Maggie Koerth-Baker

Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at 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


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

Screen Shot 2014-07-09 at 11.36.58 AM

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


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


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.