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Podcast OOTB 1 Transcript
jingle: (synth theme song)
- It's got all those story elements in it. You've got science, and survival, and history, and people not paying attention to what they're gluing to stuff.
cortex: Hi there and welcome to Out of the Blue, a new podcast series where each episode focuses on one interesting story from the community website, metafilter.com . I'm Josh Millard, known on the site as cortex. I run Metafilter, along with a small team of paid staff, mostly moderators. I won't always do this, but this being our first episode, I wanted to briefly explain Metafilter for listeners who aren't already familiar with the site. People come to Metafilter to share links to interesting stuff they found on the web and talk about it, to ask questions and get answers from the community -
cortex: - to share their creative projects and talk about pop culture and so on. It's not a small site, but it's also not huge. We have about ten thousand active users and a few thousand comments get posted every day. So it's like a busy neighborhood;there's more going on than any one person could hope to totally keep up with, but not so much that you can't have a general sense of what's happening if you drop by regularly.
- I've been hanging out on Metafilter for fourteen years now, and I've worked here for more than half that time, and seriously, I'm not just saying this because I work here: it's my favorite place on the internet.
cortex: - and the reason for that is, it's a site full of people with a broad range of experiences and interests, who are constantly surprising me with their insights and their empathy and their unique perspectives on all the things that happen online and in their own lives. I've learned so much from the Metafilter community over the years, and with this podcast, I hope to share some of that with you.
cortex: This episode is about a snail, but not just any snail. This is a story of The Snail That Wouldn't Die, a kind of Lazarus snail -
cortex: - and one person's quest to find out what, ultimately, happened to that stoic little mollusk.
nicebookrack: Ok, the story of the snail -
cortex: This is Kimberly. She's a member of the Metafilter community, where she goes by "nicebookrack." She posted a question to Ask Metafilter recently, asking about a 19th Century desert snail she'd gotten curious about. I called her up on Skype and asked her to sum up the whole thing.
nicebookrack: Approximately 1846-ish, a snail was packed up by a guy named Charles Lamb -
nicebookrack: - and shipped from Egypt, I believe, to the British Museum in London, and since it was mailed, they assumed that the snail had been properly boiled and cleaned before being sent to its destination, but apparently, they missed that snail, so the snail was glued to a piece of cardboard and then put on display - or possibly in a drawer, I'm not entirely clear whether it was out to be admired -
nicebookrack: - or just put in a drawer with the other samples or something. Since it was a desert snail, it was used to this sort of - well, I mean not used to being glued to things -
nicebookrack: - but used to long periods of lacking access to food or water, especially water. So the snail curled up asleep in its shell and stayed there for about four years, until someone noticed that the cardboard was slightly miscolored, and thankfully for the snail -
- cardboard was slightly discolored, and thankfully for the snail, realized it might actually still be alive. So they took the snail off the cardboard and then put it into a bowl of lukewarm water, and the snail revived itself and began crawling around, and appeared perfectly fine after its ordeal being displayed.
nicebookrack: This was very impressive to the museum people. They were very amused. It sat for a portrait.
- An artist named [??] Waterhouse drew it. And you can still see its picture in the... A Manual of the Mollusca, I think, there's a helpful little note saying "drawn from life in the British Museum". The snail then spent two years in a glass jar. It was being fed cabbage leaves, apparently cabbage leaves were its preference. And after about two years it curled up again and went back into hibernation for a bit, came out again
- and seemed okay for a few days and then went to sleep and finally was found dried up, I think, about spring 1852. Saddened as they were by its death, they duly took its shell and glued it back onto the cardboard, which they kept!
nicebookrack: Which I found impressive, that they kept the original cardboard, and put the snail back into the circulation of the museum.
cortex: This is where the search for the snail gets tricky.
- Kimberly found lots of references to its resurrection and subsequent death at the British Museum. But what she didn't know is that the British Museum of 1850 isn't the British Museum of today. Folks on Ask Metafilter ended up tracking this point down, noting that the original museum split up in 1860, not all that long after the snail finally expired, with the relevant collections moving to a new building, which later became an independent museum, and even later was renamed the Natural History Museum.
nicebookrack: So when I e-mailed the British Museum about it, they had no idea what I was talking about because
- they hadn't had the snails for 100 years. The Natural History Museum has the snail in its archives still, with the original notes, and a very nice curator of the department was helpful enough to send us pictures, and I sent that on to Metafilter.
cortex: And here we are.
nicebookrack: And here we are!
cortex: You know, a lot of people will ask a question pretty early in the process of trying to find whatever their answer is, because they'll do a cursory Google and then they'll come to Ask Metafilter. But you did a bunch of work on this! You basically just
- ran aground at what happened to the snail after that.
cortex: How did this... (chuckling) how did this get on your radar to begin with?
nicebookrack: This is a very nerdy question. I found it in a test. I occasionally, when I'm bored, do some proofreading for Project Gutenberg, which takes old out-of-copyright books, scans them, and releases them for free for anyone to read. And the digital proofreaders, they are in charge of looking through the
- output of the scans and correcting of machine errors. In order to progress to more rarefied ranks of the proofreading army, you have to take tests, and so on one of these tests they gave a little sample, and the text that they gave was a bit of the writer Grant Allan's description of the snail, and I thought 'that is the most adorable snail story I have ever heard, so I have to find out more about this snail.'
cortex: The whole snail thing is really neat to unearth 150 years later, but one of the funny things about it is it wasn't waiting all these years for someone to notice and think a reviving mollusk was interesting and worth talking about. The snail was actually something like a trending topic in the mid-19th-century science circles.
nicebookrack: And who knew that England, in the 1800s, had a famous snail?
cortex: Yeah, I think you ended up saying in the Metafilter thread, 'this ended up going viral.'
nicebookrack: It did! Once you start looking for it, basically any publication about snails
- that has anything about snail hibernation or snail longevity, they will throw in a little anecdote about the snail. Over and over, you just see little references to 'the desert snail of the British Museum.' So it's apparently, it's not an unknown story, it's quite a famous story for people interested in snails. But I didn't know I was interested in snails--
nicebookrack: --(chuckling) until I read about the story of the British Museum.
cortex: I asked Kimberly what else in her newfound snail enthusiasm she'd learned while researching all of this.
nicebookrack: Apparently snails can be quite hardy! They can survive being crushed. Snails can repair their shells. They can survive being glued (laughs) to a piece of cardboard -
nicebookrack: - in British museums for years without food or water.
cortex: It's a surprising stoicism.
nicebookrack: It is! You know, the power of mucus. Who knew?
cortex: One of the main suggestions you got from the Metafilter thread was, to specifically contact Jonathan Ablett at the Natural History Museum. Is he who you ended up speaking with -
cortex: - via email, who you got the photographs and such from?
nicebookrack: Yes! He was very nice, he wrote me back almost immediately. He had mentioned the snail story on his biography on the website, which is where they got the idea that I should email him, and I peppered him with questions, and he was very happy to write me back. He said, "I am so glad you enjoyed the snail story." He uses it in lectures a lot, and he took pictures of the snail, still in the collection, and its piece of cardboard -
nicebookrack: - that, you know, it had lived on its entire life, and death, in the British Museum. So I was very grateful to him and to Metafilter, to pointing me in his direction, because I had no idea that the British Museum had split off into the Natural History Museum, so I was chasing leads that died a hundred years ago. I actually stumbled onto the story of the snail last fall, and googled it as far as I could, and got stories about it, but no one seemed -
nicebookrack: - to know what happened to it. And I was very worried that maybe it had been - they immediately boiled it and put it back onto the cardboard or something?
nicebookrack: I said, "you know what, they have some smart people on Metafilter. They have scientists. I'm going to just see if they can find anything out about this mysterious desert snail." And I got what I wanted to know almost immediately. It was awesome!
cortex: I'm so glad you asked. It's such a great story!
nicebookrack: It really is!
cortex: Something I found interesting. For as popular as the snail story was at the time, no one ever seems to have given it a name, rather than just a specimen number. That certainly seems a contrast with today's internet culture, where there'd be jokey suggestions flying around Twitter almost immediately. You know, "hashtag Snailbraham Lincoln," that sort of thing. I was curious if Kimberly had any particular names in mind herself.
nicebookrack: I would really leave that up to the Natural History Museum, because it's their snail -
nicebookrack: - surely once this story becomes viral, and the movie -
nicebookrack: - based on the snail's life and the childrens' books and everything else that will give this snail the fame that it deserves, surely they will name their snail something very good.
cortex: Are you surprised that the whole story has gotten such a good reception?
nicebookrack: I'm very happy that everyone else was as interested and delighted by this story as I was, because I got incredulous looks -
nicebookrack: - talking about it to people -
nicebookrack: - that I was so interested in this snail, because it's one snail from a hundred years ago, in a different country. And it's kind of magical that the internet can, within minutes, discover the fate of a single snail a hundred years ago, across the ocean. So that is a lesson to you, scientists, out gathering your field specimens, is: make sure they're not alive, if they're not supposed to be alive.
cortex: Right. Measure twice, glue once.
cortex: Thanks so much for talking to me!
nicebookrack: Thank you very much for having me!
cortex: so much for listening.
Jingle: <outro music>
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