What sparked the Cambrian explosion?
Nature, 18 February 2016
A series of craggy pinnacles rises above the grasslands of Namibia. They evoke the visceral feeling of burial mounds, past civilizations, or vast, Ozymandean pyramids whose tips are only now re-emerging from the crumbling Earth. They are indeed monuments of a faded empire – pinnacle reefs built by ancient cyanobacteria on the seafloor, 543 million years ago. These reefs record a pivotal moment in Earth’s history, just before the onset of an evolutionary storm which would change to world forever. Up to this point, animals were primitive, soft-bodied blobs that meandered blindly over the seafloor, grazing on microbial slime. But the Namibian reefs, from the end of this period, suggest that animals had crossed a profound Cain and Abel threshold: for the first time ever, they had evolved a predilection for killing and eating one another. The evolutionary arms race brought on by predation, and by a small increase in oxygen, had major consequences. Within two million years, the old world order of slow, soft-bodied animals would disintegrate. From it would spring a diversity of swimming, scampering animals with more modern features – arthropods with jointed legs and compound eyes, and worms propelled by rows of grasping barbs.
Year in science: Climate at the crossroads
Discover, Jan-Feb 2016
Global average temperatures reached a new record high in 2010, exceeding the record set in 2014 by an unprecedented margin – around 0.35 °F. This record heat undermines popular notions that Earth has undergone a pause in warming since the early 2000s. Recent studies suggest that the decade-long “warming pause” was largely an illusion. The Earth continued to warm as quickly as ever during this time—but shifts in ocean circulation cloaked the trend by pulling some extra heat into the world’s deep waters for a few years.
Year in science: Western USA scorches as drought intensifies
Discover, Jan-Feb 2016
California’s ongoing drought reached new extremes in 2015. On April 1, which normally marks the Sierra Nevada Mountains’ maximum winter snowpack, snow levels sat at 5 percent of normal – blowing away the previous year’s record low of 25 percent. The current drought may be the most severe that the Sierra Nevada has seen in the last 500 to 1,000 years. Its severity stems not from a profound drop in precipitation, but from record heat, which increases water loss by evaporation and reduces snowpack.
Year in science: Antarctica under siege (map)
Discover, Jan-Feb 2016
Climatologists predict that as the Earth warms, snowfall may actually increase over large parts of Antarctica. But any subsequent increase in ice formation is overwhelmingly outweighed by the continuing acceleration of ice loss around the continent’s coastal margins.
Year in science: Genome reveals clues to octopus intelligence
Discover, Jan-Feb 2016
Octopuses are by far the most clever invertebrates, despite hailing from an otherwise dim-witted taxonomic group that includes clams, slugs, and snails. The newly sequenced octopus genome shows how they managed to evolve such smarts, despite having only a rudimentary set of neurotransmission genes.
High heat measure under Antarctica could support substantial life
ScientificAmerican.com, 10 July 2015
Geothermal heat is seeping up at a surprising rate under the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. It is yet one more line of evidence that hot springs and active, smoldering volcanoes sit hidden under thousands of feet of ice. This volcanism melts water off the bottom of the ice sheet, creating rivers, lakes, and potentially exotic habitats for life under the ice.
Life at Hell’s gate
Scientific American, July 2015
Stand at this remote spot in West Antarctica and you see nothing but flat ice in all directions. You may not realize, but nearly half a mile below your boots is the most isolated nook in all of the world’s oceans: a tiny sliver of sea water just 30 feet thick, sealed beneath 2,400 feet of ice. It is the very tip of the southernmost tongue of the world’s ocean. This thin sliver of seawater reaches 500 miles inland from the coast of Antarctica, under a slab of ice hundreds of feet thick, the size of France. When scientists drilled a hole through the ice there in January 2015, they assumed they would find a famished environment, 500 miles from sunlight and photosynthesis, which sustains most life on Earth, populated by only a few sluggish microbes gnawing on minerals. Little did they know as they lowered their instruments into the water, curious eyes were watching far below, attracted by light. The discovery of complex animals so far under Antarctica’s floating ice has sent shockwaves through the scientific community.
Extreme climate change slowed dinosaurs’ rise, confining them to the Earth’s north and south poles for their first 30 million years
Nature News, 18 June 2015
A fossil bed in New Mexico contains hundreds of reptile bones jumbled together with pebbles and ancient charcoal – the remnants of a severe wildfire that swept through 210 million years ago. The animals died in the fire, and their rotting carcasses were washed away by a torrent of rainfall that stripped soil, rocks, and burnt wood off the denuded landscape and buried them in a streambed. The site bolsters scientists’ recent claim that for the first 30 million years that dinosaurs lived on Earth, they were largely confined to the poles, unable to establish a foothold in equatorial regions pummeled by heat, and extreme wet and dry climate swings.
Sands of time
Discover, May 2015
Ancient stone layers beneath the Arizona desert could help answer long-standing questions about dinosaur evolution. More surprisingly, these long-buried rocks may hold clues to the movement of Mercury, Mars, Earth, and Venus 220 million years ago—and hint at our planet’s possible violent fate, far off in the future.
These priests’ invention could help us drill into icy alien worlds someday
Wired.com, 22 January 2015
Two German brothers, prominent physicists turned Catholic priests, had a far-flung plan to protect society from the dangers of nuclear energy during the Post War years: They hoped to bury the world’s nuclear waste deep in the ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica. Their plan never came to pass, but while pursuing it they invented the type of ice-tunneling robot that may one day explore inside the icy moons of Jupiter and Saturn.
500 MILES FROM DAYLIGHT: Exploring under the ice
ScientificAmerican.com, 16 January 2015
16 January 2015: Scientists drill through 2,400 feet of Antarctic ice for climate clues
21 January 2015: Discovery: Fish live beneath Antarctica
3 February 2015: Earthly extremophiles prompt speculation about alien life
Researchers traveled to a remote location in Antarctica in January 2015, to drill a hole through the back end of the Ross Ice Shelf – exploring what may be the most isolated nook in all of the world’s oceans: a sliver of sea water just 30 feet thick, sealed beneath 2400 feet of ice. This 3-part series tells the surprising story of what they found there.
Driving in Antarctica
Tee Leht (Road Letter [Estonian Transportation Ministry]), December 2014
At McMurdo Station, Antarctica, even a quick drive to the airport can turn into an adventure.
The dust detectives
High Country News, 22 December 2014
The environment of the western US is shaped in profound ways by dust from faraway places. Much of the rain that falls on the Pacific coast is triggered by dust that has traveled 8,000 miles from a remote desert in northwest China that few Americans have heard of. Even as these long-distance, global connections are finally being elucidated, they are already being altered by anthropogenic climate change and pollution. In a time of frequent droughts in the West, understanding the invisible influences of dust is more important than ever.
A haven for life under half a mile of ice in Antarctica (and what it means for life in distant, icy worlds)
Slate.com, 20 December 2014
Antarctica’s secret garden
Nature, 20 August 2014
Subglacial Lake Whillans sits beneath 2,600 feet of ancient glacial ice. Its waters have not felt the warm touch of sunlight in 100,000 years or more. But water samples retrieved from the lake show that its waters are surprisingly hospitable. Four thousand types of microbes were found there. Gnawing on minerals in the perpetual dark, they may provide an important source of nutrients to the vast ecosystem of the Southern Ocean.
The frozen underworld
Muse, July-Aug 2014
Scramble through the caves of Hansbreen, and you hear a constant cracking and grinding – sometimes even a terrifying boom that echoes through the passage. It’s no wonder: The roof of the cave is not made of bedrock, but rather hundreds of feet of glacial ice that constantly shifts, bends, and fractures above your head. The caves are carved out of the glacier’s underside by torrents of melt water that flow beneath the glacier each Spring. Jason Gulley and Doug Benn have spent years exploring this strange and creepy underworld in hopes of understanding how subglacial rivers influence the movement of glaciers.
Surprise! Fossils in a flash
Science News for Students, 16 May 2014
The fossils of 100-million year old fish show astonishing detail: individual cells are preserved in the animals’ gills and other organs. These delicate structures were preserved by near-instant fossilization, which began just hours after the fish died, as microscopic crystals of a mineral called apatite grew, like pearls on a necklace, along the protein fibers that enclosed the cell. Taphonomy, the scientific study of how an animal decays and fossilizes after death, is yielding important insights into evolution.
What wiped out the American West? Investigating a Triassic extinction
Disocver.com, 10 Feb 2014
Drive through the southern end of Petrified Forest National Park, and you notice a band of reddish rock, no wider than a hand, which meanders for miles along the sides of mesas. The layer is gradually crumbling, leaving clumps of the red rock strewn down the hillsides. Viewed up close, those fragments have an eerily organic form – tubular and twisting: a fossilized mat of woody branches and other plants that withered and collapsed all at once – the aftermath of a large meteor that struck Earth around 215 million years ago.
The search for life trapped under Antarctica’s ice
Discover Magazine, January-February 2014
The world’s seventh-largest lake sits buried beneath the East Antarctic Ice Sheet. It’s a bizarre place, utterly hidden from human sight. When a Russian drill finally penetrated the lake in 2012, gas bubbles pressurized inside the lake fizzed up through the borehole, like foam gushing from a champagne bottle. Russian scientists are working to identify the gas that was pressurized in the lake, and are continuing to look for signs of life.
Antarctica and the Arctic: A polar primer for the new great game
The Christian Science Monitor, 16 January 2014
An hour south of Punta Arenas, Chile, a blue sign stands beside the road. That sign says, “Centro Geografico del Pais”—marking the north-south midpoint of Chile. Never mind that it sits on the southernmost road of the South American mainland, just a few miles short of where the pavement dwindles to a strip of tire-rutted beach sand. Never mind that the continent itself ends just 180 miles farther south in a series of wave-battered pinnacles. That sign makes sense only if you consider this: It counts a large pie-slice of Antarctica as Chilean territory, stretching from the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula all the way to the South Pole. The same swath of Antarctica is also claimed by Argentina and Britain. The world’s two polar regions, in the north and south, may seem a world away—but for decades they have been an object of geopolitical interest, not only for their resources, but also their strategic importance.
The time I got stranded in Antarctica
TheAtlantic.com, 7 January 2014
MotherJones.com, 10 January 2014
As the white-out closed in around us, the helicopter pilot finally set us down on the only non-white object that was still visible: a small corner of James Ross Island, just off the coast of Antarctica. We expected to wait 15 minutes for the storm to abate. Instead, we waited three nights.
Sleeplessly seeking a subglacial lake
The Christian Science Monitor, 30 December 2013
Ice drilling 24/7, no more than one to four hours of sleep at a time, and 1,095 pages of handwritten notes: a journalist’s account of field reporting during the exploration of Antarctica’s Subglacial Lake Whillans in January 2013.
Mystery microbes of the sea
Science News for Kids, 26 September 2013
These microbes maintain the chemical balance of the seas. Four billion tons of them inhabit the world’s oceans—roughly equal to the weight of all the fish—and yet for decades, no one knew that they existed.
Mud worth more than gold
Science News for Kids, 4 September 2013
Mud from beneath the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is rich in the delicate, glassy shells of microscopic diatoms—a remnant of times when the ice sheet didn’t exist and the area was covered by a shallow sea. Some of those dead shells are 20 million years old, others are much younger—suggesting that the ice sheet may have collapsed and reformed much more recently than anyone thought.
Animals under Antarctic ice?
Science News for Kids, 22 July 2013
A team of researchers has reported finding DNA evidence of crustaceans, hydra, clams, and shrimp in water that came from Lake Vostok in Antarctica—an amazing but controversial claim given that Vostok sits beneath 2.3 miles of ice and hasn’t seen the light of day in 15 million years.
Life under Antarctica’s ice
Discover, July-August 2013
In January 2013, researchers raced against the dwindling polar summer to drill through half a mile of ice and reach a lake hidden beneath the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. Ice drilling is fraught with risk—including the possibility that the walls of the borehole will ooze shut like Silly Putty under the sheer weight of the surrounding ice sheet. If the team succeeded in their mission, they would glimpse a hidden world that human eyes had never seen.
From Antarctica to the moons of Jupiter
Discover.com, 31 May 2013
Some of the lakes hiding beneath Antarctica’s ice sheets have been isolated from the outside world for as long as 15 million years. Any life surviving there in the dark must subsist by eating minerals in the underlying rocks. Scientists are interested in this harsh environment because it provides clues to what kind life, if any, might inhabit Europa or Enceladus—moons of Jupiter and Saturn known to harbor vast oceans of liquid water hidden beneath miles of ice.
First evidence of life in Antarctic subglacial lake
Discover.com, The Crux, 29 January 2013
Forty eight hours after the interior of Subglacial Lake Whillans was first glimpsed, scientists at a remote field camp 380 miles from the South Pole see the first living cells isolated from the lake.
Scientists first glimpse interior of an Antarctic subglacial lake
Discover.com, The Crux, 27 January 2013
A video camera lowered down a borehole through half a mile of glacial ice returned the first-ever grainy images of Subglacial Lake Whillans, a body of water isolated beneath the West Antarctic Ice Sheet for up to a million years.
Arctic melt accelerates
Discover, January-February 2013
Arctic sea ice shrank to its lowest recorded extent on September 16, 2012—eighteen percent below the previous record, from 2007. Not only does sea ice cover a smaller area than before—the ice that still exists is only about half as thick, on average, as it was in 1978. As sea ice continues to thin, its area is likely shrink more rapidly.
Hidden Antarctic lake spills its secrets
Discover, January-February 2013
On February 5, 2012, a drill bit broke through 12,366 feet of ice in a remote location on the East Antarctic ice sheet. Pressure from a massive lake locked beneath the ice caused water to gush into the bottom of the borehole, lifting 100,000 pounds of kerosene drilling fluid that had filled the hole. Until this moment Lake Vostok, the seventh-largest lake on Earth, had remained isolated under the ice for at least 14 million years.
Mountains of Madness: Scientists poised to drill through Antarctic ice and into Gothic horror
Wired.com, 27 December 2012
Researchers are finally closing in on another of Earth’s frontiers: they are drilling into subglacial lakes that have been hidden under Antarctica’s ice for millions of years. Sci-fi writers first speculated on this scenario decades ago—H.P. Lovecraft pioneered the subgenre of Antarctic Goth horror in 1931, with his novella, At the Mountains of Madness. In that story, scientists discover five-armed aliens lurking beneath the ice. Lovecraft’s monsters were painfully contrived—but few people realize how much he actually got right.
Trouble bares its claws
Nature, 13 December 2012
On a dim February evening, 7 people crowded around a row of TV monitors on the Nathaniel B. Palmer. The research icebreaker idled 30 kilometers off the coast of Antarctica with a cable as thick as an adult’s dangling over the stern. At the end of that cable, 4600 feet down, a remote-operated vehicle skimmed across the seafloor surveying a barren, gray mudscape. That view, piped back to the TV monitors, provided the first hint of an unwelcome discovery that would unfold moments later. Deep, warm ocean currents are getting plenty of attention for the damage that they’re inflicting on Antartica’s coastal glaciers—but the currents are bringing other changes, as well, that had escaped human eyes until this night.
How life got complicated
Discover, December 2012
A band of gray rock meanders around the hillsides of China’s Guizhou Province. The rock is crowded with fossils smaller than poppy seeds—two million tons of them crammed into an 18-inch seam covering 20 square miles. For decades, the phosphorus-rich rock was mined, crushed, and sprinkled as fertilizer onto rice paddies. But the fossils, viewed under a microscope, are exquisite—spherical, segmented on their surface like a blackberry. Those fossils formed 600 million years ago at the bottom of a shallow sea during a pivotal moment in evolution. Some scientists say they are spores—others, that they are embryos. They sit at the center of a debate about the origin of all animals on Earth, from starfish to worms, birds, honeybees and humans.
The high life
Science News for Kids, 28 November 2012
Only one man noticed as the extraterrestrial invaders parachuted in. Donald Barber, a British astronomer, found his photographic plates ruined by unusual microbes that had fallen from the sky. Barber surmised that they came from Venus—plucked by solar wind from the dense Venusian clouds and swept across 50 million miles of empty space until they filtered down to Earth. Barber’s ideas might seem outlandish today, but some core aspect of them has stood the test of time.
Watching our seas rise
Science News for Kids, 8 November 2012
The Jason-2 satellite hurtles around the Earth at 15,500 miles per hour. Two thousand times per second it sends a pulse of radio waves down to Earth—timing exactly how long they take bounce off the surface of the ocean and return. Satellite altimetry has helped to refine our measurements of sea level rise. It has also revealed that the ocean is bumpy, like the shifting surface of a water bed.
Witness to an Antarctic meltdown
Scientific American, July 2012
In 1995, 10 Argentine soldiers witnessed a cataclysm that no other humans had ever seen. The men were stationed at Matienzo Base, a dreary cluster of steel huts that sat atop a wedge of volcanic rock jutting from the sea, 30 miles off the coast of Antarctica. The island was surrounded by a plain of ice 600 feet thick—as solid as bedrock. Yet Captain Juan Pedro Brückner sensed that something was wrong the day he arrived.
Scientists forge through severe sea ice to better determine why Antarctica’s glaciers are collapsing [SLIDE SHOW]
ScientificAmerican.com, 16 June 2012
On January 7, 2010, an orange ship, squat and round-bellied, passed the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. The Nathaniel B. Palmer had chugged southward for three days, weathering a roller coaster of 25- to 40-foot swells as it crossed the Drake Passage between South America and Antarctica.
The oldest place on Earth
Science News for Kids, 13 June 2012
The Friis Hills of Antarctica are lifeless, nothing but sand and boulders. The temperature falls to -50° Celsius in winter, and rarely climbs above -5° in summer. But a surprising secret lies just centimeters below the surface—the remains of an ecosystem that once thrived here. Tattered bits of moss that have been dead and dry for 20 million years still puff up, soft and squishy like a sponge, if you put them in water. And twigs still snap crisply between your fingers.
The clouds are alive
Discover, April 2012 (COVER STORY)
A typical mountain cloud weighs around 20 million pounds. The crushing weight of those microscopic water droplets is held aloft by atmospheric updrafts. In order to fall as rain, those droplets must grow large enough to overcome the lift of the updrafts—something which rarely happens unless the droplets freeze into ice. Forming ice in clouds is surprisingly difficult. Only one in a million particles within cloud droplets can nucleate ice crystals at reasonably warm temperatures. Scientists have searched for decades for the identity of these mystery ice-forming particles. It now appears that bacteria in the sky may play an important role.
A ghost lake
Science News for Kids, 1 February 2012
The Silver Island Range sits amidst a vast desert plain in northwest Utah. These mountains are fittingly named: just a few thousand years ago they were surrounded by an inland sea. Geologists studying it hope to find clues to how rain and snowfall will change in the American West as temperatures gradually rise.
National Geographic Magazine, January 2012
Autosub3, a robotic submarine, explores 30 miles under the Pine Island Ice Shelf, along the coast of West Antarctica. There, in an isolated pocket of the ocean, beneath 3,000 feet of floating ice, the sub visits a place where 19 cubic miles of ice is melting each year.
Omens from a vanished sea
High Country News, 31 October 2011 (COVER STORY)
The Silver Island Range, in remote northwestern Utah, has a secret. The Donner Party passed just north of these mountains in September 1846, en route to their encounter with cannibalism. Their wagons sank deep into the desert playa and several oxen succumbed to thirst; four wagons had to be abandoned. The peaks, lit up in gray and white layers of slow-cooked sedimentary rock, must have offered a welcome landmark on the oppressively bare plain. A curious horizontal line runs across the range—a notch cut into the mountains like a railroad bed, visible from many miles away. That line records an ancient inland sea that once covered much of Utah.
Big rocks’ balancing acts
Science News for Kids, 19 October 2011
Richard Brune was pretty dizzy the first time he shot photos while leaning out of an airplane. The plane’s door had been removed so Brune could ride with one leg outside. As the plane zigzagged over the desert, Brune leaned out over empty air. The 80 mile-per-hour headwind pummeled his face. He looked through his camera and snapped pictures of the rocky desert hundreds of feet below. Brune was searching the desert for balanced rocks. He and his dad, James, have spent 20 years looking for balanced rocks across the deserts of Nevada and California. Some of them stand 5 meters tall and weigh 15,000 kilograms. Those rocks provide some important clues about the earthquakes that have shaken California over the last few thousand years.
Popular Mechanics, October 2011
Hurricane Katrina grabbed plenty of attention when it swamped New Orleans in 2005. But other vulnerabilities, equally large, receive little attention. A category 2 hurricane scoring a direct hit on New York City could flood much of Manhattan’s subway system within 40 minutes and flood much of the other transport infrastructure linking Manhattan to the outside world. The Department of Homeland Security was studied this scenario and concludes that such an event could inflict many billions of dollars of damage. The take-home lesson is that even moderate storms striking at the wrong place and time can cause outsize damage.
The limits of intelligence
Scientific American, July 2011 (COVER STORY)
[Selected for publication in The Best American Science Writing 2012, Ecco.]
Santiago Ramón y Cajal, the Nobel-winning biologist, once compared the minute brain of the insect to an exquisite pocket watch. Mammals have much larger brains, but they suffer from inefficiencies of scale: Ramón y Cajal compared the mammal brain to a hollow-chested grandfather clock. The difficulties that brains encounter as they increase in size are rooted in the fundamental, thermodynamic tradeoffs between information, energy, and noise. It is tempting to wonder whether these tradeoffs place a fundamental limit on intelligence.
Innovations changing the world
The Christian Science Monitor, 18 April 2011 (COVER STORY)
Watson, the IBM computer, handily defeated two of the best all-time human players of Jeopardy! But he required around 100,000 watts of electricity to do it. The technology behind Watson could be put to plenty of uses—but how much it diffuses into regular peoples’ day-to-day lives will depend on the degree to which engineers can bend the energy (and cost) curve. The same was true for many technologies that have promised, over the decades, to change the world.
Nature, 14 April 2011
Nine-volt battery. Electrodes on scalp. Promises of improved mood: Efforts to tweak the brain’s function through mild electric shocks have seen plenty of failures in the last 60 years. But the approach, known these days as transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), is finally starting to produce some interesting results in depression, stroke, and possibly even sharpening the minds of healthy people. It would be a dramatic turnaround—but in some ways not surprising: The changing fortunes of tDCS offer a parable on the very nature of scientific progress.
Science News for Kids, 23 March 2011
Scientists are discovering that the insides of our noses, lungs, and bowels are strewn with the same kind of tasting cells that we have on our tongues. So why can’t you taste your poop as it oozes through your colon?
The greatest map of all
New Scientist, 5 February 2011 (COVER STORY)
A cubic millimeter of brain tissue contains several kilometers of tangled axons and many thousands of synapses—pretty nightmare stuff if you want to map it. But that’s exactly what scientists are starting to do: slicing the brain like prosciutto into sheets 1000 times thinner than aluminum foil, scanning those sheets with an electron microscope, and stacking the images into a 3-D reconstruction. A single mouse brain will yield more data than currently exists in all of Google’s storage. Completing that map, if it ever happens, will require substantial advances in computer technology.
Secret Service study probes psyche of U.S. assassins
Wired.com, 13 January 2011
What motivates an assassin? A study by the Secret Service of all 83 people known to have attacked a public figure in the U.S. between 1949 and 1996 reveals that the truth is frighteningly mundane.
Your mind would make a great computer
Esquire, December 2010
Kwabena Boahen stands five feet ten. His head is shaved clean, revealing delicate veins that creep like vines up the base of his cranium. Inside, his brain weighs three point one pounds and runs on twenty watts of power—a third of the power of your average desk lamp. He is building a computer that he hopes will match those properties.
In our own image
New Scientist, 27 November 2010 (COVER STORY)
In 1457 a young French boy named Jehan Martin fell victim to a heinous crime. As he slept in his bed, an intruder entered the house, killed him, and mutilated his body. Witnesses had seen a female enter the house that day. She was taken into custody, convicted in court, and hung—a classic open-and-shut case—except that the perpetrator happened to be a pig.
Where are we headed? The future of energy
The Christian Science Monitor, 8 November 2010 (COVER STORY)
There are plenty of compelling reasons to switch to renewable energy, but making the switch won’t occur nearly as easily as most people expect. Photovoltaic solar cells provide about a tenth as much energy per acre as fossil fuel production does. Wind farms produce 1/20th to 1/100th the energy per acre. And biofuels like corn ethanol fare even worse, producing 1/100th to 1/1000th the energy per acre that fossil fuels do. By one estimate, by 2030, energy production in the U.S. could consume 80,000 square miles more land than it does today.
[Co-Winner, American Society of Journalists and Authors, Award for Reporting on a Significant Topic, 2011.]
Power on sail
Conservation, July-September 2010
Ocean liners fitted with gigantic kites could transform offshore winds into liquid fuel for delivery back on land—that’s the vision that two scientists hope to achieve, at least.
Could East Antarctica be headed for big melt?
Science, 25 June 2010
The Orangeburg Scarp, a band of crusty sediment teeming with plankton fossils, runs from Florida to Virginia under tobacco fields, parking lots, shopping centers, and Interstate 95. It marks an ancient shoreline where waves eroded bedrock 3 million years ago. That period saw carbon dioxide levels and temperatures that scientists say could recur by 2100. Evidence at Orangeburg suggests that sea levels then could have been up to 35 meters higher than present—much higher than would have been expected. So where could all of that melt water have come from?
The insanity virus
Discover, June 2010
Scientists have long puzzled over the fact that people born under the signs of Aquarius or Pisces (roughly February to March) are more likely to grow up to become schizophrenic. It’s only a small increase in risk—just 5 to 8 percent—but it’s been demonstrated in over 200 studies worldwide, and the pattern is reversed in the southern hemisphere, as though it really does somehow depend on season. A small group of scientists now believe they have the answer. Schizophrenia, they say, is triggered by a virus. What’s more surprising is that we all carry it.
Expedition to Antarctica
National Geographic, January-March 2010
Ten blog entries tell the story of a 57-day voyage as scientists on board the Nathaniel B. Palmer, an icebreaker, investigate the impact of warming temperatures along the Antarctic Peninsula.
Computer learns to reason like Isaac Newton
Discover, January-February 2010
A newly developed artificial intelligence algorithm has enabled computers to analyze data from physics experiments and derive natural laws—including some of Isaac Newton’s well-known laws. The technology won’t put scientists out of a job, but it could allow for more efficient analysis of large volumes of scientific data in fields as diverse as astronomy and genomics.
Oldest animal fossils recovered
Discover, January-February 2010
A pair of recent finds have pushed the fossil record of animals back from 550 million years to roughly 850 million years. Molecular fossils and mineral imprints suggest that the first animal on Earth was none other than a sponge—or sometime like one.
Pollution at the ends of the Earth
Science News for Kids, 6 January 2010
No roads lead to Kuujjuaq. You can only reach this village, high in the Canadian Arctic, by boat or plane. This place might seem far away from the big problems of big cities, like water pollution and air pollution. But pretty little Kuujjuaq, with its clear skies and crystal streams has an invisible pollution problem that rivals any city. Long-term studies of children born in this region are revealing the ongoing toll of persistent organic pollutants such as PCBs and polybrominated flame retardants—even years after these compounds were banned in most countries. The chemicals continue to flow into the Arctic from thousands of miles away.
New Scientist, 27 December 2009
Brain imaging studies suggest that even when artificial sweeteners fool our conscious senses, they still don’t fool our brains. Aftertaste may be part of the problem. Researchers are hard at work designing a new generation of noncaloric sweeteners that might well avoid aftertaste—and for once, actually fool the brain.
Letting molecules do the work
Science News for Kids, 16 December 2009
Here—put on this white bunny suit. And these slippers. And the hair net, please. And I almost forgot—and no farting allowed, OK? Welcome to the molecular foundry at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, where nano-scientists are teaching molecules to arrange themselves. If the science of directed self-assembly works out, it could lead to new generations of cheaper solar cells and silicon chips.
California’s sinking delta
The Christian Science Monitor, 2 December 2009
People living and farming on the Sacramento River Delta face an unsettling truth: This land, which some families have farmed for four generations, is sinking. Parts of the Delta now lie as far as 20 feet below sea level, and continue to sink up to an inch per year. All told, the Delta has exhaled over a billion tons of carbon dioxide since farmers settled here 150 years ago. The Delta provides a profound testament to the capacity of humans to change landscapes—but its example pales next to the Netherlands.
IBM unveils biggest brain simulation of all time
Popular Mechanics.com, 18 November 2009
This massive cortical simulation consisted of 1.6 billion virtual neurons, run on one of the world’s fastest supercomputers—the 147,456-processor Blue Gene /P supercomputer. At the current rate of supercomputer growth, the team estimates that they’ll have enough computing power to build a simulation the size of the full human cortex by 2019. Sounds impressive—but here’s the catch: That super-supercomputer will devour up to a gigawatt of electricity—about equal to a nuclear power plant, with an annual power bill of $1 billion. The take home message is that energy consumption, as much as anything else, may ultimately determine what we can and can’t accomplish with computers.
The time machine inside your head
New Scientist, 24 October 2009 (COVER STORY)
Neuroscientists have long debated the nature of time—does our brain experience it as a smoothly flowing river, or a sequence of snapshots? And does time really slow down when we’re frightened? People have gone to great lengths to answer these questions—including dropping nervous volunteers from a 10-story tower.
Discover, October 2009
People admire the brain for many reasons, but its most amazing attribute may be its energy efficiency. The human brain runs on just 20 watts of power—about equal to the dim light bulb behind the pickle jar in your refrigerator. By comparison, a digital computer with the same processing power would devour at least 10 megawatts of power—equal to a small hydroelectric power plant. A few engineers are trying to emulate the brain’s efficiency. Doing it will mean forgetting everything that we’ve learned about building computers over the last 60 years.
[Selected for publication in The Best Technology Writing 2010, Yale University Press.]
The brain may not be fooled by sugar substitutes
Los Angeles Times, 31 August 2009
Food manufacturers have gotten so good at using artificial sweeteners that we often can’t tell the difference between zero-calorie foods and the real thing. But a recent spate of brain imaging studies suggests that even when our conscious senses are fooled, our brain is not. Researchers are busy debating what it might mean to people who simply want to keep an eye on their calories and lose a few pounds.
On the fence
Conservation, July-September 2009
The three-meter fence surrounding Addo Park in South Africa is credited with saving one of the largest elephant populations in the region from being hunted by extinction. But the fence has produced more subtle knock-on effects. Confinement is subjecting these pachyderms to a slow-motion crisis, marked by overpopulation, soaring elephant-on-elephant homicide, and an increasing tilt in the mix of antelope and other species inhabiting the park. Problems like these are prompting some ecologists to wonder whether it’s time we reinvent the fence.
Dawn of the animals: Solving Darwin’s dilemma
New Scientist, 11 July 2009
Charles Darwin was troubled by the outcrops of shale which dotted the English countryside. Crumbling it in one’s hands revealed the spidery forms of fossil trilobites. But in older layers of rock, the fossils suddenly vanished. Darwin’s opponent, Roderick Impey Murchison, saw this sudden burst of complex life as the moment of Creation. “The innumerable facets of the eye of the earliest crustacean [reveal] the evidences of Omniscience,” he once wrote. According to Darwin’s theory, life should have evolved gradually. But a century of discoveries have only deepened Darwin’s dilemma: it seems that single-celled life existed on Earth for 3 billion years before complex creatures with eyes, legs, and gills suddenly appeared, 540 million years ago. Why did life sit idle for so long before blooming into the 100 facets of the trilobite eye?
Popular Mechanics, July 2009
As KLM flight 867 descended toward Anchorage on Dec 15, 1989, sulfur and smoke suddenly stung the pilots’ nostrils. Static electricity flashed across the windshield. Then all four of the 747’s engines whimpered to a halt. The jet turbines had ingested abrasive ash vomited forth by nearby Redoubt Volcano. Shards of volcanic glass melted, then re-solidified into lumps, choking the engines’ air supply. With 245 souls on board, the plane began to fall. The 27-year-old copilot nosed the plane into a dive in order to build enough airspeed to maintain the million-pound craft in a glide. She heroically guided the plane to safety that day. This incident—over in a matter of minutes—spawned the modern era of volcano monitoring.
Flu pandemics may lurk in frozen lakes
Wired.com, 20 May 2009
Some scientists believe that viruses have evolved to spend years or even centuries frozen in Arctic ice. It could allow influenza and other pathogens to hide away once their hosts develop resistance—then re-emerge after resistance is lost to trigger a new pandemic.
Driller thriller: Antarctica’s tumultuous past revealed
New Scientist, 11 April 2009
In the endless daylight of the Antarctic summer, drillers in hard hats work round the clock to extract a kilometer-long column of stone from the sea floor. They must hurry to finish their job before summer warming renders the sea ice too slushy to support the 40-ton drill rig. The stone core which they extract will provide a 19 million-year record of Antarctica’s ice–and crucial insights for predicting its future.
Invisible fossils of the first animals
Science News for Kids, 4 February 2009
Fossil imprints of the first animals have not survived the geologic tortures of being buried and cooked deep inside the Earth for 700 million years. But by analyzing molecular fossils, scientists can still find evidence of their existence, and make some educated guesses about what they looked like.
Redoubt Volcano’s rumblings threaten world’s third largest air cargo hub
Popular Mechanics.com, 4 February 2009
Redoubt’s last eruption, in 1989, lead to a dramatic emergency landing after KLM flight 867 strayed into a volcanic ash cloud. Scientists at the Alaska Volcano Observatory are monitoring Redoubt 24/7 in order to prevent a repeat.
Born in an acid bath
New Scientist, 17 January 2009
Researchers have long studied the origin of life under squeaky-clean laboratory conditions, lest some speck of bacterial contamination lead to an embarrassing false discovery. But a handful of scientists are now working to recreate the first cells in the filthy real world. Welcome to the sulfurous grime of Northern California’s Bumpass Hell.
The inner savant
Discover Presents: THE BRAIN, Winter 2009
Autistic savants have long fascinated us with their ability to multiply 9-digit numbers and render realistic drawings–despite being unable to read or sometimes even speak. One researcher believes that all of us possess these innate abilities deep within our brains. The challenge lies in accessing them.
The ‘micro’ enterprise that is chip repair
The Christian Science Monitor, 31 December 2008
Using a high-energy ion beam as a microscopic blowtorch, Rodrigo Alvarez slices and re-welds wires no wider than a red blood cell–a 7-hour procedure which he hopes will repair the computer chip which he spent 2 years designing.
Private life of the brain
New Scientist, 8 November 2008 (COVER STORY)
In 1953 a physician named Louis Sokoloff laid a 20-year-old college student onto a gurney, attached electrodes into his scalp, and inserted a syringe into the jugular vein in his neck. For 60 minutes the volunteer lay there and solved math problems. All the while Sokoloff monitored his brainwaves and checked levels of carbon dioxide in his blood. Sokoloff wanted to answer a fundamental question: how much energy the brain consumes during conscious thought. The surprising results of his experiment are only now beginning to make sense.
[Honorable Mention, American Society of Journalists and Authors, Award for Medical Journalism, 2009.]
Conservation, October-December 2008 (COVER STORY)
Up to 50% of the fish sold in supermarkets and restaurants aren’t what the label says. Preventing consumers from knowing what they’re buying wreaks havoc on marine conservation efforts.
Discover, September 2008
A profound feeling of isolation sets in as the plane departs. The twin-engine Basler bounces on skis over the wind-pocked ice, bobs into the air, and shrinks to a dot in the sky. The four of us are on our own in Antarctica for the next few weeks, in the middle of a million square miles of ice, just 380 miles from the South Pole.
A sanctuary that’s 600 cats’ meows
The Christian Science Monitor, 31 July 2008
Life with 600 felines provides unexpected insights into the fundamental nature of Catdom.
Where rivers run uphill
Science News for Kids, 25 July 2008
Three scientists travel to Antarctica to explore a secret world hidden beneath a half mile of ice.
[2009 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Award for Excellence in Science Reporting for Children.]
Something’s shaking in Antarctica
ScienceNOW Daily News, 4 June 2008
Magnitude-7 ice quakes twice per day in West Antarctica… glaciologists are trying to understand what it all means.
Freeze-dried findings support a tale of two ancient climates
Science, 30 May 2008
The Olympus Range of Antarctica may be the oldest landscape on Earth; its naked buttresses and stony, Martian plateaus haven’t tasted liquid water in 13 million years. So when 3 students stumbled upon the tattered stems of dried plants fluttering in the wind, they knew it would raise eyebrows.
Conservation, April-June 2008
It’s bad enough when invasive species wreak havoc on fragile ecosystems. But when the genes themselves start to mix it challenges our most fundamental ideas of what a species is, and what should be protected.
Hunting animals—with cameras
The Christian Science Monitor, 10 April 2008
Chris Wemmer and Reno Taini came of age four decades ago in the formaldehyde-and-stewed-rat school of zoology. Now they stalk the hills of Northern California in search of the elusive mountain beaver.
Solar energy trumps shade in California prosecution
The Christian Science Monitor, 18 March 2008
The Treanors and Vargases were next door neighbors in the suburbs, but nearly a mile of road lay between their front doors. Perhaps it was symbolic of the conflict that would arise between them.
Scientists read Antarctic mud
The Christian Science Monitor, 20 February 2008
In Antarctica’s McMurdo Station, the sun never sets and life never quite stops. Welcome to the 24-hour sedimentology lab, where two shifts of tired scientists work around the clock to tease the secrets of past climates out of a 3,600-foot cylinder of petrified mud.
Did life begin in ice?
Discover, February 2008 (COVER STORY)
One morning Stanley Miller lifted a glass vial from a cold, bubbling vat. For 25 years he had tended that vial as if it were an exotic orchid, checking it daily, adding a few pellets of dry ice to keep it cooled to –108 degrees F. He had told hardly a soul of its existence. Now he set the frozen time capsule out to thaw, ending the experiment that had lasted more than a third of his 68 years.
[Selected for publication in The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2009, Houghton Mifflin.]
Antarctica’s required course is Happy Camper School
The Christian Science Monitor, 24 January 2008
The good life in Antarctica begins with digging your first snow shelter—and spending the night in it with a guy named Ed.
Conservation, Oct-Dec 2007
Saved by the trees?
New Scientist, 27 October 2007
Frequent hurricanes decimate sea turtle beaches
New Scientist, 13 August 2007
Remote control brains
New Scientist, 21 July 2007 (COVER STORY)
Life—but not as we know it
New Scientist, 9 June 2007 (COVER STORY)
Back to the no-analog future?
Science, 11 May 2007
Primordial soup’s on: Scientists repeat evolution’s most famous experiment
ScientificAmerican.COM, 28 March 2007
Robotic amphibian takes to the water
New Scientist, 17 March 2007
The mind chip
New Scientist, 3 Feb 2007 (COVER STORY)
Consciousness… in a cockroach?
Discover, Jan 2007
[Selected as Notable Writing in The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2008, Houghton Mifflin.]
Conservation Magazine, Jan-Mar 2007 (COVER STORY)
[Outstanding Feature Article, Society of National Association Publishers, 2008.]
Feathers with ZIP codes
Conservation in Practice, Oct-Dec 2006
The light at the end of the tunnel
New Scientist, 14 Oct 2006
New Scientist, 12-18 Aug 2006
Conservation in Practice, July-Sept 2006
Single gene drives fruit flies bananas
New Scientist, 19-25 Aug 2006
Through the mind’s eye
New Scientist, 6 May 2006 (COVER STORY)
New Scientist, 24/31 December 2005
New Scientist, 5/11 November 2005 (COVER STORY)
Subterranean bugs reach out for their energy
New Scientist, 25 June/1 July 2005
Conservation in Practice, January-March 2005
IVF embryos starved of vital ingredient
New Scientist, 19 February 2005
Do the locomotion
New Scientist, 12 February 2005
Pouch or no pouch
Discover, July 2004
The elephant listening project
Conservation in Practice, Summer 2004
Mud’s eye view
Natural History, April 2004
Ecological reform school
Conservation in Practice, Spring 2004
Finding the baseline
Conservation in Practice, Spring 2004
Do fruit flies dream of electric bananas?
New Scientist, 14 February 2004 (COVER STORY)
Evolution not revolution
New Scientist, 31 January 2004
New Scientist, 20 December 2003
New Scientist, 20 December 2003
The speed of life
New Scientist, 1 November 2003
Conservation in Practice, Fall 2003
New Scientist, 30 August 2003
New Scientist, 16 August 2003
Behavior and conservation: more than meets the eye
Conservation in Practice, Summer 2003
Does masturbation prevent prostate cancer?
New Scientist, 19 July 2003
New Scientist, 5 July 2003
New Scientist, 8 March 2003
An accidental experiment on Rodrigues Island
Conservation in Practice, Winter 2003
One step at a time
New Scientist, 25 January 2003
Bread to blame for plague of pimples
New Scientist, 7 December 2002
What came first, bigger brains or lots of sex?
New Scientist, 23 November 2002
Moths use colour to see flowers at night
New Scientist, 2 November 2002
US News and World Report, 21 October 2002
The descent of man
New Scientist, 24 August 2002 (COVER STORY)
New Scientist, 3 August 2002
The virus within
ORGYN Magazine, Summer 2002
Blinded by bread
New Scientist, 6 April 2002
The inner savant
Discover, February 2002
New Scientist, 9 February 2002
New Scientist, 15 December 2001
Keep your hair on
New Scientist, 13 October 2001 (COVER STORY)
The worm that earned
New Scientist, 15 September 2001
1918 Spanish influenza pandemic down to pig flu RNA
NewScientist.com, 7 September 2001
New Scientist, 25 August 2001
2000 and before…
Could diet attack bones?
US News and World Report, 30 October 2000
Cut the carbs
New Scientist, 18 March 2000
The famished road
New Scientist, 13 November 1999
The false crisis in science education
Scientific American, October 1999
Following frozen frogs
California Monthly, September 1999
Why we don’t lay eggs
New Scientist, 12 June 1999
New Scientist, 24 April 1999
Cold-blooded solutions to warm-blooded problems
Exploratorium.com, December 1998