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March 26, 2024 10 mins

Curious creatures about on today's tour through the Cabinet.

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Episode Transcript

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Speaker 1 (00:04):
Welcome to Aaron Manke's Cabinet of Curiosities, a production of
iHeartRadio and Grimm and Mild. Our world is full of
the unexplainable, and if history is an open book, all
of these amazing tales right there on display, just waiting
for us to explore. Welcome to the Cabinet of Curiosities.

Clara was having a moment. Over the course of one summer,
She'd gone from a complete unknown to the hottest socialites
in Europe, from Amsterdam to Paris. Her name was on
every tongue. Royals and aristocrats waited patiently to meet her.
Crowds would gather wherever she went out in public, rich
or poor, royal or commoner. Everyone wanted a glimpse of

the beauty from India, with the large, gentle eyes and
the prominent nose. It didn't hurt that Clara had a
sob story to melt even the coldest of hearts. She
was born in the Indian state of Assam. In seventeen
thirty eight. When she was barely a month old, her
mother was murdered. Fortunately, Clara was adopted by a man
from the Netherlands who turned out to be a director

of the Dutch East India Company in West Bengal. Clara
grew up on his estate in Kolkata. She had free
reign of the grounds, with valets to see to everything
she needed, But as she grew her busy adoptive father
struggled to keep her occupied. So he did what any
affluent eighteenth century father would have done when they wanted
to get their teen daughters out of their hair. He

sent Clara on a grand tour of Europe. At what
a tour it was. In July of seventeen forty one,
after months at sea, Clara stepped on the dry land
in the port city of Rotterdam. As soon as she
was off the ship, people couldn't stop staring. The Dutch
had never seen anyone like her before. By them, she
was a symbol of the exotic East, where their spices

and textiles came from, but where they had never imagined
traveling themselves. After the Netherlands, Clara traveled to Antwerp, Brussels,
and Hamburg. In Berlin, she met King Frederic the Second
of Prussia. In Vienna, she was introduced to Emperor Francis
the First and Empress Maria Theresa. She even stayed with
Louis the fifteenth at his estate in Versailles. Then it

was on to Paris, Rome and London. Because she spent
so much time on the road, a special carriage was
constructed to carry her from city to city. It had
a single small window in the side so that the
public could peek in at her for a price. In
addition to royals and aristocrats, Clara met a steady stream
of artists. She was immortalized in etchings, engravings, and even

a clay model. In seventeen forty nine, she was painted
by the French Rococo artist Jean Baptiste Ooudri, and in
seventeen fifty one by Pietro Longhi. Clara was also popular
with scientists and naturalists who had never had the chance
to study someone of her ancestry. Sketches and paintings of
her made their way into anatomical atlases and textbooks. She

became the subject of songs and poems. Her face was
printed on trinkets and memorabilia and sold to the adoring public.
One of the most popular pieces was a golden clock
held up by a figurine of Clara standing on top
of music box. Clara's tour ended up lasting far longer
than most young socialites. She spent decades in Europe and

never again returned to India. While she was given ample
rest between appearances, the constant traveling inevitably took its toll.
Clara developed a skin condition and had to have fish
oil rubbed all over her body to keep it from
drying out. She also injured her nose while traveling in
Italy around seventeen fifty, although it eventually healed. Not much

is known about Clara's death Sadly, besides the fact that
she passed away during a series of appearances in London
in seventeen fifty eight. Lived a long life and by
most accounts, had been relatively comfortable, but it seems likely
that she was also lonely. Clara might have been surrounded
by friends and fans, but she didn't have anyone who
could really relate to her experience. From the moment she

arrived in Europe until her death, she never saw another
face like hers. I don't mean just anyone else from India.
Clara was kept away from other members of her own
species because there's something that maybe I should have mentioned before.
Clara was a rhinoceros. The mysteries of outer space have

fascinated humankind for as long as we have been around.
Islamic astronomers mapped the stars, Copernicus discovered the Sun was
the center of our universe, and Isaac Newton is at
least credited with discovering gravity. Today, many believe the secrets
of our very existence are held among the stars. They
wonder where do our souls go after we die? What

even is a soul? These are big questions, but the
elements in our bodies were originally formed in stars. After all.
Others turned to the stars for more concrete answers about
our existence, like can we survive on Mars? But before
billionaires set to colonize entire planets, scientists took an unusual
approach to studying how the human body works in space.

In nineteen seventy two, the National Aeronautics in Space Administration
NASA prepared its launch of Skylab three, the third in
a series of American research missions into space. Keeping the
tradition from Skylabs one and two, NASA invited high school
students nationwide to propose experiments. One of those chosen was
thought up by a Massachusetts student named Judith miles. Judith

had read some National Geographic reports about drug research, specifically
the effects of certain drugs on spider's central nervous systems. Now,
you might be wondering why spiders, why not something like
mice or monkeys. Well, as it turns out, NASA experiments
on spiders date back to nineteen forty eight, when a
Swiss pharmacologist named Peter n Witt teamed up with the

administration to study the effects of caffeine and phetamines and
even LSD on spider's nervous systems. These eight legged web
weavers were thought as the ideal test subjects because of
their webs, which could provide a visual depiction of the
states of their command center. But young Judith took this
step further. She knew that a spider's sense of its

own body weight was an important factor in its web
making ability, and so she wondered what would a web
look like when made in microgravity? And her question was
compelling enough for NASA to find two cross spiders, feed
them a meal of one housefly each, load them into
glass cages about fifteen inches long and one inch deep,
and then launched them into space. Oh but not before

name them too, Arabella and Anita. Upon arriving in the thermosphere,
the spiders did nothing. They hid in the corners of
their cages. Actually, reports on the exact timing vary, but
the crew didn't see them for at least a day.
They checked in often, especially since they had to man
the lights that simulated daytime and nighttime for the spiders.

As they waited for Arabella and Anita to show any
sign of life, the two legged astronauts got their bearings.
Skylab was split into two levels, separated by cross hatched beams.
A center beam ran straight across, so the crew could
pull themselves from one side of the workshop to the other.
But once in microgravity, they realized that pushing off the

walls and swimming through the air was much more efficient
or at least more fun. At some point, though, science
pilot Owen Garriot got antsy. He propelled himself to Arabella's
cage and tried to shake her out of her hiding spot,
and once dislodged, Arabella bounced around like an early aught
screensaver until she managed to grab onto some mesh near

the edge of her cave. There she froze, and she
stayed that way until Garriot floated away. No one was
around to witness the moment Arabella got back up. Footage
shows the grueling process she endured before Gariot and the
rest of the crew found her first space web. In microgravity,
she was barely able to repel, connect and walk along

the lines. She lost her grip and went tumbling multiple times.
Often she hit the wall of her cage and lay defeated,
And in the end, her finished webs just resembled the
ones that were made by Peter Witz drug spiders, saggy
strands that varied in thickness, nothing like those taut even
webs that we see here on Earth. But by day
three in space, Arabella realized how the rules had changed.

Instead of repelling, she connected short lines within the inch
of space between the cage walls, forming a sort of bridge.
This allowed her to keep her footing while she measured
out small spirals with her hind legs. It was like
she noticed the labs crosshatches and figured that something like
that might work for her. By the time Garriot returned
to check on Arabella, she had finished her first web.

This web gave some interesting insights into Arabella's thought process.
Its shape and structure were solid. However, she decided not
to use trapping silk like she would on Earth. This
tells us that instead of trying and failing over and
over to weave a complete web in one go, she
simply laid a foundation. The lesson resonated with Earthlings. Footage

of Arabella aired on CBS Morning News, and a few
other high profile news outlets also cover the story. Anita
also wove her first web shortly after Arabella, but it
seems that Arabella's tenacity captured more attention. It seems none
were more taken with Arabella than Owen. Garriot reports mentioned
that he requested to keep her alive longer than originally planned.

I assumed that the crew did the same for Anita. Eventually,
both spiders died in space, most likely due to dehydration,
and both their bodies have been displayed at the National
Air and Space Museum and elsewhere where onlookers could gaze
upon their small bodies the same way those early astronomers
gazed upwards toward the sky, wanting to know just a

little bit more about themselves. I hope you've enjoyed today's
guided tour of the cabinet of Curiosities. Subscribe for free
on Apple Podcasts, or learn more about the show by
visiting Curiosities podcast dot com. The show was created by
me Aaron Mankey in partnership with how Stuff Works. I

make another award winning show called Lore, which is a podcast,
book series, and television show, and you can learn all
about it over at the Worldoflore dot com. And until
next time, stay curious.

Aaron Mahnke's Cabinet of Curiosities News

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