Category Archives: Science

Civilization Was Supposed to Make Our Lives Better, Right?

I’m writing this from the nineteenth floor of a hotel in downtown Chicago where I can’t get a solid wi-fi connection, let alone make the refrigerator cool my beer. For all our technological advances, sometimes it seems like I spend as much time cursing my laptop as I do using it. I love  modern technology and am grateful to live in the time and country that I do, but I also love camping in the woods, out of cell range, and cooking simple food on a fire.

All this techno crap was supposed my make our lives better, or whatever, yet it took me hours to drive into the city, because there was a shooting on the freeway, and then the car rental place was packed and under-staffed, the airport shuttle was a slow-moving cattle car, and of course I hop right on to the packed L trains at rush hour. At one point, I fantasized about walking all the way from the suburbs to downtown, navigating by the stars over the course of a night just to find some peace. Now that I’m in this hotel room with the artificially cooled air and shoddy connection, I wish I was camping on the shore of Lake Michigan, reading a book and roasting hot dogs on a stick for dinner.

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Mothering Is Not the Enemy of Creative Work

Many American women struggle about whether they can be both mothers and professionals, especially women with little social and financial support. Female artists know this problem too well. Is it possible to write and to parent? Do you sacrifice your painting career and creative energy to raise children? Yes, our culture says, you do. But at The Atlantic, journalist Erika Hayasaki argues that this is an oversimplification.

Hayasaki, a mother of three, understands the complex truth from experience. Before giving birth to twins, she took her first kid on reporting trips, to book readings and to the classes she teaches. Her writing life thrived. After adding twins to the mix, juggling became more complicated, but as a creative thinker, Hayasaki sees opportunities and advantages in her new paradigm.

To get insight into the relationship between motherhood and the creative life, Hayasaki looks at neuroscience, psychology, and the life of female rats. Tension will always exist between the need to do create and the need to mother. And yes, mothering takes huge amounts of time, Hayasaki argues, but it also involves many of the same elements as creativity: grit, flexibility, resourcefulness, innovation, and novel thinking.

When Abraham became a mom (her son is now 8) she realized she had to change her habits and daily patterns. She knows that fostering creativity often involves changing how you look at the world. “Being a mother gives you a different perspective,” she said. “You’re dealing with a wholly novel situation. You’re discovering a side of yourself that is completely new. All of this could be useful to creativity—which is about novelty.”

In 1953, the psychologist Morris Stein defined human creativity as the production of something original and useful. Rex Jung, a neuropsychologist at the University of New Mexico who studies creativity and the brain, takes that definition a few steps further. For an idea to be creative, it must also be surprising, he says.

Creativity requires making unusual connections. At its core, Jung said, creativity is original problem solving. This is an evolutionarily derived process that is important to survival. Humans who achieve high creativity usually have endurance and grit, Jung said. Creative people take risks, Jung said. They are bold, and adept at finding new and unusual ways to get tasks done.

“In this period of extreme pressure, when mothers are going through massive changes in their bodies, diets, and hormones,” Jung hypothesized, “that is when creativity should emerge as a highly adaptive reasoning process.”

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Atomic City

Justin Nobel | Longreads | September 2017 | 12 minutes (2,920 words)

In the middle of Idaho’s Lost River desert is a green street sign that reads “Atomic City” with an arrow pointing to a lonely gravel track. One evening, some years back, I followed it. As purplish storm clouds swallowed the sun, I came across a cluster of scraggly trees and weather-beaten trailer homes. Beside an abandoned speedway sat an antiquated ambulance and across the street a neon Bar sign twinkled in the dusk. Inside the bar, I met drifter lovers from Colorado and a potbellied man in a hunting cap who worked as a spent-fuel handler for the nearby Idaho National Laboratory. We discussed nuclear energy, of which he was, not surprisingly, a fan. Then I asked the question that had brought me to Atomic City: What caused the 1961 nuclear disaster?

The spent-fuel handler ordered a shot of Jägermeister. “Have you heard of the love triangle?” he asked. I hadn’t. All I knew was there was something fishy about the disaster. Earlier that day, when I tried bringing it up at Pickle’s Place, in Arco, Idaho, thirty miles away, I received cold stares. “You won’t find much on that,” a brawny man with a girl at his side told me as he exited the restaurant. I heard the same thing at the gas station next door, and at the fleabag motel I checked into. People aggressively knew nothing, which seemed to imply there was something to know.

“One guy’s wife was messing around with another guy,” said the fuel handler, after downing his Jäger. “He got pissed off and messed up…I shit you not.” He then reenacted how the disaster might have happened: “You fuck my wife, I fuck you up” — and with fingers clenched he yanked his hand upward, making the motion of pulling a control rod out of a reactor core. Boom.

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Why Oil-Loving Louisiana Should Embrace America’s Coming Offshore Wind Boom

Justin Nobel | Longreads | August 2017 | 8 minutes (2,051 words)

The United States is on the verge of an energy transformation. This spring the nation’s first offshore wind farm officially began powering homes and businesses on Block Island, in Rhode Island. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management maps show 12 areas that have been leased for potential offshore wind development along the East Coast, from the Outer Banks of North Carolina to Cape Cod, and a thirteenth will be leased later this year. In December 2016, Statoil Wind US, part of the Norwegian oil and gas giant, bid $42.5 million to lease, for offshore wind development, a tract of ocean that begins about 15 nautical miles southeast of New York City.

“Since Block Island came online interest in offshore wind along the East Coast has gone through the roof,” says Lorry Wagner, an engineer whose company, Lake Erie Energy Development Corporation is pushing for a wind farm off Cleveland, in Lake Erie. “Every major developer in the world wants to get into the United States and get a project.”

In my first column we journeyed across toxic Louisiana, learning that many of the state’s most terrifying environmental problems are connected to the petrochemical industry. But is there another way to provide jobs for people in south Louisiana oil country? The answer appears to be yes. Read more…

What the Future of Death Looks Like

At UCLA’s Donated Body Program, Dean Fisher uses a device to dissolve the dead bodies of donors. This alkaline hydrolysis machine, called the “Resomator,” turns bodies into liquid and pure white bone, which is then pounded and scattered at sea. Compared to cremation, alkaline hydrolysis is better for the environment, yet the process is currently only legal in the U.K. and in 14 U.S. states and three Canadian provinces. Is this the machine that could disrupt the death industry?

At Wired UK, Hayley Campbell explores this process of water cremation, which a growing number of advocates is calling a cleaner, more efficient, and ultimately less expensive alternative to burial and traditional cremation.

The machine is mid-cycle. Fisher, grey-haired and tall in light green scrubs, explains what’s happening inside the high-pressure chamber: potassium hydroxide is being mixed with water heated to 150°C. A biochemical reaction is taking place and the flesh is melting off the bones. Over the course of up to four hours, the strong alkaline base causes everything but the skeleton to break down to the original components that built it: sugar, salt, peptides and amino acids; DNA unzips into its nucleobases, cytosine, guanine, adenine, thymine. The body becomes fertiliser and soap, a sterile watery liquid that looks like weak tea. The liquid shoots through a pipe into a holding tank in the opposite corner of the room where it will cool down, be brought down to an acceptable pH for the water treatment plant, and be released down the drain.

Fisher says I can step outside if it all gets too much, but it’s not actually that terrible. The human body, liquefied, smells like steamed clams.

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America’s Plastic Legacy

I type this on a plastic keyboard, my lunch leftovers stored in a plastic container, as my infant daughter sleeps nearby next to her plastic pacifier in a rocking sleeper made of plastic. Plastics are one of humanity’s most wide-reaching, versatile and practical inventions, an influential creation arguably on par with the smelting of metal, but these unnatural materials have levied high ecological costs. Plastic bits pollute the world’s oceans, beaches, and rivers. Plastics’ parent chemicals move through the food chain, from plankton to people, into our cells.

Is there a patch of planet earth untouched by plastics? At Aeon, Rebecca Altman visits New Jersey’s old Union Carbide plant, where her father used to work, and where modern petrochemical plastic was first manufactured. Through this father-daughter tour, she assess the worldwide legacy of petrochemistry, its origins, etymology and toxic ubiquity, and her dad talks about what he saw at the factory and how, for him, recycling is a form of redemption.

In the fall of 2012, before my father and I went to New Jersey, I visited the MIT archives. I had arranged for the librarians to find my grandfather’s theses. They were well-preserved, their black bindings so taut that they creaked when I opened them. As I read his work, I remembered his basement laboratory and how, when I was young, he had made me a set of test tubes. I’d watched as he blew bulbous ends onto slender glass tubing. I don’t remember what experiments we ran afterwards, but there were powders and liquids, scales and bottles, and shifting states and colors that seemed magical and otherworldly.

Until I read his research, I didn’t know he had experimented with corn as a feedstock. This is how I discovered that there was a time before oil, and that some industrialists of the 1930s and ’40s envisioned a radically different society, with plastics, paints and fuel for cars made from carbohydrates. But in the US by the close of the 1940s, oil had replaced both biomass and coal as the substrate for making the stuff of everyday life. Union Carbide had helped lead the conversion.

In the years since my grandfather walked these paths, all living organisms have absorbed the products of 20th century petrochemistry. We now embody its genius, its intellectual property, its mistakes, and its hubris. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has confirmed the presence of at least 200 (from a possible 80,000-100,000) industrial chemicals in Americans. And though we already have clear reason for concern about their role in human health, development and reproduction, not even the scientists know exactly what their combined presence means for our future.

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The Engineers Who Can’t Quit Voyager

For the New York Times Magazine, Kim Tingley profiles the nine flight-team engineers of the 1977 Voyager mission, who have been putting off retirement to see through one of NASA’s most successful missions all the way to the end. They estimate Voyager will run out of energy by 2030 at the latest, marking the end of an era when deepest space was seen by the government, and the public at large, as a mystery worth exploring.

The two Voyager spacecraft famously carried a “golden record” to the deepest reaches of the universe, which contain sounds and images of Earth, selected by a committee helmed by Carl Sagan, should Voyager encounter any intelligent life. The mission was one of optimism and wonder. But with the end of the shuttle program in 2011, and NASA under threat of severe cuts from the Trump Administration, the wonder of space is under attack from those who would commodify it. What is the purpose of space if you can’t make money from it?

The mission quite possibly represents the end of an era of space exploration in which the main goal is observation rather than commercialization. In internal memos, Trump-administration advisers have referred to NASA’s traditional contractors as ‘‘Old Space’’ and proposed refocusing its budget on supporting the growth of the private ‘‘New Space’’ industry, Politico reported in February. ‘‘Economic development of space’’ will begin in near-Earth orbit and on the moon, according to the president’s transition team, with ‘‘private lunar landers staking out de facto ‘property rights’ for Americans on the moon, by 2020.’’

All explorations demand sacrifices in exchange for uncertain outcomes. Some of those sacrifices are social: how many resources we collectively devote to a given pursuit of knowledge. But another portion is borne by the explorer alone, who used to be rewarded with adventure and fame if not fortune. For the foreseeable future, Voyager seems destined to remain in the running for the title of Mankind’s Greatest Journey, which might just make its nine flight-team engineers — most of whom have been with the mission since the Reagan administration — our greatest living explorers. They also may be the last people left on the planet who can operate the spacecraft’s onboard computers, which have 235,000 times less memory and 175,000 times less speed than a 16-gigabyte smartphone. And while it’s true that these pioneers haven’t gone anywhere themselves, they are arguably every bit as dauntless as more celebrated predecessors. Magellan never had to steer a vessel from the confines of a dun-colored rental office, let alone stay at the helm long enough to qualify for a senior discount at the McDonald’s next door.

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The Uncomfortable Discoveries That Come with Home DNA Testing Kits

In the Washington Post, Libby Copeland follows the story of Alice Collins Plebuch, a 69-year-old woman who believed she was the daughter of Irish Americans until she took a “just-for-fun DNA test” that upended everything she thought she knew about her family history.

Genetic testing companies like 23andMe and Ancestry.com have made it much easier for consumers to learn more about their genealogy and health risks. But home testing kits have also led people to unexpected discoveries:

For adoptees, many of whom can’t access information about their birthparents because of closed adoption laws, DNA testing can let them bypass years, even decades, of conventional research to find “DNA cousins” who may very well lead them to their families.

But DNA testing can also yield uncomfortable surprises. Some testers, looking for a little more information about a grandparent’s origins, or to confirm a family legend about Native American heritage, may not be prepared for results that disrupt their sense of identity. Often, that means finding out their dad is not actually their dad, or discovering a relative that they never knew existed — perhaps a baby conceived out of wedlock or given up for adoption.

In 2014, 23andMe estimated that 7,000 users of its service had discovered unexpected paternity or previously-unknown siblings — a relatively small fraction of overall users. The company no longer provides data on surprise results. However, its customer base has more than doubled since 2014, and now contains more than 2 million people — and as more people get involved with recreational genomics, bloodline surprises are certain to become a more common experience. The 2020s may turn out to be the decade that killed family secrets, for better and for worse.

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Swabbing Filthy Surfaces for Tomorrow’s Cures

I don’t know about you, but the last two winters where I live have been plagued by extreme flu seasons, with scores of friends and coworkers complaining about getting sicker than they had in ages. Now that it’s summer, I don’t want to think about the hacking and nose-blowing of winter, but a lot of people have started asking an important question: are pathogens getting stronger?

Statistically, we know that many infections have become resistant to drugs. Between overused antibiotics and America’s obsession with antibacterial hand gel, we have created an evolutionary arms races that’s produced super bugs and drug-resistant strains. Some experts fear that resistant infections could kill 10 million people a year by 2050. Fortunately, scientists are out there fortifying our defenses. At The AtlanticMaryn McKenna writes about the scientist who revived a largely abandoned technique: collecting germs from filthy places. Gathering samples from everything from train station handrails to dog dishes to the bottom of peoples’ shoes, Adam Roberts believes that the answers to our global resistance problem lies not simply in gene-research, but in what’s called the natural microbial world, which is were our first antibiotics came from.

He decided to start where pharmaceutical chemistry had left off decades earlier: in the messy real-world settings where bacteria duke it out. He launched his campaign, called Swab and Send, in February 2015. For £5, participants got a sample tube, a mailing envelope, and an explanation of what Roberts wanted them to look for: a spot in the environment where bacteria were likely to be competing for nutrition and room to reproduce. He asked them to use their imagination. The less sanitary, the better.

In a departure from the first antibiotic searches, Roberts does not ask his sample-collectors to focus on soil. Instead he wants them to search in places his predecessors may have overlooked. “There’s such a rich microbial environment everywhere around us,” he says. “Every single place is a niche, where bacteria will have evolved and adapted independently. Soil may have evolved biological warfare, if you like, completely differently than a marine environment, or a muddy environment, or contaminated pond water. There’s a possibility of different chemistry everywhere.”

The Swab and Send campaign fired people’s enthusiasm: Within two months, Roberts received more than £1,000, and hundreds of swabs. Small checks continue to arrive by mail. (The price of participation has gone up, to £30 for five swabs.) Elementary schools invite Roberts to make presentations, and he gives the kids swabs to take home. He has taken sample tubes to parties and to newsrooms. He has two swabs that were swiped across desks in the Houses of Parliament.

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“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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