Conflict of Interests

The Atlas Obscura

Joshua Foer and Dylan Thuras are cataloging the world's weirdest places to foster a new age of curiosity. An enormous concrete dome that seals...

Joshua Foer and Dylan Thuras are cataloging the world's weirdest places to foster a new age of curiosity.

An enormous concrete dome that seals off the crater left by an atomic blast. The ancestral home of a nearly forgotten Kentucky family, which had four children born with bright blue skin. The hiding place of a memoir written by an infamous 19th-century fugitive-and bound in his own skin.They're all real places you can visit. And they're all collected at Atlas Obscura, a new website which aims to be a "compendium of the world's wonders, curiosities and esoterica," founded by Joshua Foer and Dylan Thuras.You know Foer's family: His brother, Franklin, edits the New Republic; his other brother, Jonathan Safran Foer, wrote some books you might have read. The youngest Foer is hyper-successful as well: Later this year, he'll publish Moonwalking with Einstein, a chronicle of the time he spent competing in the National Memory Championships (he won). Thuras, a film editor and budding graphic novelist, co-founded one of the best antiquarian sites on the web, Curious Expeditions. The two of them met through Foer's own site (which is on hiatus), The Proceedings of the Athanasius Kircher Society, and began working on the Atlas Obscura not too long after.Obviously, they both share a fascination with the world's moldiest, weirdest corners. But the sensibility, if anything, is ancient, harking back to Wunderkammern, or Wonder Cabinets-personal collections of bizarre and mythical artifacts, which became a fad among rich men in 16th century, and eventually evolved into the first modern museums. GOOD asked Foer and Thuras a few questions about the Atlas and the insider's tours they plan on offering of some of the places it includes.GOOD: How did each of become so consumed by hidden places? How, or why, did you come by your antiquarian sensibility?Dylan Thuras: I grew up in the Midwest, which has a disproportionate amount of oddities to population (serial killers too). Something about all that flat land I think. When I was about 12 my family went on a road trip, and we saw a place in Wisconsin called the House on the Rock, a huge complex packed with curiosities, including the world's largest carousel. Those Midwest oddities began my fascination. When I met Josh, I began pursuing them actively.Joshua Foer: I'm pretty sure it happened in college. One summer, when I was 19, I spent two months driving all over the lower 48 states trying to find all of the most bizarre places in America. It was an incredible trip, but it was also a real pain in the ass. They're hard to find. I had a half dozen guidebooks open on the passenger seat of my car, each of which was good but not great. That's when I realized that there needed to be a single online resource where people could share their knowledge of these sorts of obscure places.G: What do you think they reveal about the people that created them? Could you highlight some favorites?

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Nature Hacking

Four ways scientists are co-opting nature to solve the problems of the 21st century This past summer, the super-chef Dan Barber, who runs a restaurant/farm in New York, brought news of a bizarre, paradoxical creation: ethical foie gras. Seriously. It was amazing to hear, especially for foodies. But..

Four ways scientists are co-opting nature to solve the problems of the 21st century

This past summer, the super-chef Dan Barber, who runs a restaurant/farm in New York, brought news of a bizarre, paradoxical creation: ethical foie gras. Seriously. It was amazing to hear, especially for foodies. But the lesson is bigger, because of exactly how that ethical foie gras was created.The farmer that makes the foie gras takes advantage of a natural instinct in geese: to gorge themselves during winter, in preparation to fly south. But rather than force feeding the geese, as all other farmers would to create foie gras, he provides them with a goose paradise-all the figs and goodies they can eat, and a protective fence that keeps them safe from predators. The set-up is so cushy that the geese will call to their wild cousins, flying overhead-hollering about the incredible digs they've got, until the wild geese land. And they stay-their goal, ultimately, being to find the best place to live and breed, rather than just to fly south.Notice how the farmer accomplished this: Rather than creating a synthetic process (like force feeding), he created a system that satisfies the geese, and takes maximum advantage of the instincts with which nature has supplied them. That is, he hacked nature's imperatives, and re-engineered them to his ends.Scientists are doing the same to fight global warming. What Barber presented as merely a parable of how we'll cook in the 21st century might be a principle so broad that one day we'll look back and regard naturally invented solutions as inexorable as evolution or the bell curve.Now, this insight is to be distinguished from what's often called biomimicry-looking at nature and trying to copy it as best we can. (Granted, biomimicry holds great promise: Scientists are looking for ways to mimic photosynthesis, so that we'll be able to use only sunlight and water to create abundant hydrogen, just like plants. A massive breakthrough came last year, in fact. The surfaces of moth eyes and butterfly wings, to cite another example, are teaching us how to build more efficient solar panels.)Dan Barber's foie gras example isn't biomimicry. Rather, it suggests that we might be able to take preexisting natural processes, and alter them just enough to fashion a sustainable future for ourselves. This is more than a coincidence of shared interest. If you were to summarize evolution's sweep, you might say that nature has, by necessity, solved the problem of carbon saturation, at least in miniature-simply because it's a fundamental hurdle for living in some of the earth's varied ecosystems. To that end, nature has engaged in a two-billion-year engineering experiment via evolution. Here are a few examples of how scientists are already taking advantage:1. Hacking into microbes What if we could hack into microbes, using their prior molecular processes to create drugs or biofuels? Michelle Chang, of UC Berkeley is doing just that, taking bacteria that usually live in extreme conditions and designing them so that they'll perform chemical processes-such as converting plant waste into biofuel-that are too difficult or expensive to perform at large scale.

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