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Joshua Foer


Obscura Day, March 20: visits to wondrous, curious, and esoteric places

Hi everyone! Pleased to be back on Boing Boing again. Last time I was here with Dylan Thuras we announced the launch of the Atlas Obscura, a user-generated compendium of the world's "wondrous, curious, and esoteric" places.

Read the rest

Thank you and farewell

Joshua Foer and Dylan Thuras are guest bloggers on Boing Boing. They are co-founders of the Atlas Obscura: A Compendium of the World's Wonders, Curiosities, and Esoterica.

aogoodbye.jpgMany thanks to David, Mark, Xeni, Cory, the Boing Boing team, and all of Boing Boing's readers for making these two weeks of guest blogging so terrific. We were thrilled to be able to introduce the Atlas Obscura to the world on Boing Boing.

One of the best parts of this experience has been following the thoughtful and wide-ranging discussion thread comments. We're awed by the responsiveness of BB's readers, and by the generosity with which you all have shared your knowledge and opinions.

We especially want to thank everyone who has taken time to add places to the Atlas Obscura. Over the last two weeks, the site has already grown to be more than just a collection of "wondrous, curious, and esoteric" places. Your contributions and comments are starting to turn it into a community. We hope you'll continue to share your knowledge of obscure places, so that we can continue to build the site into a truly awesome resource.

Please stay in touch with any thoughts, critiques, or suggestions that come to mind. Thanks again!

All Best,

Josh and Dylan

The Devil's Kettle

Joshua Foer is a guest blogger on Boing Boing. Joshua is a freelance science journalist and the co-founder of the Atlas Obscura: A Compendium of the World's Wonders, Curiosities, and Esoterica, with Dylan Thuras.

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I ought to leave the Minnesota curiosities to Dylan, since that's his home turf, but I was just poking around the Atlas and stumbled on a mysterious waterfall called the "Devil's Kettle," recently added by a user named nursecarman. I realized I'd never seen anything quite like it before.

There is a mysterious waterfall in Judge Magney State Park in Minnesota. Half of the water drops 50 feet into the Brule river; the other half falls into a cauldron and disappears! Dyes and ping pong balls have been dropped into the pothole in an attempt to trace its route and find its outlet--presumably the water winds its way underground to Lake Superior a mile away--but the other end of the Devil's Kettle has yet to be found.

Anyone know of any other disappearing waterfalls like this? I'm guessing there must be others.

Barometer store in England features reproduction of a "Tempest Prognosticator," a.k.a "Leech Barometer"

Joshua Foer is a guest blogger on Boing Boing. Joshua is a freelance science journalist and the co-founder of the Atlas Obscura: A Compendium of the World's Wonders, Curiosities, and Esoterica, with Dylan Thuras.

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Barometer World is a store in Okephampton, England that specializes in the sale and repair of instruments that determine atmospheric pressure. After two years of research, its proprietor built a reproduction of one of the most whimsical weather-forecasting devices of all time, the "Tempest Prognosticator," a.k.a. the "Leech Barometer," a.k.a. the "Atmospheric Electromagnetic Telegraph." The instrument, which uses fresh water leeches to predict incoming storms, was first exhibited at the Great Exhibition in London in 1851:

A contemporary account of the invention described it as an "elaborate and highly ornate apparatus... evolved by a certain Dr. Merryweather (no epigram intended) who had observed that during the period before the onset of a severe storm, fresh water leaches tended to become particularly agitated. The learned Doctor decided to harness the physical energy of these surprisingly hysterical aquatic bloodsuckers to operate an early warning system. On the circular base of his apparatus he installed glass jars, in each of which a leech was imprisoned and attached to a fine chain that led up to a miniature belfry--from whence the tinkling tocsin would be sounded on the approach of a tempest."

The more bells that rang, the greater the likelihood of an impending storm.

UPDATE: The above photograph is of the other Tempest Prognosticator reproduction, built in 1951 for the Whitby Museum in North Yorkshire.

Barometer World & Museum [Atlas Obscura]

Barometer World web site

World's largest collection of bottle ships

Joshua Foer is a guest blogger on Boing Boing. Joshua is a freelance science journalist and the co-founder of the Atlas Obscura: A Compendium of the World's Wonders, Curiosities, and Esoterica, with Dylan Thuras.

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User curiosity_nl recently added the Bottle-Ship Museum in Enkhuizen, Holland to the Atlas Obscura. It sounds like a place I'd like to visit:

This tiny museum is said to hold the world's largest collection of bottle ships--over 750 of them. An incredible variety of miniature boats--rescue boats, whaling ships, steamships, and modern dredgers--have been stuffed into every variety of bottle, from the tiniest light bulb to a 30-liter wine jug. Magnifying glasses are available where needed. On occasion, there are demonstrations of how to build bottle ships.

Shown above is a model of the Half Moon, the ship Henry Hudson was sailing when he discovered Hudson Bay and the Hudson River. It's builder, Ralph Preston, estimates that it took about 500 hours to assemble.

Pigeons trained to recognize bad art

Joshua Foer is a guest blogger on Boing Boing. Joshua is a freelance science journalist and the co-founder of the Atlas Obscura: A Compendium of the World's Wonders, Curiosities, and Esoterica, with Dylan Thuras.

In 1995, the Japanese psychologist Shigeru Watanabe made a splash when he proved that pigeons could be trained to differentiate between paintings by Monet and Picasso. Now he has taught them to recognize the difference between good and bad art. New Scientist reports:

He trained four birds - on loan from the Japanese Society for Racing Pigeons - to appreciate children's art by linking correct assessments of paintings with food. Works deemed good (see image) had earned As in art class, while bad paintings (see image) garnered Cs or Ds. Watanabe also put the paintings to a jury of 10 adults, and pigeons viewed only works unanimously declared good or bad by the panel.

After a series of training sessions consisting of 22 paintings on average, Watanabe presented the birds with 10 paintings they hadn't seen before: 5 bad, 5 good.

The birds had been trained to peck at a button for good paintings and do nothing in response to bad works. With never-seen works, pigeons picked good paintings twice as often as bad paintings, a statistically significant difference.

Watanabe's paper, "Pigeons can discriminate 'good' and 'bad' paintings by children," is published in the latest issue of Animal Cognition.

Now, if only pigeons could be taught to pilot missiles.

Sir Richard Francis Burton, Cardinal Mezzofanti, and other eminent polyglots

Joshua Foer is a guest blogger on Boing Boing. Joshua is a freelance science journalist and the co-founder of the Atlas Obscura: A Compendium of the World's Wonders, Curiosities, and Esoterica, with Dylan Thuras.

sirrichardfburton.jpgI've recently been enjoying Edward Rice's wonderful biography of Sir Richard Francis Burton, the Victorian explorer, soldier, diplomat, linguist, translator, and self-described "amateur barbarian," who became one of the first non-Muslims to make the Hajj to Mecca.

Burton was a sponge for languages, and by the time of his death he was said to be fluent in 29 of them--plus at least a dozen dialects.

This got me wondering whether he might have been the most multilingual person in history.

Far from it, it seems.

Wikipedia has compiled a list of the world's most prodigious polyglots, including Sir John Bowring, who supposedly knew 200 languages (but only spoke 100), and the Italian cardinal Giuseppe Mezzofanti, who was said to speak 38 tongues, despite having never left Italy.

I was led to Charles William Russel's 1863 biography of Mezzofanti, which excerpts an incredible run-in between the cardinal and Lord Byron, as described in Byron's memoirs:

I don't remember a man amongst them I ever wished to see twice, except perhaps Mezzofanti, who is a monster of languages, the Briareus of parts of speech, a walking polyglot, and more; --who ought to have existed at the time of the Tower of Babel, as universal interpreter. He is, indeed, a marvel--unassuming also. I tried him in all the tongues in which I knew a single oath or adjuration to the gods, against post-boys, savages, Tartars, boatmen, sailors, pilots, gondoliers, muleteers, camel-drivers, vetturini, post-masters, post-houses, post, everything; and egad! he astounded me--even to my English.

mezzofantilinguist.jpgRussell then adds (with a note of skepticism) a postscript describing a comical swear-off between Mezzofanti and Byron:

When Byron had exhausted his vocabulary of English slang Mezzofanti quietly asked, "And is that all?"

"I can go no further," replied the noble poet, "unless I coin words for the purpose."

"Pardon me, my Lord," rejoined Mezzofanti; and proceeded to repeat for him a variety of the refinements of London slang, till then unknown to his visitor's rich vocabulary!"

What a great scene!

The Life of Cardinal Mezzofanti by Charles William Russell [HTML book]

An Introductory Memoir of Eminent Linguists, Ancient and Modern (preface to Russell's biography of Mezzofanti)

The pfeilstorch of Mecklenburg, or how we came to know that birds migrate

Joshua Foer is a guest blogger on Boing Boing. Joshua is a freelance science journalist and the co-founder of the Atlas Obscura: A Compendium of the World's Wonders, Curiosities, and Esoterica, with Dylan Thuras.

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The arrow-stork of Mecklenburg might be my favorite object in the Atlas Obscura:

Until the 19th century, the sudden annual disappearance of white storks each fall had been a profound mystery to European bird-watchers. Aristotle thought the storks went into hibernation with the other disappearing avian species, perhaps at the bottom of the sea. According to some fanciful accounts, "flocks of swallows were allegedly seen congregating in marshes until their accumulated weight bent the reeds into the water, submerging the birds, which apparently then settled down for a long winter's nap." A 1703 pamphlet titled "An Essay toward the Probable Solution of this Question: Whence come the Stork and the Turtledove, the Crane, and the Swallow, when they Know and Observe the Appointed Time of their Coming," argued that the disappearing birds flew to the moon for the winter.

On May 21, 1822, a stunning piece of evidence came to light, which suggested a less extra-terrestrial, if no less wondrous, solution to the quandary of the disappearing birds. A white stork, shot on the Bothmer Estate near Mecklenburg, was discovered with an 80-cm-long Central African spear embedded in its neck. The stork had flown the entire migratory journey from its equatorial wintering grounds in this impaled state. The arrow-stork, or pfeilstorch, can now be found, stuffed, in the Zoological Collection of the University of Rostock. It is not alone. Since 1822, some 25 separate cases of pfeilstorches have been recorded.

Zoological Collection of the University of Rostock

Monticello's clever windvane

Joshua Foer is a guest blogger on Boing Boing. Joshua is a freelance science journalist and the co-founder of the Atlas Obscura: A Compendium of the World's Wonders, Curiosities, and Esoterica, with Dylan Thuras.

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Dylan's post about the Eisinga Planetarium, a 225-year-old ceiling-mounted orrery in Holland, reminded me of the weathervane at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello that made such an impression on me as a child. Jefferson, ever the clever tinkerer, connected the weathervane on his roof directly to a compass rose hanging on the ceiling of Monticello's entrance portico. Instead of having to trudge outside to find out which way the wind was blowing, he could simply look out his front window.

Video of the weathervane in action

MASS MoCa harmonic bridge plays traffic in the key of C

Joshua Foer is a guest blogger on Boing Boing. Joshua is a freelance science journalist and the co-founder of the Atlas Obscura: A Compendium of the World's Wonders, Curiosities, and Esoterica, with Dylan Thuras.

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I was at MASS MoCa not long ago, but somehow managed to miss "Harmonic Bridge," an intriguing sound sculpture by the artists Bruce Odland and Sam Auinger. Atlas Obscura user CharlieCoats writes:

Artists Bruce Odland and Sam Auinger affixed two 16-foot-long resonating tubes to the bottom of a highway overpass, and placed microphones at specific intervals to pick up both the sound of traffic and passing pedestrians. The sounds travel down to speakers encased in concrete cubes on either side of the road below the bridge. The hum generated by the device is a droning C, one so low its sound wave is 16 feet long (the reason for such long tubes).

The droning is a subtle presence that blends with the sounds of passing cars, creating a unique sonic experience in a seemingly unimportant location. An instrument literally played by the city, one whose melodies are harmonious with the overall landscape of sound in the urban world.

MASS MoCa - Bruce Odland & Sam Auinger: Harmonic Bridge

Wacky gilded pyramid house in Illinois

Joshua Foer is a guest blogger on Boing Boing. Joshua is a freelance science journalist and the co-founder of the Atlas Obscura: A Compendium of the World's Wonders, Curiosities, and Esoterica, with Dylan Thuras.

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Speaking of creepy Midwestern pyramids, check out the Onan Pyramid House in Wadsworth, Illinois:

The six-story-tall, 17,000-square-foot Gold Pyramid House in Wadsworth, Illinois has to be one of the most bizarre homes ever constructed. Its builders, Jim and Linda Onan explain in three nouns and two adjectives what their unique home represents: "Power, Gold, Mystery, Exotic, and Impressive." The Onans are subscribers to the seventies cult theory of "pyramid power." Their home is believed to be the largest 24-karat gold-plated object in North America.
The home is closed to tours, but I understand you can spy it from I-94, about half-way between Chicago and Milwaukee. If there's an eccentric home like this near you, please consider sharing your local treasure with the Atlas Obscura community.

Researchers expand clinical study of brain implant

Joshua Foer is a guest blogger on Boing Boing. Joshua is a freelance science journalist and the co-founder of the Atlas Obscura: A Compendium of the World's Wonders, Curiosities, and Esoterica, with Dylan Thuras.

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I'm excited to see that the BrainGate Neural Interface System is moving to phase-II clinical testing. BrainGate is:

A baby aspirin-size brain sensor containing 100 electrodes, each thinner than a human hair, that connects to the surface of the motor cortex (the part of the brain that enables voluntary movement), registers electrical signals from nearby neurons, and transmits them through gold wires to a set of computers, processors and monitors. The goal is for patients with brain stem stroke, ALS, and spinal cord injuries to eventually be able to control prosthetic limbs directly form their brains.

An earlier version of the BrainGate system helped a young tetraplegic named Matt Nagle control a mouse cursor and operate a very basic prosthetic hand.

Last fall, I met a 25-year-old locked-in patient named Erik Ramsey, who is participating in the only other FDA-approved clinical trial of a brain-computer interface. Ever since a car accident nine years ago, the only part of Erik's body that has been under his control has been his eyeballs, and even those he can only move up and down. The hope is that he might someday use his neural implant to control a digital voice:

When Erik thinks about puckering his mouth into an o or stretching his lips into an e, a unique pattern of neurons fires--even though his body doesn't respond. It's like flicking switches that connect to a burned-out bulb. The electrode implant picks up the noisy firing signals of about fifty different neurons, amplifies them, and transmits them across Erik's skull to two small receivers glued to shaved spots on the crown of his head. Those receivers then feed the signal into a computer, which uses a sophisticated algorithm to compare the pattern of neural firings to a library of patterns Kennedy recorded earlier. It takes about fifty milliseconds for the computer to figure out what Erik is trying to say and translate those thoughts into sound.
Like the BrainGate sensor, Erik's neural implant was inserted into the motor cortex (in his case, the specific region that controls the mouth, lips, and jaw). But Erik's implant only has a single electrode, whereas the BrainGate has 100, which means it should, theoretically, be able to differentiate signals from a far greater number of neurons.

Plug and Play: Researchers Expand Clinical Study of Neural Interface Brain Implant

The Unspeakable Odyssey of the Motionless Boy

Moussavi the architect

Joshua Foer is a guest blogger on Boing Boing. Joshua is a freelance science journalist and the co-founder of the Atlas Obscura: A Compendium of the World's Wonders, Curiosities, and Esoterica, with Dylan Thuras.

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I wouldn't have ever guessed that there could be an Atlas Obscura angle on the Iran situation (the country's pigeon towers and salt-cured mummies feel rather trivial at the moment), but then along comes this slide show put together by the architecture critic James Gardner about Moussavi's life as a practicing architect:

Over the past century, not a few powerful men, among them Churchill, Eisenhower, and even Hitler, have fancied themselves painters and have displayed at times a lively interest in architecture. What is different about Mir-Hossein Moussavi, Iran's leading opposition candidate, is that he has actually earned a living through these disciplines, and not in his long ago youth, but as recently as this past year, just before he sought the presidency of Iran.

Unfortunately, there seem to be very few online images of Moussavi's most famous commission, the Iran Ministry of Energy building, and so the slide show is necessarily a bit speculative. The above photograph is of the Iran Art Portico on Valiasr Street in Tehran, a Moussavi project completed just before the start of the presidential campaign.

Moussavi the Architect

A library of the world's most unusual compounds

Joshua Foer is a guest blogger on Boing Boing. Joshua is a freelance science journalist and the co-founder of the Atlas Obscura: A Compendium of the World's Wonders, Curiosities, and Esoterica, with Dylan Thuras.

materialskingscollege.jpgGeorge Pendle has done a nice write-up of the Materials Library at King's College London for the Finanical Times. It's a place I badly want to visit on my next trip to London:

Deep in the bowels of a brutalist concrete building on the Strand, long shelves are packed - crammed, really - with some of the world's strangest substances, from the past, present and sometimes, it seems, the future. Take Aerogel: the world's lightest solid consists of 99.8 per cent air and looks like a vague, hazy mass. And yet despite its insubstantial nature, it is remarkably strong; and because of its ability to nullify convection, conduction and radiation, it also happens to be the best insulator in the world. Sitting next to the Aerogel is its thermal opposite, a piece of aluminium nitride, which is such an effective conductor of heat that if you grasp a blunt wafer of it in your hand, the warmth of your body alone allows it to cut through ice. Nearby are panes of glass that clean themselves, metal that remembers the last shape it was twisted into, and a thin tube of Tin Stick which, when bent, emits a sound like a human cry. There's a tub of totally inert fluorocarbon liquid into which any electronic device can be placed and continue to function. The same liquid has been used to replace the blood in lab rats, which also, oddly enough, continue to function... All these, and more than 900 others, including everyday materials suchas aluminium, steel and copper, are here for one purpose - to instil a sense of wonder in the visitor.

A Library of the World's Most Unusual Compounds

Amsterdam's National Museum of Spectacles

Joshua Foer is a guest blogger on Boing Boing. Joshua is a freelance science journalist and the co-founder of the Atlas Obscura: A Compendium of the World's Wonders, Curiosities, and Esoterica, with Dylan Thuras.

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As a lifelong glasses wearer, I'm intrigued by this image from the National Museum of Spectacles in Amsterdam, posted to the Atlas Obscura by CPilgrim:

The National Museum of Spectacles is itself something of a spectacle, fittingly located above an old optician's office in a building that dates back to the mid-1600s. The house's two floors overflow with monocles, lorgnettes, and the once-beloved Roosevelt style pince-nez. Exhibits detail the 700-year history of eye wear and the role that spectacles have played in art and fashion. Included among the museum's extensive holdings are the glasses of such bespectacled luminaries as Buddy Holly, John Lennon, Elvis Costello, and Franz Schubert.

The family that runs the museum has a store selling antique frames on the ground floor. Having watched my current plastic-rimmed specs oxidize to an unpleasant, mottled gray, I've been thinking about going back to metal frames, or trying out an altogether different material. I just did a little googling and discovered a company called Urban Spectacles that handcrafts modern frames out of wood (even, it appears, a pair of scissors glasses like the ones above). I'm looking over their web site, appreciating the incredible craftsmanship, when, lo and behold, I discover a celebrity endorsement from none other than... Cory Doctorow.

National Hollerin' Contest in Spivey's Corner, NC

Joshua Foer is a guest blogger on Boing Boing. Joshua is a freelance science journalist and the co-founder of the Atlas Obscura: A Compendium of the World's Wonders, Curiosities, and Esoterica, with Dylan Thuras.

Hollerin.jpgLooking back at a few of my posts here on Boing Boing from the last couple days (the Chappe optical telegraph, the whistling language of La Gomera), I noticed that long-distance communication has been one of the major themes. Coincidentally, this past Saturday was the 41st annual National Hollerin' Contest in Spivey's Corner, North Carolina (population 49).

Hollerin' (no "g" at the end, just an apostrophe) is an ancient tradition native to the lowlands of eastern North Carolina, which needs to be distinguished from the other vocal pursuits to which it bears some superficial resemblance, including hollering, yodeling, hog calling, whooping, and hooting.In an age before telephones, the distinctive cries, which resemble something between an opera aria and a braying donkey, were the primary form of long-distance communication between North Carolina farms. With enough practice--and stamina--a good holler could be a true lifeline. You might holler first thing in the morning to let your neighbors know you were awake. You'd holler if you got lost, holler if you were celebrating, holler if dinner was ready, holler if you just wanted say, "What's up?!" There was a vocabulary of shrieks for every occasion, as well as a host of religious songs with throaty hollerin' translations.

The first time I competed in the National Hollerin' Contest, I was passing through Spivey's Corner on a road trip with a friend. We thought the idea was to stand up and yell something ridiculous at a ridiculously high volume. Somehow we seemed to miss the fact that several thousand people had gathered to watch the event and only twelve (mostly elderly) men had signed up to compete. We were the only ones from out of state.

I walked onto the stage and yelled the most random word I could think of, "GINGIVITIS!!" and then proceeded to bellow out an impromptu oration on the importance of dental hygiene. My friend and I felt certain we were shoe-ins for the title. But if the crowd's measured silence and disdainful glances weren't proof enough of how badly our performance had gone over, a full account of the disaster was given in the next morning's local newspaper. The lede began, "When it comes to hollerin', the amateurs are easier to spot than a Yankee at a pig pickin'."

A few years later, feeling guilty about my performance, I returned to Spivey's Corner for the 37th annual hollerin' contest to compete again, and offer the town an apology. This time, I enlisted Larry Jackson, one of the greatest hollerers in the history of hollerin', to teach me about the tradition and give me instruction in the ancient art. To make a long a story short I ended up finishing second.

To get a sense of what hollerin' is all about, check out this video of my mentor Larry Jackson from the 2007 contest:


The "ostrich-footed" Vadoma of Zimbabwe

Joshua Foer is a guest blogger on Boing Boing. Joshua is a freelance science journalist and the co-founder of the Atlas Obscura: A Compendium of the World's Wonders, Curiosities, and Esoterica, with Dylan Thuras.

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A user named Sam E. just added the "ostrich-footed" Vadoma tribe of Zimbabwe to to the Atlas Obscura. Due to a single autosomal dominant mutation on chromosome seven, a significant portion of the population is ectrodactylous, or two-toed:

Derogatorily referred to as the "ostrich people," the Vadoma of western Zimbabwe suffer from a rare genetic condition called ectrodactyly, which affects one in four children within the population. Ectrodactyly, or "lobster claw syndrome," can effect either the hands and feet. In the case of the Vadoma, the middle three toes are absent and the two outer ones are turned inward... Some have theorized that the mutation may have adaptive benefit if it aids in tree climbing. However, it's more likely that the defect remains prevalent because of rampant inbreeding. It is against tribal law for members to marry outside the group.

My cursory Google Scholar search only turned up a single 24-year-old journal article [pdf] on the Vadoma (sometimes spelled Wadoma). Anyone know anything else about them?

One month to go until the next total solar eclipse

Joshua Foer is a guest blogger on Boing Boing. Joshua is a freelance science journalist and the co-founder of the Atlas Obscura: A Compendium of the World's Wonders, Curiosities, and Esoterica, with Dylan Thuras.

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Last summer, I read Roberto Casati's wonderful, lyrical book Shadows: Unlocking their Secrets, from Plato to Our Time, and was struck by a passage in which Casati describes how his addiction to total solar eclipses (TSEs) has carried him to the middle of the Black Sea and to Zambia:

A total eclipse is by far the most impressive natural phenomenon that we terrestrials can witness. The staging doesn't lessen its brutal effects. The temperature drops. A mysterious cold wind starts blowing. The shadow comes running up like a hurricane on the sea. The light collapses, and in just a few seconds, a metallic night falls--it comes on so fast the mind is not ready for it. On the horizon, unreachably far away, are the vestiges of daytime: an orangy twilight all around, as if a set designer made a mistake in projecting a sunset. In the midst of all this is a sun that's no longer a furnace but just an unlucky rock: its shining fringe is like the silver mane of hair of some aged celestial divinity; and stars glitter again, caught out of place in this out-of-joint nighttime.

Sounds like an almost religious experience, doesn't it?

TSEs happen about once every other year, and are only visible in a narrow band of the earth's surface. When I first read Casati's book, I vowed that I would try to see one as soon as possible.

I had high hopes of being in the Siberian town of Nadym for the last TSE, on August 1, 2008, but another commitment kept me in another hemisphere. Alas, I'm also going to be glued to my desk for the next TSE, which is exactly a month away, on July 22. Since it's going to pass over major populated areas in India and China, it may end up being witnessed by more human beings than any other TSE in history. It's also going to be the longest of the 21st century, lasting 6 minutes and 39 seconds at its point of maximum eclipse.

The next four TSEs--in 2010, 2012, 2015, and 2016--will barely cross dry land. So unless you want to join a cruise expedition or do some airborne eclipse chasing, you'll have to wait for the 2017 eclipse, which is going to carve a big fat path across the American heartland. For more info, check out Totality: The Digital Magazine for Eclipse Chasers.

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The Chappe Optical Telegraph

Joshua Foer is a guest blogger on Boing Boing. Joshua is a freelance science journalist and the co-founder of the Atlas Obscura: A Compendium of the World's Wonders, Curiosities, and Esoterica, with Dylan Thuras.

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Before the telegraph, there was the optical telegraph, a chain of towers topped by large pivoting cross members, and spaced as far apart as the eye could see. Developed by the Frenchman Claude Chappe at the end of the 18th century, optical telegraph lines once stretched from Paris out to Dunkirk and Strasbourg, and were in service for more than half a century:

Chappe created a language of 9,999 words, each represented by a different position of the swinging arms. When operated by well-trained optical telegraphers, the system was extraordinarily quick. Messages could be transmitted up to 150 miles in two minutes.

Several optical telegraph relay stations are still around, including one in Saverne, France that was renovated in 1998.

The Whistling Island of La Gomera

Joshua Foer is a guest blogger on Boing Boing. Joshua is a freelance science journalist and the co-founder of the Atlas Obscura: A Compendium of the World's Wonders, Curiosities, and Esoterica, with Dylan Thuras.


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To follow up on Dylan's post about Ball's Pyramid, we've got a whole category of "Anomalous Islands" in the Atlas Obscura that is waiting to be filled out. One of my favorites is La Gomera, a small island in the Canaries, where people communicate with each other from miles apart using one of the most unusual languages in the world:

Known as Silbo, the whistling language of Gomera Island has a vocabulary of over 4,000 words, and is used by "Silbadors" to send messages across the island's high peaks and deep valleys.

Though Silbo was on the verge of extinction in the 1990s, the Gomerans have made a concerted effort to revive their language by adding it to the public school curriculum. Today 3,000 schoolchildren are in the process of learning it.

Here's a sampling of the language:

The incredible "ear stones" of fish

Joshua Foer is a guest blogger on Boing Boing. Joshua is a freelance science journalist and the co-founder of the Atlas Obscura: A Compendium of the World's Wonders, Curiosities, and Esoterica, with Dylan Thuras.

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Graham Burnett wrote a fascinating essay in Cabinet recently about otolithic organs, the pair of sensors in the inner ear that help us stay balanced and maintain inertia. "Grossly speaking," writes Burnett, the otolithic organs consist of "a bunch of tiny pebbles (of the white rock known as calcium carbonate) embedded in a gooey wad that sits atop a carpet of delicate hairs." In humans, those "pebbles" are practically microscopic, but in fish, they can be as large as marbles:

There are several thousand researchers around the world who spend their whole working day looking at fish otoliths. This has nothing to do with their physiological functions, however, and everything to do with their structure and the staggering amount of information they contain. In the first place, each species of fish has a unique otolith shape. Couple this with the fact that they are stone (and therefore comparatively resistant to decomposition), and their utility as a biological marker becomes clear. Interested in the food habits of bottlenose whales? Pump their stomachs and you will end up with relatively few bones but lots of otoliths. Find an otolith expert and he or she will be able to give you a menu...

But the true wonder of these peculiar pearls lies within. Should you have occasion to tonsure a snapper or sea-bass, slicing off the top of its skull just above the eyes, you might take a moment to remove the two largest otoliths (there are, as a rule, six in all, three on each side) from their velvet seats to the right and left of the brain stem. With the heel of a knife you should be able to snap one of them in two, and then, holding it to the light, you will discern a set of concentric bands. These are growth rings--annuli--which, properly counted, will give the age of your fish in years.

Jantar Mantar

Joshua Foer is a guest blogger on Boing Boing. Joshua is a freelance science journalist and the co-founder of the Atlas Obscura: A Compendium of the World's Wonders, Curiosities, and Esoterica, with Dylan Thuras.

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Following up on Dylan's post about the Electrum, the world's largest Tesla Coil, I'd like to mention my own favorite super-sized scientific instrument: the Jantar Mantar astronomical complex in Jaipur, India. Constructed almost three centuries ago, its 73-foot-tall sundial is the largest in the world:

In 1728, Sawai Jai Singh II, rajah of Jaipur, dispatched his emissaries across the globe to gather the most accurate astronomical data possible. When they returned, Jai Singh ordered the construction of the Jantar Mantar complex, a monumental astronomical observatory constructed entirely out of stone and based on the astronomical tables of the French mathematician Phillipe de la Hire. Among the stone instruments Jai Singh constructed was the Samrat Yantra, a 73-foot tall sundial which remains the largest ever built. Though indistinguishable in design from other dials of the day, it was far and away the most accurate. Its two-second interval markings are more precise than even la Hire's table.

UPDATE: Uh oh. The picture above is of the Jantar Mantar complex in Delhi. Here's a photo of the one in Jaipur:

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UPDATE TO THE UPDATE: Oy. That second picture, which I nabbed off Wikipedia, may still not be the right Jantar Mantar. This one, I am confident, is definitely the Jantar Mantar in Jaipur. Sorry for the confusion.

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Bubble wrapping death masks

Joshua Foer is a guest blogger on Boing Boing. Joshua is a freelance science journalist and the co-founder of the Atlas Obscura: A Compendium of the World's Wonders, Curiosities, and Esoterica, with Dylan Thuras.

My wife and I are in the process of relocating from Brooklyn to New Haven. So far, the most tedious part of the move has been packing up the collection of death masks we acquired once upon a time in a fortuitous eBay bonanza:

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The majority of these heads are gazillionth-order plaster cast reproductions (knock-offs of knock-offs of knock-offs) of originals held in the Laurence Hutton Collection at Princeton. Several are actually life masks, originally cast by sculptors.

In roughly bottom-to-top, left-to-right order, the faces in this photo belong to:

On the ledge: Abraham Lincoln, Laurence Barrett, Sir Richard Owen, Robert E. Lee, John C. Calhoun, William Tecumseh Sherman

The bottom six hanging on the wall: Ludwig van Beethoven, Antonio Canova, John Keats, Hyrum Smith, Joseph Smith, Jean-Paul Marat

The next highest six: Franz Liszt, Napoleon Bonaparte (well, maybe), Frederick the Great, George Washington, William Blake, Oliver Cromwell

The next highest five: Jeremy Bentham, Aaron Burr, Friedrich Nietzsche, Edward Kean, Ulysses S. Grant

And the top row: Jonathan Swift, Maria Malibran, David Garrick, Thomas Paine, and Thomas Moore.

On another wall not pictured we've got: Robespierre, another Abe Lincoln, Frederic Chopin, Pope Pius IX, Benjamin Disraeli, Benjamin Franklin, and John Dilinger. Plus there are a few more whose names I've forgotten in storage.

If there's one death mask I wish we had, it would be the Inconnue de la Seine.

The Double Tree of Grana

Joshua Foer is a guest blogger on Boing Boing. Joshua is a freelance science journalist and the co-founder of the Atlas Obscura: A Compendium of the World's Wonders, Curiosities, and Esoterica, with Dylan Thuras.

I'm awed and wowed by the huge number of incredible places that people have been adding to the Atlas Obscura over the last couple days. It's especially neat to see folks contributing the sorts of local curiosities that are not only not listed in conventional travel guides, but are barely mentioned anywhere else on the web. Like this odd tree in Grana, Italy, submitted by a user named Alpha:

A very unusual tree grows in the town of Grana, Italy--or rather, an unusual pair of trees. It consists of a fruit tree growing on top of a common willow tree, creating a kind of two-tiered, two-species hybrid duplex. While it's not uncommon for a small tree to grow on a larger one, it is rare to see two fully grown trees in such an unusual configuration. Nonetheless, the arrangement appears to be working well for both individuals, as the fruit tree on top bears lovely white flowers.

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Whatever Happened to the Self-Portrait of Hananuma Masakichi?

Joshua Foer is a guest blogger on Boing Boing. Joshua is a freelance science journalist and the co-founder of the Atlas Obscura: A Compendium of the World's Wonders, Curiosities, and Esoterica, with Dylan Thuras.

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A couple years ago, I came across the incredible story of the 19th-century Japanese sculptor Hananuma Masakichi in Umberto Eco's essay collection Travels in Hyperreality. After being diagnosed with tuberculosis, Masakichi decided that his last great project would be to carve a perfectly life-like portrait of himself out of wood, to leave behind for the woman he loved. The hair, fingernails, teeth, and toenails of the sculpture were all pulled directly from his own body. The above image is from an old postcard of the statue, which has the following caption:

The statue is composed of over 2000 separate pieces being hollow with the exception of the feet. The head, thighs, calves, and every member of the anatomy was carved separately and the whole put together. The joints were perfectly made, dovetailed, and glued together -- no metal nails, only wooden pegs or pins beings used to fasten where necessary. After putting all the members together and finishing as far as the woodwork was concerned, he painted and lacquered the statue to give it the flesh and blood appearance; The hairs which adorn the figure belong to himself. He used clippings of his head and ears and each and every hair is bored for and put in one by one. The body hairs were actually pulled from his own body and put in exactly the same position as they occupied on himself. The eyes were also made by the artist and are the wonder of the oculist and optical precision.

And just in case this story wasn't poetic enough already, Ripley's Believe It Or Not!, which owns the statue, holds that Masakichi "later regained his health but lost his lover."

When I originally wrote about Masakichi in the Proceedings of the Athanasius Kircher Society, the only information I could find about the sculpture's present whereabouts was a notice saying that it had once been on display in a Ripley's museum, but was put in storage after being badly damaged in an earthquake.

I called up Ripley's the other day to find out about the fate of the sculpture, and was connected to their archivist, Ed Meyer. He informed me that it got banged up pretty badly in the 1989 San Francisco earthquake. "It was on a rotating platform, and it spun right off the rotator," he said. It took four months for a professional restorer to get Hananuma back into shape, however, "the hair still looks a little funny." The self-portrait is now back on display in Ripley's Wisconsin Dells location.

None of the Ripley's museums have yet been entered into the Atlas Obscura. But surely they all will be soon!

UPDATE: I found this picture at Sideshow World. Man or Image?! I guess that's the real Masakichi on the right.

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Searching for "purveyors of curiosities"

Joshua Foer is a guest blogger on Boing Boing. Joshua is a freelance science journalist and the co-founder of the Atlas Obscura: A Compendium of the World's Wonders, Curiosities, and Esoterica, with Dylan Thuras.

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One of the areas of the Atlas Obscura that I hope will get filled out as people continue to contribute content to the site is our "Purveyors of Curiosities" category. Right now it's got a measly six places in it. We're looking to find all those cool stores around the world that share the "wunderkammer sensibility"--places like Deyrolle in Paris (shown above), Evolution and Obscura Antiques in New York City, and Paxton Gate in San Francisco, just to name a few of the more famous and fabulous ones.

Whenever I travel, I always seek these sorts of shops out, but they can be awfully hard to find (there's no page in the phone book for "odd stores"). If we could put together a good list of the world's "purveyors of curiosities," I think it would go a long way to making the Atlas Obscura into a really useful resource for curious travelers. So, please tell us: what are the most "wondrous, curious, and esoteric" stores in the world? (And if you have a few minutes to spare, would you consider writing up a brief description and adding them to the Atlas?)

Just Another Giant Hole...

Joshua Foer is a guest blogger on Boing Boing. Joshua is a freelance science journalist and the co-founder of the Atlas Obscura: A Compendium of the World's Wonders, Curiosities, and Esoterica, with Dylan Thuras.

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Speaking of giant holes in the ground, let me pass along one more that happens to be one of today's featured places on the Atlas Obscura home page. The Mirny diamond mine in Siberia is the biggest man-made ditch in the world:

The largest man-made hole in the world is a diamond mine located on the outskirts of Mirny, a small town in eastern Siberia. Begun in 1955, the pit is now 525 meters deep and 1.25 kilometers across. The massive 20-foot tall rock-hauling trucks that service the mine travel along a road that spirals down from the lip of the hole to its basin. Round-trip travel time: two hours. Airspace above the mine is off-limits to helicopters, after "a few accidents when they were 'sucked in' by downward air flow..."

Giant Burning Holes of the World

Joshua Foer is a guest blogger on Boing Boing. Joshua is a freelance science journalist and the co-founder of the Atlas Obscura: A Compendium of the World's Wonders, Curiosities, and Esoterica, with Dylan Thuras.

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Spotty (now hopefully fixed) server aside, it's been fun watching new entries pour into the Atlas Obscura from people we've never met. I want to share a place that recently caught my eye, posted the other day by a user named Dave. It's a massive underground coal fire that's been smoldering beneath the town of Centralia, Pennsylvania ever since 1962:

The town sits on top of a rich vein of coal, and the fire has defied every attempt to extinguish it. National awareness of Centralia's unending environmental catastrophe came in 1981 when a 12-year-old boy fell into a 150-foot hole that suddenly appeared in his back yard. Most residents were relocated in 1984, and in 1992 the entire town was condemned. Most buildings were torn down, creating the Centralia that can still be seen today: a network of streets running through empty fields and, increasingly, new growth forest. As of 2007, Centralia had nine residents.

Then Dylan told me about a similar, and even more dramatic, subterranean fire that's been burning for almost as long under the Karakum desert of Turkmenistan (pictured above). Locals call it the "Gates of Hell":

The hole is the outcome not of nature but of an industrial accident. In 1971 a Soviet drilling rig accidentally punched into a massive underground natural gas cavern, causing the ground to collapse and the entire drilling rig to fall in. Having punctured a pocket of gas, poisonous fumes began leaking from the hole at an alarming rate. To head off a potential environmental catastrophe, the Soviets set the hole alight. The crater hasn't stopped burning since.

Turns out, these sorts of mine fires can stay lit for a very long time. One burned in the city of Zwickau, Germany from 1476 to 1860. Another coal fire in Germany, at a place called Brennender Berg (Burning Mountain), has been smoking continually since 1688!

Introducing the Atlas Obscura

Joshua Foer is a guest blogger on Boing Boing. Joshua is a freelance science journalist and the co-founder of the Atlas Obscura: A Compendium of the World's Wonders, Curiosities, and Esoterica, with Dylan Thuras.

Thanks so much, Mark, for that introduction. We're thrilled that you guys have lent us the keys to Boing Boing for the next few days.

atlasobscuralogo.gifI'd like to tell Boing Boing's readers a little bit about the new web site that Dylan and I have launched, the Atlas Obscura.

The Atlas is a collaborative project whose purpose is to catalog all of the "wondrous, curious, and esoteric places" that get left out of traditional travel guidebooks and are ignored by the average tourist.

Anyone can enter new places into the Atlas Obscura, or edit content that someone else has already contributed. We're counting on you, Boing Boing readers, to help us fill out the map and document all of the world's wonders and curiosities!

What kind of places are we talking about? Here are a few that were recently added to the Atlas:

- A hidden spot in the Smoky Mountains where you can find fireflies that blink in unison

-A 70-year-old house made entirely out of paper

- A giant hole in the middle of the Turkmenistan desert that's been burning for four decades

- A Czech church built of bones

- The world's largest Tesla coil

- A museum filled with the genitals of every known mammal in Iceland

- Enormous concrete sound mirrors once used to detect aircraft off the English coast

- The self-built cathedral of an eccentric Spanish ex-monk

- A museum of Victorian hair art in Independence, Missiouri

- An underwater sculpture garden off the coast of Grenada

- Galileo's amputated middle finger

- An island in the Canaries where people communicate by whistling

- The corpse of a 14th-cenutry Japanese monk who mummified himself while he was still alive

Dylan and I are hopeful that we if can get a bunch of like-minded travelers (and armchair travelers) to share their obscure knowledge, we can build a truly awesome resource for everyone. So, please check the site out! Explore! Get involved! Add a curious place!

First, though, a quick caveat: The site is still very much in beta. We're still adding features, making improvements, and sussing out bugs. So please let us know what works and what doesn't.

Now, before handing the mic over to Dylan, I'd like to take a moment to abuse this very big soapbox by giving a quick shout out to the Atlas Obscura's amazing developer Adam Varga of Sawhorse Media, our genius fix-it guru Boaz Sender, and our slick designer Aaron Taylor Waldman. Thanks gentlemen!