CLOSE
Original image

Recovering NASA History in an Abandoned McDonald's

Original image

In 1966, NASA's Lunar Orbiter program performed a detailed survey of the moon's surface. The Orbiters mapped the moon in exquisite detail, searching for suitable places that later missions could use as landing sites. The Orbiters sent back their data via an amazingly complex system employing 70mm cameras, optical scanners running in space, analog lossless image compression, and radio transmitters. The data was stored back on Earth on 2,500 reels of 2-inch tape. Where this story gets interesting is what happened to those tapes.

By the 1970s, the tapes were just a mountain of forgotten junk taking up space in storage. When NASA archivist Nancy Evans was asked whether it was okay to destroy the tapes (they were being removed from storage, presumably to free up space), she refused -- and took on the job of preserving them herself. Evans took on the 2,500 reels herself and began a private mission to preserve and read them. But the challenge of actually getting the data off the tapes took her over thirty years: she had to find extremely rare Ampex FR-900 tape drives to read the tapes -- only a few dozen were ever made -- and when she finally located the drives, none of them worked.

By 2005, Evans was retired and frustrated. She had the tapes and a pile of nonfunctional drives, but NASA refused to restore them, estimating repair costs at $6 million. That's when Evans went public with the tapes, and assembled a ragtag crew of space aficionados who managed to restore the machines, process the tapes, and recover the images -- never before seen in their original quality -- all in an abandoned McDonald's donated by NASA (which, to its credit, did eventually fund the project). After the jump, check out an AP video report on the story:

The LA Times has a terrific piece going into much more detail. There's some more information at the Lunar Orbiter site, including photos like the one above of the McDonald's facility used to process the tapes. There's also a good Metafilter thread on the story, with some extra links in the comments.

(Via Waxy.org.)

Original image
Brown University Library, Wikipedia/Public Domain
arrow
This Just In
Lincoln’s Famous Letter of Condolence to a Grieving Mother Was Likely Penned by His Secretary
Original image
Brown University Library, Wikipedia/Public Domain

Despite his lack of formal schooling, Abraham Lincoln was a famously eloquent writer. One of his most renowned compositions is the so-called “Bixby letter,” a short yet poignant missive the president sent a widow in Boston who was believed to have lost five sons during the Civil War. But as Newsweek reports, new research published in the journal Digital Scholarship in the Humanities [PDF] suggests that Lincoln’s private secretary and assistant, John Hay, actually composed the dispatch.

The letter to Lydia Bixby was written in November 1864 at the request of William Shouler, the adjutant general of Massachusetts, and state governor John Albion Andrew. “I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming,” it read. “But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save.”

Unknown to Lincoln, Bixby had actually only lost two sons in battle; the others had deserted the army, were honorably discharged, or died a prisoner of war. Nevertheless, word of the compassionate presidential gesture spread when the Boston Evening Transcript reprinted a copy of the 139-word letter for all to read.

Nobody quite knows what happened to Bixby’s original letter—some say she was a Confederate sympathizer and immediately burnt it—but for years, scholars debated whether Hay was its true author.

During Hay’s lifetime, the former secretary-turned-statesman had reportedly told several people in confidence that he—not Lincoln—had written the renowned composition, TIME reports. The rumor spread after Hay's death, but some experts interpreted the admission to mean that Hay had transcribed the letter, or had copied it from a draft.

To answer the question once and for all, a team of forensic linguists in England used a text analysis technique called n-gram tracing, which identifies the frequency of linguistic sequences in a short piece of writing to determine its true author. They tested 500 texts by Hay and 500 by Lincoln before analyzing the Bixby letter, the researchers explained in a statement quoted by Newsweek.

“Nearly 90 percent of the time, the method identified Hay as the author of the letter, with the analysis being inconclusive in the rest of the cases,” the linguists concluded.

According to Atlas Obscura, the team plans to present its findings at the International Corpus Linguistics Conference, which will take place at England’s University of Birmingham from Monday, July 24 to Friday, July 28.

[h/t Newsweek]

Original image
arrow
science
These Deep-Sea Worms Could Live More Than a Thousand Years

Plunge below the sparkling surface of the Gulf of Mexico, head down into the depths, and there you'll find the ancient ones, growing in clusters of drab tubes like piles of construction equipment. Scientists writing in the journal The Science of Nature report that some of these worms could be more than 1000 years old.

When it comes to marine organisms, the deeper you go, the slower and older life gets. Biologists have found an octopus that guarded her eggs for four and a half years. They've seen clams born during the Ming dynasty and sharks older than the United States. They've seen communities of coral that have been around for millennia.

Previous studies have shown that some species of tube worm can live to be 250 years old. To find out if the same was true for other species—in this case, the Gulf of Mexico's Escarpia laminata—researchers spent years watching them grow. They used a long-lasting dye called Acid Blue to mark six clusters of worms, then let them to go about their wormy business. A year later, they collected all 356 blue-stained tubes and brought them back to the lab to measure their growth.

By calculating the speed of the worms' growth and comparing it to the size of the largest individuals, the scientists could devise a pretty good estimate of the oldest worms' age.

And boy, are they old. The researchers' worm-growth simulation suggested that the most ancient individuals could be more than 9000 years old. This seems incredible, even for tough old tube worms, so the scientists calculated a more conservative maximum age: a mere 1000 years.

A millennium-long lifespan is an extreme and not the average, the paper authors note. "There may indeed be large E. laminata over 1000 years old in nature, but given our research, we are more confident reporting a life span of at least 250 to 300 years," lead author Alanna Durkin of Temple University told New Scientist.

Still, Durkin says, "E. laminata is pushing the bounds of what we thought was possible for longevity."

She's excited by the prospect of finding older creatures yet.

"It's possible that new record-breaking life spans will be discovered in the deep sea,” she says, “since we are finding new species and new habitats almost every time we send down a submersible.”

 

[h/t New Scientist]

SECTIONS

More from mental floss studios