How Ancient Star Maps Gave Rise to Modern Astronomy

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How Ancient Star Maps Gave Rise to Modern Astronomy

Image: British Library, Public Domain

Scientists have incredibly advanced tools to look at the stars today, but in the era before light pollution, star-gazing was much easier and simpler for the average person—just step outside at night. Pretty early on, and in a variety of cultures, people realized that they could chart the stars and their movements for navigation. The Greek constellations, which were tied to their myths, illustrate how this information moved through time. But humanity’s early star maps are much more than ancient artifacts—they became part of our history and culture, and continue to inform modern science to a surprising degree.

Dunhuang Star Chart, scroll image courtesy British Library

The first complete star map that still exists today was made in 650 A.D. in Dunhuang, western China, a city on the Silk Road. There, a star atlas was meticulously drawn onto a piece of paper, then filed away with other documents in a temple alcove. The space was sealed off at some point, and wasn’t re-discovered until 1907, when a Taoist monk, the self-appointed guardian of the temple, accidentally crashed through a wall to find the hidden cache, which contained sculptures, piles of documents, and the now-famous star map.

“[The map] was most likely made by someone highly educated like a scholar or a court astronomer,” cosmologist Dr. Khee-Gan Lee, a NASA Hubble Fellow at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, tells Gizmodo. “This was definitely not amateur work, but was professional for the time.”

Lee is an expert on ancient star maps who has given several presentations on them at U.C. Berkeley over the past few months. The history of star maps matters to him personally, because even today, maps of the cosmos help guide his research.

“Mapping out what we can observe…is one way of inferring some of the fundamental parameters of the universe,” Lee said. A good example of how this works is the recent Dark Energy Survey, which used information about the shapes and distribution of galaxies to “infer the density of gravitational matter in the Universe—one of the fundamental parameters of the Universe,” Lee said. That Survey’s results were also a test of Einstein’s theory of general relativity.

Following the Dunhuang map, there wasn’t another more complete star map for hundreds of years (at least, none that have been discovered yet). All civilizations were limited by technology—they could record what was observed by the naked eye, like the brightest stars and planets. For almost a thousand years, that limitation halted a further understanding of the cosmos. To get more detailed information, humans needed a better eye.

When the first telescopes were developed in The Netherlands in the early 1600s, amateurs and experts alike were excited to try them, even though they only had weak magnifications of 3X or 4X. From Galileo’s early models, to Newton’s, to the 1500-foot-long model designed by Johannes Hevelius, astronomers of the 16th and 17th centuries were limited by the quality of the glass needed to make more powerful telescopes. Not much more could be learned about the stars until higher magnifications were achieved.

Sir William Herschel and Caroline Herschel. Colour lithograph by A. Diethe, ca. 1896. William polishing a telescope element, probably a mirror and Caroline Herschel adds lubricant./Wikipedia via the Wellcome Trust

In late 1770s, German/Czech/Jewish musician William Herschel turned to designing telescopes. After some failures, he developed a powerful enough ‘scope to make brand-new observations, and immediately began a systematic search and recording of the night sky above Bath, England. In 1781, he was able to discern that Uranus wasn’t another star, but a planet. Following that discovery, he was appointed Court Astronomer by the British king, George III, and paid to study the stars full time. His sister Caroline Herschel, who started her career in astronomy by recording her brother’s observations, soon moved on to making her own when she got her own telescope. Her observations on comets became widely published, and she was also employed by the Crown, the first woman in British history to be recognized in this way.

“On the construction of the heavens.” The shape of our Galaxy as deduced from star counts by William Herschel in 1785; drawn by Caroline Herschel. Read at the Royal Society, February 3, 1785. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Putting their observations together, William and Caroline Herschel publishedOn the Construction of the Heavens in 1785, which painted a basic picture of The Milky Way. “The Herschels were the first people to systematically chart the heavens. “From my perspective as a modern cosmologist, it’s the earliest echo of what I do—charting out and analyzing the positions of objects in the sky, then inferring the properties of the universe through the process,” said Lee.

“That the Milky Way is a most extensive stratum of stars of various sizes admits no longer of the least doubt, and that our Sun is actually one of the heavenly bodies belonging to it is evident. I have now viewed and gauged this shining zone in almost every direction, and find it composed of stars whose number, by the account of these gauges, constantly increases and decreases in proportion to its apparent brightness to the naked eye.” -Herschel

In the 1800s, humanity’s understanding of the universe exploded thanks to several key advances, which improved star mapping by revealing the distances between and relative movement of stars (not just their fixed location at a given time of observation). Going from knowing where a star is to knowing how it behaves over time is the cosmological difference between a two-dimensional representation of the Universe and a three-dimensional one.

The first advance came in 1838, when the Astronomical Distance Scale was established, using the breakthrough parallax method developed by Friedrich Bessel—this meant that distances between stars and other objects could be measured much more accurately.

Then, in the 1850s and 1860s, the development of astronomical spectroscopy (analyzing starlight by wavelength) allowed astronomers to access even more information. Lee calls it the “key to astrophysics,” since now observers could learn about the spin, magnetic fields, composition, and relative motion of stars. Together, the distance scale and spectroscopy gave scientists the ability to make a star map with much greater detail and three-dimensional perspective: “We were no longer confined to plotting two-dimensional positions on the ‘celestial sphere,’” says Lee.

1880: First photograph of the Nebula in Orion, by Professor Henry Draper. Image: Public Domain, Wikipedia

In the late 1800s, astrophotography advanced the field yet again. No longer were humans reliant on what could be observed with the eye and a telescope: astrophotography can reveal nebulae, galaxies, and dimmer stars using a longer exposure time for the film in a camera. Direct recordings were now possible: “…where before we had to manually write down the positions of objects and sketch their appearance by hand,” said Lee.

In 1920, the National Academy of Sciences sponsored a “Great Debate” about whether the sun was at the outskirts of the Milky Way or toward the center (and how spiral nebulae related to our galaxy). Harlow Shapley, a Princeton astronomer, argued that the Milky Way was the extent of the universe, and the sun was in the outer arms of it; Heber Curtis, the director of the Allegheny Observatory, disagreed, presenting evidence that there were many galaxies, and the sun was at the center of the Milky Way. “It was such a huge question at the heart of where we are in the universe, and nature of the universe itself,” Lee said. Though it seems odd to us that people were arguing about whether the sun was at the center of our galaxy or not less than a hundred years ago, Lee explained, “It was an honest debate in terms of what they knew and there were good reasons for either camp to argue for what they did—at that point it was such a universal question.”

One of Andrew Ainslie Common’s 1883 photographs of the same nebula, the first to show that a long exposure could record stars and nebulae invisible to the human eye. Image: Public Domain/Wikipedia

Just a few years later, in 1923, American Cosmologist Edwin Hubble calculated the location of the Andromeda galaxy using astrophotography. “Hubble could not have discovered the Cepheid variable ‘standard candle’ stars in the Andromeda galaxy if he wasn’t able to photograph it and record the exact position and brightness of the stars in that galaxy at different times,” says Lee. This measurement allowed him to prove that Andromeda was outside our galaxy and settled the question—there were more galaxies than our own (probably trillions, we know now) as Curtis has argued. But Shapely was correct about the placement of the sun in the outer arms of the Milky Way. The photographic plates from Hubble’s astrophotography make a whole new kind of map—one made from photographs representing a three-dimensional universe.

Shortly after that, advances in photography and electronics set humanity up to double our knowledge of the known universe—and expand ideas of the universe itself. “Electronic detectors are a critical part of what’s been possible in modern times, providing the quantum leap to get to where we are now” Lee said. In the 1940s and 1950s, scientists sat inside giant telescopes taking photographic plates each night of star movements—it took years to gather a data set. Electronic detectors are much, much faster.

Lee cites the “CfA stickman” map as a good example of the new type of star map (or now, galaxy map) that came out of the mid-late 20th century data from electronic detectors. Published in 1986, by Valerie de Lapparent, Margaret Gellerit, and John Huschra, it was the first real evidence for the cosmic web. (It got the “stickman” moniker from the anthropomorphic cluster of stars at its center.) It includes thousands of galaxies and was the precursor to other important maps like the Great Wall, from 1989.

Now, cosmologists like Lee can collect and analyze data sets that scientists 75 years ago could only dream about. Still, Lee sees his work as connected to the people in this history—he says his work is built on their foundations, even though he’s looking at places that are 10 billion light years away, in the Cosmos field targeted by the Hubble telescope. “I’m old-fashioned in that I actually do make maps and stare at them,” Lee said. “I see what I’m doing is giving this extremely distant and remote, early part of the Universe a sense of place by mapping it.”

A geologist in her first career, Starre is now freelance science writer—but she still picks up rocks wherever she goes.

A Famous Supernova’s Mysteries Are Still Unraveling Hundreds of Years Later

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A Famous Supernova’s Mysteries Are Still Unraveling Hundreds of Years Later

Image: NASA/CXC/Rutgers/J.Warren & J.Hughes et al./Wikimedia Commons

Look up and you might see the bright constellation Cassiopeia trace a zig-zag across the sky as it seemingly always has. But almost 450 years ago, it was the source of surprise: A bright flash, Tycho’s supernova, or “SN 1572″ as scientists call it. This was one of the few supernovae humans have been able to see with their naked eyes throughout history. What caused the explosion is still unknown.

Image result for images of supernova

You’d be correct in thinking that supernovae originate from stars exploding. Most of us, though, are probably more familiar with type II supernovae that herald the end of a star’s life via an blast following a collapse upon itself.

Meanwhile, scientists have generally accepted that SN 1572 was a type Ia supernova, the kind that occurs in systems with two stars. Still, its remnants, discovered decades ago with higher-powered telescopes, have defied understanding—scientists are still stumped as to what kind of sources could have created what they see today. Now, an international team of researchers think they’ve got an idea based on some new analysis.

Image result for images of supernova

The researchers report that their observations are consistent with a catastrophic cosmic collision between two white dwarfs, although, “other more exotic scenarios may be possible,” they write in the paper published yesterday in Nature Astronomy.

SN 1572’s type Ia supernova appearance implies that it could have come from a smaller white dwarf sucking gas from a large, nearby older star until it blew up. But researchers haven’t been able to conclusively pin down the leftovers of either a dead star or a companion. If the new team was dealing with this scenario, surely the white dwarf would let out a lot of high-energy radiation like ultraviolet light and x-rays. This would knock electrons off of the gas clouds surrounding the stars for the 100,000 years (or more) prior to the explosive finale.

 Image result for images of supernova

But when the researchers took another look at the light particles coming off of the hydrogen atoms in the remnant’s gas, they realized the gas wasn’t nearly as electrically charged as it should have been. This would rule out the traditional way that type Ia supernovae form. Instead, they thought the remnants could have been the result of two white dwarf stars colliding.

“This work adds to the mounting absence of evidence for accreting white dwarfs as the progenitors of type Ia supernovae,” the little-star-eats-big-star scenario, astronomy professor Dan Maoz from Tel-Aviv University, who is not involved in the research, told Gizmodo in an email. “The competing scenario, of merging white dwarfs, has some serious problems of its own, but seems to me to be the favored one.”

Another researcher not involved in the new work, Robert Petre, Chief of the X-ray Astrophysics Laboratory at NASA, found the results interesting because scientists have been aware of some of the constraint-setting observations, the specific spectral lines of the hydrogen atoms, for decades. “But no one until now has recognized how their presence tells us something important about the progenitor,” the exploding white dwarfs, he said in an email. Petre also mentioned that lots of young supernovae remnants have shown similar behavior to SN 1572. “One would have to perform a similar analysis, but the suggestion is that all of these remnants,” with shells showing so-called Balmer filaments, “were caused by similar explosions to Tycho.”

Image result for images of supernova

Meanwhile, other Type Ia supernovae with different properties, like one calledSN 1604, might have come from a different kind of explosion, potentially involving only one victim star, said Petre.

The paper’s main conclusion is that little star blowing up from eating too much of the big star scenario is out of the question. Ashley Pagnotta, astrophysicist at the American Museum of Natural History, liked the paper and didn’t think its methods had been used in this kind of situation before. Still, she told Gizmodo that she thought this conclusion might have been a bit overstated, especially the claim that all white dwarfs in their ruled-out scenario must go through the long radiation phase. She explained that one kind of white dwarf-containing explosive-but-not-supernova-explosive stellar binary called “recurrent novae” are only detectable as these kinds of radiation sources for a short period of time after small eruptions. She’d like to see further calculations before feeling comfortable that recurrent novae are also ruled out.

One thing’s for sure: There’s nothing ordinary about the way SN 1572 exploded.

[Nature Astronomy]

Scientists Unexpectedly Find Rosetta’s Final Image of Comet 67P/CG

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Scientists Unexpectedly Find Rosetta’s Final Image of Comet 67P/CG


On September 30th, 2015, the Rosetta spacecraft slowly drifted to the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, ending a wildly successful 12-year mission. Scientists from the European Space Agency thought they had recovered all of Rosetta’s photos, but a re-analysis of the spacecraft’s final transmission has revealed a final blurry photo taken just a few feet from the surface.

Like a ghost crying out from the grave, this blurry image comes to us nearly two years after the Rosetta mission came to an end. The photograph was taken as the spacecraft slowly descended towards the comet’s surface, approaching a 425 foot (135 meter) wide pit called Deir el-Medina. This final site was chosen because the pits in this region have “goosebump” features that are thought to represent the fundamental building blocks of the comet.


During its descent, Rosetta transmitted a steady stream of images and measurements of the comet’s gas, dust, and plasma. ESA scientists thought they had collected everything, but a reanalysis of the data showed the dead spacecraft still had one final photo to offer.

“The last complete image transmitted from Rosetta was the final one that we saw arriving back on Earth in one piece moments before the touchdown,” said Holger Sierks, principal investigator for the OSIRIS camera at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, in a statement. “Later, we found a few telemetry packets on our server and thought, wow, that could be another image.”

Here’s what happened: a computer on board Rosetta split images into telemetry packets prior to transmission back to Earth. Its final image was supposed to be split into six discrete packets, each consisting of about 23,048 bytes of data. ESA scientists had only received three of the six packets, which contained just slightly above half of the required total. At the time, software used to process the image couldn’t make heads or tails of the data. Not content to give up, engineers at the Max Planck Institute decided to manually re-assess the data, finding that they could actually take these data fragments and piece together a coherent image.

Thankfully, Rosetta’s compression software did not pack the image pixel-by-pixel, instead encoding it layer-by-layer. This meant the picture could be recompiled, but with much of the detail missing. With half of the data received, the scientists were dealing with a compression ratio of 1:38 compared to the expected 1:20. This meant the compression was lossy, but not catastrophically lossy. Think of an MP3 with a bit rate reduced down to 96 Kbps instead of 320 Kbps; sure it sounds super shitty, but you can still make out the music. In the case of the Rosetta images, this “added” compression translated to a coherent—but blurry—picture.

Rosetta’s final image was taken a distance between 55 to 65 feet (17 to 20 meters), which corresponds to a 10-square-foot (one-square-meter) region on the comet surface. That’s pretty close! At that distance, Rosetta’s camera couldn’t really focus (it wasn’t designed for that), so the final picture would have been blurry to begin with.

Thanks, Rosetta for this one last hurrah. It may be grainy and blurry, but it’s still a glorious photo.


10 Crazy Sex Facts From Ancient Times

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10 Crazy Sex Facts From Ancient Times


People always look to the past as a golden age. People were moral, the young were respectful, and sex was not everywhere. The fact is, though, that human nature never changes. If there have been periods where sex was less flaunted, then those were the rare lulls in the sexual storm that is history.



Photo credit: Wikimedia

Childbirth before the invention of anesthetics and modern medicine was brutal, painful, and dangerous. Euripides has Medea in his play declare, “I had rather stand my ground three times among the shields than face a childbirth once.”

Is it any wonder then that women sought ways to avoid the horrors of the birthing bed? And sometimes they might just like to have sex without the risk of dying. So they turned to the best available products at the time.

From ancient Egypt we find a recipe preserved from 1800 BC for a pessary used to prevent pregnancy. Chopped crocodile dung is mixed with honey and salt and “sprinkled over the womb.” This might have created an effective spermicide, but it would definitely be a mood-killer.

The Roman and Greek worlds relied on a more pleasant method—so pleasant that they drove the source of their contraception to extinction. Apparently, silphium was a form of giant fennel used for almost any sickness or culinary recipe. It was so effective, and delicious, that it came to be worth its weight in silver. Alas, it was also impossible to cultivate and had to be gathered from the wild. The last stalk of silphium was seen during the reign of the emperor Nero. So now we have to seek our salad and contraceptives in different aisles of the supermarket.

9Rape By Animals


Photo credit: Raymond Isidore

The spectacles of the Roman amphitheater are often held up as an example of cruelty in societies that view themselves as the most civilized. The blood-soaked sands of the arena, dying slaves made to fight for a braying crowd, all this has entered the public imagination. But the reality could be far worse. The Romans liked to see the condemned humiliated. One of their methods was to have a person raped by an animal.

The poet Martial recorded the opening shows of the Coliseum. He described all the animals sacrificed and the gladiator fights. He also recorded a display of a different kind. In Greek legend, Pasiphae is made to fall in love with a bull. She sleeps with the beast, and the Minotaur is born from their love. Martial tells us “that Pasiphae was mated to the Dictaean bull, believe: we have seen it.”

There are also references to a Carpophorus, who was a specialist trainer in the use of animals to rape women. We know that he was involved in the opening games of the Coliseum. It may well have been that his bull was the one performing that day. In Apuleius’s novel Metamorphoses, a man magically transformed into a donkey is expected to have sex with a woman, but the narrative spares us that scene.

8Pederasty In Athens


Photo credit: Wikimedia

If we were told a prominent figure in society found adolescents almost irresistible, we would be rightly appalled. When Plato tells us that the philosopher Socrates enjoyed hanging around naked youths, sleeping beside them, embracing them, his audience would not have shown the least surprise. In Athens of the fifth century BC, it was held as entirely natural that men would be attracted to boys. There are certainly plentiful literary and artistic records that show it was a common practice, at least among the upper classes.

The older man, the Erastes, was expected to court the boy, the Eramenos, with gifts and other devices. The relationship, once established, was supposed to be beneficial to both. The older man got sex, and the younger was introduced to Athenian society with a powerful protector. Sometimes this sort of relationship is portrayed as simply a May-December romance, but the boys involved were very young. It was considered shameful for anyone capable of growing a beard to still be an Eramenos.



Photo credit: Wikimedia

In most societies, prostitution has been, if not illegal, then at least looked on as something deeply shameful. For the Romans, this was not the case. The Lupinar in the ruins of Pompeii gives us a peek into the world of the Roman brothel. Instead of hidden away in a dank alley, it proudly asserts the sort of business one could do inside. Graffiti tells people what to expect from the various women on offer. Once inside, several graphic images help those with less imagination, or the illiterate, to understand just what they were buying.

Things were even more brazen in Babylon. According to the Greek historian Herodotus, at least once in her life, every Babylonian woman had to go to the temple of Ishtar and serve as a holy prostitute. No matter who offered them a coin, they had to accept his advances. Some researchers dispute that this happened, but there does seem to be widespread agreement that for some women, service to God was the same as servicing men for money.

6Ancient Sex Toys


Photo credit: Michael Latz

In 2005, in Germany, archaeologists made a startling discovery. Eight inches of rock-hard matter protruded from the ground. While the size is impressive, so is the carving. This was a 26,000-year-old phallus that some researchers believe to be the earliest discovered dildo. While this is the oldest dildo discovered, it is by no means unique. Life-size penises have been discovered fashioned from all manner of material, even wood—which suggests our ancestors were braver about splinters than we are today.

The Greeks with their explicit pottery paintings also give another valuable peep into the world of the ancient sex toy. Women can be seen wielding dildos on many vases. Further, they were not coy about them, at least in comic scenes. The writer Herodas produced a mime based on a conversation between two women, one seeking to find who made the other their wonderful leather dildo. The dildo maker hides his true business behind the more family friendly image of being a cobbler. In Aristophanes’s play Lysistrata, the women of Greece go on a sex strike to end a war, in part because it has disrupted the trade in dildos.


5Pantomime Actor’s Phallic Antics


Photo credit: Wikimedia

Speaking of Greek plays, Greek tragedies have a reputation for being bloody affairs. They were also uniformly solemn. But at the end of a long day of hard-hitting drama, the Athenians liked to let out the tension with a laugh. Comedy and Satyr plays lightened the mood. And along with pointed political satire, one of the things they loved best was a good dick joke.

On stage, comic male characters would wear a huge, and barely hidden, leather penis. This could be whipped out as the play required for anything. The master of Old Comedy, Aristophanes, employed these phalluses for masturbation jokes, erection humor, impotence barbs, and the offer to use the phallus as a ships rudder. So if anyone ever tells you dick jokes are crude, you can quote to them from Aristophanes: “Peace, profane men!  . . . come forward and . . . hold the phallus well upright.”

4Wandering Uterus


Photo credit: Wikimedia

If someone accuses you of being hysterical, they are accusing you of something quite specific, and very odd. First described by the ancient Greek father of medicine Hippocrates, hysteria was a disease of women with wide-ranging symptoms. Almost anything could be blamed on hysteria, but it was chiefly thought to contribute to a lack of emotional control. So what causes hysteria? The uterus traveling around the body.

This today strikes us as a ludicrous idea. But in the ancient world, the uterus was thought of as a deeply troubling organ. Egyptian papyri carry descriptions of medicines designed to coax “a wandering uterus” back into place. Plato, one of the foundational thinkers of the Western tradition, thought of the uterus as an animal that caused mischief wherever it went in the body.

3Spartan Women


Photo credit: Wikimedia

Sparta was in many ways an odd-one-out of Ancient Greece. While women in Athens were kept so secluded that they were thought to speak their own dialect, the women of Sparta received, for the time, great freedom. When the Spartan queen Gorgo was asked, “Why is it that you Spartan women are the only women that lord it over your men,” she said, “Because we are the only women that are mothers of men.”

But the wedding night could be strange affair for a Spartan girl. Her hair would be shaved off and she would be dressed in a man’s cloak and sandals. Thus dressed, she would wait in the dark for her husband to steal in and have his way with her. Some historians have suggested that his cross-dressing on the part of the bride was to get a man more used to spending time with his male brothers-in-arms used to the delights of heterosexuality.

2Penis Charms


Photo credit: Wikimedia

The penis appeared everywhere in the ancient world. You could not walk the streets of ancient Athens or Rome without risk of poking your eye out. In Athens, statues called Herms were ubiquitous. A square pillar with the head of the god Hermes, they also feature erect phalluses. These penile protectors were thought so important that when in 415 BC, someone went on a drunken rampage and smashed the penises, it created a crisis in the state.

The penis was thought to possess Apotropaic power—it could ward off evil. It was painted on frescoes, carved in statues, cast in bronze, and generally daubed wherever people might wish to be safe. Often, the phallus is shown with wings, and sometimes these winged penises were hung with bells. These Tintinnabulae acted as both charming wind-chimes and magical protectors.

1Egypt’s Incestuous Gods


Photo credit: Wikimedia

Royal families have often tried to keep their bloodlines pure by marrying within small and closely related groups, often with disastrous genetic consequences. The Egyptian royal family often married brother to sister to keep it all in the family. This is not a good idea, but it becomes more understandable when you consider that the ancient pharaohs were seen as gods on Earth. And they were doing exactly the same as the gods in heaven. The most famous example of a brother-sister marriage in Egyptian mythology is that of Osiris and Isis.

When the god Osiris was killed and dismembered by his brother Set, his wife and sister Isis sought to gather up all his body parts. The only one she failed to recover was his penis—which was eaten by a crocodile. Since the Nile had claimed the penis of a god, it became hugely fertile and brought life to the land. In the first mention in recorded history of a blow job, Isis fashioned a new penis out of clay for her brother-husband and blew life into it.

10 SWAT Team Assaults That Went Awry

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10 SWAT Team Assaults That Went Awry


Armed and equipped with military weapons and supplies, today’s Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams often resemble a military, rather than a police, force. Questioning the need for such militarization, critics suggest that it encourages police to think and act like combat forces rather than peacekeepers.

SWAT teams frequently invade US citizens’ homes in the middle of the night, frightening homeowners and their families and endangering innocent people’s lives. As indicated by these 10 SWAT team assaults that went awry, the results can be catastrophic and even fatal when highly armed police units burst into citizens’ homes.

10Roberto Franco

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In Minneapolis–St. Paul, Minnesota in 2010, a SWAT team broke into the wrong house, killed the family’s dog, handcuffed the children, and forced them to sit near their dead, bloody, beloved pet for over an hour. They also handcuffed a young diabetic girl at gunpoint and denied her access to her medication. As a result, the girl suffered a “diabetic episode [due to] low blood sugar levels.”

The only one not handcuffed was an almost naked woman, whom police forced from her bed at gunpoint and directed to lie on the floor. Then the team ransacked the family’s belongings.

Roberto Franco, the head of the household, filed a federal lawsuit against the St. Paul police, a Drug Enforcement Administration agent, and members of the Dakota County Drug Task Force on behalf of himself and the other eight occupants of the house. This included his wife and two young daughters.

Roberto alleged that task force officer Shawn Scovill, who set up the raid, lied to the Minnesota District Court judge who authorized the search warrant and that neither Roberto’s name nor the name of any other family member was listed on the warrant. Instead, the name listed on the warrant was that of his neighbor.

The SWAT team acted with negligence in “brutalizing” him and his family, Roberto asserted. The Ninth Circuit court denied the Department of Justice’s request for a summary dismissal of the lawsuit.

During the raid, police found a .22-caliber pistol in the basement. They said that the gun belonged to Roberto. However, Roberto’s lawsuit alleged that police perjured themselves during his trial, which resulted in his conviction for possession of the handgun.

9Salvatore Culosi

A resident of Fairfax, Virginia, 37-year-old optometrist Salvatore “Sal” Culosi sometimes bet $50 to $100 that the Washington Redskins or a local college team would win a particular game.

Fairfax police detective David J. Baucom set Sal up, encouraging him to bet more and more. Eventually, Sal was betting as much as $2,000 on a game, which made him eligible for prosecution under the state’s law against “conducting an illegal gambling operation.” In January 2006, after gathering the members of a SWAT team, Baucom called Sal to say that he was coming to Sal’s house to collect money that Sal owed him.

When Sal came outside, SWAT officer Deval Bullock shot him. Bullock’s rifle, a semiautomatic Heckler & Koch MP5, had already been aimed at Sal. Thebullet pierced Sal’s side and then struck his heart, killing him. Bullock claimed that his finger had slipped onto the trigger.

Police delayed notifying the victim’s family for over five hours, denying them the opportunity to arrange for Sal, a Catholic, to receive last rites. The officers also refused to release his body for two days. Finally, a funeral home was allowed to pick up the corpse.

8Ronald Terebesi

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When SWAT team assaults go awry, authorities sometimes seek immunity from prosecution. They’re not always successful. In 2008, a Connecticut SWAT team’s raid resulted in severe injury to a 50-year-old homeowner and the death of his friend. The US 2nd Court of Appeals in New York disallowed the claim of immunity by Connecticut police, subjecting them to lawsuits that could cost the state millions of dollars in damages.

The decision allowed a judge to determine whether excessive force by five police departments violated homeowner Ronald Terebesi’s constitutional rights. The paramilitary force consisted of officers from the Easton, Monroe, Trumbull, Darien, and Wilton departments.

They knocked down the door and tossed stun flash grenades into Ronald’s Easton home. Visitor Gonzalo Guizan, 33, died after being shot six times. He had been watching television with his host. Ronald received an injury severe enough to cause post-traumatic stress disorder after police struck him over the head with a gun. He also claimed that his civil rights were violated.

In February 2014, the towns paid a $3.5 million settlement to Gonzalo’s family.

7Larry Harper

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In October 1996, Larry Harper, 33, having relapsed in his use of crack cocaine, told his family that he no longer felt that life was worth living. As he left home with his handgun, his loved ones called the Albuquerque police for help.

The police responded by deploying a nine-member SWAT team with automatic rifles and stun grenades. “Let’s go get the bad guy,” Larry’s wife, Hope, heard one of the officers say as they hunted down her husband in the nearby park where he’d gone. In the meantime, Larry had decided not to kill himself.

The officers found their quarry crouched behind a tree and shot him from a distance of 13 meters (43 ft), claiming that he was holding a gun. Albuquerque paid the Harpers $200,000 to settle their lawsuit out of court and no longer operate the SWAT team as a full-time unit.

Criminologist Peter Kraska, an Eastern Kentucky University professor, objected to the use of the paramilitary unit against Larry. “It is the militarization of Mayberry,” he said. “This is unprecedented in American policing, and you have to ask yourself, ‘What are the unintended consequences?’ ”

Larry, who committed no crime and threatened only himself, is dead.

6Donnell Thompson

On July 28, 2016, in a predawn raid using armored vehicles, a heavily armed SWAT team descended on a residence in Compton, California, a community that’s home to a largely black population. Police confronted Donnell Thompson, an intellectually disabled, 27-year-old black man.

They set off flash-bang grenades and shot him with rubber bullets. When Donnell allegedly ran toward them, an officer shot him twice in the torso with an assault rifle and killed him.

The authorities were actually seeking a carjacker. They arrested a suspect at about the same time that the SWAT team killed Donnell. Initially, the police claimed that Donnell was a second carjacker. But they later admitted that they’d killed an innocent man.

5Jose Guerena

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Jose Guerena, 26, was a Marine Corps veteran who’d served two tours of duty in Iraq. But he was killed in his Tucson home on May 5, 2011, in a SWAT team assault gone awry.

It was about 9:30 AM. Jose had just turned in, having worked 12 hours straight at a local mine, when his home was invaded. His wife, Vanessa, heard noises outside (later identified as flash-bang grenades) and spotted a man inside her home. Thinking he might be a criminal, she pleaded, “Don’t shoot! I have a baby!”

Awakening, Jose told Vanessa to hide in the closet with their four-year-old son. To protect his family, Jose armed himself with his rifle and confronted the invaders. Within seven seconds, SWAT team members fired 70 bullets at Jose, 60 or more riddling their target. At first, police claimed that Jose had fired his weapon at them. Later, they admitted he had not. In fact, he hadn’t disengaged his rifle’s safety.

The SWAT team allowed Vanessa to take her son out of the house, but they wouldn’t let paramedics tend to their victim. More than an hour later, Jose died alone in his home. He had no criminal record, and no contraband was found inside his house. Police found little, if any, marijuana in any of the other houses the SWAT team had stormed into that morning as part of the same operation. No arrests were made.

4Tarika Wilson

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On January 4, 2008, a Lima, Ohio, SWAT team broke down the door to Tarika Wilson’s home and rushed inside, weapons drawn. They were intent upon arresting Tarika’s boyfriend, Anthony Terry.

Opening fire within minutes of the invasion, they killed Tarika, 26, and seriously wounded her 14-month-old son, Sincere. The SWAT team’s conduct didn’t surprise the city’s black citizens, who said that police harassment was widespread against blacks.

Although Sergeant Joseph Chavalia was placed on administrative leave, Lima Police Chief Greg Garlock said that there was no evidence of police misconduct in the raid that killed Tarika and injured her son. Tarika was never a suspect.

Chavalia was charged with recklessness for shooting into Tarika’s bedroom without being able to see clearly. But he was acquitted of criminal charges and allowed to return to work. Sincere had a finger amputated as a result of the raid. Tarika’s family accepted $2.5 million to settle their lawsuit against Lima, although officials admitted no liability.

Jason Upthegrove, president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said Chavalia “shot through a baby and killed an unarmed woman.

3Bounkham Phonesavanh Jr.

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Alecia and Bounkham Phonesavanh owe $1 million in medical bills for the treatment of devastating injuries suffered by their 18-month-old son, Bounkham Jr. (aka Bou Bou) during a SWAT team assault in Cornelia, Georgia, in spring 2014.

The family of six had temporarily relocated to Georgia to be with relatives after their Janesville, Wisconsin, home was destroyed in a fire. The displaced family “crowded into a former garage converted into a bedroom.” But they planned to return to Wisconsin, where they’d found a new house.

At 2:00 AM on May 28, they awakened to the sound of a flash-bang grenade as a Habersham County Sheriff’s Office SWAT team stormed their bedroom. Bou Bou continuously screamed as an officer seized him, refusing to allow the baby’s mother to hold the boy.

Police told Alecia that her son had not been hurt in the raid, but that wasn’t true. He’d been severely injured by the grenade. Dr. Walter Ingram, head of Grady’s burn trauma unit, said, “His chest wall had torn down to muscle. And it tore his face down to bone, down to his teeth.” Bou Bou was in a coma for five weeks and has had several reconstructive surgeries.

The assault occurred because police were seeking the Phonesavanhs’ nephew, 30-year-old Wanis Thonetheva. According to an informant, Wanis lived with the Phonesavanhs. This tip was all the authorities needed to conduct the “no-knock” raid.

A grand jury found the police’s conduct “hurried” and “sloppy” but refused to recommend criminal charges against any SWAT team member. It appears that the city enjoys immunity from any claims of negligence. The family filed a federal lawsuit against the task force, and a federal investigation of the SWAT team’s actions was initiated.

2Alberto Sepulveda

Early on the morning of September 13, 2000, a SWAT team burst into 11-year-old Alberto Sepulveda’s home and ordered him to lie facedown on the floor beside his bed with his arms stretched out. Alberto complied. His parents and brother were quickly gathered as well. They also obeyed the officers’ orders.

The SWAT team was serving Alberto’s father, Moises, with a federal arrest warrant in a drug trafficking case. In a supposed accident, the shotgun that a Modesto, California, SWAT team officer was holding on Alberto went off. The blast struck the child in the back and killed him.

Outraged, the Latino community demanded to know why the pre-raid surveillance conducted by the police hadn’t alerted them to the fact that children would probably be present in the home. The community also wanted to know why the authorities decided to arrest Moises at the family’s residence in the first place.

Michael Garcia and other members of the Modesto chapter of the American GI Forum, a Latino veterans group, questioned why the SWAT team was deployed at all. “Why all these paramilitary tactics, this whole ninja way of breaking into somebody’s home to serve a warrant?” Garcia demanded. “It’s like a police state—not something I ever thought I’d see in my country.”

Criminologist Peter Kraska, the same professor who opposed the use of a SWAT team against Larry Harper, agreed with Garcia. The trend of using paramilitary police units to conduct raids on civilian suspects’ homes, he said, is as dangerous as it is unnecessary.

Nevertheless, such operations increased over 900 percent between 1980 and 2000. “Is it worth putting an entire family at risk, for what is sometimes a small amount of drugs, or small-time dealers?” Kraska asked.

1Aiyana Stanley-Jones

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Aiyana Stanley-Jones was only seven years old when she was killed in a May 2010 SWAT team assault. The Detroit home of the victim’s parents, Dominika Stanley and Charles Jones, was targeted in the midnight raid when police sought to arrest Aiyana’s uncle, the resident of an upstairs apartment, who was suspected in the recent murder of a teenage couple.

While an A&E film crew shot the scene for a television show, the SWAT team threw a flash-bang grenade into the home, igniting Aiyana’s blanket. Officer Joseph Weekley fired the bullet that went through the child’s head and killed her as she slept on a sofa. Her grandmother, Mertilla Jones, was close by.

Weekley claimed that Mertilla had tried to wrestle his weapon away from him, causing it to fire. Mertilla was arrested but soon released. Aiyana’s parents were forced to sit in their daughter’s blood for hours. Weekley was tried twice for involuntary manslaughter in Aiyana’s death, but he was acquitted both times.

Members of the Detroit community wonder what possessed the authorities to use a SWAT team. The ACLU contends that the militarization of police forces across the US has led to “a culture shift” among civilian authorities. It increases the likelihood that paramilitary forces will be needlessly deployed against citizens.