A 600-Meter-Long Plastic Catcher Heads to Sea, but Scientists Are Skeptical

This weekend, a project of staggering ambition will sail past San Francisco and out to sea through the Golden Gate. The invention of an organization called the Ocean Cleanup, it consists of a 600-meter-long plastic tube with a dangling screen that a ship will tow 240 nautical miles out to sea for testing. If that pans out, it’ll head another 1,000 miles out to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, where the U-shaped system will autonomously gather floating plastic for a vessel to come along and scoop up every six weeks or so, like a garbage truck. The Ocean Cleanup says it aims to cut the amount of plastic in the patch in half in five years.

The oceans have a major plastic problem—over 5 trillion pieces of plastic taint the seas, and the Garbage Patch is only growing. Accordingly, Ocean Cleanup has raised $40 million from donors and companies. But many scientists don’t think Ocean Cleanup’s plan holds water. In June, Southern Fried Science, a marine science website, did a survey of 15 ocean-plastic pollution experts. More than half had serious concerns about the project, and a quarter thought it was just a bad idea.

“It's certainly ambitious,” oceanographer Kim Martini, who has studied the Ocean Cleanup campaign, tells WIRED. “It oversimplifies a very complicated problem that people have thought a lot about.”

One issue is that we don’t yet know how ocean plastic is distributed in the water column. “The fact is, a lot of plastic isn't at the surface,” Martini s ays. “There's a lot of research showing that it's sinking.” A plastic bottle, for instance, will fill with water and sink to the seafloor. And tiny bits of degraded plastic can swirl up and down the water column. The free-floating Ocean Cleanup system may well snag the bits at the surface, but with a screen made of woven polyurethane that hangs down 3 meters at its lengthiest, it’s limited in what it can reach.

“There's also the fact that you're collecting and aggregating plastics, and so that's actually going to attract more animals to it,” says Martini. “All this marine debris, things rest on it, things like to grow on it—it's kind of a marine desert out there. It's amazing what a fish will do for a little bit of shade.”

Another concern is that organisms such as bacteria and algae will start to grow on the device itself, which could increase drag and the weight of the structure and potentially change how the dangling screens behave. Ocean Cleanup, though, says it designed the system to be as smooth as possible, to discourage such growth. And while the organization admits the device might attract curious sea life, it insists the system poses no threat.

“We designed the system such that there is basically no risk of entanglement,” says Arjen Tjallema, technology manager at Ocean Cleanup. “So if a fish or a whale or another animal would come close to the system, then it’s relatively harmless.” Yet rogue fishing nets—which Ocean Cleanup’s research says make up perhaps half of the trash mass in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch—could float into the piping, get stuck, and ensnare turtles and other ocean life. Still, doing nothing about the plastic problem isn’t helping marine life either.

Then there’s the issue of the open ocean beating the hell out of the system and turning it into part of the problem it’s trying to solve. Because the tube, after all, is made of 600 meters of plastic. Even UV light may be a problem, as it can bombard plastic and cause it to shed tiny bits. Ocean Cleanup, though, says its high-density polyethylene plastic can reflect UV radiation.

“I sort of wonder what kinds of microplastics this thing is going to be generating on its own, assuming that it's even functioning exactly as designed,” says oceanographer Kara Lavender Law of the Sea Education Association. Worse yet, the thing could snap in a storm. “If it's shedding nano-size particles and then gets smashed into 200-meter-long pieces, you're really covering the whole size range there.”

Ocean Cleanup says it has done hundreds of scale model tests of the system and tested prototypes in the North Sea. It adds that the system is designed to weather the waves of a once-in-a-century storm. If the device happens to wander out of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch gyre, Ocean Cleanup says it will dispatch a boat to tow it back into place.

Given the concerns about Ocean Cleanup’s plan, Law wonders whether it might not be better for (lowercase) ocean cleanups to tackle other, safer targets. “Why not focus your efforts much closer to rivers or places we suspect most of this debris is originating?” she suggests.

This is the approach taken by the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore. It has deployed giant trash wheels complete with googly eyes known as … Mr. Trash Wheel and Professor Trash Wheel, which use the river’s own current to power a wheel that lifts trash out of the water and into a dumpster barge. (If the river is running too slowly, solar power kicks in to get the wheel going.) Together, the devices have pulled 900 tons of trash from the waters around Baltimore.

Ocean Cleanup’s plan is more ambitious. If the first system checks out over the next few weeks, it’ll head farther out to sea to get to work. The end goal? Sixty giant pipes floating out there. “It's a grand experiment that they're conducting,” Law says. “It would not be my first choice for an intervention, especially out in the middle of the ocean, but we'll see what happens.”

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Crispr Halted Muscular Dystrophy in Dogs. Are Humans Next?

About ten years ago, British veterinarians discovered an unlucky family of King Charles Spaniels whose male pups sometimes came down with a mysterious set of maladies before their first birthday. They grew clumsy and weak, and they often choked on their own tongues. To blame was a mutation on their X chromosomes, in a gene that codes for a shock-absorbing muscle protein called dystrophin. When researchers at the Royal Veterinary College realized the puppers had a canine version of the most common fatal genetic disease in children—Duchenne muscular dystrophy—they began breeding the sick spaniels with beagles to start a canine colony in the hopes of one day finding a cure.

Today, scientists report they’ve halted the progression of the disease in some of those doggy descendants using the gene editing tool known as Crispr.

In a study published Thursday in Science, a team led by Eric Olson at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center used Crispr to successfully modify the DNA of four young dogs, reversing the molecular defect responsible for their muscle wasting disease. DMD isn’t an obvious candidate for Crispr’s find-and-replace function; the dystrophin gene is the largest in the human genome, and there are thousands of different mutations that can all result in the disease. But Olson found a way to target an error-prone hot spot on exon 51, which he figured could, with a single slice, benefit approximately 13 percent of DMD patients.


The WIRED Guide to Crispr

Building on previous work he had done to correct mutations in mice and human heart cells, Olson teamed up with vets at RVC to test the approach on their beagle colony. The researchers first packed the instructions for the Crispr gene-editing components into a virus with an affinity for muscle cells. Then they injected millions of copies of that virus into four one-month-old dogs—two got the shot directly in the lower leg, and two received an intravenous infusion. After eight weeks, Crispr had restored dystrophin levels in the second group to more than 50 percent of normal in the legs, and more than 90 percent in the heart.

Researchers estimate that restoring 15 percent of the normal levels of dystrophin in a patient would provide a significant, even curative benefit. “We’re certainly in that ballpark with these dogs,” says Olson, who didn’t know what to expect going into the study because no one had ever delivered Crispr body-wide in a large mammal before. His team prepared for the worst—anaphylaxis, liver toxicity, an inflammatory immune response—but in the end they saw no adverse effects. Instead they saw puppies who could play again. “They showed obvious signs of behavioral improvement—running, jumping—it was quite dramatic,” says Olson, who didn’t include those qualitative observations in the paper on account of the small sample size.

In dogs with DMD, you can see the absence of the dystrophin protein.
UT Southwestern Medical Center
In DMD dogs treated with CRISPR, levels of dystrophin are restored.
UT Southwestern Medical Center

The breakthrough effort was backed, in part, by a startup called Exonics, which was cofounded in 2017 by Olson and patient advocacy group CureDuchenne. Headquartered in Cambridge, Exonics has licensed the gene editing technology developed by Olson’s lab and is moving it toward human trials, with the hopes of one day commercializing treatments. The young biotech company got its footing with $2 million from CureDuchenne’s venture arm, and it has since raised more than $40 million from The Column Group.

This approach—referred to as “venture philanthropy”—is part of a growing movement among rare disease foundations whose long-neglected patients have grown frustrated with the glacial pace of academic science, and are looking for new models to to more directly steer research and accelerate cures.

“In the last few years the rare disease community has really taken on this venture philanthropy strategy to get much-needed funding into research that’s typically avoided by big pharma,” says Alex Graddy-Reed, a health policy researcher at the University of Southern California. She says there’s evidence that nonprofits are emerging as an increasingly important player in funding biomedical research and development, especially for pumping early-stage capital into the gaps left by traditional funders.

Of the $100 billion invested annually in medical and health R&D, nonprofits make up a still modest but growing share. In 2016, charitable foundations invested nearly $2.7 billion in medical and health R&D, a 3.4 percent increase in US expenditures since 2013, according to a report by health research funding watchdog, Research!America.

“I think eventually it will be the standard,” says Debra Miller, the president and CEO of CureDuchenne, of venture philanthropy. “It’s the only way you can be a good steward of the donor dollars you collect.” The organization formally launched its venture arm in 2014, after a small Dutch firm that CureDuchenne had invested in was acquired by BioMarin Pharmaceuticals for $680 million. Between royalty agreements and stock cashouts, CureDuchenne has to date leveraged more than $1.3 billion in follow-on financing to fund new projects to help DMD patients, including the latest, Exonics.

Miller is hopeful that the dedicated company can test a Crispr-based cure faster than some of the bigger gene editing therapeutic firms. Both Editas and Crispr Therapeutics are investigating how their technologies might work for DMD, but they’re currently only in the discovery phase. “We talked with those companies, and they were interested, but it was clear it wasn’t going to be high on their list of priorities,” says Miller. And for good reason. Manufacturing enough viral delivery vehicles to inject Crispr into all the muscles in the human body is a daunting, and expensive endeavor.

It’s one that Exonics will have to figure out eventually, but not anytime soon. Even with the success Olson’s team has seen in this first test in dogs, there’s still a lot of work to be done. First up are a set of longer-term canine studies to test for safety, which Olson anticipates will be complete sometime in 2019. Only then could they start thinking about moving into human trials. “We just have to be really, really, really careful with this,” he says. “We don’t want to have any slip-ups from trying to move too quickly.”

Those kind of slip-ups can send a field back a decade or two, like it did with gene therapy in the 90s. Which is why researchers like Olson preach a very cautious optimism to patients, even as gene editing technologies and venture philanthropy models push forward potential rare disease cures faster than ever before.

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This Hyper-Real Robot Will Cry and Bleed on Med Students

Hal the robot boy is convulsing. His head shakes back and forth so rapidly, it looks like he’s vibrating. His eyelids droop over his blue eyes and his mouth is ajar. He makes no sound, other than the faint whirs of his motors.

Hal was built to suffer. He is a medical training robot, the sort of invention that emerges when one of the most stressful jobs on Earth tumbles into the uncanny valley. No longer must nurses train on lifeless mannequins. Hal can shed tears, bleed, and urinate. If you shine a light in his eyes, his pupils shrink. You can wirelessly control him to go into anaphylactic shock or cardiac arrest. You can hook him up to real hospital machines, and even jolt him with a defibrillator. Hal—which is just now coming onto the market—is so realistic, and these scenarios so emotionally charged, that the instructors who run him in medical simulations have to be careful not to push things too far and upset trainees.

“I've seen several nurses be like, ‘Whoa it moves!’” says Marc Berg, medical director at the Revive Initiative for Resuscitation Excellence at Stanford. “I think that's kind of similar to the idea that if you've driven a car for 20 years and then you got a brand new car, you're kind of amazed initially.”

The company behind this $48,000 robot boy is Gaumard Scientific, which has been developing medical simulators since the 1940s, beginning with synthetic skeletons and anatomical figures. Now, though, the company’s tech has become much more interactive with Hal’s extended family of humanoid robots. Victoria is a robotic woman who gives birth to a baby robot. And Super Tory is a newborn that can help nurses learn to watch for signs of illness in real babies.

Video by Ryan Loughlin

Inside Hal, a combo mechanical-pneumatic system makes him breathe, and a cartridge in his leg allows him to exhale CO2. Hydraulic systems provide fake blood and tears. Servo motors tug on his face, helping him to look angry or scared, among other emotions. He even speaks, with a repertoire that includes shouting for his mother and telling you not touch him. If you like, you can even speak through the robot, with a system that turns your voice into that of a 5-year-old.

One of the reasons for building Hal was to train medical workers on how to approach children, who may not be forthcoming about their symptoms. “They can often do that by facial expression,” says James Archetto, Gaumard’s vice president. To get the expressions right, the company’s engineers worked with pediatricians to fine-tune how an angry or happy child’s face really moves—muscles contracting here, brows furrowing there.

To avoid a faceplant into the uncanny valley, Hal’s designers decided not to give him blemishes or freckles—he has to convince trainees he’s real enough to be an effective tool, but not so real that he becomes a distraction.

What Hal does have, though, is a functioning nose and mouth. “In certain situations such as anaphylaxis, his tongue will swell, his throat will swell,” says Archetto. Medical trainees can even cut a small slit in his throat to practice inserting a tracheal tube to re-establish an airway.

Video by Ryan Loughlin

Students can also hook him up to an EKG to monitor his “heart.” He has a pulse too, which they can monitor with a blood pressure cuff. An instructor can manipulate these vital signs using a tablet, stringing certain symptoms together to simulate, say, cardiac arrest. “For so many years, the mannequins were really just rubber human likenesses with basically no interactivity at all,” says Berg. “They're finally increasing exponentially in their realism.”

During an old-school simulation on a rubber dummy, the trainees would have to check with the instructors to get critical readings. They would answer back from another room through a microphone called the Voice of God: “You do not feel a pulse.” Which tended to ruin the magic of it all and pull participants out of the simulation. Hal, on the other hand, automatically gives trainees a mountain of readings, thus keeping the wizardry alive.

The concern, though, is that Hal’s magic might seem too real, distressing participants during a tense scenario. Even when training on plain rubber dummies, folks can crack. “We can amp the stress level up so high for the participants that people will cry, essentially have to drop out of the scenario,” says Berg. “I do think there's a good potential that we'll see more of that emotional type response when the mannequin is so realistic.”

As with any simulation technology, be it virtual reality or other advanced mannequins like a rather more gory dummy with realistic internal organs, the robot is a tool, not a teacher. In the end, machines can’t teach us about the often overwhelming emotions and stress in medicine—our fellow humans can.

“Maybe one day machines will be so sophisticated they'll be able to interpret our emotions and replicate our emotions,” says Lillian Su, medical director for simulation at the Heart Center of Lucile Packard Children's Hospital. “But until then, we as the humans have to control that part and know how to use the machine so we can train people in that kind of environment.”

“I think that's going to add an emotional layer, a challenge that we as educators have to be prepared for,” Su adds.

Welcome to the uncanny valley, future physicians.

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The grieving orca mother? Projecting emotions on animals is a sad mistake | Jules Howard

When we interpret animal behaviour as humanlike, we risk simply seeing ourselves which demeans us and them, writes zoologist and author Jules Howard

And so, the killer whale known as J35 is back to her old self. She is no longer carrying the dead body of a calf she held aloft in the water for more than two weeks. Her so-called tour of grief has ended, to the relief of a global audience who had become wrapped up in this heart-wrenching animal drama. Great news, right? Sure. Yet I have a strange feeling in my stomach. Its a familiar one. The pedant in me is stirring, eager to get us to consider what we know about animals and what we dont and may never know about their lives. It isnt my aim to belittle J35 and her apparent pain, far from it. Its rather to make sure we dont accidentally dilute the emotions of a killer whale by making it all about us.

First, I have form on this issue. A while ago, I published a book called Death on Earth and episodes of apparent animal grief was one of the areas upon which I focused. During my research, I drew up a list of all sorts of anecdotes about animals labelled (by respectable researchers) as evidence of mourning and grief. These included police dogs pawing at their masters coffins, macaques resuscitating fallen loved ones and turtles appearing on beaches to mourn at makeshift graves made by humans for the turtles that didnt make it. I was told by members of the public on Twitter about dogs going off food after losing kennel-mates and horses burying dead stablemates in hay and I was reminded regularly of those BBC documentaries featuring elephants in apparent (but I would argue edited) tears at the loss of a loved one.

So far, so nebulous. Crows added some much-needed science to the field of research into animal grief and mourning. This is because many studies of American corvids (crows, ravens, jays and related birds) have provided repeated evidence that these creatures do behave strangely around the death of their own species. Upon finding a dead corvid corpse, they group together and call wildly with one another, forming a rousing denouement of debate. Who killed and will they kill again? they seem to ask one another.

Popular press coverage of this research liked to use the term funeral to describe these gatherings. This bothered me a little. Is there ritualisation similar to what you would see at a human funeral when crows and jays gather like this? Is there mass grief and sadness like that at most human funerals? No, of course not. And theres definitely no necrophilia at human funerals either. Yet, many people think crows understand death in a way that we have no evidence they do. Why? Because of the human words we use.

J35 is no longer carrying the dead body of a calf she held aloft in the water for more than two weeks. Photograph: AP

But killer whales are thought of differently. Like us, they are highly developed social mammals with an impressive language, dialects and even cultures. J35 must have been mourning, we think. She simply must have been. The problem is there is no way (yet) to scientifically test for sure that this is the case. Even with all the photos, there is still a distinct possibility that J35 may have just been confused. She may have even hoped her baby would revive. Pedantic (and blunt) as it sounds, if you believe J35 was displaying evidence of mourning or grief, you are making a case that rests on faith not on scientific endeavour, and that makes me uncomfortable as a scientist.

This might seem unreasonable and even brutally cruel to some readers but remember this behaviour has been documented only a handful of times and that, on the whole, the sea is not filled with killer whales displaying such extreme and dramatic behaviours each time a loved one dies. Compare that to human societies, all of whom undergo dramatic periods of social upheaval upon the death of friends or family. You are likely to have experienced it. You, the reader, may still be carrying the effect of death in your human heart. Thats actual grief. Thats actual mourning.

Am I being a pedant? Probably. But by loosely labelling these emotions willy-nilly in animals, I worry that we make two mistakes. The first is that we squeeze a whole range of animal behaviours into discrete categories of human emotion, thereby overlooking and failing to celebrate their unique brand of animal majesty. The second is that we dilute a real, powerful and observable human emotion by granting other animals the same emotions so freely without any scientific rigour.

When we hold up a magnifying glass to nature, its all too easy to see ourselves reflected in the frame. Yet to truly know animals takes a more polished lens and a more measured use of words. We may never know if killer whales experience a sadness quite like our own (they may even experience a pain we cannot imagine) but a key point remains: regardless of whether they have the same emotions as us or not, they deserve our utmost kindness and our respect. Just like everything else.

Jules Howard is a zoologist and author

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Behemoth, bully, thief: how the English language is taking over the planet

The long read: No language in history has dominated the world quite like English does today. Is there any point in resisting?

On 16 May, a lawyer named Aaron Schlossberg was in a New York cafe when he heard several members of staff speaking Spanish. He reacted with immediate fury, threatening to call US Immigration and Customs Enforcement and telling one employee: Your staff is speaking Spanish to customers when they should be speaking English This is America. A video of the incident quickly went viral, drawing widespread scorn. The Yelp page for his law firm was flooded with one-star reviews, and Schlossberg was soon confronted with a fiesta protest in front of his Manhattan apartment building, which included a crowd-funded taco truck and mariachi band to serenade him on the way to work.

As the Trump administration intensifies its crackdown on migrants, speaking any language besides English has taken on a certain charge. In some cases, it can even be dangerous. But if something has changed around the politics of English since Donald Trump took office, the anger Schlossberg voiced taps into deeper nativist roots. Elevating English while denigrating all other languages has been a pillar of English and American nationalism for well over a hundred years. Its a strain of linguistic exclusionism heard in Theodore Roosevelts 1919 address to the American Defense Society, in which he proclaimed that we have room for but one language here, and that is the English language, for we intend to see that the crucible turns our people out as Americans, of American nationality, and not as dwellers in a polyglot boardinghouse.

As it turned out, Roosevelt had things almost perfectly backwards. A century of immigration has done little to dislodge the status of English in North America. If anything, its position is stronger than it was a hundred years ago. Yet from a global perspective,it is not America that is threatened by foreign languages. It is the world that is threatened by English.

Behemoth, bully, loudmouth, thief: English is everywhere, and everywhere, English dominates. From inauspicious beginnings on the edge of a minor European archipelago, it has grown to vast size and astonishing influence. Almost 400m people speak it as their first language; a billion more know it as a secondary tongue. It is an official language in at least 59 countries, the unofficial lingua franca of dozens more. No language in history has been used by so many people or spanned a greater portion of the globe. It is aspirational: the golden ticket to the worlds of education and international commerce, a parents dream and a students misery, winnower of the haves from the have-nots. It is inescapable: the language of global business, the internet, science, diplomacy, stellar navigation, avian pathology. And everywhere it goes, it leaves behind a trail of dead: dialects crushed, languages forgotten, literatures mangled.

One straightforward way to trace the growing influence of English is in the way its vocabulary has infiltrated so many other languages. For a millennium or more, English was a great importer of words, absorbing vocabulary from Latin, Greek, French, Hindi, Nahuatl and many others. During the 20th century, though, as the US became the dominant superpower and the world grew more connected, English became a net exporter of words. In 2001, Manfred Grlach, a German scholar who studies the dizzying number of regional variants of English he is the author of the collections Englishes, More Englishes, Still More Englishes, and Even More Englishes published the Dictionary of European Anglicisms, which gathers together English terms found in 16 European languages. A few of the most prevalent include last-minute, fitness, group sex, and a number of terms related to seagoing and train travel.

In some countries, such as France and Israel, special linguistic commissions have been working for decades to stem the English tide by creating new coinages of their own to little avail, for the most part. (As the journalist Lauren Collins has wryly noted: Does anyone really think that French teenagers, per the academys diktat, are going to trade out sexting for texto pornographique?) Thanks to the internet, the spread of English has almost certainly sped up.

The gravitational pull that English now exerts on other languages can also be seen in the world of fiction. The writer and translator Tim Parks has argued that European novels are increasingly being written in a kind of denatured, international vernacular, shorn of country-specific references and difficult-to-translate wordplay or grammar. Novels in this mode whether written in Dutch, Italian or Swiss German have not only assimilated the style of English, but perhaps more insidiously limit themselves to describing subjects in a way that would be easily digestible in an anglophone context.

Yet the influence of English now goes beyond simple lexical borrowing or literary influence. Researchers at the IULM University in Milan have noticed that, in the past 50 years, Italian syntax has shifted towards patterns that mimic English models, for instance in the use of possessives instead of reflexives to indicate body parts and the frequency with which adjectives are placed before nouns. German is also increasingly adopting English grammatical forms, while in Swedish its influence has been changing the rules governing word formation and phonology.

Within the anglophone world, that English should be the key to all the worlds knowledge and all the worlds places is rarely questioned. The hegemony of English is so natural as to be invisible. Protesting it feels like yelling at the moon. Outside the anglophone world, living with English is like drifting into the proximity of a supermassive black hole, whose gravity warps everything in its reach. Every day English spreads, the world becomes a little more homogenous and a little more bland.

Until recently, the story of English was broadly similar to that of other global languages: it spread through a combination of conquest, trade and colonisation. (Some languages, such as Arabic and Sanskrit, also caught on through their status as sacred tongues.) But then, at some point between the end of the second world war and the start of the new millenium, English made a jump in primacy that no amount of talk about it as a lingua franca or global language truly captures. It transformed from a dominant language to what the Dutch sociologist Abram de Swaan calls a hypercentral one.

De Swaan divides languages into four categories. Lowest on the pyramid are the peripheral languages, which make up 98% of all languages, but are spoken by less than 10% of mankind. These are largely oral, and rarely have any kind of official status. Next are the central languages, though a more apt term might be national languages. These are written, are taught in schools, and each has a territory to call its own: Lithuania for Lithuanian, North and South Korea for Korean, Paraguay for Guarani, and so on.

Following these are the 12 supercentral languages: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, German, Hindi, Japanese, Malay, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish and Swahili each of which (except for Swahili) boast 100 million speakers or more. These are languages you can travel with. They connect people across nations. They are commonly spoken as second languages, often (but not exclusively) as a result of their parent nations colonial past.

Then, finally, we come to the top of the pyramid, to the languages that connect the supercentral ones. There is only one: English, which De Swaan calls the hypercentral language that holds the entire world language system together. The Japanese novelist Minae Mizumura similarly describes English as a universal language . For Mizumura, what makes it universal is not that it has many native speakers Mandarin and Spanish have more but that it is used by the greatest number of non-native speakers in the world. She compares it to a currency used by more and more people until its utility hits a critical mass and it becomes a world currency. The literary critic Jonathan Arac is even more blunt, noting, in a critique of what he calls Anglo-Globalism, that English in culture, like the dollar in economics, serves as the medium through which knowledge may be translated from the local to the global.

In the last few decades, as globalisation has accelerated and the US has remained the worlds most powerful country, the advance of English has taken on a new momentum. In 2008, Rwanda switched its education system from French to English, having already made English an official language in 14 years earlier. Officially, this was part of the governments effort to make Rwanda the tech hub of Africa. Unofficially, its widely believed to be an expression of disgust at Frances role in propping-up the pre-1994 Hutu-dominant government, as well as a reflection that the countrys ruling elite mostly speaks English, having grown up as exiles in anglophone east Africa. When South Sudan became independent in 2011, it made English its official language despite having very few resources or qualified personnel with which to teach it in schools. The Minister of higher education at the time justified the move as being aimed at making the country different and modern, while the news director of South Sudan Radio added that with English, South Sudan could become one nation and communicate with the rest of the world understandable goals in a country home to more than 50 local languages.

An English class at a government school in Bentiu, South Sudan. Photograph: Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images

The situation in east Asia is no less dramatic. China currently has more speakers of English as a second language than any other country. Some prominent English teachers have become celebrities, conducting mass lessons in stadiums seating thousands. In South Korea, meanwhile, according to the sociolinguist Joseph Sung-Yul Park, English is a national religion. Korean employers expect proficiency in English, even in positions where it offers no obvious advantage.

The quest to master English in Korea is often called the yeongeo yeolpung or English frenzy. Although mostly confined to a mania for instruction and immersion, occasionally this frenzy spills over into medical intervention. As Sung-Yul Park relates: An increasing number of parents in South Korea have their children undergo a form of surgery that snips off a thin band of tissue under the tongue Most parents pay for this surgery because they believe it will make their children speak English better; the surgery supposedly enables the child to pronounce the English retroflex consonant with ease, a sound that is considered to be particularly difficult for Koreans.

There is no evidence to suggest that this surgery in any way improves English pronunciation. The willingness to engage in this useless surgical procedure strikes me, though, as a potent metaphor for Englishs peculiar status in the modern world. It is no longer simply a tool suited to a particular task or set of tasks, as it was in the days of the Royal Navy or the International Commission for Air Navigation. It is now seen as the access code to the global elite. If you want your children to get ahead, then they better have English in their toolkit.

Is the conquest of English really so bad? In the not-too-distant future, thanks to English, the curse of Babel will be undone and the children of men may come together once again, united with the aid of a common tongue. Certainly, thats what Englishs boosters would have you believe. After all, what a work is English, how copious in its vocabulary, how noble in expression, how sinuous in its constructions, and yet how plain in its basic principles. A language, in short, with a word for almost everything, capable of an infinite gradation of meanings, equally suited to describing the essential rights of mankind as to ornamenting a packet of crisps, whose only defect, as far as I know, is that it makes everyone who speaks it sound like a duck.

Well, not really. (OK, maybe a little English, while not an ugly language, isnt exactly pretty either). Mostly, Im speaking out of bitterness one that is old, and until recently, lay dormant. My first language was Polish. I learned it from my parents at home. English followed shortly, at school in Pennsylvania. I learned to speak it fluently, but with an accent, which took years of teasing and some speech therapy, kindly provided by the state to wear away. That, combined with the experience of watching the widespread condescension towards those who take their time learning English, left me a lifelong English-sceptic. (I admit, also, that a strain of linguistic megalomania runs through many Polish speakers, one best summed up by the novelist Joseph Conrad, who, when asked why he didnt write in his native language, replied: I value too much our beautiful Polish literature to introduce into it my worthless twaddle. But for Englishmen my capacities are just sufficient.)

Its not that English is bad. Its fine! A perfectly nice language, capable of expressing a great many things and with scores of fascinating regional variants, from Scots to Singapore English. But it is so prevalent. And so hard to escape. And so freighted with buffoonish puffery written on its behalf: our magnificent bastard tongue; the language that connects the world. Please. There is no reason for any particular language to be worshipped around the world like a golden idol. There is a pervasive mismatch between the grand claims made on Englishs behalf, and its limitations as means of communication (limitations, to be fair, that it shares with all other languages).

Is English oppressive? When its pervasive influence silences other languages, or discourages parents from passing on their native languages to their children, I think it can be. When you do know another language, its merely constricting, like wearing trousers that are too tight. Thats because while English is good for a great many things, it is not good for everything. To me, family intimacies long to be expressed in Polish. So does anything concerning the seasons, forest products and catastrophic sorrows. Poetry naturally sounds better in Polish. Ive always spoken it to cats and dogs on the assumption that they understand, being simultaneously convinced that raccoons and lesser animals only respond to shouts.

This isnt quite as idiosyncratic as it sounds. Aneta Pavlenko, an applied linguist at Temple University in Pennsylvania, who has spent her career studying the psychology of bilingual and multilingual speakers, has found that speakers of multiple languages frequently believe that each language conveys a different self. Languages, according to her respondents, come in a kaleidoscopic range of emotional tones. I would inevitably talk to babies and animals in Welsh, reports a Welsh-speaker. An informant from Finland counters: Finnish emotions are rarely stated explicitly. Therefore it is easier to tell my children that I love them in English. Several Japanese speakers say that its easier to express anger in English, especially by swearing.

Intuitive though it might be to some, the idea that different languages capture and construct different realities has been a subject of academic controversy for at least 200 years. The German explorer Alexander von Humboldt was among the first to articulate it in a complex form. After studying Amerindian languages in the New World, he came to the conclusion that every language draws a circle around its speakers, creating a distinct worldview through its grammar as well as in its vocabulary. In the 20th century, the American linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf elaborated this idea into a broader vision of how language structures thought. Both drew inspiration for their work from their study of North American languages such as Nootka, Shawnee and Hopi.

This idea now usually known as the linguistic relativity hypothesis, or Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has had a checkered history in academia. At different times, it has been hailed by it proponents as foundational insight for modern anthropology and literary theory, and blamed by its detractors as the source of the worst excesses of postmodern philosophy. In recent decades, sociolinguists have arrived at a few startlingly suggestive findings concerning the influence of language on colour perception, orientation and verbs of motion but in general, the more expansive notion that different languages inculcate fundamentally different ways of thinking has not been proven.

Nonetheless, some version of this idea continues to find supporters, not least among writers familiar with shifting between languages. Here is the memoirist Eva Hoffman on the experience of learning English in Vancouver while simultaneously feeling cut off from the Polish she had grown up speaking as a teenager in Krakw: This radical disjointing between word and thing is a desiccating alchemy, draining the world not only of significance but of its colours, striations, nuances its very existence. It is the loss of a living connection. The Chinese writer Xiaolu Guo described something similar in her recent memoir, writing about how uncomfortable she felt, at first, with the way the English language encouraged speakers to use the first-person singular, rather than plural. After all, how could someone who had grown up in a collective society get used to using the first-person singular all the time? But here, in this foreign country, I had to build a world as a first-person singular urgently.

Li Yang teaches students his Crazy English accelerated learning method in Nanjing, China. Photograph: China Photos/Getty Images

In the 1970s, Anna Wierzbicka, a linguist who found herself marooned in Australia after a long career in Polish academia, stood the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis on its head. Instead of trying to describe the worldviews of distant hunter-gatherers, she turned her sociolinguistic lens on the surrounding anglophones. For Wierzbicka, English shapes its speakers as powerfully as any other language. Its just that in an anglophone world, that invisible baggage is harder to discern. In a series of books culminating in 2013s evocatively named Imprisoned in English, she has attempted to analyse various assumptions social, spatial, emotional and otherwise latent in English spoken by the middle and upper classes in the US and UK.

Reading Wierzbickas work is like peeking through a magic mirror that inverts the old how natives think school of anthropology and turns it back on ourselves. Her English-speakers are a pragmatic people, cautious in their pronouncements and prone to downplaying their emotions. They endlessly qualify their remarks according to their stance towards what is being said. Hence their endless use of expressions such as I think, I believe, I suppose, I understand, I suspect. They prefer fact over theories, savour control and space, and cherish autonomy over intimacy. Their moral lives are governed by a tightly interwoven knot of culture-specific concepts called right and wrong, which they mysteriously believe to be universal.

Wierzbickas description of Englishs subconscious system of values hardly holds true for the billion or more speakers of this most global of tongues. But it is also a reminder that, despite its influence, English is not truly universal. Its horizons are just as limited as those of any other language, whether Chinese or Hopi or Dalabon.

For if language connects people socially, it also connects them to a place. The linguist Nicholas Evans has described how Kayardild, a language spoken in northern Australia, requires a speaker to continually orient themselves according to the cardinal directions. Where an English speaker would orient things according to their own perception my left, my right, my front, my back a speaker of Kayardild thinks in terms of north, south, east and west. As a consequence, speakers of Kayardild (and those of several other languages that share this feature) possess absolute reckoning, or a kind of perfect pitch for direction. It also means removing ones self as the main reference point for thinking about space. As Evans writes of his own experiences learning the language, one aspect of speaking Kayardild, then, is learning that the landscape is more important and objective than you are. Kayardild grammar literally puts everyone in their place.

Kayardild and its kin are truly local languages, with few speakers, and modes of expression that are hard to separate from the places in which they are spoken. But that should not lead us to think that they are lesser. The world is made up of places, not universals. To speak only English, in spite of its vast vocabulary and countless varieties, is still to dwell in a rather small pool. It draws the same circle Humboldt described around its speakers as each of the other 6,000 human languages. The difference is that we have mistaken that circle for the world.

Because English is increasingly the currency of the universal, it is difficult to express any opposition to its hegemony that doesnt appear to be tainted by either nationalism or snobbery. When Minae Mizumura published the Fall of Language in the Age of English, in 2008, it was a surprise commercial success in Japan. But it provoked a storm of criticism, as Mizumura was accused of elitism, nationalism and being a hopeless reactionary. One representative online comment read: Who does she think she is, a privileged bilingual preaching to the rest of us Japanese! (Perhaps unsurprisingly, Mizumuras broader argument, about the gradual erosion of Japanese literature and especially, the legacy of the Japanese modernist novel got lost in the scuffle.)

Those of us troubled by the hyperdominance of English should also remember the role it has played in some societies especially multi-ethnic ones as a bridge to the wider world and counterweight to other nationalisms. This was especially keenly felt in South Africa, where Afrikaans was widely associated with the policy of apartheid. When the government announced that Afrikaans would be used as a language of instruction in schools on par with English in 1974, the decision led in 1976 to a mass demonstration by black students known as the Soweto uprising. Its brutal suppression resulted in hundreds of deaths, and is considered a turning point in the anti-apartheid struggle. Similar protests have periodically racked southern India since the 1940s over attempts to enforce official use of Hindi in place of English.

A sign for English lessons in Nawalgarh, Rajasthan, India. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

In other parts of the world though, English still carries the full weight of its colonialist past. Since the 1960s, the celebrated Kenyan novelist Ngg wa Thiongo has advocated on behalf of African languages and against the prevalence of English-language education in postcolonial countries. In his landmark 1986 book Decolonising the Mind: the Politics of Language in African Literature, he describes the corrosive effect of English language instruction, comparing it to a form of spiritual subjugation. Colonial education, in which pupils were physically punished for speaking their native languages while at school (something also done to the Welsh into the early 20th century) was necessarily, and deliberately, alienating, like separating the mind from the body.

Since publishing Decolonising the Mind, Ngg has worked to put its dictates into practice. He renounced his baptismal name, James, and with it Christianity, and ceased to write fiction in English. Since the 1980s, he has written all his novels and plays in his native Gikuyu, only using English (and occasionally Kiswahili) for essays and polemics. This last decision is one that many people still question. As he said in a recent interview: If I meet an English person, and he says, I write in English, I dont ask him, Why are you writing in English? If I meet a French writer, I dont ask him, Why dont you write in Vietnamese? But I am asked over and over again, Why do you write in Gikuyu? For Africans, the view is there is something wrong about writing in an African language.

Part of the paradox of Nggs situation is that while he may be the worlds foremost advocate for writing literature in African languages, his novels have won acclaim and gained international recognition through the medium of English. The hegemony of English is now such that, in order to be recognised, any opposition to English has to formulated in English in order to be heard.

Today it is estimated that the world loses a language every two weeks. Linguists have predicted that between 50 and 90% of the worlds 6,000 or so languages will go extinct in the coming century. For even a fraction of these to survive, were going to have to start thinking of smaller languages not as endangered species worth saving, but as equals worth learning.

In most of the world, its already too late. In California, where I live, most of the languages that were spoken before the arrival of Europeans are already extinct. On Americas eastern seaboard, thanks to long proximity to Anglo settlers, the situation is even worse. Most of what we know about many of these vanished languages comes in the form of brief word lists compiled by European settlers and traders before the 19th century. Stadaconan (or Laurentian) survives only from a glossary of 220 words jotted down by Jacques Cartier when he sailed up the St Lawrence River in Canada in 1535. Eastern Atakapa, from Louisianas Gulf Coast, is known from a list of only 287, gathered in 1802. The last fragments of Nansemond, once spoken in eastern Virginia, were collected from the last living speaker just before his death in 1902, by which time he could only recall six words: one, two, three, four, five and dog.

The great Malian historian and novelist Amadou Hampt B once said that in Africa, when an elder dies, a library burns. Today, across the world, the libraries are still burning. In his marvellous book, Searching for Aboriginal Languages: Memoirs of a Field Worker, the linguist Robert MW Dixon describes travelling across Northern Queensland in the 1960s and 70s to record indigenous languages, many of which had already dwindled to a handful of speakers. Its hard to remain an oral language in an increasingly text-dependent world. All the forces of modernity, globalisation, industrialisation, urbanisation and the rise of the nation-state are arrayed against the small and local as opposed to the big and shareable.

In this past century, the Earth has been steadily losing diversity at every level of biology and culture. Few deny this is a bad thing. Too often though, we forget that these crises of diversity depend, to a great extent, on our own decisions. Much of what has been done can also be undone, provided there is the will for it. Hebrew is the most famous case of a language brought back from the dead, but linguistic revitalisation has been proven to be possible elsewhere as well. Czech became a viable national language thanks to the work of literary activists in the 19th century. On a much smaller scale, endangered languages such as Manx in the Isle of Man and Wampanoag in the US have been successfully pulled back from the brink.

Coming face-to-face with the current onslaught of linguicide, I find myself wanting to venture a modest proposal. What if anglo-globalism wasnt a one-way street? What if the pre-contact languages of the Americas were taught in American high schools? What if British schoolchildren learned some of the languages spoken by the actual residents of the former empire? (This is a utopian project obviously. But how much would it actually cost to add a linguistic elective to larger high schools? One jet fighter? A few cruise missiles?)

Current educational discourse is full of talk about the need to bolster childrens cognition. In the culture at large, experts have been trumpeting the cognitive benefits of everything from online brain games to magic mushrooms. Why not try Hopi instead? The point of this education wouldnt necessarily be to acquire fluency in an extinct or smaller language it would be to open a door.

And think of the vistas it might open up. For generations, a huge percentage of philosophy and social science has been conducted in and about English speakers. Humankind, as imagined by the academy, is mostly anglophone. This has even been true in linguistics. Noam Chomskys idea of a universal grammar underpinning all languages was based on a rather narrow empirical base. More recent research into dozens of smaller languages, like Kayardild and Pirah, has been steadily whittling away at his list of supposed universals. We now know there are languages without adverbs, adjectives, prepositions and articles. There seems to be hardly anything that a language needs to be just thousands of natural experiments in how they might be assembled. And most of them are about to be lost.

In some ways, the worst threat may come not from the global onrush of modernity, but from an idea: that a single language should suit every purpose, and that being monolingual is therefore somehow normal. This is something thats often assumed reflexively by those of us who live most of our lives in English, but historically speaking, monolingualism is something of an aberration.

Before the era of the nation-state, polyglot empires were the rule, rather than the exception. Polyglot individuals abounded, too. For most of history, people lived in small communities. But that did not mean that they were isolated from one another. Multilingualism must have been common. Today, we see traces of this polyglot past in linguistic hotspots such as the Mandara mountains of Cameroon, where children as young as 10 routinely juggle four or five languages in daily life, and learn several others in school.

Residents of Arnhem Land in northern Australia routinely speak half a dozen or more languages by the time they are adults. Multilingualism, writes Nicholas Evans, is helped by the fact that you have to marry outside your clan, which likely means your wife or husband speaks a different language from you. It also means that you parents each speak a different language, and your grandparents three or four languages between them.

A resident of another linguistic hotspot, the Sepik region of Papua New Guinea, once told Evans: It wouldnt be any good if we talked the same; we like to know where people come from. Its a vision of Babel in reverse. Instead of representing a fall from human perfection, as in the biblical story, having many languages is a gift. Its something to remember before we let English swallow the globe.

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Charles Krauthammer, Prominent Conservative Voice, Has Died

New York (AP) — Charles Krauthammer, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and pundit who helped shape and occasionally dissented from the conservative movement as he evolved from "Great Society" Democrat to Iraq War cheerleader to denouncer of Donald Trump, died Thursday.

He was 68.

His death was announced by two organizations that were longtime employers, Fox News Channel and The Washington Post.

Krauthammer had said publicly a year ago he was being treated for a cancerous tumor in his abdomen and earlier this month revealed that he likely had just weeks to live.

"I leave this life with no regrets," Krauthammer wrote in The Washington Post, where his column had run since 1984. "It was a wonderful life — full and complete with the great loves and great endeavors that make it worth living. I am sad to leave, but I leave with the knowledge that I lived the life that I intended."

Sometimes scornful, sometimes reflective, he was awarded a Pulitzer in 1987 for "his witty and insightful" commentary and was an influential voice among Republicans, whether through his syndicated column or his appearances on Fox News Channel. He was most associated with Brit Hume's nightly newscast and stayed with it when Bret Baier took over in 2009.

Krauthammer is credited with coining the term "The Reagan Doctrine" for President Reagan's policy of aiding anti-Communist movements worldwide. He was a leading advocate for the Iraq War and a prominent critic of President Barack Obama, whom he praised for his "first-class intellect and first-class temperament" and denounced for having a "highly suspect" character.

Krauthammer was a former Harvard medical student who graduated even after he was paralyzed from the neck down because of a diving board accident, continuing his studies from his hospital bed. He was a Democrat in his youth and his political engagement dated back to 1976, when he handed out leaflets for Henry Jackson's unsuccessful presidential campaign.

But through the 1980s and beyond, Krauthammer followed a journey akin to such neo-conservative predecessors as Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz, turning against his old party on foreign and domestic issues. He aligned with Republicans on everything from confrontation with the Soviet Union to rejection of the "Great Society" programs enacted during the 1960s.

"As I became convinced of the practical and theoretical defects of the social-democratic tendencies of my youth, it was but a short distance to a philosophy of restrained, free-market governance that gave more space and place to the individual and to the civil society that stands between citizen and state," he wrote in the introduction to "Things That Matter," a million-selling compilation of his writings published in 2013.

For the Post, Time magazine, The New Republic and other publications, Krauthammer wrote on a wide range of subjects, and in "Things That Matter" listed chess, baseball, "the innocence of dogs" and "the cunning of cats" among his passions. As a psychiatrist in the 1970s, he did groundbreaking research on bipolar disorder.

But he found nothing could live apart from government and the civic realm. "Science, medicine, art, poetry, architecture" and other fields were "fundamentally subordinate. In the end, they must bow to the sovereignty of politics."

Ever blunt in his criticisms, Krauthammer was an "intense disliker" the liberal columnist E.J. Dionne told Politico in

2009. And opponents had words for him. Christopher Hitchens once called him the "newest of the neocon mini-windbags," with the "arduous job, in an arduous time, of being an unpredictable conformist."

He was attacked for his politics, and for his predictions. He was so confident of quick success in Iraq he initially labeled the 2003 invasion "The Three Week War" and defended the conflict for years. He also backed the George W. Bush administration's use of torture as an "uncontrolled experiment" carried out "sometimes clumsily, sometimes cruelly, indeed, sometimes wrongly. But successfully. It kept us safe."

And the former president praised Krauthammer after hearing of his death.

"For decades, Charles' words have strengthened our democracy," George W. Bush said in a statement. "His work was far-reaching and influential — and while his voice will be deeply missed, his ideas and values will always be a part of our country."

Krauthammer was sure that Obama would lose in 2008 because of lingering fears from the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, and foresaw Mitt Romney defeating him in 2012.

But he prided himself on his rejection of orthodoxy and took on Republicans, too, observing during a Fox special in 2013 that "If you're going to leave the medical profession because you think you have something to say, you betray your whole life if you don't say what you think and if you don't say it honestly and bluntly."

He criticized the death penalty and rejected intelligent design as "today's tarted-up version of creationism." In 2005, he was widely cited as a key factor in convincing Bush to rescind the Supreme Court nomination of the president's friend and legal adviser Harriet Miers, whom Krauthammer and others said lacked the necessary credentials. And he differed with such Fox commentators as Bill O'Reilly and Laura Ingraham as he found himself among the increasingly isolated "Never Trumpers," Republicans regarding the real estate baron and former "Apprentice" star as a vulgarian unfit for the presidency.

"I used to think Trump was an 11-year-old, an undeveloped schoolyard bully," he wrote in August 2016, around the time Trump officially became the Republican nominee. "I was off by about 10 years. His needs are more primitive, an infantile hunger for approval and praise, a craving that can never be satisfied. He lives in a cocoon of solipsism where the world outside himself has value — indeed exists — only insofar as it sustains and inflates him."

Trump, of course, tweeted about Krauthammer, who "pretends to be a smart guy, but if you look at his record, he isn't. A dummy who is on too many Fox shows. An overrated clown!"

Krauthammer married Robyn Trethewey, an artist and former attorney, in 1974. They had a son, Daniel, who also became a columnist and commentator.

The son of Jewish immigrants from Europe, Krauthammer was born in New York City and moved with his family to Montreal when he was 5, growing up in a French speaking home. His path to political writing was unexpected. First, at McGill University, he became editor in chief of the student newspaper after his predecessor was ousted over what Krauthammer called his "mindless, humorless Maoism."

In the late 1970s, while a psychiatric resident at Massachusetts General Hospital, a professor with whom he had researched manic depression was appointed to a mental health agency created by President Jimmy Carter. Krauthammer went, too, began writing for The New Republic and was soon recruited to write speeches for Carter's vice president and 1980 running mate, Walter Mondale.

Carter was defeated by Reagan and on Jan. 20, 1981, Reagan's inauguration day, Krauthammer formally joined The New Republic as a writer and editor.

"These quite fantastic twists and turns have given me a profound respect for serendipity," he wrote in 2013. "A long forgotten, utterly trivial student council fight brought me to journalism. A moment of adolescent anger led me to the impulsive decision to quit political studies and enroll in medical school. A decade later, a random presidential appointment having nothing to do with me brought me to a place where my writing and public career could begin.

"When a young journalist asks me today, 'How do I get to a nationally syndicated columnist?' I have my answer: 'First, go to medical school.'"


AP Television Writer David Bauder contributed to this report.

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    Do Thundershirts Really Calm Dogs During Fireworks or What?

    The dogs will lose their minds. They always do. Every Fourth of July in America, as children stay up past their bedtime to watch colors explode in the sky and adults sit on the back of pickup trucks drinking beer and marveling at a pyrotechnic technology 12 centuries old, pets across the country panic with every boom.

    Sound phobias are very common for dogs—and cats—making this holiday a nightmare for millions of animals. “Half of the dogs in my practice are dealing with fireworks fear this week,” says veterinarian and animal clinical behavior resident Amy Learn, whose clinic in Richmond, Virginia, sees more than 2,000 clients annually. For many dogs, the nightmare has already begun. A quick search on Twitter shows people across the land complaining about neighbors popping fireworks off early. In Boston, where I live, they first started exploding in the middle of last week. The German shepherd next door has been pacing back and forth every night since, nails skittering across the floor.

    That behavior is typical for dogs with loud noise phobia. Learn says you’ll know if your animal has abnormal fear of loud sounds if they don’t recover from the initial shock of hearing the sound right away. If your dog is pacing, howling, panting, and trying to run as far away from the sound as possible; if your cat is hiding, its ears cocked back, its eyes dilated, they need help. Every year around this date, people flock to Google to search “How to keep a dog calm during fireworks.” One answer that frequently shows up at the top of the results: anxiety shirts or thunder vests.

    These come in two main designs—a spandex T-shirt that’s meant to give an animal a balanced hug, and a vest with straps designed to put pressure on particular parts of the body. “Their job is to squeeze,” Learn says. “It's postulated that it feels like a hug."

    Animal anxiety shirts were directly inspired by research into humans with severe anxiety or autism. The insight that certain kinds of touch and pressure can have a calming effect was first popularized and championed by livestock behavior expert and autism-awareness-advocate Temple Grandin, who invented a “hug machine” for humans with autism after noticing the way a light squeeze calmed cows before slaughter. Grandin’s work is specifically called out on the website for Thundershirt, the major player in the animal anxiety wrap market. Deep Pressure Therapy is now widely used to help calm people with autism, and many different studies suggest the therapy shows real results.

    But the science is less clear about whether pressure therapy really works for dogs.

    Michelle Mullins, an animal behavior expert and board member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, first learned about animal anxiety shirts two decades ago. But they have only gone mainstream in the last 10 years with companies like Thundershirt. “As we often are wont to do when we look at science, we want to say if it works for humans it will work for our pets. In some cases it's true and in many cases it's not,” Mullins says. “Unfortunately we don’t have a huge amount of scientific studies about this.”

    There’s only been one study to date into the use of anxiety shirts to deal with sound phobias, and it had a small sample size of 18 participants. Published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior in 2013, the study compared owner-reported anxiety levels before and after prolonged use of anxiety wraps, and found that 89 percent of dog owners felt the shirts helped. Most importantly, the study found that even for those animals who saw no benefit, there were no adverse side effects. But one study is hardly conclusive evidence, and along with small sample size the study is also hindered by relying on self-reporting, which is often highly unreliable.

    That leaves pet owners and people who care for animals to depend on anecdotal experience. “This is one of those things that isn't super scientific," says Learn. "A lot of it is subjective. It's the owner saying, 'Oh, my dog feels better.'" But owners apparently feel that way a lot.

    “I rarely if ever recommend them as a cure all,” says Mullins, “but I have seen many dogs successfully use these as part of their therapy.”

    Both Learn and Mullins report working with animals that appear to be helped by these shirts. They always recommend owners use the shirts in combination with other interventions, like medication or specific behavioral modifications. A hallmark of Mullins' long-term behavioral work with sound-phobic animals is to desensitize the animals by exposing them to loud sounds slowly over time. Clearly, for people searching Google for a solution in the days before the Fourth of July, it’s too late for that. For them, an anxiety shirt may be the easiest option this year. You can get them quickly, and put them on your animal immediately.

    Learn often suggests that people spray “dog-appeasing” pheromones on the anxiety shirts, a treatment that has been more widely studied—though its effectiveness is still up for debate. One study shows dog-appeasing pheromones can calm canine noise-associated anxiety, but two others were inconclusive. Learn reports that she has treated pets who have separation anxiety with only pheromones and found they worked well.

    These results, of course, are also subjective. "It's hard to say to a pet, 'Are you calmer?'" says Learn. Neither anxiety shirts no pheromones is a "golden pill that solves all problems," she adds.

    But Mullins and Learn emphasize that here’s no harm in trying them. Neither has seen any adverse effects, unlike popular anti-anxiety medications—which can cause increased heart rate, lethargy, more stress, and vomiting. The worst that happens with thunder shirts is that animals find it annoying to be dressed. “These are not a miracle pill that you put on and all your problems are solved,” says Mullins. But if you know your dog is going to be scared during Fourth of July, one of these shirts or vests might help.

    A few other things you can do to calm your dog down? First of all, says Mullins, be smart: Don’t bring your dog to the fireworks BBQ. If possible, remove them from anywhere the noise will be particularly loud. She suggests you turn on a fan or a white noise machine to help drown out the explosions. Give your animal something to distract them from the noise, like a kong toy filled with food. Give them a safe space like or a crate or a closet where they can hunker down.

    And the good news is when it’s all over, and the sky has gone dark and the air smells of potassium nitrate, you have the experts' blessing to go ahead and give your dog a real, actual, comforting hug.

    More Great WIRED Stories

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    The Powerful Groups Stonewalling a Greener Way to Die

    This story originally appeared on The New Republic and is part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

    Samantha Sieber’s grandfather had a traditional American burial. His body was embalmed, put in a metal casket, and laid to rest at a cemetery, where the grounds would be perpetually cared for. “It felt good to give him what he wanted,” said Sieber, who herself works in the funeral industry. But, she added, “I think my grandfather’s funeral is going to become extinct.”

    In 2016, cremation became the most common method of body disposal in the US, overtaking entombment for the first time. This shift is often attributed to the high cost of traditional burial and the waning importance of religion. But experts also point to society’s changing views about how dead bodies should be disposed of. The spectrum of what’s morally acceptable is broadening, at the same time that the most common disposal methods are coming under scrutiny for their environmental impact. More than four million gallons of toxic embalming fluids and 20 million feet of wood are put in the ground in the US every year, while a single cremation emits as much carbon dioxide as a 1,000-mile car trip. Thus, the rise in America of “green burials,” where bodies are wrapped in biodegradable material and not embalmed.

    Sieber is a part of this trend, but she doesn’t want a green burial. When she dies, she told me, she wants her body to be dunked in a high-pressure chamber filled with water and lye. That water will be heated to anywhere from 200 to 300 degrees, and in six to twelve hours her flesh, blood, and muscle will dissolve. When the water is drained, all that will remain in the tank are her bones and dental fillings. If her family desires, they can have her remains crushed into ash, to be displayed or buried or scattered.

    This process is known colloquially as water cremation and scientifically as alkaline hydrolysis, or aquamation. It’s the most environmentally friendly method of death care, says Sieber, the vice president of research at Bio-Response Solutions. Founded by her father in 2006, the company manufactures aquamation equipment for funeral homes and crematories throughout North America. “This has no emissions, it’s greener, it’s a clean technology to work with,” Sieber said.

    But Sieber may not get her wish of being aquamated when she dies. Only 15 states allow alkaline hydrolysis for human remains, and Indiana, where Sieber lives and where Bio-Response is based, is not one of them. Casket-makers and the Catholic Church are working to make sure it stays that way.

    Alkaline hydrolysis was patented in the US in 1888, and the process hasn’t changed much since then. The body is submerged in a solution of about 95 percent water and 5 percent alkali—usually sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide. The liquid is heated and set at a high pressure to avoid boiling, causing the body to shed its proteins and fats. The decomposition creates a coffee-colored liquid, which contains amino acids, peptides, sugars, and salts. That liquid gets flushed down the drain, and treated like any other type of wastewater. Only bones and metal remain.

    Alkaline hydrolysis was originally marketed as a way to rapidly decompose animal bodies and use their nutrients for fertilizer. It was later adopted by scientific labs to dispose of disease-contaminated bodies, like cow carcasses infected by mad cow disease in the 1990s. Its commercial use for animals began in the early 2000s, Seiber said, as grieving pet owners sought a sentimental disposal option that didn’t require an expensive burial or involve burning Fido to ashes.

    In addition to its gentleness and cost (aquamation for dogs runs anywhere from $150 to $400, while cremation is around $100), veterinarians and pet funeral homes began to market aquamation’s environmental benefits. “Unlike cremation, there are no toxic emissions and no contribution to greenhouse gases,” wrote Jerry Shevik, owner of Peaceful Pets Aquamation in California. “It has a carbon footprint that is only one-tenth of what fire-based cremation produces.” Roughly the same is true for human aquamation, which, according to Staudt’s book, “requires about 90 kwh of electricity, resulting in one quarter the carbon emissions of cremation, consuming one-eighth the energy, while costing the consumer roughly the same amount as cremation.” Environmental issues can arise if the water poured down the drain after a liquid cremation has a pH level above local regulations. If that happens, however, funeral homes can easily treat the water with carbon dioxide before releasing it.

    The growing use of aquamation for pets created more demand for human use. Minnesota was the first state to legalize alkaline hydrolysis for humans in 2003, and other states eventually followed. Oregon and Maine passed bills in 2009; Florida and Kansas in 2010. Ten more states followed, the most recent being California, which passed a bill last year officially deeming aquamation a type of cremation. Funeral homes will be allowed to offer it beginning in 2020.

    Sieber’s business isn’t suffering from the fact that the process isn’t legal in every US state. “We’re selling at the pace we can grow right now,” she said. “It wouldn’t help us if every state was approved.”

    But her family did suffer personally. In March of 2013, two of her grandparents died just one day apart from each other. Each had wanted to be aquamated. Sieber’s family had planned to use the closest funeral home that provided the service—a few hundred miles away, across the state border in Illinois. But the shock of losing two grandparents at once was too much to handle the logistics. “There was so much grief,” Sieber said. “We couldn’t get it done.”

    Angered by their inability to fulfill their loved ones’ wishes, Sieber’s family launched a lobbying effort to get aquamation legalized in Indiana. And after more than a year and $40,000 spent, Sieber said they had gathered enough votes for a bill to pass. When their aquamation legalization bill came to the floor of the state House of Representatives, however, it was derailed by a gruesome speech by a lawmaker who also happened to be a casket-maker.

    Representative Dick Hamm’s speech made national news that day, and not only because of his business interest in keeping human aquamation illegal in Indiana. “We’re going to put [dead bodies] in acid and just let them dissolve away and then we’re going to let them run down the drain out into the sewers and whatever,” Hamm said, comparing the process to “flushing” a loved one. This wasn’t accurate. Aquamation uses lye, not acid, and similar fluids are flushed down the drain during the embalming process. But Hamm’s hyperbole was effective. Though he was the only lawmaker to speak against the bill, it failed in a 34-59 vote.

    The idea that aquamation is unnatural or gross or even immoral has impeded its adoption in other states. A bill to re-legalize it in New Hampshire, where it had been legal for two years before being repealed, was rejected in 2009 after lawmakers gave speeches similar to Hamm’s. “I don’t want to send a loved one to be used as fertilizer or sent down the drain to a sewer treatment plant,” Republican John Cebrowski said. His Republican colleague Mike Kappler added that “he didn’t want to drive by a sewage lagoon where a relative’s liquid remains would wind up.”

    The Catholic Church of New Hampshire came out against that bill as well, and testified against later efforts to re-legalize aquamation in the state in 2013 and 2014. Each testimony said alkaline hydrolysis “fails to provide New Hampshire Citizens with the reverence and respect they should receive at the end of their lives.”

    But those who choose aquamation for their loved ones overwhelmingly do so because they believe it’s a kinder way to treat a body, said Philip Olson, an assistant professor at Virginia Tech and a death studies expert. “Embalming is invasive and violent, and so is fire,” he said. But alkaline hydrolysis, he said, is more like a warm bath. “That’s becoming a more prominent value in American death care, the idea of gentleness,” he said. “That’s why we’ve seen such growth in the home funeral movement—the idea of using your hands is more intimate, of having contact with the body, not mediating your contact through instruments which are hard and cold.”

    The environmental benefits of aquamation are less of a motivating factor. “We thought families would want this because it’s more eco-friendly,” Sieber said. “They like that, but it’s not why they’re choosing it.” That may be a good thing, because alkaline hydrolysis is not an environmental panacea. Its widespread adoption could increase production at industrial chlor-alkali plants, which are known to emit mercury and other pollutants. The process also uses about 300 gallons of water per body, or three times as much as the average person uses in a day. And while replacing cremation with aquamation would have some climate benefits, they wouldn’t be as huge as, say, getting rid of coal-fired power plants—which is perhaps why there are no large environmental advocacy campaigns to change the death care industry.

    Olson sees a more existential value in greening up death care. “The funeral industry has always been about making your body immune to nature, preserving yourself in spite of it,” he said. Processes like aquamation require an acceptance of becoming part of it. “It’s new to think about bodies that way, as a kind of eco-product,” he said. “It demonstrates a shift in how people are thinking about our relationship to the natural world.” If more people respect the planet in death, it bodes well for how they’ll treat it while they’re still alive.

    Read more: http://www.wired.com/

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    How to spot a perfect fake: the worlds top art forgery detective

    The long read: Forgeries have got so good and so costly that Sothebys has brought in its own in-house fraud-busting expert

    The unravelling of a string of shocking old master forgeries began in the winter of 2015, when French police appeared at a gallery in Aix-en-Provence and seized a painting from display. Venus, by the German Renaissance master Lucas Cranach the Elder, to describe the work more fully: oil on oak, 38cm by 25cm, and dated to 1531. Purchased in 2013 by the Prince of Liechtenstein for about 6m, Venus was the inescapable star of the exhibition of works from his collection; she glowed on the cover of the catalogue. But an anonymous tip to the police suggested she was, in fact, a modern fake so they scooped her up and took her away.

    The painting had been placed in the market by Giuliano Ruffini, a French collector, and its seizure hoisted the first flag of concern about a wave of impeccable fakes. Ruffini has sold at least 25 works, their sale values totalling about 179m, and doubts now shadow every one of these paintings. The authenticity of four, in particular, including the Cranach, has been contested; the art historian Bendor Grosvenor said they may turn out to be the best old master fakes the world has ever seen. Ruffini, who remains the subject of a French police investigation, has denied presenting these paintings as old masters at all. To the Art Newspaper, he protested: I am a collector, not an expert.

    The quality of these paintings their faithful duplicity jolted the market. The sums of money at stake in art, never paltry to begin with, have grown monstrous. Thirty years ago, the highest auction price for a painting was $10.4m, paid by the J Paul Getty Museum for Andrea Mantegnas Adoration of the Magi in 1985. In contrast, while the $450m paid for Leonardo da Vincis Salvator Mundi in 2017 counts as an outlier, abstract expressionists and impressionists frequently come, in auctions or private deals, with nine-figure price tags.

    In lockstep, the incentive to be a proficient forger has soared; a single, expertly executed old master knockoff can finance a long, comfortable retirement. The technologies available to abet the aspiring forger have also improved. Naturally, then, the frauds are getting better, touching off a crisis of authentication for the institutions of the art world: the museums and galleries and auction houses and experts who are expected to know the real thing from its imitation.

    What was most unnerving about the alleged fakes sold by Ruffini was how many people they fooled. The National Gallery in London displayed a small oil painting thought to be by the 16th-century artist Orazio Gentileschi a battle-weary David, painted on an electric-blue slice of lapis lazuli; the work is now suspect. A portrait of a nobleman against a muddy background was sold by Sothebys in 2011, to a private collector, as a Frans Hals; the buyer paid 8.5m. Sothebys also sold an oil named Saint Jerome, attributed to the 16th-century artist Parmigianino, in a 2012 auction, for $842,500. With care, the catalogue only ventured that the work was from the circle of Parmigianino an idiom to convey that it was painted by an artist influenced by, and perhaps a pupil of, Parmigianino. But the entry also cited several experts who believed it was by Parmigianino himself.

    The works were full of striking, scrupulous detail. On Jeromes arm, for example, dozens of faint horizontal cracks have appeared; every so often, a clean, vertical split intersects them. In French canvases from the 18th century, cracks in paint tend to develop like spider webs; in Flemish panels, like tree bark. In Italian paintings of the Renaissance, the patterns resemble rows of untidy brickwork. On the Saint Jerome, the cracks match perfectly. Prof David Ekserdjian, one of the few art historians who doubted that the painting was a Parmigianino, said he just didnt feel the prickle of recognition that scholars claim as their gift: the intimacy with an artist that they liken to our ability to spot a friend in a crowd. But I have to be frank, I didnt look at it and say: Oh, thats a forgery.

    When Sothebys sells an artwork, it offers a five-year guarantee of refund if the object proves to be a counterfeit a modern forgery intended to deceive, as its terms specify. In 2016, after uncertainty crackled over the Hals and the Parmigianino, the auction-house sent them to Orion Analytical, a conservation science lab in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Orion was run, and staffed almost solely by, James Martin, who has loaned his forensic skills to the FBI for many art forgery investigations. Within days, Martin had an answer for Sothebys: both the Hals and the Parmigianino were fakes.

    The Hals contained synthetic pigments that the artist, in the 17th century, could not have used. In Saint Jerome, similarly, Martin found phthalocyanine green, a pigment first synthesised four centuries after Parmigianino died. It showed up consistently across 21 paint samples from various parts of the painting a bit like taking the pulse of a corpse 21 times, Martin told the New York Times last year. Sothebys refunded both buyers, and filed suits against the sellers, demanding they return their proceeds from the sales.

    In December 2016, in a signal of how attribution scandals have spooked the market, Sothebys took the unprecedented step of buying Orion Analytical, becoming the first auctioneer to have an in-house conservation and analysis unit. The company had seen enough disputes over attribution to mar its bottom line, its CEO, Tad Smith, said: If you looked at earnings reports from a year or two ago, youd see little blips here and there. These were expenses coming from settlements not a slew, the number was small and statistically insignificant, but theyre expensive. The cost of insurance that covers such settlements was also rising. With Martin in the building, the pictures and other objects moving through Sothebys now have a much higher chance of being checked, Smith said. Last year, Martin analysed more than $100m worth of artworks before they went under the hammer or into private sales. Sothebys employs him, in part, as a conservator, so he ministers to the health of the paintings and sculptures that pass through. But over the past two decades, Martin has also become the art worlds foremost forensic art detective. He has worked so many forgery cases with such success that he also serves Sothebys as a line of fortification against the swells of duff art lapping into the market.

    The first major painting sold by Sothebys was also a Hals a real one: Man in Black, a half-length portrait of a hatted gent. Until 1913, Sothebys had dealt in books for a century or thereabouts; art made up only a wan side business. In that year, though, a Sothebys partner found a Hals consigned to the firm, and rather than forwarding it to Christies, as was often the practice, decided to auction it. After a spirited contest of bids, Man in Black sold for 9,000 a 26% rate of return per annum since Christies had last auctioned the work, in 1885, for around 5. It was the first signal, for Sothebys, that there was profit to be mined from paintings. Last year, it sold $5.5bn worth of art, jewellery and real estate.

    The Frans Hals painting, Portrait of a Gentleman, supplied to Sothebys by Mark Weiss. It sold for a reported 8.5m ($10.8m) but was later declared fake. Photograph: Sotheby’s

    For Sothebys, the question of authenticity is not merely, or even primarily, academic. There is more at stake than a satisfying answer to the fundamental conundrum of whether authenticity matters at all a debate that has been fought and refought in the history of western art. If a fake is so expert that even after the most thorough and trustworthy examination its authenticity is still open to doubt, the critic Aline Saarinen once wondered, is it or is it not as satisfactory a work of art as if it were unequivocally genuine? Typically, this debate comes to rest at the same place every time. Of course authenticity matters; to study a false Rembrandt as a true one would be to hobble our understanding of Rembrandt as an artist, and of the evolution of art. Now, however, the questions philosophical whimsy has been replaced by financial urgency. At a time when the art market is synonymous with art itself, a lack of regard for attribution would derail a trade that traffics in the scarcity of authentic Rembrandts.

    Leaving straight forgeries aside, any discussion about the authenticity of an artwork opens suddenly, like a trapdoor, into the murk of semantics. On the sliding scale of attribution that art historians use painted by; hand of; studio of; circle of; style of; copy of each step takes the artist further from the painting. These variations, often subtle, are compounded by the unease about overpainting; Salvator Mundi had been worked over so many times and so heavily, critics argued, that it was less by Da Vinci than by his restorers. Deliberate fakes, misattributions and poor restorations all encroach into the realm of the authentic. In two decades at the Met in New York, Thomas Hoving, the museums director until 1977, must have examined at least 50,000 objects, he wrote in his book False Impressions. I almost believe that there are as many bogus works as genuine ones.

    Like criminals of every stripe, modern forgers have kept easy pace with the techniques that attempt to trap them. The mismatch between the purported age of a painting and the true age of its ingredients is the workhorse of Martins technique. So forgers have grown more rigorous in their harvesting of materials, taking the trouble, for instance, to source wooden panels from furniture they know is dateable to the year of the fake they are creating. (The trick isnt wholly new; Terenzio da Urbino, a 17th-century conman, scrabbled around for filthy old canvases and frames, cleaned them up, and turned them into Raphaels.) Forgers also test their own fakes to ensure theyll pass. Wolfgang Beltracchi, a German artist who served three years in prison for forging paintings worth $45m, surveyed the chemical elements in his works by running them under X-ray fluorescence guns the same handheld devices, resembling Star Trek phasers, that many art fairs now train upon their exhibits.

    Georgina Adam, who wrote Dark Side of the Boom, a book about the art markets excesses, told me that many forgers are sensibly choosing to falsify 20th-century painters, who used paints and canvases that can still be obtained, and whose abstractions are easier to imitate. The technical skill needed to forge a Leonardo is colossal, but with someone like Modigliani, it isnt, she said. Now, scholars will say its easy to distinguish, but the fact is that its just not that easy at all. In January, in a celebrated Modigliani exhibition in Genoa, 20 out of 21 paintings were revealed to be counterfeits.

    As the tide of money in the market has risen, making decisions about authenticity has turned into a fraught venture. Collectors, realising how much they stand to lose, are now happy to take scholars and connoisseurs traditionally the final authorities on the authenticity of a work to court for their mistakes. Realising that their reputations, as well as their bank balances, may wilt under the heat,these experts have begun to subtract themselves from the game entirely.

    The estates of several 20th-century artists had once taken on the duty of resolving doubts over attribution, setting up authentication committees, consisting of experts or the artists former colleagues or friends people expected to know the work best. In 2007, a collector named Joe Simon-Whelan sued the Andy Warhol estates authentication committee, claiming it had twice rejected a Warhol silkscreen he owned because it wanted to maintain scarcity in the Warhol market. Four years later, after spending $7m in legal fees, the estate dissolved the committee. The authentication boards of other modern artists Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Roy Lichtenstein, Alexander Calder have followed. Individual connoisseurs as the art world calls its experts wont always challenge popular identifications, wrote the critic Jerry Saltz in a scorching essay on the vertiginous price of Salvator Mundi. They are reluctant to rock the already splintering institutional boat. As in the wider world, where people sit by for fear of losing position, its no wonder that many old master experts are keeping quiet, not saying much of anything.

    The collapse of these committees feels like a victory of the market over the academy, like a blow to the very cause of trustworthy authentication. (In New York, a small band of lawyers is lobbying for legislation that will protect scholars from being sued merely for expressing their opinion.) In this void of opinion, Martins abilities premised not on the mysterious instincts of connoisseurship, but on the verifiable results of the scientific process have an even higher valence.

    Martin, a tall man with lumber-beam shoulders, has a voice that never surpasses a murmur. He is a consummate nerd; find someone who looks at you the way Martin looks at his Fourier-transform infrared microscope. He trained as a conservator of paintings, but now he assays them: picks out their chemical constituents, inspects pigments and binders, peers under their washes of colour. From a paintings materials, he can extract the vital detail of when it could, or could not, have been created.

    The field of scientific art conservation is not a crowded one; Martin, who set up the first for-profit art lab in the US, has been consulted in nearly every major fraud case in the past 25 years, often working alongside the FBI or other investigators. When he is described as the premier forensic detective working in art today, the accolade comes not only from people such as John Cahill, a New York lawyer who has managed dozens of art transactions, and who called Martin hands-down the best in the business, but also from those on the other side of the fence, so to speak. Beltracchi, the German forger, told me that, after his arrest, he had seen an assortment of technical studies collected by the police and the prosecution. He remembered Martins well. His reports contained the most accurate results. His reports were factually neutral and without unrealistic guesses. By folding Martin into its staff, Sothebys has given itself a muscular chance to stamp out problems of attribution before they flare into spectacular, expensive affairs. But its hard not to feel, at the same time, that it has cornered a precious resource, at a moment when the art world needs him most.

    Martin spent much of last year setting up a new lab in what used to be a photo studio on the fifth floor of the Sothebys headquarters in Manhattan. Soon, he will also have a London facility, in the building where the Beatles once recorded A Taste of Honey for the BBC. The New York lab, one large room, is as white and aseptic as a dentists clinic. Many of the cabinets are still empty, and the desk surfaces often bear nothing apart from one red pack of Martins Dentyne Fire gum. Outside the lab, above the lead-lined double doors, is a warning light; if its on, so to is the giant x-ray fluorescence machine, and no one is allowed in.

    One Friday in mid-February, the room held only two items of art. A carved wooden chair sat on a counter; on a stand was a painting that, for reasons of confidentiality, may be described here only as a late-19th century American work. When a painting checks into the lab, it is first submitted to a visual examination in bright, white light; then the lamp is moved to one side, so that the light rakes over the surface at an angle, showing up restored or altered areas. The canvas in Martins lab was at the next stage; it had been photographed under ultraviolet and infrared, and then under x-rays to discover some of the paintings chemical elements.

    On a computer, one of Martins two colleagues cycled through the images. Under infrared, the paintings browns and yellows and greens turned into shades of grey, but no spectral underdrawings peered back out. (Not that underdrawings would have suggested anything about authenticity one way or another; theyd merely have been a further nugget of information to consider.) Mapped for lead by the x-ray fluorescence unit, the painting looked faded and streaked with dark rust; the streaks betrayed where restorers had perhaps applied touchups with modern, lead-free paint. Mapped for calcium, the painting showed yellow-green splashes where conservators had made repairs with a calcium carbonate filler.

    Not every object needs to move beyond these non-invasive phases. (At Orion, Martin was once able to unmask a fake Modigliani after seeing, under infrared, a faint grid, which had been drawn by a forger who wanted to guide his work.) If Martin has to disturb the painting, he will place it under a stereo microscope and, squinting through the two eyepieces, pick out a grain of paint with a scalpel. He demonstrated with a sample of phthalocyanine blue, a synthetic pigment he picked out of a box that held paint cakes of different colours. Working with the same steady, cautious manner in which he speaks, he teased out a particle smaller than the width of a human hair, flattened it gently, then nudged it on to a slim, small rectangle of metal, where it was held in place between two tiny diamonds.

    You dont drink a lot of coffee before you do this, he said, grimacing.

    Cracks in the surface of a 16th-century painting as seen through Martins microscope. Photograph: Joshua Bright for the Guardian

    The metal plate then goes into the Fourier-transform infrared microscope, like a slide. The spectrometer pumps infrared light through the flecks of pigment; a computer analyses the lights behavior and returns a tidy spectrum graph. Martin has looked at so many of these spectra that he recognises on sight the patterns thrown up by different pigments, but even if he didnt, the computer could rifle through databases of the spectrum patterns of other known chemicals, find the nearest match, and tell Martin what, in this case, he already knew: that his sample was phthalocyanine blue.

    By a system of triage sorting, for instance, for artists with a high incidence of being faked in the past, or for works accompanied by scientific analysis reports that are suspiciously long only a small percentage of the tens of thousands of objects passing through Sothebys is diverted to the lab. Martin thinks of them as patients showing symptoms. Sometimes, like a doctor doing general checkups, he will tour the galleries at Sothebys just before a sale, reading every work with a handheld infrared camera. In the past year, his lab has stopped several lots from going to market, preventing possible disputes after the sale. In one case, a painting valued at $7m was removed from sale after the lab found that it had been completely and irretrievably overpainted by a restorer. An appraiser wouldve said its worthless, Martin said. So it wasnt sold.

    The arduous process of Martins work divorces art from its aesthetic. It reduces compositions of great prestige or high beauty to their very particles; it frees Martin up to think of art as pure matter. In this way, he comes closer to the artist than anyone has before, often becoming only the second person to think as intensely about the materiality of the object, about the chemical nature of its pigments or the physical properties of its canvas. The art he analyses derives its worth from unique, flashing inspiration. His own talent, if anything, has more in common with the forger. It lies in his capacity to be unflashy but diligent to perform a step time after time without a slackening of attention, to never leave a molecule unturned, to never conclude more about a work than what it tells him about itself.

    When Martin turned 13, his father gifted him a microscope, a chemistry kit, and art lessons a splendid piece of foreshadowing. He used them all, but he was particularly attracted to art. The family lived in Baltimore, and whenever they visited Washington DC, Martin spent his time at the National Museum of Natural History, drawing the dioramas, while the others wandered the capital. His father worked in army intelligence. As a child, Im not sure I understood what he did. I do remember being in airports and trying to guess who was a spy, Martin said. He devoured detective stories and loves them still, particularly Patricia Cornwells novels about Kay Scarpetta, the forensic pathologist. We both examine patients that cannot speak their past, he said.

    In a universe a twist away from ours, Martin might have become a forger himself. Late in his teens, he joined an art school where students were taught how to grind their own pigments and stretch their own canvases. For practice, he set up an easel in the Baltimore Museum of Art and copied the works he liked; he grew so accomplished that once, as he was leaving with his copy of William Merritt Chases Broken Jug, the museum director spotted him and asked if he was returning the painting to storage.

    I was very good technically, Martin said, but like most art forgers, I didnt have my own creative way of doing things. He thought hed become an illustrator of medical textbooks, but then heard about a conservation programme at the Winterthur Museum in Delaware. The portfolio he submitted included his copy of the Chase, as well as of other painters all at such a high level of craft, said Richard Wolbers, who taught him at Winterthur, that we were blown away. He was such a good copyist, in fact, that he was almost rejected. Later, I heard that the committee worried that if they trained me to be a conservator and taught me all the science, Id be a natural forger.

    After Winterthur, Martin was hired by the Clark Art Institute, a museum in Williamstown, Massachusetts, to conserve paintings. A couple of years later, he set up the museums first conservation lab, filled with equipment that he bought or begged from chemistry departments in nearby universities. At the time, in 1990, the apparatus of analysis the microscopes, the spectroscopes, the infrared cameras was bulky, expensive and difficult to operate. Few museums had their own labs, Martin said. The Guggenheim, the Brooklyn Museum, MoMA [Museum of Modern Art], the museums in San Francisco none of them had the facilities.

    In getting to know a painting, conservators in these museums relied first on the tactility of their craft listening to the sound of the swab on the canvas, Martin said, or feeling the pull of the swab in the varnish. Most conservation departments owned microscopes, some perhaps even x-ray machines. But if they needed some serious technology Fourier-transform infrared microscopes, say, or scanning electron microscopes they could turn only to the lab in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or to those in universities. Even then, an expert was still needed to interpret the data. Small museums really didnt have any place to go. Some people took paintings to the vet to get them x-rayed.

    Martins lab began by assisting conservators who had no equipment of their own. If someone was trying to get a varnish off a painting and didnt want to damage it by using a solvent that was too strong, theyd send me a sample, he said. Id tell them: Its polyurethane. Youre not going to get it off. Or: Its shellac. You need to use alcohol. A conservator wondering if the strange sky in a landscape was overpaint paint applied by later restorers could mail Martin a tiny cross-section tweezed out of the work, so that he could examine it under a microscope. Wed see the layers in the cross-section: varnish, varnish, varnish, then blue sky, then more varnish, then more sky. So wed establish that the topmost layer of blue was overpaint.

    In its materials, an artwork holds its biography, so inevitably, Martin became an arbiter of authenticity. Nearly all of the privately owned art labs in Europe and the US have been founded in the past decade not coincidentally, around the time that the worlds multi-millionaires realised how hollow their lives had been without art. But in the 1990s, at Clark, and then again at Orion, which he founded in 2000, Martin was often the sole resource for collectors and merchants.

    James Martin using his stereo fluorescence microscope in his New York lab. Photograph: Joshua Bright for the Guardian

    Some of his stories from these years have the baroque pulpiness of Elmore Leonard plots. Martin narrates these with care; he is alive to the sensational aspects of his work, but by default, he wears an air of studious detachment. There were the two questionable gentlemen from Tel Aviv, who slipped a pair of paintings out of architects tubes, shook them open as if they were rugs, and asked him to confirm that they were Modiglianis. (They werent.) There was the client who sent Martin to test a painting at an auction house, claiming he wished to bid on it, but then also had Martin stop by a warehouse to assess a horrible copy of the same painting. (Martin now thinks the client wanted to know how close the fake was to the genuine work.) There were the two ferocious dogs chained near the front door of a house in Los Angeles, guarding the stolen Chinese sculptures held within. There was the collector who offered to fly Martin to an undisclosed location, have him picked up by a security detail, and bring him in to examine an old Mexican stele, a stone carving supposedly worth $50m. The night before his flight, Martin was unable to sleep, so he Googled the collector and found that he had recently been released from federal prison after serving time on weapons charges.

    Next morning, Martin called the collector and turned down the case.

    Oh, the collector said. Did you read about the murders?

    No, Martin said. What murders? The collector, it turned out, had once been implicated in the killings of two people over a matter of Mexican steles. Martin never got on that plane.

    The FBI first came to Martin in 1994. A suspicious number of works ascribed to the 19th-century artist William Aiken Walker, who often painted black sharecroppers in the American south, were emerging in the market. Theyd sell at really small country auctions for $5,000 or $10,000 so low that nobody would pay for analysis, Martin said. From the paintings, Martin sampled a yellow pigment called PY3, which had been manufactured in Germany and was not available to American artists until the late 1940s, decades after Walker died. Walker also used lead white paint, Martin found; the forger used zinc white. A former vitamin salesman named Charles Heller was eventually indicted for a spree of counterfeiting, but he pleaded guilty to lesser charges and served one year in prison.

    With even a little study, a con artist would know not to use zinc white; some forgers go on to become diligent researchers, accessing technical journals and case studies to learn what experts search for. Martin recalled a painting once referred to him, around 3.5 sq metres in size and dated to 1932. In a first round of study, he discovered nothing amiss. But the works provenance its documented history of ownership was shaky, so he ran a second pass under a microscope. For most of a day, he scanned the painting in dime-sized increments, until his eyes dried up. Was anything embedded in the paint: dust, or hair, or an insect wing? Did the dirt look as if it had been smeared on deliberately? Finally, embedded in a speckle of blue, he found a slim fibre; with a scalpel, he snipped it off and subjected it to infrared spectroscopy. The fibre turned out to be polypropylene. Perhaps someone had worn a polar fleece while painting the forgery?

    For a while, Martin cited this example in a two-day course he taught. Last year, though, he read a translation of Faussaire (or Forger), a French novel written in 2015 and containing a wealth of sound wisdom for forgers. If you want to get hold of antique lead, one character advises another, for instance, then you can just pick up bits of it from the old buildings in Rome. The same character warns of the dangers from microparticles from your clothes You must always work in an old smock. Never nylon or a modern apron. Martin is convinced the detail came from his anecdote; it was one reason he decided to stop teaching his course altogether.

    As a crime, art forgery can seem trifling less a sinister outrage than a half-complete Robin Hood jape that merely robs the rich. After Beltracchis arrest in 2010, the Frankfurter Allgemeine called art forgery the most moral way to embezzle 16m; Der Spiegel noted that, unlike crooked bankers, Beltracchi hadnt swindled the common man. But the crime can have real victims, and Martin has met so many of them that he has developed a gentle bedside manner to break bad news. He has seen people who used the money set aside for their childrens education to buy a painting, only to find it to be fake. So we arent just talking rich people. In some situations, its a persons whole life.

    The inflation of the art market, and its attendant litigiousness, imposes fierce pressures upon anyone called to judge the authenticity of an artwork. Martins harshest experience of this came during the bitter legal battle over the fate of the Knoedler gallery. The Knoedler, once New Yorks oldest gallery, closed in 2011, days after Martin issued a report concluding that a Jackson Pollock it had sold for $17m was fake.

    The bogus Pollock was only the inauguration of a scandal. Over 15 years, Knoedler had sourced and sold 40 paintings ascribed to a range of leading modern artists: Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Richard Diebenkorn and Robert Motherwell, among others, earning roughly $80m in the process. When the ambiguity of the works provenance raised needles of suspicion, 10 buyers sued Knoedler and its director, Ann Freedman; all but one of these lawsuits have been settled out of court. In 2013, investigators learned that the forgeries had been painted by a Chinese immigrant, who was by then 73 years old, in his garage in Queens, and placed with Knoedler by an art dealer who pleaded guilty. Knoedlers executives claimed they had no knowledge of the fraud, and argued that scholars had verified the works before sale.

    In at least four of the lawsuits, which carried on for years, the plaintiffs hired Martin to test the paintings they had purchased. He found them all to be forgeries. A purported Rothko from 1956, which sold for $8.3m, used a ground layer of white paint between the canvas and the oils; through that decade, though, Rothko had used a transparent ground layer. In an apparent Pollock, the artist seemed to have misspelled his own signature as Pollok. Further, in 16 Knoedler paintings he analysed, Martin found the same ground layer of white paint and other anachronistic pigments repeating themselves across the works of several artists, as if Motherwell, De Kooning and Rothko had all travelled forward in time, met in a bar, and swapped tubes of paint.

    A fake Mark Rothko painting is shown to the court during a trial in New York in 2016. Photograph: AP

    Eventually, Martin was proved right; when the FBI raided the Queens garage, it even found the tubs of white that had coated the canvas in the fake Rothko. But, until then, the trials were a torrid experience. Knoedler recruited experts to attack Martin in court. They went after him with a vengeance, saying hed soiled the evidence, accidentally or on purpose, said the lawyer John Cahill, who represented some of Martins clients. Knoedlers attorneys served six subpoenas on Martin, to extract more than 8,000 documents and emails related to the case. Instead of being an expert witness, he was forced to defend himself the care and soundness of his methods, his very character in court.

    When Martin talks about the Knoedler trials, even the memory of the ordeal draws a look of horror on his face. Hes a real boy scout, and his integrity means a lot to him, so he suffered, Cahill said. It was an attempted impeachment of Martins whole career. His entire power relies on being objective, on not being part of the party, said Narayan Khandekar, who runs Harvards Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies. He comes under a lot of pressure, because people have a lot of money at stake on the outcome of his analyses. But hes been very, very brave to stand up and stay stolidly on track with what he does.

    Martin had always loved science for its ability to guide him in pursuit of truth, and he felt a deep distress when his objective facts were countered with dirty tricks and personal vilification. In 2016, after his clients settled with Knoedler, Martin found it difficult to return to work. He wanted to never have to provide expert testimony again, and to go away to paint for a while; hed already primed a set of boards.

    It was surreal, what happened to me, he said. No scientist should have to go to through this. When, later that year, negotiations began for Sothebys to buy Orion, Martin was ready to be cocooned within a larger institution. Hed rather probe works before they hit the market, he decided, than go through the acrimonious aftermath of a sale even once more. Above his desk in Sothebys, Martin keeps pinned a pair of sketches of himself from his time in the Knoedler courtroom, as if to remind himself of what he has gratefully left behind.

    In conversation, Martin uses many homespun metaphors, but his favourite is that of the three-legged stool. Deciding the authorship of artworks, he says, relies on connoisseurship, technical analysis and provenance. He values the opinions of connoisseurs, considers them complementary to his own skills; his tests can definitively reveal if a painting is not by Da Vinci or Modigliani, but they are unable to affirm authorship, except in rare cases.

    Science has a habit, though, of showing up the sagacity of scholars. In a 1932 trial in Berlin the first in which a forensic exam was used to scrutinise art two connoisseurs squabbled about the authenticity of a set of 33 canvases, all purportedly by Vincent van Gogh, all sold by an art dealer named Otto Wacker. It took a chemist, Martin de Wild, to trace resins in the paint that Van Gogh had never used, and to prove the paintings fake. Since then, the science has improved, even as human judgment has remained the same, vulnerable to the potential thrill of discovering new work, and to market pressures. During the Knoedler trial, Cahill remembered, one expert admitted that he couldnt tell one Rothko canvas from another, or indeed whether a Rothko had been hung upside-down or right side up.

    In any case, however fond he is of the three-legged stool, Martin may have to think soon of a different item of furniture. The humanities are in decline everywhere; in England, the last art history A-level was cut in 2016. The populace of connoisseurs is thinning out. In British art now, for a major artist like George Stubbs, theres no recognised figure that we can all go to and say: Is this by George Stubbs or not? Because various specialists have died recently, and theres no one to replace them, Bendor Grosvenor, the art historian, said. Meanwhile, researchers at Rutgers University have developed an AI system that, in tests, detected forged paintings with 100% accuracy by scanning and comparing individual brushstrokes. One leg is growing longer, another growing shorter, the stool becoming decidedly imbalanced. And so, if the art market wants to beat back the threats posed by sophisticated forgeries if it wants to preserve its financial vigour, rooted as it is so absolutely in the notion of authenticity it will have to turn more and more to the resources of science.

    As a thought experiment, it is possible to envision the immaculate forgery the one that defeats scientist and connoisseur alike. Our villain is a talented copyist, well practised in the style and the themes of his chosen artist. He is also a resourceful procurer of materials, able to rustle up every kind of age-appropriate canvas and frame, pigment and binder. He fits his forgery neatly into a chain of provenance giving it the title of a now-lost work, or providing false documents to claim that it had been part of a well known private collection.

    In theory, if each of these steps is perfectly performed, there should be no way to expose the painting as fake. It will be a work of art in every way save one. But the world of today, the world in which the forgery is being created, is likely to fix itself in some form within the painting as radioactive dust, perhaps, or as cat hair, or a stray polypropylene fibre. When that happens, only the scientist can hope to nab it.

    Follow the Long Read on Twitter at @gdnlongread, or sign up to the long read weekly email here.

    Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/us

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    Most common childhood cancer ‘partly caused by lack of infection’

    Childhood acute leukaemia is caused by genetic mutations and a lack of childhood infection, scientists say

    Clean modern homes, antiseptic wipes and the understandable desire to protect small babies against any infection are all part of the cause of the most common form of childhood cancer, a leading expert has concluded after more than 30 years of research.

    Childhood acute leukaemia, says the highly respected Prof Mel Greaves, is nothing to do with power lines or nuclear fuel reprocessing stations. Nor is it to do with hot dogs and hamburgers or the Vatican radio mast, as have also been suggested. After the best part of a century of speculation, some of it with little basis in science, Greaves who recently won the Royal Societys prestigious Royal Medal says the cancer is caused by a combination of genetic mutations and a lack of childhood infection.

    The best news, says Greaves, is that the cancer is likely to be preventable. And part of the answer could be to ensure children under the age of one have social contact with others, possibly at daycare centres.

    Greaves, from the Institute of Cancer Research in London, has compiled evidence from decades of work on acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL), which affects one in 2,000 children. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was lethal. Today, 90% of children are cured, although the treatment is lengthy and toxic and can have long-term consequences.

    Greaves describes a triple whammy that he believes is the cause of ALL. One in 20 children, he says, are born with a genetic mutation that puts them potentially at risk. But they will be fine if their immune system is properly set up. For that to happen, they must encounter benign bacteria or viruses in their first year of life.

    Those whose immune systems are not fully functioning because they have not had an early challenge to deal with and who then later encounter an infection such as a cold or flu may develop a second genetic mutation that will make them susceptible to the cancer.

    ALL, he says, is increasing globally at the rate of about 1% a year. Unlike most diseases, it is increasing in more affluent populations. Something about our modern lifestyles has to be involved, Greaves reasoned. Infectious disease tracks with poverty, he said. The problem is not infection. The problem is lack of infection.

    There is a similar story at work in type 1 diabetes, Hodgkins lymphoma, multiple sclerosis and allergies, he says.

    ALL rates are low or non-existent in the poorest countries, where families have lots of children and cross-infection is common. One exception is Costa Rica, which has invested heavily in medical schools and its health system, and brought down family sizes from 7.2 children on average to 2.3. They now have significant levels of Hodgkins lymphoma, type 1 diabetes and ALL.

    In a paper in the journal Nature Reviews Cancer, Greaves has assembled the evidence from his own work and that of colleagues around the world into the genetics, cell biology, immunology, epidemiology and animal modelling of childhood leukaemia.

    That includes experiments in mice that have been modified to have the first gene mutation. Those that were kept in clean and sterile conditions and then later transferred into a dirty environment developed the cancer.

    Greaves and other scientists are anxious that no parents should feel in any way responsible for their childs cancer, pointing out that keeping babies away from any source of infection is very normal behaviour and that there is still an element of chance in developing the two genetic mutations.

    The factors that may decrease a babys risk, says the paper, are going to a day care centre as a small baby, having older siblings who are likely to bring infections into the home, breastfeeding and probably being born via a vaginal delivery rather than a more sterile caesarean.

    Greaves says he hopes the work may lead to some sort of vaccine or drug to prevent childhood leukaemia.

    Chris Bunce, professor of translational cancer biology at the University of Birmingham, called Greaves one of the superstars amongst modern cancer biologists who had demonstrated that the early mutation putting a child at risk occurred in a cell before birth and now presented a compelling model of the way the cancer arises.

    Prof Charles Swanton, Cancer Research UKs chief clinician, said: This research sheds light on how a form of childhood blood cancer might develop, implicating a complex combination of genetics and early exposure to germs, dirt, and illness.

    But he added: We want to assure any parents of a child who has or has had leukaemia that theres nothing that we know of that could have been done to prevent their illness.

    Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/us

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