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Maggie Koerth-Baker

Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.

Maggie goes places and talks to people. Find out where she'll be speaking next.


Pre-code movies worth watching

At The Toast, Mallory Ortberg has a list of films from the 1920s and 30s — prior to the widespread adoption of the Hollywood Production Code and its morality guidelines — that are actually worth tracking down through Amazon, Netflix, and other sources.

Most of the movies made during this era have been lost, and not all of those that survived are timeless classics. Studios were still figuring out what worked in a talking picture and what didn’t, so there’s lots of problems with pacing — some movies waste several minutes on dead air in scenes that would have been cut entirely just a few years later. Serious technical issues dog the crop from 1928-1930, too; there’s one film where every time you see a character holding a piece of paper, it’s soaking wet because at the time there was no other way to keep from picking up every crackle and rustle of a dry sheet of paper with the microphones. So there are more than a few pre-Code films that have been deservedly forgotten.

That said, Ortberg offers up a nice accounting of the ones you should check out, arranged in categories such as "Worth Watching For Any Reason", "If You Want To Get Into Pre-Civil-Rights-Era Racial Dynamics", "Worth It For the Titles Alone", and "If You Want To Take A Deeply Uncomfortable Journey To Another Time" (which hits all the fun horrible things of the past not covered by the racial dynamics category).

An update on MERS

Scientists have been tracking Middle East respiratory syndrome since 2012. At New Scientist, Deborah MacKenzie looks at what's going on with the disease now — including a surge in cases and the identification of MERS patients outside the Middle East. Maggie 2

A fourth-year medical student writes about death

Med student Shara Yurkiewicz writes a heart-wrenching essay about watching a patient die during hip surgery. Maggie 2

When in ancient Rome, bring bottled water

Turns out, when your entire plumbing system and all your aqueduct pipes are made of lead, your water probably contains more lead than is strictly safe. That said, researchers don't think the locals were getting high enough doses to cause the kind of brain damage that would lead to, for instance, an increase in crime. Maggie 22

Speckles on the Sun larger than Alaska

The surface of the Sun is covered in what scientists call "granules" — upwellings of plasma, which are caused by convection currents just the same way that colder, denser water sinks in the ocean or hot goo rises to the top of a lava lamp. The tops of these upwellings are responsible for making the surface of the Sun appear all pebbled and speckley. And, as this image from Wikimedia Commons shows, they are MASSIVE.

They are also helping scientists learn more about what happens inside the Sun's boiling heart, according to a story by Tom Yulsman at the ImaGeo blog.

Open source seeds

Last week, the Open Source Seed Initiative released 29 new varieties of 14 different food crops. The new seeds cannot legally be brought under any kind of IP protection, nor can any future varieties bred or otherwise created from them. Maggie 18

Epigenetics could help explain differences between us and Neanderthals

Methylation — where a chemical compound attaches to DNA and changes the way that DNA is expressed without changing the DNA, itself — probably played a role in the difference between human body types and the bodies of Neanderthals. Maggie 10

Watch an earthquake slosh a swimming pool in Mexico City

A scary, but mostly harmless 7.2 earthquake struck Mexico City last week. Here's a fun game: Watch the earthquake slosh the water in a pool back and forth — then go compare the effects to animations of different types of earthquake waves. Maggie 4

The soil at the bottom of Greenland

Scientists have found 2.7-million-year-old soil at the bottom of the Greenland ice sheet. The discovery challenges what we thought we knew about how glaciers work and could have implications for the effects of climate change. Maggie 4

Inside the vegetative mind

The invention of the artificial respirator in Denmark in the 1950s created more than just a new technology. It created a new class of being — the vegetative state. More than half a century later, scientists are still trying to understand what happens inside the minds of vegetative patients. Maggie 5

Here is a picture of a man knighting a penguin

This photo was taken at the 2008 knighthood ceremony of Sir Nils Olav, a penguin who lives at the Edinburgh Zoo but is the official mascot of the Norwegian Royal Guard. In 1982, Nils Olav received his first Norwegian military promotion, to Corporal. As of 2005, his rank is Colonel-in-Chief. Periodically, the Norwegian Royal Guard visits Edinburgh, and Nils is called out to inspect the troops.

Of course, while national pride is forever, penguins only live so long. Most of the promotions and the knighthood have actually gone to the second Nils Olav, the first having died in the 1980s.

Hobby Lobby, IUDs, and the facts

The U.S. Supreme Court will decide later this year whether a corporation can have religious beliefs. Maggie Koerth-Baker looks at the science of birth control, and how it might inform the debate.

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With human ancestors, the devil is in the details


Photo by Kate Wong

See the notches at the top of these two casts of ancient hominid mandibles? If you were a paleoanthropologist, you would spend your days arguing about the shape of those notches and their deeper possible meanings.

In 2010, the scientists who found these jaw bones decided that the bones represented a previously unknown hominid species — Australopithecus sediba — whose characteristics blend those of our genus, Homo, with those of a much older genus, Australopithecus.

BUT, now, writes Kate Wong, other scientists think they're wrong, arguing that the two bones don't even come from the same species. Instead, the top mandible in this picture could be straight up Homo, and the bottom classic Australopithecus, and the whole debate — which has implications for how we draw our human family tree — hinges on the shape of that, well, hinge.

Meet the 17th century's answer to Tesla

Cornelis Drebbel was a Dutch inventor who may have inspired Shakespeare's Prospero, was occasionally accused of witchcraft, and built submarines, telescopes, and feedback-control devices while simultaneously dabbling in alchemy. Bring on the "I <3 Drebble" T-shirts. Maggie 8

How schools got desegregated ... and then resegregated

The rise and fall of desegregation efforts in the three generations since Brown v. Board. Incredible work by Nikole Hannah-Jones at ProPublica, following the school careers of James Dent, his daughter, and granddaughter in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Maggie 11