The Secret PR Push That Shaped the Atomic Bomb’s Origin Story

In August 1945, a few days after the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the government released an official report on the history of the destructive weapon. “The work on the atomic bomb,” it explained, was undertaken in Los Alamos, where “an extraordinary galaxy of scientific stars gathered on this New Mexican mesa.” Despite its dull prose, the Smyth report, as it came to be known, would make The New York Times’ bestseller list and be translated into more than three-dozen languages. “J. R. Oppenheimer has been director of the [Los Alamos] laboratory from the start,” it explained.

Emphasizing the contributions of Julius Robert Oppenheimer—the theoretical physicist who is still commonly referred to as the father of the atomic bomb—was routine at … Read the rest

Retracing the Steps of Trailblazing Women on Paris’s Streets

This post is part of a CityLab series on open secrets—stories about what’s hiding in plain sight.

When Heidi Evans moved from London to Paris three years ago, she was keen on new adventures and practicing her French. She started working for a large and fairly corporate tour company, showing awestruck tourists around the city’s charming cobblestone streets. But she soon realized that something was off with the historical context she was providing. “The tour was focused on all of these great things that men had done throughout history, with only the occasional wicked woman like Marie Antoinette,” says Evans. “We spent a lot of time talking about men named Louis.”

And so, last August, Evans launched … Read the rest

Inside Abu Dhabi’s Most Rollicking Karaoke Joint

“My Secret City” is a collaboration between CityLab and Narratively, a digital publication featuring extraordinary stories of ordinary people, told through video, text, photo essays, comics journalism and more.

When I tell other Americans that I have been living in Abu Dhabi for seven years, I’m often confronted with what I call The Look. Its exact composition could probably be broken down into 23 percent wariness and 77 percent abject horror—allotting perhaps a small variance for envy and intrigue if the listener has spent time perusing heavily filtered travel photos on Instagram. (Ooh! Sand dunes!) Most know Abu Dhabi as that place where Vin Diesel nonchalantly jumped a sports car between three skyscrapers; where Carrie Bradshaw shopped a lot while wearing impractical ballgowns through ancient … Read the rest

What Was the Most Significant Environmental Catastrophe of All Time?

Donald Worster, environmental historian

The worst environmental catastrophe in Earth’s history occurred 66 million years ago, when an asteroid struck, killing an estimated 70 percent of all species. Nothing humans have done compares. But the 1930s Dust Bowl was the worst catastrophe in America’s history, and such a phenomenon may become global as the world’s climate changes.


John McNeill, history professor, Georgetown

The deliberate rupture of the dikes on China’s Yellow River in 1938, by Chinese troops trying to halt a Japanese advance. It killed half a million Chinese, displaced millions more, and led to a decade of flooding.


Graham Roumieu

David Yarnold, president and CEO, National Audubon Society

DDT was a human-made environmental disaster that caused the shells of bird eggs to thin, which crushed … Read the rest

Puppy Love

Neutering your pet isn’t exactly an aesthetic decision. But if for some reason you find Buddy’s postprocedural appearance disconcerting, you have options—like Neuticles, a set of testicular implants that promises to give your pet a more “natural” look. The manufacturer claims to have sold more than 500,000 implants, prompting a question: Just how big is the pet economy?

According to the American Pet Products Association, pet spending has risen every year since 1994, even during the Great Recession, and is estimated to have reached almost $63 billion last year. Some of us contribute more to that total than others, however. For example, people who have attended college are more likely than those who didn’t to make “specialty purchases” for their dogs. [1]

In general, the less … Read the rest

Readers’ Comments: The Hourly Wage Required to Rent a Two-Bedroom Apartment

In May 2015, I wrote up a study by the National Low Income Housing Coalition that examined the mismatch between median hourly wages and average rent in every U.S. state. People had a lot of feelings about the piece—and continue to do so, if the 1,258 comments are any indication.

These two comments cut through all the conversation to get to the heart of the matter.

Art Vandelay:

It’s expensive to live in desirable places.

More at 10.

Armitage408:

The Rent is Too DAMN HIGH.

Others waded into the weeds of the report, raising concerns about its methodology. One of the critiques was that using a state’s average rent glossed over more local discrepancies between super expensive cities and the cheaper surrounding areas. Here’s … Read the rest

The World’s Most Stubborn Real Estate Holdouts

Everyone loves an underdog story—and real estate holdouts, such as Edith Macefield’s house in Seattle, are revered examples. Macefield was an elderly resident who refused to sell to developers who wanted to build a shopping mall where her home stood; they ended up constructing the mall around three sides of the house.

Meanwhile, China’s construction boom has given rise to “nail houses,” homes that remain in the middle of construction sites, roads, and new housing developments after their owners rebuff government efforts to remove them.  

Macefield died in 2008, and it’s unclear what will become of her home. In China, nail house owners often ultimately vacate, particularly because authorities have the power to cut off their electricity and water.

But some holdouts seem to … Read the rest

The Rituals of Coney Island’s Opening Day

This post is part of a CityLab series on open secrets—stories about what’s hiding in plain sight.

Above Nathan’s, a Jumbotron-style billboard counted down to the July 4th hot-dog eating contest at the height of the summer: 86 days, 1 hour, 11 minutes. It was Palm Sunday, and the Coney Island boardwalk was speckled with families, tromping along in hats and coats. The beach was fairly threadbare; a single kite twirled and dipped over the sand. In the shade, the air was cold enough to prickle your skin with goosebumps.

For many revelers, the district is synonymous with summer, when the miles of shoreline are wavy with heat and buzzing with visitors sporting sun-pinked noses. But locals … Read the rest

On the Trail of New York’s Greatest Trees

“My Secret City” is a collaboration between CityLab and Narratively, a digital publication featuring extraordinary stories of ordinary people, told through video, text, photo essays, comics journalism and more.

In 1967, an aging Marianne Moore wrote a poem to help save a Brooklyn tree. With a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award to her name, the septuagenarian had attained an improbable height for a modernist poet: public popularity. Newspapers regularly pictured her in an anachronistic black cape and velvet tricorn hat; the following year she was even invited to throw out the opening pitch for the Yankees. So it was perhaps no surprise that when the recently-formed Friends of Prospect Park in Brooklyn noticed a rare camperdown elm near the Boathouse that was “a mere … Read the rest

Hiding in Plain Sight

In a town hall last week, Jim Sensenbrenner, a Republican congressman from Wisconsin, was asked about the Obama-era internet privacy regulations that he had voted to strike down. The 2016 FCC rules prevented service providers such as Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T from selling your browsing history to advertisers without your consent. Or, they would have, starting in December, if they’d been allowed to take effect, which they weren’t. “You know, nobody’s got to use the internet,” Sensenbrenner told his aggrieved constituent.

True enough! But people on the internet still objected to this formulation, noting that a great many working adults would find it very difficult indeed to find jobs or navigate their daily lives without internet access. … Read the rest

Lab Report: Betting on a Future With Less Parking

Forward thinking: With the rise of ride-sharing, and with self-driving cars on the way, some developers are designing parking structures that can be converted to other uses, including shops, gyms, and theaters. Some even expect this not-too-distant future to take hold in one of America’s most car-oriented cities, the Los Angeles Times reports:

“Our world is going to change radically and we are going to be alive to see it. It’s not a generation away, it’s 10 years away,” said Los Angeles architect Andy Cohen…

The strategy reflects a consensus among some developers and planners that California’s vaunted car culture is inevitably going to run out of gas — as inconceivable as that might be for many adults who have spent decades controlling their own

Read the rest

Searching the Skies for Alien Laser Beams

In the last decade, the Keck Observatory in Hawaii, one of the world’s most powerful telescopes, has spent hours staring at the night sky in search of exoplanets and accumulating huge amounts of data about potential new worlds elsewhere in the Milky Way.

But maybe, Nate Tellis wondered, Keck might have picked up something else along the way. Somewhere in all that data, could there be a signal from an intelligent civilization trying to reach Earth?

Tellis is a scientist at the University of California at Berkeley, where, as his LinkedIn biography puts it, he spends his days “trawling” astronomy datasets for statistical deviations, trying to figure out whether they’re actually extraterrestrial pings. He searches particularly for laser light, powerful pulses of photons that could be … Read the rest

Maybe Government Data Shouldn’t Always Be Free

Most cities today are operating under an assumption, which may turn out to be mistaken, that the data they collect and publish—all paid for by taxpayers—should always be available at no cost, including to business.

This assumption is part of the “open data” movement. This movement begins with noble intentions. Taxpayers have a right to transparency and to access digital assets they fund. It promotes accountability, clean government and better internal performance management. The democratic case is pretty solid for public data to be unconditionally free to NGOs, the press, or the casual civic hacktivist. But should it under all circumstances be free to a company looking to exploit a free—but valuable—resource like data for a profit?

It is often said that government lags the private … Read the rest