Science Smackdown: Tattoos Vs. Piercings


Lauren’s shoulder, freshly inked.

The needle doesn’t even hurt—it just scratches meekly at my shoulder blade, like the world’s most gentle kitten sharpening its claws. I relax my grip on my friend Lauren’s hand just enough to give her back her pulse. Fifteen minutes later and it’s over. “All done,” says Kevin, my tattoo artist, and before I know it I’m climbing off the green surgical bed with a Band-aid and a distinct sense of anti-climax.

I suppose I’d expected my first tattoo to feel a bit more … momentous. Instead, it was basically like when I was 16 and got my nose pierced. That experience went something like this:





Actually, when I thought about it, the two were quite similar. Both involved needles, pain, and permanence. Both, teenage me thought, would help me express to the world how special and unique I was through my most easy-to-access canvas: my skin. Both have been practiced for thousands of years, and disapproved of for just as long. “Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you,” says the Bible (Leviticus 19:28). “Whyyyy?!” says my mom.

They can’t be all that bad, I thought. So I decided to consult science on the matter: Which is worse, a piercing or a tattoo? Read the rest of this entry »


What the Wasteland Saw: A Tail of Resilience


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 »

Keepers of the Oil: The Science of Fried

Freeze a Twinkie. Skewer it, batter it, and dip it in the fryer. Instantly, hot oil performs its chemical baptism. Water vaporizes. Starch gelatinizes. Crust caramelizes. Spongecake puffs into an airy pillow; cream filling melts to vanilla ooze.

The fried Twinkie, an ode to oily excess. (Photo by Rachel E. Gross)

The glory that is the fried Twinkie. (Photo by Rachel E. Gross)

Larry Fyfe will not wait in line. But for 45 years, he’s made his living off people willing to wait in his lines. Fyfe runs four concession stands at the Iowa State Fair, most of which specialize in deep-fried foods on sticks. In 1999, Fyfe introduced the hordes to fried Twinkies. This year he served up nearly 10,000 fried Oreos. “I’m glad people aren’t like me,” Fyfe says. “I won’t stand in line for anything.”

This August, more than a million Americans descended upon the fair. From 9 a.m. until midnight, they endured blazing Midwestern sun, barnyard smells, and Rihanna playing on a loop in order to obtain their prize: snack foods cloaked in greasy golden robes, held aloft for all to see. For a vendor as popular as Fyfe, such a situation demands complete efficiency. Deep-frying is “quick and quality, the most important things in this business,” Fyfe says. The reason? Science. Read the rest of this entry »

Life under the lens: two paths to science writing

Former Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson has a name for his favorite type of writers: “the failed scientists.” These logically-minded individuals at first pursued the mastery of a scientific field, thinking their place in life was in a lab, before undergoing a profound change of heart. Turning to writing, they found a consolation prize: the nerdy remnants of their specialization allowed them to translate between science and plain English. (Anderson was a physicist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory before becoming an editor at The Economist.)

Yet this is not the only way to end at that curious destination, science writing. This summer, in a Magazine Editing class at the Medill School of Journalism taught by Charles Whitaker, I had the chance to speak with two representatives of distinct trajectories to science writing: Alan Burdick, senior editor at The New Yorker, and Laura Helmuth, health and science editor at Burdick was formerly an editor at Discover magazine; before that, he edited science stories for The New York Times Magazine and the now-defunct The Sciences. Helmuth formerly served as a senior editor covering nature, science, technology, and the environment for Smithsonian magazine; before that, she reported and edited at Science magazine.

Helmuth came from the sciences. Burdick came from the humanities. Both, in their own way, found academia too limiting a box. For these two science writers, journalism proved more satisfying way to engage with the world and the voices that fill it. Here is a summary of their paths to science writing and what they see as its role in a world in flux. Read the rest of this entry »