It’s been a good and somewhat momentous year. In July, I left my job of seven years to become a fulltime freelancer. Before, the blogging and feature-writing were all leisure-time activities, and they’re now my bread and butter. With just five months in, it’s working out nicely so far and I get to spend a bit more time on the stories I write for this blog. I hope that the quality of the content here is, if anything, improving as a result. Some events of note:
I did other stuff too! Some long-form features…
These are some of my proudest work. They’re where I really get to flex my writing muscles. There are six here, but I’ve actually written ten this year. Four of them will be out in early 2012.
…and lots of news stories and columns
And even a spot of radio…
In which I tell the collected listeners of BBC Radio 4 that they’re sacks of bacteria
As always, I owe a huge amount to the editors who have kicked my pieces into shape, the friends and colleagues who have supported me, and the readers who have deigned to read the messy piles of words that I bash out at my desk. Writing is a lonely and sometimes dispiriting business, and every kind word helps. I’m grateful to all the people I connect with, from all over the world, who make it worthwhile.
And, as has become obligatory but never any less important, my utmost thanks to my wife, Alice, who continues to make it all possible
By now, you are no doubt tired of reading “Best of 2011” lists. I offer up no such animal. Instead, this is just a list 30 of my favourite posts of the year. It are not a list of breakthroughs or important events – you won’t find any mention of the Higgs boson, Fukushima, neutrinos or exo-planets here. Importance has never been a criterion for me in deciding what to write about. Instead, I am drawn to science that excites and inspires me, or that allows me to tell interesting stories. It’s these stories – quirky or jaw-dropping, eye-opening or smile-raising – that comprise this list.
I originally wrote this feature about the amazing Erez Lieberman Aiden back in June. It’s been one of the most popular posts on Not Exactly Rocket Science over the past year, and it was recently nominated for inclusion in the latest edition of Open Lab, the anthology of the world’s best science blogging. For that reason, I’m giving it another airing.
Erez Lieberman Aiden is a talkative witty fellow, who will bend your ear on any number of intellectual topics. Just don’t ask him what he does. “This is actually the most difficult question that I run into on a regular basis,” he says. “I really don’t have anything for that.”
It is easy to understand why. Aiden is a scientist, yes, but while most of his peers stay within a specific field – say, neuroscience or genetics – Aiden crosses them with almost casual abandon. His research has taken him across molecular biology, linguistics, physics, engineering and mathematics. He was the man behind last year’s “culturomics” study, where he looked at the evolution of human culture through the lens of four per cent of all the books ever published. Before that, he solved the three-dimensional structure of the human genome, studied the mathematics of verbs, and invented an insole called the iShoe that can diagnose balance problems in elderly people. “I guess I just view myself as a scientist,” he says.
His approach stands in stark contrast to the standard scientific career: find an area of interest and become increasingly knowledgeable about it. Instead of branching out from a central speciality, Aiden is interested in ‘interdisciplinary’ problems that cross the boundaries of different disciplines. His approach is nomadic. He moves about, searching for ideas that will pique his curiosity, extend his horizons, and hopefully make a big impact. “I don’t view myself as a practitioner of a particular skill or method,” he tells me. “I’m constantly looking at what’s the most interesting problem that I could possibly work on. I really try to figure out what sort of scientist I need to be in order to solve the problem I’m interested in solving.”
It’s a philosophy that has paid dividends. At just 31 years of age, Aiden has a joint lab at MIT and Harvard. In 2010, he won the prestigious $30,000 MIT-Lemenson prize, awarded to people who show “exceptional innovation and a portfolio of inventiveness”. He has seven publications to his name, six of which appeared the world’s top two journals – Nature and Science. His friend and colleague Jean-Baptiste Michel says, “He’s truly one of a kind. I just wonder about what discipline he will get a Nobel Prize in!”
Your skin is teeming with bacteria. There are billions of them, living on the dry parched landscapes of your forearms, and the wet, humid forests of your nose. On your feet alone, every square centimetre has around half a million bacteria. These microbes are more than just passengers, hitching a ride on your bodies. They also affect how you smell.
Skin bacteria are our own natural perfumers. They convert chemicals on our skin into those that can easily rise into the air, and different species produce different scents. Without these microbes, we wouldn’t be able to smell each other’s sweat at all. But we’re not the only ones who can sniff these bacterial chemicals. Mosquitoes can too. Niels Verhulst from Wageningen University and Research Centre has just found that the bacteria on our skin can affect our odds of being bitten by a malarial mosquito.
In the Battle of Rorke’s Drift, 150 or so British troops defended a mission station against thousands of Zulu warriors. At the Battle of Thermopylae, around 7,000 Greeks successfully held back a Persian army of hundreds of thousands for seven days. Human history has many examples of a small force defeating or holding their own against a much larger one.
Among animals too, the underdogs often become the victors. One such example exists in the rainforests of Panama. There, capuchin monkeys live in large groups, each with its own territory. The monkeys often invade each other’s land. Numbers provide an obvious advantage in such conflicts, but small groups can often successfully defend their territory against big ones. Unlike human underdogs, they don’t win because of superior tactics or weapons. They win because their rivals are full of deserters.
On 25 January 1995, the British merchant vessel SS Lima was sailing through the Indian Ocean when its crew noticed something odd. In the ship’s log, the captain wrote, “A whitish glow was observed on the horizon and, after 15 minutes of steaming, the ship was completely surrounded by a sea of milky-white color.” The eerie glow appeared to “cover the entire sea area, from horizon to horizon . . . and it appeared as though the ship was sailing over a field of snow or gliding over the clouds”. The ship took six hours to sail through it.
These glowing seas have featured in sailor stories for centuries. The crew of the Nautilius encountered the phenomenon in Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. And in 2006, Steven Miller actually managed to recover satellite images of the very same patch seen by the crew of the SS Lima – it stretched over 15,000 square kilometres, the size of Connecticut or Yorkshire.
The glowing waters are the work of bioluminescent bacteria – microbes that can produce their own light. They are found throughout the oceans, although usually in smaller numbers than the giant bloom responsible for the SS Lima’s sighting. In many cases, they form partnerships with animals like fish and squid, taking up residence inside their hosts and paying their rent by providing light for navigation or defence.
But many glowing bacteria live freely in the open ocean, and they glow nonetheless. Creating light takes energy, and it’s not something that’s done needlessly. So why do the bacteria shine? One of the most common answers – and one that Miller proposed to explain his satellite images – is that the bacteria are screaming “Eat me!” at passing fish. A fish’s guts are full of nutrients, and it can carry bacteria across large distances. The bacteria, by turning themselves into glowing bait, get a lift and a meal.
This idea has been around for more than three decades, but it has never actually been tested. Margarita Zarubin from the Interuniversity Institute for Marine Sciences has finally done so.
The last paragraph in this piece on radioactive spider-webs by Sally Adee is my favourite end to a piece. Ever
There are endless Best Of lists this year, but do have a look at The Browser’s choice of 48 top articles. They have exceedingly good taste.
A fantastic animated history of fossil fuels – 300 years in 5 mins
The price of superstition: how traditional Chinese medicine is a threat to wildlife
How much does the internet weigh? Robert Krulwich is wonderful. Don’t miss: “Look what weightlessness can do”
War reporter discovers that he has Huntington’s: I will die the most horrible death
Social Networks Matter: Friends Increase the Size of Your Brain, by Eric Michael Johnson
Cloning vs. conservation: viable strategy, flawed fantasy, or Swiftian modest proposal? Great piece by John Rennie
How big is Saturn? This staggering picture will give you an idea
That’s the answer to light pollution: a dictatorship. Satellite images captures Kim Jong Il’s legacy.
Bizarre Kelvin-Helmholtz Waves Appear Over Alabama
World’s oldest rocks could weigh a man down. Great story. Worth it for the one para that sums 4.5bn yrs of history
The wonderful site Longreads is collating people’s picks of the best long features of the year. Some say that the internet is triggering a renaissance for long-form writing and I very much agree. Over the past 12 days, I’ve been tweeting my picks and the full list should be up soon. Here it is:
The world of science offers great opportunities for journalists to flex their writing muscles by fusing rich storytelling and reporting with deft explanatory skill. After all, what could make for better stories than intelligent people trying to understand how the world works?
Here are my top dozen stories from the year, originally tweeted as daily treats in the run-up to Christmas. Yes, I know everyone else has picked five, but we bloggers hate word restrictions – I’ll pick my Top 67 of 2011 and you’ll like it. Each of these features left a firm impression so, taking my lead from Jodi Ettenberg, each choice comes with a note about where I was when I read it.
Here they are, in no particular order:
The Mystery of the Canadian Whiskey Fungus by Adam Rogers (Wired; read at my desk during an uneventful work day)
This is a superb whodunit featuring James Scott, the Sherlock Holmes of fungus – an old-school scientist in the modern world, trying to solve the mystery of the “angel’s share”. It’s packaged with confident wit and vivid, sensory prose (check out that lede), and Rogers finds space to take in a brief history of distillation and a look at the dying art of mycology. The best piece about fungus you’ll likely ever read.
Could Conjoined Twins Share a Mind? by Susan Dominus (New York Times, read in a Lake District cottage)
Tatiana and Kristina Hogan are four-year-old twins, joined at the head. Over the course of five days spent with their family, Dominus asks whether they share their thoughts and senses. It’s a moving and thoughtful piece about neuroscientists struggling to explain a bizarre phenomenon, and a family raising their unique members. It is also, of course, a portrait of two extraordinary girls. By the end of the piece, you feel privileged to have met them, if only in words.
A man-made world, by Oliver Morton (Economist; read in an Islington cafe)
There is a staggering density of ideas in this piece about humanity’s impact on our world. In sentences, Morton encapsulates issues that other writers could dwell on for entire books.
The Possibilian by Burkhard Bilger (New Yorker, read on a Boston subway train)
Bilger tells the story of time-lord David Eagleman, a man who collects jokes and anecdotes, chucks volunteers off tall buildings, counts Brian Eno as a research collaborator, and studies how our brain perceives the passage of time. It is a nigh-perfect blend of solid protagonist, fascinating science, and rich, biographical reporting,
The Mouse Trap, by Daniel Engber (Slate, read on a plane to Cairo)
To write one great feature about laboratory rats may be regarded as skill; to write two looks like vanity; to write three looks like genius. In this trinity of long-reads, Engber discusses why our reliance on fat, lazy rats might be holding back medical progress, how a strain known as Black-6 came to dominate research, and how a blind naked “anti-mouse” could be our secret weapon against cancer.
Number One with a Bullet by Rowan Jacobsen (Outside, read in Heathrow airport)
In India’s lush Kaziranga National Park, a new policy allows rangers to shoot wildlife poachers on sight. As a result, rhinos and tigers are thriving. Jacobsen introduces us to guards, conservationists and poachers to find deeper stories beyond a simple heroes-versus-villains narrative. This is essentially a superlative piece of war reporting, but with tigers.
Autistic and Seeking a Place in an Adult World by Amy Harmon (New York Times, read in Heathrow airport, immediately after Jacobsen’s piece)
Autism gets a lot of column inches, but usually in the context of silly controversies and far-off medical promises, none of which tell you anything about people with autism themselves. For that reason, Harmon’s take on Justin Canha, a young autistic man trying to find his place in the world, is wonderfully refreshing. It’s eye-opening, compassionate, and features a masterful use of dialogue. It took a year to report, which shows.
E.O.Wilson’s Theory of Everything by Howard French (Atlantic, read on the Victoria Line between Vauxhall and King’s Cross)
How do you write a worthy profile of E.O.Wilson, a man whose work spans decades and whose own writing is tinged with greatness? Apparently, you ask Howard French. Controversies over Wilson’s latest theories notwithstanding, French crafts a portrait of an inspirational figure, entranced by nature at the age of 82 as a boy would be at the age of 8. It also has the year’s best final line.
Deep Intellect: Inside the mind of the octopus by Sy Montgomery (Orion; read in bed)
Octopuses must be some of the easiest animals to write about captivatingly. They have acute intelligence, alien physique and a wondrous array of superpowers. But Montgomery does much more with this piece, which invites you to consider what life must be like with an utterly different mind and body. She is less narrating a natural history programme as inviting you to meet a friend. By the end, you get the feeling that Montgomery has slightly fallen in love with the octopus and that it’s really quite okay if you have too.
The Human Lake by Carl Zimmer (Loom, read on a bus heading for Waterloo)
The best science writers can see their beat through wide-angle lenses, finding common themes that run through seemingly disparate areas. This is a prime example of that skill – a long-form blog post that goes from the residents of a Connecticut lake to those within human intestines, told in Zimmer’s trademark simple-but-beautiful brand of storytelling.
Beautiful brains by David Dobbs (National Geographic, read on my sofa)
Starting with a great lede where his boy-racer son gets thrown in jail, Dobbs unpicks the impulsive, maddening teenage brain in his standard mix of pithy explanations and colloquial flourishes. You’re not reading a piece in National Geographic; you’re sitting by a campfire while a professor tells you a story.
What Made This University Researcher Snap? by Amy Wallace (Wired, read in a burrito joint)
In 2010, scientist Amy Bishop gunned down six of her colleagues at the University of Alabama. Just over a year later, Amy Wallace explores what made her snap. It is consistently gripping, often chilling, and frankly impossible to stop reading after the segment about her brother. It’s also the type of piece that is so intensely reported that it almost hurts to think about the rest of the iceberg.
If you’re the type of person who looks for scorpions, rather than runs screaming at the thought of them, then you’re in luck. Scorpions are easy to find. Just go into the desert in the middle of the night, and switch on an ultraviolet (UV) light. Under the beam, scorpions glow a vibrant blue-green, lighting up like beacons against the darkness.
No one knows why scorpions glow. Some have suggested that it’s accidental – the two chemicals responsible for the glow could be by-products of normal chemical reactions. Others proposed that scorpions could glow to lure their prey, although it seems that insects actually avoid fluorescent scorpions. The glow could warn predators or help scorpions to recognise each other, although neither possibility has been tested.
But Douglas Gaffin from the University of Oklahoma has a more intriguing idea. He thinks that scorpions glow to convert the dim UV light from the moon and the stars into the colour that they see best – blue-green. This could explain why scorpion eyes are so exquisitely sensitive, to the point where they can detect the faint glow of starlight against the background of the night sky. They amplify those faint signals by turning their entire bodies into light collectors.