Art gets 'caldera-like' acne, too. This tool could help clear it up.

Georgia O’Keeffe is famous for her flowers—erotic red canna lilies, hypnotic Jimson weed, blooming calla lilies. But a more sacred subject may have been the Pedernal mesa, an iconic peak in the flat New Mexico landscape.

“It’s my private mountain. It belongs to me,” O’Keeffe said of the Pedernal, which she painted from her studio on the red earthed Ghost Ranch. “God told me if I painted it enough, I could have it.”

Unfortunately, God (or, in this case, metal soaps) also taketh away.

O’Keeffe’s “Pedernal, 1941”—a sweeping vista of pinks, greens, and yellows creeping up the canvas to the mountain’s darkened summit—is experiencing a peculiar kind of decay. The artist noticed it herself, remarking on granulations, discoloration, and small spots where the paint disappeared altogether in letters to conservator Caroline Keck in 1947. Known as surface protrusions, or “art acne”, this pimpling afflicts oil paintings from every time and place. But the reasons for O’Keeffe’s deformations, which only grew worse over the decades, remained a mystery.

In a feat of artistic sleuthing researchers at Northwestern University finally identified the origin of these “caldera-like” deformations in O’Keeffe’s paintings. Their results will be published in the forthcoming academic text Metal Soaps in Art. In the process, the researchers also devised a new handheld tool for curators to investigate pimples in their own collections. The technology was demonstrated at the 2019 American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) conference in Washington, D.C. on Saturday.

It began with a plea to Marc Walton, a material scientist and co-director of the Center for Scientific Studies in the Arts. A collaboration between Northwestern University and the Art Institute of Chicago, the center’s mission is to help small-scale museums with big-time artifacts preserve their collections. “This is how our lab often works,” Walton says. “We’ll get some strange request from a cultural heritage institution—it’s often an object that has a problem—and we’ll respond to it.” In this case, Dale Kronkright of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe reached out about protrusions on many of the artist’s canvases between 1920 and 1950, including the 1941 rendering of Pedernal.

At first, it seemed like a straightforward chemistry project. Simply analyze the materials in the paint, the condition of the canvas, and the environment in which the works are stored for clues, and report back on what might be making these pigments pop. But, Walton said, it quickly became an opportunity for a new kind of technological experiment, with Pedernal as the first subject.

“We had a lot of tools in our toolkit to answer that question [of protrusion formation], but they were bulky, they were difficult to transport and set up, so we rethought the problem and decided we could do better,” he says. Working with Ollie Cossairt, an expert in computational imaging at Northwestern’s Comp Photo Lab, they built a 3-D imaging technique that requires only a smartphone or tablet to analyze diverse surfaces.

It works like this: Curators can open a predetermined pattern on their LCD display, beam it at the painting, and take a picture with the front-facing camera. They then upload that information to the cloud, where it’s fed through an image-processing algorithm, which returns highly-detailed, localized images of the artwork’s surface. “By analyzing the way those patterns are distorted, you can actually determine the shape that’s reflecting,” Cossairt says. Right now, curators must identify individual protrusions manually, but Cossairt says the next phase of research will seek to automate that process as well.

When they turned their clever new gadget on O’Keeffe’s painting of Pedernal, the researchers found the protrusions clustered on light-colored paints and were almost entirely absent from darker areas. It didn’t have anything to do with the base pigment itself—the light green and dark green were both derived from cadmium, in this case a benign element. Rather, the problem arose when O’Keeffe added lead white to lighten each shade, triggering the inflammation.

As Kassia St. Clair writes in her book, The Secret Lives of Color, lead white has been manufactured since at least 2300 B.C.E. and its production has changed very little since Pliny the Elder shared his methods in the first century C.E. Lead was first extracted from rocks, then placed into one side of a two-holed clay pot. In the other vestibule went vinegar. And the receptacles were surrounded by poop. “Fumes from the vinegar reacted with the lead to form lead acetate; as the dung fermented it let off CO2, which, in turn, reacted with the acetate, turning it into carbonate,” St. Clair writes. “After a month some poor soul was sent into the stench to fetch the pieces of lead, by now covered in a puff-pastry-like layer of white lead carbonate, which was ready to be powdered, formed into patties, and sold.” The process was dangerous, as was the pigment itself if ingested. But artists liked lead white’s durability and price point, so it remained on artist’s palettes well into the 20th century.

Art acne first received wide recognition at the turn of the millennium, after conservator Petria Noble identified pimpling on Rembrandt’s “Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp” in 1996. An investigation concluded that the 16th century Dutch master’s oil painting was plagued by lead soap. Since then, chemist Joen Hermans told *Chemical & Engineering News”, anxious conservators around the world have been “literally watching paint dry.”

With the new tools described in Walton and Cossairt’s research, this vigil will be even more precise. According to Walton, the demo at AAAS will prove “it’s possible on a mobile device… to get these millimeter-level measurement.” But, he adds, “we’re 5 or 6 years away from something as good as a standard interferometer,” the expensive, intensive, and oversized tool currently in use.

For now, the team is testing their technology on some other iconic works. In addition to paintings in the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum’s collection, Walton and Cossairt have a forthcoming study on the same mobile imaging device and its success with stained glass artwork, like the Art Nouveau windows Louis Comfort Tiffany manufactured with Kokomo Opalescent Glass. If all goes well, Cossairt says, one day every curator, auctioneer, and art enthusiast will have a Star Trek-style for instantaneous artwork evaluation at their fingertips.

Written By Eleanor Cummins

This massive fisheye lens weighs more than 25 pounds and can see behind itself

Lenses don’t have to be complicated. In fact, you can punch a pinhole in an old oatmeal canister, add some film on the other side, and start making pictures. Once glass gets involved, however, camera lenses can achieve some truly amazing feats of refraction. Need proof? Look no further than the 28.6 pound chunk of optics pictured above.

The C-4 Optics 4.9mm f/3.5 circular fisheye is unlike anything currently on the market. It’s a fisheye lens that creates a circular image on a typical full-frame image sensor, which is the same size as a frame of 35mm film. The lens has a 270 degree field of view, which means it can literally see behind itself.

“We set it on a stool in the workshop facing upwards and you could see the whole room,” says Roger Cicala, one of the world’s foremost experts on lens testing and founder of “You can even see the floor.”

The company hasn’t released images from the lens just yet, but will in the coming days. The circular fisheye means the image will appear in the center of the frame as a circle with black corners. Software can unpack the images into a view that VR headsets like the Oculus Rift can understand.

That kind of field of view is typical for virtual reality, and shooters usually achieve it with an array of cameras that simultaneously capture footage in different directions while software stitches it all together. This ultra-wide lens, however, pulls enough information onto a typical camera sensor that software can expand it into a VR scene.

“The weather service is interested in using something like this to capture a scene all the way around,” says Cicala. He also says they’ve considered hanging it from the rafters of sports games to show off the entire scene during critical game moments.

Optical inspiration

Cicala and optical designer Brian Caldwell started C-4 Precision Optics back in 2015 with a blog post on April 1st. People thought it was an April Fool’s Day joke because of the date, but also because of the preposterous lenses the piece proposed. One lens codenamed “flying saucer” laid out the initial design and idea for the 4.9mm fisheye.

The lens drew inspiration from the iconic 6mm Nikon fisheye lens that has a 220-degree field of view and commands a price well over $100,000 at auction. No one knows for sure how many 6mm Nikons there were because the company only built them to order starting in 1972. The lens is rare and served a specific purpose, but its extreme design made it flawed. It suffered from serious lens flare, which manifests as bright artifacts in the image and reduced contrast across the frame. The effect is typically more pronounced when light hits near the edge of the lens, and fisheye lenses with rounded front elements are almost all edge.

Cicala and Caldwell, his business partner, set out to make a lens that was even wider, while increasing its ability to resolve detail and combat distortion.

Ahead of the curve

According to Cicala, the most difficult part of making the lens from a manufacturing perspective is the massive piece of glass—typically referred to as an element—on the front of the lens itself. The piece of curved glass alone weighs in around a 2.2 pounds and needs to be completely free of flaws. “It was hard to find a glass lens manufacturer who thought they could do this. It wasn’t just the making of the glass that was hard, but it’s out of the curves of a normal coating machine,” says Cicala. “We have four front elements for our prototypes. They had to cast 10 or 12 just to get those four.”

The bulbous piece also caused problems in other parts of the manufacturing process. For instances, its shape put it outside the typical tolerances allowed for applying anti-reflection and protective coatings to typical lens elements, which means machines needed adjusting.

Even the lens cap was a challenge to engineer. “We made a mock-up of the cap and the first time we put it on a mockup of the lens and it wouldn’t come off. It’s so huge that the air leak as you push it in put quite a seal on it,” says Cicala. “We ended up having to drill a little hole in the cap to get it off so we had to redesign the cap with vents.”

Caging the beast

Because the lens is so massive, it needs its own support structure, which the company built from custom manufacturer parts. The back of the lens is a piece of metal referred to in the industry as a “cheese plate” that allows shooters to mount accessories typical for shooting high-end video. The camera sites between the plate and the lens itself, so the legs extend to allow different cameras to fit inside.


In order to capture light from behind the lens on a flat sensor, the lens does some extreme refracting when it comes to the light it takes in. But, despite its complex methods for capturing light, Cicala says the lens could theoretically capture footage at up to 14k resolution. While he’s skeptical the lens can pull of such a feat in real life, he does say the lens will have more than enough resolving power for 8K capture.

What’s next?

C-4 doesn’t expect many folks to outright buy one of these lenses, especially since the price tag be in the neighborhood of a well-equipped family sedan, but that’s not uncommon for high-end cinema or TV production lenses.

Cicala says that C-4 has some of its other outrageous lenses designed, but it’s a matter of turning them into reality. He says the 150mm f/1.0 could be the next on the docket. For those unfamiliar with lens nomenclature, that’s a telephoto lens that lets in much more light through a larger aperture. The resulting images would have profoundly blurred backgrounds with only a very small sliver of an image in focus. If you had a person against a background of some trees, for instance, only a portion of the person’s face would appear in focus.

“It would look like a scaled-up version of a normal lens,” says Cicala. “The front element is 9 inches in diameter, though.”

Written By Stan Horaczek

Last Week in Tech: The new Techathlon podcast, Apple rumors, and the death of a space robot

Hey, did you know that PopSci has a new tech podcast called Techathlon? It’s a great way to learn about tech while playing fun games and challenges. This week, the Techathlon team is bringing you a special bonus game that we recorded during a live taping of another excellent podcast from PopSci, The Weirdest Thing I Learned This Week, which you should also listen to.

Be sure to subscribe to Techathlon wherever you get podcasts, including iTunes, Anchor, and Stitcher.

Now, here’s your recap of everything you may have missed in the technology world while you were celebrating President’s Day by dressing up your pets as our country’s greatest leaders. We particularly enjoyed your dog dressed as Rover Cleveland.

Amazon pulled out of its NYC HQ plans

After months of fierce debate about Amazon’s plans to create a sprawling headquarters in Queens, New York, Amazon is pulling its plans to plunk itself in the city. There’s no word yet on how this will affect the company’s plans in Virginia, but we can only assume this will push Jeff Bezos one step further toward ultimately moving Amazon’s HQ to the moon where he can rule as emperor.

Audis can talk to traffic lights

If you hate red lights when you’re driving, you will appreciate Audi’s new Traffic Light Information system, which can help you avoid hitting reds while you’re driving and let you know how long before they turn green if you do have to stop. Now, if only it could develop a “watch out, that guy is monkeying around with his Spotify playlists while driving” information system.

A new Air Force One plane is coming in 2024

Take a look back at the history of one of the world’s most famous planes and get the lowdown on the new version that’s coming in 2024. While you’re thinking about airplanes, pour out a little bit of your complimentary in-flight tomato juice for the A380.

RIP Opportunity Mars Rover

Last week we officially learned that the Opportunity Mars Rover met its end last year in the midst of a particularly brutal dust storm. The robot went far above and beyond its original mission goals, and for that we solute it. Here’s our eulogy for that plucky little bot.

10 million people attended a Marshmello virtual concert in Fortnite

If you’re an adult, there’s a real chance that the headline above reads like a string of AI-generated nonsense words. In reality, however, the event was a massive in-game experience in which millions of people watched a digital version of an electronic musician play a set. Expect Fortnite to do more of these collective experiences that have nothing to do with the actual goal of the game. Eventually, it may live the dream that Second Life failed to realized last decade.

Apple may release a 16-inch MacBook Pro and a new 32-inch monitor

We’re not big on reporting rumors here, but speculation about Apple products is always a fun topic of conversation. The latest information points to a new MacBook Pro with a bigger screen, as well as a 32-inch monitor with a 6K display.

This copy of Super Mario Bros. sold for more than $100,000

Video game collecting is serious business. Recently, a pristine copy of Super Mario Bros. broke the $100,000 mark at auction. It’s a limited edition copy from a pre-release event and it’s graded, which means an expert evaluated the condition and then sealed the box inside of a plastic case to preserve it forever. Even at that price, though, you’d still probably have to blow into it to get it to work after it gets a little dusty.

Written By Stan Horaczek

Extreme weather can stress pregnant women—and their unborn babies

Climate change is a growing threat to mental health, particularly in the aftermath of severe storms, floods, and wildfires, when victims can develop post-traumatic stress disorder. Now, scientists are wondering if climate-related mental health problems developed during pregnancy can be passed on from one generation to the next.

The early answer appears to be yes.

It may sound unusual, but it’s not. Researchers have long recognized that environmental and other external factors can cause genetic changes in utero, the study of which is called epigenetics. One of the most dramatic examples of this occurred after the Dutch Hunger Winter of 1944 to 45. The children of mothers who were pregnant during the famine developed a biological response, prompting them to eat as much food as possible. Later on, they became susceptible to metabolic disorders, heart disease, obesity, and diabetes, affecting multiple generations.

Similarly, pregnant people already suffering from depression who then experience the trauma of a perilous storm could pass on that trauma to their children and future generations — an ominous legacy of the hurricanes, floods, drought, and heat waves that have become more frequent or intense in recent years as a result of climate change.

“It’s important to realize that the effects of extreme climate changes and natural disasters might not be transient,” said Patrizia Casaccia, director of the neuroscience initiative at the Advanced Science Research Center at the Graduate Center of The City University of New York (CUNY). “They could have long-term consequences on the developing brain by changing the way genes are regulated and resulting in increased susceptibility to psychiatric disorders.”

Immediately after Superstorm Sandy hit New York in October 2012, Queens College opened its auditorium as a shelter for those displaced by the hurricane. Yoko Nomura, a psychology professor with CUNY’s graduate center and Queens College, recognized several of the pregnant people staying there as subjects in a study she already had underway on pregnancy and stress. She and her colleagues decided to find out whether the ordeal of having survived Sandy also affected their babies.

“Hurricanes and other natural disasters are becoming more frequent,” she said. “It is unquestionable that [we need] more studies to fully understand the impact of these environmental stressors on the mental health of future generations.”

The results were disturbing. She and her colleagues found that climate change presents an exponentially greater danger for children born to mothers suffering from prenatal depression. Exposure to a natural disaster, in this case, Sandy, radically increased the likelihood that the babies would be fearful and distressed. The study appears in the journal Infant Mental Health and builds upon previous studies that suggest prenatal stress can have negative effects on an infant’s temperament.

“Prenatal depression increases the risk for infants to have a difficult temperament, but when we factored in the stress of experiencing an environmental catastrophe, one plus one was not two. It was ten,” Nomura said. “Our research found that, compared to other babies, infants born to women who were prenatally depressed and pregnant during Superstorm Sandy had higher rates of distress.”

The study enlisted 310 pairs of mothers and children, recruited from clinics that serve patients from around New York City. The researchers assessed the symptoms of depression in mothers, and mothers reported the temperaments of infants via a questionnaire six months after birth. The babies of depressed mothers showed more distress and fear, less smiling and laughter, and less “soothability” and cuddliness than those of mothers who weren’t depressed. The babies of depressed mothers who were pregnant during Sandy showed even worse temperaments, according to the study.

The researchers theorize that epigenetic responses to maternal trauma could be the reason for the distress in infants. “The combination of environmental stressors and biology may compromise gene expression and cause an excessive amount of cortisol to be passed from the mother to the fetus, resulting in infants having poorer emotional regulation, shyness and fearfulness,” said Jessica Buthmann, a CUNY doctoral student, Queens College adjunct professor, and a co-author of the study.

Stress hormones like cortisol help with the “fight or flight” survival response to a dangerous or stressful event by contributing to physical and mental speed. “But during pregnancy, such reactions may not be beneficial to the fetus,” Nomura said. “Cortisol can pass from the mother through the placenta on to the fetus, influencing gene expression, brain development and, ultimately, long-term behavioral outcomes. If the release of stress hormones is prolonged or of high magnitude, it can have sustainable effects on the developing baby.”

Pregnancy prepares the fetus for life outside the womb. “But mismatched preparation can occur if the child is set up to respond to acutely stressful natural disasters that seldom occur after birth,” Nomura said. “This may make the child hypervigilant, anxious, or otherwise ill-suited to regulate their emotions. If not ameliorated, these patterns may be passed on to further generations through epigenetic changes or learned behaviors.”

The researchers are now conducting a follow-up study on the children born to clinically depressed mothers who were pregnant during Sandy. The scientists are still analyzing the data, but preliminary results indicate that, nearly seven years later, “the children are more fearful, tend to become ‘overloaded’ with stimuli — and overreact to it — and have a more difficult time recovering from daily life’s small stresses when compared to children whose mothers were not depressed nor exposed to Superstorm Sandy during pregnancy,” Nomura said.

Nomura’s team recommends monitoring for at-risk mothers during future extreme weather events, as the increasing number of natural catastrophes are likely to put more mothers and infants at risk for mental health problems. “We may need to invest resources in helping pregnant women be more resilient when they are exposed to climate change and other hardships beyond their control,” Nomura said.

The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology issued screening guidelines for treating depression during pregnancy in response to a 2004 study that showed only one in three clinically depressed pregnant people was diagnosed with depression, and only one in six received appropriate treatment.

Nomura noted that a natural disaster — while serious — was only one of several compounding factors that can harm a pregnancy. “We have to learn to be kinder to women and family during their pregnancy,” Nomura said. “We need to bring awareness and lower the stigma associated with women experiencing depression at the time of childbirth. Our society deems this as a happy period in a woman’s lifetime, but it’s important to recognize and support women and children who struggle psychologically and physically during this period.”

Marlene Cimons writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture.

Written By Marlene Cimons

The biggest public lands bill in a decade has something for everyone

About a decade ago, conservationists asked California Senator Dianne Feinstein to craft a bill protecting lands in the Mojave Desert from development. Feinstein joined the cause, and invited a perhaps-surprising community to participate: off-roaders, who ride their jeeps, dirt bikes, and dune buggies across these rugged desert landscapes.

“In order to achieve the political reality of passage, [the conservationists] had to bring in other stakeholders—off-highway vehicle users, public utilities, renewable energy, big mining, travel and tourism, county government,” says Randy Banis, a member of the California Desert District Advisory Council and an avid off-roader. “The only way to get people to the table is by accommodating their needs within the bill.”

That bill is the California Desert Protection and Recreation Act which proposes a swath of new protected lands including pristine wilderness, new additions to national parks, and recreational areas for off-roaders. It appears set to pass together with a slew of other public lands bills affecting areas nationwide, in what would be the largest land protection measure in a decade.

The California bill provides protections for 716,000 acres of land, including popular off-roading areas as well as wildlife habitat. The actions include designating wilderness in the Mojave and adding new land to Death Valley and Joshua Tree national parks. The desert lands are home to striking, rock-strewn expanses and iconic species, such as desert tortoise, bighorn sheep, and Joshua trees.

“We had to spend many, many months negotiating such things as the boundaries of the proposed wilderness areas,” says Ryan Henson, policy director of the California Wilderness Coalition, who helped write much of the bill.

On Tuesday, those protections were among over 100 public lands measures that passed the United States Senate by a large majority—92-8. “[The passage] shows that by working together we can expand protections for this region while ensuring it remains open for all visitors to enjoy,” Feinstein said in a press release. “The desert is a defining part of California’s landscape and we have a responsibility to preserve it for generations to come.”

The nearly 700-page public lands package, formally known as the Natural Resources Management Act, would also reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which expired in September last year. Established in 1964, the program draws funds from offshore oil and gas leasing and invests this money in public access recreation areas. It’s protected 2.37 million acres, including thousands of miles of trails, without using any taxpayer money. “The Land and Water Conservation Fund is an overwhelmingly successful program for achieving balanced use of public lands,” wrote members of the Outdoor Alliance, Outdoor Industry Association, and The Conservation Alliance in a letter to Congress.

The package would also establish over 500,000 acres of protected lands in Utah’s Emery County, creating recreation areas, a monument, and wilderness in the red rock canyons of the San Rafael Swell. This measure follows a similar theme to California’s: it’s the product of negotiations between many interests, including outdoor recreation enthusiasts, ranchers, and local government officials. Hunters and anglers would also enjoy expanded access to federal lands under the new bill.

Other measures include new national monuments in four states, including Mississippi and Kentucky; the expansion of three national parks in Georgia; and the permanent end to mining claims around North Cascades National Park in Washington and Yellowstone National Park’s Montana border.

According to the Washington Post, the measure is viewed favorably in the U.S. House of Representatives, too, and “White House officials have indicated privately that the president will sign it.” In an era of increasing partisan divides, public lands might just be an area of common ground.

Written By Ula Chrobak

Climate change is pushing desperate polar bears, kangaroos, and other wildlife into human territory

The ten hottest years on record were all during the past two decades and the hottest global ocean temperatures ever were recorded in 2018—a heat increase from 2017 equivalent to 100 million times that of the Hiroshima bomb. Climate change is here and it’s already wreaking havoc.

The polar bear—something of a poster child for climate change—is just one of countless victims in this warming world. It’s thought that if global temperatures continue to rise by an average of 4.5°C since pre-industrial times, which is likely to happen if we do nothing to reduce our carbon emissions, half of the world’s wildlife could be lost from Earth’s most biodiverse places.

As ocean temperatures melt ice sheets—the hunting grounds of polar bears—these large carnivores have to search new areas for food, which is why 52 polar bears “invaded” a Russian town in February 2019, looking for their next meal. Locals were frightened to go outside—with good reason: polar bears can, and do, hunt people.

Unfortunately, climate change is only going to make these negative interactions between humans and wildlife more common. Already, while Australia heats up, wildlife is seeking refuge in towns. Kangaroos have swarmed human settlements in search of food and flying foxes have had to be hosed down by locals to stop them from overheating.

In southern Africa, more frequent droughts have meant thirsty elephants have raided villages to eat crops and pilfer water from storage tanks. Most wild animals are naturally averse to being so close to humans, so their incursions into our lives shows how desperate they are getting.

As climate change begins to take its toll on humans, by reducing crop productivity for example, we are likely to become less tolerant of these sorts of human-wildlife conflicts. Poor African villagers who have had their entire yearly crop destroyed by a herd of hungry elephants can hardly be blamed for wanting to get rid of the problem by killing the animals.

Sadly, elephants—like most other species—are already experiencing precipitous declines in their populations and this is almost exclusively due to human activities.

Climate change will exacerbate conflicts over natural resources between and within species—ourselves included. For example, some observers have suggested climate change was partly responsible for the Arab Spring uprisings, as droughts forced people from rural areas into overcrowded cities and inflamed tensions. If conflicts within our own species can’t be overcome, there is little hope for mitigating conflicts with other species—especially as resources become scarcer.

But there is a small glimmer of hope—there are effective methods to reduce damage caused by wildlife. Polar bears can be scared away from human settlements by flares and water tanks can be made elephant-proof. These technical fixes can help limit immediate conflict between wildlife and humans in the short term, providing much-needed relief in poor communities from the damaging effects of intruding wildlife.

Realistically however, technical fixes to human-wildlife conflict are only a temporary stopgap. To truly address the issue, we must focus on the root cause. Carbon emissions must be reduced—not only for the sake of wildlife but for the survival of humans, too.

Wildlife habitat must be protected to ensure that species have space and food without needing to enter human settlements. Equally, societies must address their insatiable demand for natural resources, reduce overconsumption and excessive waste.

Much of this is easier said than done, of course. Without political will and sufficient funding all of this falls short. Global leaders must step up to the task—and it is partly up to ordinary people to pressure them to act. Movements such as the Extinction Rebellion and the school students organizing global strikes against climate change are an encouraging start and must be built upon.

We need to cause an uproar like our lives depend on it—because they do. We have no planet B, as the refrain goes—and neither do the planet’s 8.7 million other species.

Niki Rust is a Postdoctoral Researcher at Newcastle University. This article was originally featured on The Conversation.

Written By Niki Rust/The Conversation

From giant sloths to Pythagorean proofs: Five presidents with niche scientific interests

President’s day is one of those holidays you forget about until you realize you have the day off from work. Or, if you don’t get off work, a holiday you forgot about until precisely this moment. It’s just so ambiguous—which presidents are we supposed to be celebrating, anyway?

This year, we’d like to give you a specific list of those to ruminate on—because they’re the ones who didn’t just champion science, but took science into their own hands.

Thomas Jefferson loved archaeology and even has a giant sloth species named for him

Sure, you may know that Jefferson invented the swivel chair, but did you know how into sloths he was? (You would if you listened to our podcast, The Weirdest Thing I Learned This Week!) Jefferson—or probably, more accurately, someone who brought him the evidence—found bones from a giant ground sloth in a cave in West Virginia. He originally thought the skeleton belonged to a giant cat, and in fact wrote to the American Philosophical Society documenting the find in 1797.

Had people of that era known about the giant sloths that used to inhabit the planet, Jefferson probably would have been equally thrilled since he was fascinated by all thing ancient and enormous. Part of the reason he was so enthusiastic about sending Lewis and Clark west was that he hoped they would find mastodons still roaming the plains. These gargantuan mammals were, intellectuals like Jefferson thought, going to prove to snooty European naturalists that New World animals weren’t inferior after all (this was a real debate that intellectual men of the time were having). Of course, they didn’t find live mastodons, but they did find the American mastodon’s remains in Big Bone Lick in Kentucky. Lewis and Clark sent the bones back to the White House, where Jefferson sorted and catalogued them before sending them off to various scientists. That’s how French researchers identified the American mastodon as a separate species from the European one.

For all these efforts, Jefferson had the Megalonyx jefferonii sloth named after him. He also casually helped set up the first system of weather stations. It is in part because of him that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has a continuous climate record stretching back nearly 125 years. But the sloth thing is funnier.

James A. Garfield published a trapezoid proof of the Pythagorean Theorem

If you have no idea what “trapezoid proof of the Pythagorean Theorem” means, don’t worry. Almost no one does. What’s important here is that James A. Garfield, a president best known for his six-and-a-half month stint in office, is the only president ever to prove a math theorem. The Pythagorean Theorem is, of course, the fundamental relationship between the three sides of a right triangle: a2 + b2 = c2. There have been hundreds of proofs over the centuries, but Garfield still got his published in the New-England Journal of Education in 1876 while he was a member of Congress.

Theodore Roosevelt was a passionate ornithologist

The Great Conservationist set aside 230 million acres of land for protection by signing the American Antiquities Act in 1906, but before he had the powers of the executive branch behind him he was an amateur ornithologist. As a teenager, the American Museum of Natural History notes that Roosevelt learned to identify most bird species in the northeastern corner of the U.S. by their song, flight pattern, courtship rituals, and plumage. He even collected a snowy owl (no mention of how he got it) and mounted it himself. The bird got donated along with many of his other specimens—including mouse skeletons, a seal skull, and roughly 250 other items—to AMNH when he died.

He gave up ornithology when he decided to run for the New York State Assembly at 23 (the youngest man ever elected to the office), but he famously kept his passion for nature. You have him to thank for the preservation of Grand Canyon, which Congress didn’t want to turn into a national park, as well as the 51 federal bird reserves he created to protect his earliest passion: birds.

Plus he’s the reason we call them “teddy bears.”

Abraham Lincoln invented a device for freeing beached boats

Since he needed another accolade, Lincoln is the only U.S. president to hold a patent. US6469A is titled “Buoying vessels over shoals,” and was filed more than a decade before Lincoln became president (but just after his single term as a House Representative from Illinois’ 7th district). It’s not so much that he needed to buoy vessels over shoals as a House member—this was an idea left over from his days hauling both people and produce along the Mississippi River.

The shores tended to shift and reveal shallow sandbars that his boat would run aground on, and according to the Smithsonian’s account he’d then have to then unload a bunch of cargo to get the boat riding high enough to clear the bar. It was a real pain. Lincoln figured if he could attach big balloons made of waterproof fabric along the hull, he could lift the boat up out of the water by filling them with air from bellows. Paul Johnston, curator of maritime history at the National Museum of American History, told Smithsonian Magazine that it’s a nice idea but probably impractical. Fortunately, Lincoln had other talents.

Jimmy Carter: peanut farming/agricultural science, eradicating guinea worm

You might think President Carter got elected to the Georgia Agricultural Hall of Fame because, well, he’s probably the most famous peanut farmer besides George Washington Carver himself. But you clearly don’t know much about the history of peanut production in Georgia (which, by the way, produces half of the U.S. peanut crop).

Carter spent two year producing all of the seed peanuts for the great state of Georgia, because he did things like follow University of Georgia specialists around the fields asking them questions and ask for copious notes from customers on how well the seeds he sold them grew. He went on to become president of the Georgia Crop Improvement Association, where he continued helping his fellow peanut farmers find better ways to practice agriculture. Then, when he became capital-P President, he continued helping the agricultural and conservation efforts that farmers cared about.

Oh, and then after he was done being President he founded the Carter Center, which is leading the international campaign to eradicate Guinea worm disease. It’s likely to be the first parasitic disease ever eradicated and only the second eradicated disease period, behind smallpox.

Written By Sara Chodosh

The new Air Force One arrives in 2024. Here's what we know so far.

Sometime in 2024, if all goes according to plan, whoever the president of the United States is at the time will receive two new airplanes: the future version of Air Force One. The current planes are Boeing 747s, and the next ones will be too, although they will be a new model that is longer, wider, and capable of going further and cruising faster than its predecessor.

Like the White House, Air Force One is a symbol that is supposed to transcend any presidential administration. “It doesn’t represent an individual president,” says Todd Harrison, the director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It represents the presidency and the U.S. government.”

Here’s what we know about the next version of Air Force One, which the Air Force calls the VC-25B.

There used to be tail feathers

Presidents haven’t always flown in a Boeing 747. Kenneth Walsh, author of Air Force One: A History of Presidents and Their Planes, points out that President Truman wanted a distinctive design for his two-prop aircraft, the Independence. “It was painted to look like an eagle,” Walsh says. He notes that it even had “tail feathers.”

Later, President Eisenhower had a four-engine jet, a Boeing 707, which had, Walsh says, a “military style.”

It wasn’t until the Kennedy administration that the plane, the same 707 from Eisenhower, received a blue and white paint job similar to what the current craft has. That’s also when the term “Air Force One” was born.

“They wanted a code name for air traffic control that would never be confused with another plane, and Air Force One seemed to have a certain majesty to it,” Walsh says. That code name, of course, also became the public term.

Kennedy made it into “a presidential plane,” Walsh says. Four-engine 707 jets served as Air Force Ones from 1959 to 1990.

Surviving an electromagnetic pulse

The Air Force One of today dates back to the George H.W. Bush administration. He was the first president to fly in the same Boeing 747-200s that are still cruising today, known as VC-25A.

“The basic reason for updating them is that the existing fleet of planes are just getting old,” Harrison, of CSIS, says. Switching to newer planes provides the obvious benefits that come with a modern aircraft—more efficient engines and better reliability—and is also a chance to install new defence and communications equipment.

For example, during September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush had trouble with the on-board communications system, according to Walsh, who is a White House and political analyst for U.S. News and World Report, and has traveled on Air Force One some 300 times. “President Bush was upset a few times because his phone calls were getting cut off and dropped,” Walsh says. “Now they’ve apparently fixed that.”

Walsh also says that since 9/11 they made it easier for the president to address the country from the airplane.

The current plane also has understandably secretive defence capabilities. “What we do know is that Air Force One has a skin on it designed to ward off electromagnetic pulses if there was a nuclear war,” says Walsh. He presumes that the next version would have a similar system.

Walsh also says the current plane has the capability to deal with a weapon like a shoulder-mounted heat-seeking missile, which would be a risk during takeoff or landing. “We know there are countermeasures,” Walsh says, which could “ward off” an attack like that.

“Beyond that, the military doesn’t like to talk about it,” Walsh says. “We all suspect, in the press corps, that there’s a lot more protective systems there, but they’re kept very, very secret.”

Planes ‘for all possible national contingencies’

For its part, the Air Force described the new planes, which are 747-800s, in a statement:

“Though modification specifics are not fully discussed due to operational security, expected updates include electrical power upgrades, a mission communication system, a medical facility, executive interior, a self-defense system and self-sufficient ground operations. The VC-25B, which will function as an airborne White House to allow the Commander in Chief to execute constitutional responsibilities while in transit, will also use the highest level of command and control military capabilities to maintain national security for all possible national contingencies or emergencies.”

And while the next-gen Air Force One reportedly won’t be able to refuel in mid-air, Walsh says he’s skeptical that that will ultimately be the case. “The whole point is that Air Force One can keep the president flying and safe during a calamity.”

Oh, and they will cost $3.9 billion.

Written By Rob Verger

How to limit which companies track your internet activity

We all want to stay safe and keep our data private while we’re online. Luckily many modern-day browsers have a suite of tools to help, though they don’t always do the best job promoting the privacy features on offer.

Here we’re going to put that right. We’ll explain all the key privacy controls in Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, Apple Safari, and Microsoft Edge, and clarify how to limit how much of your data companies see.

We’re going to skip over the Do Not Track setting you’ll see in your browser. This tells the websites you visit that you don’t want your browsing history logged, but it’s now largely ignored by sites, and is likely to be removed in the near future.

Google Chrome

We’ll start with Google Chrome. In Chrome’s settings, click the menu button (three dots, top right corner) and choosing Settings. Click Advanced to open up an extra batch of options, including the ones we’re interested in, which are under Content Settings.

Right at the top is one of the most important entries in this menu: Cookies. Click on it and you can enable the Allow sites to save and read cookie data (recommended) option—which, as the label itself says, Chrome recommends that you switch on.

Cookies are little bits of text and code that websites leave on your computer: They help sites to, for example, remember your location when you’ve set it, or to keep track of stuff you’ve already added to a shopping basket.

You can browse the web without cookies, but you’ll have to log into sites each time you visit them, and reconfigure your settings each time you visit them.

Most people accept the convenience for the privacy trade-off, though cookies themselves aren’t hugely worrying from a privacy standpoint: They help sites recognize who you are and configure your settings, recommendations, and so on, but individual sites and web apps can’t see cookies left by other sites and web apps.

Until, that is, we get to third-party cookies, under a separate setting in Chrome which is Block third-party cookies. These are more advanced cookies used by advertising networks to track you across multiple sites—because ads use different code to embed themselves into sites, they can build up a profile of your browsing history as you make your way across the web.

If you want to stop this happening, turn the toggle switch on. You can also block or allow cookies from specific sites, as well as clear cookies from specific sites as soon as you close your browser (this happens by default for incognito browsing).

Back on the main Content Settings screen you can control website and web app access to your location, webcam, microphone, clipboard, and attached USB devices. It’s also possible to block “intrusive or misleading” adverts on sites by clicking Ads.

Of course Google is interested in collecting a lot more data about you as you browse the web (more so than Mozilla, Apple, or Microsoft) and it’s worth remembering that even with protection enabled in your browser, your internet activity can still be logged when you’re signed into sites like Google Maps and YouTube.

The privacy controls for controlling what Google records about your activities aren’t available in Chrome, so we won’t dive into them here, but you can find them in your Google account on the web—get more details on these and how to configure them here.

Mozilla Firefox

Fire up Firefox and you’ll find the privacy controls for the browser under Options (or Preferences on macOS) and Privacy & Security on the Firefox menu (click the three horizontal lines at top right to access it).

Right at the top is Content Blocking—this refers to the third-party cookies we mentioned in the last section, the ones that monitor you across multiple sites. You can block these cookies from most sites in Private mode (Standard), from all sites no matter if you’re in Private mode or not (Strict), or set these options more specifically (Custom).

Firefox consults a public list of known tracking cookies to try and keep your browsing private without breaking the functionality of sites and web apps. Further down the page you can also have cookies erased every time you close your browser (which happens by default in private mode). Tick the box marked Delete cookies and site data when Firefox is closed.

Underneath your cookie settings are the permissions for your computer’s location, camera, microphone, and so on. These options are set on a site-by-site basis, with permissions always requested the first time they’re needed via a pop-up window (click Settings to revoke or allow permissions).

Below that you can set the types of data that Firefox itself is allowed to collect, including data about the extensions you have installed and technical details about how the browser is performing.

Apple Safari

To get to the privacy controls for Apple Safari, open the Safari menu, then choose Preferences and Privacy. You’ll see cross-site tracking—or third-party cookies—is disabled by default.

Below that cross-site tracking option is an option labeled Block all cookies. As with the other browsers, you can choose to block all kinds of cookies if you don’t mind the inconvenience of having to repeatedly log in and set your site preferences.

Click on Manage Website Data to see the cookies that sites have already logged with Safari and to delete that data if you want to. The final option lets you let websites check whether Apple Pay is set up on your computer—another choice between convenience and privacy that’s up to you.

Click Websites to switch tabs in the Preferences dialog. Here you’re able to control which sites and web apps can get at your camera and microphone, see your computer’s location, and display notifications and pop-up windows.

As with the other browsers here, Safari has a private browsing mode that doesn’t keep track of your browsing history and doesn’t keep any cookies from that particular session once the browser window has been closed.

Microsoft Edge

Lastly, we have the Microsoft Edge browser, which comes as part of Windows. To access the privacy controls in the software, click the menu button (three dots, top right), then Settings, then Privacy & security.

Under the Cookies drop-down menu you’ll see Don’t block cookies, Block all cookies, and Block only third party cookies—as we’ve explained above, this gives you the option of stopping cross-site tracking from ad networks while letting individual sites keep the cookies they need to run.

As with other browsers, the private browsing mode offered by Microsoft Edge doesn’t permanently store any cookies, so if you want a quick web session that isn’t remembered by your browser, it may be easier to use that mode rather than change the main cookie settings.

There are a smattering of other security settings here, but as far as privacy goes, the cookies are most important. That being said, you can to display your previous Bing searches via the Show search history toggle switch.

Websites and web apps will ask for permission to access your location, webcam, microphone, and so on as and when needed. To control these permissions, switch to the Advanced tab of Settings, then click Manage permissions.

Written By David Nield

The best games you can play with your smart speaker

Your smart speaker is loaded with arsenal of tricks to make your life easier or more efficient. But your Google Home and Amazon Echo are also good for a diversion. Here are some of our favorite games to play with smart speakers.

“Alexa, open Choose Your Own Adventure”

One of the newest games added to Alexa is in partnership with the (Amazon-owned) audiobook platform Audible. Essentially, you can work through two choose-your-own-adventure stories—The Abominable Snowman or Journey Under the Sea—using just your voice. Like every choose-your-own-adventure tale, the decisions you take have an impact on the plot.

“Hey Google, play Mystery Sounds”

Can you correctly guess a series of mystery sounds coming from your speaker, taken out of context? Some are animals, some aren’t, and the challenge gets progressively harder as you go further. You can ask for help, but this affects your score at the end. It’s fun to play for short time periods, both on your own and in a group.

“Alexa, open Escape the Room”

Use the audio clues provided by Alexa to get yourself out of a tight spot. You need to search your (virtual) surroundings, find clues, and pick up objects along the way. The rooms get progressively more difficult to escape. At the moment the game includes four different rooms to test your skills: jail cell, office, car, and garage.

“Hey Google, talk to Absurd is the Word”

So which would you save from a burning building, Abraham Lincoln or a fruit cake? If your choice is the most popular one, you win the round. You’ll need a group of friends to play this one, and a willingness to keep your tongue firmly in your cheek.

“Alexa, play Twenty Questions”

Smart speaker games don’t have to be complicated to be fun, as Twenty Questions proves. Think of pretty much anything and have Alexa try to figure it in 20 questions or fewer. Of course it’s easy to cheat Alexa with your answers, but where’s the fun in that?

“Hey Google, play 6 Swords”

This is one of the more advanced games available on the Google Home, so save this for game night, not when you’re trying to kill a few minutes of downtime. This fantasy-adventure is based on classic Dungeons and Dragons; you’ll explore cities, castles, and dungeons using voice commands and your imagination.

“Alexa, open Movie Challenge”

Movie Challenge hits you with voice snippets lifted from movie dialog and asks you to identify the film. There are hundreds of clips to work through, and the game can be played solo or with friends.

“Hey Google, talk to Math Marathon”

This is great for simple but addictive math fun. It can boost your number skills for school and help you show off just how good you are at addition and subtraction under pressure. You get a sum to solve then three potential answers, and if you pick correctly you move on to a harder question. See how far you can get without making a mistake.

“Alexa, open Lemonade Stand”

Can you run a successful lemonade stand business using only your smart speaker and your voice? Give this Alexa game a go and find out. You’ll get cues about the weather, and then it’s up to you how much you spend on lemonade and advertising. Like the original computer game, it’s simple to play but very irresistible.

“Hey Google, talk to the Magic Door”

Use voice commands to move around an imaginary world of gardens, towers, seas, castles, mountains, and forests. A little bit of imagination is required to stay on top of where you are and what you should be doing, but if you’ve got an extended period of time on your hands, this is a entertaining way to spend it.

“Alexa, launch Yeti Hunt game”

Hunt The Yeti was one of the earliest Alexa games and remains one of the best. As the name suggests, your goal is to hunt the yeti you’re trapped inside a cave with, using the audio clues given by your smart speaker to work out where the creature is positioned.

“Hey Google, talk to Classic Hangman”

Sometimes the oldest and simplest games are the best, like Classic Hangman. You might want to have a pen and paper handy for reference.

“Alexa, open Trivial Pursuit Tap”

Most of you will be familiar with Trivial Pursuit, and this Alexa game lets you play with your smart speaker and one, two, or three other players. Players pick a category and then answer a question. If you’ve bought some Echo Buttons to go with your speaker, use them to unlock a different playing mode. The first to buzz in gets to answer the question.

“Hey Google, I’m Feeling Lucky”

Cutesy command aside, this game is actually called Lucky Trivia, which gives you a better idea of what it’s all about. You get a series of random trivia questions on everything from sports to geography. Play on your own or with up to four other people.

Written By David Nield