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]

Take a Digital Tour of America’s Vintage Roadside Stops

The Coney Island Dairyland food stand, Aspen, Colorado, 1980.
The Coney Island Dairyland food stand, Aspen, Colorado, 1980.
John Margolies Roadside America Photograph Archive (1972-2008), Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Before GPS, road-tripping Americans canvassing the country’s freshly paved roadway system in the early part of the 20th century had to rely on gas station maps to find diners and other pit stops. Alternately, they could just keep their eyes peeled for one of the thousands of unique buildings that were designed so speeding motorists could easily identify what they had to offer.

Along the famous Route 66, writes author Richard Ratay in his road trip memoir Don’t Make Me Pull Over!, were “colossal fiberglass ‘people attractors:’ giant hotdogs, guns, pies, cow heads, ice cream cones, and other items associated with the goods each proprietor was hawking.” Other places tried to stand out to passing tourists by offering variations on the “world’s biggest” motif, like the World’s Largest Catsup Bottle in Collinsville, Illinois.

These giant donuts, whales, tea pots, and other distinctive stops were shot for decades by photographer John Margolies, who made it his life’s work to capture these stucco slices of Americana before they disappeared. The Library of Congress first began acquiring portions of Margolies's archive in 2007 and started digitizing those images after Margolies died in 2016. The result of their efforts is an expansive—and totally free—online scrapbook of 11,710 color photos.

The Teapot Dome in Zillah, Washington is pictured
The Teapot Dome, Zillah, Washington, 1987.

The Hat 'N Boots gas station in Seattle, Washington is pictured
The Hat 'N Boots gas station, Seattle, Washington, 1980.

The Whale Car Wash in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma is pictured
The Whale Car Wash, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, 1980.

The Donut Hole in La Puente, California is pictured
The Donut Hole, La Puente, California, 1991.

The Flamingo Drive-In Theater in Hobbs, New Mexico is pictured
The Flamingo Drive-In Theater, Hobbs, New Mexico, 1982.

Born in 1940, Margolies took frequent road trips with his parents. An architectural critic, he began photographing the roadside attractions in 1969, continuing the work through 2008. While many of these places have shuttered, their creative exteriors live on through Margolies’s lens. You can browse the rest of the collection at the Library of Congress website.

All images courtesy of the John Margolies Roadside America Photograph Archive (1972-2008), Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

[h/t designboom]

Photographer Captures Polka-Dotted Zebra Foal in Kenya

Frank Liu
Frank Liu

Zebras are known for their eye-catching patterns, but this polka-dotted foal recently photographed in Kenya's Masai Mara National Reserve really stands out from the herd. As National Geographic reports, the zebra baby likely has pseudomelanism, a rare pigment condition that's been observed in the wild just a handful of times.

Nature photographer Frank Liu saw the zebra foal while looking for rhinos in the savannah wilderness preserve. After initially confusing the specimen for a different type of animal, he realized upon closer inspection that it was actually a plains zebra born with spots instead of stripes. The newborn foal was named Tira after the Maasai guide Antony Tira who first pointed him out.

Zebra foal with spots walking with mother.
Frank Liu

Zebra foal with spots.
Frank Liu

A typical zebra pattern is the result of pigment cells called melanocytes, which are responsible for the black base coat, and melanin, which gives the animal its white stripes. (So if you've ever wondered if zebras are white with black stripes or black with white stripes, the answer is the latter). In Tira and other zebras with pseudomelanism, the melanocytes are fully expressed, but a genetic mutation causes the melanin to appear as dots rather than unbroken stripes.


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Though rare, this isn't the only time a zebra with pseudomelanism has been documented in nature. Pseudomelanistic zebras have also been spotted in Botswana’s Okavango Delta, but Liu believes this could be the first time one was found in the Masai Mara preserve.

Zebra stripes aren't just for decoration. The distinct pattern may act as camouflage, bug repellant, and a built-in temperature regulation system. Without these evolutionary benefits, Tira has a lower chance of making it to adulthood: Pseudomelanistic zebra adults are rarely observed for this reason. But as Liu's photographs show, the foal has the protection and acceptance of his herd on his side.

[h/t National Geographic]

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