Technique allows ‘peek’ beneath surface of works of Old Masters

the madonna and child

Non-invasive surgery is often embraced by patients – especially the squeamish – as potential benefits include minimal discomfort and trauma, reduced recovery time and no scars or post-operative complications.

Now researchers in England are applying the same non-invasive concept to the examination of the works of Old Masters.

Officials from Nottingham Trent University’s School of Science and Technology and The National Gallery in London have developed an instrument capable of capturing high-resolution details from beneath the surface of works by such luminaries as Vermeer, Rembrandt and Van Eyck.

The instrument, detailed in a paper in Optics Express, will allow conservators and conservation scientists to more effectively peek beneath the surface of paintings to learn not only how the artist built up the original composition, but also what coatings have been applied to it over the years.

The latter is important because many great works of western art are covered with several coats of varnish, applied at different times over the centuries. Varnish was applied to protect the paint and make colors appear more vivid but over time it can break down.

The goal is to carefully clean off the old varnish and replace it with new, but to do this safely it helps to understand the materials and structure of the painting beneath the surface. Analyzing the hidden layers of paint and varnish can aid conservation scientists in gathering this information.

Until recently, analyzing the layers of a painting required taking a very small physical sample – usually around a quarter of a millimeter across – for viewing under a microscope. Doing so enables researchers to see a cross-section of the painting’s layers, which can be imaged at high resolution and analyzed to gain detailed information on the chemical composition of the paint.

Because it requires removing some of the original paint, conservation scientists had to operate very carefully, usually only taking minute samples from an already-damaged area of the work.

However, non-invasive imaging techniques researchers such as Optical Coherence Tomography (OCT), originally developed for medical imaging, have proven useful in art conservation.

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SC man upset he can’t get health insurance after getting sick

Luis lang

When discussing cases such as those of Fort Mill, SC, resident Luis Lang it’s difficult to do so in a dispassionate manner without sounding at least somewhat heartless.

Consider:

The 49-year-old self-employed handyman, who works with banks and the federal government on maintaining foreclosed properties, has bleeding in his eyes and a partially detached retina caused by diabetes. An area ophthalmologist who examined Lang said he will go blind without care.

Lang, however, has no health insurance. He told the Charlotte Observer that he has prided himself on paying his own medical bills.

Apparently, he’s done well for himself, too. His wife hasn’t had to work and the pair live in a 3,300-square-foot home valued at more than $300,000.

Lang’s pay-as-you-go approach to medical care worked fine while he was healthy, but this past February he suffered through 10 days of nonstop headaches and ended up going to the emergency room.

He told the Observer he was informed that he’d suffered several ministrokes.

Lang ran up $9,000 in bills, exhausted his savings, saw his vision worsen and now he can’t work, he told the Observer.

After consuming his savings, Lang turned to the Affordable Care Act exchange, known colloquially in the US as “Obamacare,” after President Barack Obama, who promoted the concept of a health insurance exchange as a key component of his health care reform initiative.

However, Lang found himself out of luck because 2015 enrollment had closed earlier that month. Also, because Lang is unable to work and his income has dried up, he earns too little to get a federal subsidy to buy a private policy.

Lang isn’t exactly owning up to having played a role in his predicament.

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Sacramento railyard reveals past industrial prowess, bygone era

sacramento railroad shop

Sacramento, like many state capitals, is known today for being a government town, but it wasn’t always that way.

As the terminus of the nation’s first transcontinental railroad, Sacramento quickly saw its population swell in the second half of the 19th century as blue-collar laborers poured into the city in droves to secure work as machinists, painters, carpenters and boilermakers for the Southern Pacific Railroad.

By 1900 as much as one-third of all workers in Sacramento were employed by Southern Pacific at the corporation’s massive Sacramento industrial complex, the largest industrial site west of the Mississippi River.

Among them was my great-grandfather’s brother, who worked as blacksmith for Southern Pacific in the 1890s.

Today, the complex, shuttered in 1999, is a shell of its former self, with just eight of 50 structures remaining. The survivors, many of which are still-impressive brick buildings that show the ravages of time, weather and use, appear to be biding their time until a colossal housing development is built on the location.

Like much of California, Sacramento’s railroad shops grew quickly.

Just 14 years after gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill in 1848 and only a dozen years after the state was admitted to the Union, four Sacramento merchants – Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington, Mark Hopkins and Charles Crocker – joined with Theodore Judah, who had surveyed and engineered the Sacramento Valley Railroad, to incorporate the Central Pacific Railroad.

Their plan was as straightforward as it was audacious: Build a rail line over the Sierra Mountains and on further east, where it would become part of the first transcontinental railroad.

“The groundbreaking ceremony took place on Jan. 3, 1863, at the foot of K Street in what is now Old Sacramento,” according to Kevin W. Hecteman in his work Sacramento’s Southern Pacific Shops. “Stanford, who at the time was the president of the Central Pacific and the governor of California, deposited the first shovelful of dirt for the railroad’s embankment …”

Designs were in place for the Sacramento shops by 1867 and two years later, by the time the Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroad had joined together at Promontory Summit in Utah, connecting the nation by rail, a machine shop, blacksmith shop and car shop had already been constructed in California’s capital.

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Hummingbirds: A near-constant whirl of motion and wonder

Hummingbirds are among nature’s most fascinating creatures.

While hovering, their wings beat up to times 80 times a second, and they have one of the highest metabolic rates of any animal, with heart rates up to 1,260 beats per minute.

Even at rest, their breathing rate is that of about 250 breaths per minute.

Hummingbirds, of which there are approximately 340 species, have amazing dexterity, demonstrating the ability to stop instantly while in flight, hover and adjust their position up, down, or backwards with exquisite control.

If you’ve ever held a hummingbird, you know they are small and extremely light, about three inches in length and weighing at most three-quarters of a pound.

The ruby-throated hummingbird, seen in the above video, is found in the eastern United States, Mexico and Caribbean.

The adult male has a patch of iridescent red on its throat bordered above with velvety black. Both sexes have beautiful emerald-green backs and white undersides.

On average, hummingbirds are on par with helicopter in terms of power required to lift their weight, according to findings published last in the Royal Society journal Interface.

One hummingbird species – the Anna’s hummingbird – was more than 20 percent efficient than a helicopter, researchers discovered.

Extreme longevity: A blessing or a curse?

okawa

Want to know what the kiss of death – literally – is? Being named the world’s oldest person.

Such recognition brings with it a guarantee that within a short period, months often, the honoree will shortly shuffle off this mortal coil.

It happened again earlier this week when Misao Okawa of Japan died at age 117.

Okawa succumbed to heart failure surrounded by relatives at a nursing home in Osaka, just weeks after celebrating her last birthday.

Okawa, born in Osaka on March 5, 1898, was recognised as the world’s oldest person by Guinness World Records in 2013, meaning she lasted a surprisingly long time in her role.

Guinness World Records all but lays out a map and GPS coordinates for the Grim Reaper each time it recognizes a new world’s oldest person.

Jiroemon Kimura, Okawa’s predecessor as the world’s oldest person, held the title for 177 days. Before Kimura, Dina Manfredini’s reign lasted just 13 days.

Gertrude Weaver of Camden, Ark., who at the age of 116 years and 271 days, is Okawa’s successor. Weaver appears to be the daughter of a man born into slavery in 1861.

In all seriousness, one wonders if holding such a record is all that enviable. Beyond the fact that most of the extremely elderly have lost at least some of their faculties, there’s also the reality that by the time you reach 115 years-plus you’ve long outlived all your contemporaries and likely your children.

Okawa, who was married nearly a century ago in 1919, had been widowed for 84 years. She was survived by four grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

(Top: Misao Okawa, surrounded by family, on the occasion of her 117th birthday at a nursing home in Osaka, Japan.)

South Carolina conserves oldest state document, dating to 1671

1671 charleston deed

After several months work and an expenditure of $15,000, South Carolina’s oldest state document – dating back nearly 350 years – is back in the state archives.

A deed for a lot of land at Charleston’s original location at Albemarle Point dates to May 28, 1671, the year after English settlers landed at what is now the Charles Towne Landing State Historic Site, and is included in Records of the Secretary of the Province 1671-1673.

Those records and a companion volume, Records of the Registrar of the Province 1673-1675, feature 26 handwritten sheets recently conserved at the Northeast Document Conservation Center in Andover, Mass.

Among the documents is an accounting of property owned by two men from Barbados forming a partnership to create a plantation, according to the Associated Press. It lists items ranging from the value of their tools to the names of indentured servants.

Charleston was established in 1670 by English colonists from Bermuda, under the first governor of South Carolina, William Sayle, on the west bank of the Ashley River a few miles northwest of the present city. It was moved to its current location on the Charleston peninsula a decade later.

“I think it’s a tribute to all those people who came before who recognized the significance of all these public records and recognized the need to take care of them,” SC Department of Archives and History Director Eric Emerson said. “This is the first record. It’s really kind of the genesis of record-keeping in South Carolina and the genesis of the archives.”

Decades ago, the 1671 deed didn’t appear destined to be around much longer.

It was described in 1944 as “a battered document having fallen victim to ‘storms, earthquakes and wars,’ making it a difficult document to read or preserve,” according to Archives and History spokesman Geoffrey Hardee.

Seventy years ago it and its companion documents, which for many years had been kept in the heat and humidity of the Statehouse basement, were sent to Virginia to be preserved using what was then cutting edge technology – lamination with a sheet of acetate.

Since then, conservators have determined such treatment did more harm than good as the acetate deteriorated over time.

In Massachusetts, the laminate was removed with acetone, ethanol and water, the acid was removed from the paper and then the paper was lined on both sides with a special transparent tissue paper.

“A staff member accompanied it up there and a staff member brought it back,” said Charles Lesser, a retired department archivist and an expert on early colonial documents, who noted that the state wasn’t taking any chances with its records.

“This is the oldest government record that has survived here,” he said. “This has been in state custody from 1671 until the present.”

The department keeps state government records in temperature- and humidity-controlled vaults at its headquarters just outside Columbia.

It has an estimated 80 million documents, including such items as the state’s copy of the Bill of Rights ratified by state lawmakers in 1790 and the Ordinance of Secession passed when South Carolina seceded from the Union in 1860.

The Records of the Secretary are the first documents of what would later become the South Carolina state government, according to the Associated Press.

In those days, such things as recording deeds and wills were the responsibility of the state, Lesser said. Later those functions passed to South Carolina’s counties, according to the wire service.

(Top: South Carolina’s earliest state government document, a 1671 deed for a lot at Charles Towne Landing, is seen at the SC Department of Archives and History in Columbia, on March 27, 2015. Photo credit: The Associated Press.)

Center for Pecan Innovation sees “tremendous opportunities”

pecans-ground

While I’m of the opinion that the highest and most noble use of the pecan involves their placement in a pie, the folks at the Georgia Pecan Commission have higher aspirations. They recently established the Center for Pecan Innovation, with the goal of finding new uses for Carya illinoinensis.

The initial focus of the Atlanta-based center will be new food products made from pecans, according to John Robison, the commission’s chairman.

“The recent 30-year study from Harvard University showing that regular nut eaters were less likely to die of cancer or heart disease is just one more supporting voice to the center, which was established to encourage more companies to find ways to use pecans in their products,” he said.

Beyond that, the commission sees opportunities for biodegradable pecan shells, from roadbeds and packing material to bath products. Cosmetic companies are looking for natural products to replace plastic micro-beads in facial cleansers, and the Journal of Food Science reports that a new study shows that extract from pecan shells may be effective at protecting meats such as chicken from listeria growth.

The US produces the vast majority of the pecans harvested annually – as much as 95 percent, or 300 million to 400 million pounds.

Georgia leads the nation in pecan production, growing 40 percent of the US total, more than the next two states – New Mexico and Texas – combined, according to the US Department of Agriculture.

Map showing, in blue, US states where pecans are grown.

Map showing, in blue, US states where pecans are grown.

“In 2012 Georgia led the nation in pecan production, harvesting 100 million pounds for the domestic and global markets,” Robison said. “China is one of the biggest markets for our in-shell pecans, but there still is tremendous opportunity for companies to use pecan pieces – even the shells.  The Center for Pecan Innovation will work to develop new products that use Georgia pecans.”

Georgia Department of Agriculture Commissioner Gary W. Black said the Georgia Pecan Commission is taking a creative approach to agriculture by establishing the center.

“Farmers today do far more than just grow food and fiber,” he said. “They take an active part in promoting their crops to grow their markets, as we have done with our Georgia Grown program. The Center for Pecan Innovation is yet another step to increase awareness for Georgia pecans.”

The Georgia Pecan Commission, begun in 1995, funds research, educational and promotional programs in order to increase demand for Georgia pecans.