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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.