How a Particle Accelerator Is Helping to Unearth Long-Lost Pieces of Art

Oli Scarff, Getty Images
Oli Scarff, Getty Images

A particle accelerator is revealing the people in 150-year-old photographs whose features had been lost to time, Science News reports.

For the first time, Madalena Kozachuk, a Ph.D. candidate at Canada’s Western University, and a team of scientists used an accelerator called a synchrotron to scan daguerreotypes, an ancestor of modern photography.

before and after image of a damaged dagguereotype
Kozachuk et al. in Scientific Reports, 2018

Invented by French painter and physicist Louis Daguerre, daguerreotypes were popular from around the 1840s to the 1860s. They were created by exposing an iodized silver-coated copper plate to a camera (the iodine helped make the plate's surface light-sensitive). Subjects had to sit in front of the camera for 20 to 30 minutes to set the portrait, down from the eight hours it took before Daguerre perfected his method. Photographers could then develop and fix the image with a combination of mercury and table salt.

Because they’re made of metal, though, daguerreotypes are prone to tarnish. Scientists can sometimes recover historical daguerreotypes by analyzing samples taken from their surface, but such attempts are often both destructive and futile, Kozachuk wrote in a study published in Scientific Reports.

Kozachuk found that using a particle accelerator is a less invasive and more accurate method. While some scientists have used X-ray imaging machines to digitally scan other historical objects, such instruments are too large to scan daguerreotypes. Reading the subtle variations on a daguerreotype surface requires a micron-level beam that only a particle accelerator can currently produce. By tracing the pattern of mercury deposits in the tarnished plate, the researchers were able to reveal the obscured image and create a digital photo of what the daguerrotype looked like when it was first made.

before and after image of a recovered dagguereotype
Kozachuk et al. in Scientific Reports, 2018

“When the image became apparent, it was jaw-dropping,” Kozachuk told Science News. “I squealed when the first face popped up.”

Scanning one square centimeter of each 8-by-7 centimeter plate took about eight hours. The technique, though time-intensive, may allow museums and collectors to restore old daguerreotypes with minimal damage.

“The ability to recover lost images will enable museums to expand their understanding of daguerreotype collections, as severely degraded plates would not otherwise have been able to be studied or viewed by interested scholars,” Kozachuk wrote.

[h/t Science News]

Australian Island Wants Visitors to Stop Taking Wombat Selfies

iStock.com/LukeWaitPhotography
iStock.com/LukeWaitPhotography

Spending a day observing Australian wildlife from afar isn't enough for some tourists. On Maria Island, just off the east coast of Tasmania, many visitors can't resist snapping pictures with the local wombats—and the problem has gotten so out of hand that island officials are asking people to pledge to leave the cute marsupials out of their selfies.

As CNN Travel reports, the Maria Island Pledge has been posted on signs welcoming visitors to the national park. It implores them to vow to the island to "respect and protect the furred and feathered residents." It even makes specific mention of the wombat selfie trend, with one passage reading:

"Wombats, when you trundle past me I pledge I will not chase you with my selfie stick, or get too close to your babies. I will not surround you, or try and pick you up. I will make sure I don’t leave rubbish or food from my morning tea. I pledge to let you stay wild."

The pledge isn't a binding contract guests have to sign. Rather, park officials hope that seeing these signs when they arrive will be enough to remind visitors that their presence has an impact on the resident wildlife and to be respectful of their surroundings.

The adorable, cube-pooping wombats at Maria Island are wild animals that aren't accustomed to posing for pictures, and should therefore be left alone—though in other parts of Australia, conservationists encourage tourists to take wildlife selfies. Rottnest Island off the country's west coast is home to 10,000 quokkas (another photogenic marsupial), and the quokka selfies taken there help raise awareness of their vulnerable status.

[h/t CNN Travel]

When Pigeon Photographers Offered a Real-Life Bird’s-Eye View of the World

Julius Neubronner/Jennavecia, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain
Julius Neubronner/Jennavecia, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

You’ve heard of carrier pigeons, but what about photographer pigeons? As The New Yorker reports, a German apothecary and inventor named Julius Neubronner advanced the field of aerial photography in the early 20th century by attaching cameras to his homing pigeons and setting them loose. Consider the birds the original drones.

Except that wasn’t Neubronner’s original intent when he built the pigeon camera back in 1907. He occasionally used pigeons to deliver prescriptions to and from a sanatorium a few miles away from his home in Kronberg (near Frankfurt), and he wanted to track where they flew. So he set out to invent a solution.

His device consisted of a leather harness and aluminum breastplate that allowed a lightweight camera to be attached to a pigeon’s body. A built-in pneumatic timer let the pigeons snap multiple photos mid-flight. As The New Yorker notes, “Whether the cameras would actually capture the desired object, however, depended on luck and the whims of the pigeons.”

The patent for his invention was nearly rejected because the German patent office thought the apparatus was too heavy for pigeons to carry (it wasn’t). He eventually received a patent in 1908 and went on to showcase his invention at expositions in Dresden, Frankfurt, and Paris. He even made a bit of money by selling postcards showcasing the pigeons’ photos, which were snapped and developed on the spot.

At the time, aerial photos were only achieved through the use of balloons or kites, and the range of motion was limited in those cases. Neubronner’s clever use of the available technology was later adapted for wartime purposes, and Germany’s military tested out the pigeon cameras on Western Front battlefields, according to The Public Domain Review. However, airplanes quickly surpassed the pigeons' capabilities and “consigned Neubronner’s birds to their traditional role of carrying messages,” the Review notes. But their voyages live on in the photographs they captured.

An aerial photo of a hotel in Germany
Julius Neubronner/Jennavecia, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain Mark 1.0

[h/t The New Yorker]

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