Ask Smithsonian: Why Do We Kiss?

Love snuggling up to a sweetie and smooching? That’s romantic, but—spoiler alert—kissing can be a disgusting and dangerous activity.  While kissing, couples exchange 9 milliliters of water, 0.7 milligrams of protein, 0.18 mg of organic compounds, 0.71 mg of fats, and 0.45 mg of sodium chloride, along with 10 million to 1 billion bacteria, according to one accounting. Many pathological organisms can be transmitted through mouth-to-mouth contact, including those that cause colds and other respiratory viruses, herpes simplex, tuberculosis, syphilis and strep.

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What Is Bertsolaritza And Who Are The Basque Poets Who Know It

Part poetry-slam, part hip-hop freestyling, part a cappella singing and 100 percent improvisational, the tradition of bertsolaritza has become a cultural signifier for the Basque diaspora.

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Cancer Moonshot Effort Unveils Dozens of Initiatives to Speed Research

WASHINGTON, DC — US federal officials have unveiled a dozen new initiatives designed to accelerate cancer research, speed new therapies to patients, foster data sharing, and simplify participation in clinical trials, all part of the formal liftoff of the Cancer Moonshot program. The Moonshot program, headed by Vice President Joe Biden, aims to “end cancer once and for all.”  The new initiatives were announced in conjunction with Moonshot summits being held on June 29 in Washington, DC, and at 260 locations in all 50 states, Puerto Rico, and Guam…..”I firmly believe we can do in the next 5 years what would ordinarily take 10,” Vice President Biden said at the Washington, DC, summit. Read more…

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Ask Smithsonian: How Do Spiders Make Their Webs?

Spiders are skillful engineers, gifted with amazing planning skills and a material that allows them to precisely design rigorous and functional webs.

The material—spider silk—has chemical properties that make it lustrous, strong and light. It’s stronger than steel and has impressive tensile strength, meaning it can be stretched a lot before it snaps. Scientists have been trying for decades to decode exactly what gives the silk both strength and elasticity, but so far they have found only clues.

Any individual spider can make up to seven different types of silk, but most generally make four to five kinds, says Jonathan Coddington, director of the Global Genome Initiative and senior scientist at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.
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Artist Chakaia Booker Gives Tires a Powerful Retread


The first thing you notice is the smell. It’s a bit industrial, but also, maybe a tiny bit pleasant.

The odor encapsulates Chakaia Booker’s latest massive sculptural work, displayed as part of the “Wonder” exhibition at the recently reopened Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The piece, like its smell, might be at home on a factory floor. It is a bit dark and threatening. But, there’s also something inviting about both the odor and the artwork. It draws you into the room, to stroll between the sculpture’s three undulating walls, and to touch their seemingly animated shreds.

From a distance, the sculpture recalls a school of swimming fish, or an orderly grouping of fall leaves. But these forms are constructed of tires that have been shredded and diced and sliced and then wrapped around stainless steel.

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Califf Breezes Through Nomination Hearing for FDA Chief

WASHINGTON — Most members of a Senate committee had few reservations yesterday about Robert Califf’s qualifications to be the next commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

“You come here today with impressive qualifications,” said Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee (HELP) Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn), who clearly was a fan, as were many other Republican members of the panel.

Questions about Dr Califf’s ties to the pharmaceutical industry, however, have dogged him since President Obama nominated him in September to lead the FDA. Read More

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How Thousands of Dead Bugs Become a Mesmerizing Work of Extraordinary Beauty


Jennifer Angus’ artwork is startling, especially when it dawns on you that what is on view is not beautifully drawn, patterned wallpaper. Depending on your mindset, it’s either a nightmarishly freakish, or beautifully mesmerizing assemblage, of insects

Beyond the visceral gut reaction, a deeper provocation comes with the ideas behind her work—what is beauty? What does it say about the power of nature, or man’s quest to control nature? What about man’s impact on the planet?

Angus, whose In the Midnight Garden is on display at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., does not shy away from expressing her own thoughts about what might otherwise be taken as an abstraction. She aims to play with perceptions, to challenge hard and fast beliefs about the insect world, and to stir a broader thought process.

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Journey to Mingering Mike’s Magical, Musical World

Lots of kids create their own fantasy worlds, populating them with monsters or superheroes—representations of friends and family, persecutors and allies, foils and alter-egos. For some, it’s a way of getting by when they don’t fit in, or of escaping the hard reality of their daily lives.

Mingering Mike was one of those kids with a vivid fantasy world. IMG_0138As a young man growing up in Washington, D.C. in the late 1960s, he didn’t think of himself an artist. He was Mingering Mike—a made-up character for the musical world he inhabited in his mind. “Mingering” was jabberwocky, a mash-up of words he created. Mike wasn’t his real name, either. But even as he toiled behind closed doors—insulating himself from a sometimes chaotic home life and then a bit later from those who might report him for evading the Vietnam draft—he strove for stardom and recognition. Now, decades later, at the age of 64, his early fantasy-life creations are on display in the new exhibition “Mingering Mike’s Supersonic Greatest Hits” at the Smithsonian American Art Museum through August 2, 2015.

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Supreme Court Dubious on Right to Sue Over Low Medicaid Fees

Washington, DC — Several US Supreme Court justices expressed skepticism that physicians have the right to sue if they believe states have set Medicaid rates too low.

The Justices were responding to oral arguments held today in Armstrong v Exceptional Child Center, Inc. et al.

Exceptional Child Center, along with four other Idaho centers that serve developmentally disabled children and adults, contended that the state had set reimbursement rates that were lower than the cost of care. Low rates could lead to fewer physicians participating, and thus, less access for patients, which violates an equal access provision of the Medicaid statute, they said. Several lower courts agreed with the healthcare providers. Idaho subsequently appealed to the Supreme Court.

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To Screen, or Not to Screen

You walk into the room, but you can’t remember why. You’ve forgotten where you left your keys. Lapses like that seem to be happening more often. The beginnings of Alzheimer’s disease? Maybe, maybe not. Continue reading

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Equal Coverage For Mental Health?

Q Why are my mental health benefits less generous than those that my insurance policy provides for other conditions?

A When mental health coverage was first added to benefits packages a few decades ago, there was still a persistent belief that a condition like depression was not as real as heart disease or cancer. There also were few medications or other therapies that offered significant improvement. Many employers did not offer rich coverage because they assumed the government would eventually pay for treatment of serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia or bipolar disease. Continue reading

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Uninsured? You’re Not Alone

Barbra Lancelot has a master’s in education and a long career working with special-needs children. Until recently, she also had a good health insurance plan and prescription drug coverage, provided by her employer. But late last year, the 58-year-old College Park resident lost her job. Coverage was extended to her under COBRA, the law that guarantees temporary continuance of employer-provided insurance but requires the worker to pay the full premium. Continue reading

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U Street: The Corridor Is Cool Again

SAUNTER down U Street in northwest Washington almost any night and you’ll hear the pulsing beat of urban nightlife: the tinny pop of a snare drum, the caustic sneering of an indie rocker, the smooth melodies of a lounge singer, the plaintive picking of a folkie and the driving chunk-a-chunk of hip-hop.

The U Street Corridor, the center of Washington’s African-American nightlife for much of the 20th century and the birthplace of Duke Ellington, is vibrant again and the newest and hottest place in town for getting out on weekends after dark. The transformation that began in the late 90’s, after three decades of decline and neglect, continues to gather speed, with boarded-up buildings reopened and transformed into galleries, shops, cafes and clubs, and nightlife seekers migrating over from Georgetown and Adams Morgan for a slightly older, less raucous scene where the patrons have a bit more money to spend.

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Finding a More Authentic Jamaica

IT’S not particularly easy to get to Portland parish, a lush, often rainy region on Jamaica’s northeast coast. The closest airport with jet service from the United States is Norman Manley International in Kingston, which is at least two, and sometimes three, hours away by car, depending on the number of potholes, trucks, chickens, goats and bicycling Rastafarians encountered on the road.

But that journey, on the A4 “highway” (a rather grand name for a road that can barely contain two cars passing each other), is worth the effort — and not just because of the steady stream of road stands offering ripe bananas or cold coconut milk, or the ubiquitous one-room bars slinging frosty Red Stripe beers or shots of clear overproof rum (which is 63 percent alcohol by volume).

Instead, what you will find is the real Jamaica, not the isolated experience offered by all-inclusive resorts that are the typical tourist destinations on this Caribbean island. Read More

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