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Maggie Koerth-Baker

Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. From August 2014-May 2015, she will be a Nieman-Berkman Fellow at Harvard University. You can follow Maggie's adventures in the Ivory Tower by subscribing to The Fellowship of Three Things newsletter.


Is sunscreen dangerous? An actual scientist weighs in

There's a viral news story going around that claims scientists have found that using sunscreen increases your risk of death. As a redhead, this is relevant to my interests. But it turns out that the paper being cited was vastly misconstrued and wasn't even about sunscreen at all.

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Prescient Nature article on forgotten smallpox samples

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Yesterday, the CDC announced the discovery of several vials of smallpox virus, forgotten in a storage room since the 1950s. Back in April, Nature's Sara Reardon wrote about the risks (and benefits) of just this sort of thing.

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Phrenology bust modeled on a human death mask

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The Morbid Anatomy Museum recently acquired a 19th-century phrenological death mask. Liza Young, a museum studies student at St. John's University, tracked down its history.

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The woman with a nose on her back

There are some pretty freakish, but well-substantiated, reports this week that demonstrate just how much we still have to learn about stem cells and how they work (and don't work).

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Very old erotic graffiti found in Greece

Photograph: Helena Smith


Photograph: Helena Smith

Now we know that Nikasitimos banged Timion (in the past continuous tense, implying a long stamina) on what is now a remote stone outcrop on the Agean island of Astypalaia, approximately 2,500 years ago.

How Komodo Dragons hunt

Komodo Dragons are venomous. All they need to kill prey much larger than themselves is a single bite.

How would a bird the size of a boat get airborne?

Pelagornis sandersi is a 25-million-year-old bird with a 24-foot-long wingspan. Scientists now think it could have flown.

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Perfect "Aryan" was Jewish

Pseudoscience for the win. It would be funny if it weren't for, you know, the Holocaust.

What Richard Feynman didn't understand about women

The legendary scientist had a frankly horrible perspective on interacting with women—and it's by his own account.

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The science of why some people don't like cilantro

It's okay, cilantro lovers. The haters aren't wrong. They're just disabled.

How indirect allergen exposure works

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I'd always sort of thought that people with severe peanut allergies could have a reaction from being too close to peanuts, even without touching them. Turns out, that's not true. Usually.

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What makes a public park successful?

As planners create parks to go with a new Vikings stadium, the Minneapolis Park History blog looks at why some parks became community hubs and others earned bad reputations. (Thanks, Andrew!)

Lots of us have had the urge to jump to our doom

A recent study found that the urge to jump off tall things is pretty common, even among people who are not suicidal.

Once-hyped planet does not exist

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In 2010, I told you about Gliese 581g, a potentially habitable exoplanet that astronomers thought they had spotted orbiting a star more than 20 light years from Earth.

Turns out, they are most likely wrong about that.

The existence of Gliese 581g has been shaky for a while — other scientists were questioning the first team's data just a few weeks after the initial announcement.

Now, writes Matthew Francis at The Daily Beast, the opposing scientists have put together a damning case against Gliese 581g's existence, enough that it's now reasonable to say that what we thought was an exoplanet was never anything more than a blip in the data.

A new study, published in the journal Science, showed that what seemed to be the sign of a planet was more likely to be from the star’s “weather”—the same sort of magnetic fluctuations that cause prominences and sunspots on the Sun. Not only that, but a second planet in the same system, Gliese 581d, probably doesn’t exist either, for the same reasons.

Your first response may be to say, “Stupid scientists! How could they get this so wrong?!” (You aren’t a very nice person, you know.) But that’s a mistake. The story of Gliese 581g highlights how hard exoplanet-hunting is, and how science at its best is self-correcting. All results have to be taken as tentative at first; if they survive under scrutiny or (ideally) replication by other researchers, we can trust them. It’s often messy or slow and can lead to ego clashes, but it’s how science works.

That is a good description of how science works. But it's also important to remember the ridiculous level of hype that came with the initial announcements about Gliese 581g. At the time, Stephen Vogt, the lead author on the paper about the would-be exoplanet, told a press conference that, "My own personal feeling is that the chances of life on this planet are 100 percent."

And many, many news outlets ran with that as the story. Now, like Vogt, they are wrong, too. But, unlike the scientific record, human memory isn't self-correcting. And what version of this story is the average person more likely to remember?

So, yes, I agree with Matthew Francis that Gliese 581g is a great example of how the process of science can catch and correct mistakes. But it's also a great example of how science can be hyped in ways that undermine that process outside the halls of academia.

"Mysterious blob" is guts

A freaky looking blob that washed up on a Cape Cod beach is probably the viscera of a large marine animal.

Kitty sees you

This fantastic footage of a curious Pallas's Cat was taken last year in a zoo in England (I love the shot at :21.)

There's a lot of misinformation flitting about the Internet in relation to this video, so you should really read the great write up on it by Matthew Cobb at the Why Evolution is True blog. He tracked down the fact that the video comes from a zoo and not (as has been widely reported) from camera traps in Nepal.

There are, however, images of Pallas's Cats in Nepal that were taken by a camera trap. Here's one of a Pallas's Cat, apparently attempting to use the bathroom in peace and quiet only to be rudely interrupted by a camera flash.

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How World War I brought women into science

Fascinating history at Nature, about the way war began the still-unfinished process of integrating female minds into the scientific world.

Making "petrified lightning" at home

Fulgurites are glass tubes formed when lightning strikes a desert or beach. Artificial fulgurites are made by running a high-voltage arc through a tub of sand.

I started searching for fulgurites this morning after being reminded of a hoax image that went around last year. It purported to show a massive fulgurite on a beach but was, instead, a stick covered in wet sand. But, as Kyle Hill wrote at the But Not Simpler blog last July, the hoax doesn't make real fulgurite any less awesome.

Incredibly, lightning can and does in fact create something amazing when it hits sand, but the conditions have to be perfect. When it hits a sandy beach high in silica or quartz and the temperature goes beyond 1800 degrees Celsius, the lighting can fuse the sand into silica glass. The blast of a billion Joules radiates through the ground making fulgurite—hollow, glass-lined tubes with a sandy outside. Petrified lightning.

When the lightning perfectly strikes the sand, it branches through it like the root system of a tree to make this beautiful anomaly. But that simple fact is key to getting to the root of the viral photo: The lightning creates a tube of glass through the ground, not above it. You can actually see the impact hole when it occurs in rock.

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A history of Down Syndrome

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From their inclusion in 16th-century paintings to their roles in famous families (including, probably, Darwin's), people with Down Syndrome are part of history.

At the Down Wit Dat blog, there's a 8-part (with more on the way) feature that provides some much-needed inclusion to people who are usually just a footnote to somebody else's history. Naturally, the series delves into ideas like eugenics and the institutionalization of differently abled Americans. But, even there, the story is centered on people with Down Syndrome and, as such, it offers a perspective and information that you likely haven't heard before. Great stuff.

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Here's an excerpt about the short life of Charles Waring Darwin, the youngest child of the Charles Darwin you know. Based off historical records and the surviving photograph that you can see here, historians suspect that he had Down Syndrome.

Henrietta, one of his daughters, had this to say about Charles Waring in her book "Emma Darwin, A century of family letters...":

"The poor little baby was born without its full share of intelligence. Both my father and mother were infinitely tender towards him..."

Charles Darwin himself had this to say about his youngest child:

“He was small for his age and backward in walking and talking.... He was of a remarkable sweet, placid and joyful disposition, but had not high spirits.... He often made strange grimaces and shivered, when excited.... He would lie for a long time placidly on my lap looking with a steady and pleased expression at my face... making nice little bubbling noises as I moved his chin.”

Looking at the photograph of the then 45 year old Emma and her newborn son, it is not hard to see what appears to be a "weakened" bridge to the nose and quite possibly be epicanthal folds. However, the photo is extremely grainy and we will never know for sure. Charles Waring Darwin passed away from Scarlet fever at 19 months of age, never having learned to walk or talk. Darwin Sr. recorded in his journal that day: "Poor Dear Baby Died." He was unable to attend the first reading and publication of his theory of Natural Selection due to the illness and death of his youngest son.

What happens to forests when invasive insects win?

A 2011 photograph from Wisconsin shows what damage the larvae of the emerald ash borer are doing to ash trees in the United States. Credit John Ehlke/The West Bend Daily News


A 2011 photograph from Wisconsin shows what damage the larvae of the emerald ash borer are doing to ash trees in the United States. Credit John Ehlke/The West Bend Daily News

Emerald Ash Borer will likely kill 99% of the ash trees in North America. We can't stop it. So what happens next?

At The New York Times, you can read a story I wrote about why we will lose the battle against the Asian beetle Emerald Ash Borer and what that loss is teaching scientists about the complicated ecological networks that make up forests.

A 2009 study in the journal Biological Invasions listed 43 native insect species that rely on ash trees for food or breeding. Those insects are the food supply for birds, including woodpeckers.

“You end up with a different ecosystem that different species prefer and where the old ones can’t do as well,” said Kathleen Knight, a research ecologist with the Forest Service.

Agnes Clerke: Victorian astronomer

Besides bucking tradition to study the stars, proper English lady Agnes Clerke was also a historian of the mafia.

Great profile of a black, female World War II vet

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Millie Dunn Veasey traveled to England through U-Boat-infested waters, saw war casualties in bombed-out French towns, went to college on the GI Bill, and sat next to Martin Luther King, Jr. at the March on Washington.

Her life story, some of it centered around her time in England and France working with the first all-female, all-black military unit sent to a war zone, is absolutely fascinating. Kudos to Josh Shaffer of the Raleigh News & Observer for profiling Veasey.

Back in Raleigh, Veasey saw an advertisement looking for female black recruits. Women with work experience were especially prized. At the time, she didn’t think of her role as freeing a man for the front lines. She thought, if a white woman could join up, why shouldn’t I?

Her family didn’t share her optimism. She was small, weighed less than 100 pounds, and she’d been sickly as a child. Her mother doubted she could handle the rigorous training. Her brother, already in the Army, doubted she could pass the test.

But Veasey took a bus to Fort Bragg, where she aced the exam, physical and written; she was one of three selected. Before long, the girl from Bloodworth Street who’d never been out of Raleigh found herself standing at reveille in the rain at Fort Des Moines in Iowa, wearing Army-issued galoshes that didn’t fit her narrow AAA-sized feet.

“I didn’t know how to tie my tie,” she confessed.

Here's a video of Veasey's unit, the 6888th postal battalion, taking part in a parade and drills.

When your heart really beats like a hammer

Summer Ash survived open-heart surgery. Now she's dealing with the side-effects, including the strange sensation of an overly loud, strong heartbeat.

At first I was told that a “hyper-dynamic heartbeat” is a normal side-effect of open heart surgery and it usually calms down within six to nine months. Nine months came and went, no change. Then I was told that the scar tissue beneath my sternum must be thick enough that it’s fully filling the gap between my heart sac and my sternum, therefore transmitting the vibrations of each heartbeat directly to my rib cage which then acts like an amplifier. In theory, scar tissue thins over time and the sensation should dissipate. Having been a mechanical engineer, this makes sense to me. However, no one can say on what time scale this will happen.

It started off as a novelty, a bit of a party trick. I used to make everyone feel how strong it was. When I would hug people, they’d feel their body rock to the beat. And when I went out to eat, if I was at a small, less sturdy, table for two, I could lean my chest on the edge of the table and make the water glasses do that thing from Jurassic Park.

I highly recommend reading the series of posts she's writing about living with the after-effects of life-saving surgery. Although she's happy to be alive, Ash provides a perspective on serious surgical interventions that we don't often hear.

Foremost narwhal expert also practicing dentist

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Who wouldn't want to get their teeth cleaned by Martin Nweeia, a dentist/expert in one of the most ridiculous and Internet-beloved animals on the planet.

The two interests make sense together, writes Erin Biba at Tested, because the narwhal's spiraling "tusk" is actually a tooth. But it's not really that tooth that made Nweeia interested in the animal to begin with. Instead, it's the fact that a narwhal lacks other teeth.

This is a whale that eats pretty big fish and when you look inside its mouth it has no teeth. If i’m eating large fish, that might require chewing and biting, why give up all those teeth and put all of the energy into growing one giant tusk?

But there are also lots of the little things that don’t make sense. When you think of teeth, on both sides of a mammal's bite you’d expect them to be the same size and have a mirror image morphology or shape. In narwhals it couldn’t be more opposite. It doesn’t even fall within any parameter of any creature ever known on the planet.

If you look at the narwhal’s, its tusk comes out of the left side. When you see photos of them, they angle their body so the tusk appears straight in alignment with the horizontal axis. But if you look at them still, clearly the tusk is coming from the left side. The tooth on the right side often stays embedded in the skull.

You’ve got a tooth on one side that’s between a foot and a foot and a half and on the other side it’s 9 feet. Even in the rare instance when the narwhal has two tusks, the right is usually less in length from the left. The erupted tusk is on the left side or on both sides, or none. Never on the right by itself.

Image: Some rights reserved by protohiro

Why mountain climbers lose weight

It's more than just a good workout. High-altitude climbers (paradoxically) don't eat as much as they do at sea level. Here's why.

Underwater view of polar bears swimming

Fat and fluffy, simultaneously stumbly-bumbly and graceful, polar bears are lovely to watch as they swim through frigid waters.

Radiation can be used to date wine

Probably every bottle of wine made since 1945 contains trace amounts of Cesium-137, from nuclear weapons fallout.

The ongoing hunt to pinpoint the cause of Sea Star Wasting Disease

This video, filmed at the Shannon Point Marine Center in Washington, shows you the contrast between normal, healthy sea stars and those suffering from wasting disease. (Note: Some parts have been sped up, so you can healthy see sea stars moving and diseased limbs falling off.)

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Great Moments in Wrong Science: "Rain Follows the Plow"

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From the 19th century up through the Dust Bowl a wide cross-section of farmers, politicians, and scientists believed that the more intensively you farmed the Great Plains, the more rain would fall and farming conditions would improve.

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Why are pancreatic cancers so hard to kill?

Scientists thought they had an answer. But the treatment based on their hypothesis backfired, actually accelerating the growth of pancreatic tumors. New research explains why.