Unsigned and undated, inventory number 779 hangs behind thick glass in the Louvre’s brilliantly lit Salle des États. A few minutes after the stroke of nine each morning, except for Tuesdays when the museum remains closed, Parisians and tourists, art lovers and curiosity seekers begin flooding into the room. As their hushed voices blend into a steady hivelike hum, some crane for the best view; others stretch their arms urgently upward, clicking cell-phone cameras. Most, however, tilt forward, a look of rapt wonder on their faces, as they study one of humanity’s most celebrated creations: the Mona Lisa, by Leonardo da Vinci.
Photo of engraved ochre from Blombos Cave, courtesy Wikimedia Commons and Christopher Henshilwood.
Virgin Galactic describes astronauts as “the world’s most exclusive club.” I know this because I recently downloaded the company’s brochure, and spent many happy minutes fantasizing about what it would be like to lay down $200,000 and take out a membership. Virgin Galactic, as I’m sure you’ve heard, is the space tourism company dreamt up by Sir Richard Branson, the former record-store owner who has racked up such a vast personal fortune that he is now ranked the fourth wealthiest person in the UK. Branson wants spaceflight to be a pleasant, zenlike experience—rather like a supersonic spa.
Banished are the days of adrenalin-infused terror when NASA strapped husky young farm boys to the back of faulty rockets. The Virgin Galactic journey begins in serenity in the New Mexico desert, in a spaceport designed by the architectural firm of Foster + Partners (the name says it all). Read More.
This story begins in darkness—darkness both literal and metaphorical. On a dripping wet day in 1952, an archaeologist stood in a small dank corridor deep inside a pyramid known as Temple of the Inscriptions, in the old Maya city of Palenque. In the shadows ahead, a massive triangular stone door blocked his way. For four field seasons, Alberto Ruz Lhuillier and his Maya crew had cleared tons of rubble and fill from steep steps leading down inside the pyramid. The archaeologist had no idea where the steps would take them, only a persistent thought that it could be somewhere important.
The crew struggled another two days with the door, finally shifting it enough for a man to squeeze sideways past. As Ruz moved beyond it, he shone a flashlight into the void. “It was a moment,” he later wrote, “of indescribable emotion.” Read more.
Photo: Temple of the Inscriptions, Palenque by tato grasso
Something about the strange strands didn’t fit. Patricia Sutherland spotted it right away: the weird fuzziness of them, so soft to the touch.
The strands of cordage came from an abandoned settlement at the northern tip of Canada’s Baffin Island, far above the Arctic Circle and north of Hudson Bay. There indigenous hunters had warmed themselves by seal-oil lamps some 700 years ago. In the 1980s a Roman Catholic missionary had also puzzled over the soft strands after digging hundreds of delicate objects from the same ruins….
From my story in the November 2012 issue of National Geographic. Read the entire story here
According to his discharge papers, he stood five feet, eight inches tall. He had a pale complexion, brown hair, blue eyes, two moles on his back, his sole distinguishing marks. In June 1918, he was discharged from the British Army with a disability received in the Great War–a sadly innocent term that people used before they became accustomed to slaughter on an industrial level. Read More
On the taxi ride there, I felt a little ill. The long, sleepless flight to Lima, a dodgy lunch that was coming back to haunt me, and the abrupt swerving and lurching of the taxi through the congested streets of the Peruvian capital—all seemed to be taking their toll. By the time I and my companions clambered out at the Puruchuco Museum and filed into a small backroom to meet the director, I was certain I was in for a long, queasy afternoon. Then I spotted two old notebooks lying on the table.
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Yesterday, Science magazine posted my article on a contentious new study on the ancient forests of the Amazon. To read more, please click here.
Each July, along the dappled stream banks of Kodiak Island, just off the Alaska coast, a weedy looking wildflower produces a few dark-blue hooded blossoms. There is nothing particularly memorable about the appearance of Aconitum delphinifolum. Its leaves are thin and rather spiky. Its scrawny-looking stem cannot hold the weight of its flowers: its neighbors keep it upright. But this eminently forgettable looking plant, a member of the buttercup family, possesses a dark secret. Aconitum delphinifolum contains a toxin capable of killing one of the world’s largest animals, a 40-ton humpback whale. Indeed, the local Alutiiq people have long understood this: their whalers once enlisted it as a lethal weapon.
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Photo: Humpback whales, NOAA Sanctuary collection, Dr. Louis Herman
My article on a very cool new discovery from the Maya world appears today on the website of Science. To read it, please click here.