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1 Small Step for a Squid, 1 Giant Leap for Biological Specimens

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In September, the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) in Washington, D.C. opened the Sant Ocean Hall. The hall, restored during the largest renovation in the museum's history, is home to 12 exhibits featuring to 674 specimens and models.

squid.jpgPerhaps the most important specimens in the hall are two giant squid. The 24-foot, 330-pound female is the most intact giant squid specimen on display anywhere in the world. She, and a smaller male, were caught by a group of deep-sea fishermen off the coast of northern Spain in 1995 and loaned to the NMNH by Coordinadora para el Estudio y la Protección de las Especies Marinas, a Spanish marine preservation organization.

The organization was keeping the squid in 400 gallons of formalin, a preservative fluid that is considered hazardous cargo and can only be transported commercially in quantities of 16 gallons or less. To get the squid stateside, the museum called the Navy, who accepted the task (dubbed "Operation Calamari") and brought the squid home in a U.S. Air Force C-17 cargo plane (pictured).

The Pickle of Pickling

In hindsight, getting the squid to the museum may have been the easy part. Preserving them posed an even bigger challenge.

There are some 1.5 billion biological specimens stored in institutions around the world (NMNH has about 124 million). "Wet" specimens, those that need to be stored in a preservative fluid, are usually (though not always) first fixed in a fixative solution, most commonly formaldehyde, which prevents the breakdown of proteins by forming chemical bonds and coagulating the contents of the specimen's cells into insoluble substances.

After fixing, a specimen is placed in a preservative fluid, which stabilizes it, prevents cell destruction and acts as its permanent home. The most common preservative fluids are alcohol (usually either ethyl alcohol or isopropyl alcohol), used since the 17th century, and formalin, a solution of formaldehyde diluted in water with some methyl alcohol added to prevent the formaldehyde from forming a solid mass, which was introduced in the 19th century.

Both of these preservatives present problems. Alcohol dehydrates specimens and leaches color from them, causing them to turn brown and then dirty white. Alcohol is also flammable; when Philadelphia's Mütter Museum was collecting specimens, one of the first donors insisted that his collection of fluid-preserved human organs needed be housed in a fireproof building. Formalin is better suited to preserve some specimens because of its fixative properties; it permeates a specimen's tissue and prevents it from decomposing. It's also less flammable than alcohol, but has a strong, unpleasant odor, is toxic and has been linked to certain types of cancer in animal tests.

Neither alcohol nor formalin retains specimens' true textures, and both preservatives allow specimens to move around in their containers, which can lead to breakages.

If you've seen more than a handful of fluid-preserved biological specimens, you know that some look much better than others. Somewhere, someone was doing something that preserved the specimen in excellent condition. Why don't all museums duplicate that technique for their collections? Unfortunately, in fluid preservation, most technique is the result of trial and error and records are rarely kept.

Where No Squid Has Gone Before

In addition to these challenges, Washington, D.C.'s fire marshal has significantly reduced the amount of flammable fluids that are allowed to be kept in public buildings since 9/11. The museum was authorized to use only 10 gallons of alcohol in the entire Sant Ocean Hall, while the female squid alone needed 1,200 gallons of fluid.

Formalin and alcohol were out, so the museum turned to Novec 7100 engineered fluid, developed by 3M, the diversified technology company. Novec, developed in the mid-1990s for cleaning electronics, isn't a preservative fluid, but a storage medium that forms a protective chemical envelope around specimens that have already been fixed in formalin. Novec is nonflammable, nontoxic and ozone-friendly. Its low water solubility keeps it from getting cloudy over time, and it doesn't drain color from specimens.

Novec has its share of problems, though. It evaporates easily, so specially designed jars with an extra-tight seal need to be used to contain specimens and the containers can't sit under lights that produce a lot of heat. Novec is also about 1.5 times denser than water, which means unrestrained specimens float to the top of their container, get exposed to air and decompose. Museum staff had to be careful to keep the squid submerged while also minimizing damage from any restraints they used. The squid are held down by a restraining bracket and reinforced with a metal screen, while broad transparent straps hold down the tentacles and distribute tension across them.

Novec's use in the squid exhibit is an ongoing experiment. For all their flaws, we know alcohol and formalin preserve specimens for a long time. No one knows how the squid will look in 20 or 30 years. Even while they're on display, the museum is taking samples of the squid's tissue and the storage fluid to see if the tissue is going through changes in cellular structure and if any compounds are leaching from the squid into the fluid. The museum is also breaking with preservation tradition by keeping meticulous records, starting with the squid's initial fixative injection in Spain and keeping pace with the tests they perform. The museum has said that every organization that donated specimens for the Sant Ocean Hall is eager to get plenty of data on Novec; if the squid are as intact a few decades down the line as they are now, Novec may become the fluid of choice for preservation. Here's lookin' at you, squid.

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Richard Bouhet // Getty
4 Expert Tips on How to Get the Most Out of August's Total Solar Eclipse
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Richard Bouhet // Getty

As you might have heard, there’s a total solar eclipse crossing the U.S. on August 21. It’s the first total solar eclipse in the country since 1979, and the first coast-to-coast event since June 8, 1918, when eclipse coverage pushed World War I off the front page of national newspapers. Americans are just as excited today: Thousands are hitting the road to stake out prime spots for watching the last cross-country total solar eclipse until 2045. We’ve asked experts for tips on getting the most out of this celestial spectacle.


To see the partial phases of the eclipse, you will need eclipse glasses because—surprise!—staring directly at the sun for even a minute or two will permanently damage your retinas. Make sure the glasses you buy meet the ISO 12312-2 safety standards. As eclipse frenzy nears its peak, shady retailers are selling knock-off glasses that will not adequately protect your eyes. The American Astronomical Society keeps a list of reputable vendors, but as a rule, if you can see anything other than the sun through your glasses, they might be bogus. There’s no need to splurge, however: You can order safe paper specs in bulk for as little as 90 cents each. In a pinch, you and your friends can take turns watching the partial phases through a shared pair of glasses. As eclipse chaser and author Kate Russo points out, “you only need to view occasionally—no need to sit and stare with them on the whole time.”


There are plenty of urban legends about “alternative” ways to protect your eyes while watching a solar eclipse: smoked glass, CDs, several pairs of sunglasses stacked on top of each other. None works. If you’re feeling crafty, or don’t have a pair of safe eclipse glasses, you can use a pinhole projector to indirectly watch the eclipse. NASA produced a how-to video to walk you through it.


Bryan Brewer, who published a guidebook for solar eclipses, tells Mental Floss the difference between seeing a partial solar eclipse and a total solar eclipse is “like the difference between standing right outside the arena and being inside watching the game.”

During totality, observers can take off their glasses and look up at the blocked-out sun—and around at their eerily twilit surroundings. Kate Russo’s advice: Don’t just stare at the sun. “You need to make sure you look above you, and around you as well so you can notice the changes that are happening,” she says. For a brief moment, stars will appear next to the sun and animals will begin their nighttime routines. Once you’ve taken in the scenery, you can use a telescope or a pair of binoculars to get a close look at the tendrils of flame that make up the sun’s corona.

Only a 70-mile-wide band of the country stretching from Oregon to South Carolina will experience the total eclipse. Rooms in the path of totality are reportedly going for as much as $1000 a night, and news outlets across the country have raised the specter of traffic armageddon. But if you can find a ride and a room, you'll be in good shape for witnessing the spectacle.


Your eyes need half an hour to fully adjust to darkness, but the total eclipse will last less than three minutes. If you’ve just been staring at the sun through the partial phases of the eclipse, your view of the corona during totality will be obscured by lousy night vision and annoying green afterimages. Eclipse chaser James McClean—who has trekked from Svalbard to Java to watch the moon blot out the sun—made this rookie mistake during one of his early eclipse sightings in Egypt in 2006. After watching the partial phases, with stray beams of sunlight reflecting into his eyes from the glittering sand and sea, McClean was snowblind throughout the totality.

Now he swears by a new method: blindfolding himself throughout the first phases of the eclipse to maximize his experience of the totality. He says he doesn’t mind “skipping the previews if it means getting a better view of the film.” Afterward, he pops on some eye protection to see the partial phases of the eclipse as the moon pulls away from the sun. If you do blindfold yourself, just remember to set an alarm for the time when the total eclipse begins so you don’t miss its cross-country journey. You'll have to wait 28 years for your next chance.

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Pop Culture
IKEA Publishes Instructions for Turning Rugs Into Game of Thrones Capes
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Game of Thrones is one of the most expensive TV shows ever produced, but even the crew of the hit HBO series isn’t above using an humble IKEA hack behind the scenes. According to Mashable, the fur capes won by Jon Snow and other members of the Night’s Watch on the show are actually sheepskin rugs sold by the home goods chain.

The story behind the iconic garment was first revealed by head costume designer Michele Clapton at a presentation at Los Angeles’s Getty Museum in 2016. “[It’s] a bit of a trick,” she said at Designing the Middle Ages: The Costumes of GoT. “We take anything we can.”

Not one to dissuade customers from modifying its products, IKEA recently released a cape-making guide in the style of its visual furniture assembly instructions. To start you’ll need one of their Skold rugs, which can be bought online for $79. Using a pair of scissors cut a slit in the material and make a hole where your head will go. Slip it on and you’ll look ready for your Game of Thrones debut.

The costume team makes a few more changes to the rugs used on screen, like shaving them, adding leather straps, and waxing and “frosting” the fur to give it a weather-worn effect. Modern elements are used to make a variety of the medieval props used in Game of Thrones. The swords, for example, are made from aircraft aluminum, not steel. For more production design insights, check out these behind-the-scenes secrets of Game of Thrones weapons artists.

[h/t Mashable]


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