Second Helpings: 2016's Underappreciated Science, Tech, and Health Stories

Staff picks from the past year of coverage at The Atlantic

Narathip Ruksa / Getty

At the risk of stating the obvious, it’s been a big year for news. (Okay, maybe understating the obvious.) The U.S. presidential election, one of the biggest stories in years, unfolded over the course of 2016, and dominated much of public discourse. Add that to widespread police killings, to the Zika epidemic, to Syria, and it seems like, for readers of news, internet overwhelm reached a new level this year. There’s always too much to read, which means some great stories, for whatever reason, just don’t take off.

But through all that’s happening in the world, we believe in the power of science, technology, and health stories to help us understand the world, and to help us understand ourselves. So, we’re recommending some of our favorite overlooked articles we wrote this year. We hope these “second helpings” find a little room on your holiday reading plate.

And because we’re not immune, yes, some of them are about Donald Trump.

Colorful Lights Are Turning Skyscrapers Into Tacky Billboards

As LED technology makes it cheaper to illuminate buildings, cities are becoming experimental spaces for an ancient form of visual communication—and not always for the better.

Adrienne LaFrance | January 25

“The danger of infusing light with political meaning is, of course—who decides what the message is?” Tillett told me. “Lighting of buildings in particular, but public lighting in general, can have a strong coercive power. We are creatures drawn to light, and if you choose to broadcast your political message or advertise on the top of or on the face of a building, we will look at it, even if we would prefer to look away.”

How to See a Famine Before It Starts

The U.S. government can predict food insecurity before it occurs. But the warnings aren’t always heeded.

Robinson Meyer | February 3

Despite the efficacy of early-warning systems, politics can thwart them. Five years ago, many experts who pay attention to food scarcity around the world started saying alarming things about the Horn of Africa…

Why was the famine not prevented? Thanks to the local militant group Al-Shabaab—and U.S. laws preventing humanitarian groups from interacting with it—food did not reach many areas of Somalia in time or at all.

The Big-Data Quest to Treat Every Disease

In this episode of If Our Bodies Could Talk, senior editor James Hamblin talks with the president about what to expect from precision medicine.

James Hamblin | March 2

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: “Is that your good side?”

JAMES HAMBLIN: “Neither one is my good side.”

Lost for Words

A disease called primary progressive aphasia gradually robs people of their language skills while leaving their minds intact.

Ed Yong | April 1

“Writing has become very difficult. I can manage to write at a good level for only about 10 minutes, and then I make a lot of spelling errors. I can no longer read a whole scientific paper in one go. And I can really manage one reasonable length conversation a day. Thirty minutes.”

How License-Plate Readers Have Helped Police and Lenders Target the Poor

Law enforcement can access privately-collected location information about cars—and some low-income neighborhoods have faced extra scrutiny.

Kaveh Waddell | April 22

Police, too, have used license-plate readers heavily in low-income areas. The Electronic Frontier Foundation submitted a request in 2014 for information about the Oakland Police Department’s use of license-plate readers. When the advocacy organization analyzed the data it got back, it found that the readers were deployed disproportionately often in low-income areas and in neighborhoods with high concentrations of African-American and Latino residents.

A biotech company is building devices that will allow people to decipher genes in remote jungles, at sea, or even in space—and they say they’re just getting started.

Ed Yong | April 28

Parker foresees that we will enter a “second age of genomics,” one where sequencers will become like telescopes: a formerly boutique scientific instrument that you can now buy from a toy store.

The Supreme Court struck down a law that would force many Texas clinics to close. But for abortion providers in conservative areas, staying open is just the start.

Olga Khazan | June 27

For the first few years after the Midland clinic began providing abortions, there was an “eerie quiet,” as Holeva describes it. Then, practically overnight, the protesters materialized. One group wore matching Jesus robes. Another had what Holeva calls “Mary on a surfboard”—a statuette of the virgin mother affixed to a plank. “It was like a three-ring circus,” she said.

Designers obsess over “revolutionizing” products, but not everything has to be reinvented.

Ian Bogost | July 11

Inside the box, a notice, printed in lower-case casual: “downtime. redesigned.” It promises that my new slippers will offer a “search for adventure” and a communion with “perfection in the mundane.”

Suddenly, I am not even sure what slippers are, even.

What will come after the touch screen?

Adrienne LaFrance | July 11

At this point in technological history, interfaces are built so that computers can do as much as possible within the limitations of a human’s sensory motor system. Given what many people use computers for, this arrangement works out well—great, even… For others though, traditional interfaces aren’t enough.

For months I tried doing little tasks designed to improve my life, hoping they would add up to something big.

Julie Beck | July 13

“That’s a very American idea, that if you’re unhappy, you’re doing something wrong,” Norem says. “It’s your own fault. I think there is guilt and anxiety about not being happy, and that’s part of what drives the market for self-help books.” (And now, apps.) Unhappiness is sometimes treated like a moral failing.  The individualist American dream of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps can leave people wondering where they went wrong if they’re not happy and successful.

How to Beat Dengue and Zika: Add a Microbe to Mosquitoes

After 30 years of development, virus-beating insects are finally being deployed in megacities around the world.

Ed Yong | August 8

In just four months, the dengue-proof insects had almost totally replaced the native ones. For the first time in history, scientists had transformed a population of wild insects to stop them from spreading human diseases. And they did it through symbiosis.

The error in equating aggression with competence

James Hamblin | August 8

Trump is both a product of a masculine culture and a beneficiary of its musky tenets. Rather than criticize him or lose faith, his fans forgive and apologize for his words. Masculine culture is both a reason that Trump does what he does and a reason that people accept and trust it.

The clear cola’s nostalgic relaunch harkens back to a time when the world’s problems seemed simple.

Ian Bogost | August 12

Clarity is an ambiguous virtue today. It’s more frequently called “transparency” now, and the naive still advance it as a simple salve for all ills... Today that false dream remains, in the form of technological innovation that promises to “change the world” by producing an even more commercialized version of progress than we endured two decades ago. Would it be a step too far to call Silicon Valley one big, compostable bottle of Crystal Pepsi? Probably.

Police Can Use a Legal Gray Area to Rob Anyone of Their Belongings

When officers categorize wallets or cellphones as evidence, getting them back can be nearly impossible—even if the owner isn’t charged with a crime.

Kaveh Waddell | August 15

“To me it feels like legal robbery, like a shake down. If our clients were doing what the police are doing, it’d be called robbery, and they’d be charged or indicted within a day or two.”

Why One Neuroscientist Started Blasting His Core

A new anatomical understanding of how movement controls the body’s stress response system

James Hamblin | August 24

“If someone dies of a herpes infection, their temporal lobes look like soup,” Strick explained to me.

Sex Ed Without the Sex

In West Texas, a Christian pregnancy center has grown increasingly involved in reproductive life—including teaching sex ed in public schools.

Olga Khazan | September 9

The solution, Judy decided, was to steer kids away from sex, rather than describe how to do it safely. “You might as well say, ‘Well, you're going to smoke dope,’” she told me, “‘so we're going to offer free dope at lunch.’”

Tiny Vampires

On living with mosquitoes in the time of Zika

Julie Beck | September 15

A mosquito is a vampire. It sucks your blood and leaves a mark...But it’s never more vampiric than when it spreads a virus. Like a vampire, its bite hijacks your body. The bite leaves behind a poison that weakens you, that changes you.

Half a century ago, media thinkers warned that the television revolution could create a candidate like the Republican nominee. They were right.

Adrienne LaFrance | September 22

It is clear that, in 2016, Trump embodies Hughes’s worst fears about what television would engender in presidential politics. Trump is an entertainer-turned-politician who blurs the issues rather than clarifying them, a fear monger who is as adept at exaggeration as he is antagonistic to nuance. Television alone is not responsible for Trump—he’s responsible for himself—but it did help him along the way.

The Low-Tech Way to Colonize Mars

NASA researchers are modeling Martian settlements after early American colonists.

Sarah Zhang | October 18

It’s a mass problem. The more mass you have to take, the more expensive it is to escape Earth’s gravity and get to Mars. And some of the heaviest cargo will be material to shelter astronauts from the radiation zipping through Mars’ thin atmosphere. With 3D-printing, you don’t need to bring shelter. You build it out of dirt or ice already on Mars.

Another Victim of This Election: The Verb 'To Trump'

It had a good run.

Robinson Meyer | October 25

The Republican presidential candidate, lately famous for coarsening public debate and attempting to delegitimize the democratic process, has also perpetrated a crime against the English language. It seems probable that his campaign will doom a perfectly pleasant word, a happy verb with a 750-year history.

Would You Buy a Genetically-Engineered Cashmere Sweater?

Scientists in China have used CRISPR to make a modified goat that produces more of the fine wool.

Sarah Zhang | October 26

What does making more cashmere—through a process as widely misunderstood and disliked as genetic modification—do to its value? What happens to a luxury product in the age of genetic engineering?

The Average American Melts 645 Square Feet of Arctic Ice Every Year

Global warming is hard to understand. This statistic isn’t.

Robinson Meyer | November 3

“There is not a god-given year, basically, as to when the ice is gone, but it really is this limit of total emissions. So if we emit less, then it will take longer. It’s as simple as that.”

The Alphabet That Will Save a People From Disappearing

As kids, two Guinean brothers invented a new script for their native language. Now they’re trying to get it on every smartphone.

Kaveh Waddell | November 16

The formal education system is exclusionary, they say, because it considers people illiterate if they can’t read and write French—the colonial language—rather than asking whether or not they can read or write their own native tongue.

“That’s one of the things that’s really hindering the progress in Africa and Guinea in particular,” Ibrahima says. “We spend so many resources learning new languages, even though we already have languages that we can use to develop our countries.”

Reading Literature Won’t Give You Superpowers

Psychologists have failed to replicate a famous study suggesting that short fiction improves readers’ abilities to read the emotional states of others.

Joseph Frankel | December 2

There are many things literature can ‘do.’ It can give voice to perspectives that are often silenced, offer refuge, and allow readers “try on” the lives of others. But this is slow work that depends so much on social circumstance. No reader, writer, or book exists in a vacuum. Trying to reduce the process of reading to a snapshot task leaves out some of this context.

Understanding America’s Moral Divides

Psychological research helps explain why conflicts are so intractable when morality is involved.

Julie Beck | December 14

“Moral superiority becomes a mechanism of preserving advantage,” she says. This is true even if the feeling of moral superiority doesn’t lead to outright hostility to other groups. Preferring members of your own group means that they get the trust, generosity, and benefit of the doubt that outsiders don’t. Blatant hate isn’t always necessary. The absence of positive feeling toward a group leaves a negative space, and bigotry often rushes in to fill it.