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How to Build a Blue Whale Without Having Seen One: Part II


The 28-foot rear section of the 94-foot model of the blue whale being raised to join the front section in the Hall of Ocean Life in 1969. The two sections will be locked together. Photo courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History.

Read Part I—about the difficulties of procuring the largest animal on Earth and an inconvenient string ban—here.

Tensions at the American Museum of Natural History ran high as the design for the whale was being finalized in 1966. Richard Van Gelder—the museum’s chairman of the Department of Mammalogy, the whale’s chief designer and the hero of our story—almost quit after the museum's director, Dr. James Oliver, asked him to revise the model so that its mouth was open. This ran contrary to what was known about whales and the plans for the model: Whales were thought to feed in a horizontal position, and the model whale was semi-vertical and poised to dive.

Van Gelder responded with a two-page memo that argued the change would not only delay construction and invite “potential basketball stars armed with garbage” to vandalize the model—it would also be scientifically inaccurate. The director stood down; Van Gelder won the argument and kept his job.

Outsourcing Leviathan

With the design done, it was finally time to start bringing the whale to life, or as close to it as possible. Displayers, Inc., a  firm that specialized in producing museum exhibits; StructoFab, a manufacturing company in Georgia; and Svedrup & Parcel, the civil-engineering firm that designed the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, were tasked with turning Van Gelder’s design into something material. He provided them with detailed instructions—Remember to double check the number of ventral grooves!—and then waited, hoping for the best.

In late 1967, huge hunks of steel and blocks of molded polyurethane began arriving at the museum and piling up on the floor. Workers from StructoFab followed, and began to piece the whale together in the Hall of Ocean Life. They attached the exterior pieces to the steel frame and then covered the whole thing in fiberglass for painting.

Between the paint that was absorbed by the whale’s “skin” and the lighting in the hall, the whale came out looking the same shade of gray as a naval battleship. “Even with my lack of knowledge of blue whales, I knew that this was wrong,” Van Gelder wrote. A whale expert from the Canadian Bureau of Fisheries was brought in to supervise the paint job and consult on the color scheme for both the flesh and the eyes. Leaving things in capable hands, Van Gelder went off to Africa on other business.

Heavy As A Whale (Almost)

When Gelder got back home, the whale was supposed to have been already raised to the ceiling, painted and ready to go. But it was still on the floor, still gray and still not finished, and there were less than three months before the refurbished hall was to be unveiled.

The issue was weight. Plans called for a four-ton whale, but the finished product was 10 tons. A heavier-weight polyurethane, a little extra paint, and a number of other changes had all added up, and no one was sure if the whale could be mounted to the ceiling. Instead of simply painting over the gray like they’d originally planned, the museum sanded the first coat of paint off to shave six hundred pounds. Two different teams of engineers were then brought in to assure them that the ceiling would hold the whale at its current weight.

By the end of 1968, the whale was ready to get off the floor. This was maybe the only step of the whole project that went off without a hitch. “[It] went like clockwork,” Van Gelder wrote. “It was slow, it took all day, but nothing went wrong.” The painters finished up the detail work and Van Gelder had one finishing touch: placing and attaching 28 fine hairs to the whale’s chin. A decade after planning first began, the whale was ready for display in February 1969.

The Whale Evolves


Prior to the reopening of the renovated Irma and Paul Milstein Family Hall of Ocean Life on May 17, 2003, the plastic wrapping was stripped away to reveal the remade and repainted 94-foot-long great blue whale model. Photo courtesy of AMNH/M.Carlough.

In the early 2000s, the Hall of Ocean Life went through 16 months of renovations and exhibit updates, including some 600 new animal models and some touchups to the whale that brought it up to speed with the latest cetacean research. The eyes were made less bulgy, a few spots were repainted and the jawline was reshaped. A new blowhole was made, since the old one was in the wrong spot—they’d simply guessed on the placement in the 60s, since the photos they could find didn’t show one. The whale also finally got an anus, which it had been lacking for 34 years, again meeting a standard of scientific accuracy that would have made Van Gelder, who died of cancer in 1994, very proud.


The whale under construction. Photo Courtesy of AMNH/D. Finnin.

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Penn Vet Working Dog Center
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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Medicine
New Cancer-Fighting Nanobots Can Track Down Tumors and Cut Off Their Blood Supply
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iStock

Scientists have developed a new way to cut off the blood flow to cancerous tumors, causing them to eventually shrivel up and die. As Business Insider reports, the new treatment uses a design inspired by origami to infiltrate crucial blood vessels while leaving the rest of the body unharmed.

A team of molecular chemists from Arizona State University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences describe their method in the journal Nature Biotechnology. First, they constructed robots that are 1000 times smaller than a human hair from strands of DNA. These tiny devices contain enzymes called thrombin that encourage blood clotting, and they're rolled up tightly enough to keep the substance contained.

Next, researchers injected the robots into the bloodstreams of mice and small pigs sick with different types of cancer. The DNA sought the tumor in the body while leaving healthy cells alone. The robot knew when it reached the tumor and responded by unfurling and releasing the thrombin into the blood vessel that fed it. A clot started to form, eventually blocking off the tumor's blood supply and causing the cancerous tissues to die.

The treatment has been tested on dozen of animals with breast, lung, skin, and ovarian cancers. In mice, the average life expectancy doubled, and in three of the skin cancer cases tumors regressed completely.

Researchers are optimistic about the therapy's effectiveness on cancers throughout the body. There's not much variation between the blood vessels that supply tumors, whether they're in an ovary in or a prostate. So if triggering a blood clot causes one type of tumor to waste away, the same method holds promise for other cancers.

But before the scientists think too far ahead, they'll need to test the treatments on human patients. Nanobots have been an appealing cancer-fighting option to researchers for years. If effective, the machines can target cancer at the microscopic level without causing harm to healthy cells. But if something goes wrong, the bots could end up attacking the wrong tissue and leave the patient worse off. Study co-author Hao Yan believes this latest method may be the one that gets it right. He said in a statement, "I think we are much closer to real, practical medical applications of the technology."

[h/t Business Insider]

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