What are we missing?

House Fire

A house on Edgewood Avenue (I think) north of Baltimore in 2009. A found story for a community newspaper reporter. More often than not, however, science writing offers few “found” news stories.

I sometimes worry that important discoveries, breakthroughs, and innovations are happening and no one is writing the stories. What might be a historic moment might be barely recorded, and will appear in high school textbooks 100 years from now looking like this:

While the dual-chronograph, high-alpha wormhole inducer remains the keystone technology making interstellar travel commonplace today, few accounts remain of its creation or whether the inventors recognized its significance at the time.

When I was a community newspaper reporter, I sometimes found story topics by bumping into them. On one telling occasion I was driving through my coverage area, probably to or from an interview — I can’t remember the scenario because it was a few years ago — and I must have made a wrong turn because I can’t remember why I was on a certain street just north of Baltimore. I then passed a burned out house. I pulled over, walked through the house, took photos inside and out, and asked neighbors about the person who lived there.

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Beautiful Starling Murmurations Use Rome As A Toilet

It was dusk and mildly chilly in Rome when I stepped out of Roma Termini, the city’s busy central train station, and heard relentless screeching noises from above. I looked up to see thousands of birds covering the treetops like bees on a honeycomb. A cloud of them sprang from one tree only to quickly dissolve into another. Bigger clouds of black specks curled and twisted even higher, over rooftops and looming cranes.

Starlings. Thousands of them, and just a small portion of the 1 to 5 million that overwinter in Italy’s capital.

To nature lovers, starling swarms – called “murmurations” – are fascinating and beautiful. Stunning videos of murmurations have captured the admiration of the Internet. They’re also a favorite example of swarming science, each individual bird following cues on speed and direction from its neighbors to form a massive, swirling shape in the sky.

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Human Minds Vs. Large Numbers, Round 2

Meet Bob. He’s in his late fifties, a quiet guy, wears rimless spectacles, and likes to read poetry. Do you think Bob is a classics professor or a truck driver?

bob

If you answered classics professor, you’re with the vast majority of people asked this question. Quiet, spectacles, poetry reader, all of it pretty well fits the common image of a classics professor and not so much our image of a truck driver. But while there are approximately 7500, maybe at a stretch 10000 classics professors in the US, that number is blown out of the water by a couple orders of magnitude when compared with how many truck drivers there are. The American Trucking Association’s website says there are 3,500,000 truck drivers in the country, making it much, much more likely that Bob is a quiet, poetry-reading truck driver. He may not fit the NASCAR-loving truck driver stereotype, but it’s still more likely.

It’s much more likely, but that’s not the way we think. Humans look for patterns, make categories, and form stereotypes in order to make sense of the world. If our early ancestors heard a scream, they did not sit down to calculate the probability that their friend Og had trod on a surprise thorn bush versus the probability that Og had just been snack for a saber-toothed tiger. No, they used their learned pattern of scream = bad and got the hell out of there.

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Is biking in cities good for you?

Life presents us all with certain problems, one of them being how to move ourselves from place to place. I submit that if you live in a compact, congested city, there’s really only one sane solution: ride a bicycle. Biking is carbon-neutral, it’s efficient, it’s outdoors, it’s exercise, it’s free, it’s fun. It’s a win-win-win-win-win-win.

But as I’m dodging morning traffic on my way to work in Washington, DC, I do find myself wondering, am I just fucking crazy? Could the health benefits from bike commuting possibly outweigh the risk of getting flattened by some latte-swilling, texting SUV driver? And even if I avoid that fate, what about the longer-term effects of the exhaust fumes I’m sucking in with every breath?

Morning traffic into DC

Morning traffic into DC

Since I am a science writer, I feel compelled to try to answer such questions with data. So it was troubling to find that one of the few sources providing data on the risks of different modes of transport puts biking near the top in deaths per journeys, miles traveled, or time spent in transit (apparently based on a 15-year old British survey). Only motorcycling, which is essentially bicycling at the speed of car traffic, proved more dangerous. U.S. data from a similar time period and cited in this paper tell a similar story.

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The World’s Longest Conveyor Belt

Satellite image of the Bou Craa conveyor belt

The Bou Craa conveyor belt running through the arid Western Saharan terrain. Credit: Bing maps.

The longest conveyor belt in the world runs 61 miles from the hostile interior of Moroccan occupied Western Sahara to the port city of El-Aaiún. Open to gusty desert winds in many places, the belt’s precious white cargo is strewn across the dusty brown desert, marking  the Earth so profoundly that this massive machine’s outline can be seen from space.

Between around 100 and 55 million years ago, marine waters of the nascent and ever-widening Atlantic Ocean transgressed and regressed over this now dry land. These waters deposited thick muddy sediments containing the decaying tissue, bones, shells, and excrement of dead marine life that had collected and concentrated on the ocean floor over millions of years. As a result, this thick oozing mud, a complex mélange of fetid material, was rich in phosphorus.

Without phosphorus, life itself is not possible. It exists in all living things —in cells, in bones, indeed, even in DNA. For that reason, the mud that formed the hills of Western Sahara so many millions of years ago were full of phosphorus. Now, millions of years later, it is that same phosphorus that we extract from the Earth and load onto a conveyor belt. Read the rest of this entry »


To Squat, or To Sit: That Is the Question

Credit: Mark Buckawicki, Wikimedia Commons.

Credit: Mark Buckawicki, Wikimedia Commons.

Let me apologize in advance, this post is about poop. Or rather, pooping.

My college suitemates and I always get together every Halloween. This year, my friend Kathy hosted us at her apartment outside New York City, and I happened upon a very interesting contraption in her bathroom. I believe the correct term is squatty potty? A platform specifically designed for toilet users to perch upon it and, well, squat instead of sit. The device belonged to one of her roommates, and I have to say I found it both fascinating and hilarious.

Squatting has gained more of a following in recent years, as scientists become more interested in how our bodies cope with the sedentary lifestyle of industrialization. Of course, there are also millions of people around the world who squat out of necessity because they don’t have Western toilets. Doctors have been suggesting we squat instead of sit since the 1960s. Their rational? It’s just better or more natural for our physiology. Sitting, they say, puts the passage from the rectum to the anal canal at the wrong angle. A 2010 study published in the journal Lower Urinary Tract Systems suggests that squatting produced a 126° angle, compared a 100° angle when sitting. When one squats, the rectoanal angle is straighter, so pooping requires less effort.

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What the Wasteland Saw: A Tail of Resilience

FOTO5

Researchers scour the core of the Atacama, a region known as “absolute desert.”
(Photos courtesy of Claudio Latorre)

Life is scarce here in the heart of the Atacama Desert. Nothing grows. Rain calls twice a century, and never leaves a message. This is one of the world’s most desiccated landscapes, a 600-mile strip along Chile’s western coast that stretches from the Pacific Ocean to the Andes Mountains. And, oh yeah: It’s been this way for about 150 million years.

If you were an early colonizer of the Americas, making your way down from the Bering Land Strait during the Last Ice Age, the Atacama would have loomed before you as a stretch of pure wasteland. No food, no shade, no water: this would be the place to avoid. You’d be better off traveling down the coast, or even braving the highlands of the cooler Altiplano to the east. That’s why, when archaeologists go out looking for early human settlements, they tend to write off this barren deathtrap. Harsh and inhospitable, they say, the Atacama was a barrier to life.

But was it? Read the rest of this entry »


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