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History

93 articles
  • The Botanist Who Defied Stalin

    His dream of feeding the world died in prison. His dream of a seed bank lives on.

  • A Lab of Her Own

    In her bedroom during WWII, she discovered how the nervous system is wired.

  • A Lab of Her Own

    In her bedroom during WWII, she discovered how the nervous system is wired.

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    The History of Locker-Room Talk

    Why men put down other men by attacking their masculinity.

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    Tarzan Wasn’t for Her

    It took an outsider to restore women to the story of human evolution.

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    The Botanist Who Defied Stalin

    His dream of feeding the world died in prison. His dream of a seed bank lives on.

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    Digging Deeper Into Holocaust History

    What geoscientists are uncovering in Eastern Europe.

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    Who Said Nobody Read Isaac Newton?

    It’s a myth that legendary works in science aren’t read.

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    What Did the Past Smell Like?

    Get a whiff of a new sensory experience in history.

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    When Science Was the Best Show in America

    The first US museum was devoted to truth and reason. Then the circus came to town.

  • Interrogating the Art and Science of Whaling Journals

    Images are not always neutral, even within the framework of science.

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    The Greatest Journey of All Time

    How the first Americans made their way from Siberia to Patagonia.

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    The Dr. Strange of the American Revolution

    In Rush, author Stephen Fried confirms what earlier biographical writings on the doctor had observed: that history misunderstood him, “had not taken him seriously enough as a founder, a writer, a teacher, and a revolutionary in politics, medicine, religion, public health, and philosophy.”.Painting by John Trumbull / Wikicommons I ascribe the Success of our Revolution […]

  • If Only 19th-Century America Had Listened to a Woman Scientist

    Where might the US be if it heeded her discovery of global warming’s source?

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    The Carouser and the Great Astronomer

    It’s a fine line between oblivion and immortality.

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    The Book That Invented the World

    Now that we’re corralled into our homes and apartments, something seems pre-modern in how our worlds have shrunk. Unlike past quarantines, we’re also connected by digital technology to the rest of the globe, calling to mind poet John Donne’s line from a 1633 poem about making “one little room an everywhere.” Donne came of age […]

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    What if Another Crisis Strikes During This Pandemic?

    A warning from history about simultaneous disasters.

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    A Warning from History About Simultaneous Disasters

    If an earthquake now hits India or Iran, like in 2001 and 2003, respectively, killing over 20,000 people in each country—or if we witness a repeat of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina in the US or 2011’s tsunami in Japan—will the world respond? Would the world wish to respond?Photograph by Microgen / Shutterstock Parts of the world […]

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    We Are All Ancient Mapmakers

    Why we still see the world like the mathematician and poet who first mapped it.

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    If Only 19th-Century America Had Listened to a Woman Scientist

    Where might the US be if it heeded her discovery of global warming’s source?

  • Perkowitz_HERO

    If Only 19th-Century America Had Listened to a Woman Scientist

    Where might the US be if it heeded her discovery of global warming’s source?

  • My Personal Hero: Helen Keller

    The lessons in Helen Keller's books.

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    How American Tycoons Created the Dinosaur

    The story of dinosaurs is also the story of capitalism.

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    It’s Time These Ancient Women Scientists Get Their Due

    Reviving lost stories of women in science.

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    Why a Thriving Civilization in Malta Collapsed 4,000 Years Ago

    The Ġgantija temples of Malta are among the earliest free-standing buildings known.Photograph by Bs0u10e01 / Wikicommons The mysteries of an ancient civilization that survived for more than a millennium on the island of Malta—and then collapsed within two generations—have been unravelled by archaeologists who analyzed pollen buried deep within the earth and ancient DNA from […]

  • The Woman the Mercury Astronauts Couldn’t Do Without

    Katherine Johnson negotiated the dynamics of both race and space.

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    The Dr. Strange of the American Revolution

    Benjamin Rush was a strange, or a strangely gifted, man, and one of the youngest—at 30—to sign the Declaration of Independence.Painting by John Trumbull / Wikicommons I ascribe the Success of our Revolution to a Galaxy,” Benjamin Rush wrote to John Adams, in 1812. He wasn’t invoking the astrological. It was commonplace then to associate […]

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    What Ancient Romans Used Instead of Toilet Paper

    Our ancient Roman would simply wipe him- or herself, rinse the tersorium in whatever was available (running water and/or a bucket of vinegar or salt water), and leave it for the next person to use.Photograph by Kapustin Igor / Shutterstock We’ve all been caught unawares by our digestive tract at one time or another. It […]

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    Most Tech Today Would be Frivolous to Ancient Scientists

    The tech that most people depend on must appeal to our fears and vanities and must require continuous and rapid overturn. If it were truly necessary, the market would demand durability.Wikicommons Surrounded by advanced achievements in medicine, space exploration, and robotics, people can be forgiven for thinking our time boasts the best technology. So I […]

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    Why Did the Ancients Bury Their Dogs like Family Members?

    Man’s best friend was also man’s first buried pet.Photograph by Pavlina Trauskeova / Shutterstock As a kid, when my pet turtle died we had a funeral—of course—and buried him in the backyard. When the family dog passed, his remains were cremated and placed in an urn on the mantle. In today’s society, mortuary rites for […]

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    My Mom, the Missile Computress

    What it was like being among the first women in the US missile program.

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    The True Story of Medical Books Bound in Human Skin

    Human skin books are the rare artifacts that prove that the practice of making leather goods from human skin is more than just a ghoulish legend.Photograph by voodoo willy In 1868, on a hot, midsummer day, 28-year-old Mary Lynch was admitted to the Philadelphia Almshouse and Hospital, the city hospital for the poor, better known […]

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    Another Side of Feynman

    Nine letters by Freeman Dyson portray his relationship with the Nobel Laureate.

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    The Last Love of Jonas Salk

    The unusual union of a renowned artist and the discoverer of the Polio vaccine.

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    The Radical Humanism of the Soviet Planetarium

    This planetarium was hailed as a successor to Russian theater and the Orthodox Church.

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    The Stick Is an Unsung Hero of Human Evolution

    Stone’s silent sister in the archaeological record.

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    You’re Descended from Royalty and So Is Everybody Else

    Anybody you can name from ancient history is in your family tree.

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    The Hidden Science and Tech of the Byzantine Empire

    Byzantine military inventors perfected Greek Fire, a combustible liquid like napalm that could be hurled at enemy ships (or lobbed against land armies as hand grenades).Madrid Skylitzes (12th century) / Wikicommons Byzantine civilization, the eastern Roman empire whose capital was at Constantinople, is mostly known today for its spirituality and eccentricities, including the spectacular church […]

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    The Stranger Things That Gave Birth to Science

      Finding regularity in nature is the bread and butter of science. We know that reptiles lay eggs, while mammals bear live young; the Earth revolves around the sun every 365.25 days; electrons glom onto protons like bears onto honey. But what if some oddity seems to defy the laws of nature, like the platypus, […]

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    Why Medieval Cats Approved of the Plague

    The cat as the witch’s familiar in the 17th century, woodcut.Mary Evans Picture Library From the 12th century onward there were two distinct attitudes to cats. For many people the cat population operated as important rodent-controllers, and every so often a cat would go beyond being a mere working animal and become a welcome pet […]

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    The Multiverse of 1686

    Speculation on multiple universes goes back farther than you might think.

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    The 6 Most Surprising, Important Inventions From World War I

    British soldiers in a World War I trench.Photograph by Ernest Brooks / Australian War Memorial / Wikicommons Just over 100 years ago, on the 28th of June, 1914, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary was assassinated in Sarajevo. That set into motion a chain of events that, within several weeks, culminated in the European great […]

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    How the Tension Between Mercy and Blame Shaped Our Legal Codes

    When we make moral judgments, says Fiery Cushman, the lead researcher at Harvard’s Moral Psychology Lab, the “more primitive, so to speak ‘you caused it, you should suffer’ response never goes away.”“The Barque of Dante,” by Eugène Delacroix (1822) One day in July 1884, four shipwrecked men aboard a lifeboat headed northwest off the Cape […]

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    This Cancer Treatment Extends Life Without Pills, Radiation, or Surgery

    The very act of existential unburdening proves to be life prolonging.Photograph by UpperCut Images / Getty What would go through your mind if I told you that you had cancer? Perhaps you’d wonder how you got it, or how you were going to get rid of it. Maybe you’d worry about whether you could keep […]

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    Meet Seven Extraordinary Women Scientists

    A neuroscientist turned designer has created a unique celebration of women’s history month.

  • The Multiverse Is an Ancient Idea

    Turns out, we've been debating the notion of infinite worlds for millennia.

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    Why Pascal’s Wager Is Eminently Modern

    Fingers Crossed: Pascal reasoned that life is a sort of “game,” and that our faith in God, or lack-there-of, is our wager as to the ultimate nature of reality.Photograph by Albert / Flickr On the evening of November 23rd, 1654, the brilliant polymath Blaise Pascal was thrown from his horse-drawn carriage, the creatures having been […]

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    Why Renaissance Astronomer Tycho Brahe Is Still a Star

    Something is rotten in Denmark, but not to worry, it’s just the remains of astronomer Tycho Brahe. Despite being dead for over 400 years, this Renaissance astronomer continues to captivate scientists, historians, and the public. Part of his fame is due to his scientific credentials. Brahe is the father of modern observational astronomy, known for […]

  • My Personal Hero: Helen Keller

    Have you ever been at sea in a dense fog, when it seemed as if a tangible white darkness shut you in, and the great ship, tense and anxious, groped her way toward the shore with plummet and sounding-line, and you waited with beating heart for something to happen? If there’s a better description of […]

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    My Personal Hero: Hope Jahren on Helen Keller

    Have you ever been at sea in a dense fog, when it seemed as if a tangible white darkness shut you in, and the great ship, tense and anxious, groped her way toward the shore with plummet and sounding-line, and you waited with beating heart for something to happen? If there’s a better description of […]

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    How a Defense of Christianity Revolutionized Brain Science

    Presbyterian reverend Thomas Bayes had no reason to suspect he’d make any lasting contribution to humankind. Born in England at the beginning of the 18th century, Bayes was a quiet and questioning man. He published only two works in his lifetime. In 1731, he wrote a defense of God’s—and the British monarchy’s—“divine benevolence,” and in […]

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    If Not Darwin, Who?

    An alternative history of the great ideas of science.

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    A Prescription for Awe

    In the debate between religion and science, wonder is what the doctor ordered.

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    The Woman the Mercury Astronauts Couldn’t Do Without

    Katherine Johnson negotiated the dynamics of both race and space.

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    How Einstein and Schrödinger Conspired to Kill a Cat

    The rise of fascism shaped Schrödinger’s cat fable.

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    We May Never Truly Fathom Other Cultures

    If they’re honest and humble enough, people who study societies that existed in the Americas before the arrival of Europeans will admit that they don’t really understand those societies. They’ll know the facts about pre-Hispanic cultures and chronologies, yet how people in those societies thought, their values and psychologies, remain maddeningly out of reach. It’s like reading poetry […]

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    These Medical Terms Still Bear the Mark of the Third Reich

    Dr. Hans Reiter achieved the one thing most likely to keep a physician’s name in textbooks forever: He got an illness named after him. While working as a medic in the German army in World War I, he once treated a case of simultaneous inflammation in the joints, eyes, and urethra. This became known as […]

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    Why Sports Die

    Sports don’t survive their cultures of origin if they resist modern measurement.

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    El Niño Has Ended Kingdoms and Civilizations

    On a damp, foggy January morning in 1793, Louis XVI, besieged monarch of France, stood before a guillotine. To some 20,000 of his angry subjects, Louis declared: “I die innocent of all the pretended crimes laid to my charge. I forgive all those who have had any hand in my misfortunes, and I pray that […]

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    The True Story of Medical Books Bound in Human Skin

    In 1868, on a hot, midsummer day, 28-year-old Mary Lynch was admitted to the Philadelphia Almshouse and Hospital, the city hospital for the poor, better known as “Old Blockley.” Lynch had tuberculosis, which was soon to be compounded by the parasitic infection trichinosis. She didn’t recover, dying in Ward 27 the following year, weighing just […]

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    The Father of Modern Metal

    The creation of stainless steel took equal parts metallurgy and perseverance.

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    It’s Time These Ancient Women Scientists Get Their Due

    Women are woven deeply into the history of science, stretching back to ancient Egypt, over 4,000 years ago. But because their contributions often go unacknowledged, they fade into obscurity—and the threads of their influence today aren’t as apparent as they ought to be.  As a Wikipedia editor, I have tried to make women’s contributions more […]

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    Can We Trace the History of Human Migration Through Our Guts?

    Eduard Egarter-Vigl (L) and Albert Zink (R) taking a sample from the Iceman in November 2010.EURAC/Marion Lafogler In 1991, two German tourists walking an Alpine ridge, between Austria and Italy, stumbled across something shocking: a yellowed but well preserved human body, partially frozen embedded in a glacier. Initially, they believed it to be the remains […]

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    How Chemistry Is Rescuing Our Audio History from Melting

    Our cultural history is crumbling. Not because of bad education—though one might make that argument—but because of chemistry. Between the late 60s and the late 80s, much of our culture—from the Nixon trials on television to unreleased music from famous artists like the Beatles—was recorded on magnetic tape, and this tape is starting to disintegrate. […]

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    The Science Hidden In Your Town Name

    How place names encode ecological change.

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    Five Veteran Scientists Tell Us What Most Surprised Them

    Fifty years ago, who knew we’d learn to clone genes and find water on Mars?

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    A Chemical Attack That Killed a Countryside & Scarred a People

    Mangroves are sturdy trees. Recognizable by their extensive root systems, these trees can thrive in muddy soil, sand, peat, even coral. They tolerate water much saltier than most other plants and survive flooding during severe storms. It is perhaps their sturdiness that led mangroves to be one of the most significant targets in the Vietnam […]

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    The Dueling Weathermen of the 1800s

    This bitter dispute set the stage for the modern weather forecast.

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    The Dueling Weathermen of the 1800s

    This bitter dispute set the stage for the modern weather forecast.

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    Five Short Stories About the Life and Times of Ideas

    A complexity theorist explores how science and culture co-evolve.

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    How to Make Art That Withstands the Test of Time

    A degraded frame from an old celluloid (aka nitrate) film, the same material used by Naum Gabo in some of his sculptures   In the 1930s, Russian-born sculptor Naum Gabo started experimenting with a thin, plastic material called celluloid. Previously used as film for photography or to make cheap jewelry, celluloid in Gabo’s hands became […]

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    The Brilliant “Baloney Slicer” That Started the Digital Age

    In the early 1950s, the U.S. Air Force Supply Depot in Ohio was looking for a faster way to store and fetch information from its sizable inventory. They had 50,000 items in their records and wanted instant access to each one of them. The dominant storage technologies of the time—punch cards, magnetic tape and magnetic […]

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    The Common Genius of Lincoln and Einstein

    The president and the physicist teach us a lesson about moral genius.

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    Top Ten Unsung Geniuses

    For these scientists, success and fame did not come in equal measure.

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    Do You Know These Scientific Pioneers?

    10 great minds that should have been in your science textbooks.

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    From Isaac Newton to the Genius Bar

    Why it’s time to retire the concept of genius.

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    From Isaac Newton to the Genius Bar

    Why it’s time to retire the concept of genius.

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    Cloudy With a Chance of War

    His weather forecasts changed the world. Could his predictions of war?

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    The Vulgar Mechanic and His Magical Oven

    A Renaissance alchemist pioneers feedback control.

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    The Glassmaker Who Sparked Astrophysics

    His curious discovery, 200 years ago, foresaw our expanding universe.

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    How the Cold War Created Astrobiology

    Life, death, and Sputnik.

  • Scharf_HERO

    How the Cold War Created Astrobiology

    Life, death, and Sputnik.

  • Time Capsule

    Here’s Our Cutting-Edge, Crowdsourced Imaginary Time Capsule

    Humans have long had a desire to capture the now—to freeze the current moment to look back on after it has left us. We painted, wrote things down, developed photography and storage systems, and built vast libraries of books and images. In 1939, during the New York World’s Fair, Westinghouse introduced the first-ever “time capsule” […]

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    What Would You Put in a Science Time Capsule?

    It’s 2014: Sixty-one years since the discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA. Four hundred seventy one years since Copernicus published the heliocentric model of the universe. And one year since the Higgs Boson was discovered. In 100 years, how will we look back on today’s science? We’re building a scientific time capsule—a collection of […]

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    The Code of the Conch

    How the science of sound explained an ancient Peruvian oracle.

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    Monsters, Marvels, and the Birth of Science

    How the unlikely and unexplainable, strange and terrifying, spawned the age of science.

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    Monsters, Marvels, and the Birth of Science

    How the unlikely and unexplainable, strange and terrifying, spawned the age of science.

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    How Science Helped Write the Declaration of Independence

    On July 4, 1776, representatives of thirteen colonies on the eastern shores of North America signed a Declaration of Independence from England. Winning independence was still a bloody war ahead, an unlikely outcome. Declaring independence was rashness, potentially carrying a death sentence for treason. Not, perhaps, what you would expect of well-educated men, many of […]