1,000 meters below

Meet the world’s deepest underground physics facilities.

A constant shower of energetic subatomic particles rains down on Earth’s surface. Born from cosmic ray interactions in the upper atmosphere, this invisible drizzle creates noisy background radiation that obscures the signatures of new particles or forces that scientists seek. The solution is to move experiments under the best natural umbrella we have: the Earth’s crust.

Underground facilities, while difficult to build and access, are ideal hubs for observing rare particle interactions. The rock overhead shields experiments from the pesky particle precipitation, preventing things like muons from interfering. For the last few decades, underground physics facilities have laid claim to some of the world’s largest, most complex detection experiments, contributing to important physics discoveries.

“In the early 1960s, researchers at the Kolar Gold Fields in India and the East Rand Gold Mine in South Africa realized if they go deep enough underground, it might be possible to clearly detect high-energy particles from atmospheric cosmic ray collisions,” says Henry Sobel, a co-US-spokesperson on the Super-Kamiokande experiment at the Kamioka Observatory. “Both groups reported the first observation of atmospheric neutrinos at various depths underground.”

Even with entire facilities sitting below the surface, extremely sensitive detectors often require additional shielding against stray particles and the small amount of radiation from the rock and equipment. One example is the Sanford Underground Research Facility’s Large Underground Xenon (LUX) experiment, which seeks dark matter particles called WIMPs, or weakly interacting massive particles.

“Going underground eliminates most of the radioactivity, but not all of it, so we used a 72,000-gallon water shield to keep neutrons and gamma rays out of the LUX experiment,” says Harry Nelson, a LUX researcher and spokesperson for the upcoming LUX-Zeplin experiment at Sanford Lab.

Scientists at underground facilities around the world—and their creative colleagues closer to the surface—maintain different experiments working toward a common goal: answering questions about the nature of matter and energy. Learn more about the facilities 1000 meters or more below the surface that are digging deep into the secrets of the universe.

Kamioka Observatory

Illustration by Sandbox Studio, Chicago with Corinne Mucha

Kamioka Observatory
1000 meters below, est. 1983

Previously known as the Kamioka Underground Observatory, the facility dwells in the Mozumi Mine in Hida, Gifu Prefecture, Japan. Operational or former mines actually make great homes for underground facilities because it is cost-effective to use existing giant holes inside mountains or the earth rather than dig new ones.

Kamioka’s original focus was on understanding the stability of matter through a search for the spontaneous decay of protons using an experiment called Kamiokande. Since neutrinos are a major background to the search for proton decay, the study of neutrinos also became a major effort for the observatory.

Now known as the Kamioka Observatory, the facility detects neutrinos coming from supernovae, the sun, our atmosphere and accelerators. In 2015, Takaaki Kajita was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics for the discovery of atmospheric neutrino oscillation by the Super-Kamiokande experiment. The Nobel Prize is shared with the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory in Canada.

Stawell Underground Physics Laboratory

Illustration by Sandbox Studio, Chicago with Corinne Mucha

Stawell Underground Physics Laboratory
1000 meters below, under construction

SUPL is under construction at the active Stawell Gold Mine in Victoria, Australia. The facility will work in close collaboration with the Gran Sasso National Laboratory in Italy, which made significant strides in dark matter research through a possible detection of WIMPs. SUPL will see whether the amount of dark matter in certain galaxies changes depending on Earth’s position.

Because Australia is in the Southern Hemisphere and has opposite seasons to Italy, this seasonal dark matter experiment will also test Italy’s results to learn more about WIMPs and dark matter. There are two proposed dark matter experiments for SUPL: SABRE (Sodium-iodide with Active Background REjection) and DRIFT-CYGNUS (Directional Recoil Identification From Tracks – CosmoloGY with NUclear recoilS).

Boulby Underground Laboratory

Illustration by Sandbox Studio, Chicago with Corinne Mucha

Boulby Underground Laboratory
1100 meters below, est. 1998

Inside the operational Boulby Potash and Salt Mine on the northeast coast of England sits the Boulby Lab. It is a multidisciplinary, deep underground science facility operated by the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council. The depth and the support infrastructure make the facility well-suited for traditional low-background underground studies such as dark matter searches and cosmic ray experiments. Scientists also study a wide range of sciences beyond physics, for example geology and geophysics, environmental and climate studies, life in extreme environments on Earth, and the development of rover instrumentation for exploration of life beyond Earth.

The dark matter search currently underway at Boulby is DRIFT-II – a directional dark matter search detector.  The lab previously hosted the ZEPLIN-II and III experiments, predecessors to the upcoming LUX-ZEPLIN experiment at Sanford Lab. Boulby still supports the LZ experiment with ultralow-background material activity measurements, which is important to all sensitive dark matter and rare-event studies.

India-based Neutrino Observatory

Illustration by Sandbox Studio, Chicago with Corinne Mucha

India-based Neutrino Observatory
1200 meters below, proposed

INO, a collaboration of about 25 national institutes and universities hosted by the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, will primarily be an underground facility for non-accelerator-based high-energy physics. The observatory will focus its study on atmospheric muon neutrinos using a 50-kiloton iron calorimeter to measure certain characteristics of the elusive particles. 

INO will also expand into a more general science facility and host studies in geological, biological and hydrological research. Construction of the INO underground observatory in Pottipuram, Tamil Nadu, India is awaiting approvals by the state government.

Gran Sasso National Laboratory

Illustration by Sandbox Studio, Chicago with Corinne Mucha

Gran Sasso National Laboratory
1400 meters below, est. 1987

The Gran Sasso National Laboratory in Italy is the largest underground laboratory in the world. It is a high-energy physics lab that conducts many long-term neutrino, dark matter and nuclear astrophysical experiments. 

The lab’s OPERA experiment is especially noteworthy for detecting the first tau neutrino candidates that emerged (through oscillation) from a muon neutrino beam sent by CERN in 2010. From 2012 to 2015, the experiment at Gran Sasso subsequently announced the detection of the second, third, fourth and fifth tau neutrinos, confirming their initial result.

Gran Sasso also collaborates with the Department of Energy’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory on a short-distance neutrino program. After it is refurbished at CERN, the ICARUS experiment from Gran Sasso will join two other experiments at Fermilab to search for a fourth proposed kind of neutrino, the sterile neutrino.

Centre for Underground Physics in Pyhäsalmi

Illustration by Sandbox Studio, Chicago with Corinne Mucha

Centre for Underground Physics in Pyhäsalmi
1440 meters below, est. 1997

The University of Oulu in Finland operates CUPP in Europe’s deepest metal mine—the Pyhäsalmi Mine. As the mine prepares to close by the end of this decade, the local community established Callio Lab (CLab) to rent out space to science and industrial operators, CUPP being one of them. The main level, at 1420 meters, houses all of the equipment, offices and restaurants. It also houses the world’s deepest sauna.

The facility’s main experiment is EMMA, the Experiment with MultiMuon Array, in Lab 1 at 75 meters. EMMA is used to study cosmic rays and high-energy muons that pass through the Earth to better understand atmospheric and cosmic particle interactions. CUPP also conducts some low-background muon flux measurements and radiocarbon research for future liquid scintillators in Lab 2 at 1430 meters.

Sanford Underground Research Facility

Illustration by Sandbox Studio, Chicago with Corinne Mucha

Sanford Underground Research Facility
1480 meters below, est. 2011

Sanford Lab is the deepest underground physics lab in the United States and sits in the former Homestake Gold Mine in the Black Hills of South Dakota. It was the site of Ray Davis’ solar neutrino experiment, which used dry cleaning fluid to count neutrinos from the sun. The experiment found only one-third of the neutrinos expected, the result known as the solar neutrino problem. In 1998, SNO and Kamioka discovered neutrino oscillations, which proved that neutrinos were changing type as they traveled. Davis won the Nobel Prize in physics in 2002.

The facility now houses the LUX experiment (looking for dark matter), Majorana Demonstrator (researching the properties of neutrinos), and geological, engineering and biological studies. Sanford Lab will also host the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment, which will use detectors filled with 70,000 tons of liquid argon to study neutrinos sent from Fermilab, 800 miles away.

Modane Underground Laboratory

Illustration by Sandbox Studio, Chicago with Corinne Mucha

Modane Underground Laboratory
1700 meters below, est. 1982

Located in Modane, France, and situated in the middle of the Frejús Road Tunnel, the multidisciplinary lab hosts experiments in particle, nuclear and astroparticle physics, environmental sciences, biology and nano- and microelectronics.

Headed by the French National Center for Scientific Research and the Genoble-Alpes University, Modane Lab’s main fundamental physics activities include SuperNEMO and EDELWEISS, which study neutrino physics and dark matter detection, respectively.

The lab also hosts international experiments with the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Dubna, Russia, and the Czech Technical University in Prague, Czech Republic.

Baksan Neutrino Observatory

Illustration by Sandbox Studio, Chicago with Corinne Mucha

Baksan Neutrino Observatory
1750 meters below, est. 1973

Hidden beneath the Caucasus Mountains and next to the Baksan River, BNO began working as one of the first underground particle physics observatories in the then Soviet Union. Like other underground facilities, BNO wanted to reduce the amount of background radiation as much as possible. The lab’s location is not only underground but also far from nuclear power plants—another source of background noise for experiments.

BNO’s current neutrino experiments are the Soviet-American Gallium Experiment (SAGE), the Baksan Underground Scintillation Telescope (BUST) and the upcoming Baksan Experiment on Sterile Transitions (BEST). There is also a new search for hypothesized particles called axions, candidates for dark matter.

Agua Negra Deep Experiment Site

Illustration by Sandbox Studio, Chicago with Corinne Mucha

Agua Negra Deep Experiment Site
1750 meters below, proposed

Situated in the mountains on the border of Chile and Argentina, ANDES will study neutrinos and dark matter, as well as plate tectonics, biology, nuclear astrophysics and the environment. Along with SUPL, it is one of two proposed deep underground labs in the Southern Hemisphere.

ANDES is an international laboratory, not just a host for international experiments. It will become home to a large neutrino detector and aims to detect supernovae neutrinos and geoneutrinos, complementing results of the Northern Hemisphere labs and experiments. This location is ideal as the site is far from nuclear facilities and extremely deep in the mountains, both of which help reduce background noise.

SNOLAB

Illustration by Sandbox Studio, Chicago with Corinne Mucha

SNOLAB
2070 meters below, est. 2009

SNOLAB is the deepest physics facility in North America and operates in a working nickel mine in Ontario, Canada. The entire 5000m2 facility is a class 2000 cleanroom with fewer than 2000 particles per cubic foot. Everyone who enters the lab must shower on the way in and put on a clean set of special cleanroom clothes.

SNOLAB conducts highly sensitive experiments for research on dark matter and neutrinos. Among them are DEAP-3600, PICO, HALO, MiniCLEAN and SNO+. Scientists also plan to install the next generation of a cryogenic dark matter search, SuperCDMS, in the lab once testing is complete.

Late last year, Arthur McDonald was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics for the discovery of neutrino oscillation made in 1998 at the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory, the predecessor of SNOLAB. The Nobel Prize is shared with the Kamioka Observatory in Japan for their Super-K neutrino experiment.

China Jinping Underground Laboratory

Illustration by Sandbox Studio, Chicago with Corinne Mucha

China Jinping Underground Laboratory
2400 meters below, est. 2010

CJPL is the deepest physics facility in the world, tucked inside the Jinping Mountain in the Sichuan province in southwest China. The site is ideal for its low cosmic-ray muon flux, which means the facility has far less noise from background radiation than many other underground facilities. And because the facility is built under a mountain, there is horizontal access (for things like vehicles) rather than vertical access (through a mine shaft). 

Two experiments housed at the facility are trying to directly detect dark matter: the China Dark Matter Experiment (CDEX) and PandaX. CJPL will also observe neutrinos from different sources, such as the sun, Earth, atmosphere, supernova bursts and potentially dark matter annihilations, in hopes of better understanding the elusive particles’ properties. In the coming months, an astronuclear physics study and a one-ton prototype of a neutrino detector will move into CJPL-II.

Meet the world’s deepest underground physics facilities.

A constant shower of energetic subatomic particles rains down on Earth’s surface. Born from cosmic ray interactions in the upper atmosphere, this invisible drizzle creates noisy background radiation that obscures the signatures of new particles or forces that scientists seek. The solution is to move experiments under the best natural umbrella we have: the Earth’s crust.

Underground facilities, while difficult to build and access, are ideal hubs for observing rare particle interactions. The rock overhead shields experiments from the pesky particle precipitation, preventing things like muons from interfering. For the last few decades, underground physics facilities have laid claim to some of the world’s largest, most complex detection experiments, contributing to important physics discoveries.

“In the early 1960s, researchers at the Kolar Gold Fields in India and the East Rand Gold Mine in South Africa realized if they go deep enough underground, it might be possible to clearly detect high-energy particles from atmospheric cosmic ray collisions,” says Henry Sobel, a co-US-spokesperson on the Super-Kamiokande experiment at the Kamioka Observatory. “Both groups reported the first observation of atmospheric neutrinos at various depths underground.”

Even with entire facilities sitting below the surface, extremely sensitive detectors often require additional shielding against stray particles and the small amount of radiation from the rock and equipment. One example is the Sanford Underground Research Facility’s Large Underground Xenon (LUX) experiment, which seeks dark matter particles called WIMPs, or weakly interacting massive particles.

“Going underground eliminates most of the radioactivity, but not all of it, so we used a 72,000-gallon water shield to keep neutrons and gamma rays out of the LUX experiment,” says Harry Nelson, a LUX researcher and spokesperson for the upcoming LUX-Zeplin experiment at Sanford Lab.

Scientists at underground facilities around the world—and their creative colleagues closer to the surface—maintain different experiments working toward a common goal: answering questions about the nature of matter and energy. Learn more about the facilities 1000 meters or more below the surface that are digging deep into the secrets of the universe.

Kamioka Observatory

Illustration by Sandbox Studio, Chicago with Corinne Mucha

Kamioka Observatory
1000 meters below, est. 1983

Previously known as the Kamioka Underground Observatory, the facility dwells in the Mozumi Mine in Hida, Gifu Prefecture, Japan. Operational or former mines actually make great homes for underground facilities because it is cost-effective to use existing giant holes inside mountains or the earth rather than dig new ones.

Kamioka’s original focus was on understanding the stability of matter through a search for the spontaneous decay of protons using an experiment called Kamiokande. Since neutrinos are a major background to the search for proton decay, the study of neutrinos also became a major effort for the observatory.

Now known as the Kamioka Observatory, the facility detects neutrinos coming from supernovae, the sun, our atmosphere and accelerators. In 2015, Takaaki Kajita was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics for the discovery of atmospheric neutrino oscillation by the Super-Kamiokande experiment. The Nobel Prize is shared with the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory in Canada.

Stawell Underground Physics Laboratory

Illustration by Sandbox Studio, Chicago with Corinne Mucha

Stawell Underground Physics Laboratory
1000 meters below, under construction

SUPL is under construction at the active Stawell Gold Mine in Victoria, Australia. The facility will work in close collaboration with the Gran Sasso National Laboratory in Italy, which made significant strides in dark matter research through a possible detection of WIMPs. SUPL will see whether the amount of dark matter in certain galaxies changes depending on Earth’s position.

Because Australia is in the Southern Hemisphere and has opposite seasons to Italy, this seasonal dark matter experiment will also test Italy’s results to learn more about WIMPs and dark matter. There are two proposed dark matter experiments for SUPL: SABRE (Sodium-iodide with Active Background REjection) and DRIFT-CYGNUS (Directional Recoil Identification From Tracks – CosmoloGY with NUclear recoilS).

Boulby Underground Laboratory

Illustration by Sandbox Studio, Chicago with Corinne Mucha

Boulby Underground Laboratory
1100 meters below, est. 1998

Inside the operational Boulby Potash and Salt Mine on the northeast coast of England sits the Boulby Lab. It is a multidisciplinary, deep underground science facility operated by the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council. The depth and the support infrastructure make the facility well-suited for traditional low-background underground studies such as dark matter searches and cosmic ray experiments. Scientists also study a wide range of sciences beyond physics, for example geology and geophysics, environmental and climate studies, life in extreme environments on Earth, and the development of rover instrumentation for exploration of life beyond Earth.

The dark matter search currently underway at Boulby is DRIFT-II – a directional dark matter search detector.  The lab previously hosted the ZEPLIN-II and III experiments, predecessors to the upcoming LUX-ZEPLIN experiment at Sanford Lab. Boulby still supports the LZ experiment with ultralow-background material activity measurements, which is important to all sensitive dark matter and rare-event studies.

India-based Neutrino Observatory

Illustration by Sandbox Studio, Chicago with Corinne Mucha

India-based Neutrino Observatory
1200 meters below, proposed

INO, a collaboration of about 25 national institutes and universities hosted by the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, will primarily be an underground facility for non-accelerator-based high-energy physics. The observatory will focus its study on atmospheric muon neutrinos using a 50-kiloton iron calorimeter to measure certain characteristics of the elusive particles. 

INO will also expand into a more general science facility and host studies in geological, biological and hydrological research. Construction of the INO underground observatory in Pottipuram, Tamil Nadu, India is awaiting approvals by the state government.

Gran Sasso National Laboratory

Illustration by Sandbox Studio, Chicago with Corinne Mucha

Gran Sasso National Laboratory
1400 meters below, est. 1987

The Gran Sasso National Laboratory in Italy is the largest underground laboratory in the world. It is a high-energy physics lab that conducts many long-term neutrino, dark matter and nuclear astrophysical experiments. 

The lab’s OPERA experiment is especially noteworthy for detecting the first tau neutrino candidates that emerged (through oscillation) from a muon neutrino beam sent by CERN in 2010. From 2012 to 2015, the experiment at Gran Sasso subsequently announced the detection of the second, third, fourth and fifth tau neutrinos, confirming their initial result.

Gran Sasso also collaborates with the Department of Energy’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory on a short-distance neutrino program. After it is refurbished at CERN, the ICARUS experiment from Gran Sasso will join two other experiments at Fermilab to search for a fourth proposed kind of neutrino, the sterile neutrino.

Centre for Underground Physics in Pyhäsalmi

Illustration by Sandbox Studio, Chicago with Corinne Mucha

Centre for Underground Physics in Pyhäsalmi
1440 meters below, est. 1997

The University of Oulu in Finland operates CUPP in Europe’s deepest metal mine—the Pyhäsalmi Mine. As the mine prepares to close by the end of this decade, the local community established Callio Lab (CLab) to rent out space to science and industrial operators, CUPP being one of them. The main level, at 1420 meters, houses all of the equipment, offices and restaurants. It also houses the world’s deepest sauna.

The facility’s main experiment is EMMA, the Experiment with MultiMuon Array, in Lab 1 at 75 meters. EMMA is used to study cosmic rays and high-energy muons that pass through the Earth to better understand atmospheric and cosmic particle interactions. CUPP also conducts some low-background muon flux measurements and radiocarbon research for future liquid scintillators in Lab 2 at 1430 meters.

Sanford Underground Research Facility

Illustration by Sandbox Studio, Chicago with Corinne Mucha

Sanford Underground Research Facility
1480 meters below, est. 2011

Sanford Lab is the deepest underground physics lab in the United States and sits in the former Homestake Gold Mine in the Black Hills of South Dakota. It was the site of Ray Davis’ solar neutrino experiment, which used dry cleaning fluid to count neutrinos from the sun. The experiment found only one-third of the neutrinos expected, the result known as the solar neutrino problem. In 1998, SNO and Kamioka discovered neutrino oscillations, which proved that neutrinos were changing type as they traveled. Davis won the Nobel Prize in physics in 2002.

The facility now houses the LUX experiment (looking for dark matter), Majorana Demonstrator (researching the properties of neutrinos), and geological, engineering and biological studies. Sanford Lab will also host the Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment, which will use detectors filled with 70,000 tons of liquid argon to study neutrinos sent from Fermilab, 800 miles away.

Modane Underground Laboratory

Illustration by Sandbox Studio, Chicago with Corinne Mucha

Modane Underground Laboratory
1700 meters below, est. 1982

Located in Modane, France, and situated in the middle of the Frejús Road Tunnel, the multidisciplinary lab hosts experiments in particle, nuclear and astroparticle physics, environmental sciences, biology and nano- and microelectronics.

Headed by the French National Center for Scientific Research and the Genoble-Alpes University, Modane Lab’s main fundamental physics activities include SuperNEMO and EDELWEISS, which study neutrino physics and dark matter detection, respectively.

The lab also hosts international experiments with the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Dubna, Russia, and the Czech Technical University in Prague, Czech Republic.

Baksan Neutrino Observatory

Illustration by Sandbox Studio, Chicago with Corinne Mucha

Baksan Neutrino Observatory
1750 meters below, est. 1973

Hidden beneath the Caucasus Mountains and next to the Baksan River, BNO began working as one of the first underground particle physics observatories in the then Soviet Union. Like other underground facilities, BNO wanted to reduce the amount of background radiation as much as possible. The lab’s location is not only underground but also far from nuclear power plants—another source of background noise for experiments.

BNO’s current neutrino experiments are the Soviet-American Gallium Experiment (SAGE), the Baksan Underground Scintillation Telescope (BUST) and the upcoming Baksan Experiment on Sterile Transitions (BEST). There is also a new search for hypothesized particles called axions, candidates for dark matter.

Agua Negra Deep Experiment Site

Illustration by Sandbox Studio, Chicago with Corinne Mucha

Agua Negra Deep Experiment Site
1750 meters below, proposed

Situated in the mountains on the border of Chile and Argentina, ANDES will study neutrinos and dark matter, as well as plate tectonics, biology, nuclear astrophysics and the environment. Along with SUPL, it is one of two proposed deep underground labs in the Southern Hemisphere.

ANDES is an international laboratory, not just a host for international experiments. It will become home to a large neutrino detector and aims to detect supernovae neutrinos and geoneutrinos, complementing results of the Northern Hemisphere labs and experiments. This location is ideal as the site is far from nuclear facilities and extremely deep in the mountains, both of which help reduce background noise.

SNOLAB

Illustration by Sandbox Studio, Chicago with Corinne Mucha

SNOLAB
2070 meters below, est. 2009

SNOLAB is the deepest physics facility in North America and operates in a working nickel mine in Ontario, Canada. The entire 5000m2 facility is a class 2000 cleanroom with fewer than 2000 particles per cubic foot. Everyone who enters the lab must shower on the way in and put on a clean set of special cleanroom clothes.

SNOLAB conducts highly sensitive experiments for research on dark matter and neutrinos. Among them are DEAP-3600, PICO, HALO, MiniCLEAN and SNO+. Scientists also plan to install the next generation of a cryogenic dark matter search, SuperCDMS, in the lab once testing is complete.

Late last year, Arthur McDonald was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics for the discovery of neutrino oscillation made in 1998 at the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory, the predecessor of SNOLAB. The Nobel Prize is shared with the Kamioka Observatory in Japan for their Super-K neutrino experiment.

China Jinping Underground Laboratory

Illustration by Sandbox Studio, Chicago with Corinne Mucha

China Jinping Underground Laboratory
2400 meters below, est. 2010

CJPL is the deepest physics facility in the world, tucked inside the Jinping Mountain in the Sichuan province in southwest China. The site is ideal for its low cosmic-ray muon flux, which means the facility has far less noise from background radiation than many other underground facilities. And because the facility is built under a mountain, there is horizontal access (for things like vehicles) rather than vertical access (through a mine shaft). 

Two experiments housed at the facility are trying to directly detect dark matter: the China Dark Matter Experiment (CDEX) and PandaX. CJPL will also observe neutrinos from different sources, such as the sun, Earth, atmosphere, supernova bursts and potentially dark matter annihilations, in hopes of better understanding the elusive particles’ properties. In the coming months, an astronuclear physics study and a one-ton prototype of a neutrino detector will move into CJPL-II.

Guest Post: A Mathy Mechanism for Solving a Problem Like The Donald

Over the last several years, Harvard economist Eric Maskin has been delivering a talk asking: “How Should We Elect Presidents?” Should the candidate with the most votes win? Not necessarily, according to Maskin. Maskin blames the U.S. system of plurality voting—whereby each voter casts their vote for one candidate and the candidate with the most […]

shutterstock_114656170Over the last several years, Harvard economist Eric Maskin has been delivering a talk asking: “How Should We Elect Presidents?”

Should the candidate with the most votes win? Not necessarily, according to Maskin.

Maskin blames the U.S. system of plurality voting—whereby each voter casts their vote for one candidate and the candidate with the most votes wins, even if that number is short of a majority—for the general election mess of 2000, when the outcome was decided by a divided Supreme Court.

Now, he proposes, plurality voting has abetted presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump, who made his startling ascent with minority support from his party. “There is something very wrong with plurality voting,” Maskin told me in March, the day after Trump won the Republican primaries in Florida, Illinois, Missouri, and North Carolina—all with only a minority of votes.

“In 2000, the disaster was Bush winning in Florida when a majority were really in favor of Gore,” he said, adding that maybe the Trump disaster will be enough to incite serious discussion on the topic of voting reform. Because, as he noted, “There will be a next time, if history is any indication.”

Democracy, Maskin argues, would be better served by the “majority rule” method. He proposes one version of majority rule in particular: the Condorcet method, named after its inventor the Marquis de Condorcet, an eighteenth-century French political scientist and mathematician. This method, which Condorcet described in his 1785 Essay on the Application of Analysis to the Probability of Plurality Decisions, works much like a rating system, such as Google Page Rank for websites and Rotten Tomatoes for movies (it was in Iowa that Trump dodged a protestor’s rotten tomatoes, and ultimately lost the state to Cruz). Rather than picking one candidate, the voter ranks all the candidates—or as many of them as she wants to rank—saying, perhaps, “I choose Trump first, Kasich second, and Cruz third.” Voters submit their preferences and the winner is the candidate who, according to the rankings, would beat each of the other candidates in head-to-head contests.

Maskin offers a hypothetical: Suppose 40 per cent of the population likes Trump the best, and then Kasich, and then Cruz; 35 per cent like Cruz the best, and then Kasich, and then Trump; 25 per cent like Kasich best and then Cruz and then Trump. “If you have plurality rule, then Trump wins easily, he gets 40 per cent of the votes,” said Maskin. But with majority rule, Kasich ends up being the majority winner; and if it were a head-to-head contest between Trump and Cruz, Cruz would beat Trump as well. Both Cruz and Kasich would beat Trump in a head-to-head contest, but both lose to him in a plurality vote. “There is something very wrong with plurality voting,” Maskin said (he crunched the numbers further in a recent New York Times op-ed with his Harvard colleague Amartya Sen).

Maskin’s ongoing voting investigations are in collaboration with Cambridge’s Partha Dasgupta. They formulated a theorem proving there is a precise sense in which majority rule is the best voting method, and they published their result in a 2008 paper, “On the Robustness of Majority Rule.” This type of work is called mechanism design theory, which is a bit like a reverse engineering of economics. Economists usually analyze events to determine why they happened, or to predict events in the future. With mechanism design, Maskin sets his sights on a favorable outcome for an event—an election executed democratically—and then he seeks a method or mechanism that will achieve that end.

Maskin and Dasgupta’s proof uses combinatorial mathematics and other tricks of the trade, such as intellectual innovations in social choice theory by the Stanford economist Kenneth Arrow, Maskin’s doctoral advisor. Arrow is the founding father of modern voting theory, and his namesake Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem indicates, to paraphrase, that there is no perfect way to make social decisions based on voters’ preferences, since no system can satisfy all the desirable criteria or axioms (the Dasgupta-Maskin analysis uses standard axioms based on Arrow’s work: consensus, equal treatment of voters, equal treatment of candidates, no spoilers, and decisiveness, i.e. there is always a clear-cut winner).

“Stepping back and looking at it philosophically rather than technically,” Arrow told me, “we are not prepared to say that a majority should always triumph”—there are laws, for instance, that protect minority rights, such as Native American sacred sites. But when it comes to electing presidents, majority rule satisfies all the axioms more often than any other voting system. “It tends toward a middling candidate,” Arrow noted. “It may not be the first choice of many people, but it is the second choice of a lot of people. No system will always work, but at least a system like that may work fairly often.”

Although there is one caveat. “I’m assuming people are rational,” he said—and by that he wasn’t meaning to pass judgment on the Trump insurgency. Rather, he said, “All I mean by rational is [that people] can rank the candidates: best, next best, and so forth.” (But as for Trumpism, he said: “I don’t understand it at all. No matter what your political position, he’s demonstrating no capacity. He just doesn’t make sense in any formulation.”)

Of course, Maskin’s hypothetical rankings, bumping Trump out of favor, involve imaginary numbers. But there’s hard data in an analysis of the primaries conducted by FairVote, a non-profit organization that has led the discussion on electoral reform since 1992, undaunted by the naysayers. “‘Oh, it’s never gonna happen.’ I’ve heard that so many times in my life. I was in a rock band and we never imagined we’d be on MTV,” said Krist Novoselic, chair of the FairVote board of directors, and the bassist and co-founder of Nirvana, in a recent FairVote trailer for its “Reform 2020” campaign. “So things turn around. I’m an optimist.”

Ranked choice voting is gradually gaining momentum. This spring, New York City Council’s agenda called for the State Legislature to enactment legislation allowing ranked choice voting for citywide primary elections. On November 8, the option of a statewide ranked choice voting system will be on the ballot as a referendum question in Maine. And those Republican primary numbers, run though ranked choice system, support a certain optimism. “If the GOP had used majority rule, Republican voters would have benefited because they could have expressed themselves more fully,” said Maskin. “And the party would have benefited because voters themselves might well have stopped Trump early on, before he built up momentum.”

Maybe next time.

Meanwhile, there is small comfort to be found in a later essay by Condorcet, Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Spirit, written while he was on the run during the French Revolution and published posthumously in 1794. Therein Condorcet notes the importance of “savoir ignorer” — “knowing how not to know, in the end, what it is still, what it always will be impossible to understand.”

Siobhan Roberts is a science writer based in Toronto. Her latest book is Genius At Play: The Curious Mind of John Horton Conway.

Top photo: Shutterstock.

Redux: Gold Stars

This post was originally published on May 26, 2014, but it’s still relevant today. Go ahead and celebrate today’s holiday with a grill and a swill or a trip to some big box store to buy discounted appliances. Unless you’re part of the other one percent — the tiny fraction of Americans who served in the military […]

This post was originally published on May 26, 2014, but it’s still relevant today. ChildFlag_shutterstock_50700037Go ahead and celebrate today’s holiday with a grill and a swill or a trip to some big box store to buy discounted appliances. Unless you’re part of the other one percent — the tiny fraction of Americans who served in the military during the long wars fought since September 11, 2001 — Memorial Day may not feel personal to you.

But if you’re an American, it should. The 6,809 service members killed and 52,010 wounded in nearly thirteen years of war made these sacrifices on your behalf. They gave their lives so that you could go about your way. A growing gap between military and civilian populations has created an easy out for those looking for a reason not to engage in issues of foreign policy and military action. “People say, ‘You volunteered. You knew what you were signing up for,’” one veteran told me recently. That may be true.

Yet there’s a population of innocents who shoulder the burden of military service without ever having made the choice — military kids. These children must accept that their parents’ lives belong to the military first. No matter how dedicated and engaged the parent is, family obligations will always come after military ones. Deployed fathers can’t make it home for their children’s births, mothers or fathers miss a child’s first day of school or graduation.

USCasualtiesC130DoverAFBMilitary families are resilient. They learn to cope. But some of them must bear the unbearable. Nearly 5,000 military children have lost a parent since 9/11. For these kids, today is a time to reflect and remember the parent that they will never fully know. Their gold star pins are both a badge of honor and a symbol of loss.

For civilians, today provides an opportunity to reflect on the sacrifices that gold star military families have made in your name. Before you fire up the grill or head to the mall, take a moment to join the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America in their #GoSilent campaign — a nation-wide moment of silence at 12:01 EDT today — to honor the men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice.

Images: Child with folded flag courtesy of ShutterstockUS war casualties at Dover Air Force Base, released to the public as the result of a Freedom of Information Act filing by the Memory Hole. (Via WikiCommons.)

Cueva de las Manos / Ancient spray-painted art in Patagonia

Spray-painting (of sorts) is thousands of years old, and well-preserved examples of art using this technique are found on a rock face in Patagonia.

Graffiti spray-painted on the side of a building is an annoying act of vandalism. Graffiti spray-painted on a natural stone formation is an appalling desecration of nature. Graffiti spray-painted on a natural stone formation and allowed to age for thousands of years is a priceless work of art. Go figure.

Patagonia being a rather large area, I was unable to visit all the spots that interested me. One that, unfortunately, I didn’t have time for was La Cueva de las Manos, or “the cave of hands,” in south-central Patagonia. A UNESCO World Heritage site, it’s one of the world’s oldest outdoor art museums; its most striking characteristic is hundreds of stenciled paintings of human hands. And the paintings were made using a primitive but highly effective form of spray paint.

Handing It to Them
Like so many things in Patagonia, the name “Cueva” is a bit of a misnomer; the so-called cave is more of a shallow indentation in a cliff face with overhanging rock. At first glance, the walls appear to be covered with hand prints. On closer inspection, it’s clear that the hand shapes themselves were not painted or imprinted on the walls; instead, you see empty spots in the shape of hands with halos of paint around them. The borders are too diffuse to have been painted with brushes; it looks like someone pressed a hand on the wall and then spray-painted around it to form the image—a process known as negative stenciling. And in fact, this is exactly what happened. The artists apparently blew liquid pigments through small tubes—perhaps the hollow bones of birds—to create the images.

Because most of us consider spray-painting a relatively recent invention, these paintings give the impression of being modern art; the impression is heightened by the deep, vibrant colors. In fact, the oldest of these paintings dates from at least 7,300 B.C., and perhaps earlier. The earliest contributors to the cave were known as Toldense; millennia later, Tehuelche artists were still adding new figures—the most recent paintings were made around 1,000 B.C. Hands are not the only subject, by the way—also pictured are human figures and local animals such as guanacos (relatives of the llama) and rheas (flightless birds that look like miniature ostriches). The paints, of which there are many distinct colors, were made from a variety of substances, including the Calafate berry and mineral pigments. A layer of sealant made from guanaco fat and urine helped to protect the paintings from the elements for all these years.

The Right Way to Paint
A frequently mentioned statistic is that only 31 of the more than 800 hand prints are of a right hand—as though this should be a surprise. Assuming most of the artists were right-handed (which is statistically likely), it’s only logical that they’d use their dominant hand to direct the pigment while using the non-dominant hand as the stencil. No mystery there. It does suggest, though, that most of the artists painted their own hands, as opposed to someone else’s.

A more interesting question is the same one asked about nearly every ancient artifact: Why? Why did the ancient residents of this part of Patagonia spray-paint images of their hands all over the side of a cave wall? Archeologists have speculated, as they usually do, that the paintings were religious symbols or perhaps were made as part of an adolescent rite of passage. The latter explanation carries the disturbing implication that parents required their teenage kids to spray-paint personal tags on walls in public places. I favor the more mundane notion that everyone just thought the images looked cool. There is also, of course, the whole question of how the artists got the paint off their hands—if in fact they did. Perhaps the point was to paint the hands, and the images on the wall were nothing more than a nifty side effect. There’s just no telling with kids. —Joe Kissell

Permalink • Email this Article • Categories: History, Interesting Places, Society & Culture, Sports & Recreation

More Information about Cueva de las Manos…

Today’s article is part of two week-long series on Patagonia. To learn more about Patagonia, see the first article in the series from last month, Introduction to Patagonia.

You can find some nice photos of the paintings at Patagonia Travel Adventures: Photo 1 | Photo 2 | Photo 3.

Other sources of information on the Cueva de las Manos (some with pictures) include:

UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites contains almost 800 entries. Cueva de las Manos is one of eight sites in Argentina.

Related Articles from Interesting Thing of the Day

79 The Usual Suspects

With the recent release of Bryan Singer’s “X-Men: Apocalypse,” Devin and Amy discuss the film that put him on the map – “The Usual Suspects.” They break down the film’s dynamic tones and the well-balanced collaboration among Bryan, writer Christopher McQuarrie and the talented actors. Cast your vote in the Earwolf forums if “The Usual Suspects” is a Canon-worthy film.

With the recent release of Bryan Singer’s “X-Men: Apocalypse,” Devin and Amy discuss the film that put him on the map – “The Usual Suspects.” They break down the film’s dynamic tones and the well-balanced collaboration among Bryan, writer Christopher McQuarrie and the talented actors. Cast your vote in the Earwolf forums if “The Usual Suspects” is a Canon-worthy film.

Rochelle Williams: Potential

As a PhD student, Rochelle Williams faces barriers to a career in engineering.

As a PhD student, Rochelle Williams faces barriers to a career in engineering.

Rochelle Williams is a Louisiana girl, Spelman woman, and lover of all things football. No stranger to implicit and institutional biases, she is an advocate for women of color in STEM and the relevancy of Historically Black Colleges and Universities. She has a B.S. in physics from Spelman College and both her M.Engr. in Mechanical Engineering and Ph.D. in Science and Mathematics Education from Southern University and A&M College.

How to make the most of your weird work schedule


Illustration by Nate Otto

I’m writing this on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Here in beautiful Berlin, most of my friends are enjoying a lazy start to the day, having returned from the club, bar or all-night pop-up kombucha stand just a few hours ago. Maybe some brunch, they’re thinking, followed by a stroll along the canal. Do they have everything they need for a barbecue? Or is this one of those curl-up-in-the-duvet-with-delivery-pizza kind of days?

Not for me, it’s not. I haven’t had one of those weekends in a while. I’ve been supporting Basecamp’s customers from 9am to 6pm Central European Time, every Saturday and Sunday — give or take — for two and a half years now. While everyone around me slowly stirs to life, I’ve been at my desk for four hours and, after lunch, I’ll have another four to go. And you know what? I’m happy to be here.

Working on the weekend isn’t anyone’s idea of a good time, much less working every weekend. When I was being hired, everyone I spoke to would double-check, “are you really sure you’re fine with a Saturday-Wednesday schedule?” Each time, I would reassure them: it won’t make much difference to me. I came to Basecamp from a world of freelancing that has little respect for working hours, and I expected to find a better quality of life sticking to set shifts, no matter when they fell (I was right).

Now I’m the one doing the double-checking. My team’s undergone a bit of a reshuffle, and I’m moving across to cover weekdays. We’ve already found an awesome replacement for my shifts, and in doing so, we asked again and again: are you willing to work weekends indefinitely, and do you have any idea what that really means? I only gave my thumbs-up to candidates who could convince me that they understood how hard working those shifts might be — and that they could still see the upside.

What upside, exactly? Anyone who’s had to clock in outside of regular office hours knows it can be a bummer, and everyone else can easily imagine the drawbacks. But until you’ve done those shifts for an extended amount of time, you may not realise that many of the all-too-apparent negatives are actually super-secret positives. Here’s how to turn your Sunday smiles upside down, and make the most of your weird work schedule:

Reap unexpected rewards
Basecamp isn’t just a business tool — it can help anyone organise whatever they need to get done. The weekend is when the professionals put down their tools, and everyone else tries to get their personal projects off the ground. Every now and then, I speak to someone who doesn’t really understand computers, for whom the cloud is a mystery, and who has set aside their Sunday to get their heads around “this Basecamp thing”. People like this can be a challenge to work with, but getting them up and running is especially rewarding.

Turn isolation into independence
Curiosity is a requirement at Basecamp — we expect everyone to work out the solution to whatever problem they face (and, of course, to ask for help when they’re stuck). However, when everyone else is online, it’s easy to get lazy, and rely on more experienced support staff, and the people who built Basecamp, for answers. On the weekend, I don’t have this luxury. Outside of emergencies, any answers that our customers need are going to come from me. I’ve learned more, and helped more people, by hunting down my own answers than I have by tapping others on the shoulder.

Bond with your fellow weekend warriors
Basecamp literally wrote the book on remote working, and one of its important lessons is “Thou shalt overlap”. When you’re about to spend the next six hours on your lonesome, you learn to make the most of the 60 short minutes you have with your fellow weekend workers. When I jump online to say hi to Sylvia, who’s been running things from Hong Kong, the Campfire chat room soon fills up with dad jokes (mine), dog photos (also mine), squeals of delight (hers) and music recommendations of varying tastefulness (both!). Of course, we’ll still overlap a few times a week, but when we do, we won’t be anywhere near as desperate for human contact. Boo, this one’s for you.

Maximise your quiet time
As soon as Sylvia logs off, things really quiet down. On a typical Saturday or Sunday, I respond to half as many support emails as I do on a weekday, and far fewer tweets and phone calls. This gives me time to do less urgent, but no less important, things like pitching new features, updating our internal documentation, organising my replacement’s training — and writing blog posts like this one.

Make the most of your✌🏽weekends✌🏽
My most cherished quiet time comes after I clock out on Wednesday evening. Because Basecamp believes that Work Can Wait, I’m left to enjoy this downtime free from distractions, except in the case of emergencies like a bowl of noodles Sylvia really needs me to see. When everyone else is at work, I can choose from my pick of machines at the gym, set a leisurely pace at my local brunch spot, get a whole row to myself at the cinema, or do the weekly shop while the aisles are empty. Best of all, as the people around me are gearing up for the weekend, I’m getting ready to return to work. Which is when I tell myself…

Remember: you have the best excuse ever
“I’m so sorry I can’t come to your vernissage-slash-electro-swing-party in that disused sewer pipe — I have to work in the morning. Maybe next time!”

Of course, I’m happy to be getting my “real” weekends back. But I’m glad I got to experience what it’s like to support different kinds of customers, at different times, with different needs.

As for my weekend warriors, hold strong! Make the most of the quiet moments, in and out of work. Take the extra time to hold your customers’ hands and lead them across their own personal obstacles. And support each other — be that rare ray of sunshine in your colleague’s working weekend. Wherever the weekday work takes me, I’ll be here for you!*

*Except on Saturday mornings, when I’ll be having a nice lie-in.

Basecamp 3 can help you organise whatever you’re working on, whenever you choose to work on it. Check it out now at basecamp.com.



How to make the most of your weird work schedule was originally published in Signal v. Noise on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

 

Read the responses to this story on Medium.

Best Chocolate Brownies

Best Chocolate Brownies

If one is going to take the trouble to make chocolate brownies, and incur the wrath of the Fat-god for eating them, one may as well make them right. Brownies from a box? No thank you.

Continue reading “Best Chocolate Brownies” »

Best Chocolate Brownies

If one is going to take the trouble to make chocolate brownies, and incur the wrath of the Fat-god for eating them, one may as well make them right. Brownies from a box? No thank you.

Continue reading “Best Chocolate Brownies” »

Science Metaphors (cont.): Secular Evolution

This is the latest in a series in which science’s metaphors offer the explanations of and guidance for the most cryptic of life’s problems. A few weeks ago I was at a conference about galaxy evolution.  In the titles of many talks was the puzzling phrase, “secular evolution.”  Secular? as opposed to religious? so secular […]

HUDFThis is the latest in a series in which science’s metaphors offer the explanations of and guidance for the most cryptic of life’s problems.

A few weeks ago I was at a conference about galaxy evolution.  In the titles of many talks was the puzzling phrase, “secular evolution.”  Secular? as opposed to religious? so secular evolution is galaxy evolution that’s not in the context of religion?  Surely not.   I stopped listening to the talks and googled “secular.”  It’s Latin, meaning “belonging to a certain age,” as opposed to “infinite.”  Not helping.  I opted for the extreme measure of waiting for the coffee break and asking an astronomer.

Secular evolution” in galaxies turns out to require a little context.  Years ago when I started writing about the origin and evolution of the universe, “galaxy evolution” was a matter of connecting some pretty dicey dots.  Cosmologists looked at nearby galaxies, at more distant galaxies, at the galaxies so far away you nearly couldn’t see them.  And assuming that most distant = farthest back in time = youngest, then those populations of nearby galaxies were grownups, the more distant were adolescents, and the far-away, babies.  Cosmologists arranged the populations into an evolution: galaxies began as little blue messes, spun up into sparkly spirals, collided and merged into unchanging ellipticals.  Galaxy evolution was interesting partly because it showed the universe growing up, that is, the universe that formed those galaxies was aging with them.

But that was populations of galaxies, not individual galaxies themselves – demographics, not myelination and hormones and bones losing calcium.  So what’s secular?The_surroundings_of_NGC_300_(ESO_1004d)Slowly, as observing instruments improved, cosmologists could see what was changing in the galaxies themselves: stars were born and died, galactic centers changed shapes, black holes flared and faded, gas got breathed in and out.  So this is secular evolution:  it means life changes that are local, done for individual necessity, unrelated to anything external; life without reference to the Big Context.

These days I’m deeply into living secularly.  And I have rules.  I research stories, find their structure, work out the sentences, meet the deadlines.  Dinner with a friend, drinks with another one, lunch, conversations that go nowhere but end in sweetness.  Buy a mattress, weed the garden, lighten the dirt and plant tomatoes.  Agree to community service regardless of how boneheaded and boring.  Be careful of who to invite over.  Don’t react to this egregiously dumb election, in particular, don’t get mad about what Hilary is and has always been up against, regardless of how unpleasant it’s made her; and don’t consider the gendered implications of “unpleasant.”  Ignore the social death-wish of wealth inequality. Remember that some questions don’t have answers.  Remember that some problems are complex and intransigent and won’t be solved and will only evolve.  Whatever the context – the universe, God, evolution, politics, society, life — let it go its own way.  Stay away from meaninglessness.  Don’t think about getting old.  Leave death alone.

_________

Photo credits:  the Hubble Ultra-Deep Field, by NASA & ESA; NGC 300, by ESO; both via Wikimedia Commons

Extinction of the Yámana / The end of the race at the end of the world

Well-meaning but misguided missionaries were responsible for wiping out an entire race of people who had managed to migrate farther than any other human group.

Months before I left for my visit to Patagonia, “learn some Spanish” was high on my to do list. Even though I knew I’d be with English-speaking guides much of the time, I figured I should at least know some basics beyond “please,” “thank-you,” and “where are the restrooms?” I had tapes, dictionaries, and phrase books, but what with one thing and another I never had time to learn much. What little Spanish I did know was the variety spoken here in California, which is similar to Mexican Spanish and, it turns out, very different from Argentinean Spanish. For example, in Argentina, speakers replace the “y” sound in words containing “y” or “ll” with a “sh” or “zh” sound, depending on the context. When we tried to order a hamburger without onions (“sin cebolla” in Mexican Spanish) we got puzzled looks, followed by, “You mean, ‘sin cebozha’?” Oh. Yeah. But that difference tripped us up every time. And when our guide in Ushuaia talked at length about a race of native people he pronounced “Shamana,” it took me a long time to figure out that he was referring to the Yámana I’d read about.

Beginning at the End
The story begins some 10,000 years ago—give or take a couple of thousand years. According to the Museo Mundo Yámana in Ushuaia, Argentina, Tierra del Fuego was the last place on Earth to which humans migrated, and also the farthest point geographically to which human civilization had spread from its origin. The museum thus depicts these first human residents of the area as being the hardiest of explorers. The people called themselves Yámana, which simply means “human beings.” They lived in what to all accounts was a stable and efficient society for thousands of years.

The Yámana were a semi-nomadic people. They lived primarily in small family groups and relocated as necessary to avoid endangering the populations of seals, mussels, and other marine life that made up the bulk of their diet. The European explorers who first made contact with the Yámana in the early 17th century were appalled that they wore no clothes, especially considering the cold and rainy climate. In lieu of clothing, the Yámana kept their skin covered with a layer of grease to help retain heat and repel moisture; they also kept fires burning near them at all times—even in their canoes. It was these constant fires that earned the area its name Tierra del Fuego, “Land of Fire.”

The Scourge of Civilization
In 1830, the British ship H.M.S. Beagle (under the command of Captain Robert FitzRoy) took four Yámana captive and returned them to England. One of the captives soon died of smallpox; the rest learned English and “civilized” behavior—including, naturally, the practice of Christianity. When the Beagle sailed to Tierra del Fuego again three years later—this time with Charles Darwin on board—the three surviving Yámana were returned to their home, where they soon reverted to living as they had before. One of these, whom the English had dubbed “Jemmy Button,” was implicated decades later in leading a massacre of European missionaries.

But still the missionaries and other settlers came, and still they persisted in their attempts to bring civilization to the Yámana, to whom they gave the name Yaghan (or Yagan). In the 1880s, the Yámana population was estimated at 1,000, but within three decades, fewer than 100 remained. Most of the Yámana were wiped out by diseases, such as measles and tuberculosis, carried by the Europeans. The settlers, meanwhile, over-hunted the animals the Yámana depended on for food, and tried to encourage adoption of an agricultural society instead. This change in diet, however, apparently increased the natives’ susceptibility to disease, as did the missionaries’ insistence that the Yámana live in mission communities. Through a combination of arrogance, carelessness, and bad luck, the missionaries managed to kill off the very people they were trying to save.

Many sources refer to the Yámana as an extinct race—and this is almost, but not quite, correct. The last pure Yámana man died in 1977, and the last woman who lived according to the traditional Yámana culture died in 1982. As far as I know, there are still two Yámana women living in Puerto Williams, Chile—the last remaining native speakers of the language and the only people left on the planet with pure Yámana DNA. Their children are of mixed race and grew up speaking Spanish, so when these women die, the Yámana will officially be extinct. It makes me terribly sad to think of an entire race dying out in my lifetime, especially due to such an unfortunate cause. The irony that this group of people had survived millennia of adventure and hardship on their way to the end of the world makes the story all the more heartbreaking. They leave behind a 30,000-word dictionary, a museum full of artifacts and photographs, and, I hope, an important lesson. —Joe Kissell

Permalink • Email this Article • Categories: History, Society & Culture

More Information about Extinction of the Yámana…

This article was featured in Carnival of Genealogy, 2nd Edition.

Today’s article is part of two week-long series on Patagonia. To learn more about Patagonia, see the first article in the series from last month, Introduction to Patagonia.

The Museo Mundo Yámana (Museum of the Yámana World) in Ushuaia recounts the rise and fall of the race. (Web site only in Spanish.)

Other resources on the Yámana include:

Related Articles from Interesting Thing of the Day