Stories tagged History and Nature of Science


National Fossil Day: A great time to dig fossils (both literally and figuratively).
National Fossil Day: A great time to dig fossils (both literally and figuratively).Courtesy Mark Ryan
Next month, the National Park Service once again teams with the American Geological Institute and other partners to celebrate the third annual National Fossil Day.

The mission of NFD is to “promote public awareness of fossils as well as to foster a greater appreciation of their scientific and educational value.”

This year the official day falls on October 17, but celebrations take place at various locations around the country over several days. Here at the Science Museum of Minnesota, the day will be celebrated on Saturday, October 20, 1pm-4pm throughout the museum. You can see what events are happening in your own area here.

Besides going out and hunting for fossils, one of my favorite NFD activities is the National Fossil Day Art & Photography Contest. As in previous years, the competition is open to anyone across several age groups. This year’s theme is “Careers in Paleontology”. A panel of NFD partners and paleontologists will select the winning entries. I’ve already sent in my submission but you have until October 5th (postmark deadline) to enter your own masterpiece.

National Fossil Day is usually observed in conjunction with Earth Science Week and this year is no different. EWS occurs October 14-20, and this year’s theme is Discovering Careers in the Earth Sciences.

National Fossil Day website
Earth Science Week websie


The Soudan Underground Mine entrance: Shaft #8 headframe (center) once transported miners to various levels up and down the mine shaft. Today it delivers park visitors to Level 27 for tours of the iron ore mine. It also transports scientists to and from the High Energy Physics Lab on the same level.
The Soudan Underground Mine entrance: Shaft #8 headframe (center) once transported miners to various levels up and down the mine shaft. Today it delivers park visitors to Level 27 for tours of the iron ore mine. It also transports scientists to and from the High Energy Physics Lab on the same level.Courtesy Mark Ryan

The long spell of unusually hot weather (see Thor's post) may have you looking for some relief, so let me suggest you head for northern Minnesota. No, I’m not talking about Duluth or the North Shore of Lake Superior (it’s been hot there, too), but way up north to the Soudan Underground Mine State Park on the southeast shore of Lake Vermilion (Map). The Soudan Mine is one of several underground mines that once operated in the Ely area, and was the oldest and deepest mine in Minnesota. It’s the perfect place to bring the whole family to learn about Minnesota’s iron mining past and descend a half mile into the earth where you can experience for yourself what it was like to work in an underground mine. An added perk during these steamy summer days is the fact temperature in the mine year-round is a cool 51°F.

In June, my brother Pat and I made one of our frequent geo-tours north, and this time our primary goal was to visit the Soudan mine. After some time exploring Manitou Falls near Superior, Wisconsin, and the eerily fog-shrouded Palisades on the North Shore, we made a beeline up to Ely where we spent the night. The next morning we drove the twenty miles west to Soudan, arriving just after 9am. As we neared our destination, the headframe of Shaft #8 could be seen looming above the ridge-line, making it fairly easy to find the park. Shaft #8 is the operational shaft that takes you underground.

The crushing house at Soudan: Iron ore from the mine was crushed here into seven-inch chunks before shipping.
The crushing house at Soudan: Iron ore from the mine was crushed here into seven-inch chunks before shipping.Courtesy Mark Ryan
There are two tours into the mine available to the public: the High Energy Physics Lab tour and the Mine History tour. These are separate tours and can't be taken together, and since our time was somewhat limited, Pat and I opted for the history tour. It was slightly longer (about 90 minutes) , included some geology, and seemed like the way to go. So we bought our tickets and while waiting for the tour to start, we checked out the grounds and buildings where the implements and artifacts once used for mining can still be seen. These included the crushing house, the dry house, and drill shop. Engine house at Soudan: the equipment still operates the hoist that delivers visitors in and out of the mine shaft.
Engine house at Soudan: the equipment still operates the hoist that delivers visitors in and out of the mine shaft.Courtesy Mark Ryan
The machinery in all these buildings stand idle today, but not so with the engine house. The equipment there still drives the cables and hoist that delivers visitors to and from the mine. Beneath the headframe, Pat sighted several bats fluttering up from the shaft. Three bat species inhabit the mine: the little brown, Eastern pipistrelle, and Northern myotis. But don’t worry, they weren’t any bother at all during the tour.

Across the road from the headframe is a deep, long gash in the ground overgrown with vegetation that was once one of the original open pit mines. Staring down into the hole, it’s not hard to imagine the difficulty the miners faced extracting ore from its steep walls. Pat and I didn’t have time to take the hiking trail far enough to see the much-photographed Soudan Iron Formation outcrop – something I regret - but we did see a couple other open pit mines on the property.

Minnesota's first iron ore mine: This open pit mine at Soudan produced the first iron ore shipped from Minnesota.
Minnesota's first iron ore mine: This open pit mine at Soudan produced the first iron ore shipped from Minnesota.Courtesy Mark Ryan
The first iron ore mined in Minnesota was taken from an open pit in Soudan, and shipped by train to Two Harbors at Lake Superior in the early 1880s. The promise of gold had attracted a lot of prospectors to the Arrowhead Region of Minnesota, including George Stuntz, a Duluth civil engineer who established the Vermilion Trail into the area. But instead of gold, he found iron ore. The Vermilion Range, with its rich iron ore, would be the first of several major iron ranges discovered across northern Minnesota. In nearly 80 year of operation, Soudan produced nearly16 million tons of rich iron ore that were shipped across the Great Lakes to steel mills in the East or in later years, sent by train down to the steel mill in Duluth. (I worked at the US Steel mill in Duluth for a year. My first job was on the high-line tracks where iron ore and other steel-making materials were delivered by train to the open hearth furnaces. During lunch, I’d watch my co-workers tap the furnaces. When the molten steel was ready to go, alarms and sirens would sound as a small bomb was sent into the furnace that would blow out the plug, forcing the molten steel to pour out into giant multi-ton ladles. Very impressive and extremely noisy!).

At 10am sharp we gathered with other visitors for the tour. After a quick video explaining an overview of the mine and its history, everyone grabbed a hardhat and loaded into the shaft’s elevator or “man cage” as the miners called it. A dozen of us crammed into the cage for the ride down. It wasn't too bad but it bordered on stuffy, especially in the heat. Our tour guide, a very pleasant young woman, eagerly imparted her knowledge of the mine’s history and the safety issues involved with the tour. She informed us that back when the mine was operational eighteen miners usually wedged into the cage for each transport.

Generalized view of Soudan Mine c. 1898: the shaft extends down 27 levels parallel to the ore body.
Generalized view of Soudan Mine c. 1898: the shaft extends down 27 levels parallel to the ore body.Courtesy Minnesota Geological Survey
The ride down to Level 27 took under three minutes. The shaft is angled about 78 degrees so besides traveling half a mile underground we also moved 500 feet north of the headframe and underneath the nearby old open pit mine. During our rattling, rapid descent, our guide held her flashlight against the scuffed window so we could see something - the occasional reflection of dim light as we shot past levels - otherwise it would've been a pretty dark ride. Two levels (#12 and #22) were lighted because they’re still used to pump out the relatively little water seeping into the mine.

Riding through the drift: In the old days miners had to walk the 3/4 mile tunnel to the stope in the dark.
Riding through the drift: In the old days miners had to walk the 3/4 mile tunnel to the stope in the dark.Courtesy Mark Ryan
Level 27, the deepest level in the shaft, was lighted, too, at least where the elevator stopped. The physics lab is located on the same level and we could see its entrance as we exited the elevator. We were joined by a couple more guides who herded us into small rail cars for the last leg of the trip, this time horizontally through a dimly-lit 3/4 mile passageway called a drift. The mineshaft and drift were dug out through Ely greenstone. As promised the temperature in the mine was a cool 51°F and a refreshing break from the surface heat. At least I thought so. Some folks were wearing sweatshirts or light jackets, but I was comfortable in just a t-shirt and shorts.

Level 27 stope: Our guide explains some of the rock formations found inside the mining chamber.
Level 27 stope: Our guide explains some of the rock formations found inside the mining chamber.Courtesy Mark Ryan
At the end of the tunnel we detrained and were led up a metal spiral staircase (the miners used ladders) to reach the stope, a large, cavernous space carved into of the ore layer. Our guide pointed out some of the geological features including adjacent greenstone layers, mineral veins of copper, and of course, hematite. She explained how holes were drilled into the walls of the ore body, and explosives placed inside for blasting. After the controlled explosion, and before any miners were allowed in, a barman was sent in to knock down any loose rock from the ceiling. Barring was one of the higher paying jobs in the mine but probably the most dangerous.

The miners used the “cut and fill” method to mine the ore from the ceiling. Waste rock was let drop and used to create an ever-rising artificial floor that remained pretty much the same distance from the ceiling being mined. This eliminated waste rock disposal to the surface. The dense ore, which weighed as much as 325 pounds per cubic foot, was sent down chutes into granby cars on the level below them for transportation back to the skip that carried it up to the top. The granby cars and skip each held 6 tons of ore and miners were paid according to the amount of ore they sent up to the surface. There, the ore was dumped into larry cars and transported to the crusher house for crushing, then either loaded into waiting train cars or stockpiled for later shipping.

Soudan Iron Formation: This banded iron formation seen at Soudan Underground Mine State Park was deposited in a marine environment 2.7 billion years ago.
Soudan Iron Formation: This banded iron formation seen at Soudan Underground Mine State Park was deposited in a marine environment 2.7 billion years ago.Courtesy Jvstin via Flickr
The iron deposits found at Soudan precipitated out of an ancient sea during the Early Precambrian period about 2.7 billion years ago. The iron was deposited on pillow basalts extruded during earlier volcanic activity. Pillow basalts form when molten rock comes in contact with water. The iron, which also originated from volcanic activity, interbedded with deposits of mud and sand forming what’s called a banded iron formation or BIF. Unlike the large and extensive single bed of iron ore occurring in the Mesabi Range, the iron ore at Soudan was laid out in small lenses. More pillow basalt flowed atop the iron layers. Later, probably through hydrologic processes, the iron content was enriched and the entire sequence tightly folded and deformed by tectonic forces from regional mountain-building episodes (orogenies) and later baked by the underground upwelling of magma during intrusion of the Duluth Complex gabbro. The heat and pressure metamorphosed the sequence, transforming the basalt into Ely greenstone (shist). The entire sequence eventually ended up nearly vertical in an anticline with layers of hematite, jasper, and chert sandwiched between layers of greenstone (also known as chlorite).

Miners working the underground mine at Soudan often referred to it as the “The Cadillac of Mines”. Compared with other underground mines near Ely, it was relatively dry, the temperature was a comfortable 51 degrees year round, and fresh air permeated all the levels. But to show that it wasn’t all rosy, our guide demonstrated what it must have been like for the miners before electricity. The mine chamber was well lighted for us tourists but to give us an idea what the early miners experienced she extinguished all the lights and held a single burning candle near her face. It wasn’t very bright at all and kind of spooky.

Mining the stope: Mannequins fill the role miners once held in a Level 27 diorama.
Mining the stope: Mannequins fill the role miners once held in a Level 27 diorama.Courtesy Mark Ryan
Later, when electricity was put in, lighting improved, and power drills were used in the mining process. After a sufficient warning, our guide played for us a recording of the sound made by a single drill at work just to give us an idea of the noise level produced. The decibel level I remember from working in the steel mill was nothing compared to what the miners must have endured when several drills were going at once. It’s no wonder many of them suffered hearing loss after years working the mine.

As steelmaking processes were refined, the need for Soudan’s rich ore diminished. Using low-grade iron taconite became more economical for use with new oxygen-fed furnaces. Soudan shut down operations in 1962. The next year, after all the stockpiled ore had been shipped, US Steel Corporation gave the mine and an additional 1100 acres of land to the state of Minnesota for $1. The stipulation was that the site be used for educational purposes. Minnesota turned the site into a state park in 1965.

Mining artifacts in Soudan mine: mining equipment from the old days can still be seen in the mine.
Mining artifacts in Soudan mine: mining equipment from the old days can still be seen in the mine.Courtesy Mark Ryan
I found the Soudan Underground Mine State Park well worth the trip. Where else can you travel a half-mile underground into 2.7 billion year-old rock formations and cool off at the same time? (The temperature at the bottom of the Grand Canyon is much hotter than at the top). Soudan's a great place to learn about Minnesota mining history, see area wildlife and check out some of the unique geology in the Lake Vermilion region that helped make Minnesota a leading iron ore producer.

Entry to the park is free and requires no state park sticker. The mine tours, however, require a fee. Pat and I paid $12 each. Kids are cheaper. The tours begin on the hour from 10am to 4pm daily. Tours for the High Energy Physics Lab occur only twice each day, the first at 10am and the second at 4pm. As I mentioned before, you can't combine tours so you have to pick either the historic one or the physics one. Mine tours are available from late May until the end of September. Follow this link for additional information.

On our way home, Pat and I agreed we'd come back sometime soon for the High Energy Physics Lab tour where physicists investigate things like the particle mass of neutrinos, and detect other dark matter particles. The lab is run by the University of Minnesota. However, I recently learned there’s a third mine tour available at Soudan, one offered only to organized groups. This one is more geology-focused and instead of riding the train through the 3/4 mile of Ely greenstone to the ore body, participants walk through the drift and are given a detailed lesson in geology along the way. I definitely have to join me up with one of those groups. Maybe next summer.

Did I mention it’s 51°F in the mine?

Short video of Soudan Underground Mine tour
Minnesota mining history
More DNR Soudan info
Gigapan of Soudan Mine site
Soudan at Wikipedia
DNR Soudan Mine site
MN Conservation Volunteer article on Soudan Mine


Charles Darwin: The young naturalist as he appeared during the Voyage of the Beagle.
Charles Darwin: The young naturalist as he appeared during the Voyage of the Beagle.Courtesy Public domain
A cache of long-forgotten fossils mounted on glass slides – including some collected by Charles Darwin - has been discovered in a dusty cabinet at the British Geological Survey.

Paleontologist Dr. Howard Falcon-Lang found the 314 slides while searching through the vaults of the Survey headquarters near Keyworth, UK. Each slide contains a polished thin section of a fossil plant, prepared for viewing under a microscope. But the best thing about the discovery is that some of the slides are of specimens collected by the young Charles Darwin during his legendary voyage on the Beagle. Darwin’s theory of evolution and subsequent book On the Origin of Species resulted from much of what he discovered during the five-year voyage. Among the specimens collected by Darwin is a piece of petrified wood from an island off the coast of Chile in 1834.

Falcon-Lang figures the collection has been languishing unregistered in the cabinet for 165 years. Joseph Hooker, a botanist and close friend of Darwin, worked briefly for the Geological Survey in the early 19th century, and given the job of cataloging the collection. But before Hooker could properly register the fossils, he left on an expedition to the Himalayas and the collection was soon forgotten. In the passing years the cabinet got moved several times until it reached its current storage place deep in the recesses of the Geological Survey where it was found in April of last year.

According to Falcon-Lang the lost fossils, some of which can be viewed on line, will add greatly to current science, and he expects some great scientific papers to result from the collection.

BBC story
Telegraph story


Science under attack
Science under attackCourtesy Mark Ryan
You’d think since the decision handed down in the Kitzmiller et al v. Dover court case in 2005 creationists would have given up trying to force their decidedly non-scientific views into public school science curricula. But apparently that’s hasn’t been the case. Those touting pseudo-scientific explanations such as intelligent design (creationism all dressed up in a monkey suit – as someone cleverly put it) are still at it, trying to get their religious-based ideas included in science classroom discussions.

A talk given by Steven Newton at this year’s Geological Society of America meeting in Minneapolis dealt with ways to counter the methods creationists use to push back against the information presented in earth science classes within the K-12 public school settings. The talk was one of several in a session titled, Geoscience Education X: Overcoming Threats to Earth and Space Science at K-12 Levels.

According to Newton, who’s with the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), the creationists’ methods amount to nothing less than sabotage.

Some of the feedback he said he heard from the nation’s public schools helps illustrate the kind of resistance earth science teachers continue to get from students, parents, and even school administrators. When a controversial subject such as evolution or climate change is being presented, teachers report being told to “tone it down” or “skip that chapter”* or to “teach both sides” (why just two sides? why not 200?). Newton said teachers also heard pleas of “don’t offend parents” from school administrators.

Of course, the earth sciences aren’t the only disciplines under attack. Just this past week, a story came out of Kentucky about how the school superintendent in Hart County complained in a letter to the state’s education commissioner and board of education members that he was concerned to learn that the state testing guidelines for biology considered evolution as a fact while at the same time “totally omitting the creation story by a God who is bigger than all of us.” It’s a harrowing example of the anti-science attitudes that are still prevalent in our country, and how creationists continue to threaten science education.

These don’t-rock-the-boat mitigations of scientific knowledge are harmful to science in general and aren’t doing the students any favors. Spoon-feeding watered down information or adding non-scientific knowledge into the mix confuses students and deprives them of a proper science education. Strong suggestions such as “teach the controversy” (when there is none) serves no purpose other than as a way to force religious or irrationally-based information into the public schools.

The anti-science crowd uses various means of attack to undermine geoscience knowledge in the schools and elsewhere. It questions the fossil record, pointing to something like the 19th century Piltdown Hoax as an example of how fossils and their interpretation can be faked. They make a huge leap of logic and argue that since one fossil was faked then all fossils must be questioned. The validity of radiometric dating is thrown into doubt with misinformation such and out-of-context or re-edited quotes from legitimate scientists, and even salted quotes.

Some worn-out creationist ploys have been lurking about for years, stories of dinosaurs spotted living in the Congo, fossil human footprints discovered alongside dinosaur tracks, a stegosaur figure found in the carvings of an ancient temple in Cambodia, a plesiosaur carcass hauled up from the depths by a Japanese trawler. These and other stories have either been thoroughly debunked or have failed to ever present any concrete evidence, yet continue to creep into otherwise serious evolution discussion,

The Internet is clogged with creationist viewpoints, some sites disguised with scientific-sounding domain names. This requires students to be alert and very careful about their research sources.

In hopes of legitimizing their point of view, creationist organizations of late have sponsored lectures and propaganda films in venues rented from legitimate scientific institutions such as they did at Southern Methodist University (SMU) and the California Science Center. When objections are raised and such events cancelled, the creationists proclaim it amounts to nothing less than censorship of ideas. But creationist ideas have always been poor in scholarship, lacking peer review or any kind of objective testing. Many are totally untestable.

Newton also warned against what he considers mistaken solutions to the problem of creationist pushback. Debating pseudo-scientists or giving their ideas equal time in the classroom only gives them unwarranted credibility. And why “teach the controversy” when there is none in the first place?

But, Newton insists that this doesn’t mean earth science teachers should avoid dealing with the pushback. Creationist tactics evolve over time, coming up with new ways to attack legitimate science. And just as new vaccines are developed to fight evolving flu viruses, science teachers need to stay a step ahead of the creationists and counter their anti-science attacks with a vaccine of cold, hard, scientific facts. Perhaps this affliction can be wiped out in our lifetimes.

What is Earth Science
Abstract for Steven Newton's GSA talk
The Creationist Movement: A Sociological View

*Attacks against science aren’t reserved only for the schools. Just this past week biologist and science-blogger PZ Myers alerted his readers to the fact that the Discovery Channel had purchased rights to broadcast the BBC documentary series by David Attenborough titled “Frozen Earth” but that it wouldn’t be including the last episode regarding climate change because the subject was too controversial. (Evidently, after a flood of well-deserved complaints the Discovery Channel has now reversed its decision and will air all seven episodes).


On my day off, I helped some friends harvest olives in Varano, Ancona, Italy. The entire harvest is done by hand. First, we spread fine nets on the ground under the trees, and then branches were cut down and we picked olives off the branches on the ground, or we climbed ladders and combed the trees with small plastic rakes.
Raking olives
Raking olivesCourtesy Tilly Laskey

Olives yield about 15% of their weight. We harvested 80KG or about 176 pounds of olives. This means the farmer will get about 26.4 pounds or 35 12-ounce bottles of oil from the harvest. All olives--green, brown, and black--are harvested. Italian olives
Italian olivesCourtesy Tilly Laskey


That’s the question I started asking last week after revisiting Giacomo Beltrami’s narrative, "A Pilgrimage in Europe and America V2: Leading to the Discovery of the Sources of the Mississippi and Bloody River", where he mentions “white bears” in Northern Minnesota. Surely he’s not referencing polar bears. Perhaps albino black bears?

Here’s what Beltrami had to say about these mysterious “white bears”:
“The white bear is the only wild beast of these regions that is dangerous."
"I have in my possession a magnificent skin of a yellow bear…”
"I then carefully put my gun in order, to be able to defend myself against the attack of white bears, which abound near the Red River."

I contacted two bear experts. David Mather, National Register Archaeologist at the Minnesota Historical Society, thinks Beltrami is referring to grizzly bears, since historically grizzlies were called “white or yellow bears” because of the light colored tips of the fur, and, “the fear factor makes me think that he’s referring to grizzlies.”

Andrew Derocher, professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Alberta and a polar bear specialist said, “Minnesota seems a long way south and inland for polar bears. There is some evidence for polar bears to have been as far south as Maine but this would likely have been rare and coastal.”

Light colored grizzly beary
Light colored grizzly bearyCourtesy

The shades and colors of grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilis ) fur are as varied as human hair, ranging from dark brown to white. In fact, white grizzlies (not albinos) are not uncommon in portions of Alberta and Montana, and in south-central British Columbia.

A simultaneous literature review led me to this interesting tidbit from the Lewis and Clark Journals:

“Goodrich and Willard visited the indian [sic] Village this morning and returned in the evening Willard brought with him the dressed Skin of a bear which he had purchased for me. this Skin was of a uniform pale redish[sic] brown colour, the indians[sic] inform us that it was not the Hoh-host or white bear, that it was the Yâck-kâh this distinction of the Indians induced us to make further enquiry relative to their oppinions [sic] of the defferent [sic] Species of bear in this country. We produced the Several Skins of the bear which our hunters had killed at this place and one very nearly white which Capt Lewis had purchased. the White, the deep and pale red grizzle, the dark brown grizzle, and all those that had the extremities of the hair of a White or frosty Colour without reguard [sic] to the Colour of the ground of the poil, [sic] they designated Hoh-host and assured us that they were the Same with the White bear, that they associated together, were very vicisious, [sic] never climb the trees, and had much longer nails than the others."

Indigenous words referenced in Lewis and Clark’s journals include “Matocha” (Mato means grey bear) and “hoh-host”. At this point, I needed a Dakota linguistic specialist, so I contacted Leonard Wabasha, Director of Cultural Resources for the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux (Dakota) Tribe to get his opinion. Leonard thinks Lewis and Clark might have misinterpreted the Dakota speakers, who,
“may have been trying to say that the bears had a smoky color/tint or "Hota" which is also part of the word for sage (peji-hota) although considered to represent the color grey/gray it is visually nearly white.”

So, it appears for the Beltrami text, “white bears” are grizzlies. During his three months in Minnesota in 1823, Beltrami’s main method for staying warm was the “white bear robe” he procured from an Ojibwe person. To date, there aren’t any indications the bear robe survived in the Beltrami Museum collections here in Italy, but I’ll keep searching.

More on White Bears
White Bear Lake, MN
Leonard Wabasha, David Mather and I all decided this linguistic information gives a whole new interpretation to White Bear Lake, MN, a town that is associated with the legend of star-crossed Ojibwe and Dakota lovers being attacked by a “white bear”. The town’s logo is—you guessed it— a polar bear.

White black bears
There is a rare white color phase of the American black bear. John Tanner reports seeing one on the Canadian/Minnesota border in the early 19th century. The Kermode bear, or “Spirit Bear” is a white bear and a sub-species to the American Black Bear. and


Sometime on or around October 31st, the world's population will hit seven billion people.

Population map: A map from the Worldmapper World Population Atlas: (c) Sasi Research Group, University of Sheffield
Population map: A map from the Worldmapper World Population Atlas: (c) Sasi Research Group, University of SheffieldCourtesy / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

(There are a lot of challenges to supporting seven billion people. Want to know more about that? Check out the University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment, where folks are working to find solutions to some of those problems.)

That's all fascinating and all, but...what about me? Luckily, the BBC has come to the rescue with a lovely little interactive that's, well, all about me. Or you. Whatever.

For example, according to the BBC calculator,

  • At the time of my birth, I was the 3,840,942,641st person to live on Earth.
  • And the 78,068,048,685th person to live since history began.
  • This morning, the United States has a population of 311,284,287 people,
  • In the US, there are 484 births, 288 deaths, and a gain of 113 immigrants every hour, for a total average yearly population growth of 0.9%. (The country with the fastest growing population is Qatar, experiencing an increase of 514 people every day. The country with the fastest shrinking population is Moldova, experiencing a decrease of 106 people every day.)
  • As a woman in the United States, I can look forward to an average life expectancy of 80.5 years. Men in the US, however, enjoy an average life expectancy of only 75.4 years, dragging the US total average down to 78 years. Thanks, men. (The Japanese have the longest average life expectancy in the world, at 82.7 years, while folks in the Central African Republic have an average life expectancy of only 45.9 years.)

Not too shabby!

To give you a sense of just how fast our population is growing, here's a crazy little fact: by mid-century, the world's urban population will equal the size of the world's global population in 2004. Wow. Cities are efficient, and concentrate us so that we can use land for other purposes, but they're also ecological hotspots. Curious about how your household measures up? Try the household flux calculator, or check out the Q&A with Scientist on the Spot Daniel Nidzgorski.

Not enough for you? Check out "Seven billion in seven stories" and "Will people numbers keep rising?"

Oh, and let us know: #whatsyournumber ?


Danse Macabre: Artwork Inspired by the Black Plague.
Danse Macabre: Artwork Inspired by the Black Plague.Courtesy Wikimedia Creative Commons
Halloween is coming up soon and what better way to scare the tar out of everybody than with another Black Plague story.

Researchers from Germany and Canada have now determined that the pathogen existing today that infects the human population with bubonic plague is the same one that caused the horrific pandemic known as the Black Plague (aka Black Death) during the Middle Ages,

In the 14th century (1347-1351) the the plague devastated much of Europe. It was brought on by the bacterium Yersinia pestis and thought to have originated in China. Rats, infested with fleas carrying the bacteria, spread the fatal pathogen via the trade routes and across Europe, wiping out one-third of the human population. This is a conservative estimate; some claim as much as 60 percent of the population was eradicated!

Whatever the case, imagine even a third of all your acquaintances, friends, and relatives suddenly dying from what one 14th century chronicler described as “so virulent a disease that anyone who only spoke to them was seized by a mortal illness and in no manner could evade death.”

And it was an extremely horrible death, to say the least, as Michael Platiensis makes clear in his writings from 1357:

“Those infected felt themselves penetrated by a pain throughout their whole bodies and, so to say, undermined. Then there developed on the thighs or upper arms a boil about the size of a lentil which the people called "burn boil". This infected the whole body, and penetrated it so that the patient violently vomited blood. This vomiting of blood continued without intermission for three days, there being no means of healing it, and then the patient expired.“

[Above quoted in Johannes Nohl, The Black Death, trans. C.H. Clarke (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1926), pp. 18-20]

The Black Plague was the second of three great waves of plague that raged across Europe during historical times. The first, known historically as the Plague of Justinian, took place in the 6th century and affected the Byzantine Empire and much of Europe. The last major wave, known as the Great Plague of London, killed about 100,000 of the city’s population in 1664-65. In the two centuries that followed, waves after wave of the plague continued to devastate the European population although on a lesser scale. These outbreaks although sometimes as virulent, were often more isolated regionally or within a city and kept Europe’s population from rebounding for a good century and a half.

The plague presents itself in three ways: bubonic, septicemic, and pneumonic. All three infections are caused by Y. pestis. With bubonic plague, the lymph nodes become painfully swollen into what are termed buboes – hence the name bubonic. Scepticemic plague, the rarest of the three forms, infects the blood. Both bubonic and scepticemic, if left untreated, result in death between 3-7 days after infection. Pneumonic is the most contagious since it infects the lungs and is easily spread through the air in a spray of water droplets. It’s also the most lethal and usually kills its victims in one to three days. Each form can present itself on its own or can progress into all three. It’s thought the Black Plague was mainly a combination of the bubonic and pneumonic forms. (The practice still used today of saying, “Bless you” after someone sneezes is a holdover from the 14th century plague) The only defense against the pandemic was avoidance of fleas and the fatally sick. Not easy to pull off when rats and the afflicted were widespread. Infected families were generally quarantined, their houses marked with a red cross, and left to fend for themselves.

The plague had a tremendous effect on European life in the Middle Ages. The Hundred Years’ War actually paused briefly in 1348 for lack of soldiers. The plague had wiped out too many of them. Economically, wages rose sharply because the workforce was also greatly reduced. Shop owners suffered because no one dared step outside the confines of their own homes, so supplies rose and prices dropped. The removal of the rotting corpses required relatives either doing it themselves and further risking infection, or paying premium prices for some other poor schlub to do it. The dead were buried as quickly as possible, often in mass graves.

In the recent research which appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Dr. Johannes Krause and his colleagues extracted DNA from the tooth enamel of five corpses from one of these 14th century mass burial sites in London (under the Royal Mint!). Using the latest technology to sequence the DNA fragments, the researchers from the University of Tubingen in Germany, and McMaster University in Canada, decoded a circular genome called pPCP1 plasmid that comprises about 10,000 positions in the Y. pestis DNA. When they compared it with the genome of the pathogen’s current strain, the genetic information appeared to have changed very little over the past six centuries. (It should be noted that the researchers suspect the pathogen that occurred in the 6th century may have been a now-extinct strain of Y. pestis or one completely unrelated to bubonic plague.)

So, that means the very same nasty contagion – the one that terrorized and devastated so much of Europe for so many centuries in the Middle Ages - is still with us today. Luckily, the bubonic plague can be held at bay with antibodies if treated in time. But what happens if Yersinia pestis mutates into a strain against which current antibodies are useless? If that doesn’t make the hair on the back of your neck stand on end, I don’t know what will.

Happy Halloween!

Scientific Computing story
The Black Plague by Dr. Skip Knox, Boise State
Plague symptons and signs – in case you get it
Nifty Black Death quiz – thanks Liza!


Painted Bison Hide, Dakota, in the collection of Museo di Scienze Naturali Encirco Caffi, Bergamo Italy
Painted Bison Hide, Dakota, in the collection of Museo di Scienze Naturali Encirco Caffi, Bergamo ItalyCourtesy Museo di Scienze Naturali Encirco Caffi, Bergamo Italy
If contemporary star quilts and painted bison hides are rooted in the same tradition, that means women were (and still are!) important producers of ceremonially painted arts in Dakota communities in 1823.

Ethnographic accounts prior to the 1970s often left women out of the picture regarding the production of art. Specifically, western anthropologists suggested ceremonial and “high” art was the work of men, when in fact women were the primary tanners and painters of hides.

Patricia Albers and Beatrice Medicine edited an important volume, "The Hidden Half, Studies of Plains Indian Women" in 1983. One article discusses the development of star quilts from hide painting traditions. This isn’t a new story—centuries-old forms and designs are adapted according to new materials, tools, and ideas—however, this dialogue is helping me consider the two painted bison hides and the importance of women in the Beltrami story.
Star Quilt, Dakota; Collection of the Science Museum of Minnesota A91:13:1
Star Quilt, Dakota; Collection of the Science Museum of Minnesota A91:13:1Courtesy Science Museum of Minnesota

Designs on the Beltrami painted hides consist of radiating concentric circles, sometimes called headdress, sun, or star designs. Contemporary star quilts usually employ an 8-pointed star motif. According to ethnologies and Dakota oral histories, the 8-pointed star represents Venus, or the Morning Star and carries various meanings including immortality and death. Red painted bison hides historically wrapped the dead, and Dakota people still use star quilts during funerals. Today, people gift star quilts to denote passages in life like marriage and the birth of a child, and to honor a person.

Are the two traditions related? Why did Beltrami receive two painted hides? What do you think?


Back in 1823, Italian explorer Giacomo Beltrami did.

Giacomo Beltrami
Giacomo BeltramiCourtesy Wikemidia Commons

Before famous explorers like George Catlin (1830), Seth Eastman (1830), and Nathan Sturges Jarvis (1833) visited Minnesota and assembled cultural and artistic collections relating to Minnesota’s indigenous people, Giacomo Costantino Beltrami navigated the Mississippi River—mostly solo and protected primarily by a red silk umbrella. Beltrami’s reasoning—correctly it turns out—was the red umbrella would be so exotic he would not be mistaken as a tribal member to the warring Dakota and Ojibwe nations.

Beltrami tagged along on the official US reconnaissance mission to map the "Northwest" (currently the state of Minnesota). Beltrami and Maj. Stephen J. Long disagreed during the journey, and in Pembina they parted ways. Beltrami took off with three Ojibwe guides in a birchbark canoe to search for the source of the Mississippi River--his goal all along.

Within five days they'd been ambushed by neighboring Dakota Indians, one of the Ojibwes was wounded, and they were running out of supplies. The Ojibwe guides tried to convince Beltrami to walk to Red Lake with them, but he refused to leave his canoe and his collections.

So there Beltrami sat alone, a foreigner in the wilderness with a canoe, a rifle, and a red umbrella. Unable to master paddling solo, he dragged the canoe after him with a tow line and propped the umbrella in the bow--basically to make onlookers curious before they shot at him.

Why is this story relevant to science? Beltrami wasn't just an explorer, he was a collector. He amassed over 100 American Indian objects through diplomacy, exchanges, barter, and purchases. He consciously and thoroughly documented where he purchased the pieces and whom he purchased them from, leaving us with a rare resource that has the potential to expand our understanding of the cultural exchanges and personal interactions that occurred between Beltrami and Minnesota’s Indigenous people in 1823.

This 188 year-old ethnographic collection is the basis for my research for the next year. Stay tuned to Science Buzz for more research findings.

Oh, and that red umbrella? It's in the collection too! Beltrami's red umbrella, Museo di Scienze Naturali Bergamo, Italy
Beltrami's red umbrella, Museo di Scienze Naturali Bergamo, ItalyCourtesy Tilly Laskey