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Wednesday, March 28, 2018

The 20,000-word article on bees that would forever define the Reader

Posted By on 03.28.18 at 06:00 AM

  • Illustration by Elwood H. Smith

The Reader's archive is vast and varied, going back to 1971. Every day in Archive Dive, we'll dig through and bring up some finds.

"It would not be terribly difficult to argue that the honeybee is a rather stupid animal by nature," Michael Lenehan wrote in his 1977 Reader article "The Essence of Beeing." He continues: "The earth is home to at least a million different insect species, probably a great many more, and of these the honeybee is easily number-one chump, the species most thoroughly controlled and exploited by humans."

Several paragraphs later, after an extensive discussion of apiarism and the habits of the honeybee, he concedes: "Of course, it would be easy to counter the foregoing assertions with testimony to the effect that bees are, in fact, quite intelligent as animals go, but to do so would require more of this silly anthropomorphic jocularity, and it is not considered good form to attribute values, motives, and powers of understanding to bees that they almost certainly do not possess. They're just bugs."

What makes Lenehan’s piece notable isn't just the education it provides on bees and beekeeping—although it's wonderfully thorough—but its sheer length. At over 20,000 words, it took up 30 pages of the November 17 edition of the paper (and this was back when the Reader was published as a quarterfold, much larger than its current format). Long enough to be a book, it eventually became one: in 1992 Sherwin Beach Press published the article as a 45-page hand-printed, hand-bound, nine-by-12-inch volume. (According to my research, if it were printed as a traditional paperback it would have been somewhere around 75 pages in length.) It also won the Westinghouse Science Writing Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Longtime Reader columnist Michael Miner wrote about the piece in 2011 for the paper’s 40th-anniversary dive into its past, calling it "the article that would forever define [the Reader]." The paper does have a history of extremely long cover stories, and I’ve heard it used to be a running joke that no one ever finished reading them. It wasn't even the longest article ever published in the Reader: in the 1990s there were several essays by Lee Sandlin that each came to more than 30,000 words in length.

I did read "The Essence of Beeing" in its entirety several years ago, though. It reminded me of the summers I spent with my grandparents when I was growing up, when I’d help my grandpa harvest honey from the beehives he kept on his Christmas-tree farm (the labels on his honey bears said "Thiel's Trees and Bees"). I learned a lot more about bees from the article than I did from my grandpa, which may be unsurprising given the sheer amount of information it contains.

Miner concludes: "In years to come, commentators were not sure what to think of this article. Penned by one of the Reader's most graceful and meticulous writers, it was unassailable as journalism. But perhaps it was insanely indulgent. Or perhaps never had a barrel of ink been more insouciantly allocated. At any rate, it was very very Readerish."

It was at that. Here's one more excerpt that jumped out at me as I skimmed the piece recently, an entire paragraph in a parenthetical:
(Bees are not alone in their low opinion of the drone's usefulness—beekeepers, who most often buy their queens already impregnated, try to discourage the presence of drones in the hive, because they eat much and contribute nothing. Even the bee breeders who sell the impregnated queens are learning to do without drones for the most part, as artificial insemination techniques become more popular. Doubtless, there is a lesson to be learned here for the chauvinist drones of the human species.)

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Friday, March 16, 2018

The two most-read Reader stories of all time both involve major disappointments

Posted By on 03.16.18 at 06:30 AM

This is not your friend. - TINA JOHANSSON
  • Tina Johansson
  • This is not your friend.

Reader's archive is vast and varied, going back to 1971. Every day in Archive Dive, we'll dig through and bring up some finds.

The most-read Reader story of all time is a 2012 Savage Love column with the headline "My husband violated the ground rules I'd set for our threesome." For some reason, this regularly pops up on the weekly list of top ten most-read posts. The husband promised his wife he would not stick his penis into the other woman, but he did it anyway. Dan's response begins, "Please hand this column to your husband. My response is for him: You are one stupid motherfucker."

The second most-read Reader story of all time is the far less sexy "Health: Does Coffee Make You Sleepy?" Published in 1990, it was the only story Roger Downey would ever write for the Reader. Still, since the paper went digital and we started tracking these things, he's probably racked up more page views than other staffers have in their entire careers.

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Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Beneath Chicago lies an entire second city of ants

Posted By on 09.06.17 at 09:00 AM


I need to begin this review with an apology. In the January edition of the Reader's semiannual list of books to look forward to, I included Dr. Eleanor's Book of Common Ants of Chicago with the explanation "Because forewarned is forearmed." I thought I was being witty. Now that I've actually read Dr. Eleanor's Book of Common Ants of Chicago, I realize how painfully naive and prejudiced I was. So I'm sorry, ants of the world, for underestimating you all and assuming you were pests. Now I know you're remarkable creatures of dazzling strength and ingenuity, even the rare species who pester humans (fewer than 30 of the 1000 who live in North America), and that our world would be a much sadder place without you.

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Friday, August 18, 2017

Where to watch the total eclipse in Chicago

Posted By on 08.18.17 at 05:12 PM

Chicago has plenty of prime spots to witness the rare solar eclipse on Monday 8/21. - WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
  • Wikimedia Commons
  • Chicago has plenty of prime spots to witness the rare solar eclipse on Monday 8/21.

The first total solar eclipse to cross the U.S. in 99 years will occur in the early afternoon of Monday, August 21. While Chicago is not in the "path of totality"—you'll have to head to downstate Carbondale, Illinois, to see the spectacle in its full glory—the Adler Planetarium says Monday will be the closest the city has been to a total eclipse in 92 years. In Chicago, the moon (that jerk!) will slowly begin to block out the sun at 11:54 AM, peak at 1:19 PM (80 to 90 percent coverage), and end at 2:42 PM. Throw on your viewing glasses (safety first!) and head out to one of the following events.

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Thursday, June 22, 2017

It’s the end of the world at the Museum of Science and Industry and we feel fine

Posted By on 06.22.17 at 03:42 PM

The original cover design that started it all. - MUSEUM OF SCIENCE AND INDUSTRY
  • Museum of Science and Industry
  • The original cover design that started it all.

It seems slightly unbelievable now, but the scientists who developed the nuclear bomb didn't want it to be used in an actual war. After the first test bomb exploded in New Mexico in July, 1945, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the head of the Los Alamos lab, said he was reminded of a quote from the Bhagavad Gita: "Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds." Later that month, 70 scientists who'd worked on the Manhattan Project, which led to the development of the bomb, signed a petition begging President Truman not to use it against the Japanese.

Well, we all know how that went.

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Friday, April 28, 2017

Obama’s first post-presidency speech and the March for Science were nonpartisan to a fault

Posted By on 04.28.17 at 01:54 PM

Obama didn't mention Donald Trump in his conversation on civic engagement and community organizing at the University of Chicago on April 24. - CHARLES REX ARBOGAST/AP
  • Charles Rex Arbogast/AP
  • Obama didn't mention Donald Trump in his conversation on civic engagement and community organizing at the University of Chicago on April 24.

Though Barack Obama's first post-presidency speech on April 24 and the March for Science on April 22 were at least partially born out of a need to address dangers presented by the agenda of President Donald Trump and a reinvigorated GOP, both only winked at Trump while embracing a kind of bloodless nonpartisanship.

Held just a few miles apart, the two highly publicized events kept Trump and his agenda in the margins. The 44th president danced around his predecessor's name as if Trump were Voldemort. And while many pro-science marchers carried signs that attacked and mocked Trump, the speakers at the rally were careful not mention his name—part of an effort by the organizers to somehow keep the demonstration apolitical.

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How museum curators deal with the issue of race

Posted By on 04.28.17 at 08:00 AM

The Neighborhood/El Barrio by Bianca Diaz at the Museum of Mexican Art - SUN-TIMES MEDIA
  • Sun-Times Media
  • The Neighborhood/El Barrio by Bianca Diaz at the Museum of Mexican Art

"Museums are conservative institutions," says Carlos Tortolero, founder and president of the National Museum of Mexican Art in Pilsen. "They come from the same tradition, sometimes started by people who had money, sometimes by the government. Historically, they've been elite institutions. If you want to change it, first you have to admit you have a problem."

Tortolero will be appearing on a Chicago Humanities Fest panel this weekend with Chip Colwell, senior curator of anthropology at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, and David Pilgrim, founder and director of the Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan, to discuss one very big problem facing museums today: the problem of institutional racism.

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Sunday, April 23, 2017

Scenes from Saturday's March for Science

Posted By on 04.23.17 at 01:15 PM


An estimated 40,000 people, dogs, cats, and dinosaurs gathered in Grant Park on Saturday—a seasonably appropriate Earth Day—to march to the  Field Museum to show their support for science: the belief in it, the funding for it, and its spirit of openness and curiosity, all things that have been denied by members of the current administration. It was also an opportunity to make some excellent protest signs, which, arguably, has become the great public art form of our time. (So thank you, Trump administration, I guess?)



The march itself was more low-key than the Women's March back in January, either because scientists prefer rationality to anger or because, after just three months, many Americans have begun to experience protest fatigue. As a sign I saw on the el pointed out, there is just so much to protest these days.



The socialists were out in force, as they have been at every march this year. Many scientists, they pointed out, have also been comrades. Representatives for gubernatorial candidate Daniel Biss were also out campaigning. They pointed out that as a former U. of C. math professor, he would be uniquely qualified to solve Illinois's budget issues. It is true, he probably has more experience with imaginary numbers than most.


Unlike at the Women's March, there was no official science uniform, aside from the march T-shirt, which featured one Chicago star surrounded by atomic rings. In the spirit of the pussy hats, there were a few brain hats (one marcher had knitted hers from vintage 1970s yarn left to her by an aunt), but those appeared to be a more complicated knitting project.


There were also lab coats and goggles, NASA jumpsuits, sweatshirts from Rosalind Franklin University and the U. of C., and T-shirts from high school science competitions. (Incidentally, this is the first march I have been to where complete strangers have bonded over participating in high school science competitions and also over taking AP physics.) Also one microscope helmet.


At times, the march slowed to a shuffle, and bored marchers decided to start up chants: "Hey hey, ho ho! Phony facts have got to go!"; "No ban! No wall! Science for us all!"; and "Get up! Get down! Chicago is a science town!" None of these lasted more than a couple of minutes or so. Science folk are not chanters. Which is totally fine.



At the end of the march there was a science expo at the Field Museum where local organizations and academic programs showed off promotional materials and looked for volunteers and applicants, but many marchers were more interested in exploring the scientific process of digestion.


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Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Field Museum pop-up bar the Backroom has turned part of the Chicago Athletic Association into a scientist’s office from the 1970s

Posted By on 02.28.17 at 01:56 PM

The Backroom inside the Chicago Athletic Association - ZACHARY JAMES JOHNSTON
  • Zachary James Johnston
  • The Backroom inside the Chicago Athletic Association

A giant wild turkey greets visitors to the Backroom, a pop-up bar located in the former pool of the Chicago Athletic Association. Long since deceased, the bird spreads its tail feathers from behind glass, looking like it belongs in a museum rather than a bar. Indeed, it does. The Backroom is a collaboration between the Field Museum, Johalla Projects, Land and Sea Dept., and the CAA, presented in conjunction with the Field's exhibit "Specimens: Unlocking the Secrets of Life," opening March 10. To highlight the 30 million specimens housed in the museum—less than 1 percent of which are usually on display—the exhibit will present a selection of some that are usually kept in storage, including an extinct minnow that's the last remaining one of its kind. The exhibit aims to tell the stories behind those specimens and explore how scientists use the museum's collections in their daily work. Noah Cruickshank, the adult engagement manager at the Field Museum, says that the collection also includes plants from 1776 and a beetle that Darwin collected.

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Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The fireball that fell into Lake Michigan on Monday was not just a metaphor

Posted By on 02.08.17 at 05:24 PM

Dashcam video of the meteor courtesy of the Lisle Police Department - AP PHOTO
  • AP Photo
  • Dashcam video of the meteor courtesy of the Lisle Police Department

A bright green fireball fell from the sky into Lake Michigan early Monday morning. Such events were not unknown in ancient mythologies when the gods were displeased, but scientists at the Field Museum and the American Meteor Society have assured us that it was just a meteorite breaking into pieces as it entered the earth's atmosphere. The technical term for it, though, is a "sporadic fireball," which is still pretty awesome.

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