Curiosity Desk

4:40 pm
Wed November 11, 2015

WT(1190)F Is Up With All The Junk In Space?

Orbital debris in low Earth orbit, the region of space within 2,000 km of the Earth's surface.
Credit NASA

This Friday, an object that scientists have been carefully tracking for some time now, dubbed WT1190F, will enter the earth's atmosphere in the skies above the Indian Ocean. Given its size and unusual orbit, scientists believe it's an old piece of space junk, perhaps even a spent rocket or a panel from one of the Apollo spacecraft. WT1190F is not alone up there. It turns out that space is a veritable junkyard.

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12:21 pm
Fri November 6, 2015

How Mass. — And The Great Depression — Helped Launch The Board Game Monopoly

Game pieces for the original 1935 "Trade Mark" edition were inspired by Charles Darrow's neice, who was swept up in the charm bracelet fad.

If you think that the teenage inventor and entrepreneur is a phenomenon unique to our digital age, I give you game enthusiast George Parker in 1883.

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Local News
8:28 am
Wed November 4, 2015

MBTA Unveils New Tactics To Keep Winter Commute On Track

MBTA maintenance facility
Edgar B. Herwick III/WGBH News

For Caren Savone it’s a necessary evil….

“I wouldn’t say reliable, definitely not affordable, but it is a service and I couldn’t live without it.”

For Ivan Nesterov, it’s something of a throwback….

“I come from Europe. It’s incomparable to European rails. How So? Far inferior, ya know, this is something out of the 60s in Europe.”

For Sara Seager, it’s an eternal headache….

“I’m ashamed to live in Boston. Do you know what it’s like to have to cancel meetings and not to get to work on time day after day after day?”

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12:26 pm
Fri October 30, 2015

The Woman Who Wrote The Book On Halloween Haunts The Lynn Public Library

An image from The Book of Hallowe'en depicting A Witch's Table.
Project Gutenberg

Longtime librarian Eileen Kearney will never forget that night at the Lynn Public Library, some 20 years ago, when she found herself alone in the stacks.

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10:43 am
Fri October 23, 2015

Maybe You Noticed, The World Didn't End in 1844

A pamphlet explaining Millerite views of the end of the world.
Credit University of Virginia

This time they were certain.

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3:37 pm
Wed October 21, 2015

Sifting For Relics Of The Revolutionary War On Boston Common

Credit Flickr user Tim Rawle

For the past three days, a small, shovel-wielding crew in florescent vests have been digging deep holes along a 50 yard path on the edge of Boston Common and painstakingly combing through the dirt.

City archeologist Joe Bagley, who is leading the dig, says “You would not believe how much people are willing to walk past weird stuff happening in the city of Boston.”

None of the diggers are dressed like Indiana Jones, so how are we supposed to know they’re archeologists?

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6:00 am
Fri October 16, 2015

How Edwin Land Built Polaroid Into The Ultimate Mass. Consumer Technology Powerhouse

The Polaroid SX-70

There’s this fascinating, kind of haunting video from 1970 that you can watch on YouTube, in which Edwin Land — chemist, inventor, inspiration to Steve Jobs, and co-founder of Polaroid Corp. — walks through a half-built factory in Norwood where he planned to change the world.

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Local News
3:40 pm
Fri October 9, 2015

I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream... Why?

Boston Scream Club
Credit Tori Bedford for WGBH

It’s a quiet Tuesday evening in the Cambridge Center Roof Garden in Kendall Square. The sun sets low in the sky, and all is peaceful. One by one, a small group gathers, bringing their own dark cloud of stress and frustration.

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11:54 am
Fri October 9, 2015

Banned In (17th Century) Boston: Religious Tolerance

"Return of Roger Williams from England with the First Charter," 1644.
Credit From a painting by C.R. Grant

Just how Puritan was early colonial New England? The first legal code, The Body of Liberties, was written by a minister.

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11:53 am
Fri October 2, 2015

Meet America's First Woman Astronomer: Maria Mitchell

Maria Mitchell's telescope, at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.
Credit Dpbsmith / WGBH News

Before Neil deGrasse Tyson, before Carl Sagan, before Edwin Hubble, there was Maria Mitchell.

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2:35 pm
Wed September 30, 2015

Love That Martian Water: Local Pair Plans Move To Mars

The dark, narrow streaks flowing downhill on Mars at sites such as this portion of the Garni Crater are inferred to be formed by seasonal flow of water on modern-day Mars.
Credit NASA

The news this week that NASA has detected flowing water on the surface of Mars hit especially close to home for two local residents. After all, they plan to live there someday.

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1:46 pm
Wed September 23, 2015

A Look At The Taxi/Uber Battle From Inside The Cab

Long time Boston taxi owner-operator Jim Christie, outside his cab in down town Boston.

When you spend a few hours in a cab with Jim Christie, like I recently did, you learn one thing pretty quickly. He sees almost everything, from how many other taxis are in the vicinity to potential fares lurking in the shadows to a quicker path opening up amidst a swell of traffic. 

Christie's keen vision makes perfect sense. After all, when he started driving a cab, Kevin White was in his first term as mayor; John Havelicek was in his prime with the Celtics.

"It was back in the day when we still had uniforms," said Christie, "Waist jacket with a tie and a taxi hat."

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10:42 am
Fri September 4, 2015

'Force Friday,' In The Form Of 'Star Wars' Toys, Hits Boston

A customer checks out a statue of Darth Vader in Woburn.
Edgar B. Herwick III WGBH News

For as long as there has been "Star Wars," there have been "Star Wars" toys.

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5:34 am
Fri August 28, 2015

Route 128, Once Known As 'Road To Nowhere,' Had A Traffic Jam The Day It Opened

Credit 128 Business Council

You want to talk about ubiquitous?

For commuters, it’s an eternal headache; For meteorologists, a reliable dividing line. Route 128’s even been immortalized in song by the Modern Lovers.

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Curiosity Desk
5:15 pm
Fri August 14, 2015

This Week In History: Frederick Douglass Shines On Nantucket

Frederick Douglass as a young man, circa 1840.
Credit public domain

Frederick Douglass’ story began like millions of other Americans, millions too many.

Douglass’ life is much the same as many enslaved people. As one of the great abolitionist women said, “animals, horses are treated better than enslaved people.”

That’s Beverly Morgan Welch, executive director of the Museum of African American History. Born in Maryland, Douglass was taken from his mother as an infant, and then from his grandmother as a young boy.

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12:24 pm
Fri August 7, 2015

Everything You Never Learned In School About The Mayflower

The Landing of the Mayflower, by Sarony and Major.
Credit Library of Congress

The story of Massachusetts as we know it today began with a group of religious separatists known as the Pilgrims and their ship, the Mayflower — but their story is not exactly the one you learned in school.

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10:35 am
Fri July 31, 2015

How MIT And Technicolor Helped Create Hollywood

Deborah Stoiber shows the three color technicolor film process at the George Eastman House Louis B. Mayer Conservation Center in Chili, N.Y., Thursday April 24, 2008.
Credit AP Photo

We, of course, live in color. But the world that early Hollywood presented was almost exclusively black and white. Chelsea-born Herbert Kalmus, his college buddy Daniel Comstock and gadget guru Burton Westcott wanted to change that. So in 1915 they launched a company, Technicolor, to do just that.

"Kalmus and Comstock went to MIT — Massachusetts Institute of Technology — and that’s where the term 'tech' comes from in Technicolor," said film producer Richard W. Haines, author of "Technicolor Movies: The History of Dye Transfer Printing."

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Local News
11:56 am
Wed July 29, 2015

Explosive Beach Objects-- Just Another Example Of Massachusetts' Charm

Back away from the UXO.
Credit Wikipedia

Speculation ran wild in the days following that Rhode Island beach explosion, and one of the early theories posed that it might have been an old military munition buried in the sand. But just how likely is it that unexploded military artillery would be found on a New England beach?

It’s fairly common, it turns out.

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Local News
3:40 pm
Fri July 24, 2015

The Attack On Orleans: When World War I Hit Cape Cod

The crew of the German WWI U-boat UB 14 stand atio the submarine on the Black Sea in 1918.
Credit Public domain

Nauset Beach on Cape Cod is known for its excellent bass and blues fishing. It's known to surfers as a real destination, and to off-road-vehicle enthusiasts as one of the beaches where — with a permit — you can cruise. Less known are the dramatic events that took place on this 10-mile stretch of coast in the summer of 1918.

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5:29 pm
Tue July 14, 2015

Cambridge Scientist Helped New Horizons With Directions To Pluto

Pluto, right, and its largest moon, Charon, which Scott Kenyon calls a binary planet.
Credit NASA

When I asked Scott Kenyon about his reaction to the news that New Horizons had actually flown by Pluto, his answer wasn't that different from those of the myriad of people I've chatted with about it, from scientists to educators to regular Janes and Joes.

"Well, it's pretty exciting," Kenyon said.

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Local News
9:42 am
Tue July 14, 2015

Former Planet Pluto Is Weirder Than We Thought (UPDATED)

Credit NASA

UPDATE 7/14/15: Looks like we made it. Shortly before 8 a.m. EDT, nine years, five months and 25 days after NASA's New Horizons blasted off the surface of the Earth, it whizzed past Pluto at about 7 miles per second. At least we think it did. 

As is the plan, New Horizons is out of contact with the ground while it does its job, snapping photos and completing a whole host of measurements some 3 billion miles away. Scientists are anxiously awaiting their next contact with the craft, scheduled for shortly before 9 p.m. EDT, when New Horizons is expected to signal scientists that the flyby has been successfully completed and begin transmitting data back.

Richard Binzel, an MIT planetary sciences professor who is on the New Horizons science team, sent WGBH News this statement Tuesday morning by email, shortly after New Horizons began its Pluto flyby:

Breathtaking! There is such a richness in the differences in color and textures on the surface of Pluto that we are going to be challenged for years to come to reach some explanations. For now, it’s a brief celebration and then back to our science team work.

And how's the mood at the science team's operations center this morning? Here's Binzel and few of his fellow New Horizons scientists:

What they're reacting to is the best photo yet of the dwarf planet (top), taken late Monday night by New Horizons from about 476,000 miles away and released this morning by NASA. It's just a tease of what's to come. New Horizons' flyby takes it just 7,000 miles from Pluto's surface. Keep in mind, while the photos and data will start coming in this evening, it will take 16 months for New Horizons to transmit the full treasure trove back to scientists here on the ground. 

Original story: After a journey that has lasted the better part of a decade, the answer to "are we there yet" is finally “yes,” for NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft. After a brief glitch over the weekend, all systems are once again go for an historic encounter, 3 billion miles from Earth.

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10:22 am
Fri July 10, 2015

The Day Babe Ruth Arrived In Boston, Met His Wife, And Pitched 7 Innings In A Red Sox Win

Babe Ruth in 1919.
Credit Wikimedia Commons

Lots of people came through Back Bay station here in Boston on July 11, 1914. And, likely, even a few of them stood 6-foot-2 at 215 pounds. But only one would rise to the heights of the 19-year-old who arrived from Baltimore that day.

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1:00 am
Fri July 3, 2015

ZIP Codes Tamed The Postal Service Boom 52 Years Ago

Mr. Zip extols the virtues of the ZIP Code system.

We all have one, we know it by heart, and we share it with our neighbors. But chances are you haven't thought that much about this ubiquitous part of American life — the ZIP code.

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11:34 am
Mon June 22, 2015

We're Number 1: The Massachusetts Constitution Heralded And Outpaced The U.S. Version

Detail from the Massachusetts Constitution.
Credit Library of Congress

"The end of the institution, maintenance, and administration of government, is to secure the existence of the body politic" — so begins the preamble to the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

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Local News
10:33 am
Wed June 17, 2015

At South Station: Checkmate While You Wait

Three time US chess champ and certified Grandmaster Larry Christiansen plays 24 games simultaneously at South Station.
WGBH / Edgar B. Herwick III


About 50 people were gathered just after noon Tuesday, right where folks often gather at South Station: near the big electronic board listing departures and arrivals. Only no one was looking at the board. All eyes – and plenty of cell phones – were pointed squarely below it. Why?

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12:00 am
Sat June 13, 2015

News Scraps: Good Stuff That Didn't Make Headlines


The Curiosity Desk's weekly roundup of the stats, facts, tidbits and leftovers that almost slipped through the cracks in the WGBH newsroom.


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The Curiosity Desk
12:21 pm
Fri June 12, 2015

The Crusty Boston Lawyer Who Helped Shatter McCarthyism: This Week In History

Boston attorney Joseph Nye Welch during the 1954 McCarthy-Army hearings. It was during these hearings that Welch uttered the famous phrase, 'Have you no sense of decency, sir?'
Credit AP Photo


It’s one of the most well-known – and written about chapters in American political history. Less covered, is the strong Massachusetts connection.

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12:00 am
Thu June 11, 2015

Should Boston Police Carry Tasers?

A Taser X26 stun gun is displayed.
Credit AP Photo

The question of whether Boston Police should carry electronic control weapons, commonly known by the brand name Taser, has been renewed after the police shooting earlier this month of Usaamah Rahim in Roslindale.

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Local News
10:14 am
Fri May 29, 2015

Does Massachusetts Have A Brush Fire Problem? You'd Be Surprised

A fire-prevention sign stands in Myles Standish State Park.
Credit OldPine / Wikimedia Commons

The thing you notice after a few minutes talking with Dave Celino, chief fire warden for the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, is that what you or I might call "brush," or "woods," or "forest," he calls "fuel."

"Fuel diameter, fuel type, fuel moisture, fine fuels — there are categories of fuel," Celino said.

When you get to know a little about his work, you start to understand why.

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10:20 am
Tue May 26, 2015

'New England's Dark Day': That Time In 1780 When It Was Night Before Noon

A poem recounting New England's 'Dark Day.'
Credit Brown University Library Digital Repository

May 19, 1780, dawned like a promise. It had been a particularly brutal winter in New England, but spring had finally arrived. In fact, it had been unusually warm for days.

There were fields to plant, goods to manufacture, ships to load and unload. But then, as, Cornell University professor Thomas Campanella explains, things got weird.

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