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Three New Lessons for Columbus Day
Many Americans seem to hold on to a romanticized portrait of Columbus even when they are exposed to his dark side.
In the run-up to Columbus Day, an infographic sailing around the web is busting myths about Christopher Columbus and condemning him as a “sex slaver, mass murderer and champion of sociopathic imperialism.” The information in Matthew Inman’s screed isn’t new—he draws it from 20th-century books by Howard Zinn and James Loewen—but his packaging surely is. Judging by the hundreds of thousands of people who have “liked” his essay and the thousands of tweets, hating on the namesake of today’s holiday has mass appeal. Here’s a taste:
I - Columbus was no hero to Native Americans or his fellow sailors
I am not about to rain on this anti-Columbus parade. The Italian leader of four Spanish voyages to the New World was no saint, to say the least. In the initial assessment of the Native Americans recorded in his journal, Columbus wrote he “could conquer the whole of them with fifty men, and govern them as I pleased.” Native Americans, he thought, “would be good servants and I am of the opinion that they would very readily become Christians.” Columbus was an opportunist and something of a bastard even to fellow Europeans. Though he admits in his journal entry of October 11, 1492 that “the land was first seen by a sailor called Rodrigo de Triana,” he cheated his fellow sailor and fudged the record to claim the lifetime pension King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella promised to the first man who saw land.
But there is nuance to be added to the Columbus backlash, and some original polling data (a Praxis first!) reveals what Americans of various stripes think about the man who is sometimes said to have discovered America.
2 - Most Americans have encountered criticisms of Columbus, but a majority still consider him a hero
In a survey I commissioned for Big Think in September through the polling agency Toluna, 55 percent of the 300 respondents say they had, at some point in their education, “read or discussed ideas that are critical of Christopher Columbus.” Not surprisingly, the younger the subjects are, the more likely they are to have heard these critiques: 70 percent of respondents aged 18-34 have encountered critical takes on Columbus in school, compared to 52 percent of respondents aged 35-54 and only 44 percent of those over 55.
Over 75 percent of the respondents agree with the statement that “history teachers should provide information about the negative aspects of what happened to Native Americans after Columbus's journey to America,” compared to 14 percent who disagree.
But when asked which statement better characterizes Columbus, more respondents chose the sunny side of the 15th-century Italian explorer: “brave sailor who discovered America” was the choice of 54 percent of respondents, while 36 percent selected this statement: “the person whose voyage to America set the stage for genocide and disease for Native Americans.” So many Americans seem to hold on to a romanticized portrait of the sailor even when they are exposed to his dark side.
3 - Blacks and Hispanics are more likely than whites to harbor a critical attitude toward Columbus
Many more Spanish speakers in the United States seem to be critical of the Spanish expeditions to the Americas in the 15th century than are non-Hispanics. Only 40 percent of Hispanic or Latino respondents chose the “brave sailor” option as the best description of Columbus, while 48 percent preferred the “genocide and disease” statement. Among African Americans, the numbers are more lopsided: only 30 percent chose “brave sailor” while 63 percent agreed more with “the person who...set the stage for genocide and disease for Native Americans.”
Compare these numbers to the views of the white subjects, where the numbers are basically inverted. Whites preferred the “brave sailor who discovered America” line to the critical description by a margin of 58 percent to 30 percent.
Why are racial and ethnic minorities less sanguine than whites about Columbus’s legacy? It could be due to a general feeling among underprivileged communities that America was built on the backs and through the oppression of people like them. The mental health problems of Aaron Alexis, the Washington, D.C., navy yard shooter, may have been exacerbated by a perception of racial discrimination, and countless studies point to the continued relevance of race in minorities’ housing, education and employment opportunities. It stands to reason that today’s disadvantaged Americans might be more sensitive to the oppression of Native Americans half a millennium ago.
A thought on Inman's proposal to replace Columbus Day with "Bartolomé Day"
The unrestrained anger against Columbus found in Matthew Inman’s popular infographic goes overboard at times, such as when he blames the explorer for single-handedly launching the Atlantic slave trade or for causing the deaths of millions of Native Americans. The 3-5 million Indians who died of starvation, violence and disease in the first few decades after contact do not all fall on Columbus’s head. Most of this carnage was inadvertent—the antibody-poor Native Americans, as Alfred Crosby details, succumbed to microbes Europeans toted to the New World, particularly the smallpox virus. And there were conquistadors with far more blood on their hands than Columbus. Hernan Cortes, the butcher of the Aztec empire, is only one example.
Finally, it is a bit simplistic of Mr. Inman to present Bartolomé de las Casas as a more deserving honoree for an American holiday. Though las Casas did bravely report on the worst Spanish crimes against Native Americans and defended the Indians in a famous debate in 1550, his argument on behalf of the Native Americans granted two at-best partial truths about their culture—idolatry and human sacrifice—and advanced a specious justification of their practices. The Indians were only committing a “probable error,” las Casas claimed: a moral failing inexcusable in the eyes of God but understandable and excusable in the eyes of human beings. By sacrificing humans, las Casas untenably argued, the Indians were just trying to give a gift of ultimate value to their gods; and anyway, their priests said it was OK, so how would they have known any differently?
Aside from his unsuccessful logical jiu jitsu to defend Native American practices, Las Casas held Indians as slaves and, after freeing them, advocated the importation of Africans. He watched Spanish monks as they burned the "the vast majority" of "hieroglyphic books in the Maya world" to facilitate the Mayans' conversion to Catholicism. (He may have regretted this crime, but did little to stop it.) His story belies Mr. Inman’s facile claim that while the evil Columbus raped young girls and stole gold, the saint las Casas “found his humanity.” The fact is that many criminal acts conspired to launch America as we know it. Machiavelli said that all great foundings are built on great crimes, and he was, lamentably, correct. It will always be a complicated endeavor celebrating America's founding moments.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock
Evolution proves to be just about as ingenious as Nikola Tesla
- For the first time, scientists developed 3D scans of shark intestines to learn how they digest what they eat.
- The scans reveal an intestinal structure that looks awfully familiar — it looks like a Tesla valve.
- The structure may allow sharks to better survive long breaks between feasts.
Considering how much sharks are feared by humans, it is a bit of a surprise that scientists don't know much about the predators. For example, until recently, sharks were thought to be solitary creatures searching the seas for food on their own. Now it appears that some sharks are quite social.
Another mystery is how these prehistoric swimming and eating machines digest food. Although scientists have made 2D sketches of captured sharks' digestive systems based on dissections, there is a limit to what can be learned in this way. Professor Adam Summers at University of Washington's Friday Harbor Labs says:
"Intestines are so complex, with so many overlapping layers, that dissection destroys the context and connectivity of the tissue. It would be like trying to understand what was reported in a newspaper by taking scissors to a rolled-up copy. The story just won't hang together."
Summers is co-author of a new study that has produced the first 3D scans of a shark's intestines, which turns out to have a strange, corkscrew structure. What's even more bizarre is that it resembles the amazing one-way valve designed by inventor Nikola Tesla in 1920. The research is published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
What a 3D model reveals
Video: Pacific spiny dogfish intestine youtu.be
According to the study's lead author Samantha Leigh, "It's high time that some modern technology was used to look at these really amazing spiral intestines of sharks. We developed a new method to digitally scan these tissues and now can look at the soft tissues in such great detail without having to slice into them."
"CT scanning is one of the only ways to understand the shape of shark intestines in three dimensions," adds Summers. The researchers scanned the intestines of nearly three dozen different shark species.
It is believed that sharks go for extended periods — days or even weeks — between big meals. The scans reveal that food passes slowly through the intestine, affording sharks' digestive system the time to fully extract its nutrient value. The researchers hypothesize that such a slow digestive process may also require less energy.
It could be that this slow digestion is more susceptible to back flow given that the momentum of digested food through the tract must be minimal. Perhaps that is why sharks evolved something so similar to a Tesla valve.
What is Tesla's valve doing there?
Above, a Tesla valve. Below, a shark intestine.Credit: Samantha Leigh / California State University, Domi
Tesla's "valvular conduit," or what the world now calls a "Tesla valve," is a one-way valve with no moving parts. Its brilliance is based in fluid dynamics and only now coming to be fully appreciated. Essentially, a series of teardrop-shaped loops arranged along the length of the valve allow water to flow easily in one direction but not in the other. Modern tests reveal that at low flow rates, water can travel through the valve either way, but at high flow rates, the design kicks in. According to mathematician Leif Ristroph:
"Crucially, this turn-on comes with the generation of turbulent flows in the reverse direction, which 'plug' the pipe with vortices and disrupting currents. Moreover, the turbulence appears at far lower flow rates than have ever previously been observed for pipes of more standard shapes — up to 20 times lower speed than conventional turbulence in a cylindrical pipe or tube. This shows the power it has to control flows, which could be used in many applications."
A deeper dive
Summers suggests the scans are just the beginning. "The vast majority of shark species, and the majority of their physiology, are completely unknown," says Summers, adding that "every single natural history observation, internal visualization, and anatomical investigation shows us things we could not have guessed at."
To this end, the researchers plan to use 3D printing to produce models through which they can observe the behavior of different substances passing through them — after all, sharks typically eat fish, invertebrates, mammals, and seagrass. They also plan to explore with engineers ways in which the shark intestine design could be used industrially, perhaps for the treatment of wastewater or for filtering microplastics.
It could fairly be said, though, that Nikola Tesla was 100 years ahead of them.
The non-contact technique could someday be used to lift much heavier objects — maybe even humans.
- Since the 1980s, researchers have been using sound waves to move matter through a technique called acoustic trapping.
- Acoustic trapping devices move bits of matter by emitting strategically designed sound waves, which interact in such a way that the matter becomes "trapped" in areas of particular velocity and pressure.
- Acoustic and optical trapping devices are already used in various fields, including medicine, nanotechnology, and biological research.
Sound can have powerful effects on matter. After all, sound strikes our world in waves — vibrations of air molecules that bounce off of, get absorbed by, or pass through matter around us. Sound waves from a trained opera singer can shatter a wine glass. From a jet, they can collapse a stone wall. But sound can also be harnessed for delicate interactions with matter.
Since the 1980s, researchers have been using sound to move matter through a phenomenon called acoustic trapping. The method is based on the fact that sound waves produce an acoustic radiation force.
"When an acoustic wave interacts with a particle, it exerts both an oscillatory force and a much smaller steady-state 'radiation' force," wrote the American Physical Society. "This latter force is the one used for trapping and manipulation. Radiation forces are generated by the scattering of a traveling sound wave, or by energy gradients within the sound field."
When tiny particles encounter this radiation, they tend to be drawn toward regions of certain pressure and velocity within the sound field. Researchers can exploit this tendency by engineering sound waves that "trap" — or suspend — tiny particles in the air. Devices that do this are often called "acoustic tweezers."
Building a better tweezer
A study recently published in the Japanese Journal of Applied Physics describes how researchers created a new type of acoustic tweezer that was able to lift a small polystyrene ball into the air.
Tweezers of Sound: Acoustic Manipulation off a Reflective Surface youtu.be
It is not the first example of a successful "acoustic tweezer" device, but the new method is likely the first to overcome a common problem in acoustic trapping: sound waves bouncing off reflective surfaces, which disrupts acoustic traps.
To minimize the problems of reflectivity, the team behind the recent study configured ultrasonic transducers such that the sound waves that they produce overlap in a strategic way that is able to lift a small bit of polystyrene from a reflective surface. By changing how the transducers emit sound waves, the team can move the acoustic trap through space, which moves the bit of matter.
Move, but don't touch
So far, the device is only able to move millimeter-sized pieces of matter with varying degrees of success. "When we move a particle, it sometimes scatters away," the team noted. Still, improved acoustic trapping and other no-contact lifting technologies — like optical tweezers, commonly used in medicine — could prove useful in many future applications, including cell separation, nanotechnologies, and biological research.
Could future acoustic-trapping devices lift large and heavy objects, maybe even humans? It seems possible. In 2018, researchers from the University of Bristol managed to acoustically trap particles whose diameters were larger than the sound wavelength, which was a breakthrough because it surpassed "the classical Rayleigh scattering limit that has previously restricted stable acoustic particle trapping," the researchers wrote in their study.
In other words, the technique — which involved suspending matter in tornado-like acoustic traps — showed that it is possible to scale up acoustic trapping.
"Acoustic tractor beams have huge potential in many applications," Bruce Drinkwater, co-author of the 2018 study, said in a statement. "I'm particularly excited by the idea of contactless production lines where delicate objects are assembled without touching them."
Australian parrots have worked out how to open trash bins, and the trick is spreading across Sydney.
Dumpster-diving trash parrots
In a study about these smart birds just published in Science, researchers define animal culture as "population-specific behaviors acquired via social learning from knowledgeable individuals."
Co-lead author of the study Barbara Klump of the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behavior in Konstanz, Germany says, "[C]ompared to humans, there are few known examples of animals learning from each other. Demonstrating that food scavenging behavior is not due to genetics is a challenge."
An opportunity presented itself in a video that co-author Richard Major of the Australian Museum shared with Klump and the other co-authors. In the video, a sulphur-crested cockatoo used its beak to pull up the handle of a closed garbage bin — using its foot as a wedge — and then walked back the lid sufficiently to flip it open, exposing the bin's edible contents.
Major has been studying Cacatua galerita for 20 years and says, "Like many Australian birds, sulphur-crested cockatoos are loud and aggressive." The study describes them as a "large-brained, long-lived, and highly social parrot." Says Major, "They are also incredibly smart, persistent, and have adapted brilliantly to living with humans."(Research regarding some of the ways in which wild animals adapt to the presence of humans has already produced some fascinating results and is ongoing.)
Clever cockie opens bin - 01 youtu.be
The researchers became curious about how widespread this behavior might be and saw a research opportunity. After all, says John Martin, a researcher at Taronga Conservation Society, "Australian garbage bins have a uniform design across the country, and sulphur-crested cockatoos are common across the entire east coast."
Martin continues, "In 2018, we launched an online survey in various areas across Sydney and Australia with questions such as, 'What area are you from, have you seen this behavior before, and if so, when?'"
Word Gets Around
Credit: magspace/Adobe Stock
Although the cockatoos' maneuver was reported in only three suburbs before 2018, by the end of 2019, people in 44 areas reported observing the behavior. Clearly, more and more cockatoos were learning how to successfully dumpster dive.
As further proof, says Klump, "We observed that the birds do not open the garbage bins in the same way, but rather used different opening techniques in different suburbs, suggesting that the behavior is learned by observing others." One individual bird in north Sydney invented its own method, and the scientists saw it grow in popularity throughout the local population.
To track individual birds, the researchers marked 500 cockatoos with small red dots. Subsequent observations revealed that not all cockatoos are bin-openers. Only about 10 percent of them are, and they are mostly males. The other cockatoos apparently restrict their education to a different lesson: hang around with a bin-opener, and you will get supper.
Thanks to the surveys, the researchers consider the entire project to be a valuable citizen-science experiment. "By studying this behavior with the help of local residents, we are uncovering the unique and complex cultures of their neighborhood birds."
The few seconds of nuclear explosion opening shots in Godzilla alone required more than 6.5 times the entire budget of the monster movie they ended up in.