This Month's Must-Reads: Science, Technology, and Health

A roundup of the most captivating stories from around the web

A small region of the Omega Nebula, located about 5,500 light-years away, photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope (J. Hester / NASA / ESA)

Here’s our latest monthly collection of original, weird, lovely, useful, and awe-inspiring stories that are too good to miss.  (And if you want more, check out September’s must-reads, too.)

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A Journey That Has No Ending

Chad Blair | Honolulu Civil Beat

It was the beginning of what would become decades of out-migration for the Marshallese.

Within months, the 167 residents of Bikini were displaced to a smaller, uninhabited atoll, and on July 1, 1946, the fourth nuclear bomb in history was dropped on Bikini as part of the Able test of Operation Crossroads. Able was 50 percent more powerful than Little Boy, the atomic bomb that devastated Hiroshima in 1945. News of the test spread quickly around the world, which was part of the point... America wanted the world to know what it was capable of, and the propaganda worked.

French designer Louis Réard was so impressed with the shock and awe that the test elicited, he named his new, scandalous two-piece swimsuit after the tropical atoll. Comedian Bob Hope quipped that, “As soon as the war ended, we located the one spot on earth that hadn’t been touched by war and blew it to hell.”

And we didn’t stop there.

From 1946 to 1958, 67 separate nuclear weapons were exploded in the Marshall Islands. The largest test, code named Bravo and part of Operation Castle, was a surface detonation of a hydrogen bomb that was over 1,000 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

Bikinians, by and large, haven’t returned to their homeland since.

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The Narrative Frays for Theranos and Elizabeth Holmes

James B. Steward | The New York Times

Indeed, Ms. Holmes seems to have perfectly executed the current Silicon Valley playbook: Drop out of a prestigious college to pursue an entrepreneurial vision; adopt an iconic uniform; embrace an extreme diet; and champion a humanitarian mission, preferably one that can be summed up in one catchy phrase.

Like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg, Ms. Holmes dropped out of college. Like Steve Jobs, she wears a uniform of black turtlenecks, suggesting she has loftier things to think about than what to wear. “I probably have 150 of these,” she told Glamour. Like Mr. Jobs, she’s picky about her diet. (She’s a vegan who shuns coffee and drinks green vegetable juices.)

And like Google’s co-founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin (“Don’t Be Evil”), and Mark Zuckerberg (“Connect the World”), her mission is lofty. As she has repeatedly said, Ms. Holmes envisions “a world in which no one ever has to say goodbye too soon,” brought about through improved health care. Theranos also has a slogan: “One tiny drop changes everything.”

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Ermahgerddon: The Untold Story of the Ermahgerd Girl

Darryn King | Vanity Fair

None of this would matter, however, if the original picture hadn’t been such a compelling “found” slice of life. It captured the real, paroxysmal excitement of a little girl at precisely the right millisecond—the moment most unfortunate for her and most entertaining for us—to be rendered in Polaroid dye, scanned, and preserved in pixels forever like a gargoyle of the Internet.

Except, as it turns out, not quite.

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Ask Polly: Why Do You Always Tell People to Go to Therapy?

Heather Havrilesky | New York

We are a culture that believes in solving puzzles. Act I: The hero hears the call! Act II: The hero struggles with a Rubik's Cube for four decades straight! Act III: A sudden rush of regret and then, DEATH. Good therapy is like throwing the Rubik's Cube out the window and taking a deep breath and asking yourself, “What do I feel like doing right now?”

It's amazing how infrequently most of us ask ourselves that question. We don't deserve to follow our feelings anywhere, or we confuse feeling alive with indulging too much in booze or food or escaping into a make-believe narrative where our real feelings will be channeled through the feelings of some gorgeous protagonist (and therefore rendered safe and NOT WEAK).

Almost every single person who writes to me is trapped in his or her head and wants to break free. You really can't be reminded to step back, away from the little trivial puzzles of life, enough. You need some kind of a process that connects you to yourself, to your feelings, to a brilliant, full-color world that you deeply deserve but can't touch or taste yet.

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Why Are Placebos Getting More Effective in the United States?

William Kremer | BBC World Service

Tests reveal that some well-known drugs for depression and anxiety would struggle to pass their clinical trials if they were re-tested in 2015.

This trend has become a huge concern for the pharmaceutical industry. A slew of drugs have flopped at these final clinical trials, by which time drugs companies have typically spent more than $1 billion in research and development.

No-one knows why the placebo response is rising but a fascinating new study in the journal Pain might help experts pin it down... Why? What could it be about Americans that might make them particularly susceptible to the placebo effect?

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If Your Wi-fi Is Terrible, Check Your Router

Brian X. Chen | The New York Times

Wi-fi headaches start with how the technology has evolved. For years, router makers like Netgear, Linksys, and Cisco focused on making wi-fi technology transmit data at higher speeds and over longer distances.

That did little to prepare people for the explosion of Internet-connected mobile devices. In buildings crowded with smartphones, computers, smart TVs, and tablets, the devices’ signals are now fighting for room on the same radio channels. And routers are spewing out energy for longer distances that may be bumping into neighbors’ signals.

“The router manufacturers are kind of brain-dead,” said Dave Fraser, the chief executive of Devicescape, which develops technology for making public wi-fi networks usable for mobile-phone service. “All they were thinking about was supporting people with laptops in their homes and commercial environments. All of a sudden wi-fi is in everything and everywhere, and we’re moving around our homes much more.”

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How to Have 106 Babies (and Counting)

Michael Paterniti | GQ

Ed Houben is now, at the age of 46, one of the preeminent makers of babies on the planet, father to 106 children of whom two-thirds were made the natural way (i.e., by sexual intercourse) and a third made via artificial insemination. In addition, there are 30 or so he estimates from his years at the clinic. Put another way: Ed Houben, who once had sex once every decade, has fathered roughly ten kids every year for the past 15 years. And he's still at it, thumping his way into history. So prodigious is his legacy that the BBC dubbed him “Europe's most virile man,” while he regularly gets billed by media as “the Sperminator.”

The prerequisite for his calling, he believes, is full transparency. So visit his website—with the tagline “It is nice you found my website!”—and you will discover that Ed has tested negative for gonorrhea and chlamydia. You can see that he's tested negative for syphilis and HIV, too. You can gaze upon pictures of him, one in which he kneels beside one of his small children, from some years ago when he was a bit more youthful.

Nevertheless, he's quick to describe himself as a “truly ugly fat guy with glasses.” An endomorphic bachelor with a somewhat block-shaped head and lower grill of uneven teeth, he lives in a five-room apartment, grad-school humble but relatively roomy by Dutch standards, from which his mother comes and goes, often cooking and cleaning for him. He doesn't own a car; rather, he bikes everywhere, no matter what the weather.

In short, Ed Houben might be the world's least likely natural inseminator (known in the donor world as an N.I., as opposed to an A.I., or artificial inseminator)—and maybe the best, if there is such a thing. Regardless, he's a very normal-seeming person living a spectacularly abnormal life. He drinks coffee and goes to work (work he won't specify for his employer's sake, but it involves sharing his love for Maastricht and its history at an annual salary of 18,000 euros). He strolls the Old City, greeting those he knows with a cheery smile and slightly stiff formality.

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The Strange Case of Anna Stubblefield

Daniel Engber| The New York Times

But the family had had enough. What at first struck them as a miracle—a voice for D.J., his inner self revealed—now seemed a fraud. D.J. could not have given his consent to any love affair, they later told the authorities, because he suffers from profound mental disabilities, just as the psychologists had always told them. His ‘‘messages’’ must have been a sham. If Anna pretended otherwise, it was only so she could use D.J. as a guinea pig for research, or to further her career, or because, as Wesley would later say during the three-week trial for sexual assault that concluded this month in Newark, ‘‘she was having some sick, twisted fantasy.’’

Anna has never wavered in her claim that she and D.J. fell in love and that his messages were his. Even after she was indicted, she seemed more concerned about his fate than her own. ‘‘In the spring of 2011, [D.J.’s] access to his means of communication was taken from him,’’ she wrote in a chapter for a recent academic book, which was published while the justice system creaked its way toward trial, ‘‘and he is once again treated as severely intellectually impaired by those who have control over his life. This chapter is dedicated to him, in hope that he will one day regain his voice and his freedom.’’

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How to Dupe a Dung Beetle

Elif Batuman | New Yorker

The phenomenon of biological mimicry is rarer in plants than it is in animals. Most cases involve sexual mimicry in flowers; some members of the orchid genus Ophrys, for instance, seduce male bees into pollinating them by imitating the look, smell, and feel of a female bee. The use of deception for seed dispersal is less common. “The vast majority of seed-dispersal strategies involve wind, water, hitchhiking, or luring animals with an honest reward,” Thor Hanson, the author of The Triumph of Seeds, told me.

He cited only a handful of counterexamples: One hoax, for example, targets ants, capitalizing on the tendency of certain honest seeds to grow a fatty appendage that ants can eat. Other, dishonest, inedible seeds mimic the chemistry of the fatty appendage, tricking ants into carrying them away in hopes of eating them later. Despite the rarity of such cons, Hanson said that he was “not surprised in the least” to hear of the dung-beetle research, which he warmly saluted. “This idea of mimicking dung crosses into interesting new territory,” he said in an email. “It’s reminiscent of the mimicry that goes on in pollination, where flowers can look and smell like rotten meat (to attract flies).”

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Seed Money

Brooke Borel | BuzzFeed

“You’ve brilliantly exposed what really is my Achilles Heel,” he wrote to me. “I have an important position in ag, loads of cred in the GM discussion. There are people that would love to know that I did something (innocent) that could be construed as deception, and would do everything they could to destroy my career (like they already do) if they had the information. I need to constantly play defense, and VB is a soft spot.”

I was baffled by these responses. It’s exactly the lack of transparency, after all, that had motivated the FOIA requests and helps fuel public skepticism of GMOs. “In public, you champion transparency,” I wrote back. “This podcast is the complete opposite of transparency.”

He said he agreed with me. But instead of coming clean, he took the show down.

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Before We Drown, We May Die of Thirst

Kenneth R. Weiss | Nature

The uncertain future of people such as Kauria has drawn attention to a collection of atolls in the central Pacific Ocean that make up the Republic of Kiribati (pronounced Keer-re-bahs). The average height of the country's 33 islands is little more than 2 meters above the ocean, which makes Kiribati acutely vulnerable to climate change. By the end of the century, melting polar ice and the thermal expansion of warmer seawater is expected to raise global ocean levels by perhaps 1 meter. That upsurge would, according to some predictions, displace many from Kiribati and millions of others around the world—and the water will keep going up.

For years, Kiribati President Anote Tong has sounded the alarm over his nation's plight, warning that residents would soon have to abandon their homeland. The flooding that hit Teaoraereke last year reinforces those dire predictions. Although it is impossible to know how much, if at all, climate change contributed to the flooding, village residents say that they have never before seen such inundation. To some of them, it seemed as if the swelling seas were starting to consume Kiribati and the end of the atoll might come sooner than they had thought.

But researchers who study Kiribati say that the situation is not a simple story of rising seas swallowing low-lying islands. In fact, some coastal experts dispute the idea that Kiribati will soon sink beneath the waves like a modern Atlantis. They have gathered evidence that many of these islands have been gaining ground in recent decades by capturing sediments from surrounding coral reefs. “It's just plain wrong to assume that all atolls are washing away,” says Arthur Webb, a coastal geomorphologist affiliated with the University of Wollongong in Australia who has spent two decades living and working in the Pacific Islands. “It's also wrong to sugar-coat the sobering facts that rising sea levels will ultimately seal the fate of low-lying islands and their limited soils and groundwater. The confusion isn't surprising. It's just more complicated than many expect.”

Even if Kiribati does not drown in the near future, its residents may soon need an exit strategy. Poverty, overcrowding and poor sanitation are galloping ahead of rising seas to deplete the islands' resources, especially their supply of clean fresh water. And residents' habits of altering the shoreline and removing coastal protections can magnify the impacts of the swelling oceans, leaving villages more exposed to flooding.

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The Archive of Eating

Bee Wilson | The New York Times

Here is a small fragment from just one of Wheaton’s lists of search terms, which so far cover more than 130,000 results, encompassing ingredients, techniques, food for the sick, and much more:

Black beans
Black cumin
Black gram
Black grouse
Black pepper
Black-eyed peas
Blackstrap molasses

And another:

Lamb’s lettuce

From ladyfingers to latkes is a prose poem suggestive of whole worlds. The list runs on and on, from aal (German for eel) to zucchini, seeming to contain the promise of a universal cookbook of European and American cuisine, pieced together from all the recipes ever written—a Borgesian feat of quixotic and fantastical taxonomy.

The germ for the database first came to Wheaton in 1962. Her husband, Bob, was studying for his Ph.D. at Harvard, and her two children (the third had not yet been born) were in preschool five days a week for three hours (‘‘assuming no bugs, earaches or other interruptions’’). Wheaton had done graduate studies in art history, but she discovered that what she really wanted to do was read old cookbooks.