Sometimes, in the course of his work, University of Florida molecular geneticist Martin Cohn must travel with unusual items like a 3D-printed mouse penis. Similarly, University of Massachusetts biologist Diane Kelly totes around anatomical models like a mold of a dolphin vagina. They're not alone in the odd science-related items they must fly with, from bottles of monkey piss to a stash of 5,000-year-old human bones. At The Atlantic, Ed Yong explores what happens when objects of science meet airport security:
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The TSA once stopped Michael Polito, an Antarctic researcher from Louisiana State University, because his bag contained 50 vials of white powder. When he explained that the powder was freeze-dried Antarctic fur seal milk, he got a mixed reaction. “Some officers just wanted to just wave me on,” he says. “Others wanted me to stay and answer their questions, like: How do you milk a fur seal? I was almost late for my flight.”
Airport security lines, it turns out, are a fantastic venue for scientists to try their hand at outreach. Various scientists are said to have claimed that you don’t really understand something if you can’t explain it to your grandmother, a barmaid, a six-year-old, and other such sexist or ageist variants. But how about this: can you successfully explain it to an TSA official—someone who not only might have no background in science, but also strongly suspects that you might be a national security threat? Can you justify your research in the face of questions like “What are you doing?” or “Why are you doing it?” or “Why are you taking that onto a plane?”
Cohn did pretty well to the four assembled TSA agents who started quizzing him about his mouse penis.
In 1937, Polish bricklayer Jan Gwiżdż made a matchstick violin that traveled Europe as a curiosity. When Jan's grandson Hubert Gwiżdż took possession of it, he decided to get it rated for concert performances.
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In 1784, cabinetmaker David Roentgen (1743-1807) made this astonishing automaton of Marie Antoinette playing a dulcimer as a gift for King Louis XVI to give to his queen. This fantastic contraption is in the collection of the Musée des arts et métiers de Paris. From Atlas Obscura:
When wound up, the music box mechanism moves the figure’s head and arms, making them dance across the strings and chime out a ping-y tune. The player has a repertoire of eight songs...
It’s said that the beautiful lace dress was made from fabric of one of Marie Antoinette’s dresses, and that mannequin even has some of her real hair.
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Last April, a weasel-like stone marten jumped a substation fence at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) near Geneva, Switzerland and was promptly electrocuted. Now, that same poor creature's corpse is going on display at the Rotterdam Natural History Museum in an exhibition titled Dead Animal Tales. From The Guardian:
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The stone marten is the latest dead animal to go on display at the museum. It joins a sparrow that was shot after it sabotaged a world record attempt by knocking over 23,000 dominoes; a hedgehog that got fatally stuck in a McDonalds McFlurry pot, and a catfish that fell victim to a group of men in the Netherlands who developed a tradition for drinking vast amounts of beer and swallowing fish from their aquarium. The catfish turned out to be armoured, and on being swallowed raised its spines. The defence did not save the fish, but it put the 28-year-old man who tried to swallow it in intensive care for a week....
“We want to show that no matter what we do to the environment, to the natural world, the impact of nature will always be there,” (museum director Kees) Moeliker said. “We try to put a magnifying glass on some fine examples. This poor (stone marten) literally collided with the largest machine in the world, where physicists collide particles every day. It’s poetic, in my opinion, what happened there.”
This fine Velociraptor Claw could really level up your wunderkammer. It's just $12,500. Read the rest
In the basement of the University of Texas Mental Hospital, photographer Adam Voorhes stumbled upon hundreds of strange brains in formaldehyde that had been abandoned for decades. Read the rest
This beautiful object is a corrosion cast of bronchi and trachea, c. 1880-1890, most likely from a rabbit, sheep, or dog. It's part of the new Body of Knowledge exhibition at the Harvard Museums of Science & Culture.
Corrosion casts have been part of anatomical teaching from the 17th century to the present, particularly for creating display specimens. A rapidly hardening substance, often metal or plastic, is injected into blood spaces or other cavities. Then the tissue is dissolved away by strong acids or bases. This cast was created using a mixture of bismuth, lead, tin, and cadmium. After injection, the tissue was dissolved in potassium hydroxide.
Body of Knowledge: A History of Anatomy (in 3 Parts) Read the rest
Chandre Oraon, of West Bengal, has a slew of worshippers because he reportedly was born with a tail. According to News.com.au, his followers think Oraon may be the Hindi god Hanuman, a monkey-like humanoid. His tail looks suspiciously like hair to me, but what do I know. After all, it's rare but not unheard of for humans to be born with a "true tail." Read the rest
For nine years the popular website Futility Closet has collected arresting curiosities in history, literature, language, art, philosophy, and mathematics. This book presents the best of them: pipe-smoking robots, clairvoyant pennies, zoo jailbreaks, literary cannibals, corned beef in space, revolving squirrels, disappearing Scottish lighthouse keepers, reincarnated pussycats, dueling Churchills, horse spectacles, onrushing molasses, and hundreds more. Plus the obscure words, odd inventions, puzzles and paradoxes that have made the website a quirky favorite with millions of readers -- hundreds of examples of the marvelous, the diverting, and the strange, now in a portable format to occupy your idle hours.
Here's my interview with Greg about his new book and his new career as a full-time curator of curiosities.
Buy a copy of the Futility Closet book on Amazon.
Incredibly Interesting Authors: RSS | iTunes | Download this episode Read the rest
David Charles, 21, was arrested for allegedly stealing jars of brain tissue from the Indiana Medical History Museum. Police tracked Charles down after a California fellow purchased the jars for $100 each on eBay. Museum director Mary Ellen Hennessey Nottage spoke to the man who bought the brains. "He just said he liked to collect odd things," Nottage said.
"Police: Man stole brains, sold them on eBay" (Indianapolis Star) Read the rest
This is a rarely-seen "pink fairy" armadillo that lives in western central Argentina. Chlamyphorus truncatus, the tiniest armadillo species on the planet, spends almost all of its time underground, making it hard for researchers to determine whether it's endangered or just very elusive. Scientists at Mendoza, Argentina's CONICET research center recently had the opportunity to study one in captivity and discovered that the animal doesn't "swim" through sand as previously suspected but rather "digs and then it backs up and compacts the sand with its butt plate.” (Science News) Read the rest
Morbid Anatomy's Joanna Ebenstein just edited a new book by Dr. Pat Morris about English taxidermist Walter Potter (1835-1918) whose creations are icons of Victorian wunderkammer whimsy. Here's a trailer for the related documentary, a collaboration with Ronni Thomas of The Midnight Archive. Walter Potter's Curious World of Taxidermy Read the rest
The always-excellent Midnight Archive visits artist and Oddities host Ryan Matthew Cohn and his massive collection of skulls, shrunken heads, and other curiosities.
Oddities' Ryan Cohn's apartment
Mummies and Monkey Skulls
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Hidden inside a nondescript freight elevator in a NYC TriBeCa alley lies Museum, a delightful cabinet-of-curiosities drawing from weird collections around the globe. Museum is now open for its second season and includes such items as: "Personal Ephemera from Al Goldstein, The Rocks and Tools from Tom Sach's Mars expedition, Objects Made For Prisoners or by Prisoners in US Prisons, Fake Vomit from Around the World, Tip Jars collected by Jim Walrod, Surf and Turf Potato Chips, and more."
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Invisible Brooklyn, sellers of fine curiosities and devilish artifacts, just posted two terrific tomes from the early 1900s to Instagram. I think both would best be enjoyed accompanied by a puff on the antique skull pipe, while wearing a smoking jacket. Red, of course. Read the rest
According to the Science Museum, London, this item from Henry Wellcome's curiosity collection is a "man catcher… used in Europe in the late 1700s during times of war. The terrifying collar pulled riders off horseback. In peacetime, it is thought the device may have caught and held escaped prisoners." "Man catcher, Germany, 1601-1800" (via Neatorama) Read the rest
Earlier this week, I challenged readers to send me photos of their favorite museum exhibits and specimens, preferably from museums that might go overlooked in the tourism pantheon. Over the next few days, I'll be posting some of these submissions, under the heading, "My Favorite Museum Exhibit". Want to see them all? Check the "Previously" links at the bottom of this post.
It's "My Favorite Museum Exhibit"—celebrity edition. Marc Abrahams is the editor of the Annals of Improbable Research, the journal that awards the annual Ig-Nobel Prizes. He sent me this: An actual rectum cut from the corpse of the Bishop of Durham. It resides in London's Hunterian Museum.
Here's the museum's description of Object RCSHC/P 192, as quoted by Abrahams in a 2010 Guardian column:
A rectum showing the effects of both haemorrhoids and bowel cancer. The patient in this case was Thomas Thurlow (1737-1791), the Bishop of Durham. Thurlow had suffered from some time from a bowel complaint, which he initially thought was the result of piles. He consulted John Hunter after a number of other physicians and surgeons had failed to provide him with a satisfactory diagnosis. Hunter successfully identified the tumour through rectal examination, but recognised that it was incurable. Thurlow died 10 months later.
Previously in this series:
Museum photos: Mummified Ice-Age bison
My Favorite Museum Exhibit: Arab Courier Attacked by Lions Read the rest