Tag Archives: Science

The Planet Is Pissed and Wants You Outta Here

(AP Photo/Diego Main/Aton Chile, File)

Lately, it seems like everything on Earth is aligned to kill us: hurricanes, fires, floods. That’s the short list. According to Howard Lee at Ars Technica, a host of scientists now believe that massive volcanic floods called Large Igneous Provinces, or LIPs, are the cause of most global mass extinctions. Scientists are trying to figure out how LIPs work and when — not if — another flood will destroy life on earth.

The article goes into fascinating geological detail about what science knows about this cataclysmic volcanism. Although the title, “When Will the Earth Try to Kill Us Again?” makes the process sound maliciously anthropomorphic, the idea of a hateful Earth, sick of humanity’s meddling, does add some welcome levity to a grave vision of our future.

Some scientists claim LIPs occur cyclically every 15 million years, and they think we’re overdue for one. Others admit we don’t understand them well enough to predict. Lee compares human activity on the earth’s surface to an LIP: We are filling the atmosphere with CO2, causing global warming and oceanic dead zones at a faster pace than LIPs. Although nobody can accurately predict when an LIP will destroy our species, we do know this: That vintage wine you’ve been saving in the basement for a rainy day? This is the rainy day. Pop the cork.

Even if LIPs are the “smoking gun” behind most mass extinctions, that still doesn’t tell us how they killed animals. It wasn’t the lava. Despite the moniker—flood basalts—these are not raging torrents. You could probably out-walk the lava from a Large Igneous Province. As vast as they were, they flowed in much the same way as lava in Iceland or Hawaii flows today, with glistening orange and grey lobes swelling, stretching, and spilling to make new lobes. An advancing front will typically move at about a kilometer or two in a day (the average person can walk that distance in 30 minutes).

Unfortunately, gas is deadlier than lava.

The 1783-4 Laki eruption in Iceland gave us a tiny taste of what to expect from a LIP. It bathed Europe in an acid haze for five months, strong enough to burn throats and eyes, scorch vegetation and tarnish metal, to kill insects and even fish. That may be a killer, but, as far as science can tell, the haze from a LIP on its own is unlikely to be sufficient to cause a mass extinction. The climate effects of volcanic gases are deadlier still. Stratospheric sulfur from Laki cooled the planet by 1.3 degrees Celsius for three years, triggering one of the most severe winters on record in Europe, North America, Russia, and Japan. Famines ensued in many parts of the world, and that may have planted the seeds for the French Revolution five years later.

A decade-long LIP eruption could cool the planet by about 4.5 degrees Celsius, although the climate would recover in 50 years. This would no doubt cause geopolitical and financial chaos, but it’s unlikely by itself to eradicate a significant percentage of species from the sea, given the time it takes to mix the oceans (about a thousand years) and their huge thermal inertia.

Read the story

The Big Black Market for Spare Human Body Parts

Getty Images

At Pacific Standard, Peter Andrey Smith reports on the black market big business of body brokers — those who prepare donated human remains for study by students, doctors, and scientists. A single human cadaver, parted out efficiently, can fetch $100,000 in a lightly regulated industry that’s ripe for fraudsters trying to make a buck on the donated dead.

In February of 2012, two duct-taped camping coolers—the kind you might take on a picnic—arrived at Delta Cargo, a freight-shipping warehouse on the northeast side of Detroit Metro airport. The airline’s ground crew tossed the coolers onto a pallet in a climate-controlled storage area. But the tape split, and a reddish liquid splattered out. Because the shipment was said to contain “five human heads with necks, two torsos, and one whole body,” it soon proved to be an expensive leak, requiring extensive biohazard remediation.

It seemed improbable that an entire body could fit inside two picnic coolers, so they pried open the lids. Inside were eight human heads, wrapped in trash bags and sitting in what appeared to be pools of blood. Eight faces, no names.

The United States is an excellent place to be in the body business. By one 2007 estimate, 20,000 human bodies are donated here annually. These donations come about directly. You can bequeath your body to anatomical gift programs operated by many universities, and you may become the “first patient” a surgeon operates on. Donations can also be arranged after death, through a network of independent firms, although in such cases your family may have only a vague notion of where your body will end up. Brokers do business with other brokers, who work with funeral homes and crematoriums that, in turn, get referrals from hospice centers—all of which means that, invariably, some donated remains end up dismembered, beheaded, and shipped around the world for profit.

You cannot legally sell a dead body—yours or anyone else’s. These brokers, instead, turn a profit off a corpse by charging for the service, not the actual goods. Their fees cover the “preparation” of cadaveric material as well as the “matching” and “placing” of remains. These re-allocation fees were once designed simply to cover the cost of transporting remains to and from medical schools.

Read the story

The Aftermarket for (Human) Spare Parts

Male and female mannequins In storage
Mannequins in Storage via Wikimedia

For many, it seems like an easy choice: You check the donor box on your driver’s license and feel a vague sense of philanthropy. “If anything happens to me, at least what’s left will be used in a meaningful way.”

Two Reuters reporters traced what happens with those “donated to science” bodies. It’s gruesome and predatory and largely unregulated.  Stop here if you’re squeamish.

Outside Southern Nevada’s suburban warehouse, the circumstances were far from comforting. In the fall of 2015, neighboring tenants began complaining about a mysterious stench and bloody boxes in a Dumpster. That December, local health records show, someone contacted authorities to report odd activity in the courtyard.

Health inspectors found a man in medical scrubs holding a garden hose. He was thawing a frozen human torso in the midday sun.

This is the “body broker” market. It’s different from the federally regulated tissue and organ donor market — the market that provides, say,  a liver to a waiting patient.

The body broker market is a for profit industry selling body parts for medical training.  Brokers often source those bodies — body parts, really — from the poor, offering partial cremation in exchange for the opportunity to sell off what’s left.

The industry’s business model hinges on access to a large supply of free bodies, which often come from the poor. In return for a body, brokers typically cremate a portion of the donor at no charge. By offering free cremation, some deathcare industry veterans say, brokers appeal to low-income families at their most vulnerable. Many have drained their savings paying for a loved one’s medical treatment and can’t afford a traditional funeral.

“People who have financial means get the chance to have the moral, ethical and spiritual debates about which method to choose,” said Dawn Vander Kolk, an Illinois hospice social worker. “But if they don’t have money, they may end up with the option of last resort: body donation.”

Few rules mean few consequences when bodies are mistreated. In the Southern Nevada case, officials found they could do little more than issue a minor pollution citation to one of the workers involved. Southern Nevada operator Joe Collazo, who wasn’t cited, said he regretted the incident. He said the industry would benefit from oversight that offers peace of mind to donors, brokers and researchers.

“To be honest with you, I think there should be regulation,” said Collazo. “There’s too much gray area.”

Read the story

Bringing Up the Bodies: How NecroSearch Helps Police to Locate the Dead

Getty Images

At 5280, Robert Sanchez profiles members of NecroSearch, a Colorado-based volunteer organization made up of dedicated lab experts, scientists, and skilled technicians. NecroSearchers apply decades of specialized experience to help law enforcement officers locate dead bodies. Their reward? Bringing closure to the families of the deceased.

In the past three decades, NecroSearch has helped police and district attorneys with more than 300 cases in 40 states and on four continents. Fifteen bodies have been discovered as a result of that work. They’ve been found in mine shafts and in landfills, hidden under a pile of rocks in the Rocky Mountains, and buried under a suburban patio in Arizona. Once, a victim was discovered stuffed inside the trunk of a car that had been dumped into the Missouri River. Another time, a body was tangled in a Northern California redwood’s root system. When a Tennessee suspect learned authorities enlisted NecroSearch to find his missing wife, the man referred to the group as a bunch of “high-tech witch doctors.”

Just before Christmas in 1985, the coroner in Glenwood Springs asked France for help identifying 12 victims who’d died in a gas-plant explosion. When she arrived, France realized it was just her. Victims were battered and blown apart, many of them burned beyond recognition. Almost immediately, emotions roiled inside her. “It was a defining moment,” she said. She had an epiphany. “I decided I needed to take all those things I was feeling, put them in a box with a bow around it, and put that box on a shelf in my mind,” France told me. “I had to separate emotion from the science.” She worked two straight days to identify the victims, pulling remains out of body bags stored inside the morgue cooler. When she was done, she turned them over to the coroner for burial. “And then,” she said, “I went on with my life.”

“I will think about all of this forever,” France told me as she sat in a chair inside her front office. She was squeezing a miniature foam brain of an orangutan like a stress ball. “I’ve seen too much to forget,” she said. “How can you not have trauma when you do what I do? There will come a time when I have to say I’m done.”

A few months ago, Clark Davenport met me at a bookstore in downtown Denver. The 75-year-old geophysicist was a few weeks from leaving for Russia on a NecroSearch-approved trip during which he would help look for the remains of Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich, the youngest brother of Tsar Nicholas II. The two men—along with Nicholas’ wife, Alexandra, and three daughters—famously had been murdered and buried in clandestine graves by Bolshevik rebels a year after the February Revolution in 1917. With the rest of the murdered Romanovs discovered in the early 1990s, finding the grand duke was considered the last piece of a historical puzzle. The trip would be Davenport’s fifth to Russia in the past decade. It was work that filled him with excitement and gave him a much-needed respite from the dozen or so ongoing, more pressing NecroSearch cases in which he was involved.

Read the story

What Makes a Disability Undesirable?

(Ton Koene / VWPics via AP Images)

Who gets to decide if a disability is bad? This is one of the fundamental questions raised by a recent STAT feature on the genetic testing of embryos, which also looks at how that decision is reached. Andrew Joseph follows two women who knowingly pursue a pregnancy with an embryo that has a mutation that would put their child at a higher risk for certain cancers. It was the only viable embryo the couple had, so if they wanted a baby they didn’t have much of a choice.

Read more…

The Dream of a Perfect Android

A robot produced by Hiroshi Ishiguro Laboratories on display at the Science Museum in London. (Ben Stansall /AFP/Getty Images)

Hiroshi Ishi­guro has spent a lifetime in pursuit of the perfect robot. He has modeled his creations on those closest to him — his wife, his child, himself — but he admits to feeling lonely while surrounded by his family, both human and inhuman. At Wired, Alex Mar unravels the depths of Ishi­guro’s passion for robots, and what he means when he tries to make them lifelike. However, Mar finds that after a lifetime of considering what it means to be human, Ishi­guro may not truly understand the basics of human interaction himself.

He has spent a lot of time talking to himself through his androids, testing them, imagining their effect on other ­people. Hiroshi (who by now has asked me to call him by his first name) tells me he’d like to record himself saying “I love you” and then program an android to repeat it back to him in a female voice. He is kidding when he says this—but maybe it’s another of his half-jokes. At the very least, he believes the need for such an exchange exists. It would be, he says, “a real conversation.” A conversation with himself.

“A conversation is a kind of illusion,” he says. “I don’t know what is going on in your brain. All I can know is what I’m thinking. Always I am asking questions to myself, but through conversations.” Over the years of operating his androids, communicating through them or with them, he has found that he isn’t really concerned about the other person’s thoughts. “Always I am thinking of myself. I need to understand your intention, but it is not a priority. Before that, I want to make clear something in my brain. Otherwise, what is the motivation to talk?”

In other words, he can only imagine using conversation with others as a means to better understand himself—and nothing is more pressing than that. He turns to the conversation the two of us are having. “We don’t know how much information we are sharing,” he tells me. “I am always guessing, and you are always guessing, and through our conversation patterns, we can believe that we exchange information. But I cannot access your brain directly.

“What is ‘connection’?” he asks. “Other person is just a mirror.”

Read the story

The Woman Who Smashed Codes: America’s Secret Weapon in World War II

  Jason Fagone | The Woman Who Smashed Codes | Harper Collins | October 2017 | 9 minutes (2,295 words)

 

Below is an excerpt from The Woman Who Smashed CodesJason Fagone’s riveting new book chronicling the work of Elizebeth Smith Friedman and William F. Friedman, a pair of “know-nothings” who invented the science of codebreaking and became the greatest codebreakers of their era. Their contributions continue to influence the U.S. intelligence community to this day. Our thanks to Jason Fagone and Harper Collins for allowing us to share a portion of this book with the Longreads community.

* * *

Sixty years after she got her first job in codebreaking, when Elizebeth was an old woman, the National Security Agency sent a female representative to her apartment in Washington, D.C. The NSA woman had a tape recorder and a list of questions. Elizebeth suddenly craved a cigarette.

It had been several days since she smoked.

“Do you want a cigarette, by the way?” Elizebeth asked her guest, then realized she was all out.

“No, do you smoke?”

Elizebeth was embarrassed. “No, no!” Then she admitted that she did smoke and just didn’t want a cigarette badly enough to leave the apartment.

The woman offered to go get some.

Oh, don’t worry, Elizebeth said, the liquor store was two blocks away, it wasn’t worth the trouble.

They started. The date was November 11, 1976, nine days after the election of Jimmy Carter. The wheels of the tape recorder spun. The agency was documenting Elizebeth’s responses for its classified history files. The interviewer, an NSA linguist named Virginia Valaki, wanted to know about certain events in the development of American codebreaking and intelligence, particularly in the early days, before the NSA and the CIA existed, and the FBI was a mere embryo — these mighty empires that grew to shocking size from nothing at all, like planets from grains of dust, and not so long ago.

Elizebeth had never given an interview to the NSA. She had always been wary of the agency, for reasons the agency knew well — reasons woven into her story and into theirs. But the interviewer was kind and respectful, and Elizebeth was eighty-four years old, and what did anything matter anymore? So she got to talking.

Her recall was impressive. Only one or two questions gave her trouble. Other things she remembered perfectly but couldn’t explain because the events remained mysterious in her own mind. “Nobody would believe it unless you had been there,” she said, and laughed.

The interviewer returned again and again to the topic of Riverbank Laboratories, a bizarre institution now abandoned, a place that helped create the modern NSA but which the NSA knew little about. Elizebeth and her future husband, William Friedman, had lived there when they were young, between 1916 and 1920, when they discovered a series of techniques and patterns that changed cryptology forever. Valaki wanted to know: What in the world happened at Riverbank? And how did two know-nothings in their early twenties turn into the best codebreakers the United States had ever seen — seemingly overnight? “I’d be grateful for any information you can give on Riverbank,” Valaki said. “You see, I don’t know enough to . . . even to ask the first questions.”

Over the course of several hours, Valaki kept pushing Elizebeth to peel back the layers of various Riverbank discoveries, to describe how the solution to puzzle A became new method B that pointed to the dawn of C, but Elizebeth lingered instead on descriptions of people and places. History had smoothed out all the weird edges. She figured she was the last person alive who might remember the crags of things, the moments of uncertainty and luck, the wild accelerations. The analyst asked about one particular scientific leap six different times; the old woman gave six slightly different answers, some meandering, some brief, including one that is written in the NSA transcript as “Hah! ((Laughs.))”

Toward the end of the conversation, Elizebeth asked if she had thought to tell the story of how she ended up at Riverbank in the first place, working for the man who built it, a man named George Fabyan. It was a story she had told a few times over the years, a memory outlined in black. Valaki said no, Elizebeth hadn’t already told this part. “Well, I better give you that,” Elizebeth said. “It’s not only very, very amusing, but it’s actually true syllable by syllable.”

“Alright.”

“You want me to do that now?” Elizebeth said.

“Absolutely.”

* * *

She met George Fabyan at a library in Chicago one day in June 1916, when she was 23. She went to the library alone to look at a rare volume of Shakespeare from 1623, the “First Folio,” and to ask the librarians if they knew of any open positions in Chicago in the field of literature or research.

* * *

During the library’s first decades, the masters of the Newberry acquired books with the single-mindedness of hog merchants. They bought hundreds of incunabula, printed volumes from before 1501, written by monks. They bought fragile, faded books written by hand on unusual materials, on leather and wood and parchment and vellum. They bought mysterious books of disputed patrimony, books whose past lives they did not know and could not explain. One book on the Newberry’s shelves featured Arabic script and a supple, leathery binding. Inside were two inscriptions. The first said that the book had been found “in the palace of the king of Delhi, September 21st, 1857,” seven days after a mutiny. The second inscription said, “Bound in human skin.”

In one especially significant transaction, the library acquired six thousand books from a Cincinnati hardware merchandiser, a haul that included a Fourth Folio of Shakespeare from 1685, a Second Folio from 1632, and most exceptional of all, the First Folio of 1623, the original printing of Shakespeare’s plays.

This is the book that Elizebeth Smith was determined to see.

Opening the glass front door of the Newberry, she walked through a small vestibule into a magnificent Romanesque lobby. A librarian at a desk stopped her and sized her up. Normally Elizebeth would have been required to fill out the form with her research topic, but she had gotten lucky. The year 1916 happened to be the three hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, and libraries around the country, including the Newberry, were mounting exhibitions in celebration.

Elizebeth said she was here to see the First Folio. The librarian said it was part of the exhibition and pointed to a room on the first floor, to the left. Elizebeth approached. The Folio was on display under glass.

The book was large and dense, about 13 inches tall and 8 inches wide, and almost dictionary-thick, running to nine hundred pages. The binding was red and made of highly polished goatskin, with a large grain. The pages had gilded edges. It was opened to a pair of pages in the front, the light gray paper tinged with yellow due to age. She saw an engraving of a man in an Elizabethan-era collar and jacket, his head mostly bald except for two neatly combed hanks of hair that ended at his ears. The text said:

MR. WILLIAM SHAKESPEARES COMEDIES,
HISTORIES, &
TRAGEDIES.
Publifhed according to the True Originall Copies.
LONDON
Printed by Ifaac Iaggard, and Ed. Blount. 1623.

Elizebeth later wrote that seeing the Folio gave her the same feeling “that an archaeologist has, when he suddenly realizes that he has discovered a tomb of a great pharaoh.”

One of the librarians, a young woman, must have noticed the expression of entrancement on her face, because now she walked over to Elizebeth and asked if she was interested in Shakespeare. They got to talking and realized they had a lot in common. The librarian had grown up in Richmond, Indiana, not far from Elizebeth’s hometown, and they were both from Quaker families.

Elizebeth felt comfortable enough to mention that she was looking for a job in literature or research. “I would like something unusual,” she said.

The librarian thought for a second. Yes, that reminded her of Mr. Fabyan. She pronounced the name with a long a, like “Faybe-yin.”

Elizebeth had never heard the name, so the librarian explained. George Fabyan was a wealthy Chicago businessman who often visited the library to examine the First Folio. He said he believed the book contained secret messages written in cipher, and he had made it known that he wished to hire an assistant, preferably a “young, personable, attractive college graduate who knew English literature,” to further this research. Would Elizebeth be interested in a position like that?

Elizebeth was too startled to know what to say.

“Shall I call him up?” the librarian asked.

“Well, yes, I wish you would, please,” Elizebeth said.

The librarian went off for a few moments, then signaled to Elizebeth. Mr. Fabyan would be right over, she said. Elizebeth thought: What?

Yes, Mr. Fabyan happened to be in Chicago today. He would be here any minute.


Kickstart your weekend reading by getting the week’s best Longreads delivered to your inbox every Friday afternoon.

Sign up


Sure enough, Fabyan soon arrived in his limousine. He burst into the library, asked Elizebeth the question that so bewildered and stunned her — “Will you come to Riverbank and spend the night with me?” — and led her by the arm to the waiting vehicle.

“This is Bert,” he growled, nodding at his chauffeur, Bert Williams. Fabyan climbed in with Elizebeth in the back.

From the Newberry, the chauffeur drove them south and west for twenty blocks until they arrived at the soaring Roman columns of the Chicago & North Western Terminal, one of the busiest of the city’s five railway stations. Fabyan hurried her out of the limo, up the steps, between the columns, and into the nine-hundred-foot-long train shed, a vast, darkened shaft of platforms and train cars and people rushing every which way. She asked Fabyan if she could send a message to her family at the telegraph office in the station, letting them know her whereabouts. Fabyan said no, that wasn’t necessary, and there wasn’t any time.

She followed him toward a Union Pacific car. Fabyan and Elizebeth climbed aboard at the back end. Fabyan walked her all the way to the front of the car and told her to sit in the frontmost seat, by the window. Then he went galumphing back through the car saying hello to the other passengers, seeming to recognize several, gossiping with them about this and that, and joking with the conductor in a matey voice while Elizebeth waited in her window seat and the train did not move. It sat there, and sat there, and sat there, and a bubble of panic suddenly popped in her stomach, the hot acid rising to her throat.

“Where am I?” she thought to herself. “Who am I? Where am I going? I may be on the other side of the world tonight.” She wondered if she should get up, right that second, while Fabyan had his back turned, and run.

But she remained still until Fabyan had finished talking to the other passengers and came tramping back to the front of the car. He packed his big body into the seat opposite hers. She smiled at him, trying to be proper and polite, like she had been taught, and not wanting to offend a millionaire; she had grown up in modest enough circumstances to be wary of the rich and their power.

Then Fabyan did something she would remember all her life. He rocked forward, jabbed his reddened face to within inches of hers, fixed his blue eyes on her hazel ones, and thundered, loud enough for everyone in the car to hear, “Well, WHAT IN HELL DO YOU KNOW?”

Elizebeth leaned away from Fabyan and his question. It inflamed something stubborn in her. She turned her head away in a gesture of disrespect, resting her cheek against the window to create some distance. The pilgrim collar of her dress touched the cold glass. From that position she shot Fabyan a sphinxy, sidelong gaze.

“That remains, sir, for you to find out,” she said.

It occurred to her afterward that this was the most immoral remark she had ever made in her life. Fabyan loved it. He leaned way back, making the seat squeak with his weight, and unloosed a great roaring laugh that slammed through the train car and caromed off the thin steel walls.

Then his facial muscles slackened into an expression clearly meant to convey deep thought, and as the train lurched forward, finally leaving the station, he began to talk of Shakespeare, the reason he had sought her out.

Hamlet, he said. Julius Caesar, Romeo and Juliet, The Tempest, the sonnets — the most famous written works in the world. Countless millions had read them, quoted them, memorized them, performed them, used pieces of them in everyday speech without even knowing. Yet all those readers had missed something. A hidden order, a secret of indescribable magnitude.

Out the train window, the grid of Chicago gave way to the silos and pale yellow vistas of the prairie. Each second she was getting pulled more deeply into the scheme of this stranger, destination unknown.

The First Folio, he continued. The Shakespeare book at the Newberry Library. It wasn’t what it seemed. The words on the page, which appeared to be describing the wounds and treacheries of lovers and kings, in fact told a completely different story, a secret story, using an ingenious system of secret writing. The messages revealed that the author of the plays was not William Shakespeare. The true author, and the man who had concealed the messages, was in fact Francis Bacon, the pioneering scientist and philosopher-king of Elizabethan England.

Elizebeth looked at the rich man. She could tell he believed what he was saying.

Fabyan went on. He said that a brilliant female scholar who worked for him, Mrs. Elizabeth Wells Gallup, had already succeeded in unweaving the plays and isolating Bacon’s hidden threads. But for reasons that would become clear, Mrs. Gallup needed an assistant with youthful energy and sharp eyes. This is why Fabyan wanted Elizebeth to join him and Mrs. Gallup at Riverbank — his private home, his 350-acre estate, but also so much more.

* * *

From the book THE WOMAN WHO SMASHED CODES: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies by Jason Fagone. Copyright © 2017 by Jason Fagone. Reprinted by permission of Dey Street Books, an Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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.

Read more…

The Uncomfortable Discoveries That Come with Home DNA Testing Kits

Photo: Associated Press

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.

Read the story

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.

Read the story