Recently, a pair of researchers stumbled onto a fascinating proof of women in the medieval workforce. Anita Radini of the University of York was seeking to unlock the mysteries of diets via starch particles preserved in dental tartar, and Christina Warinner of the Max Planck Institute was after the DNA of ancient oral bacteria. But, as they both looked at the teeth embedded in the skull of a German nun dead for a thousand years, they saw something unexpected. Something… blue??
The blue was a pigment, suspended in the mystery sister’s dental plaque. After few calls to fellow experts and some further laboratory work, Radini and Warinner determined it to be ultramarine, a super-rare and expensive pigment made from the ground-up semi-precious stone lapis lazuli, and used in the illumination of religious manuscripts. It turns out that task of illumination was not just entrusted to the stereotypical monks — because of the evidence of ultramarine in her dental plaque, the former occupant of the mystery skull was determined to be a scribe. And, considering how pricy ultramarine was, she must have been good.
“[Fellow expert and historian Allison] Beach even came across a letter dated to the year 1168, in which a bookkeeper of a men’s monastery commissions sister ‘N’ to produce a deluxe manuscript using luxury materials such as parchment, leather, and silk. The monastery where sister ‘N’ lived is only 40 miles from Dalheim, where the teeth with lapis lazuli were found. Beach also identified a book using lapis lazuli that was written by a female scribe in Germany around AD 1200. The pigment would have traveled nearly 4,000 miles from Afghanistan to Europe via the Silk Road. All the evidence suggests that female scribes were indeed making books that used lapis lazuli pigment in the same area and around the same time this woman was alive.”
Before this proof was found, some folks were throwing up hilarious roadblocks to this medieval artisan getting her due, going so far as to postulate the lapis lazuli got in her teeth because she was tasked with cleaning up the monks’ workroom. As a woman in business, I can’t help but roll my eyes at this — plus ça change, am I right? But I also salute this ancestor who blazed her own, brilliant blue path through her industry. (And the science that brought her work to light!)
While learning all about the subculture of Soviet car fans back in May, I was reminded of my own personal favourite totalitarian bucket of bolts, the Trabant. I first encountered the Trabant (or, affectionately, the “Trabi”) on a trip to Germany, where I turned down an Ostalgie -soaked tour of the former East Berlin via the iconic — and I use the term loosely — “car.” (I now deeply regret this.) The Trabi was ubiquitous in East Germany; it was produced by VEB Sachsenring, with little to no variation, from 1957 to 1990. It was notoriously, Communistically, awful: it had no fuel gauge, no signal lights, and its two-stroke engine topped out at barely 100 KPH. But, like the folks who homebrew Lada and Volga mods, the Trabi has a surprising number of modern fans.
“Ronny Heim, 44, got his first Trabi in 1996 in exchange for a box of beer. ‘Trabis weren’t worth anything [after the Wall fell],’ he says. ‘[Because] everyone wanted a “Western car.”’ That same year he served in the Bundeswehr, or unified armed forces of Germany, and brought his Trabi with him to the country’s northwest. ‘Half the team wanted to take the Trabi for a round in the barracks,’ he says, ‘They’d never experienced anything like it before.’
[…] Another thing Trabi collectors can’t get enough of: the strong community that’s devoted to the cars. In May 2019, the International Trabant Meeting celebrated its 25th anniversary […] They swapped stories, sipped beers, and participated in Trabi-related events like seeing who can toss a Trabi engine the furthest. Today there are Trabi clubs throughout Germany, greater Europe, and even in the United States.”
Zaniness aside, there’s a lesson in here — about pursuing what you love, even if (or perhaps because) it’s otherwise “obsolete.” I admire certainty of taste: in business, as well as in the hobby world, conforming for the sake of it while denying the lessons of the past is no way to operate. The far-reaching fandom for a fondly remembered, albeit cruddy, car shows this in the real world!
Smartphones — the little computers in our pockets — are sapping our willpower. Or, they’re keeping us more connected than ever. Or, they’re hurting kids by distracting their parents. Or, all of the above. We can’t deny smartphones have changed everything. That’s why it’s so satisfying to see the unique, portable power of this technology harnessed for good.
Farmers in Colombia, Benin, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, India, and China, are testing a new app on their personal smartphones to cross-check possible pests or blights in banana crops. Our banana-du-jour is the Cavendish; because they’re seedless, Cavendishes are propagated by transplanting, making each individual banana a clone of the others. This lack of genetic diversity spelled doom for the previous popular banana, the Gros Michel when Panama disease came for it in the mid-20th century, and now the Cavendish threatens to go the way of the dodo as well.
Enter the Tumaini app. (The name means “hope” in Swahili.) The app aims to help farmers quickly identify the pest or disease present, raise the alarm in case of an epidemic, and upload individual chunks of data to a large database for big-picture monitoring. And it does all this through AI. From ScienceDaily:
“To build it, researchers uploaded 20,000 images that depicted various visible banana disease and pest symptoms. With this information, the app scans photos of parts of the fruit, bunch, or plant to determine the nature of the disease or pest. It then provides the steps necessary to address the specific disease. […]
Existing crop disease detection models focus primarily on leaf symptoms and can only accurately function when pictures contain detached leaves on a plain background. The novelty in this app is that it can detect symptoms on any part of the crop, and is trained to be capable of reading images of lower quality, inclusive of background noise, like other plants or leaves, to maximize accuracy.”
The future of the cultivated banana rests on this matrix of individual farmers looking out for themselves and each other, via the very tool humans everywhere use to do exactly that — the smartphone. The developers are looking forward to expanding the app to cover many different kinds of crops and pests. Good thing, too, as we move into an age of agricultural instability, we’re going to need all the help we can get.
I’ve been dabbling in the sourdough subculture (pun intended!) since my daughter-in-law gifted me with a splinter of her starter in the spring. Ever the chemist, I loved experimenting with it — and chowing down on its amazing returns — until I pushed the envelope a little too far and it gave up the ghost.
But all is not lost! I’ve gained new inspiration from Xbox creator and bread nerd Seamus Blackley’s fascinating baking saga. In July, archaeologist Dr Serena Love helped Blackley access Ancient Egyptian beer- and bread-making pots from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. Blackley then collaborated with grad student Richard Bowman to collect the yeast microbes inside the pots, which had been dormant for four and a half millennia. Blackley revived a sample of the sleeping yeasties in sterile conditions, and proceeded to bake an authentic loaf of Ancient Egyptian bread with them! Chemical & Engineering News details the science:
“Bowman says they were inspired by Israeli scientists who harvested yeast from ancient beer-brewing vessels, then brewed their own beer with it. The Israeli researchers filled vessels with a nutrient solution to capture their yeast, but Blackley and colleagues wanted to develop a lower-impact method. […]
Blackley used cotton balls and liquid yeast food to lift the microbes from the surface of pottery. Excepting what he kept to make bread, he sent the samples to Bowman, who plans to sequence the genomes of the yeasts to determine their age and whether they are related to modern species.”
Wild yeast notoriously has a mind of its own, so Bowman estimates about a 30% chance that Blackley’s Frankenstarter is derived from a modern contaminant. But I think those are pretty good odds. And it’s pretty good bread: Blackley described his first barley, einkorn, and kamut flour loaf as “AMAZING and NEW. It’s much sweeter and more rich than the sourdough we are used to…The crumb is light and airy, especially for a 100% ancient grain loaf. The aroma and flavor are incredible.”. Who knew eating like an Egyptian could be so satisfying?