Podcast #24: Finding Nubia

Our latest Undark podcast looks at an ancient civilization, rediscovered but threatened; science and the media; and the world’s strangest flower.


Join our podcast host and former NYT editor David Corcoran as he talks with Amy Maxmen about her Undark article on an ancient civilization, rediscovered but threatened. Also: Science and the media; and a look at the mega-flower Rafflesia.

Here’s a full transcript of the podcast, lightly edited for clarity.

David Corcoran: This is Undark. We’re a magazine devoted to exploring the intersection of science and society, and we’re this podcast.

Hello again; welcome to Episode 24. I’m David Corcoran. For our cover story, A Cradle of Civilization, not the one you may be thinking of, not the one between the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers. Not Greece or Rome or Egypt. Reporter Amy Maxmen traveled to a region called Nubia, and she brings back a story of an ancient society that built cities and temples and even pyramids — fabulous antiquities that are now in danger of vanishing forever. She joins us now. Amy, welcome to the podcast.

Amy Maxmen: Hi, thanks a lot. Good to be here.

David Corcoran: So, Nubia. It’s a place I’d heard of but I’m afraid I would never have been able to locate it on a map. Where is it?

Amy Maxmen: So Nubia is in central Sudan. It also kind of overlaps a part of southern Egypt today and the Nile flows right through it.

David Corcoran: So it’s kind of northeastern Africa, but way south of where we think of as the Egyptian civilization, with all the pyramids and so on. Why did you go there? How did you hear about this story?

Amy Maxmen: I actually went to Sudan for another story. I went to write about a surgeon who was fighting this terrible flesh-eating disease and while I was reporting that story I thought I’d just check out the National Museum. And I was just completely stunned by how awesome it was. Not like in the design of the museum, but because of what it held. It had giant statues of pharaohs and it had some temples that had been removed from northern Nubia when the Aswan High Dam was built in the ’60s.

The things that really caught my attention were these ceramics and other objects that kind of had a mix of designs too. They had maybe ancient Greek designs on them and some things that were Egyptian. And also things that we would think of as classically African designs on them, and that was really cool. I talked to somebody at the museum and they pointed out that the reason for all these gorgeous objects that were mixed like this was because the center was actually this giant hub, maybe 3,000 years ago, just like New York City is today where there was a lot of goods traveling back and forth through the area from all over the world.

After seeing all of that, I just sort of became obsessed with going back and seeing a lot more.

David Corcoran: To plot this on a timeline, you said, what, 3000 B.C.? How does that compare with the ancient Egyptian society, the pharaohs and the pyramids?

Amy Maxmen: So certainly at that time, Egypt was around too. I think what makes Nubia, or I guess just around the Nile in general, what makes it interesting is that people were there since the beginning. … I guess the name Nubia is where we get a little bit tricky. What I wrote about mainly was the Kingdom of Kush. They’re Kushites. Sometimes those are referred to as Nubians. So the Kushites, they started around 2000 B.C. But of course there were people there earlier, so you find very old drawings and rocks from, say, 3500 B.C.

David Corcoran: Let’s talk about what they did. First of all, I guess we should say that people settled in the Nile Valley right when their home communities began to be wiped out by dust storms and desert. So they kind of gravitated to the Nile Valley. You say they organized a society there. What kinds of things did they build?

Amy Maxmen: Well, when you get into the Kingdom of Kush, we start seeing settlements and towns. They also were kind of like the Egyptians in that they were decorative in death. A kind of a classical Nubian architecture for necropolises would be these things called tumuli. They’re kind of these burial mounds that might be surrounded by rocks or other objects. But also they built pyramids to commemorate the dead, and sometimes those pyramids have small temples outside of them.

They’re smaller on the whole than [in Egypt]. One archaeologist told me there’s five times as many. So what you’re struck by is the sheer number. It’s kind of neat [that] where the Egyptians built these great pyramids for royalty, it seems like the Kush were building them also for regular people, not just for royalty, so you’ll see whole fields of pyramids …. At one site I went to I asked the archaeologist, “Have you found anything recently?” And he just casually said, “Well, there’s about 50 pyramids. These are the bases of them because they have been eroded down.”

So we went out and saw this whole field of kind of square bases of pyramids. Some were really quite small, as small as, say, six foot by six foot. Some of them were also interesting. I remember there was one that had the shape of a dome inside of it.

David Corcoran: So almost like a cemetery of pyramids?

Amy Maxmen: Yeah. And then also the tombs had some sort of unique items too. For example, the things that stick out in my mind, for one period, one of the archaeologists found a couple of these incense burners that are also shaped like ducks within tombs. … If you’re burying your loved one, you stick a duck-shaped incense burner in to the tomb; and that’s sort of a fad that was unique to that area for a little while.

David Corcoran: And what was their language?

Amy Maxmen: The language is Meroitic, and very little is known about that. In fact, I met somebody who might be one of the only people who can translate it, and he’s still — this is his pursuit of what he’s working on. It looks nothing like hieroglyphics. And he said that it’s not at all related to hieroglyphics.

So I saw these — they look like gravestones that have etchings of Meroitic, and he sort of traced some of those similarities to languages that are spoken all around Sudan, like some languages that are spoken by people in Darfur, some in Eritrea, some to Nubians today. The present-day language is called Nubian. And so he’s presently trying to decipher it. If you can imagine, this is nowhere close to what’s known about Egypt, because at this point there’s plenty of Egyptologists who can read hieroglyphics.

David Corcoran: And no Rosetta Stone, apparently.

Amy Maxmen: No.

David Corcoran: So how was all of this discovered?

Amy Maxmen: Well it’s been slowly documented for quite some time since the late 1800s. Some archaeologists had gone down there and just seen the more grand structures like the big temples, the big pyramids. And then more recently, there’s a decent amount of work going on there now. You know, sometimes it’s a matter of just going to the place and having the funds and the ability to start slowly digging up what you find.

For example, a lot of it’s buried beneath sand. So what people might do is go out with something called a magnetometer that can give you a sense of if there is something of different density belowground, and that might give you a sense that there’s something below there — if it looks like it’s a number of walls. So, then you’ll have archaeologists slowly start digging there and seeing what they find.

David Corcoran: And they’re still digging, right? They’re still finding things.

Amy Maxmen: Oh, yeah. I was not prepared for how much they’d be finding things. I think like any journalist who goes on a trip, the fear is that nothing will happen. It was kind of the opposite problem where every site I looked at … It was almost silly the amount of … just amazing discoveries like, “Oh, we just opened up this tomb for the first time.” And “Oh, look. Here’s a mummy.” There was no place that had nothing going on. And that’s only right by the Nile.

David Corcoran: You actually describe the unearthing of a mummy in your story. Did you witness that?

Amy Maxmen: That was cool. I didn’t witness it. When I got there this had been found pretty recently and to give you a sense of what the archaeological conditions are like. So this team of archaeologists was staying in a house, and in the room where we greeted everyone and went to join them for lunch, there was this head just sitting on the table, along with a leg near it, and they had flesh on them. The head was bizarre. It had matted hair on its head. And the strangest thing is that its tongue was sticking out. Apparently that can happen. She said it was probably a natural thing that happened during decomposition.

But she had found it pretty recently before we’d gotten there, and that’s just sort of where they were keeping it for the time being.

David Corcoran: So we’ve been talking for a few minutes and we haven’t even gotten to the main point of your story, which is that all of this is in danger of being wiped out forever. What’s going on?

Amy Maxmen: Well, there’s a number of things depending on the site you’re talking about. You know, one reason part of Nubia was discovered by Western archaeologists originally was because of the Aswan High Dam that was built in Egypt. This is a hydroelectric dam, and it made a huge reservoir and in the reservoir’s wake it drowned a lot of ruins. So right before the water came in, archaeologists went about documenting what was there and then moving certain things that could be transported.

Similarly, now there’s more dams that are being planned along the Nile. These are extremely political to the extent where it’s not really smart to easily report on them within Sudan because on one side you have government [officials] who are sort of secretive about making deals about the dams. And then there’s some resistance, understandably, by people who live in the towns that would be submerged if those dams are built.

So it’s a pretty hot topic and those dams would — it’s estimated that they might submerge thousands of ruins and rock etchings and everything like that. So there’s the dams in some places, and other places the dams would raise the water tables so that the tombs would also fill with water. There’s that; but then there’s also the stuff that threatens archaeology, I guess, everywhere, which is just development. Populations grow; people come to towns where they want to live. And also, there’s not only just more mouths to feed, which means more farming, but also people want to live a better life so they might try and have bigger farms.

Then what else? When I was driving in northern Sudan you can see that there’s a lot of illegal gold mining, so you’ll see people going out with metal detectors and those metal detectors also can hit things that are buried in tombs. So they’ll loot the tombs. That’s another threat. I talked to one archaeologist, and he felt like that was the biggest threat to the sites that he’s been working on. He’s already had a number of tombs looted recently too.

And one other thing that is threatening the ruins right now is simply just time and desertification and processes that occur that are beyond our control. So specifically, I think probably the best known site in Nubia is called Meroe. It’s a Unesco World Heritage Site, so that’s recognized and protected. But … they had a number of droughts in the ’80s and ’90s, and then also there’s been a lot of grazing nearby from all of these events. A lot of sand has blown into Meroe, which is this area of — it’s really majestic. It’s just in the middle of nowhere; there are these 43 pyramids that are attached to temples, and they’re really intricately carved. And this is the place where I also saw some archaeologists uncovering the tombs for the first time where you could see goddesses painted on the walls. …

But you can just tell that all of the etchings are being scraped away by sandstorms. And the sand, I guess because Meroe’s built within a basin, the idea is that the sand sort of moved in because it’s becoming drier, and maybe because of pastoralization. The brush that might’ve blocked the sand isn’t there anymore. So now you’ve got the sand that’s trapped in this bowl and it just whips around every day. That’s another reason why things are falling apart.

David Corcoran: Desertification — these are kinds of natural forces that nobody can really stop. But all these dams, and the looters getting into tombs to steal precious metals, it’s kind of hard to imagine things like this going on and those other centers of antiquity that we all know about, Greece and Rome and Luxor and so on. Why has there been so little attention to the situation in Nubia?

Amy Maxmen: Well, for one, depending on what the thing is. In the case of the dam, it’s a sovereign country, so unless the U.N. decides that one of these sites is a World Heritage Site, which they have done for, say, Meroe, people can’t go in and tell Sudan what to do. It’s its own country. And if the government decides that it wants a dam, then I think it can build a dam and there’s not really much anybody else can do about it.

As far as development, if people want to expand their farms and if they realize that there is ancient property on that area, they might work with the National Corporation of Antiquities and Museums; that’s an agency within the government in Sudan that is sort of responsible for their antiquities. So let’s say those farmers might go to that department and say what’s there, and maybe they’ll work out a deal. Or maybe they won’t. And it’s also hard to draw a hard line there. Those are complicated issues, people have to feed their kids, they’re not part of the world’s anthropology museum.

And a lot of it is only coming to light now. I was in one area, and this archaeologist and I were walking around the town where people live. And you have to realize the places where I was traveling, there was often no running water. There was no electricity unless you had your own generator, which maybe only the archaeologist did. There was one sand- [and] mud-brick house that we were walking by, and the archaeologist pointed around to the back to me and what happened there, and he had dug a big pit. And he thinks there’s actually some old settlements below this person’s house. And the reason why he knew about it was that they actually had told him it’s weird, in their kitchen they notice that whenever anything like water flows in, it flows down this one hole and it just seems to all drip down there. So it seemed like it was hollow below there — and sure enough, it was.

So he’s sort of working with that family to see, you know, “What if we pay you to move, would you be interested in that?” A lot of it is just kind of getting the trust of people and seeing if they will agree to halt what they’re doing or to move slightly in order for you to excavate.

David Corcoran: So why do you think Nubia hasn’t gotten the kind of attention that all those other early civilizations like Greece and Rome have gotten?

Amy Maxmen: There’s a few reasons for that. One of them is it’s not the most hospitable place to travel in. There’s sandstorms, it’s dry, it’s hot. Even if we were talking about the past 50 years, it’s not a comfortable trip. For part of it I was in a boat without electricity, without running water. But even earlier you could say, “Well, I guess Egypt was like that too.” The British were really interested in Egypt in the 1800s and the early 1900s. There’s a lot of classically trained Egyptologists there. So they dug in deep to Egypt, and understandably: Egypt has some magnificent pyramids, so that’s not foolish. So I think they sort of were paying a lot of attention to Egypt and maybe not further south.

But then the other part that you really can’t dismiss is there’s a huge role of racism in Western archaeology as it was. And I’m not just making that up, it’s quite explicit. One of the archaeologists who’s best known for his work in Nubia in the early 1900s, he would even write, whenever he found a pyramid, he just explained, “Well this is clearly built by a light-skinned race because Negroids couldn’t have done something like this.”

So it’s pretty clear that people also just didn’t expect there to be anything of worth further south — based on pigmentation of somebody’s skin. And I think that plays in to why it’s not paid a lot of attention.

David Corcoran: So are you hopeful, Amy? Are there any prospects that the great bulk of this civilization and its creations will somehow be preserved? Or is it doomed to be wiped out?

Amy Maxmen: Well, you know, what’s kind of funny about the whole “archaeology racing against the clock” thing is that’s sort of how it goes. And the upshot of development and dams and everything like that is that sometimes it really provides that push for people to start funding more archaeological work and for governments, including even Sudan’s own government, to at least go and see, “OK, what’s there before we wipe this place out?”

So this is sort of driving some of the research there, and the other great thing is there are some Sudanese archaeologists who are leading some of the projects. … They can work more than, say, a few months of the year there, but also they’re going to be interpreting everything they find through a different lens than, say, when Americans or Europeans are doing it. …

There’s some really good tools out there right now, so the archaeologists that I saw, not only were they using these methods to see what’s below the dirt and to excavate that way, but they could use, say, cameras attached to kites or even drones to get a better sense of the geometry of everything. … And there’s a researcher at the British Museum who is using all of the images he takes of everything and he’s making this sort of — it looks almost like a video game. It’s this interactive graphic [Editor’s note: Follow this link and search for “interactive model”] where you can walk through the ancient settlements he’s uncovering. So me, sitting here in California, I can go online and it’s almost as if I’m in Sudan walking through the old ruins. So at least that way they’re preserved online.

I guess I’m hopeful that with more people talking about it and more of this going online that it will make its way into textbooks and into classrooms, and then people start learning about these great civilizations that existed in sub-Saharan Africa. Things that we might learn a lot less about in school.

David Corcoran: Well, Amy Maxmen, I want to thank you for going to Sudan to report this story for us and coming on the podcast to talk about it.

Amy Maxmen: Thank you, it’s been a pleasure.

David Corcoran: Amy Maxmen is an award-winning journalist at Nature magazine. Her work also appears in National Geographic, Wired, and Nautilus among other outlets — including, of course, Undark, where her story about Nubia is this month’s Case Study.

Joining now is Seth Mnookin, our commentator on science in the media. Hello, Seth.

Seth Mnookin: Hello, David, how are you?

David Corcoran: I’m fine, thank you. I want to talk about a couple of articles in Undark this month by our Tracker columnist, Michael Schulson. The first one is about a hardy perennial, which is radiation from cellphones and whether it can cause cancer. Can you bring us up to date on the state of that debate?

Seth Mnookin: This is a debate that actually has gone back to, in some ways even before there were cellphones. In the ’70s there were discussions and debates about electrical lines and the potential cancer-causing effects of those. And this has been a sort of consistent anxiety and concern bubbling beneath the surface and something that some activists have really seized upon for decades in one form or another, despite the fact that there really isn’t scientific evidence [that] there is any risk.

What Michael was writing about, and the reason this is back in the news right now, is because the California Department of Public Health released new guidelines for families who wanted to “decrease their exposure to the radio-frequency energy emitted from cellphones.” And that story was then covered by Popular Science and the radio show Science Friday, in a way that activists felt was snide and dismissive. So Michael was writing about the whole hullaballoo.

David Corcoran: A Popular Science article had a headline, something like: There’s no possible way you can get cancer from your cellphone. You could duct-tape this cellphone to your head and you wouldn’t get cancer. Is that true? Not that I’m thinking of trying it, but —

Seth Mnookin: Yes, right. I wouldn’t recommend duct-taping a phone to your head, more out of social concerns. But I think the underlying point that the Popular Science reporter was trying to make was that this is something that has been extensively studied, and there really is not evidence supporting any indication that this is causing cancer. It’s most often pointed to as a potential factor in brain cancer. And I think one of the easiest-to-understand and most persuasive illustrations of why scientific consensus is really heavily weighted to this not being a concern is that since the late ’70s, when essentially there were zero cellphone users, today when there are hundreds of millions the rate of brain cancer has stayed virtually flat during that entire period.

So, logically, you would assume that if this was a major factor then we would actually be seeing a pretty significant increase. So, yeah, I wouldn’t recommend duct-taping a phone to your head but certainly I think that the underlying point that Popular Science was making is correct, even if they made that point in a way that might have been a little bit sarcastic.

David Corcoran: I want to ask you about another column by our Tracker columnist, Michael Schulson. He writes about the actress Zooey Deschanel and her advice to consumers who visit the website: “ATTN: Zooey Deschanel has a message for Americans too poor buy organic food. Stop eating apples, avoid fresh tomatoes, give up on grapes, peppers, potatoes and other items among the so-called Dirty Dozen. A list of fruits and vegetables that tend to carry more pesticide residues.” This is not exactly a new trend. Celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow and even Tom Brady have been advising their followers on what they should consume and not consume. What do you think about all this?

Seth Mnookin: This was a striking video that Zooey Deschanel posted for a couple of reasons. One, just the privilege implicit in a multimillion-dollar celebrity telling people too poor to pay outrageous prices for organic food, that they should essentially just give up on whole categories of fruits and vegetables and instead eat mangoes and whatever else Zooey Deschanel deemed safe, I think is really outrageous. It illustrates what I have found to be a thread in a lot of celebrity health advice, which is just this total myopic disregard for anyone who might not be as privileged as they are. And it’s something I think you see, from Oprah on down, and it’s something I wrote about in relation to vaccines, with Jenny McCarthy.

The other thing that is I think really important to highlight here is that there’s just no evidence that what she is recommending is healthy for you. It is certainly true that this dirty dozen list of fruits and vegetables is a legitimate list and there is evidence supporting the fact that these are fruits and vegetables that are more likely to use pesticides, but there’s not evidence that just simply shopping organic is something that is going to make you a lot healthier.

And so, in addition to being really emblematic of this often white privilege that you see, it’s also illustrative of the adage that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. This is an issue about which it seems fairly clear that Deschanel does not understand the complexities of what she’s discussing, and as a result is making recommendations that are not recommendations she or anyone should be making.

David Corcoran: Shifting gears here to an article in The Atlantic by the science writer Ed Yong. His article has quite a provocative title: “I Spent Two Years Trying to Fix the Gender Imbalance in My Stories.” Why did he do that and how did he do it?

Seth Mnookin: So I thought this was a really fascinating and important piece, and I give a huge amount of credit to Ed for undertaking this and undertaking it publicly and discussing what he did publicly.

This project was sort of initiated by a piece that, actually, one of his colleagues at The Atlantic named Adrienne LaFrance wrote two years ago, where she analyzed a year of her stories and with the help of some MIT computer scientists and … only about a quarter of the sources that she was quoting were women. And that article prompted Ed to do a similar analysis of some of his pieces, and he found something similar: He found that roughly 25 percent of the people that he quoted were women.

He decided that as opposed to just thinking, “Well, I’m a progressive guy and I believe in equality and I believe in better representation for women and minorities in sciences, I am going to try and do something about it,” he set about — beginning on 2016 and going until just very recently — making a spreadsheet of every story that he published and very actively seeking out more diverse sources. And as a result, he got the gender balance of his story, which he acknowledges is just one measure of diversity, but he got that up to something close to 50 percent.

And I think that it’s really a lesson for not [just] all of us in science journalism, but all of us in journalism, that oftentimes when we go to sources, either because we’re on deadline or because we’re juggling five different things, we sort of take the path of least resistance. And the path of least resistance in many cases is oftentimes men, oftentimes white men, and one of the really interesting things that I think Ed did was try to figure out roughly how many calls it took him to reach a male scientist versus a woman scientist. And I think the number that he had was 1.3 calls to reach a male scientist and 1.6 calls to reach a female scientist, indicating that it does take slightly more time to try and balance it out. He estimates that to be roughly 15 minutes more a story, or if he’s writing four stories a week, roughly an hour a week, which is not a huge amount of time.

I think what this really shows is that in order to try and effect these types of changes in our work, it is not enough to assume that this is going to be taking place because these are principles that we generally believe in. This needs to be a proactive effort on the part of reporters and journalists. And not just reporters and journalists. Conference organizers, panel organizers, journal editors, journal editorial boards. If we as a field, and science generally, if this is something that we believe in, we need to really take proactive steps to make sure that that is what is happening when we write our stories and when we put together our work.

David Corcoran: Seth Mnookin is our media and science commentator. He’s the author of a number of books about science and journalism, including “The Panic Virus,” and he’s director of the Graduate Program in Science Writing at MIT. Seth, as always, thanks.

Finally this month, reporter Meara Sharma takes us to a botanical garden in Oxford, England, for an encounter with a truly unforgettable flower.

Meara Sharma: Inside a humid glass greenhouse at the Oxford University Botanic Gardens, amid tropical vines, orchids and citrus, sits something straight out of the world of Dr. Seuss.

Child 1: It’s big and red.

Meara Sharma: Its huge salmon-colored petals unfurl like slumped skin.

Child 2: It looks like some pepperoni stuck to another piece of pepperoni.

Meara Sharma: Beige lumps pucker its surface.

Child 3: It looks yellow and it looks a bit like a hedgehog because of all the spikes it has.

Meara Sharma: Shiny spears protrude from its center.

Child 4: It’s quite black inside. I don’t want to fall in it anyway.

Meara Sharma: This is the largest flower in the world.

Child 5: Rough-elecia.

Child 6: Rafflesia.

Child 7: Rafflesia.

Meara Sharma: Rafflesia. More specifically, Rafflesia arnoldii. A flower that grows to be three feet wide, found in the rainforests of Southeast Asia.

Chris Thorogood: You couldn’t call it pretty. As you can see, it’s a pretty ugly, monstrous looking thing.

Meara Sharma: Chris Thorogood is head of science and public engagement at the garden.

Chris Thorogood: Rafflesia is a parasitic plant. It has no green pigment, no chlorophyll, it has no leaves, no roots and never will have because it’s a complete vegetable vampire. So it steals all of its food and nutrition from the roots of other plants.

Meara Sharma: Mostly the Rafflesia lives within the tissues of tropical vines, but occasionally, unpredictably, it bursts into bloom for a brief eight days. Thorogood was able to see the flower in its native habitat several years ago.

Chris Thorogood: There’s a botanically magical place called Mount Kinabalu in the north of Borneo. A mountain that famously is dripping with orchids and pitcher plants and various other botanical marvels. And there’s an area near the base of the mountain where if you’re lucky, you can find Rafflesia in flower, growing on the side of someone’s old farm. And a local took me to go see one in flower.

Meara Sharma: In this magical setting, the plant itself conducts a kind of sleight of hand.

Chris Thorogood: It mimics rotting flesh to attract pollinating flies. It not only looks a little bit like a corpse but it actually smells ghastly. It smells horrendous. So it’s like a bogus dead animal to attract pollinating flies.

Meara Sharma: Given its remote provenance, the Rafflesia appearance at the Oxford Botanic Garden is unusual.

Speaker: I think fake. It’s fake.

Meara Sharma: Yes, the flower is indeed fake.

Chris Thorogood: Ultimately I think of this as being a 3D oil painting.

Meara Sharma: Thorogood sculpted the flower with layers of papier-mâché, plaster, and clay, carefully painted with oils and textured with varnish.

Chris Thorogood: It’s a long-term aspiration, an ambition of Oxford Botanic Garden, like many gardens across the world, to actually grow this — what we can think of as a giant botanical enigma because very little is known really about the life history of this plant, and it’s so difficult to grow and to propagate. It’s never been grown in the Western world before.

Meara Sharma: But in the meantime —

Chris Thorogood: What I wanted to do was to recreate this plant for people who don’t have the opportunity to see it, because very few people are fortunate enough to be able to go to the remote rainforest where this plant grows and actually see one in flower.

Meara Sharma: The first Westerner to identify the Rafflesia was a Frenchman in the late 1700s, but on his way back to Europe his discovery was seized by the British, who were at war with France at the time. Years later, British botanists collected another Rafflesia specimen. They knew about the Frenchman’s earlier efforts, so they rushed to publish a name for the plant to ensure that credit went to a British botanist.

Joni Adamson, a scholar of environmental humanities at the University of Arizona, says that European colonialists often used botany to wield power.

Joni Adamnson: You can look at the journals, the travel narratives of explorers, and you can see how they’re always casting their eye about for the next big economic bounty. I guess it’s sort of like the quest for gold. It’s a quest for the rare, a quest for beauty and the possibly life-changing.

Meara Sharma: But while these explorers often kept their treasures out of sight so they would remain as curiosities for the rich, Chris Thorogood wants to do the opposite.

Chris Thorogood: I wanted to bring this to life so that more people have the opportunity to see this amazing flower in as realistic a way as possible.

Meara Sharma: By bringing this elusive plant to the public, Thorogood is demystifying it and drawing attention to its highly endangered status. Its few habitats are threatened by logging, land clearing, and construction, and the flower itself is often illegally collected. Thorogood hopes his fake Rafflesia will not only spark curiosity about the natural world but ultimately build a sense of responsibility for it.

Chris Thorogood: I personally think that people have to connect with something before they understand the relevance the importance of conserving and preserving it. If people can appreciate the intricacy, the beauty and the magic, really, of some of these plants and the places that they grow, that’s a first step in informing people of the importance of it and of conserving it for future generations.

Meara Sharma: For Undark, I’m Meara Sharma.

David Corcoran: And that’s all for this episode of Undark, a project of the night science journalism program at MIT. Our show is produced by Katie Hiler. We’ll be back next month with more news and interviews from the intersection of science and society. Until then, I’m David Corcoran for Undark.

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