The Cradle of Humankind: South Africa and the Story of Human Evolution

When Charles Darwin wrote his classic Origin of Species in 1859, “humans” were mentioned only once, in passing: “light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history”. But the implications of the theory of evolution for the place of humans in nature were earth-shattering, and nobody missed them. In 1871, Darwin took the step of specifically applying his theory to humans, in his book The Descent of Man, in which he made what was at the time a bold prediction: “In each great region of the world the living mammals are closely related to the extinct species of the same region. It is therefore probably that Africa was formerly inhabited by extinct apes closely allied to the gorilla and chimpanzee; and as these two species are now man’s nearest allies, it is somewhat more probable that our early progenitors lived on the African continent than elsewhere.” Half a century later, discoveries in South Africa proved Darwin to be correct.


Fossil hominid skulls on display. Cradle of Humankind Museum, Maropeng, South Africa

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The Workers Opposition: Defending Socialism Inside Stalinist Russia

The history of the Workers’ Opposition has been largely forgotten, both in the West and in the former Soviet Union.  This is unfortunate, since it is the history of a faction within the Russian Communist Party itself which, during the very time that the Russian Revolution was falling into the centralization of political and economic power that would shortly lead to Stalin’s dictatorship, stood up to defend socialism, democracy, workers’ control, the rights of union workers, and economic justice.  Sadly, their struggle was in vain—the bureaucratic Party concentrated all power in its hands, and Stalin soon assumed sole power and crushed the people of the Soviet Union under one of the most brutal regimes of the 20th century.  Many of the members of the Workers’ Opposition died in Stalin’s jails.

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The Mobile Quarantine Facility: Protecting the Earth From Moon Bugs

It was a nightmare scenario for NASA’s moon mission planners–a human triumph turning into tragedy as space-borne moon germs, brought back by astronauts, swept the Earth and killed all terrestrial life with a lethal unstoppable disease. To prevent it, NASA developed a Space Age motor home trailer for astronauts called the Mobile Quarantine Facility.


The Mobile Quarantine facility, on display at the Smithsonian Udvar-Hazy Center

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The American Lion (Yes, America Once Had Wild Lions)

If you could have wandered across the United States in the area that is now the Great Plains 15,000 years ago, you may have mistaken it for the African Serengeti. Elephants, camels, horses, cheetahs . . . all would be roaming across the vast savannahs of North America.  And the most impressive of all would have been the North American Lion.


Fossilized skull of Panthera atrox, the North American Lion, on display at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.

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Florida’s Invaders — Red-Eared Slider

Florida is the land of invasive species. Because of our status as a center for the importing of exotic pets and houseplants from overseas, and our neo-tropical climate, we have been invaded by everything from kudzu plants to Burmese pythons. One of our most common invasives is a brightly-colored aquatic turtle called the Red-Eared Slider. Extremely common in the pet trade, the Slider has been introduced around the world, prompting some biologists to label it as “The Reptilian Norway Rat”. It is listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature as one of the “100 Most Invasive Species in the World”.


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“Ida”: The Most Complete Known Fossil Primate

In 2009, an extraordinary fossil was unveiled for the world by an international team of scientists working in Norway. Named “Ida” (pronounced “eeh-dah”) after the daughter of one of the scientists, the two-square-foot fossil was breathtaking in its level of preservation–individual hairs could be distinguished, the entire skeleton was there with only one leg missing, even the stomach contents could be seen.

Yet this remarkable fossil quickly became the center of a debate and controversy over the underground private fossil trade, the role of the media in modern science, and the dividing line between hype and scientific discourse.


The Ida fossil on display, in a climate-controlled case at Oslo University’s Natural History Museum.

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Japan’s WW2 Submarine Aircraft Carrier

In January 1942, Japan was riding high. It had control of most of the Pacific, and its attack on the US Navy at Pearl Harbor had been a severe blow. But Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, commander of the Japanese Navy, knew that he had not won yet. He needed some way to take the battle to the American mainland, to terrorize the American people and convince them that negotiating a peace was preferable to a long and bloody war.

The method he chose to attack the US mainland was one of the oddest ships ever built–the aircraft-carrier submarine.


Seiran bomber on display at the Smithsonian collection.

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The Beagle Hasn’t Landed: The Story of the British Mars Probe “Beagle 2”

Launched in June 2003, the Beagle 2 Mars probe was intended to put British science back onto the world’s scientific map, by searching Mars for signs of present or past life. But things didn’t quite turn out as planned . . .


The Mars probe Beagle 2, in the London Museum of Science.

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Wild Florida: Laughing Gulls

If you’ve been to Florida, then you’ve seen Laughing Gulls. The large raucous flocks with their distinctive high-pitched “laugh” are found virtually everywhere–at the beach, in parking lots, at the parks, wheeling around in the sky–begging for tidbits (and actively stealing food) from tourists. Toss a few french fries on the ground, and you’re likely to be mobbed by dozens. I refer to them affectionately as “sky rats”.


Laughing Gull, in summer plumage (just beginning to turn into winter plumage)

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World War One and the Birth of Aerial Warfare

On December 17, 1903, two bicycle manufacturers from Dayton, Ohio, stood on a windy beach at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, and tossed a coin.  While the winner, Orville Wright, positioned himself inside a flimsy machine, made of wood and cloth, his brother Wilbur started up their homemade gasoline engine.  Moments later, the rickety contraption rolled along a metal guide rail, then, as it gained speed, it left the ground and flew about ten feet above the sand for twelve seconds, covering a distance of 120 feet.

The age of flight had begun.

A new type of combat had also been born, though the world’s leading military establishments were not quick to see it.


Roland Garros, the first fighter ace.

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