Memory Ln.

​Is there such a place as Memory Lane
Where you can meet old friends
(Are we allowed anymore?)

Does it bisect the part of town you grew up in
And where you live now
Is there a cafe you can sit at
For the length of a sigh

Is it a space, a negative
Or is it material — firmsoftsharpwarm

Do you find it or does it find you
There you are
​Like you always have been​
(​Like that one time.)

​Can you put it on a map
So you can find it again when you need it
​Leave when it gets cold
Or is it like staring at the sun at night
Without eyelids

Tomorrow is my birthday.

In lieu of giving me gifts or attention, I’d love it if you would support these awesome things instead:

1. Your favorite public radio/TV station and/or show.

There are plenty out there! Or you can also give to Public Radio Exchange, a public radio content distributor that strives to make public radio even more public.

2. Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science’s Kickstarter for their Homebrew Oil Testing Kit.

Amazing people doing amazing things with DIY science + advocacy:

3. Brain Pickings

An awesome blog for bibliophiles, science nerds, and curious minds:

4. American Cancer Society

Those of you who know me also know that I’ve lost multiple family members to cancer. Give to support cancer research. It would mean a lot to all involved.

Birthdays have never been a huge deal for me, and I’ve never felt a huge need to celebrate in a big way. To me, it’s a day that I spend reveling in and being extra grateful for the stochastic gift that is life itself. That’s all there is.

And here is a picture of me wearing pink, a rare occasion these days.


When Life Gives You Lemons, Make a Crude Electrochemical Battery


Not quite the saying that we’re all familiar with, but it does add some flavor to it.

Here’s another Tuesday night project that I wound up immersed in: the lemon battery. I’ve seen this project posted in a multitude of places (along with the notorious potato battery), but I wasn’t quite sure how it worked. I knew that fruits are great conductors of electricity…but how? Naturally, when I encounter something I don’t quite understand, I obsess over it until I actually do.

[By the way, it takes a very special partner in crime to simply say, “Okay, honey,” when one spontaneously declares, “I want to build a lemon battery!” outside of any sensible context. Joe is clearly a winsome catch. And lab partner, to boot.]

Constructing the battery

Making the battery is pretty simple. First, squeeze the lemon to release the citric acid from the pulp — the juicier it is on the inside, the better. Then insert something made of mostly copper and something made of mostly zinc on opposite ends (I used a penny and a galvanized screw). Why these elements in particular? For one, they’re fairly easy to find in household items. Secondly, well, we’ll get to that in a little bit.

Hook up each end to some alligator clips if you have them, and connect those to a voltmeter or multimeter. (You can also do without the alligator clips and merely touch the tips of the voltmeter/multimeter wires to the copper and zinc ends.) Then, ta-da! You should see a charge! But…why?

What’s happening here?

The answer is an oxidation reduction reaction, or redox for short. Don’t be discouraged by how many syllables there are in that term!

As zinc enters citric acid (C6H8O7), it dissolves as positively charged ions (Zn2+); this is because it sheds the two electrons in its outer shell.

[Note: Because of the way electron valence shells are organized, zinc has 2 valence electrons in its outer shell, but it wants either 0 or 8 total to be more stable. So, it chooses the easier route — to shed 2 rather than gain 6.]

Typically, these shedded electrons will bond with hydrogen ions floating around in the citric acid to form H2, a gas that ends up bubbling off of the copper electrode.  This reaction is called oxidation (the giving of electrons):

Zn → Zn2+ + 2e-

2H++ 2e- → H2 (stable & gaseous)

Copper, which has one electron in its outer shell, will also give away its valence electron. However, because it has a greater potential for taking electrons, it will attract free electrons in the citric acid. The electrons in the citric acid lost to the copper are made up for by moving electrons from the zinc through the external wire, creating a current. This itself is called reduction (the taking of electrons).

Remember when I asked why copper and why zinc? This is why. We want one side to be more positive (cathode) and the other to be more negative (anode), just like in a real battery!

Since we’re dealing with electricity, we only care about electrons and how they move. As far as we’re concerned, electrons are negatively charged and are attracted to positive charge (opposites attract, no?). It’s this flow from negative toward positive that creates electricity.

As Bill Nye would say, “It’s not magic — it’s science!”

Next time life gives you lemons, don’t skip the lemonade, but don’t hesitate to think about batteries or electrons either!

Science, Sound, Tattoos


First tattoo, my design. Here’s the story behind it.

Tycho Brahe’s Universe

The main part of the design is the Tycho Brahe model of the universe, a compromise between the geocentric (Copernican) and heliocentric (Ptolemaic) models. Brahe believed the Earth was at the center of the universe and that the sun and moon orbited the earth, while the planets orbited the sun. As you may already have noted, this is inconsistent with what we observe of the universe today. However, it was a paradigm shift in thinking that nudged us — and our egos — from the center of the picture, building toward a more accurate model. In fact, one of Brahe’s apprentices was Johannes Kepler, who, in later years, used Brahe’s work as the basis for the laws of planetary movement.

Here’s where it gets a little weird.

While I was doing some more research about Brahe, I learned that he apparently wore a prosthetic nose, allegedly a result of a sword duel:

“Tycho had earlier quarrelled with Parsbjerg over the legitimacy of a mathematical formula, at a wedding dance at professor Lucas Bachmeister’s house on the 10th, and again on the 27th. Since neither had the resources to prove the other wrong, they ended up resolving the issue with a duel.”

I kind of dig the fact that the nature of drunken academic disputes has barely evolved in the last few centuries. (I’m smarter than you. No, I’m smarter that you!”) Not to mention, this wasn’t Brahe’s only memorable brawl. He also got into a feud with Galileo.

And then…there’s the bizarre story about his pet moose:

The hoofed critter would trot alongside Brahe’s carriage like a loyal dog and lived inside his castle. But, unfortunately, it also appears to have developed a regrettable taste for Danish beer […] A nearby nobleman had asked him to send the moose to his castle to entertain the guests at a party. As the dinner wore on, the creature grew increasingly tipsy until it eventually wound up roaring drunk. According to Brahe’s biographer Pierre Gassendi, shortly thereafter, “the moose had ascended the castle stairs and drunk of the beer in such amounts that it had fallen down [them]” to its eventual demise.

Voyager and the Golden Record

On the outermost ring of my tattoo is an aerial view of a record needle, a symbol etched on the Voyager spacecraft’s Golden Record:


Screen Shot 2014-05-19 at 2.22.13 PM

The Voyager space craft is best known for being the only man-made object to have exited the heliosphere, traveling farther than anything else humans have ever built. The Golden Record was a project (directed by Carl Sagan) to create an all-encompassing sonic record of life on Earth to send off into space. Think of it as an audio time capsule of our existence, meant for anyone or anything that may eventually find it.

The ethos of that project was this: “To the makers of music — all worlds, all times.”

On that record are sound samples of 55 languages, whale calls, folk songs, heartbeats, you name it. Listen to an excerpt of an ancient Chinese folk song on that record:

Not surprisingly, a radio piece made me fall in love with this project, the story of how Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan fell for each other:


On a macro level, the tattoo design also resembles a mandala, elaborate and artful circular symbols in Hinduism and Buddhism. The psychologist Carl Jung once wrote that mandalas are expressions of the “totality of the self.” They are also used as representations of the universe:

In common use, mandala has become a generic term for any plan, chart or geometric pattern that represents the cosmos metaphysically or symbolically; a microcosm of the universe.

Monks who are trained to create mandalas spend days, even months working on meticulous designs, only to destroy them after they are finished. They are reminders of the impermanence of life itself — how the things we build, no matter how beautiful nor coveted, will eventually give into entropy. This follows the Hindu cycle of the universe, a belief that things are created and destroyed repeatedly, which I believe to be true in science and in ourselves. Matter and energy within the universe combine in a multitude of permutations to give us elements, planets, stars, and life. Within us, the energy and matter that encompass us allow us to experience life through suffering, joy, and healing (forces of destruction and creation in their own right).

THE MANDALA (A Short Documentary of the The Celestial Palace)


I also have a penchant for circles.

Mathematically, circles incredibly intriguing. They have an infinite number of tangents, and all points in a circle are equidistant from a center point, giving it a unique symmetry. Then, there’s the infamous value of  π, taken from a circle’s circumference divided by its diameter (C/d), which has maddened mathematicians and mystics alike. The number continues without a sensible pattern into infinity; the fact that such an irrational number can be derived from such a symmetrical shape is simultaneously fascinating and perplexing.

In nature, circles occur almost everywhere you look: ripples, halos around the sun, craters, bubbles, hurricanes. They also occur in man-made objects, e.g. clocks, wheels, bowls, compasses, buttons. They have come to symbolize balance and perfection, despite the fact that perfect geometry only truly exists in abstraction.

…Which brings us to the whirling dervishes from the Mevlevi Order. You’ve probably seen movies or photographs of whirling dervishes: men dressed in white gowns and tall hats spinning continuously – as if in a trance– usually on a stage or in a large hall. This dance, called the Sema, originated in the 13th century:

The Sema represents a journey of man’s spiritual ascent through mind and love to the “Perfect.” Turning towards the truth, the follower grows through love, deserts his ego, finds the truth, and arrives at the “Perfect.” He then returns from this spiritual journey as a man who has reached maturity and a greater perfection, able to love and to be of service to the whole of creation. The Sema is a testament to the dizzying effects of attempting to reach perfection.

If you think about it, the earth spins on its axis; the planets rotate around the sun. The quantum particles around and in us vibrate and spin, though undetected by the naked eye. Because we are rooted on the earth and made up of these particles, we are all eternally spinning. We are all constantly attempting, reaching to be better than ourselves.

Whirling dervishes

In short, the synthesis of all these symbols is a reminder of our collective longing for perfection, the perpetual pursuit of knowledge, our impermanence in this world, and two things that have made a lasting impact in my life thus far: science and sound.

Ohm, I Can’t Resist: My Secret Life as a Circuit Bender

An inventory of electronics projects — past, present and future.

I’m not an engineer, nor am I a scientist (not by definition, at least). However, one thing is for sure: I can’t help myself when it comes to building things. I love it! Here are some projects I’ve built and am building.


My latest Tuesday night project was a theremin, built from a kit that Joe got me from Hacker Space Seoul, South Korea. (Granted, it’s been sitting in my bin of rogue electronics parts for two years, but better late than never, right?) This model uses photoresistors/photocells to sense light vs. shadow. You can change the pitch and wave shape of the sound by changing up your motions. If you’d like to build it yourself, here’s the schematic. 10341874_10102534470971711_4143363418536678271_n   And here’s a brief demo of what it sounded like:

FM Transmitter + AM Transmitter

For me, my love of electronics stems from radio. In 2012 at the Allied Media Projects Conference (AMP) in Detroit, Michigan, I went to a workshop that taught folks how to build low-power FM transmitters. I had no idea what I was doing — the solder points were messy and I had to ask for help multiple times. Yet, I ended up building something that worked! I still keep this janky project around as a reminder that 1) progress takes time and 2) everyone starts somewhere.

Then, of course, there’s the AM transmitter that Joe made for me to go along with the FM transmitter.


Ham Radio (in progress)

Speaking of radio, I got my ham radio license last year (CQ, CQ…KC1AJN!) and decided to fix up a vintage Heathkit ham radio that I bought from a yard sale. The parts are ancient and some aren’t even manufactured anymore, but I’m up for the challenge. (Joe even found the original owners’ manual on eBay and snagged it for me!)

TARDIS outfit

For my inner Whovian two Halloweens ago, I made a TARDIS dress and blue-lit headpiece that consisted of a simple LED and coin battery.

Kissing Robots

Nothing says “Happy Valentine’s Day” like some kissing robots, right? This was my gift to Joe back in February 2013. I used a basic reed switch to create a circuit actuated by magnets (on both ends) so that the robots would light up when they kissed. They had red LEDs to simulate a heart beating.



Here’s a video of how they work:


Admittedly, this is something I bought for Joe so that I could play with it myself. The MakeyMakey is a “musical invention kit” that I heard about at a music hack day at MIT and knew would be a lot of fun. With a simple circuit, you can turn anything into an instrument — including bananas, grapes, pencil lead…the list goes on. Here are our fruit bongos:

LED sound sensor

This was my first project on an actual circuit board! It came in a hobby kit from RadioShack, which is unfortunately no longer available. Basically, it’s a switch-operated circuit that uses a microphone to detect sound and causes the LEDs to blink along with the sound. 1496657_10102208226438371_120641353_n

Curiously Strong Altoids flashlight 

A rite of passage for electronics geeks. Using this as a bike light!

Sun Logger (in progress)

My goal this summer is to start an indoor garden. Our tiny Somerville abode doesn’t fit much beyond the bare necessities and could definitely use more windows, so Joe and I are coming up with some hacks to get around that. With a brand spankin’ new Arduino UNO, we’re hoping to build a sun logger that tells us how much sunlight we’re getting in certain parts of the apartment (and perhaps even text/tweet the data!) so we can optimize plant placement.

Wearable bike turn signal (in progress)

Eventually, when I graduate to the LilyPad Arduino, this is something I’m hoping to build for biking at night, which can be terrifying in Boston traffic.

Image: Instructables

One of the best musicians I know once told me he didn’t know how to read sheet music. It took me aback — not because I had any expectation that one should be able to read music to play music but rather because it had never occurred to me that you didn’t have to. I approach electronics in a similar way. I look at a schematic and I see sheet music that doesn’t completely make sense to me the same way it would to an engineer. However, that doesn’t stop me from extracting pure delight from engaging with projects like these (even the more challenging ones) and improvising along the way.

What’s more, I’m extremely interested in how low cost DIY sensors/electronics can be applied toward social good and increased civic engagement with science. These projects are a way of working on my chops so I can be better equipped and better poised to contribute to community-based sensor projects in a more meaningful way.

While I don’t have any aspirations of designing skyscrapers or inventing the next big gadget, I do plan to geek out and make things at every opportunity I get.

Pop Art: How Popcorn Works


I had never seen popcorn pop, so I decided to take the kernels outside of the bag and heat them over a stove. It’s a little creepy to watch them start expanding and then rupturing, but it quickly becomes amusing and subsequently delicious.

popart from Lilian Bui on Vimeo.

If you’re wondering how popcorn “works,” here’s the description according to

Popcorn kernels contain oil and water with starch, surrounded by a hard and strong outer coating. When popcorn is heated, the water inside the kernel tries to expand into steam, but it cannot escape through the seed coat (the popcorn hull). The hot oil and steam gelatinizes the starch inside the popcorn kernel, making it softer and more pliable. When the popcorn reaches a temperature of 180 °C (356 °F) the pressure inside the kernel is around 135 psi (930 kPa), which is sufficient pressure to rupture the popcorn hull, essentially turning the kernel inside-out. The pressure inside the kernel is released very quickly, expanding the proteins and starch inside the popcorn kernel into a foam, which cools and sets into the familiar popcorn puff.

Given my new, buttery fascination, I would push for a redesign of popcorn bags far and wide so that more people could enjoy the process. Then again, there’s probably a safety hazard attached to standing too close to the microwave for too long.


The Tale of Two Sine Waves

The most amazing person in the world made me this wonderfully nerdy Valentine, and I’m bragging about it, as I’m entitled to do. Illustrations, graphs, and poem by Joe Diaz.

This is the tale of two sine waves

One of Teal and one of Blue

Both oscillating towards infinity

As waves are ‘tend to do


By fate of stochasticity

The two waves did converge

They loved each other greatly

And their amplitudes did surge


Sharing an axis together

With interference non-destructive

They life they have is exciting, fulfilling

And occasionally seductive


Though, no two waves are identical

This is true for Blue and Teal

Frequencies can differ

And synchronicity can unseal

Teal is deft and impressive

While Blue is slow and steady

In one second, Teal can complete 100 cycles or more

While Blue might just be getting ready


A beat frequency is formed

Humming along betwixt the waves

It rises way up and falls far down

As Teal and Blue come in and out of phase

The times when the two part

Can be so low and sad

The phase shifts that go back and forth

Would normal sinusoids be driven mad


Though, thankfully for us,

Our heroes are unique

The fibers that they’re each made of

Reach resonance and peak!


Blue realizes he’s not perfect

But wants the best for Teal

One could say he’s (over)driven

To earn her mass appeal

Teal, I’ll always love you.

You are so divine.

From now until infinity,

Please be my Valentine?”

Sensors, Uncensored


How open sensor data can help enrich storytelling + bolster the media’s potential role in galvanizing civic engagement with the sciences.

By Lily Bui

Listen up, journalists.

Something interesting is happening, and you should be in the loop. Two words: “sensor journalism.”

The term is not entirely new, as it has circulated the blogosphere again and again. However, it’s been popping up more frequently in my e-mail stream and in conversations I’ve had with people on and offline, which kind of, sort of, really makes the science nerd in me tingle with excitement.

What is sensor journalism?

Sensor journalism refers to a method of generating or collecting data from sensors, then using that data to tell a story. You may think this sounds familiar, especially with the rise of data-driven journalism and the open data movement. However, as Kelly Tyrrell aptly puts it, “sensor journalism is the first cousin of data journalism.”

The distinction is this: instead of scraping data from the internet or existing databases, you are collecting the data (or enlisting the help of others to do so). Using sensors. In real-time.

I know that was a mouthful. So, let me show instead of tell.

My favorite example, to date, is WNYC’s Cicada Tracker. Lead by John Keefe, the project engaged WNYC listeners to build their own temperature sensors at home using instructions provided on the station website. The goal was to crowdsource temperature readings around the east coast to predict the emergence of the Magicicada brood. The data were then collected, visualized (beautifully) on a map, and used to tell a story.

The Cicadas Are Coming! from Radiolab on Vimeo.

Both scientific research and journalistic endeavor begin with the same thing: a question. In answering that question, for both science and journalism, crowdsourcing data allows the public to actively contribute to the investigation of the truth.

Who is gathering the data, and how accurate is it?

To reiterate, the idea of crowdsourced data collection is not new. Maker communities like Instructables, Spark Fun, Public Lab, MakeZine, and have been around for a while and often focus on building tools (hardware and software) to make remote measurement possible. People who identify themselves as citizen scientists, hobbyists, or amateur scientists connected to communities like Cornell’s Ornithology Lab, CosmoQuest, SciStarter, Your Wild Life, and Zooniverse are also likely candidates for crowdsourced projects.

“This kind of technology is not for monitoring people,” said Travis Hartman in a recent interview with Current. “It’s for monitoring the environment we all share.” Hartman is a journalism grad student with an idea for a project to deploy a set of sensors throughout Columbia, Missouri, in order to study the city’s sound ecology.

As you’ve probably already picked up, Hartman is a j-student, not a scientist. Like him, many citizen scientists are non-experts (i.e. they don’t hold formal science degrees) but have an avid interest in science. That said, the argument against the quality or legitimacy of crowdsourced data does come up. And I’ll concede that it is, indeed, a valid one. How can we trust the data, even if we can track where it’s coming from? How do we know that build-it-yourself sensors are accurately calibrated and in working condition? Or worse–what if the data are biased or completely wrong? We can’t always know, but that shouldn’t deter us.

[AsideThere is also a phenomenon known as the “wisdom of crowds.”]


An academic paper finds, “Most [citizen science] projects employ multiple mechanisms to ensure data quality and appropriate levels of validation. (Wiggins, et al., 2011)” Some citizen science project managers use crowdsourced data sets in an auxiliary manner to observe general trends rather than precise data points. Then, some projects use crowdsourced data comparatively, with reference to existing academic data. The basic message from the research community seems to be, We know. We’re aware. We’re working on it. We’ve found some solutions in the meantime.

Meanwhile, journalists are also finding ways to use crowdsourced data to contextualize and enrich stories rather than relying on them as a primary means of telling them (e.g. WNYC’s Cicada Tracker). At the end of the day, a healthy level of skepticism can only help advance current methods of crowdsourced data collection, as it suggests room for improvement.

How can open sensors benefit journalists?

When it comes to environmental monitoring, government agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) do run regularly scheduled tests on air and water quality. However, this data is not always available to or accessible by the public. Also, if something were to affect the air or water quality between testing periods, and a government agency wasn’t aware of it, the public would otherwise be left in the dark about their environment. Bringing DIY-sensors into the picture could potentially democratize the process of monitoring your surroundings. For journalists, these data can offer insight into pertinent issues that eventually influence policy.

In making a case for why journalists should pay attention to and care about open sensor networks, Javaun Moradi writes (on his blog):

“It’s a responsibility that is every bit as noble as reporting and can achieve the journalism goals of informing the public, investigating corruption, speaking for the voiceless, and seeking truth. The other side benefit is that local media can deeply engage with their audience in new ways.” 

There’s also another dimension to this. While many citizen science projects are national and international (meaning anyone, anywhere can participate), some are local, focusing their research question on a specific region or city. As we all know, news can also be local–even hyperlocal. What could a more robust relationship between citizen science and the media potentially mean? A few things come to mind off the bat:


  • raised public awareness and understanding of scientific research
  • a growing culture of civic engagement
  • deeper interaction with news audiences + richer storytelling

Local media outlets can also help connect the public to opportunities to take action in their own communities. WHYY-FM (an NPR affiliate station) in Philadelphia has launched a bi-weekly citizen science segment in partnership with citizen science site SciStarter, focusing on projects connected to their broadcast region. A recent story focused on how the public can help report sightings of the woody adelgid in Douglas firs to help scientists track the invasive species in or near Philly. Journalists and media outlets can help facilitate the discovery of these types of local opportunities.

Who else is doing this?

These are some more examples of crowdsourced science (some involving sensors, some not) in the news. No doubt, this is only a small slice of the pie. I sense (get it?) that there is much more brewing beneath the surface.

WBUR: Kite aerial photography to challenge construction permit on nuclear waste site

KPBS: Monitoring shark populations in San Diego

KBIA: Urban sound ecology project

Public Lab’s water monitoring tool, RIFFLE
(There are many other Public Lab tools that can be used for environmental monitoring.)

“What Do Open Sensor Networks Mean for Journalism?” blog post by Javaun Moradi

NBC: How citsci project JellyWatch identified species of salps clogging nearby nuclear reactor

I am enthralled by how many people are trying new things with sensor data. I love this spirit of experimentation that is circulating, and I hope that it’s contagious.

As we move forward into the future, networked sensors will likely become a more integrated part of our lives. With the improvement of wearable tech like Google Glass, the FitBit, Jawbone, and more, will the possibilities for sensor journalism shift from reporting on our environment to deeper stories on data we’ve collected about ourselves and each other? Granted, these projections are not without their caveats. The incipient ubiquity of networked sensors also raises important discussions about surveillance, privacy, and ethics.

For now, I’d love to hear from you! You’ve made it this far, so you’re clearly interested in this conversation too. (That means we just formed a sacred bond. Sorry, you’re stuck.)

Questions: What other sensor projects (related to journalism or otherwise) have you come across? What other applications do you see for open sensor data that people haven’t tried yet? Leave your thoughts in the comment below or tweet me @dangerbui.

Image: Wikimedia (top & bottom right), (top right)

The Mapparium


Image courtesy of the MBE Library

by Lily Bui / @dangerbui

It’s 1935. Franklin D. Roosevelt is president. The U.S. population is approximately 127 million. A family’s annual income is about $1,500. Babe Ruth retires from baseball. And the Mapparium opens to the public.

The Mapparium is a three-story map of the world housed in the Mary Baker Eddy Library in Boston and designed by architect Chester Lindsay Churchill. The word “Mapparium” comes from two Latin words, mappa, meaning “map” and arium, meaning “a place for.”

It’s almost impossible to look at the Mapparium without realizing the unique potential of maps as storytelling devices. Not only is the map a projection of the world in 1935; it’s also semblance of how people perceived the world during a time that was incredibly different from ours. Beyond strict cartography, the Mapparium is contextualized by the history and philosophical–even political–ideals that brought it into existence.

Let us begin at the beginning.

Although a surprisingly paltry amount of information about the architect Chester Lindsay Churchill exists, we do know that he was commissioned by the Mary Eddy Baker Library to construct the Mapparium. Along with the library’s board, Churchill recognized that the map’s existence would fill an important need–that of giving the public access to an accurate world map.

In a letter written on August 15, 1935, after the Mapparium is completed, Churchill reflects:

“The next step to achieve was to project mathematically the map of the world on a surface corresponding to that of the earth which encompassed the observer rather than receded the observer.”

This passage alludes to the design of a 12-ft bronze sculpture of the world in the New York Daily News office circa 1930. Churchill felt that most globes inherently place observers on the outside. He wanted something different, something more immersive. So he designed the Mapparium for people to be able to walk through it. The idea behind this is to enable people to stand together and look at the world in relation to one another.


The globe that inspired the Mapparium from the NY Daily News lobby, 1940 (Wikimedia)


Blueprints of the original map (MBE Library)


Chester Lindsay Churchill, c. 1940 (MBE Library)


Each grid component of the map was fired by a glass kiln, painted individually, and shipped from New York to Boston to be assembled. Rand McNally in Chicago prepared the map drawings, and Rambusch Decorating Co. in New York fired and painted the panels.

Every color on the map had to be baked separately, so panels with multiple colors took the longest to make. When the Mapparium first opened to the public, it was backlit with over three hundred 40- & 60-watt light bulbs. (They’ve since been swapped out with more sustainable LED lights.)


Examples of pigments used for the map (MBE Library)

Churchill intended the map to be updated as international borders changed. For instance, Persia changed its named to Iran during the construction of the map, so the panel containing Iran had to be edited and was the last one to be installed. Although Churchill kept change in mind during the conceptualization of its design, the Mapparium’s construction was halted by the start of World War II in 1939 and postponed indefinitely.


Because the map is spherical and made of glass, the surface naturally reflects sound instead of absorbing it. There are two distinct acoustic tricks that you can achieve while inside the Mapparium:

[1] One person can hear his or her voice in surround sound if speaking while standing in the center of the sphere.

[2] Two people on opposite ends of the walkway can hear each others whisper as if they were standing right next to each other. This is called the “whispering gallery” effect, caused by sound traveling along all sides of the sphere and arriving simultaneously on the other side.

Brown Innovations in Boston designed the sound system for the Mapparium’s interactive exhibit, setting up four different speakers that direct sound upward with the intention to have it wash back downward toward the individual.

Some numbers

  • 1 inch = 22 miles on the map.
  • The radius of the sphere is 15 feet.
  • In 1935, the Mapparium cost $52,400 to build. Today, that translates to approximately $855,000.
  • Longitude and latitude are represented at 10 degree intervals on the map.
  • Twenty-two clocks can be found along the equator of the map to represent various time zones. At one point, these clocks were synced with a master clock by a magnetic pulse, although they are no longer functional.


Map key (MBE Library)


One of the clocks on the map (MBE Library)

Historical trivia

Because the Mapparium’s construction was postponed by WWII up until the 1960s, the MBE Library’s board decided that the map served better as a historical artifact rather than an up-to-date map of the world. If you look, you can spot a handful of significant differences from 1935 vs. what you would see on a world map today:

  • Israel is not on the map, as it was established in 1948 after the Mapparium was constructed.
  • Alaska and Hawaii were still U.S. territories and had yet to become states.
  • Korea was part of Japan and called Chosen.
  • Germany is split in two by Poland.

While Chester Lindsay Churchill may not have achieved exactly what he initially set out to build, the Mapparium still stands today. Any curious visitor who wanders into the sphere will certainly gain a remarkable, unique view of the world. The map may not tell us where we’re going or where we are, but just as important is this: like any good map, it gives us a deeper understanding of where we came from.

Unique New York

I’ve been to New York City before. But just because you’ve gone once, twice, or even twenty times, it doesn’t mean you’ve been to New York City. Every single trip I’ve taken has been entirely different from the last, and that’s because this urban jungle lends itself to everything from serendipitous encounters to the inexplicably bizarre–the kind of magical realism you can only hope to encounter in a Gabriel Garcia Lorca novel.

Joe and I saw this clip on Louie CK one night. We immediately decided we had to go. (Well, we decided immediately but didn’t really get around to doing it until 3 months later.) The episode (Season 3, Episode 4) is a love poem to New York told through a lens tinged with melancholy and nostalgia, thanks to the tactful eye of Susan E. Morse, Woody Allen’s go-to editor. Among so many other things in Manhattan, the episode features Russ & Daughters, an appetizing store on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

The word “appetizer” comes from the Latin word appete, which means “to desire.” At Russ & Daughters, one can very easily deduce its colloquial meaning: “the foods one eats with bagels.” Even further, there simply isn’t a better word to describe what you feel upon entering the store. It’s as much a feast for the eyes as it is for the belly. We ordered almost everything you can see in the clip: pickled herring, bagels with lox, and the chocolate babka. (It was all mind blowing.)

…And then there was the Birdman. Maybe you’ve heard of him. We definitely hadn’t before last night. But let me back up a bit.

After dinner, I had a specific musical craving for Black Sabbath (you know, to wash down the pickled herring.) Naturally, Joe and I wandered into the nearest record store that we could find–Rainbow Music.

Imagine, if you will, a pack rat’s paradise. A sizeable space made small by tons and tons of stuff. In this case, it was music. We squeeze into a narrow aisle of CDs stacked up to eye level–and then some. There’s barely enough room to walk through it face forward; you have to sidestep your way through to browse the CD titles. A short, older man approaches us and asks us what we’re looking for. Although I have no idea how, he knew exactly where the Black Sabbath CDs were and pulled them for us within seconds.

“They call me the Birdman,” he says, without us asking. “They made a documentary a few years back. It won some awards. People come in here asking me for pictures and stuff.” At this point, I’m hooked. There was no question that [1] we would stay and chat and [2] we would buy something. Talk about sales strategy.

The Birdman, a 73-year old Wall Street veteran who speaks with a thick New York accent, runs Rainbow Music as a sort of passion project. Having cashed out on his hedge funds long ago, he says the store isn’t about the money. (I asked him for any helpful trading tips, but like any good poker player, he kept his cards close to his chest. However, he did let slip his endorsement for pharmaceuticals and food stocks.) Despite not actively researching what’s trending these days, he’s managed to intuit what “the kids” are listening to. In the organized mess of an inventory, I spotted Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Miles Davis, Janis Joplin, Joan Jett, Michael Jackson, Frank Zappa within easy reach. Somehow, he even pinned me for a Django Reinhardt fan within two minutes.

(I realize that the organization of the CDs could probably just come from people sorting through them and setting them down closer to the front of the stacks. For my own purposes, I may just stick with my theory that he’s a musical clairvoyant.)

“This is all going away next month,” he tells us while ringing up our CDs (by hand and on paper, no less). I can’t tell whether there’s sadness in his voice or if I just imagined it. “We’re moving all of it to the Internet. You sell things a lot faster there.” We learn that the building landlord is leasing the store space out for something else, so the Birdman’s son is going to help open an online store–even though he doesn’t currently own a computer. They’ve been there for 14 years.

After stepping back out into the litany of Manhattan on a Friday night, it’s hard to tell whether being in the store was like stepping back in time or if it was just a crude affirmation of the current times. Even though Lower East Side counterculture  warrants the existence and perpetuation of vintage music stores like Rainbow, the Birdman has decided to resign from a brick-and-mortar setup to sell his stuff using digital means. I can’t imagine the buying experience being the same without meeting the Birdman face to face, and goodness knows I wouldn’t have paid $23 for a used CD if he hadn’t chatted us up.

The Birdman from Jessie Auritt on Vimeo.

Joe and I drove back to Boston blasting Black Sabbath, full of good food and good stories. I know that the next time I trek to New York, it’ll be completely different and probably even stranger than the last. I can’t wait.