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Tuesday, June 2, 2020
Their View / Opinion

Picture this: going with prunes rather than cheese

Q.  Consider the door — a rather mundane architectural feature that may date back more than 5,000 years.  Yet the door has some interesting spinoffs: Do you know about trapdoor spiders, Death’s Door and Door to Hell?

A.  Trapdoor spiders make doors for their burrows out of dirt and silk, camouflaged with leaves and other materials and even complete with hinges, says Gemma Tarlach in “Discover” magazine.  The doors can be used offensively, cracked open for the spider to strike at nearby prey; or defensively, “locked” in place as the spider grips the door from inside with its front legs and mouth appendages.

As for “Death’s Door,” a narrow passage connecting Lake Michigan to Green Bay along Wisconsin’s coast, it was one of the most treacherous Great Lakes waterways during the 19th century, with its strong winds, swift currents and rocky hazards.  “Between 1872 and 1889, according to a local lighthouse keeper’s journal, the strait claimed an average of two vessels per week.”

Finally, Turkmenistan’s “Door to Hell,” a natural gas field in a collapsed cavern, has been ablaze for decades, perhaps intentionally set in the 1970s by engineers hoping to quickly burn off a potentially deadly methane leak.  As the fire continues to burn, “the Door to Hell is giving astrobiologists a glimpse of what extraterrestrial life in extreme environments might look like.” 

Q.  “Say cheese.”  If you’re in an English-speaking setting, these two words let you know a photographer is ready to take your picture and wants you to smile broadly, since the long E-sound forces your mouth into one.  But what directive predates this saying and why?

A.  As recently as the 1950s, photographers would say “Say prunes,” since they did not want you to smile, reports Dan Lewis on his “Now I Know” website.  According to “TechXplore,” a dataset of 37,921 frontal-facing American high school yearbook photos from 1900-2010 shows that “the modern ‘smile for the camera’ edict only dates back to the 1960s or so, and as you go back further, the smile trend hasn’t yet emerged.”

Why the serious look?  Though the answer isn’t definitive, perhaps it’s because “in the late 19th century, people posing for photographs still followed the habits of painted portraiture subjects,” when it was hard to hold a smile for very long.  Saying “prune,” then, was a cue for those being photographed to keep their mouths prim, and this trend lasted more than a century, Lewis says.  “But ultimately, cheese — and smiles — won out.”

Q.  What does an ancient fossilized forest have to tell us humans in 2020?

A.  The remnants of the oldest known forest, recently discovered in a New York quarry, date back about 386 million years and “could teach us more about how Earth’s climate has changed,” says Jason Arunn Mugugesu in “New Scientist” magazine.  Of the three types of trees found there, one is similar to modern coniferous trees and was the first to have evolved flat green leaves.  It had roots up to 11 meters (36 feet) long.

 The plants played a role in the development of life on Earth, helping to cool the planet as they removed carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.  Says Christopher Berry of U.K.’s Cardiff University, “By the end of the Devonian period [360 million years ago], the amount of carbon dioxide was coming down to what we know it is today.”

 And, adds Oxford’s Sandy Hetherington, understanding how climate change happened in the past “is crucial for predicting what will happen in the future in light of climate change and deforestation.”

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