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.
All this month, we've been telling you about a fantastic challenge from the Encyclopedia of Life. Called Armchair Taxonomist, it's an opportunity to research and write about different plants, animals, fungi, and microscopic organisms — and, in the process, help move scientific information from places where it's hard for most people to see, to an open-access sandbox on the Internet.
If you've taken the time to write up an entry, fantastic. We're looking forward to reading them. You've also got a shot at the great stuff up for grabs — including a private, behind the scenes tour of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. If you've not entered yet, though, this is the last weekend you can. The deadline is Monday, May 20th at 6:00 pm Eastern.
It's also a place where Ethiopian men and boys regularly travel in order to cut slabs of salt off of the surface of the Earth and haul them back to civilization. Salt flats like this occur when entire bodies of water totally evaporate. In the Danakil Depression, you'll also find salt towers and other formations caused by evaporation off of volcanic geysers and hot springs.
The photo above was taken by Reuters photographer Siegfried Modola, who traveled with a group of salt miners into the desert and then followed their haul all the way back to the marketplace. You can see his full slideshow of images online. I chose this one because it gives you a view of the salt as it's found on the ground, and the neat, rectangular blocks the merchants cut it into for shipping.
It depends on who you ask. Earlier this week, researchers announced that they'd successfully turned adult skin cells into embryonic stem cells. Headlines were made — including more than one that heralded this as the first step in human cloning. If you believe The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and Fox News, this research was a big deal. The Boston Globe and The Washington Post, however, had a different take. According to those sources, this is more of a technical advance (but not one that counts as a "breakthrough") and something that's unlikely to have any clinical relevance whatsoever. — Maggie
Earlier this week, scientists announced that they'd found evidence suggesting malaria-carrying mosquitoes are more attracted to the smell of human flesh than healthy mosquitoes. This research — which, I'm sure you'll agree, has some important implications — grew out of research that could be deemed very silly. In fact, this new finding was built on IgNobel-winning research published back in 1996, which found that malaria mosquitoes are attracted to the smell of stinky cheese. — Maggie
Kiera Wilmot — the Florida 16-year-old who created a small explosion just outside her school before classes started by mixing cleaning solution and tin foil (she was just curious, nobody was harmed) — will not be charged with a felony, after all. Florida State Attorneys dropped the charges against Wilmot yesterday. After her case garnered national attention, she ended up with a lawyer who has defended her mostly for free. There's no word yet on whether she'll be allowed to return to the school that expelled her and pressed charges in the first place.
Apparently, there were some private citizens from the USSR who were allowed into the U.S. for travel during the Cold War. But they couldn't just visit anywhere they wanted.
This map, from a post at Slate's Vault blog, shows the no-go zones, shaded in green. Some of this is quite funny — gee, guys, I wonder what you're keeping hidden out in rural Nevada? Another interesting point: Soviets could visit Kansas City, Kansas, but not Kansas City, Missouri. Which could just be a pretty good joke, on our part. The fun stuff is all on the Missouri side.
EDIT: In the original version of this post, I'd mentioned that Kansas had once been home to many, many missile silos, and speculated that this might be why so much of that state (and the Dakotas) was off-limits to Soviet travelers. But, Cold War historian Audra J. Wolfe contacted me and pointed out that there were no missile silos at the time this map was made, because there were no Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles. So why ban the Ruskies from Kansas? Wolfe isn't entirely sure. She speculated that it might have had something to do with limiting access to public lands managed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs or the Bureau of Land Management. It also could have been tied to the presence of Strategic Air Command bases in the state. And there were tons of Atomic Energy Commission-owned sites scattered all over the U.S. — it's hard to keep track of where they all were.
Of course, Wolfe also said that there wasn't always a clear logic behind the decisions about which parts of the country were made off-limits to Soviet citizens. For instance, much of our coastline was off-limits for no other reason than the fact that much of the Soviet coast was off-limits to Americans. "The main premise is 'strict reciprocity'," she wrote in a message to me. "X% of Soviet coasts are off-limits, therefore x% of US coasts are off-limits, too." So there, one might add.
I have found myself frustrated with Michael Pollan lately. In the course of promoting his new book about cooking, he's taken to spouting some opinions that I'll frankly call claptrap. He's mocked women who felt trapped by the kitchen drudgery that they got stuck with simply because they owned a vagina. He's implied that it's easy (if you're not lazy) for everyone to make every meal an ideologically sound slow-food meal. In general, he's disparaged the very idea that some people don't like to cook.
Thankfully, my personal food guru, Lynn Rosetto Kasper, is here to call shenanigans on all this nonsense. She gave a fantastic interview on MPR this afternoon, shooting down the idea that everyone would love to cook if they only tried it. In fact, says Kasper, you don't have a moral obligation to cook at all. The world needs eaters, too.
Tom Crann: What are some of the pressures, and why? Where do they come from, for people who feel pressured to cook if they're not very good at it?
Lynne Rosetto Kasper: The new food awareness that we've seen over the past decade. Here's the flip side. We cook if we are smart. We're supposed to cook to save our families and ourselves from dysfunctional, unhealthy lives. We cook to fight the obesity epidemic. We cook to save our identities, culturally, our traditions. We cook to strike out against the forces we feel are evil -- you name them. We cook because it shows how cool we are. ... the pressure today is we all should be doing this thing. And yeah, it's great to cook, it's wonderful to cook. But this is not something you take on if you really think you're going to hate it.
I think we should - if we possibly have an option -- do what we really enjoy doing. Because no matter what it is, that's what we're going to be good at.
You can read a transcript online, but it leaves out some of the discussion and I recommend listening to the audio. It's an interview of beauty. And I say that as somebody who loves to cook. The key, though, is that cooking every meal is not something I alone am solely responsible for, no matter how I'm feeling or what day it is. It's not something that takes up a large portion of my life. And it is something that I just happen to find relaxing and fun. If any of those facts weren't true, my thoughts on cooking might be very different. And it's silly to expect otherwise.
What happens inside a caterpillar's cocoon? Scientists got to watch the whole process with the help of X-ray 3D scanning technology. In the video above, you can watch a caterpillar turn into a butterfly. Over the course of 16 days its breathing tubes (shown in blue) and its digestive system (shown in red) change shape and position within the body, while other structures grow from scratch.
Ed Yong has a great story to go with this, too. All about why it's important to actually watch the process happening in a single caterpillar, instead of just relying on the data scientists have collected from years of dissecting different caterpillars at different stages in the transformation.
My great-grandmother, Hedwig Nietzsche Koerth, never spoke English. My Grandpa Gustav didn't learn the language until he entered first grade. But, by the time I was in grade school — and was going through a brief fling of learning German — Grandpa no longer remembered much of what had once been his first language. Today, nobody in my immediate family speaks any German, much less the dying dialect of Texas German that my great-grandmother spoke. The BBC has an interesting story about the history and linguistics of Texas German, which will probably die out in the next couple generations — largely because the German Germans started a couple world wars in a row and changed the idea of what was and wasn't socially acceptable speech in America. — Maggie
This is the third story in a multi-part series on taxonomy and speciation. It's meant to help you as you participate in Armchair Taxonomist — a challenge from the Encyclopedia of Life to bring scientific descriptions of animals, plants, and other living things out from behind paywalls and onto the Internet. Participants can earn cool prizes, so be sure to check it out! The deadline is May 20th
As depicted on Star Trek: The Original Series, the tricorder is a device that looks like the bastard love child of a Polaroid camera and a 1970s-era portable cassette deck. It was worn around the neck on a strap. It was black and clunky and definitely not what we would, today, call a sexy piece of electronics.
What made the tricorder a great piece of fictional technology wasn't its looks, but what it did. "Mr. Spock could use it to identify any organism, plant or animal, anywhere in the galaxy," said Carlos Garcia-Robledo, postdoctoral fellow in the department of botany at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. A portable tool that could quickly identify any species anywhere would be a game changer for science. Eventually, according to Garcia-Robledo and others, we'll have just that — put a piece of leaf or fur or insect leg into a machine and out pops its taxonomic information.
But what makes this really awesome is that — aside from the portable part — this is something we can actually do already. Garcia-Robledo does it regularly in his lab. The real-world tricorder isn't just something that's going to transform science someday. It's already doing that, right now.