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.


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.