Ten Thousand Years of the Mortar and Pestle

The culinary tools still look more or less the same as they did in their earliest days

by Kate Angus

Modern-day mortars and pestles, no matter the composition, connect their owners to this ancient culinary and material history. The design has changed very little over the past several millennia: When you use it to grind spices into powder or make food into paste, you’re using essentially the same tool as the Aztecs, the Celts, the Sioux, the ancient Greeks, the Egyptians, and the Romans, to name just a few.

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The Airport Restroom

A Mini Object Lesson

by Ian Bogost

The reverie of travel has long ceased for most leisure travelers; mere survival is the goal.

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When Does Bread Become Toast?

A Mini Object Lesson

by Ian Bogost

Is bread toast only insofar as a human toaster perceives it to be “done?” Is bread toast when it reaches some specific level of nonenzymatic browning?

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Hundreds of Monarch butterflies fly at the Pedro Herrada butterfly sanctuary, on a mountain in the Mexican state of Michoacan, February 1, 2011. The Monarchs are the only migratory insects in their species and travel 4000 kilometres (around 2500 miles) twice a year between their summer home in Canada and their winter home in Mexico.   Picture taken February 1, 2011 REUTERS/Felipe Courzo (MEXICO - Tags: ENVIRONMENT ANIMALS) - RTXXEM2

The Butterflies’ Great Migration

Each year, a new generation of Monarchs flies south for the winter—but habitat loss is making the journey harder.

by Sallie Lewis

With the growing threats of climate change and habitat loss, the Monarch’s numbers continue to drop every year, and its fate looks increasingly uncertain. The number of Monarchs migrating from the U.S. has dropped by 90 percent in the past 20 years.

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Ocular prostheses are made for a social programme benefiting those unable to afford one, in Cancun March 6, 2015. Specialist Doctors for Maxillofacial Prosthetics at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) and the Autonomous University of Campeche in conjunction with the System for Integral Family Development Cancun, as part of the programme, treated more than 100 people with various visual impairments. REUTERS/Victor Ruiz Garcia (MEXICO - Tags: SOCIETY POVERTY) - RTR4SDZB

The Prosthetic Eyeball Is a Work of Art

Making a realistic eye takes more than technical skill.

by Tate Williams

Partially because they’re made to blend in, prosthetic eyes aren’t something that the average person knows much about. Many would be surprised to learn, for example, that false eyes are not spheres and they’re not glass, and haven’t been for quite some time.

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IMAGE DISTRIBUTED FOR DISNEY CONSUMER PRODUCTS - Elijah Catrone, of Queens, N.Y., listens to a talking action figure as Force Friday kicks off at Disney Store in New York's Times Square, Friday, Sept. 4, 2015, to celebrate the launch of merchandise for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. (Photo by Stuart Ramson/Invision for Disney Consumer Products/AP Images)

Our Action Figures, Ourselves

How a children’s toy can be an identity marker for adults

by Nolen Gertz

The tension between fantasy and reality, in turn, led to the trait that would come to define the action figure’s enduring appeal: its ability to take on new meanings at the hands of its owners.

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A worker hangs up a curtain to cover an installation showing the encyclopedia of German publishing house "Brockhaus" designed by German actor Armin Mueller-Stahl one day ahead of the official opening of the Frankfurt book fair, October 8, 2007.  REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach (GERMANY) - RTR1UPH1

Encyclopedias Are Time Capsules

How collections of knowledge remain useful even after they’re outdated

by Justin Nobel

Chaos cannot be tamed, but it can be recorded for posterity. And there is perhaps no object more lasting than the encyclopedia. An attempt to organize the knowledge and history of our world, encyclopedias also can transcend our world.

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The Gifts that Keep Giving

A Mini Object Lesson

by Christopher Schaberg

Books really are gifts that keep giving. A good book is read only to be reread (sooner or later), or better, circulated in short time among friends or family members—read by many people.

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Alba Gil Quiros (L) from the Spanish island of Tenerife brushes a resident's hair at the SenVital elderly home in Kleinmachnow outside Berlin May 28, 2013. Facing an acute shortage of skilled applicants among its own workforce, German institutions in the care sector increasingly turn to southern European countries to hire trained nursing staff who are willing to work abroad despite the language barrier in order to escape unemployment at home. The SenVital home for the elderly outside Berlin has accepted five qualified nurses from Spain as their staff, providing eight months of language training and additional care schooling needed to attain the German nursing concession.  Some 100 Spaniards applied for the ten vacancies SenVital had advertised across its various houses.  REUTERS/Thomas Peter (GERMANY  - Tags: HEALTH BUSINESS EMPLOYMENT) - RTX103ZO

The Untold Stories of the Hairbrush

How a beauty tool can be a symbol of love, power, or identity

by Antonia Malchik

Quietly, these hairbrushes play a role in shaping their users’ identities. In various places and at various times in history, hair has been seen as a signifier of status or a means of identifying with a certain community, something to show off or something to hide.

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The Autumn Oak

A Mini Object Lesson

by Ian Bogost

Among those who dwell under oak canopies, the experienced will learn to sweep, rake, or blow the leaves and acorns off of porous surfaces quickly. But even the vigilant can’t keep up with nature.

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The Racial Symbolism of the Topsy-Turvy Doll

The uncertain meaning behind a half-black, half-white, two-headed toy

by K. Tait Jarboe

It’s unclear whether topsy-turvy dolls were first created to reinforce racial and sexual power dynamics or if they were something more subversive. Either way, the dolls have since the beginning been reinterpreted and appropriated.

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A patient receives chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer at the Antoine-Lacassagne Cancer Center in Nice July 26, 2012. Picture taken July 26, 2012.  REUTERS/Eric Gaillard (FRANCE - Tags: HEALTH) - RTR39FM9

The Implant That Helps Fight Cancer

How the medical port, placed under the skin to facilitate the flow of drugs, makes chemotherapy a part of a patient's body

by Anna Leahy

Approximately 650,000 people undergo chemotherapy treatment annually in the United States. The medical port has become an integral part of treatment for many of them.

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The Fonts We Love to Hate

A Mini Object Lesson

by Ian Bogost

Let’s take a trip back in time to revisit the worst fonts of each decade since fonts became usable on computers.

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© Boden/Ledingham
Close-Up of Piano Keys

Making Music With Color

How color organs connect light and sound

by Michael Betancourt

The invention of color music (and the instruments that perform it) is rooted in the similar way humans experience sound and light, two entirely unrelated phenomena that behave in similar ways—both can penetrate materials, radiate in all directions equally, and diminish with distance following the square-cube law.

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The Pregnancy Test as Plot Device

A Mini Object Lesson

by Anya Groner

The pregnancy test provides endless opportunities for misinformation and dramatic comedy.

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Life Among the Vampires

How the real-life people who feed on blood became an organized community, with its own rules and traditions

by John Edgar Browning

For its participants, real vampirism isn’t a fad to be adopted one day and discarded the next (and those who treat it as such dismissed as mere “lifestylers” by the community). They feed out of what they are convinced is a biological need.

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The Football Play

A Mini Object Lesson

by Mark Yakich

The enjoyment I find in a poem is in the words, sounds, and structures that repeat, connect, or hang together in specific ways. For me, football is most beautiful in the interplay of such pattern and variation.

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Why the Sparrow’s Beak Is an Evolutionary Puzzle

New findings about bird bills yield additional mysteries.

by Robin Tricoles

For evolutionary biologists, the bill is iconic.

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Through the Plexiglass: A History of Museum Dioramas

How animal displays have shaped, and been shaped by, humans’ relationship with the natural world

by Bridgitte Barclay

Dioramas: created to mimic the natural context of the animals that they contain, these scenes invite their viewers to question how those animals relate to each other, their environment, and humans.

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Fishing Shirt

A Mini Object Lesson

by Christopher Schaberg

The fishing shirt pledges to spirit us through the world with foresight, durability, and protection; but it also nestles blandly into the consumerscape numbly taking place all around.

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