Category Archives: Science

“Beef and cheese are the most important ingredients… But really, cheese.”

The U.S.’s reputation in the world might be in a state of… flux, let’s say. But there’s one thing we can still boast about: the 1.3 billion pounds of surplus cheese we have in cold storage. In Bloomberg Businessweek, Clint Rainey introduces us to government-sponsored Dairy Management Inc., which is charged with packing as much dairy into food as is possible, sometimes by embedding food scientists like Lisa McClintock into companies like Pizza Hut and Taco Bell to help engineer maximum cheese delivery. You can thank them for Pizza Hut’s cheese-stuffed crust and for Taco Bell’s latest hit, the Quesalupa.

“If you tried using something like cheddar, you’d get too much oiling off,” McClintock says. “It’s a fattier cheese—it’s not going to hold up well in terms of cheese pull.” She also quickly nixed mozzarella. “Great stretch, but you expect something bold from Taco Bell,” she says. “Pepper jack gave us the extra kick from the jalapeños.” Crucially, it’s also a high-moisture cheese, which means fewer casein connections and therefore a more reliable melt. She toyed with the idea of inserting a cheese “puck” into the tortilla pocket to see if that melted more uniformly, but grated cheese proved the most even. McClintock and Gomez recall intense competitions in the lab where they’d fry up a bunch of Quesalupas and tear them apart to see who could get the longest cheese pull. Winners sometimes stretched theirs a full arm span.

(More exciting advances in cheese science are on the horizon, as Taco Bell’s R&D department is hard at work on Quesalupa 2.0 which, rumor has is, will come in “Volcano and Bacon Club” flavors. If you’re wondering where the Doritos Quesalupa Crunch is, don’t worry: they started testing it this spring.)

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The Louisiana Environmental Apocalypse Road Trip

Justin Nobel | Longreads | July 2017 | 16 minutes (4,000 words)

If you’re visiting New Orleans and want to see something truly amazing, take your beer or daiquiri to-go and walk a few blocks past the Superdome—you’ll find a school being constructed on an old waste dump.

“All the toxins from the landfill are still there,” says toxicologist Wilma Subra. These toxins include lead, mercury, and arsenic, exposure to which can lead to reproductive damage, and skin and lung cancer. Even more astonishing, Subra says hundreds of schools across Louisiana have been built on waste dumps. Why? Dumps represent cheap land often already owned by a cash-strapped town or city, plus serve as rare high ground in a flood-prone state. And this is just the beginning of Louisiana’s nightmare.

The risk of cancer in Reserve, a community founded by freed slaves, is 800 times the national average, making the community, by one EPA metric, the most carcinogenic census tract in America—the cause is a DuPont/Denka chemical plant adjacent to the town that annually spews 250,000 pounds of the likely carcinogen chloroprene into the air. If you think the situation in Flint is bad, there are approximately 400 public water systems in Louisiana with lead or other hazardous substances leaching into the drinking water. Meanwhile, hundreds of petrochemical plants peppered across the state’s lush swampy interior freely emit carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, and neurotoxins into the air and water, as well as inject them deep into the earth.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that Louisiana is ranked, according to different surveys, 47th in environmental quality, third in poverty, and 49th in education. Are you still gushing about your latest trip to New Orleans for Jazz Fest Presented by Shell, or French Quarter Festival presented by Chevron? “New Orleans is the best,” one visitor recently wrote to me, “you are so smart to live there!” But how smart is it to allow children to attend school built on toxin-laced waste? How smart is it to allow a community’s cancer rates to shoot off the charts? Louisiana is rich in culture, spirit, and faith, yet what type of state knowingly poisons its own people? What type of country stands by and allows it to happen?

While it is fashionable to critique President Trump for his scientific ignorance, science was misdirected long before Trump laid hands on it. It is time to open our eyes and see what is really going on in this world, to critique our society’s dinosaur methods, then step back and imagine what a new path forward might look like. It is with this aim that I begin a science column for Longreads. In my first story I’ll tour us through a land America should have never allowed to materialize—it’s what I’m calling the Louisiana Environmental Apocalypse Road Trip. As the Trump administration chucks environmental science out the window, evaporates industry regulations, and cripples agencies charged with protecting the environment, this tale is relevant for all Americans, because the poisoning happening in Louisiana could happen in your state too—in fact, it is probably already happening.

But for now sit back, enjoy a signature New Orleans cocktail from the comfort of your couch or chair, and get ready to keep reminding yourself: Yes, this is occurring in 2017 in the United States of America. Read more…

Despair All Ye Who Enter Into the Climate Change Fray

A New York Magazine story on climate change is making the rounds on the internet, frequently being shared by people characterizing it as a “terrifying” “must-read.” “It is, I promise, worse than you think,” writes David Wallace-Wells, who goes on to tell his readers that even the most anxious among them are unaware of the terrors that are possible “even within the lifetime of a teenager today.”

What many readers seem to be overlooking is how frequently words like “may” appear in the text of Wallace-Wells’ article. “May” is in there seven times; “suggest” six times, “possible” and its variants a few more. Wallace-Wells is, of course, referencing the positions of scientists, whom he says have become extra cautious due to “climate denialism,” steering the public away from “speculative warnings” that could be debunked by future scientific progress, weakening their own case and giving weight to their opponents.

As Jack El-Hai wrote for Longreads in April of this year, science editor Peter Gwynne is still dogged by an article he wrote for Newsweek more than 40 years ago, “The Cooling World,” which predicted — wrongly, as it turns out — another Ice Age. The prediction at the time was supported by evidence, he claimed, that was mounting so quickly, “meteorologists are hard-pressed to keep up with it.” The evidence Gwynne relied on has since been disproved — a phenomenon not uncommon a field as relatively young as climate study. As El-Hai noted:

The study of the world’s climate was still primitive in the 1970s. Few meteorological scientists then knew how to interpret trending temperature information, and the cause of climate changes was mysterious. The information that climate researchers had collected was incomplete and easy to misread. The biosciences have advanced by huge leaps since then, and many more scientists now study the climate.

Gwynne’s article was used for decades as fodder by those who trade in what Wallace-Wells dubs “climate denialisms,” showing how those determined not to believe in a certain scientific finding can benefit from the natural trial-and-error of most scientific inquiry.

After Wallace-Wells’s piece was published, climate scientist Michael E. Mann took to Facebook to criticize his story. (He also claimed Wallace-Wells interviewed but didn’t quote or mention him). Mann is equally critical of “doomist framing” and “those who understate the risks” of climate change, and argues that Wallace-Wells’ article includes “extraordinary claims” without “extraordinary evidence” to back it up.

About the risk of catastrophic methane released by melting permafrost, for example, Mann says the science “is much more nuanced and doesn’t support the notion of a game-changing, planet-melting methane bomb. It is unclear that much of this frozen methane can be readily mobilized by projected warming.”

Mann also highlights Wallace-Wells’ referencing of “satellite data showing the globe warming, since 1998, more than twice as fast as scientists had thought.”

“That’s just not true,” writes Mann. “The study in question simply showed that one particular satellite temperature dataset that had tended to show less warming that the other datasets, has now been brought in line with the other temperature data after some problems with that dataset were dealt with… The warming of the globe is pretty much progressing as models predicted… which is bad enough.”

Mann’s position is that the evidence supporting the notion that climate change is “a serious problem that we must contend with now” is overwhelming enough without a doomsday narrative that he fears has a “paralyzing” effect and makes people feel hopeless, potentially deterring efforts to mitigate the human-caused harm.

There’s an argument to be made in defense of Wallace-Wells’ meltdown-style writing, however. As Atlas Obscura staff writer Sarah Laskow noted on Twitter, the exploration on which he embarks is hardly novel — New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert won a Pulitzer this year for a book on the topic, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. Yet, Wallace-Wells’ story got readers’ attention in a way that seemed to suggest it was news they’d never encountered before.

For scientists like Mann, it’s true that the evidence easily at our fingertips is compelling enough to warrant immediate mitigating efforts. But not everyone is a scientist like Mann. As El-Hai noted in his piece on Gwynne’s disproved Newsweek article, a U.S. Senator held up a snowball on the Senate floor in 2015 as part of an argument that global warming isn’t real. Today, Antarctica is poised to shed one of the largest icebergs ever recorded, while the Trump administration is abandoning international climate agreements, undoing dozens of environmental regulations dealing with everything from methane to grizzly bears to chemical spills and using the agency meant to protect the environment to launch a program challenging climate science. In light of all that, it’s just as easy to sympathize with Mann’s concern about making people feel so hopeless they believe there’s nothing left to be done, as it is hard to blame Wallace-Wells for despairing.

Reunification Will Have to Bridge the DMZ and Massive Technological Gaps

Some physicians in South Korea are working to understand the differences in healthcare across the DMZ and health issues North Korean defectors face, in preparation for eventual reunification — not easy when the medical tools Northern Korean physicians have are so drastically outdated and when support for reunification is dropping in the South. At Undark, Sara Talpos talks to the doctors trying to bridge these gaps.

The practice of medicine is sharply different in the two countries. In North Korea, the focus is on infectious disease and physical trauma, often caused by coal-mining injuries. Doctors learn only the basics of other diseases because specialized medicines and equipment — chemotherapy for cancer, for example — simply aren’t available.

Ko laughs when I tell him I’ve heard North Korean X-ray images are so poor that a South Korean doctor wouldn’t be able to understand them. “Yes, that’s true,” he says, sipping a cup of coffee. We’re meeting at Steff Hotdog, a fast-food restaurant located, somewhat improbably, inside Anam Hospital. “That’s because they don’t have X-ray film.” Instead, the doctor takes the patient into a dark room, where the patient stands between the X-ray machine and a translucent screen. Ko borrows my pen to illustrate. His doctor sits hunched over on a stool like Rodin’s “The Thinker.”

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A Village Falls into the Sea

Scientists study ice on the Chukchi Sea

In the middle of the map, climate change can feel like an abstraction. Is a warmer, wetter summer an anomaly in the weather pattern, or part of a greater change? Is this an early heat wave just a seasonal spike?

At the edges of the map though, the impact is very real. Solid ground is literally disappearing. At Sierra, Rachel Rivera visits Shishmaref, an island village north of Nome, Alaska, and witnesses the effect that global warming — and the resulting rising sea level — has had on this remote Native Alaskan settlement.

Long accustomed to living under the most extreme weather conditions, Inupiaq communities on Alaska’s Arctic coast are facing their toughest challenge yet. The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet. Average air temperatures are more than 6°F warmer than they were at the beginning of the 20th century, and the lack of reflective snow is causing both land and sea to absorb more solar heat. The sea ice, critical to the creatures that sustain human life here, is melting. Sea ice also serves as a natural buffer, shielding coastal communities from the direct impact of storms. Recently, Shishmaref has been subject to stronger storm surges and increased flooding. A storm in 2013 eroded 50 feet of the beach overnight—including part of the road next to the airstrip, the only way out if the village should have to evacuate.

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(Re)Merchandising NASA as a Feminist Act

Four Women on the International Space Station, 2010

On Women You Should Know, Dr. Katie Hinde shares the responses she received after tweeting about moving some NASA shirts from the boys section to the girls section in an unnamed big box store.

A whole lot of criticism.

Every few years I manage to touch the 3rd rail of the internet and I am reminded how aggressively histrionic so many men can be toward women disrupting the status quo. Since this tweet I have been called repeatedly (offensive terms warning) “idiot”, “ass”, “whore”, “piece of shit”, “dick”, “moron”, “twat”, “bitch”, “crazy bitch”, “asshole”, “motherfucker”, “garbage”, “cancer”, “psychopath”, “faggot”, “dyke”, “dyke ass”, “cunt”, and “retard”. I’ve been told to “shut up” and “fuck off”. I was told I should be “punched in the head”, “raped”, “euthanized”, that I “needed a bullet to the brain”, and “should kill myself”. I was sent cartoons of Nazis kicking women on the ground.

It wasn’t all straight up sexist hate; Hinde was also criticized for making extra work for retailers, “white feminist BS,” and not doing the right thing to create change. Some of it she thoughtfully considers — and she follows up with the store the next day.

But other comments solidify her case.

And many times while they were cursing at me, they included the assertion that what I was doing was useless, didn’t matter, and was totally insignificant.

A personal note: my NASA t-shirt came from the men’s section. So thanks, Dr. Hinde.

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He Doesn’t Know What It’s Like to Feel Pain. She Feels It All the Time

In the 2000 film Unbreakable, we’re introduced to two characters at opposite ends of a spectrum: an extremely frail man with a brittle bone disease played by Samuel L. Jackson, and a man with superhuman levels of strength and invulnerability played by Bruce Willis.

“However unreal it may seem, we are connected, you and I,” Jackson’s character tells Willis’. “We’re on the same curve, just on opposite ends.”

In a recent issue of Wired reporter Erika Hayasaki introduced us to another set of people on the opposite ends of a spectrum.

Steven Pete has a rare neurological condition that makes him unable to feel pain.

Pete pauses for a moment and recalls a white Washington day a few years ago. “We had thick snow, and we went inner-tubing down a hill. Well, I did a scorpion, where you take a running start and jump on the tube. You’re supposed to land on your stomach, but I hit it at the wrong angle. I face-planted on the hill, and my back legs just went straight up over my head.” Pete got up and returned to tubing, and for the next eight months he went on as usual, until he started noticing the movement in his left arm and shoulder felt off. His back felt funny too. He ended up getting an MRI. “The doctor looked at my MRI results, and he was like, ‘Have you been in a car accident? About six months ago? Were you skydiving?’ ”

“I haven’t done either,” Pete replied.

The doctor stared at his patient in disbelief. “You’ve got three fractured vertebrae.” Pete had broken his back.

Pam Costa has the opposite neurological condition — she feels pain constantly, as if her body is on fire.

Because the inflammation is exacerbated by physical contact, stress, and even the smallest elevation in surrounding temperature, Costa lives her life with great care. She wears loose-fitting clothes because fabric feels like a blowtorch against her skin. She sleeps with chilled pillows because the slightest heat makes her limbs feel like they are crackling. “Have you ever been out in the bitter, bitter cold, where your feet were ice?” she asks me. “Almost frostbite? Then you warm them up and it burns? That burning sensation: That is what it feels like all the time.”

Pete and Costa are also connected, sharing a genetic link that has helped scientists understand why we experience pain and how to treat it.

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The Surprising Social Habits of Crows

At Seattle Met, James Ross Gardner reports on the surprising social arrangements and habits of crows, who recognize and remember individual people and hold funerals to honor their dead — a phenomenon that is helping scientists like Kaeli Swift understand how intelligent creatures process death. Feed a crow and she will gift you with keys and candy as tokens of her appreciation. Treat her poorly and she and her corvid compatriots may mob you on sight.

But what if I were to tell you that the crows you spy in your yard are almost always the same individual crows? That those birds—usually two, a male and a female known as a territorial pair—don’t live there but fly in every day from 20 miles away? During the day urban crows rummage and build nests in a specific spot, in a specific neighborhood, then decamp for the evening to a massive, crowded roost outside the city—their own crow planet— and report back to the neighborhoods each morning. Like you, they commute to work.

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Sometimes You’re the Bug. Far Fewer Times, of Late.

Wasp on a Windshield

At my house, we’d noticed the lack of bees this spring, but we’d chalked it up to the late arrival of warm weather and a rainier-than-usual season. Turns out our anecdotal data gathering isn’t entirely off — there are fewer bugs. Of all kinds.

In Science, Gretchen Vogel asks why we’re spending less time cleaning the windshield, and what that means further up the food chain.

Entomologists call it the windshield phenomenon. “If you talk to people, they have a gut feeling. They remember how insects used to smash on your windscreen,” says Wolfgang Wägele, director of the Leibniz Institute for Animal Biodiversity in Bonn, Germany. Today, drivers spend less time scraping and scrubbing. “I’m a very data-driven person,” says Scott Black, executive director of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation in Portland, Oregon. “But it is a visceral reaction when you realize you don’t see that mess anymore.”

Some people argue that cars today are more aerodynamic and therefore less deadly to insects. But Black says his pride and joy as a teenager in Nebraska was his 1969 Ford Mustang Mach 1—with some pretty sleek lines. “I used to have to wash my car all the time. It was always covered with insects.” Lately, Martin Sorg, an entomologist here, has seen the opposite: “I drive a Land Rover, with the aerodynamics of a refrigerator, and these days it stays clean.”

Though observations about splattered bugs aren’t scientific, few reliable data exist on the fate of important insect species. Scientists have tracked alarming declines in domesticated honey bees, monarch butterflies, and lightning bugs. But few have paid attention to the moths, hover flies, beetles, and countless other insects that buzz and flitter through the warm months. “We have a pretty good track record of ignoring most noncharismatic species,” which most insects are, says Joe Nocera, an ecologist at the University of New Brunswick in Canada.

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The Gun Barrel and the Damage Done: A Profile of Trauma Surgeon Amy Goldberg

What exactly does a bullet do to flesh as it careens through the body? At Highline, Jason Fagone profiles Philadelphia trauma surgeon Dr. Amy Goldberg, a woman on the front lines of gun violence as she attempts to repair the broken bodies that arrive daily at Temple University Hospital. Dr. Goldberg doesn’t only fix the damage, she’s also working to prevent it. After a patient died the third time he was shot, she worked with friend and coworker Scott Charles to create a social program, Turning Point, which has been instrumental in stopping gun violence before it starts.

More than 30,000 people die of gunshot wounds each year in America, around 75,000 more are injured, and we have no visceral sense of what physically happens inside a person when he’s shot. (Dr. Amy) Goldberg does.

“The creation of a person, you know. It’s the heart beating and the lungs bringing air. It is so miraculous.” Surgery, for Goldberg, was a way of honoring the miracle. And trauma surgery was the ultimate form of appreciation, because a surgeon in trauma experienced so much variety. She might be operating on the carotid artery in the neck, or the heart in the chest, or the large bowel or small bowel in the abdomen, or the femoral artery in the thigh, at any given moment, on any given night.

“As a country,” Goldberg said, “we lost our teachable moment.” She started talking about the 2012 murder of 20 schoolchildren and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Goldberg said that if people had been shown the autopsy photos of the kids, the gun debate would have been transformed. “The fact that not a single one of those kids was able to be transported to a hospital, tells me that they were not just dead, but really really really really dead. Ten-year-old kids, riddled with bullets, dead as doornails.”

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