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12 Facts About Chernobyl’s Exclusion Zone 30 Years After the Disaster

It was 30 years ago, on April 26, 1986, that disaster struck nuclear reactor number 4 in Chernobyl. At first, Soviet officials attempted to hide the cataclysmic events unfolding in Ukraine, but when radioactive clouds were detected as far away as Sweden, news spread that the unthinkable had happened: a lethal explosion at a nuclear power plant.

Residents at the neighboring workers’ town of Pripyat weren’t told of the deadly radiation covering their homes at first. As official buses began evacuating the area, people were instructed to bring only a suitcase, since they would be able to return in a few days. But as the extent of the explosion became clear, the Soviet military established an official Exclusion Zone, a roughly 18-mile radius around the stricken power plant. About 115,000 people were evacuated in 1986, and another 220,000 in the following years, creating a desolate landscape of abandoned towns and villages.

Thirty years after the disaster, much of the Exclusion Zone—now encompassing 1000 miles and also called the Zone of Alienation—is still strictly off-limits. The area remains a chilling reminder of nuclear disaster, while at the same time drawing thousands of tourists each year and demonstrating the resiliency of nature.

1. YOU CAN STAY THERE ...

Hotel Chernobyl. Alex Kühni via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Yes, there’s a hotel. It’s simple, best described as being in the “Soviet” style. According to the website Chernobyl-Tour.com, "visitors are provided with the iron-starched linen stamped by the Chernobyl special industrial complex." There is, however, Wi-Fi, enabling explorers the unique experience of being able to email friends and relatives from deep inside the Zone. The hotel is the only place for intrepid explorers to the Zone to stay, but its staff are only allowed to work on a strict rotation of 15 days in the Zone and 15 outside, to keep radiation levels to a minimum. Workers inside the Zone live in basic dormitories in the town of Chernobyl.

2. ... BUT YOU HAVE TO GET PERMISSION IN ADVANCE TO VISIT.

The first checkpoint. Alex Kühni via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Chernobyl is still impossible for tourists to get to without an official guide. There are strict military-style checkpoints at the 30km zone, at 10km, and at the entrance to the ghostly worker's town of Pripyat. Your name and passport have to be submitted to controlling authorities seven to 10 days in advance, and the guards check you and your passport numbers at each checkpoint. The early days of the Zone saw a large problem with local intruders who infiltrated the vast perimeter to ransack Pripyat and other areas, but since 2007 the Ukrainian government has severely clamped down on illegal intruders.

3. THE ZONE INCLUDES MORE THAN JUST CHERNOBYL.

The gymnasium at Pripyat. Photo by Luke Spencer.

Chernobyl was the largest town in what’s now the zone. Dating back to the 12th century, it was once a vibrant, largely Jewish town. The peaceful farming town, however, suffered at the start of the 20th century, when many of the inhabitants were murdered by first the Red Army and then during the Nazi occupation. At the time of the disaster, the population had increased, largely due to the nuclear industry, to approximately 14,000.

A deserted house in Chernobyl. Photo by Luke Spencer.

Today, the ghost town of Pripyat attracts the most attention. Opened in 1970, Pripyat was designed as a model example of Communist city life. It was also surprisingly youthful: The average age of the roughly 50,000 inhabitants of Pripyat was about 26. The now-empty town had a discotheque, gymnasium, movie theatre, sports field, and the famous amusement park. One of the most-frequented parts of Pripyat, according to tour guides there, was the maternity ward, with the youthful population of Pripyat producing around 1000 babies each year.

As roads have steadily deteriorated, the smaller towns deep in the Exclusion Zone have become cut off and remain mostly unvisited to even the seasoned tour guides. Across the border in Belarus, the effects of the explosion were similarly catastrophic, if not more so. An estimated 70 percent of the fallout descended on Belarus, contaminating approximately a quarter of the country. The most heavily hit areas in Belarus are now part of the 834-square mile Polesie State Radiation Ecological Reserve, a mixture of forests and deserted industrialized areas.

4. THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE WORK IN THE ZONE …

A worker in the zone. Alex Kühni via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Roughly 5000 people still work in the Exclusion Zone: mostly sentry guards, workers on the massive new sarcophagus, firemen protecting the still-volatile area from deadly forest fires, and service staff for the workers. Like the hotel staff, they live in the Zone on a rotation pattern of 15 days in, 15 days out, to keep their radiation levels manageable, staying in dilapidated concrete dormitories next to the hotel.

5. ... AND SOME PEOPLE LIVE THERE.

About 180 older residents also live full-time in the zone, having returned to their ancestral villages despite warnings from the Ukranian government, which has now largely allowed them to return to their homes to die in peace. A recent documentary, The Babushka of Chernobyl, tells their story.

6. SO IT’S NOT EXACTLY DESERTED.

Aside from the hotel, there is one bar, a post office that still makes one daily noon collection, and a supermarket, where produce is scarce but with the shelves are filled with alcohol. There is even a museum (never open) and something virtually non-existent in post-1991 Ukraine: a statue of Lenin. Because it remains frozen in time, Chernobyl is one of the few places where hammer and sickles can still be seen.

7. TOURISM IS BIG BUSINESS.

Nikolai, a tour guide in the zone. Photo by Luke Spencer.

The Exclusion Zone began allowing officially sanctioned visits, mostly for scientists and reporters, almost as soon as it was created. In recent years, tour groups have begun organizing brief, strictly controlled visits. One tour guide mental_floss interviewed, named Nikolai, says a couple has even gotten engaged on one of his tours. Beforehand, the proposer asked Nikolai if he could take them to the most contaminated area possible for the big moment. This year, the 30th anniversary, it’s thought that an estimated 10,000 visitors will step inside the Exclusion Zone.

8. THERE’S A CURFEW.

Inside Chernobyl, there is a strict curfew of 8 p.m. At night in the town square, one of the only things you can hear aside from the stray dogs barking is a strange sequence of rising electronic beeps coming from the forest somewhere to the north, which sounds a bit like the famous 5-note sequence in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. A tour guide said they come from the scientist's camp, which is constantly monitoring radiation levels.

9. EVERYONE GETS THEIR RADIATION MONITORED—EVEN THE TOUR GUIDES.

Every visitor coming out of the Exclusion Zone goes through a radiation screening at each checkpoint. If your levels are too high, clothes and boots are either washed or left behind. Taking anything out of Chernobyl is forbidden. Tour guides like Nikolai are checked regularly, and say they don’t receive anywhere near the annual levels of radiation deemed too dangerous.

10. TOURISM THERE MAY NOT LAST.

Luke Spencer

Despite the growing numbers of tourists, the Zone is still highly toxic and dangerous. The landscape is dotted with warning signs indicating where the “hot spots” are. Walking around is for the most part safe, but the greatest danger comes from ingesting radioactive particles. Nikolai has had to warn visitors against posing for photographs licking trees, eating berries, and rolling around in the earth. He particularly warns against following in the footsteps of “Bionerd23,” who posts videos of herself online fearlessly eating Chernobyl’s apples. Radiation levels in many places are safe, but parts of the Zone, particularly near reactor 4, and in basements of buildings such as Pripyat’s hospital, remain dangerously high.

11. THE REACTORS AREN’T THE CREEPIEST PART.

The eerie Duga-3 radar base. Photo by Luke Spencer.

One of the most remarkable parts of the Exclusion Zone is southeast of the reactors: the eerie Duga-3 radar station. Once one of the most secretive spots in the old Soviet Union, this vast construction of antennae and aerials was once pointed in the direction of the United States, listening in for incoming planes and missiles. On maps, it was marked down as a children's summer camp, while the locals were told it was a radio tower. Around 1500 high-grade technicians, scientists, and military personnel worked and lived here, wrapped in the highest levels of Cold War secrecy. There was even a kindergarten. Today, there is just one soldier guarding the peculiar complex, the propaganda murals on the walls decayed and long-forgotten.

Inside the abandoned military compound of Duga -3. Photo by Luke Spencer.

12. THE FUTURE OF THE ZONE IS UNCLEAR.

The zone will continue to be contaminated by the radiation from the disaster for about 300 years. Without many humans around, wildlife has returned to the area, which now teems with foxes, wolves, lynx, boar, moose, and rabbits, among other creatures.

While some would like to turn the area into a nature preserve, its future remains a divisive topic in the Ukrainian government, with such plans under threat from Ukraine’s nuclear industry, which would prefer to use the toxic landscape as a fuel dump for radioactive waste. Today, Ukraine remains one of the countries most dependent on nuclear power for their electricity—which means all that waste has to go somewhere.

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Images: iStock. Collage: Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss.
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15 Jokes From the World's Oldest Jokebook
Images: iStock. Collage: Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss.
Images: iStock. Collage: Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss.

The oldest recorded joke—a lowbrow Sumerian quip stating "Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband's lap"—dates back to 1900 BCE, eking out a pharaoh wisecrack from Ancient Egypt by a solid three centuries.

But to pilfer one of the oldest jokes in the book means dusting off the Philogelos (meaning "Laughter Lover"), a Greek anthology of more than 200 jokes from the fourth or fifth century. From gags about dunces to jests at the expense of great thinkers, here are 15 jokes from the oldest existing collection of jokes, as translated by now-retired classical languages professor William Berg.

1. A STUDENT DUNCE GOES SWIMMING

comedians
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A student dunce went swimming and almost drowned. So now he swears he'll never get into water until he's really learned to swim."

2. AN INTELLECTUAL VISITS A FRIEND

ancient dancers
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"An intellectual came to check in on a friend who was seriously ill. When the man's wife said that he had 'departed,' the intellectual replied: 'When he arrives back, will you tell him that I stopped by?'"

3. THE MISER'S WILL

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A miser writes his will and names himself as the heir."

4. THE SHARP-WITTED SPECTATOR

ancient theater
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A sharp wit observes a slow runner: 'I know just what that gentleman needs.' 'What's that?' demands the sponsor of the race. 'He needs a horse, otherwise, he can't outrun the competition!'"

5. THE HOT-HEADED DOCTOR

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"Consulting a hotheaded doctor, a fellow says, 'Professor, I'm unable to lie down or stand up; I can't even sit down.' The doctor responds: 'I guess the only thing left is to hang yourself.'"

6. THE COWARDLY SAILOR

treater rehearsal
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A coward is asked which are safer, warships or merchant-ships. 'Dry-docked ships,' he answers."

7. THE JEALOUS LANDLORD

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"An envious landlord sees how happy his tenants are. So he evicts them all."

8. THE DRUNK BARKEEPER

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A drunk opens a bar, and stations a chained bear outside."

9. THE GUY WITH BAD BREATH

ancient comedian
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A guy with bad breath decides to take his own life. So he wraps his head and asphyxiates himself."

10. THE WIFE-HATER

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A wife-hater is attending the burial of his wife, who has just died. When someone asks, 'Who is it who rests in peace here?', he answers, 'Me, now that I'm rid of her!'"

11. THE LUCKLESS EUNUCH

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A luckless eunuch got himself a hernia."

12. THE HUSBAND WITH HALITOSIS

Roman woman holding a mask
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A husband with bad breath asks his wife, 'My dear, why do you hate me?' She give him an answer: 'Because you kiss me.'"

13. THE GLUTTONOUS GIFTER

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"A glutton is marrying his daughter off to another glutton. Asked what he's giving her as a dowry, he responds, 'She's getting a house with windows that look out onto the bakery.'"

14. TOO TIRED TO CARE

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"Two lazy-bones are fast asleep. A thief comes in, pulls the blanket from the bed, and makes off with it. One of them is aware of what happened and says to the other, 'Get up! Go after the guy who stole our blanket!' The other responds, 'Forget it. When he comes back to take the mattress, let's grab him then.'"

15. THE FORGETFUL TEACHER

ancient roman theater masks
Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library // Public Domain

"An incompetent teacher is asked the name of Priam's mother. At a loss, he says, 'Well, we call her Ma'am out of politeness.'"

A version of this story ran in 2014.

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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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