A Reading List for Judy

The largest known topaz stone, is held for photographing before it is made available to view at the Natural History Museum in London, on September 27, 2016.
The largest known topaz stone, is held for photographing before it is made available to view at the Natural History Museum in London, in September 2016. (Peter Nicholls / Reuters)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

It is not possible for any one human to read all of the world’s great literature. Likewise, there will never be enough time to report and write all the stories that interest me. These are tragic truths, but they are truths nonetheless. Which is part of why I recently abandoned a monthly exercise I’d taken on last fall: curating and publishing a list of “must reads” in science, technology, and health from around the web—everything from the offbeat to the investigative.

Because I wasn’t sure whether my Internet Reading Club was actually useful or interesting to anyone but me, I dropped it in favor of other projects. So I was surprised to hear from one of our readers requesting a revival of the monthly column. “I regularly check Science Daily and other sources, but there is a big gap in my discovery of science articles without Adrienne’s recommendations,” Judy wrote.

For now, we’re not going to reinstate the Internet Reading Club as a monthly feature, but how could I say no to a kind request for recommendations of great journalism? For Judy, whose email made my day, here’s a round-up of 11 of the best science, technology, and health stories I’ve read from around the web this month. (And if anyone out there has special recommendations for Judy, let us know at hello@theatlantic.com, and we’ll consider adding them to the list!)


The Detectives Who Never Forget a Face
Patrick Radden Keefe | The New Yorker

One quirk of facial recognition is that, from infancy, we tend to be better at recognizing faces of the ethnicity that we are most frequently exposed to: white people are generally better at recognizing white faces, black people tend to be better at recognizing black faces. At this point, the super-recognizer unit consists exclusively of white officers. But the Met has some thirty thousand police officers, and Davis has identified about a hundred and fifty who qualify as super-recognizers; Neville can draw on this diverse auxiliary force. One especially prolific super-recognizer who works outside the unit is Idris Bada, a jailer at Charing Cross Police Station. Bada, who is black, books fifty or so new prisoners each day. His brain is like an illustrated atlas of London’s criminal underworld. Once, he peered into a cell and recognized a prisoner who, thirty years earlier, had attended his elementary school.


What could wreck Elon Musk’s plan to colonize Mars isn’t science, technology, or money—it’s ethics

Akshat Rathi | Quartz

And Musk’s plans go further than landing probes. Sending humans, who are a little more than giant bags of trillions of microbes, means almost certainly contaminating the red planet with terrestrial life. There’s also a chance our microbes could kill any delicate Martian life that may exist and we haven’t discovered yet. ... By sending humans to Mars, Musk risks not just breaking space law but also creating an ethical legacy that will haunt humans forever.


Dear Science: Why can't I tickle myself?

Rachel Feltman and Sarah Kaplan | The Washington Post

It’s not entirely clear what the evolutionary benefit of this sort of ticklishness might be. Some argue that laughter — including the ticklish kind — is linked to social intelligence. If you're an animal that has to live and work in groups, it pays to be able to pal around. Robert Provine, a psychologist at the University of Maryland, has suggested that tickling provides a means of communication between parents and infants before the babies are able to talk. Laughing in response to a playful touch could provide positive feedback for parents, making the adults more attentive and their babies more likely to survive.


Laser Scans Unveil a Network of Ancient Cities in Cambodia

Julia Wallace | The New York Times

“It’s not sexy, like a temple, but for an archaeologist it’s really interesting that we have this representation of cultural activity,” he said. He and Ms. Kong Leaksmy are part of a consortium of scholars called the Cambodian Archaeological Lidar Initiative (CALI), which uses a technology known as lidar to shoot ultraquick pulses of light at the ground from lasers mounted on helicopters. The way they bounce back can show the presence of subtle gradations in the landscape, indicating places where past civilizations altered their environment, even if buried beneath thick vegetation or other obstructions.


World’s oldest fishhook found on Okinawa

Michael Price | Science

The fishhooks, all carved from shells, were found in Sakitari Cave, which was occupied seasonally by fishermen taking advantage of the downstream migrations of crabs and freshwater snails. Unlike their mainland counterparts, who fashioned tools and beads out of shells and stones, the ancient people of Okinawa Island used shells almost exclusively. Japanese archaeologists excavating the cave discovered both a finished and an unfinished fishhook that had been carved and ground from sea snail shells. By radiocarbon dating pieces of charcoal found in the same layer as the fishhooks, the researchers determined the hooks were between 22,380 and 22,770 years old.


World’s first baby born with new “3 parent” technique

Jessica Hamzelou | New Scientist

Zhang has been working on a way to avoid mitochondrial disease using a so-called “three-parent” technique. In theory, there are a few ways of doing this. The method approved in the UK is called pronuclear transfer and involves fertilising both the mother’s egg and a donor egg with the father’s sperm. Before the fertilised eggs start dividing into early-stage embryos, each nucleus is removed. The nucleus from the donor’s fertilised egg is discarded and replaced by that from the mother’s fertilised egg.

But this technique wasn’t appropriate for the couple – as Muslims, they were opposed to the destruction of two embryos. So Zhang took a different approach, called spindle nuclear transfer. He removed the nucleus from one of the mother’s eggs and inserted it into a donor egg that had had its own nucleus removed. The resulting egg – with nuclear DNA from the mother and mitochondrial DNA from a donor – was then fertilised with the father’s sperm.


Predict Zika’s Spread? It’s Hard Enough to Count the Cases

Donald McNeil | The New York Times

Virtually no entomologists believe that the transmission of Zika is limited to a few square miles of downtown Miami and Miami Beach, no matter how vigorously state officials insist it is.

“That’s just dreaming — it’s totally unrealistic,” said Duane J. Gubler, a former director of the vector-borne diseases division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Mosquitoes move around, people move around. Mosquitoes even move by car sometimes.”

Nonetheless, the C.D.C. on Monday lifted its travel advisory for the Wynwood neighborhood of Miami, saying that no new locally transmitted cases had been detected there since early August and traps there had few mosquitoes since the spraying of two pesticides, naled and Bti, began.


So long, Hippocrates. Medical students choose their own oaths

Melissa Bailey | Stat

Oath-taking has become nearly universal at US medical schools, and while oaths of all stripes are often called “Hippocratic,” hardly any schools use the original oath that Hippocrates, the Greek “father of medicine,” is said to have written over 2,000 years ago.

That oath has several problems, said Smith. For starters, he pointed to the Greek gods: “I swear by Apollo Physician and Asclepius and Hygieia and Panaceia and all the gods and goddesses,” the oath begins. The original oath also asks doctors never to “give a woman a pessary to procure abortion,” and to abstain from euthanasia (“I will neither give a deadly drug to anybody who asked for it”).


Do Dolphins Have Conversations? We Still Can’t Say

Madeline Gressel | Nautilus

Humans have long felt an uncanny connection to dolphins, in part because of their Mona Lisa smiles and tenderly soulful eyes, and in part because they do indeed exhibit strikingly intelligent behavior...

Dolphins, not unlike dogs, are handy at understanding and decoding human syntax in the form of sign-language sentences; for example, if a trainer signs “Balance the ball on your snout and then toss it to me,” a trained dolphin can understand, even if they’ve never heard that exact command. They can also recognize a nonsense command and ignore it.  And dolphins have responded to abstract symbols. When shown an arbitrary symbol for “ball” followed by one for “question,” a dolphin named Akeakamai correctly pressed a “no” lever when the ball wasn’t there. These sorts of astonishing anecdotes are seemingly endless.

Dolphins undoubtedly communicate with one another as well, in the form of two distinct types of vocalization: whistles and pulses. Dolphins also use pulses to echolocate—the sonar-like use of sound waves and echoes to determine where objects are in space. The distinction between pulses used to echolocate and those used to communicate isn’t well understood.


It Only Takes Six Seconds To Hear The World’s Most Sampled Song

David Goldenberg | FiveThirtyEight

Once you have the distinctive beat of the Amen Break in your head, you can hear it in all sorts of places: It’s cropped up in the “Futurama” theme song, on the title screen of “The Powerpuff Girls,” on “SimCity 4,” even in Jeep ads. While some of its latent popularity is likely due to nostalgia — or perhaps even a result of an industrywide in-joke a la the Wilhelm scream — Read thinks that it’s now simply become a standard go-to in many studios. “A lot of producers use it without having known they used it,” he said.


92 Percent Of The World's Population Breathes Substandard Air, WHO Says

Merrit Kennedy | NPR

The pollution levels had a staggering impact on health, according to the report, which said: "In 2012, one out of every nine deaths was the result of air pollution-related conditions." The number of deaths attributable to both indoor and outdoor air pollution totaled approximately 6.5 million worldwide, of which 3 million deaths were blamed on outdoor air pollution — the focus of this report.