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?
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.
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?
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.
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 »
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.
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 »
See that bizarre-looking mushroom above? I discovered it in July while on a birthday hike alone through Maryland’s Patapsco Valley State Park. Its strange whiteness made it hard to miss among the yellows and browns of dead leaves and rotting wood on the forest floor.
But more importantly, I discovered it. Indian Pipe was discovered before. Hence, its common name is Indian Pipe. If I were its first discoverer, it would be known as the Maryland Chalk Stalk, or Cookies ‘n Cream, or the Martian Oreo. Probably that last one just to mess with people. But still, I discovered it.
Discovery is a funny concept and I’m not sure how to explain it, but I’ll do my damnedest to illustrate what I mean.
Sometimes I like to spend my idle hours wandering Google Maps. Maybe I’ll hunt for a remote chunk of the Great Wall of China, or look for that mountain in the Adirondacks I hiked back in 2007, or wonder what’s up with a tiny village with dirt roads in Greenland.
But my favorite tourism-by-satellite locale is North Korea. Car traffic on North Korean streets is extremely sparse, even in the country’s biggest cities, giving them an eerie feel, as if they’ve been abandoned. At least you can often make out small blurry smudges that are almost certainly people going about their day, unaware that Google is letting some American in a cozy dining room eyeball them from afar.
Of course, the quilt of satellite photos that make these maps is a recent phenomenon. Old world maps, for which crafters had to mix stories from travelers with their own imaginations are even more enchanting.