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Housebound? This map lets you travel through time
Interactive globe shows where your hometown was at various stages of Earth's deep geological past.
- If you love travelling, a pandemic like this is not the greatest of times.
- But here's a way to go somewhere else without even leaving the house.
- This interactive tool lets you travel up to 750 million years back in time.
Travels in the fourth dimension
Image: Ancient Earth Globe, reproduced with kind permission.
Berlin in deep time. Left to right: in the Neocene Period (20 million years ago), Berlin is on a vast plain that includes what would become the Baltic Sea; in the Devonian (400 million years ago), it's on the southern edge of a turtle-shaped continent; and in the Ordovician (470 million years ago), Berlin is on an island south of what was to become, many millions of years later, the Black Sea.
No matter where in the world you are, the virus continues to be out there somewhere, as keen as ever on making your acquaintance. The best policy remains: avoid contact with others, avoid unnecessary travel. In short: we're all stuck at home a whole lot more than we'd like to.
After the better part of a year spent under various forms of lockdowns and other restrictions, many are suffering from an increasingly itchy version of wanderlust – the urge to travel – and it's becoming harder and harder not to scratch.
Here's an interesting alternative: instead of traveling through space, why not stay put in the first three dimensions and travel through the fourth one instead? It's a trick performed to great acclaim by H.G. Wells in "The Time Machine."
The protagonist in Wells' 1895 novella travels to the terrifying future populated by Eloi and Morlocks and even further forward to the final days of Earth, without having to leave the laboratory attached to his house.
750 million years into the past
Image: Ancient Earth Globe, reproduced with kind permission.
New York City through the ages. Left to right: Early Triassic (240 million years ago), in the middle of a megacontinent opposite future Morocco; Carboniferous (340 million years ago), still coastal, but mirrored – the ocean to the west, the land to the east; Late Ordovician (450 million years ago), near the tip of a very Long Island indeed.
And thanks to the Ancient Earth Globe, you can now travel 750 million years in the other direction, also without leaving your house. You don't even need a lab; just go to the interactive map built by paleontologist Ian Webster. Here's how it works.
- Type in the name of your hometown.
- Its coordinates are 'geolocked' onto the globe.
- As you scroll through the past ages of the Earth, the continents shift shape and change place.
- Watch the surroundings of your location modify accordingly. Now you're high up in the mountains. And now you're getting your feet wet in the middle of a nameless ocean.
- From the drop-down menu on top, you can pick one of 25 specific times, from zero to 750 million years ago.
- Or pull one of 19 significant events from the menu on the right-hand side: the time of the first dinosaurs or the first flowers, the time of the supercontinents of Pangaea or Pannotia, the Jurassic or Cretaceous era.
- Or you can time-travel casual style, by using the left and right arrows on your keyboard to flip through prehistory.
The map of the world isn't 'fixed'
Image: Ancient Earth Globe, reproduced with kind permission.
Time travel in Buenos Aires. Left to right: Late Jurassic (150 million years ago), glued to Southern Africa; Carboniferous (340 million years ago), in the middle of a giant bay; Silurian (430 million years ago), on the north shore of a large continent, facing a Hawaiian-like chain of islands.
The purpose of the Ancient Earth Globe is to provide its users with an appreciation of the dynamic nature of our planet's appearance. The map of the world that we experience as 'fixed' is anything but. The tectonic forces that shift, split and collide entire continents are constantly at work. Except that our lives are too short to really experience the changes they bring about.
But go back far enough into the past, and what's familiar becomes strange. Dry land transforms into ocean floor. Seaside towns move to the middle of strange continents. Cold climes turn tropical, and vice versa. Imagining such exotic pasts may not be the same as actually going there. But it sure beats watching the news in this Groundhog Day of a year.
Images from the Ancient Earth Globe reproduced with kind permission by Ian Webster
Strange Maps #1052
Got a strange map? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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A Harvard professor's study discovers the worst year to be alive.
- Harvard professor Michael McCormick argues the worst year to be alive was 536 AD.
- The year was terrible due to cataclysmic eruptions that blocked out the sun and the spread of the plague.
- 536 ushered in the coldest decade in thousands of years and started a century of economic devastation.
The past year has been nothing but the worst in the lives of many people around the globe. A rampaging pandemic, dangerous political instability, weather catastrophes, and a profound change in lifestyle that most have never experienced or imagined.
But was it the worst year ever?
Nope. Not even close. In the eyes of the historian and archaeologist Michael McCormick, the absolute "worst year to be alive" was 536.
Why was 536 so bad? You could certainly argue that 1918, the last year of World War I when the Spanish Flu killed up to 100 million people around the world, was a terrible year by all accounts. 1349 could also be considered on this morbid list as the year when the Black Death wiped out half of Europe, with up to 20 million dead from the plague. Most of the years of World War II could probably lay claim to the "worst year" title as well. But 536 was in a category of its own, argues the historian.
It all began with an eruption...
According to McCormick, Professor of Medieval History at Harvard University, 536 was the precursor year to one of the worst periods of human history. It featured a volcanic eruption early in the year that took place in Iceland, as established by a study of a Swiss glacier carried out by McCormick and the glaciologist Paul Mayewski from the Climate Change Institute of The University of Maine (UM) in Orono.
The ash spewed out by the volcano likely led to a fog that brought an 18-month-long stretch of daytime darkness across Europe, the Middle East, and portions of Asia. As wrote the Byzantine historian Procopius, "For the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during the whole year." He also recounted that it looked like the sun was always in eclipse.
Cassiodorus, a Roman politician of that time, wrote that the sun had a "bluish" color, the moon had no luster, and "seasons seem to be all jumbled up together." What's even creepier, he described, "We marvel to see no shadows of our bodies at noon."
...that led to famine...
The dark days also brought a period of coldness, with summer temperatures falling by 1.5° C. to 2.5° C. This started the coldest decade in the past 2300 years, reports Science, leading to the devastation of crops and worldwide hunger.
...and the fall of an empire
In 541, the bubonic plague added considerably to the world's misery. Spreading from the Roman port of Pelusium in Egypt, the so-called Plague of Justinian caused the deaths of up to one half of the population of the eastern Roman Empire. This, in turn, sped up its eventual collapse, writes McCormick.
Between the environmental cataclysms, with massive volcanic eruptions also in 540 and 547, and the devastation brought on by the plague, Europe was in for an economic downturn for nearly all of the next century, until 640 when silver mining gave it a boost.
Was that the worst time in history?
Of course, the absolute worst time in history depends on who you were and where you lived.
Native Americans can easily point to 1520, when smallpox, brought over by the Spanish, killed millions of indigenous people. By 1600, up to 90 percent of the population of the Americas (about 55 million people) was wiped out by various European pathogens.
Like all things, the grisly title of "worst year ever" comes down to historical perspective.
A simple trick allowed marine biologists to prove a long-held suspicion.
- It's long been suspected that sharks navigate the oceans using Earth's magnetic field.
- Sharks are, however, difficult to experiment with.
- Using magnetism, marine biologists figured out a clever way to fool sharks into thinking they're somewhere that they're not.
For some time, scientists have suspected that sharks belong among the growing number of animals known to navigate using Earth's magnetic field. Testing anything with a shark, though, requires some care.
The key was selecting the right candidate. Keller and his colleagues chose the bonnethead shark, Sphyrna tiburo, a small critter that summers at Turkey Point Shoal off the coast of the Florida State University Coastal and Marine Laboratory with which Keller is affiliated.
Bonnetheads elsewhere have been known to complete 620-mile roundtrip migrations. As the lab's Dean Grubbs puts it, "That's not bad for a shark that is only two to three feet long. The question is how do they find their way back to that same estuary year after year." There's a report of a great white shark migrating between two locations, one in South Africa and another in Australia, year after year.
The research is published in Current Biology.
Keller and his team rounded up 20 local juvenile bonnetheads and transported them into a holding tank at the marine lab. For the tests, the researchers simulated three real-world magnetic fields. As the various magnetic fields were activated, the sharks' movements were captured by GoPro cameras and their average swimming orientations calculated by software.
The first simulation, serving as a control, mimicked the magnetic field of the nearby shoal from which the sharks had been captured. When this field was activated, the sharks essentially acted like they were "home," just swimming around as they do.
A second field was the magnetic equivalent of a location 600 kilometers south of the lab within the Gulf of Mexico. When this field was activated, the sharks, apparently mistaking themselves for being far south in the Gulf, began swimming northward toward the shoal.
The opposite occurred with a field standing in for a location in continental North America 600 km north of their home shoal — the sharks began swimming southward.
"For 50 years," says Keller, "scientists have hypothesized that sharks use the magnetic field as a navigational aid. This theory has been so popular because sharks, skates, and rays have been shown to be very sensitive to magnetic fields. They have also been trained to react to unique geomagnetic signatures, so we know they are capable of detecting and reacting to variation in the magnetic field."
His team's experiments confirm what's long been suspected, Keller says: "Sharks use map-like information from the geomagnetic field as a navigational aid. This ability is useful for navigation and possibly maintaining population structure."
A machine learning system lets visitors at a Kandinsky exhibition hear the artwork.
Have you ever heard colors?
As part of a new exhibition, the worlds of culture and technology collide, bringing sound to the colors of abstract art pioneer Wassily Kandinsky.
Kandinsky had synesthesia, where looking at colors and shapes causes some with the condition to hear associated sounds. With the help of machine learning, virtual visitors to the Sounds Like Kandinsky exhibition, a partnership project by Centre Pompidou in Paris and Google Arts & Culture, can have an aural experience of his art.
An eye for music
Kandinsky's synesthesia is thought to have heavily influenced his painting. Seeing yellow summoned up trumpets, evoking emotions like cheekiness; reds produced violins portraying restlessness; while organs representing heavenliness he associated with blues, according to the exhibition notes.
Virtual visitors are invited to take part in an experiment called Play a Kandinsky, which allows them to see and hear the world through the artist's eyes.
Kandinsky's synesthesia is thought to have heavily influenced his 1925 painting Yellow, Red, Blue.Image: Guillaume Piolle/Wikimedia Commons
In 1925, the artist's masterpiece, "Yellow, Red, Blue", broke new ground in the world of abstract art, guiding the viewer from left to right with shifting shapes and shades. Almost a century after it was painted, Google's interactive tool lets visitors click different parts of the artwork to journey through the artist's description of the colors, associated sounds and moods that inspired the work.
But Google's new toy is not the only tool developed to enhance the artistic experience.
Artist Neil Harbisson has developed an artificial way to emulate Kandinsky by turning colors into sounds. He has a rare form of color blindness and sees the world in greyscale. But a smart antenna attached to his head translates dominant colors into musical notes, creating a real-world soundtrack of what's in front of him. The invention could open up a new world for people who are color blind.
A new study suggests that private prisons hold prisoners for a longer period of time, wasting the cost savings that private prisons are supposed to provide over public ones.