtual Reality: View-Master

by Moeko Noda
Summer 2016 Intern

An old toy has made a major comeback—in virtual reality.

Last year, the toy manufacturer Mattel teamed up with Google Cardboard, Discovery, National Geographic, Vuforia and Littlestar to bring View-Master, a 1939 stereoscope toy that shows 3D images from slide reels, right into the twenty-first century.

The makeover expanded what the original version made possible, which was to peer into a whole new world right in front of your eyes. In the new version of View-Master, the images shown through the lens are not just 3D images, but the world in virtual reality. The landscape has expanded, and its frontiers know no bounds.

Here’s how it works: instead of inserting physical slides into the View-Master like the way users did in the older version, you insert a smartphone into the plastic goggle-like virtual reality viewer. With the View-Master app downloaded and running on the smartphone, you direct through the viewer to the View-Master “experience reel,” which looks like a coaster laced with tiny windows each representing a different landscape.

And just like that, you are transported 360 degrees into wherever the reel is programmed to represent. Depending on which of the four kits you choose, you can have a range of experiences. You can visit the ancient Mayan city of Chichen Itza, the Tower of London and other destinations across the globe. You can observe various wildlife scenes, such as the animals in the Australian Outback. With the underwater kit, you can plunge into the ocean with penguins and take snapshots of tropical fish. With the space kit, you can even travel to infinity and beyond.

Mattel’s View-Master viewer is available for purchase, but the experience works with other virtual reality viewers as well. Google Cardboard, one of View-Master’s official partners, is a viewer made out of—you guessed it—cardboard. It comes with folding instructions and is easy and affordable to use. By simplifying the technology, Google has made virtual reality accessible for many; now, their pairing with Mattel has made the immersive world of virtual reality as accessible to kids as the View-Master was more than 70 years ago.

Did You Know?
The nostalgic design of the 1939 version of the View-Master isn’t fully lost in its reimagined virtual reality headset. The device is still mainly comprised of red plastic and still features the iconic orange plastic lever on the side.