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      A Victorian naturalist traded aboriginal remains in a scientific quid pro quo / ArsTechnica · Wednesday, 29 November - 00:01 · 1 minute

    Sepia-toned photograph showing seated Victorian gentleman in bowtie

    Enlarge / Nineteenth-century naturalist and solicitor Morton Allport, based in Hobart, built a scientific reputation by exchanging the remains of Tasmanian Aboriginal people and Tasmanian tigers for honors from elite societies. (credit: Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts, State Library of Tasmania)

    When Australian naturalist and solicitor Morton Allport died in 1878, one obituary lauded the man as "the most foremost scientist in the colony," as evidenced by his position as vice president of the Royal Society of Tasmania (RST) at the time of his death, among many other international honors. But according to a new paper published in the journal Archives of Natural History, Allport's stellar reputation was based less on his scholarly merit than on his practice of sending valuable specimens of Tasmanian tigers (thylacines) and aboriginal remains to European collectors in exchange for scientific accolades. Allport admits as much in his own letters, preserved in the State Library of Tasmania, as well as to directing grave-robbing efforts to obtain those human remains.

    “Early British settlers considered both thylacines and Tasmanian Aboriginal people to be a hindrance to colonial development, and the response was institutionalised violence with the intended goal of eradicating both,” said the paper's author, Jack Ashby , assistant director of the University Museum of Zoology at Cambridge in England. “Allport’s letters show he invested heavily in developing his scientific reputation—particularly in gaining recognition from scientific societies—by supplying human and animal remains from Tasmania in a quid pro quo arrangement, rather than through his own scientific endeavors.”

    Thylacines have been extinct since 1936, but they were once the largest marsupial carnivores of the modern era. Europeans first settled in Tasmania in 1803 and viewed the tigers as a threat, blaming the animals for killing their sheep. The settlers didn't view the Aboriginal population much more favorably, and there were inevitable conflicts from the settlers displacing the aborigines and from the increased competition for food.  In 1830, a farming corporation placed the first bounties on thylacines, with the government instituting its own bounty in 1888. (Ashby writes that the true sheep killers were the dogs the settlers bred to hunt kangaroos.).

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      Your fave illustration of Franklin’s kite experiment is likely riddled with errors / ArsTechnica · Tuesday, 23 May, 2023 - 22:46 · 1 minute

    Hand-colored lithograph of Ben Franklin's kite experiment published by Currier & Ives in 1876

    Enlarge / Hand-colored lithograph published by Currier & Ives in 1876, probably the most widely distributed illustration of Benjamin Franklin's kite experiment. Franklin is wrongly shown to be holding the string in one hand above where the key is attached. (credit: Public domain)

    Most Americans are familiar with the story of Benjamin Franklin and his famous 18th century experiment in which he attached a metal key to a kite during a thunderstorm to see if the lightning would pass through the metal. That's largely due to many iconic illustrations commemorating the event that found their way into the popular imagination and became part of our shared cultural lore. But most of those classic illustrations are riddled with historical errors, according to a new paper published in the journal Science and Education.

    Franklin's explorations into electricity began as he was approaching 40 years old after his thriving career as an entrepreneur in the printing business. His scientific interest was piqued in 1743 when he saw a demonstration by scientist/showman Archibald Spencer , known for performing various amusing parlor tricks involving electricity. He soon started a correspondence with a British botanist named Peter Collinson and began reproducing some of Spencer's impressive parlor tricks in his own home.

    He would have guests rub a tube to create static and then have them kiss, producing an electrical shock. He designed a fake spider suspended by two electrified wires so that it seemed to swing back and forth of its own accord. And he devised a game dubbed "Treason," whereby he wired up a portrait of King George so that anyone who touched the monarch's crown would be shocked. And he once infamously shocked himself while trying to kill a turkey with electricity.

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      New theory re-ignites debate about identity of Leonardo da Vinci’s mother / ArsTechnica · Wednesday, 15 March, 2023 - 21:14 · 1 minute

    Presumed self-portrait of Leonardo (c. 1510) at the Royal Library of Turin, Italy

    Enlarge / Presumed self-portrait of Leonardo da Vinci (c. 1510) at the Royal Library of Turin, Italy. (credit: Public domain)

    Could Leonardo da Vinci's mother, Caterina, have been a slave kidnapped from the mountainous Caucasus region of Central Asia? That's the latest hypothesis re-igniting a long-running debate about the identity of this mysterious woman largely lost to history. Historian Carlo Vecce of the University of Naples told reporters at a Tuesday press conference that he discovered a previously unknown document supporting the claim. He's also written a historical novel about Caterina's life ( Il Sorriso di Caterina or Caterina's Smile ) based on his research.

    It's well-established that Leonardo was born in 1452, the illegitimate son of a Florentine notary named Ser Piero d’Antonio and a woman named Caterina. Ser Piero went on to marry a woman named Albiera Amadori, followed by three subsequent marriages after her 1464 death. His various unions produced 16 children (11 of whom survived their early years), in addition to Leonardo, who grew up in his father’s household and received a solid education.

    As for Caterina, many historians have identified her as a local peasant girl and eventual wife of a kiln worker named Antonio di Piero del Vacca (nicknamed "L'Accattabriga" or "the quarrelsome one"). But that's all we know of her. So naturally, over the years, various alternative identifications have been suggested. Perhaps the most controversial, proposed in 2014 by Italian historian Angelo Paratico, is that Caterina had been a Chinese domestic slave imported from Crimea by Venetian traders and sold to a Florentine banker.

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      Dark Archives: Come for the floating goat balls, stay for the fascinating science

      Jennifer Ouellette · / ArsTechnica · Monday, 28 December, 2020 - 00:04 · 1 minute

    These might look like your standard leather-bound texts, but they are actually bound in human skin—a practice known as "anthropodermic bibliopegy." All five are housed in the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia.

    Enlarge / These might look like your standard leather-bound texts, but they are actually bound in human skin—a practice known as "anthropodermic bibliopegy." All five are housed in the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia. (credit: Mütter Museum/College of Physicians of Philadelphia))

    There's rarely time to write about every cool science-y story that comes our way. So this year, we're once again running a special Twelve Days of Christmas series of posts, highlighting one science story that fell through the cracks in 2020, each day from December 25 through January 5. Today: a look at medical librarian Megan Rosenbloom's book, Dark Archives , about tomes bound in human skin.

    When you think about medical librarians and rare book specialists, chances are you picture them poring over rare tomes in a dusty archives—and chances are, you wouldn't be wrong. But when Megan Rosenbloom set out to separate fact from fiction on the existence of rare books bound in human skin, her investigations took her to some uncommon places—like an artisanal tannery in upstate New York, where the floor resembled "Mountain Dew with chunks floating in it," and emptying drums of tanning effluvia might just unleash a few floating goat testicles among the mix.

    The technical term is " anthropodermic bibliopegy ," and Rosenbloom first became fascinated with this macabre practice in 2008, while she was still in library school and working for a medical publisher. While strolling through the vast collection of medical oddities at the famed Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia , she came upon a glass display case holding an intriguing collection of rare books uncharacteristically displayed with their covers closed. The captions informed her that they had been bound in human skin, along with a leather wallet.

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      Famous strange demises get a second look in The Curious Life and Death of…

      Jennifer Ouellette · / ArsTechnica · Thursday, 1 October, 2020 - 10:45 · 1 minute

    Medical historian Lindsey Fitzharris hosts the Smithsonian Channel's new documentary series The Curious Life and Death of....

    Infamous historical cold cases get a scientific face-lift in The Curious Life and Death Of... , a new documentary series from the Smithsonian Channel. Hosted by author and medical historian Lindsey Fitzharris , each of the six episodes takes a fresh look at a famous death with a mystery attached to it and sifts through the scientific clues to (hopefully) arrive at fresh insights.

    Per the official synopsis:

    Author and medical historian Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris will use science, tests, and demonstrations to shed new light on famous deaths, ranging from drug lord Pablo Escobar to magician Harry Houdini. Using her lab to perform virtual autopsies, experiment with blood samples, interview witnesses and conduct real-time demonstrations, Dr. Fitzharris will put everything about these mysterious deaths to the test. Along the way, she'll be joined by a revolving cast of experts, including Scotland Yard detectives, medical examiners, weapons gurus and more.

    A noted science communicator with a large Twitter following and a fondness for the medically macabre, Fitzharris published a biography of surgical pioneer Joseph Lister, The Butchering Art , in 2017. (It's a great, if occasionally grisly, read.)

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      Blast off: Disney drops first trailer for The Right Stuff dramatic series

      Jennifer Ouellette · / ArsTechnica · Thursday, 20 August, 2020 - 23:25 · 1 minute

    In October, Disney+ will debut its new series, The Right Stuff, based on the 1979 book by Tom Wolfe.

    A team of elite military test pilots finds itself tapped to be astronauts for Project Mercury , the first human spaceflight program in the United States, in The Right Stuff , a new eight-episode dramatic series debuting in October on Disney+. Like Philip Kaufman's Oscar-winning 1983 film of the same name, the series is based on the bestselling 1979 book by Tom Wolfe.

    Wolfe became interested in the US space program while on assignment by Rolling Stone to cover the launch of Apollo 17, NASA's last Moon mission. He spent the next seven years writing The Right Stuff , intent on capturing the drive and ethos of those early astronauts. (In a foreword to the 1983 edition, he pondered "What makes a man willing to sit up on top of an enormous Roman candle... and wait for someone to light the fuse.")  Wolfe spent a great deal of time consulting with General Chuck Yeager, who was shut out of the astronaut program and ended up as a contrasting character to the college-degreed Project Mercury team featured in the book. The Right Stuff won widespread critical praise, as well as the National Book Award for Nonfiction.

    When United Artists decided to finance a film adaptation , the studio hired William Goldman ( The Princess Bride ) to adapt the screenplay, but his vision was very different from that of director Philip Kaufman, and Goldman quit the project. Kaufman wrote his own draft script in eight weeks, making Yeager more of a central figure; Goldman's script ignored Yeager entirely. Goldman later wrote that "Phil [Kaufman]'s heart was with Yeager. And not only that, he felt the astronauts, rather than being heroic, were really minor leaguers, mechanical men of no particular quality, not great pilots at all, simply the product of hype."

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