Entering the Anthropocene

By Andrew Hendricks

In all likelihood, mankind will soon be formally entering a new period of Earth’s history, or “epoch.” According to many of the geologists and other scientists proposing this new categorization, we are already there, and perhaps have been for hundreds of years. This comes as a bit of a wake-up call for us as a species, as the reason for this new epoch is entirely man-made. Anthropocene gets its name from “anthro” which means “human,” and the root “cene” which is the standard suffix used for recording geologic time.

One of the most prominent, if not jarring, features of this new era are rocks made of human-originated melted plastic that have washed up on Hawaiian shores. The bizarre, yet fascinating, stones are an amalgamation of plastic, hardened lava, sand and corals all cobbled together in small clumps, and have been dubbed “plastiglomerates.” Given the prevalence of plastic in the world the past fifty years or so, the rocks could (and likely will) be washing up on many more shores, all over the globe.

Officially, we are currently in the Holocene, an epoch stretching back 11,700 years to the ice age.

In a recent science and nature piece, the The Smithsonian revealed that the popularity of the term “Anthropocene” originated as “an environmental buzzword ever since the atmospheric chemist and Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen popularized it in 2000.” The piece goes on to say that in the year 2013 alone the term made its way into almost 200 peer-reviewed articles, and that a new academic journal has been published using Anthropocene as its official title. Furthermore, a panel selected by IUGS was tasked with deciding whether or not to formally announce that the earth has left the Holocene period and officially entered the Anthropocene.

Should we be worried?  

Yes, but not about being in the Anthropocene. This new era we have entered is not a statement of humans destroying the planet for ourselves, but of humans changing the planet to such a degree it can now be seen as a geologic timescale. It should be a wake up call, however. Many polluters, climate change deniers, and those who believe the Earth is simply too big and humans too insignificant to care about what we do to the environment. Informed minds are already aware of the flawed sort of opposite-of-hubris these arguments are.

We created a hole in the Ozone layer that we’re only still now finishing filling. We, as humans, have caused the extinction events of other species, even before the industrial revolution. Now with it, we do it on a regular basis.  

Then, should we care?  

Science is neat, so yes we should care, you animal. Geological scale time is hardly something that impacts one’s day to day life. But in the context of understanding the planet and our place on it, this is probably the most important geologic story since pangea. For more than a century, tourists have flocked to the Grand Canyon as evidence of history seen in explicit strata or “layers” separating hundreds and thousands and millions of years by sedimentary layers. A few thousand years from now they’ll begin pointing out in those layers where the Anthropocene began.   

Future generations may assume Hello Kitty was a deity to some cultures, though.

The Science Behind Your Cat

By Rae Avery

Have you ever looked at your cat and wondered (or even said aloud), “Why do you do that?” Cats can seem affectionate, elegant, fierce, snobby and even laughably judgmental (sometimes all at once). They baffle us with a wide range of bizarre behavior that can actually be explained quite simply with science. Many of these unique actions are deeply embedded in their DNA and anatomy.  

Lil' murderers  

A lot of the seemingly crazy cat behavior can be explained by the “hunter instinct,” or the fact that before cats became domesticated pets (which historians believe was around 9,500 years ago), they had to fend for themselves in the wild like any other animal. At that time cats thrived on their own, hunting their own food, defending their family and territory, and naturally doing what it took to survive without the humans who would eventually invite them into their lives and homes. These half-buried instincts are what take your treasured pet from cuddling with you on the couch one moment to pouncing viciously after a mouse or bird (or toy) the next.  

 

The instinct to defend their territory and home is what fuels a cat’s desire to roam and explore. When your cat leaves the house however, you may be surprised by the repetitive nature of his jaunts. A study done tracking the walking habits of cats showed that each cat’s “patrol” was roughly the distance of a neighborhood block surrounding his home, and that he would more or less take the exact same route to mark and guard his territory every single day. It’s worth noting that of all reasons cats get into the screaming fights you hear outside at night, perceived territory issues are the number one cause.  

Feline physiology

Cats have a ton of physical features that allow them to do amazing things. Cats can leap up to five times their own height, which helps when all they want to do is climb. Cats are very reflexive, intuitive animals – this could fuel the infamous myth that cats have nine lives. When falling from any height higher than 30 cm, cats can actually rotate their bodies midair to land on all fours. They owe this to an incredibly flexible spine. When falling from a dangerously high height, cats can extend their paws in all directions which helps them to “parachute” to the ground more slowly, resulting in a more gentle landing, and reducing risk of injury.

Cats are biologically designed with hypersensitive senses to help navigate the world around them. Cats have excellent hearing and their ears can swivel back on their heads (note: when your cat’s ears are swiveled back, this is a sign she is unhappy). They can hear one octave higher than a dog. A cat’s sense of smell is 1000 times better than a human’s. Whiskers serve an important purpose too. Located on your cat’s cheeks, above their eyes, and behind their paws, whiskers are actually full of blood vessels and nerve endings. They can help cats to maneuver through a dark room, determine if a space is too narrow to crawl through, and even help them locate prey in tall grass.  

Somewhat social animals

Cats rely heavily on social signals to communicate with their humans and with other cats, and many of these social cues are learned or developed during the kitten stage. For example, kittens naturally greet their mother with a stick-straight, vertical tail (especially at mealtime, before cuddling in to nurse). As they grow up, they come to associate this gesture with warmth, food, and a cozy happiness, and will use the straight-up tail signal to offer friendship to a new cat. Cats also use a wide range of actions to communicate with their humans. If your cat looks you straight in the eye for a prolonged moment, this is a sign of trust. Your cat may nuzzle you with his head – this is considered “allogrooming” and is a sign of affection. If your cat begins to lick your hand with sandpapery kisses: congratulations! This “grooming” is a sign that the cat has accepted you as his own, and considers you family.  

Cats can seem highly independent, especially when compared to other pets who require a ton of attention, like dogs. However, a cat’s need for attention, affection and care from his human should not be underestimated. If your cat has been urinating or defecating in places other than his litter box, it could be a sign of high stress or anxiety. Other classic signs your cat may be stressed include excessive grooming, excessive vocalization, and unusual destructive behavior. Studies show that these tend to occur more often when owners aren’t present, and could be symptomatic of separation anxiety.

Many cats still do live out on their own, whether they were abandoned by previous owners or they were born from a stray mother cat and thus lived their whole life outside or away from the care of people. Cats who have had no prior contact with humans before the age of 14 weeks are considered feral cats. It’s worth noting that feral cats are far more afraid, more aggressive and less trusting of any people who might approach them than those who grew up around people who took care of them. However, feral strays can sometimes become pets and adapt to life in a loving home, especially if they’re taken in as kittens. Veterinary care should be the top priority, as well as giving space to an animal who has lived their whole life independently. Forming a good bond with this new cat may take months or even years, and will require special care - this guide is packed with good info about taming a feral kitten.  

You Are Related to Plants

By Andrew Hendricks

Are humans and plants related? Your knee-jerk reaction may be “no, obviously not.” Plants and animals, flora and fauna, different things… right? Not so!

Humans and plants almost certainly share a common ancestor that was neither plant nor animal. And decades ago, that would have to be qualified with “We think. Probably. Maybe. Aren’t fungi weird?!” But now, with the sequencing of the human genome and a greater understanding of the place of genetics in evolutionary biology, it’s crystal-clear among most academics that Earth experienced abiogenesis once, not twice.

I’ve been on a bit of an interrogative kick lately. I used to have fun asking my favorite cocktail question to drunk parents: Which child is your favorite? And watching them struggle to answer with such earnestness that is obviously not expected.

My new favorite, though, is asking everyone I know “Are animals and plants related?” It’s not a smug question. I recalled documentaries I’d watched in the 90s about the primordial soup and vaguely remembered fungi and bacteria are “life” but distinct from plants and animals. But this question took me down a Wikipedia hole of remembering things we’ve now known as a species for decades. Yet so few of us care to consider how interesting it is! I mean, that you’re literally related to the tree in your backyard? That’s pretty nifty in my humble opinion.

When asking this question, I’ve found some people stick to their guns. Especially the homeschooled Earth-is-six-thousand-years-old-types. But more often when I’ve asked, I immediately see the gears turning behind the person’s eyes.

The Phylogenetic Tree of Life

“What about sponges” one might ask. Sponges may seem like sea plants, but as we’re reminded by everyone’s favorite anthropomorphized animal of the phylum Porifera that lives in a pineapple under the sea, sponges are the animal most like plants to many people. But they are actually animals.  

A more illuminating question in response to this confounding one of plants and animals being related, is “what about mushrooms?”  

Fungi and plants may look similar, but they are not closely related. In fact, fungi are more closely related to animals than plants. This makes me much more sympathetic to people who act like prima donnas about mushrooms on their pizza.  

How we can share genes with plants?

Image is notable because it shows interconnected gene transfers between branches rather than clearly distinct divergent branches.

You’ve met Lucy, but what about LUCA?

National Geographic puts it best: A Human and a grain of rice may not, at first glance, look like cousins. ... The genes we share with rice—or rhinos or reef coral—are among the most striking signs of our common heritage. All animals, plants, and fungi share an ancestor that lived about 1.6 billion years ago.”

So while there used to be a non-religious, Darwinian-evolution-accepting argument to be made for two separate instances of abiogenesis more than a billion years ago—I mean, it’s just intuitive that plants and animals are so different—now not only does that strain credulity from a timing and likelihood perspective, it appears downright preposterous from a genetic scientific perspective.  

We don’t know specifically what chemical processes began life on Earth. We can’t even be 100% certain that life on Earth began on Earth. But based on the tiny amount of evidence we have on life existing in the universe (our one data point), it would be incredibly amazing if life originated SEPARATELY, TWICE.  

But based on fossil evidence and our sequencing of the genomes of so many different organisms, it appears that bacteria, humans, other animals, plants, and fungi all go back to that same primordial soup 1.6 billion years ago, whatever its scientific origin was.  

 

The Real X-Men of the Animal Kingdom

wolverine.png

By Dia Ascenzi

No, they’re not necessarily mutants in the comic book sense, but seeing as how evolution by natural selection relies on quite a bit of mutation over time, these freakish bad boys have evolved some especially neat-o traits that would make even Professor Xavier nod in approval. While genetic mutations in humans do exist, they’re nothing as epic as the X-Men. Super-mutants with the power to manipulate metal, conjure fire, or read minds, simply can’t happen. There are some in the animal kingdom, however, that do have traits that are comparable to the uncanny, amazing, astonishing X-Men—traits that, if possessed by humans, would be absolutely terrifying.

Komodo dragon

Komodo dragons are the largest lizards in the world today, males averaging 8-9 feet (some as long as 10 feet) and about 200 pounds. They have long claws, and rough, durable skin, reinforced with bony, armor-like plates called osteoderms. They’re predators, (they hunt freaking buffalo), and can run up to 13 miles per hour, but prefer to hunt in stealth. They can see objects at almost 1000 feet, according to the Smithsonian Zoo, and use their sense of smell as their primary food detector.

But these characteristics, while impressive, are not what got the Komodo dragon a spot on this list. They also have a nasty bite. Their mouth is full of septic pathogens like E. Coli and Staphylococcus (Staph), causing infection to prey when bitten. It is also a mystery how the Komodo dragon can be unharmed by such nasty bacteria in their mouths.

That’s only half of it. If the infection doesn’t get you, Komodo dragons also have venomous saliva. Researchers have found two salivary glands in the Komodo dragon’s lower jaw, and have found that these glands secrete toxic proteins.

The theory that these glands serve to infect prey is currently disputed, as there are other functions that venom-secreting glands can serve in animals. The fact that Komodo dragons also have bacteria in their mouth means that could be the only reason for infection--not the venom. But I’m not going to go get bit to find out.

Pistol shrimp and mantis shrimp

These next two guys are so small that we’re fitting them both into the same group. They’re both shrimp, afterall. They are the pistol shrimp and the mantis shrimp, or Pokémon of the sea, as I like to call them.

The pistol shrimp, or Alpheidae, is a family of snapping shrimp. They have a massive claw that snaps shut at about 62 miles per hour, firing a bullet of bubbles at around 105 feet a second. The real power comes from the pressure of the displaced water rushing back in to refill the bubbles. The power generated renders their prey unconscious, or kills them. The sound this snap makes is louder than a gunshot, at 210 decibels (a gunshot is about 150 decibels).

This shrimp would be quite a threat, if it weren’t so small. They are only 1 to 2 inches. Imagine the terror that would ensue if they were, say, 1 to 2 feet. They would be knocking out sharks.

The mantis shrimp, or Stomatopod, is perhaps more terrifying. Much larger than the pistol shrimp, the largest one ever caught was about 18 inches. These little guys have two differentiations. One type has two spear-like appendages that, at close range, spear their enemies to death.

The second type is the one that will give me nightmares. It has two appendages at the front of its body that can accelerate at the same velocity as a gunshot from a .22 caliber rifle. Their limbs move so fast that they boil the water around them, and this force even emits a tiny burst of light. The force of this punch is so huge that the main cause of death to their prey is dismemberment. Their punch can even kill if it misses. The mantis shrimp is basically a tiny Hitmonchan.

The mantis shrimp can’t be kept in tanks with other creatures, because they often kill whatever they share a tank with. Mantis shrimps typically can’t be kept in tanks at all, because they can shatter the glass surrounding them in one punch. You think I’m kidding? Here is a video of a mantis shrimp breaking through glass to get to its prey. Nope.

Mimic octopus

The mimic octopus, or Thaumoctopus mimicus, is—you guessed it—an octopus that can mimic other sea creatures. Mimicry is no strange occurrence in nature. Many species mimic others. But the mimic octopus is the only species known to mimic more than one species, and its skill at this mimicry is uncanny. You can see for yourself in this video.

The mimic octopus can impersonate a lionfish, sea snake, flat fish, and even a jellyfish. It’s a forager and a hunter, so don’t think for a second that it only uses its powers for good. This octopus is the real-life Mystique of the sea.

Hairy frog

The hairy frog, or Trichobatrachus robustus, is better known as the Horror Frog, or wolverine frog. These little guys break their own bones to produce claws. When being attacked, the hairy frog can contract its toe muscle, breaking off the tip of the bone in its toe, and forcing it through its skin, forming a makeshift claw. In truth, it is not an actual claw, as claws are covered in a coat of keratin, but is in fact just a broken piece of bone.

As the name suggests, the hairy frog has hair-like dermal papillae. These are small extensions of dermis into the epidermis. Frogs that can sprout claws on demand and are covered with hair… Does that remind you of someone you know? Maybe a no-nonsense X-Man who is the best at what he does?

Platypus

The platypus, or Ornithorhynchus anatinus, has a sixth sense: electroreception. Electroreception is the ability to sense electricity generated by the muscle contractions of their prey. The platypus’ electroreceptors are located in its adorable bill. Perhaps the reason there isn’t an X-man called the Platypus is that it would be just too darn cute.

The use of electroreception to locate prey is known as electrolocation. While other monotremes have this ability, the platypus has the most acute sense of electrolocation by far. If fact, when diving for food, the platypus closes its eyes, ears, and nose, relying only on electrolocation to distinguish living things from inanimate objects.

Any of these abilities, if possessed by a human, would certainly be like something out of the X-men. Until then, us humans have to settle for being normal, in comparison.

The Neuroscience of Dog-shaming

By Dia Ascenzi

 

When your dog gets into the trash, or is caught chewing on your favorite shoes, what do you do? You shake your finger at him, and angrily use keywords like ‘bad’ or ‘no.’ You wait for the dog to give you that look that says they know they did something wrong. At that point, you assume the dog got the message, feels bad, and knows not to do it again.

There’s a popular trend on the internet known as “dog-shaming,” in which people take photos of their dog caught in the act. Attached to them is a note confessing what they did wrong. And sure enough, in mostly all of these photos, the poor pups look guilty and ashamed, enough so that plenty of dog-lovers see this shaming as abusive. In truth, these dogs likely don’t feel ashamed at all, and we are attributing human behavior to what is simply learned behavior.

Take into account Pavlov’s dog, and the observation of classical conditioning in dogs. Through repeated behaviors and association, this Russian psychologist (in methods much less dog-friendly than one might have expected from an experiment designed to make dog’s drool) was able to make a dog salivate at just the sound of a bell. The dog was conditioned to expect food when hearing the bell. Similarly, if a dog is punished for something enough times, he will eventually learn to expect the same punishment whenever it repeats the same behavior. When your dog looks guilty of something, it’s likely just him reacting in the way he has learned is appropriate for the situation. Regardless of how convincing the doe eyes may be, the general consensus among scientists is that no, dogs are in fact not capable of feeling this supposed shame.

Pascale Lemire, author of the New York Times bestseller Dog Shaming, explains, “I don’t think dogs actually feel shame. I think they know how to placate us with this sad puppy dog look that makes us think they’re ashamed of what they’ve done. My guess is that they’re thinking is, ‘Oh man, my owner is super mad about something, but I don’t know what, but he seems to calm down when I give him the sad face, so let’s try that again.’”

Stanley Coren, Ph.D concedes that while “dogs have all of the same brain structures that produce emotions in humans,” there seems to be a very distinct cutoff with regards to the complexity of emotions dogs are actually able to exhibit. This differs only slightly (or arguably not at all) from a separate study, in which brain scans show that dogs are “about as conscious as a human child.” Consciousness is extremely difficult to gauge (and is also distinctly separate from emotion, higher reasoning, and abstract thinking), so that statement alone is kind of vague. Basically, a dog’s brain is limited as to how much it will develop, and this falls short of shame and guilt, not to mention the more complex thoughts and feelings that we as humans are capable of producing.

Although it would be convenient to have a concrete, black and white answer on Fido’s awareness of his place in your life once and for all, there is indeed a gray area. It appears that while dogs don’t have quite the profound emotional or existential capabilities we do as humans, they aren’t empty vessels only capable of learning basic, mechanical behaviors either.

In an article by Marc Bekoff titled “Can Dogs Experience Guilt, Pride, and Shame: Why Not?” Bekoff suggests, “the necessary research has not really been done” to answer this question. However, we may be right to anthropomorphize, or humanize, dogs. As stated in an essay by Dr. Matt Cartmill, “Our close animal relatives, after all, are anthropomorphic in the literal sense of the word, which means "human-shaped." They have organs like ours, placed in the same relative positions.” That said, while we can’t be completely sure of what dogs are capable of feeling and thinking, scientists are fairly certain of what dogs are not capable of.

Perhaps when dog-owners like myself wonder “What is he thinking right now?” the answer may very well be limited to such basic notions as ‘hungry’ or ‘outside’ in a way not too dissimilar from the famous Far Side “dog translator” comic. It is also quite likely (and less adorably anthropomorphic) that however linked we feel to our canine pals, their level of awareness and their depth of emotion are less complex than ours as humans. Perhaps, like Pavlov’s dog learning that a ringing bell means food, our dogs are simply learning that putting on the sad puppy face means less scolding or punishment. Dogs can learn to show shame without feeling it, in the same way a dog can learn to ‘play dead,’ without actually knowing what ‘dead’ is.

The Burning of Black Wall Street: Tulsa’s 1921 Race Riot

By Rae Avery

 

Dick Rowland was a 19-year-old African American shoe shiner working in a segregated white neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on Memorial Day in 1921, when he needed to use the bathroom. The top floor of the nearby Drexel Building housed the only restroom that he, as a black man, was legally allowed to use during his workday in this area. He joined the elevator attendant, Sarah Page, a 17-year-old Caucasian girl, to make the trip. What happened next will only ever be truly known to the two of them. History has a way of burying the truth in things we want to hear, or rather what we've been told to hear. But what happened next would propel into motion a tragic, senseless, and horrifying set of events that would change Tulsa forever.

In the past 94 years, many of the details surrounding the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 have been twisted to include conjecture, legend, and local lore. Whether Page and Rowland were lovers or mere acquaintances, whether there are mass graves, and even the exact number of the deceased—these things we may never know. Much is shrouded in foggy mystery. But the violent and unfathomable facts remain in photographs—faded, iconic black and white images - and in the memories of the survivors.

When the elevator doors opened again on the ground floor, people nearby heard what sounded like a woman's scream and saw Rowland rushing out of the building, and Page looking distraught. Again, no one knows whether this was simply a lovers' quarrel, or whether Rowland tripped on his way out, inadvertently falling into and startling Page. But in the racially charged atmosphere of 1921 middle America, passersby assumed the worst and immediately summoned the police on charges of assault.

In the hours that followed, many reports were heard from people who knew Rowland, had worked with him, and stood by his character and integrity, saying that he simply wasn't capable of such crimes, it wasn't in his good nature. Later on, Page would also go on to drop all charges—an important hint to the historical veracity of the official charges. Nevertheless, Rowland was arrested and brought down to the police station to remain in their custody for the time being. It would turn out to be the safest place for him.

By nightfall, word of the incident had gotten around, and a lynch mob of several hundred white men had formed right outside the courthouse (where Rowland had been moved following telephoned death threats), and demanded  that the authorities hand Rowland over to them.

Members of the black community had heard what was going on, and doubting the police force's ability to maintain Rowland's safety, went to the courthouse as well, armed with guns and ammunition to aide the police if necessary. By this time, the white mob had swelled to around 1000, and as they saw the black community members arrive, each group viewed the other as a threat.

Tensions were already high in Tulsa, as soldiers had recently arrived home from World War I, and many of these white men returned without jobs, and their families, in turn, became destitute. Many of the black Tulsan soldiers, however, were viewed as heroes in their home community of Greenwood: a place that segregation laws had forced them to congregate and do business. Oppressive as it was, citizens of Greenwood prided themselves on their community’s ingenuity, hard work, good business sense and the culture of investing in each other and a common goal. They had done the unthinkable in the eyes of contemporary white America—they had produced a thriving, flourishing African American “metropolis.” Greenwood was so affluent and prosperous, it was nicknamed, "Black Wall Street." It was a truly self-built and self-sustained place. They supported each other, helped out where there was a need, were loyal to each other's businesses. Whereas, nowadays the average dollar leaves the black community in just over 15 minutes, the average dollar in Greenwood might not leave the community for nearly a year. Street after street of beautiful, well-maintained, African American owned and operated businesses, nice homes with electric lighting and indoor plumbing (newly available luxury amenities at the time), were the envy of much of the surrounding area.

Envy was just one of the components that fueled the fires of the Tulsa Race Riot that night.

With the crowds gathered at the courthouse, doubled by this time, and each side well armed, it's difficult to pinpoint who fired the first shot, but after that inaugural shot a gunfight was imminent. Several people were killed then and there in front of the courthouse, but mainly the crowd was dispersed, and smaller, more isolated gunfire would continue to erupt all over the city. Late that night, local members of the National Guard assembled themselves to patrol the city, break up the rioters, and detain any and all Africans Americans to various secured locations around town.

Throughout the night and early morning, gunfire continued—in the frenzied confusion, victims would include innocent bystanders, people merely exiting a theater. Rumors flew that each side had called in reinforcements, to the point where innocent travelers were killed simply getting off the train. Looting was also a huge problem, and as more and more black community members were being detained,  the community was left very much unprotected, and rampant vandalism of African American businesses and residences ensued. White rioters broke into Greenwood homes, forcing entire families to flee, and would then steal or destroy whatever they wanted. One of the more harrowing reports tell of a black man dangling off the back of a car by a noose, being paraded around the city, dead.

Around 1 A.M., white rioters began setting fire to Greenwood businesses and homes; plunder, vandalism and arson ruled the night. The once-prosperous community went up in flames. By the next morning, planes began dropping bombs over the city on businesses and clusters of black people visible from the air. Later in the morning, the Oklahoma National Guard troops were called in (officially this time) to break up any remaining violence, and collect any African Americans who had not yet been detained, utilizing a machine gun strapped to the back of a truck.

By noon, most of the physical fight was over, but widespread devastation lay in its wake, as Greenwood lay in smoldering ruins. Unbeknownst to the residents, however, their fight was just beginning. Local real estate officials (many of whom were directly involved in leading the riot) threw out carefully constructed red tape, making rebuilding businesses and homes nearly impossible, and forcing most community members to relocate to other areas, starting over with nothing. This (among other things) has caused many to wonder at the possibility of conspiracy theories, whether the entire event was deliberately planned in order to snuff out the most prosperous African American community in the nation. We may never know.

Some restitution has been attempted. In 2001, the Oklahoma state legislature passed the "1921 Tulsa Race Riot Reconciliation Act" which provides a college scholarship for the descendants of those who had lived in Greenwood, a memorial commemorating the deceased, and plans to improve economic conditions in Greenwood.

Much of history is shrouded in mystery, and especially in the events of the Tulsa Race Riot. The incident was kept out of local and state history for many years - in fact, it wasn't officially acknowledged until 1996, and most (indeed, nearly all) of the newspaper articles published regarding the events in Greenwood were subsequently hunted down and burned one by one from every archive, seeming to have vanished into thin air. To the survivors however, no one can deny the atrocities committed that night, the things they would have to live with the rest of their lives. One of the greatest achievements of early 20th century black America was snuffed out in a tragic, cruel, hateful, and shameful backlash which many of its perpetrators would have preferred to have been lost to history. Others have made it their mission to make sure we never forget.

A.J. Silverman, an African-American editor and publisher of the Tulsa Star penned a poem recounting the events of that night (which he and his family survived), named simply,"A Descriptive Poem of the Tulsa Race Riots." A stirring excerpt reads, "On all sides the mob had gathered, talking in excited tones, with machine guns, ready, mounted, trained upon a thousand homes."

 

Understanding Your Stellar Neighborhood

By Andrew Hendricks

 Astronomy enthusiasts are torn when they encounter people who know little-to-nothing about astronomy basics. On the one hand, it's positive to have anyone interested in hearing and learning some amazing, cool stuff that goes on in space, and on the other it can be really disheartening for us to encounter full-grown adults who don’t know anything about the really big questions that have been answered.

Take a moment to consider the Earth, and where you live in relation to the universe. Try to make sense of where you are, and close your eyes, imagining it. Do you feel like you have a real grasp of where you are? Or were you just happily dreaming up the pretty astronomical images of nebulae and moons and stars?

It's a big bad universe, and just like you should know your home address, city, and state, you should know your relative location in this universe, and a little bit about our stellar neighborhood.

It's called a Super-Massive Black Hole

If a nerdy ten year old knows anything about astronomy, he knows about black holes: infinitely condensed points of space and time crushing matter to a singularity. Raw power distorting the natural world in a way our brains did not evolve to process. Cool, huh? But old news to most.

I found it shocking how many people have seen images of our galaxy, think black holes are nifty, and don't know that at the very center of our universe, there is what is known as a Super-massive Black Hole around which our galaxy is revolving, not too dissimilar from the way our earth revolves around the sun.

We are certain that our Milky Way Galaxy has one at its center, and we're pretty sure it's a common feature among galaxies across the universe. Making them even more enticing, famous astrophysicist Stephen Hawking once mentioned that were he given the option, before he died he would like to go into a super-massive black hole. His reason being that because the tidal forces of a SMBH are much less at the event horizon than a regular black hole, you could potentially make it into the super-massive black whole (where you will still probably die, being crushed down to a density not advisable for human life) without going through a horrifying process known as spaghettification.

While I don't know if I'd prefer dying a normal death in lieu of being plunged into our galaxies trash compactor, it's good to know not to fall into a regular black hole if I want to avoid the astronomical equivalent of being put on “the rack”: lengthened, stretched, and tortured for a distorted amount of time approaching infinity.

But super-massive black holes—those are cool.

We won’t always be able to prove the Big Bang

The universe began with an infinitely dense and incredibly hot point of space from which matter expanded in all directions, cooled, and became the universe we now know and love. It seems like for every meaningful fact we discover about the universe, there is an oppositional force motivated by philosophy rather than science. Also, it doesn't help that the scientific use of the word theory and the colloquial usage of the word are quite different. Electromagnetism is a theory. It still works. A hypothesis is something conjectured that may or may not be true, and needs to be tested. A theory is a quantified way of looking at existing, tested knowledge.

The big bang isn't just an assumption about how the universe began based on models—we can directly measure its effects. Roughly 1% of the static you see when turning on older televisions is actually background radiation from the big bang. In 1965, two astronomers were awarded the Nobel Prize for detecting this Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation that pervades our observable universe. Measurements of hydrogen and helium distribution back up what we would expect them to be from the big bang. To put it quite simply, it happened, and we know it happened.

What is most fascinating about the firm proof on which the Big Bang theory of the universe is that we are lucky we got it when we did. We are actually losing our ability to measure the concrete evidence that is the cosmic microwave background radiation. This is because we are in an expanding universe, and one that is expanding at an accelerating rate. Brian Greene put it most eloquently in a recent TED oriented towards astrophysics. He says:

“Because the expansion is speeding up, in the very far future, those galaxies will rush away so far and so fast that we won't be able to see them—not because of technological limitations, but because of the laws of physics. The light those galaxies emit, even traveling at the fast speed, the speed of light, will not be able to overcome the ever-widening gulf between us.

"So astronomers in the far future looking out into deep space will see nothing but an endless stretch of static, inky, black stillness. And they will conclude that the universe is static and unchanging, populated by a single central oasis of matter that they inhabit—a picture of the cosmos that we definitively know to be wrong.”

It's kind of sad and interesting to imagine a future in which the most intelligent scientists may look at our accurate models of a vast and enormous the universe with literally hundreds of billions of galaxies—and think it is merely error-riddled data from a primitive people who didn't understand how empty the universe really is.

Our galaxy is colliding Andromeda (oh, and the Heat Death of the Universe)

Because evidence of the big bang has proved conclusively that the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate, this has led some to have the image of a universe where everything is moving away from each other. And this notion of the universe is not quite true—yet. This misunderstanding is partly due to lack of knowledge about what we currently know about gravity and dark energy, which is the placeholder term for whatever is the reason behind the acceleration of the expansion (as opposed to what had previously been thought to be a steady-state expansion).

Gravity works by what is known as an inverse-square law. This means it is a lot weaker the further away it is. You step one foot away from an astronomical body, and its gravitational pull on you is four times weaker than it was where you were previously standing.

So currently, clusters or super-clusters of galaxies are still either held or attracted towards each other, however the clusters themselves are moving apart with the expansion of the universe. In fact, our galaxy, the Milky Way, is currently on a collision course with Andromeda as we are still gravitationally bound inside our larger galaxy cluster. This collision (which isn't so much a smashing of matters and stars so much as two galaxies merging their materials into new orbits) won't be happening for another four billion years, scientists estimate.

However, even though gravity is still able to hold on in pockets of galaxies, the reason for the mistaken belief that everything is moving away from everything else, is that this is the theorized endgame of the universe. Complete Heat Death, is a term some scientists use to describe it. As entropy increases and clusters of galaxies are undetectably far away from each other, the galaxies themselves will begin to separate from each other—dark energy finally winning a battle with gravity hundreds of billions of years in the making. As galaxies are pulled apart, eventually individual solar systems will be too, with planets being pulled apart from their star. Stars being pulled apart at the seems, and even atoms stretched and diffused to the point of absolute zero. Our universe began with a fiery bang, but it will die with a whimper. At least, this is the current best guess.

Do aliens believe in you?

But don't be too bummed. You'll be dead long before our universe falls apart at the seems. We're still here now, and you might find it important to know that you're already in the process of saying hello to the neighbors.

Plenty of you may have seen the movie Contact and know we're currently beaming radio waves, advertising our presence in an ever-expanding sphere in all directions outward from Earth. While this could give some intel about humans to other beings listening in, information about us gained solely from our emissions would be a schizophrenic picture of human beings to say the least.

But have no fear! As originally advocated by Carl Sagan (interestingly the author of the novel Contact) at least four current probes are rocketing away from our solar system into the interstellar medium with some very sensitive information about our species. Pioneer 1 and 2, some of the first missions to explore Saturn and Jupiter, had in their payload what has since been dubbed the Pioneer Plaque. Launched in the late 60s, the Pioneer missions were to continue out of the solar system after their flyby studies of planets on the way. Sagan and others thought it would be a good idea to give a message of sorts, to beings that could potentially intercept Pioneer.

Sagan said of the Pioneer Mission and its plaque that "The spacecraft will be encountered and the record played only if there are advanced space faring civilizations in interstellar space. But the launching of this bottle into the cosmic ocean says something very hopeful about life on this planet."

The Pioneer Plaque displayed two naked humans, male and female, silhouetted in front of an image of the probe to give a scale of who we are. It also included a diagram map of where we are, relative to 14 different pulsars and the center of our Galaxy along with a symbolic representation of the lowest state of hydrogen—the most common element in the universe.

Not content at merely giving away our GPS coordinates and revealing our naked vulnerable bodies, when it came time to launch the Voyager mission during the Carter administration, these probes were packed with a golden record, that was a slightly more ambitious reveal of human life to other beings. It is an audio-visual phonograph and has instructions for how a being can play it. On this record is a huge collection of images and sounds. Greetings in fifty-five languages, sounds of birds chirping and thunderclaps, and images many of us would all agree are uniquely human. Voyager, which was launched just years after Pioneer and significantly faster, has actually surpassed the Pioneer probe, and is now the furthest man-made object from Earth, and the first to ever leave the solar system. Discussing the Voyager mission, Jimmy Carter gave his famous message:

This Voyager spacecraft was constructed by the United States of America. We are a community of 240 million human beings among the more than 4 billion who inhabit the planet Earth. We human beings are still divided into nation states, but these states are rapidly becoming a single global civilization.

"We cast this message into the cosmos. It is likely to survive a billion years into our future, when our civilization is profoundly altered and the surface of the Earth may be vastly changed. Of the 200 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy, some--perhaps many--may have inhabited planets and space faring civilizations. If one such civilization intercepts Voyager and can understand these recorded contents, here is our message:

"This is a present from a small distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts, and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours. We hope someday, having solved the problems we face, to join a community of galactic civilizations. This record represents our hope and our determination, and our good will in a vast and awesome universe.”

It's hard not to get a little choked up at the sentiment contained in this message. But, geeze Jimmy, I can't help but still be a little disconcerted at the detailed information we've been purposely sending out. Living peacefully in a galactic society is great and all, but the heartwarming greeting is essentially an admission of how useless we are when it comes to space travel. I have to wonder if there were National Security Advisers standing beside Carter when he was drafting his message, urging him to slip in a little disinformation. It wouldn't hurt for other civilizations to believe we have the ability to blow things up with our minds rather than knowing what sitting ducks we really are.

In reality, debates about whether we should or shouldn't broadcast our location and existence don't really matter any more. We've already done it. We're currently still doing it. The cat's out of the bag, and we have to just hope that any intelligence that stumbles our way is benign, if curious, or wimpy, if malevolent.

At least now you know a little bit more about your stellar neighborhood if they do come knocking.

 

This Place is Not a Place of Honor: Explaining Radioactive Waste to Future Humans

By Rae Avery

Imagine you have an enormous tank of radioactive nuclear waste. You've buried it in the backyard and now you need to make sure no one digs it back up for at least 10,000 years, or the impending massive destruction of the human race is on you, buddy. Think carefully, otherwise it may become the new nursery location for some post-apocalyptic human nomads. Surely no one wants that on their conscience. How would you warn earth's future citizens?

This hypothetical situation is actually a reality at a number of locations, including New Mexico, at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, 26 miles northwest of Carlsbad. Half a mile underground, toxic nuclear waste is being contained in a plant surrounded by natural salt deposits.

Here's where the problem comes in. Nuclear waste is dangerous for a long, long time. It will be lethal to humans, animals and plants that come in contact with it for the next 10,000 years. At that time you, and I, and every scientist living today will be long gone, and it stands to reason that a basic knowledge of the dangers of toxic waste may be gone too. As long as it stays buried, it should be just fine, but as our world's history has shown us, archeology digs on. Human beings will always have the unquenchable thirst of curiosity, and will always have an urge to excavate the past. So how do you warn people to stay away?

This is the question a panel of experts teamed up to answer. Thirteen professionals with backgrounds in linguistics, art, astrophysics, writing, architecture, and geology came together to form a nuclear semiotic think-tank, called the Futures Panel, with one objective in mind: how to craft a message that someone could understand long after we're gone. A sophisticated “KEEP OUT” signs if you will.

Keep in mind that languages evolve and change over time, and Standard English may not even exist in 10,000 years (Sanskrit, anyone?). Case in point, the literary Anglo Saxon classic Beowulf, was written just 1,000 years ago, in the language English originally came from, and few native English speakers today can understand it without a translation.  At any rate, a written warning was decidedly not going to be enough, though it would certainly be included, just in case.

Many of the ideas the Futures Panel members came up with were fascinating to say the least. One idea was to cover the area with 50-foot spikes. Another was a Lego-like city of forbidding black blocks that would be hot to the touch. In 1981, Germany had a similar nuclear storage issue, and their team came up with ideas even more outrageous, including launching an artificial moon and engraving a warning there (yes, on the synthetic moon), the thought process being that the moon would provide a durable and universal surface. Another somewhat batty idea was an “atomic priesthood” who would, generation after generation, scare people away from the site with tales of supernatural danger. But perhaps the craziest proposition of all was breeding a species of “ray cats” whose fur would change color with radiation exposure, and down through the ages, people would hear of the oddly colored cats and know to stay away from the site.

The Futures Panel, thankfully, entertained concepts far less ridiculous, and settled on a geologic and informational solution. Giant, foreboding “earthen berms” (large, protruding mounds of dirt), in jagged shapes are what one would come upon first when approaching the site in the future. There will be many of these berms, meant to convey a feeling of dread (thus the jagged, pointy shapes), and four larger central ones, each berm 33 feet tall and on the corner a large square. The size and shape of these mounds had been calculated precisely to be enduring and to resist natural erosion. Should future explorers dig into these berms, they would find special concrete rooms containing advanced information engraved on stone – maps, the periodic table of elements, the exact chemical compounds of the waste buried far beneath, and star charts noting the date that the facility was sealed.

In the middle of the berm formations will be large informational monuments. Giant, curved slabs of granite, each inscribed with a detailed warning (the messages to be placed up high in case the desert sands threaten to bury them), are to be erected in each of the six United Nations official languages (English, Spanish, Russian, Chinese, Arabic and French, and additionally one written in Navajo, the indigenous language local to that area), and will contain information on the dangers of the waste buried half a mile below. Altogether, there will be 48 monumental structures, weighing approximately 100 tons each. Total cost for these granite messages is estimated to be $30 million (and you thought your kitchen counters were expensive). The message they decided on is this:

“This place is a message, and part of a system of messages. Pay attention to it! Sending this message was important to us. We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture. This place is not a place of honor. No highly esteemed deed is commemorated here. Nothing valued is here. What is here is dangerous and repulsive to us. This message is a warning about danger. The danger is in a particular location. It increases toward a center. The center of danger is here. Of a particular size and shape, and below us. The danger is still present, in your time, as it was in ours. The danger is to the body, and it can kill. The form of the danger is an emanation of energy. The danger is unleashed only if you substantially disturb this place physically. This place is best shunned and left uninhabited.”

The language is kept simple and the information is plainly laid out, yet said humbly and genuinely enough that hopefully those who read it will believe it. Sporadically across the site will also be buried small “time capsules,” made of clay, glass, and aluminum oxide, that will contain additional warnings and also pieces of wood the discoverers could use for carbon dating the site in the future.

An additional waste repository site was planned for Yucca Mountain, although operations were effectively shut down there when funding ran out. This facility can store waste temporarily, but the changes necessary to make it a permanent waste solution would be very costly. It may not be off the table completely, but for now it's not a viable option.

Though the plans for the WIPP site aren't completely “carved in stone” (pun definitely intended), the nuclear site message team has a bit more time to revise the details if they should for any reason change their minds. The final plans are to be submitted in 2028

Subway Caves to Blogger's Bad Science

By Andrew Hendricks

What do you do when people claim your product is bunk, fraudulent, or dangerously negligent? Well, if there's no science behind the claim, you can hope that the public listens to your nuanced explanation and that the problem goes away.

Unfortunately, that isn't always enough. When an idea about your brand becomes common knowledge and is repeated often enough in the media, a stigma can be garnered that is nearly impossible to shake. And sometimes, when public outcry is strong enough, a company is left between a rock and a hard place with the choice of making an unnecessary change (admitting there was a problem to begin with), or ignoring public demand and risk further damaging their brand by being seen as an uncaring, faceless corporation.

Take as a recent example the Subway “Yoga Mat Material” controversy. You have likely heard about this at least in passing, as it was reported on by almost every major network.

A popular food blogger posted an inflammatory blog claiming that subway was putting a dangerous, asthma-causing carcinogen into their breads, the same chemical used to fluff yoga mats. The blogger went on to list a multitude of health claims, asserting that the chemical was dangerous to workers, carcinogenic to consume, flammable, and essentially not a food product.

While some news outlets took the time to give a measured response to the scientific claims , many failed to provide the counter-narrative that while azobidarcarbonamide (the chemical in question) is found is some non-food items because of its “doughy” properties,  it is found in many food items from brands including Sarah Lee, Little Debbie, Mariano's, Smucker's, Sunbeam, IHOP and Healthy Life.

The food blogger's desire for health advocacy is something that is laudable, however this blogger, who does not purport to be a researcher or scientist of any stripe, made such specific accusations and whirled up a mob with such speed, many assumed that the health claims had merit.

The chief claim, that it is unsafe to workers and customers because of links to asthma, is incredibly misinformed and disingenuous according to neuroscientist Dr. Steve Novella,, Yale professor and President of the New England Skeptical Society. In a scathing critique of the blogger's assertions,. he stated that the chemical “does not trigger or cause asthma when consumed, it is only a risk to factory workers breathing in the raw chemical.”

Dr. Novella countered the blogger's other claim that its “flammability” should be a sign of its danger by pointing out that flour, when dispersed, is also flammable and can cause similar respiratory problems if inhaled. He continued in his post to say that worker safety is something we should take seriously and have protections for in this country, that factory workers should take precautions, and that it is an issue wholly separate from whether Subway bread is harmful to consume or touch.

Yet, by far, the biggest issue that Dr. Novella had with the attack against subway was the food blogger's summation of her complaint with a philosophical warning to her readers: “When you look at the ingredients, if you can’t spell it or pronounce it, you probably shouldn’t eat it.”

Dr. Novella points out that this is anti-science thinking, and quipped that the food blogger might be frightened to learn the chemical makeup of an ordinary apple:

Alpha-Linolenic-Acid, Asparagine, D-Categin, Isoqurctrin, Hyperoside, Ferulic-Acid, Farnesene, Neoxathin, Phosphatidyl-Choline, Reynoutrin, Sinapic-Acid, Caffeic-Acid, Chlorogenic-Acid, P-Hydroxy-Benzoic-Acid, P-Coumaric-Acid, Avicularin, Lutein, Quercitin, Rutin, Ursolic-Acid, Protocatechuic-Acid.

Scary stuff!

While few nutritionists would claim processed foods, in general, are as healthful as less processed foods, there is a very large difference between saying one type of food is more healthful, and saying another type of food is outright harmful. The backlash against Subway rings similar to other popular misconceptions about famous food brands.

For example the claim taken by many as fact that “diet coke causes cancer” is one originating with the widely-reported rat study in which rats, when given ultra-high doses of aspartame (a sugar substitute found in Diet Coke and other sugar-free products), developed a significant increase in lymphoma and leukemia. The fact is that this study was conducted in 2005, and numerous follow-up studies have found no reproducible evidence that aspartame, in amounts that exist in food products, currently poses any danger to humans. The FDA states that the amount of aspartame given to the rats in the 2005 study was “equivalent to drinking 8 to 2,083 cans of diet soda daily.” Saying a rat study found that drinking hundreds of cans of diet soda a day could be potentially dangerous to humans is not the same as the oft-purported claim that “diet coke causes cancer.”

A similar case can be found in the popular myth against McDonald's. The claim, as pointed out on Skepchick.org with derision, is that their food is so stuffed with preservatives that when you leave a McDonald's burger sitting out, it does not rot or mold like a normal burger. This rings familiar to the anti-Subway food blogger's claim that foods with lots of chemicals being inherently bad, but what those who repeat this anecdote forget is that ANY cooked burger, organic, In-N-Out, or from a cow you butchered yourself, when left in a relatively arid environment  will simply dry out before rotting. The fact that McDonald's patties do as well is not evidence of anything whatsoever.

In the end, when it came to Subway's own woes they decided to change their recipe, ostensibly bowing to both public demand and outcry. Not acceding any merit to the faulty claim, however, Subway at least put their famous spokesperson Jared Fogle on a media blitz to assure people that while they are changing their recipe (referring to the controversial chemical): “When it was cooked, it was fine.”

Subway may not be happy about this whole ordeal, but at least they will no longer  have to deal with the issue, unlike McDonald's who is still receiving bad press for their “Franken-burgers” and bloggers periodically asserting in seriousness that Diet Coke is as bad for you as cigarettes.

Subway is merely stuck with the legacy of having once made bread out  of “yoga mat material.” As funny as it sounds, it should be a lesson that we ought to take the science behind a controversy more seriously, before raising the pitchforks.

Understanding the Lonely Universe with Fermi's Paradox

By Rae Avery

The universe is incredibly lonely, but also teeming with life. Probably. Maybe. We think it’s a distinct possibility, at least.

When I was six years old, Sesame Street’s Ernie sang this little ode: “Oh, who are the people in your neighborhood - the people that you meet each day?” This is a fair question to ask when your “neighborhood” consists of a couple corner shops, an auto dealership and some apartment buildings, but when it comes to our galactic neighborhood, who are the people we are supposed to be meeting? This is the question that Fermi’s Paradox seeks to answer.

To put the vastness of our universe in perspective, one useful comparison would be to imagine all the stars in the universe as sand, and for every single grain of sand on earth, there are 10,000 stars. Not only that, but for each grain of sand, there are also expected to be 100 earth-like planets that could potentially sustain life. Following this logic, the next logical step would be to assume that with the sheer number of “earths,” something or someone must live on at least one, if not millions.

The Drake equation puts Fermi’s Paradox into the actual mathematical expression you may have heard on old episodes of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. It goes something like this: start with the rate of star formation in our galaxy. Multiply this by the stars that have planets. Multiply that by the average number of planets that could possibly sustain life (per star with planets). Still with me? Multiply that by the planets that actually do sustain life. Multiply that by the number of planets that sustain intelligent life. Multiply that by the number of planets that contain intelligent life that are able and willing to communicate. And, finally, multiply that by the life expectancy of such a civilization. The result is the number of civilizations we might reasonably expect to communicate with at any given time.

SETI, or Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, is a non-profit research organization and has been searching for signs of alien life in outer space by scanning for electromagnetic radiation and other potential signs of life with an impressive array of ground-based telescopes, literally checking day and night without stopping since 1984. But since their inception, they inexplicably still have yet to encounter even one such message from any entity anywhere.

The basis of Fermi’s Paradox is this: that the universe is so old (comparatively to our earth), and the basic building blocks of life so abundant, that our cosmic community should be bursting with some kind of life, other than our own …shouldn’t it? For some reason it isn’t. At least not that we can observe. The cold unfortunate math of the Drake Equation leads us to the sad realization that even if life is all over the universe, the odds of an overlap between a civilization reaching the ability to communicate, being willing to communicate, and being within a few light years of another such civilization are astoundingly low. Even if E.T. is out there we ought never to expect E.T. to phone us, let alone visit and need to phone home. The good people at SETI will make sure the line is clear, though, just in case.

The History of the Duel

By Rae Avery

It is a crisp autumn morning in 1842. You are crossing the Mississippi river in a canoe. You may be cold and wet, but your mind is far away from the current journey. All you can think about is your destination, because you’re about to witness a duel. A duel with swords. These were the actual conditions on September 22, 1842, for Abraham Lincoln and several of his companions the day he was prepared to fight a duel.

Dueling as a formalized method of dispute resolution dates back to pre-agrarian history, 5000 BC, when one might duel to protect the family or the tribe. There was great honor to be had in it and whether you won or lost, you often came home a hero. For much of recorded history, dueling was never supposed to be about killing your opponent. It was mainly about retaining honor. Two men would fight on an island, hilltop, or often a man-made stone circle, and if and when one of the opponents was forced out of the specified area, the duel was over, much like Sumo wrestling. Some rules stated the first one to draw blood won the duel, while in some the first one to give a wound bad enough to cause the person’s hands to shake was the winner.

Around 1000 BC, dueling evolved into a form of single combat. With historical and literary examples including the famous Achilles at Troy and David versus Goliath. Interestingly enough, as Malcolm Gladwell pointed out in a TED talk, the David and Goliath story is better understood as superior weaponry winning in battle, rather than an underdog story. At the historical time the David and Goliath story is said to have occurred, David’s military slingshot was at the height of artillery technology. As formal duels progressed to the middle ages, standardized weapons equal between the two duelers became the norm.

In Medieval Europe, dueling was mainly for those in the nobility. “Honor” in dueling was still an important aspect, however, “honor” referred more to social status or rank, and not necessarily being a good, decent person who didn't bully people into letting you stab them in the stomach with a sword.

It’s worth mentioning that when someone was challenged to a duel, he could not simply say no and walk away. Someone could lose his rank, his family would be shamed, and he could even be sentenced to prison! Medieval Europe was less kind to conscientious objectors.

Women did duel, but very rarely. It was mainly considered a spectacle, or oddity, something “performed” for entertainment purposes and not taken seriously by the viewing public. Their weapons were modified, so the opponents could not harm each other, and everything was stopped before actual blood could be drawn.

The Code Duella, a set of dueling rules written by Irishmen in 1777, set the standard for duels for a long time. Having a reliable “second” was very important and he had a specific job to do, described clearly and precisely in the book. Each party had to have one, a trusted friend who would oversee the weapons, fight if necessary, and most importantly try to talk the parties down and forge a truce if possible.

Duels were popular in early America for a few reasons, not the least of which was the advent of the gun. Pistols were cheaper than swords – almost everyone could afford one, and in the relative wilderness of newly settled colonial America it was usually just plain smart to have one. Around this time, political duels were also common, and they even determined some elections!

By the 1800s, there were many politicians, judges, church officials, and others who disagreed with the violent tradition of dueling, and were very vocal about it, attempting to get the practice banned. Although some states passed laws regarding duels, they were difficult to enforce. By this time, dueling was part of the culture, and many juries refused to find fault with those brought up on dueling charges.

President Andrew Jackson, prior to taking office, was quite the duel aficionado. It’s rumored that he may have participated in up to 100 duels, and is officially known to have been in 13. He is the only United States president known to have actually killed someone in a duel. Jackson challenged a man named Charles Dickinson to a duel after he accused Jackson of reneging on a horse race bet, and then insulted his wife, Rachel. On the day of the duel, the men took pistols and aimed. Dickinson shot Jackson square in the chest, narrowly missing his heart. Jackson stopped the blood flow by holding the wound tightly while he took his shot. According to Dickinson’s seconds, Jackson’s first shot misfired, which should’ve rendered the duel over and Dickinson the winner. However, eschewing the proper duel procedures, Jackson shot again and this time killed Dickinson where he stood. At the time, this did little to hinder Jackson’s political career, and he became president 23 years later.

The tide was about to change for dueling though. The Civil War in the United States and World War I in Europe had taken enough sons, brothers and husbands, that dueling to protect one’s honor began to seem like violent nonsense, and had a negative impact on most of society.

Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr were notorious personal and political rivals for nearly 15 years when, in 1804, Burr challenged Hamilton to perhaps the most famous duel in American History. It is said that Hamilton shot into the air, not actually wanting to harm Burr, and that Burr shot Hamilton in the stomach, inflicting wounds that killed him the next day. The early Americans were shocked (remember, duels rarely resulted in death), and Burr was brought up on actual murder charges. He was later acquitted on a technicality.

Abraham Lincoln and James Shields never did fight that duel. Lincoln never wanted to harm Shields, most scholars agree. Rather than “pistols at dawn,” he chose the broadsword on purpose to try to frighten Shields off before the duel even started. In fact, Lincoln took a few, almost comical, measures to try to scare Shields into conceding, since according to the rules, Lincoln, once challenged, could name all of the terms. He began by selecting an island for the duel to take place on, insisted they duel in a twelve foot deep pit, and stipulated that neither man could cross a large board in the middle (where Lincoln’s much taller stature would give him an edge). To emphasize his height advantage and impressive arm span, Lincoln even began taking some practice swipes with his sword, and lopped off a tall branch from a tree. When it became clear that Lincoln had the upper hand and would likely succeed if the duel continued, the trusty “seconds” stepped in and did their job, talking the men down and negotiating a truce at the last minute.

So while duels began as a formalized way to avoid abject bloodshed and bring some structure to disputes, over time, most of society would come to Lincoln’s way of thinking, eschewing the hot trigger fingers of Old Hickory and our more petulant, violent, founding fathers for the tempered wisdom of political attack ads.