In the summer of 1978, a group of geologists traveled into Siberia and discovered a family that had not had outside contact with anyone in four decades:
"In some respects, Peskov makes clear, the taiga did offer some abundance: 'Beside the dwelling ran a clear, cold stream. Stands of larch, spruce, pine and birch yielded all that anyone could take.… Bilberries and raspberries were close to hand, firewood as well, and pine nuts fell right on the roof.'
"Yet the Lykovs lived permanently on the edge of famine. It was not until the late 1950s, when Dmitry reached manhood, that they first trapped animals for their meat and skins. Lacking guns and even bows, they could hunt only by digging traps or pursuing prey across the mountains until the animals collapsed from exhaustion. Dmitry built up astonishing endurance, and could hunt barefoot in winter, sometimes returning to the hut after several days, having slept in the open in 40 degrees of frost, a young elk across his shoulders. More often than not, though, there was no meat, and their diet gradually became more monotonous. Wild animals destroyed their crop of carrots, and Agafia recalled the late 1950s as 'the hungry years.'"
PUBLISHED: Jan. 29, 2013
LENGTH: 13 minutes (3447 words)
What happened to five children who disappeared following a 1945 fire in West Virginia?
"For nearly four decades, anyone driving down Route 16 near Fayetteville, West Virginia, could see a billboard bearing the grainy images of five children, all dark-haired and solemn-eyed, their names and ages—Maurice, 14; Martha 12; Louis, 9; Jennie, 8; Betty, 5—stenciled beneath, along with speculation about what happened to them. Fayetteville was and is a small town, with a main street that doesn’t run longer than a hundred yards, and rumors always played a larger role in the case than evidence; no one even agreed on whether the children were dead or alive. What everyone knew for certain was this: On the night before Christmas 1945, George and Jennie Sodder and nine of their 10 children went to sleep (one son was away in the Army). Around 1 a.m., a fire broke out. George and Jennie and four of their children escaped, but the other five were never seen again."
PUBLISHED: Jan. 3, 2013
LENGTH: 11 minutes (2809 words)
Researching the moral decisions of infants:
"The study of babies and young toddlers is a perplexing business. Even the most perceptive observers can be tempted to see what isn’t there. 'When our infant was only four months old I thought that he tried to imitate sounds; but I may have deceived myself,' Charles Darwin wrote in 'A Biographical Sketch of an Infant,' his classic study of his own son. Babies don’t reliably control their bodies or communicate well, if at all, so their opinions can’t be solicited through ordinary means. Instead, researchers outfit them with miniature wire skullcaps to monitor their brain waves, scrutinize them like shoplifters through video cameras and two-way mirrors, and conduct exceedingly clever and tightly controlled experiments, which a good portion of their subjects will refuse to sit through anyway. Even well-behaved babies are notoriously tough to read: Their most meditative expressions are often the sign of an impending bowel movement."
PUBLISHED: Dec. 24, 2012
LENGTH: 19 minutes (4817 words)
On trailblazing geneticist Pardis Sabeti, who balances being in a rock band with her work in computational genomics:
"There’d be plenty of people eager to talk to Sabeti before long. That October, she was the lead author on a paper published in Nature that laid out her discovery’s 'profound implications for the study of human history and for medicine.' For the first time, researchers could look for evidence of positive selection by testing common haplotypes even if they didn’t have 'prior knowledge of a specific variant or selective advantage.' By applying this approach to pathogens, there was the possibility of identifying how diseases had evolved to outwit the human immune response or develop drug resistance—knowledge that would open up new avenues to combating disease.
"All of a sudden, the previously unknown 26-year-old was a superstar. David Hafler, a Yale neurologist and immunobiologist who has worked with Sabeti, compares her approach to that of a preternaturally gifted athlete, the hockey great Wayne Gretzky. 'He was asked, ‘Why are you always where the action is?’ And he responded, ‘I don’t skate to where the puck is, I skate to where the puck is going to be.’ That’s the reason she’s able to make all of these fundamental contributions.'"
PUBLISHED: Nov. 20, 2012
LENGTH: 11 minutes (2962 words)
How 19th Century American farmers became convinced that dead relatives could rise from their graves and feed on them as vampires:
"The skeleton had been beheaded; skull and thighbones rested atop the ribs and vertebrae. 'It looked like a skull-and-crossbones motif, a Jolly Roger. I’d never seen anything like it,' Bellantoni recalls.
"Subsequent analysis showed that the beheading, along with other injuries, including rib fractures, occurred roughly five years after death. Somebody had also smashed the coffin.
"The other skeletons in the gravel hillside were packaged for reburial, but not 'J.B.,' as the 50ish male skeleton from the 1830s came to be called, because of the initials spelled out in brass tacks on his coffin lid. He was shipped to the National Museum of Health and Medicine, in Washington, D.C., for further study. Meanwhile, Bellantoni started networking. He invited archaeologists and historians to tour the excavation, soliciting theories. Simple vandalism seemed unlikely, as did robbery, because of the lack of valuables at the site.
"Finally, one colleague asked: 'Ever heard of the Jewett City vampires?'"
PUBLISHED: Sept. 21, 2012
LENGTH: 20 minutes (5198 words)
Inside Harvard historian Karen King's discovery of an ancient papyrus fragment that includes the phrase, "Jesus said to them, 'My wife'":
"What it does seem to reveal is more subtle and complex: that some group of early Christians drew spiritual strength from portraying the man whose teachings they followed as having a wife. And not just any wife, but possibly Mary Magdalene, the most-mentioned woman in the New Testament besides Jesus’ mother.
"The question the discovery raises, King told me, is, 'Why is it that only the literature that said he was celibate survived? And all of the texts that showed he had an intimate relationship with Magdalene or is married didn’t survive? Is that 100 percent happenstance? Or is it because of the fact that celibacy becomes the ideal for Christianity?'
"How this small fragment figures into longstanding Christian debates about marriage and sexuality is likely to be a subject of intense debate. Because chemical tests of its ink have not yet been run, the papyrus is also apt to be challenged on the basis of authenticity; King herself emphasizes that her theories about the text's significance are based on the assumption that the fragment is genuine, a question that has by no means been definitively settled. That her article's publication will be seen at least in part as a provocation is clear from the title King has given the text: 'The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife.'"
PUBLISHED: Sept. 18, 2012
LENGTH: 25 minutes (6366 words)
How timing and creativity can reignite interest in a toy:
"Not long ago, three inventors—toiling at home, unaware of one another’s existence—set out to reimagine the pogo. What was so sacred about that ungainly steel coil? they wondered. Why couldn’t you make a pogo stick brawny enough for a 250-pound adult? And why not vault riders a few feet, instead of measly inches? If athletes were pulling 'big air' on skateboards, snowboards and BMX bikes, why couldn’t the pogo stick be just as, well, gnarly?
"When I reached one of the inventors, Bruce Middleton—who studied physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and describes himself as an 'outcast scientist'—he told me that the problem had been a 'conceptual basin.'"
"'Normal people, someone tells them a pogo stick is a thing with steel springs, they go, "That’s right,"' Middleton said. 'If that’s your basin, you’ll never come up with a very good pogo. An inventor is someone who recognizes the existence of a conceptual basin and sees that there’s a world outside the basin.'"
PUBLISHED: Aug. 21, 2012
LENGTH: 18 minutes (4508 words)
Inside 19th Century London's sewers with "toshers," who made a living by scouring for trash and waste to be resold:
"They were mostly celebrated, nonetheless, for the living that the sewers gave them, which was enough to support a tribe of around 200 men–each of them known only by his nickname: Lanky Bill, Long Tom, One-eyed George, Short-armed Jack. The toshers earned a decent living; according to Mayhew’s informants, an average of six shillings a day–an amount equivalent to about $50 today. It was sufficient to rank them among the aristocracy of the working class–and, as the astonished writer noted, 'at this rate, the property recovered from the sewers of London would have amounted to no less than £20,000 [today $3.3 million] per annum.'"
PUBLISHED: June 29, 2012
LENGTH: 12 minutes (3178 words)
Tracing the modern Olympics back to their origin in rural England, where there was a very different set of competitive events:
"Ah, but in Much Wenlock, the Olympic spirit thrived, year after year—as it does to this day. Penny Brookes had first scheduled the games on October 22, 1850, in an effort 'to promote the moral, physical and intellectual improvement of the inhabitants' of Wenlock. However, notwithstanding this high-minded purpose, and unlike the sanctimonious claptrap that suffocates the Games today, Penny Brookes also knew how to put a smile on the Olympic face. His annual Much Wenlock games had the breezy ambience of a medieval county fair. The parade to the 'Olympian Fields' began, appropriately, at the two taverns in town, accompanied by heralds and bands, with children singing, gaily tossing flower petals. The winners were crowned with laurel wreaths, laid on by the begowned fairest of Much Wenlock’s fair maids. Besides the classic Greek fare, the competitions themselves tended to the eclectic. One year there was a blindfolded wheelbarrow race, another offered 'an old woman’s race for a pound of tea' and on yet another occasion there was a pig chase, with the intrepid swine squealing past the town’s limestone cottages until cornered 'in the cellar of Mr. Blakeway’s house.'"
PUBLISHED: June 29, 2012
LENGTH: 25 minutes (6278 words)