Captivating tales of science, technology, and health from around the web
This fall, my colleagues and I have been keeping a running list of the science, technology, and health stories from other publications that are too good to miss. I’m always drawn to stellar reporting and gorgeous writing, but these must-reads aren’t all opuses. Some are amusing, odd, and charming little crumbs from the larger Internet. Each is worthwhile in its own way. (And if you want more, check out the must-reads on our list from October and September.)
Adrian Chen | New Yorker
Westboro had long used the Internet to spread its message. In 1994, the church launched a Web site, www.godhatesfags.com, and early on it had a chat room where visitors could interact with members of Westboro. As a child, Phelps-Roper spent hours there, sparring with strangers. She learned about Twitter in 2008, after reading an article about an American graduate student in Egypt who had used it to notify his friends that he had been arrested while photographing riots. She opened an account but quickly lost interest—at the time, Twitter was still used mostly by early-adopting techies—until someone e-mailed Westboro’s Web site, in the summer of 2009, and asked if the church used the service. Phelps-Roper, who is tall, with voluminous curly hair and pointed features, volunteered to tweet for the congregation. Her posts could be easily monitored, since she worked at Phelps Chartered, the family law firm, beside her mother, Shirley, an attorney. Moreover, Megan was known for her mastery of the Bible and for her ability to spread Westboro’s doctrine. “She had a well-sharpened tongue, so to speak,” Josh Phelps, one of Megan’s cousins and a former member of Westboro, told me.
“The Heart Is Just a Pump”
Joaquin Palomino | The Verge
There are few people alive in the world who have no natural heartbeat. Fewer than 2,000 patients have received an entirely artificial heart in the device's three decades of existence, and most patients haven’t used the machines for long. As with Williams, mechanical hearts are typically just a bridge to an eventual transplant.
But that may change. A handful of companies, including SynCardia, are trying to get regulatory approval to market the first permanent mechanical heart for wide-scale use, which would replace a patient’s biological organ over the remaining course of their lifetime. "Think along the lines of knee replacements and hearing aids," says Piet Jansen, chief medical officer for the French company Carmat, which is running an early clinical trial for a long-term mechanical heart. "At some point we will have an implantable blood pump that [permanently] replaces a sick heart."
If it works, the technology could save a lot of lives. More than 5 million people in the US have heart failure, according to the CDC, and many need a new organ to survive. The lucky few that get a transplant often face complications such as rejection of the donated heart, infection, and vital organ failure. Mechanical hearts can be more reliable, and some predict they are the future of treating total heart failure.
But the technology raises also practical and ethical questions.
“How One Man’s Face Became Another Man’s Face”
Steve Fishman | New York
Rodriguez laid Rodebaugh’s face over Hardison’s head. He “snap fit” the tips of the cheekbones and chin, and the nose with screws and metal plates, securing the face in position. He attached two whitish cables of sensory nerves to Hardison’s lips, which perform the face’s most complicated movements. Other nerves would regenerate, creating pathways to the new face. Eventually, hopefully, Hardison would have sensation. Scar tissue would bind pinkish strands of muscles to the remnant muscles of Rodebaugh’s face and eventually power his smile, his cheeks, the wrinkling of his forehead.
All was going according to plan until Rodriguez attempted to sew Rodebaugh’s internal jugular vein to Hardison’s. There was a size mismatch: Hardison’s jugular was bigger. A suture failed and Hardison lost a couple pints of blood in a couple minutes. Rodriguez clamped the external carotid, stopping blood flow to the entire face, and changed his approach. Instead of joining the jugulars end to end, he cut a hole in the side of one, allowing him to control the size of the opening, and sewed the other to it. After 30 minutes, he unclamped the carotid and let blood flow through the face. The pale cheeks turned pink. He pricked Hardison’s lips with a pin. They bled, a relief.
It was Hardison’s face now, though it seemed to have a will of its own. The face started to swell. It was expected, but still striking. In a few minutes, the face was 50 percent larger than it had been. “It looked like a boxer’s face at the end of 15 rounds,” said Rodriguez.
“Why I Captured This MRI of a Mother and Child”
Rebecca Saxe| Smithsonian Magazine
The baby is finally sleeping, pressed firmly against his mother’s chest, and so is still enough for the MRI to see inside his head. A single MR image, like this one, takes several minutes to capture. Moving just a millimeter leaves a blur on the screen. The mother and baby must hold their pose, as if for a daguerreotype.
While they lie there, the scanner builds up a picture of what’s inside their skulls. Often MR images are made for physicians, to find a tumor or a blocked blood vessel. Scientists also make the images, to study brain function and development. In my lab, at MIT, we use MRI to watch blood flow through the brains of children; we read them stories and observe how their brain activity changes in reaction to the plot. By doing so, we’re investigating how children think about other people’s thoughts.
This particular MR image, though, was not made for diagnostic purposes, nor even really for science. No one, to my knowledge, had ever made an MR image of a mother and child. We made this one because we wanted to see it.
“Martian Moon Set to Form Ring Around Red Planet”
Alexandra Witze | Nature
By nearly any measure, Phobos is a bizarre place. It is tiny, measuring 22 kilometres across, and close to its planet — just 6,000 kilometres above the surface. Each year, Mars’s gravity pulls Phobos several centimetres closer, and scientists have long known that the moon would either plummet to its death intact or shred into a ring system before its doom.
To predict how Phobos’s death might unfold, Black and Mittal took information such as the density and strength of Phobos and compared it to a model used to estimate rock strength. They calculated that the weakest parts of Phobos would begin to spread out and form a ring about 20 million years from now.
The break-up itself would happen quickly, perhaps taking only days to weeks. “If you were standing on the surface of Mars, you could grab a lawn chair and watch Phobos shearing out and spreading into a big circle,” Black says.
“Facebook M, the Anti-Turing Test”
Arik Sosman | Medium
So M asked me for the phone number, and I simply gave it mine. About five minutes later, I receive a call with no caller ID. When I pick up, I hear some rumbling noises in the background, say “hello,” and then the other end hangs up. Immediately afterward, the following exchange happens with M:
“It’s Time to Reclaim Trolling”
Libby Watson | New York
It’s not just nonsensical for a single word to refer to everything from sexual harassers and purveyors of racial hatred to mildly amusing jabs from the president, it’s stupid. And it’s time to take trolling back.
Endless etymologies of the word have been written, but at its most basic, trolling means intentionally disrupting something. Initially, that something was online communities like Usenet; now, that “disruption” includes organized campaigns of online abuse, which can lead to suicide. While 4chan isn’t exclusively dedicated to harassment — it’s the site that brought us Rickrolling and lolcats, too — the site’s users are behind many abusive online campaigns. Jezebel writer Anna Merlan was sent rape threats by 4chan users after describing the site as “the Internet's home for barely potty-trained trolls.”
You know the drill—all it takes is one sperm, one egg, and blammo, you got yourself a baby. Right? Well, in this episode, conception takes on a new form - it’s the sperm and the egg, plus: two wombs, four countries, and money. Lots of money.
At first, this is the story of an Israeli couple, two guys, who go to another continent to get themselves a baby - three, in fact - by hiring surrogates to carry the children for them. As we follow them on their journey, an earth shaking revelation shifts our focus from them, to the surrogate mothers. Unfolding in real time, as countries around the world consider bans on surrogacy, this episode looks at a relationship that manages to feel deeply affecting, and deeply uncomfortable, all at the same time.
“Women TV Meteorologists Love This $22.99 Dress From Amazon”
Claudia Koerner | BuzzFeed
Since a link to the dress was first posted to the private broadcast meteorology group, other women have snapped photos of themselves in the dress doing the weather on air. “More than 50 of us purchased the dress, so if you travel and watch the news, you might see something familiar,” Dallas’s Fox 4 meteorologist Jennifer Myers posted on Facebook.
“Are We Alone in the Universe?”
Chris Hadfield and Randall Munroe | The Guardian
Randall Munroe: … I’m curious whether, when you looked out the window on the International Space Station, did you always know where you were from a glance? What’s the longest you have to go thinking, “Well, that looks like Jamaica…”?
Chris Hadfield: North is never up, which is disorienting when you grew up with maps. You have to break that bias, and be able to recognise Madagascar upside down. If you ever see a coastline, you can immediately work out where you are. And you’re often in sight of some island; the Canaries might help you. The Sahara is obvious – it’s the Sahara. You always know the Outback, the Mongolian desert. Europe is harder, the borders are hazy – you’re looking for the big rivers, mountain ranges. After a while, after a thousand times around the Earth, you get to know the world pretty well. It becomes intuitive, and you can just glance: “Oh, there’s Vesuvius.”
RM: That’s so cool!
CH: Of course, 70 percent of the time you’re over water. But actually, after a while, you can work out what part of the world’s water you’re over, because of the cloud patterns. You know what the north Pacific looks like, what the south Atlantic looks like; they’re instantly recognisable. You feel like you’re over the Pacific forever, even [in a space station] moving at five miles a second. You know, I’ve been asked astronaut questions for 23 years, Randall, and nobody has ever asked me this. It bodes well.
Rafi Khatchadourian | New Yorker
Unexpectedly, by dismissing its founding goals, the field of A.I. created space for outsiders to imagine more freely what the technology might look like. Bostrom wrote his first paper on artificial superintelligence in the nineteen-nineties, envisioning it as potentially perilous but irresistible to both commerce and government. “If there is a way of guaranteeing that superior artificial intellects will never harm human beings, then such intellects will be created,” he argued. “If there is no way to have such a guarantee, then they will probably be created nevertheless.”
His audience at the time was primarily other transhumanists. But the movement was maturing. In 2005, an organization called the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence began to operate out of Silicon Valley; its primary founder, a former member of the Extropian discussion group, published a stream of literature on the dangers of A.I. That same year, the futurist and inventor Ray Kurzweil wrote “The Singularity Is Near,” a best-seller that prophesied a merging of man and machine in the foreseeable future. Bostrom created his institute at Oxford.
The two communities could not have been more different.
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“The Original Mobile App Was Made of Paper”
Adam Rothstein | Motherboard
In the 19th Century, there was a resurgence of the volvelle as a device for information on any number of subjects. Jessica Helfand, in her compendium of latter day volvelle designs entitled Reinventing the Wheel, notes that many were created as advertisements. Sponsored by food manufacturers and other homewares companies, they would bill themselves as calculators for dietary information, teaching tools, or games and horoscope readers.
There were also serious volvelles, meant to provide quick access to technical information. Perhaps one of the most famous is the Nuclear Bomb Effects Computer, that allowed military scientists to quickly calculate the number of megadeaths a warhead might create (featured in Dr. Strangelove.)
And they're still around today; I’ve been collecting volvelles and other sliding analog apps for years.
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C.J. Chivers | The New York Times Magazine
This time, however, the Crocodile had an unusual request: The Islamic State, he said, was shopping for red mercury.
Abu Omar knew what this meant. Red mercury — precious and rare, exceptionally dangerous and exorbitantly expensive, its properties unmatched by any compound known to science — was the stuff of doomsday daydreams. According to well-traveled tales of its potency, when detonated in combination with conventional high explosives, red mercury could create the city-flattening blast of a nuclear bomb. In another application, a famous nuclear scientist once suggested it could be used as a component in a neutron bomb small enough to fit in a sandwich-size paper bag.
Abu Omar understood the implications. The Islamic State was seeking a weapon that could do more than strike fear in its enemies. It sought a weapon that could kill its enemies wholesale, instantly changing the character of the war. Imagine a mushroom cloud rising over the fronts of Syria and Iraq. Imagine the jihadists’ foes scattered and ruined, the caliphate expanding and secure.
Imagine the price the Islamic State would pay.
Eric Molinsky | 99% Invisible, Imaginary Worlds
Superhero costumes used to be cringeworthy. Even the cool ones, like, you know, Batman from the Tim Burton films; the costume was so bulky, Michael Keaton couldn't turn his head or fight unless the bad guys basically ran into his fists. So what happened? How did the costumes get so much better?
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“The Internet’s Obsessive Hunt for a Bootleg SpongeBob Movie That May Have Never Existed”
Andy Cush | Gawker
[A Day With SpongeBob Squarepants] is a piece of what’s sometimes called “lost media”: art or entertainment that is known to exist, or to have existed at some point, but of which no known copies are currently available. For the last several months, a dedicated community of SpongeBob fans and other internet sleuths have been on a mission to track down a copy on DVD, or any ephemera at all that may have trickled out to the public.
But even for a piece of lost media, the film has proved particularly elusive: No verifiable clips exist online, and the searchers’ only knowledge of the plot comes from a five-sentence plot synopsis describing a kid who wins a contest to spend 24 hours with his favorite cartoon poriferan.
Rachel Syme | Matter
Selfie politics are attention politics: it is all about who gets to be seen, who gets to occupy the visual field. Critics always talk about Kim and her family as taking up too much space, as clogging our DVRs, our Twitter feeds, our newsstands. At a micro-level, the ire leveled at Kim is aimed at everyone who takes selfies: who do you think you are and why should I have to keep up with you? They don’t realize that in posing this question they are proving their own ignorance. One should never have to ask anyone else why they are worthy of being seen. Every human is given a body and a face and then spends the rest of his or her life trying to feel at home there. Worthiness is part of the basic package.
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“Google's New Autoreply Sounds Great!!!!”
Nicola Twiley | New Yorker
The early iterations of Smart Reply were overly affectionate. “I love you” was the machine’s most common suggested response. This was a touch awkward: because the model has no knowledge of the relationship between an e-mail’s sender and its receiver, it provides the same suggested responses whether you are corresponding with your boss or a long-lost sibling.
“The team was really puzzled about this,” Gawley said. “It turns out that our internal testers are very affectionate and that ‘I love you’ is a very common thing for people at Google to say.” When the engineers inspected their model, they discovered that whenever an e-mail did not give a particularly strong signal as to the appropriate response, the machine hedged its bets with a declaration of affection. This fact may yet become the subject of philosophical inquiry—a scan of every Gmail message ever sent taught the machine that the proper response to ambiguity is an outpouring of love?—but, for Google, it was a bug rather than a feature. The solution: instruct the model to calculate the likelihood that, given an empty e-mail message, it would also suggest “I love you” as a response, and use that as a filter.
There was a user-experience facet to the issue, too. During testing, Gawley’s team found that if humans did actually want to write “I love you,” they preferred to type it themselves. This reluctance to allow a machine to speak on emotional or otherwise intimate matters also informed the length of Smart Reply’s suggestions.
“Uterus Transplants May Soon Help Some Infertile Women in the U.S. Become Pregnant”
Denise Grady | New York Times
Uterine transplantation is a new frontier, one that pairs specialists from two fields known for innovation and for pushing limits, medically and ethically — reproductive medicine and transplant surgery. If the procedure works, many women could benefit: An estimated 50,000 women in the United States might be candidates. But there are potential dangers.
The recipients, healthy women, will face the risks of surgery and anti-rejection drugs for a transplant that they, unlike someone with heart or liver failure, do not need to save their lives. Their pregnancies will be considered high-risk, with fetuses exposed to anti-rejection drugs and developing inside a womb taken from a dead woman.
Eight women from around the country have begun the screening process at the Cleveland Clinic, hoping to be selected for transplants. One, a 26-year-old with two adopted children, said she still wanted a chance to become pregnant and give birth.
“I crave that experience,” she said. “I want the morning sickness, the backaches, the feet swelling. I want to feel the baby move. That is something I’ve wanted for as long as I can remember.”
“Apocalypse Pig: The Last Antibiotic Begins to Fail”
Maryn McKenna | National Geographic
But what makes MCR, this new colistin resistance, different from VRSA is the role that agriculture seems to be playing in its evolution and dispersal. There are two problems here. First, that thousands to millions of animals are getting the drug, which exponentially expands the opportunities that favor resistance. And second, that projects such as the Chinese one that allowed the new gene to be discovered are rare—so colistin resistance could begin moving, from animals and into people, without being noticed.
And, in fact, it may be on the move now. The authors note that, while they were writing up their findings, the European Molecular Biology Laboratory received five submissions of bacterial data that appeared to contain the MCR gene—but not from China; from Malaysia.
What will happen next? Unfortunately, we have to wait and see—and hope that systems are built that will perceive this new resistance if it arrives. Meanwhile, I especially appreciate the reaction of Mike the Mad Biologist, who knows a great deal about resistance in his real life and can be counted on to be exasperated and blunt. He said, about this discovery:
If this doesn’t convince people to get serious about the agricultural side of the problem, I don’t know what will.
Did I miss something exceptional? Drop me a line at email@example.com. And if you come across something spectacular for our December list—including comics, videos, podcasts, or any other narrative form—I’d love to hear from you.