How the legendary baseball player’s cancer treatment in the 1940s helped pave the way for how we treat cancer today.
Sequencing the genomes of babies can reveal information that can save their lives, but that information can also be used for less noble things, like giving parents the ability to select their baby’s eye color.
The writer joins a group of scientists on a shark tagging expedition in the Bahamas:
“Hammerschlag, 34, spends nearly every weekend out on the water in South Florida, armed with hooks, lines, and tags. As a result, he is intimately acquainted with the limits of current technology; most tags, he says, are too expensive and don’t last long enough. Two years ago, he partnered with Marco Flagg, an engineer, to develop a new device. The production version of the HammerTag, he says, will last years and maybe even decades attached to a shark; it will be hundreds of dollars cheaper; and it will provide a thousand times the data.
“Data, Hammerschlag says, will lead scientists to identify nurseries and hunting grounds for the first time. It will reveal life cycles to determine when the animals are most vulnerable. And with enough of it, conservationists could influence legislators. Without effective legislation, Hammerschlag says, shark populations will surely continue to decline—and the ocean with them.”
NASA built a satellite designed to track global warming. It never launched, and more than a decade later, it sits in a box in Maryland:
“It has never become entirely clear why the satellite had ended up here. In his 2009 book Our Choice, Gore wrote, ‘The Bush Cheney administration canceled the launch within days of taking office on January 20, 2001, and forced NASA to put the satellite into storage.’ Warren Wiscombe, a senior physical scientist at NASA, blames a Bush-era ‘hostility’ to earth science at NASA. ‘As to who ordered the axing of the mission,’ he says, ‘we’ll never know, but the word we got was that Dick Cheney was behind it.’
“Mitchell Anderson, a Vancouver-based reporter who has obsessively covered the DSCOVR story, also suspects Cheney’s hand, citing an unnamed NASA informant. Over the course of three years, Anderson filed five Freedom of Information Act requests for documents related to DSCOVR. After querying NASA in 2006, he waited 11 months to receive the documents. ‘They told me they were consulting with their lawyers,’ says Anderson, who was then writing for desmogblog.com. ‘When they finally e-mailed me the documents, they were scanned sideways. I couldn’t read the top and bottom of the pages.’ The 70-page packet contained mostly letters that prominent scientists had written in defense of DSCOVR. All correspondence relating to the mission’s mothballing was excluded.”
Brain injuries can result in “acquired savant syndrome,” in which ordinary people develop remarkable skills after suffering head trauma:
“It would be weeks before the full impact of Amato’s head trauma became apparent: 35 percent hearing loss in one ear, headaches, memory loss. But the most dramatic consequence appeared just four days after his accident. Amato awoke hazy after near-continuous sleep and headed over to Sturm’s house. As the two pals sat chatting in Sturm’s makeshift music studio, Amato spotted a cheap electric keyboard.
“Without thinking, he rose from his chair and sat in front of it. He had never played the piano—never had the slightest inclination to. Now his fingers seemed to find the keys by instinct and, to his astonishment, ripple across them. His right hand started low, climbing in lyrical chains of triads, skipping across melodic intervals and arpeggios, landing on the high notes, then starting low again and building back up. His left hand followed close behind, laying down bass, picking out harmony. Amato sped up, slowed down, let pensive tones hang in the air, then resolved them into rich chords as if he had been playing for years. When Amato finally looked up, Sturm’s eyes were filled with tears.”
An Italian inventor may have created a machine that can generate so much cheap energy, it would put oil companies out of business. Or it all may be a spectacular scam:
“On the last day of the conference, Dennis Bushnell, chief scientist at Langley Research Center, summed up the state of LENR research. Guys like Rossi play a crucial role, for better or for worse. ‘This will go directly from the garage, the Edisonian experiments, to market, bypassing the science and the rigorous engineering research,’ Bushnell said. ‘And there are major investors ready to move on this—an amazing number—given a credible third-party seal of approval. I mean, this can move fast. If we ever get a credible assessment in the kilowatt range’—one kilowatt will power ten 100-watt lightbulbs—’the world changes overnight.’ Bushnell paused and took a sip of water. ‘We have so screwed up this planet,’ he said, raising his voice. ‘This is one of the few things I know of that’s capable for atoning for our sins.’
“To my astonishment, after three days of asking every cold-fusion researcher in the house, I couldn’t find a single person willing to call Rossi a con man. The consensus was that he had something, even if he didn’t understand why it worked or how to control it. The more I learned, the more confused I became. Could Rossi actually have something real? The only way to know for sure was to go to Italy.”
Excerpt from the new book Spillover, on understanding the threat of RNA viruses like Marburg, Ebola, West Nile and SARS—and how humans can help contain them:
“During the early 20th century, disease scientists from the Rockefeller Foundation and other institutions conceived the ambitious goal of eradicating some infectious diseases entirely. They tried hard with yellow fever, spending millions of dollars and many years of effort, and failed. They tried with malaria and failed. They tried later with smallpox and succeeded. Why? The differences among those three diseases are many and complex, but probably the most crucial one is that smallpox resided neither in a reservoir host nor in a vector, such as a mosquito or tick. Its ecology was simple. It existed in humans—in humans only—and was therefore much easier to eradicate. The campaign to eradicate polio, begun in 1998 by WHO and other institutions, is a realistic effort for the same reason: Polio isn’t zoonotic. Eradicating a zoonotic disease, whether a directly transmitted one like Ebola or an insect-vectored one such as yellow fever, is much more complicated. Do you exterminate the pathogen by exterminating the species of bat or primate or mosquito in which it resides? Not easily, you don’t, and not without raising an outcry. The notion of eradicating chimpanzees as a step toward preventing the future spillover of another HIV would provoke a deep and bitter discussion, to put it mildly.
“That’s the salubrious thing about zoonotic diseases: They remind us, as St. Francis did, that we humans are inseparable from the natural world. In fact, there is no ‘natural world,’ it’s a bad and artificial phrase.”
Life on the job with a team of nuclear divers. As nuclear power plants age, they require more upkeep—and much of that work can happen underwater:
“Last March, a tsunami hit Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, leading to a disastrous series of reactor meltdowns. The consequences were immediate. Germany vowed to phase out nuclear power, and other countries spoke of following suit. In the U.S., the nuclear-energy renaissance was left suspended in time. But even as its future remains uncertain, nuclear energy remains an indisputable part of our present. And as our power plants continue aging with no viable replacements, the challenges facing the nuclear industry will only continue to grow. So will the potential for another disaster. The threat of radiation poisoning hangs over everyone who works at or lives near a nuclear plant, but no one more than the divers, who literally swim in the stuff.”
For years, doctors attempted to create artificial hearts that mimicked the real heart—using methods that recreate blood pumping. Billy Cohn and Bud Frazier instead developed a continuous-flow device that has worked on calves and some humans, including patient Rahel Elmer Reger:
“The little quilted backpack held two lithium-ion batteries and the HeartMate II’s computerized controller, which are connected by cable through a hole in Reger’s side. Needless to say, she has never left her backpack on a bus. ‘My cousin once disconnected me, though, by mistake,’ she said. ‘I was showing her how to change the battery. She disconnected one, and then—I was distracted for a second—the other. I yelled, “You can’t do that!” and then passed out. The device blares at you. She reconnected it, and I came back. I was probably out for 10 seconds. She was completely freaked out.'”
What happens when your teenage son is obsessed with nuclear research and wants to experiment in the backyard? How 17-year-old Taylor Wilson found support from his family and a group of scientist mentors:
“Kenneth and Tiffany agreed to let Taylor assemble a ‘survey of everyday radioactive materials’ for his school’s science fair. Kenneth borrowed a Geiger counter from a friend at Texarkana’s emergency-management agency. Over the next few weekends, he and Tiffany shuttled Taylor around to nearby antique stores, where he pointed the clicking detector at old radium-dial alarm clocks, thorium lantern mantles and uranium-glazed Fiesta plates. Taylor spent his allowance money on a radioactive dining set.
“Drawn in by what he calls ‘the surprise properties’ of radioactive materials, he wanted to know more. How can a speck of metal the size of a grain of salt put out such tremendous amounts of energy? Why do certain rocks expose film? Why does one isotope decay away in a millionth of a second while another has a half-life of two million years?”