The Last Word

In this 2003 photo, a Twin Otter flies out of the South Pole on a previous medical flight.

June 20 – 24, 2016

I start researching for a story and you know how that goes, rabbit hole, branching rabbit hole, another branch, another, and pretty soon I’m so far into Ballykilcline and Texas I’m never coming home.

After a day in which we, for the first time in history, forgot to post anything, Helen goes to a Dutch museum in which she sees an old friend, sort of, whom she’d seen before he died and got stuffed.

California has the Santa Ana, France has the Mistral, North Africa has the Simoon, Iraq has the Shamal, and Michelle once again wishes that Oregon would call its local wind something besides “wind.”

Sometimes, says Cameron, when you’re about to graduate or when you’re sick and stuck in the Antarctic or when you’re Shackleton and it’s night and freezing and you’re lost on top of a ridge, the only thing to do is get on the toboggan and and go.

Rescue Us

PanoramaOfSouthGeorgiaI love that graduation speeches are now posted on the internet. Listening to them, the good ones, I can’t help but feel a little bit of that helium of opportunity and promise that I once had, in early summer, when I was the one who got to walk across the stage.

One of my favorite speeches came before YouTube, which might be why it seems so perfect in my memory. A local newspaper columnist told the story of Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 expedition and how he and his men survived two Antarctic winters—one stuck in the pack ice, the other on a desolate island while a few crew members went for help. At the time, I’d never heard of Shackleton, and was enthralled by the long odds and the daring rescue attempt.

I started thinking about the speech again this week as I followed the saga of a medical rescue mission to an Antarctic field station. Earlier this month, officials determined that a member of the National Science Foundation’s Amundsen-Scott South Pole station had a medical condition that required evacuation. On June 14, two Twin Otter prop planes left Calgary on the first leg of the journey to reach the station. Continue reading

Redux: Where the Wind Has No Name


Of all the evocative place words humans have come up with, the words for local winds may be the most varied and most charming. There’s the Albrohos of Portugal, the Gilavar and the Khazri of Azerbaijan, and the Shamal of Iraq. There’s the Cape Doctor of South Africa, the Hawk of Chicago, and the Wreckhouse winds of Newfoundland.

I live in the Columbia River Gorge, a place famous for its wind. The wind blows mostly from the east in winter and mostly from the west in summer, and every spring it lifts the boarders’ bright polyester kites above the water like so many tropical birds.

What do we call this glorious force of nature? We call it … the wind. Continue reading

Update: From Puffball to Predator to Museum

A stuffed polar bear in a museum case

Last week in Berlin I saw an old friend. Well, several. My college friend Erika, a historian of science who is wrapping up a sabbatical there, and I visited the Museum für Naturkunde – the natural history museum. And there Erika put me in touch with another old friend: Knut the polar bear. Knut was a media star who spent his life in the Berlin Zoo, where I visited him in 2008 or so. He died young and, it turns out, is now on display in an exhibit about taxidermy.

I realized after I told some friends about it, and posted a drawing of his stuffed hide on Instagram, that many people are creeped out by seeing this celebrity bear lounging casually on a museum rock. Maybe my enthusiastic reaction to this dead bear – oh my god, I know that guy!! – was not normal. Read on for what I wrote about him, and his species, last year.
knut and dorfleinOn December 6, 2005, a polar bear was born in captivity. His mother rejected him and his twin, and his twin died. The survivor was an adorable baby polar bear, but that phrase doesn’t need the initial adjective, does it? A baby polar bear is a little puffball, white with button eyes and perfect and cuddly. Zookeepers raised him. I fell in love. His name was Knut and he was a bit of an international sensation. Continue reading

Anastomosing Rabbit Holes

980534I’m having trouble with a story.  First I went down one rabbit hole (the effects, on both sides of the Atlantic, of the Irish Potato Famine) until it branched into two (now-dead towns, one in Maryland, one in Ireland), and then I went down both.  You can picture me heading down one, scrambling back up, heading down the other one, a happy little rabbit.  My behavior so far is appropriate for a science writer.

Then the editor says, “Those two towns, the one in Maryland and the one in Ireland, they’re the wrong towns.”  Given the story she assigned, she’s right.  “But I’m already down here,” I say.  She gives me a pitying look.

I didn’t have the heart to tell her the whole truth:  one of those rabbit holes sprung a branch, and then that branch branched, and I’m now so deep I’ll never see the sky again.  This is definitely not appropriate for a science writer. Continue reading

The Last Word

27558753192_40e3e9d4e4_oJune 13-17, 2016

Christie thought she was from nowhere–until an internet quiz put her in her place.

The novel Frankenstein, Michelle writes, “can be read a warning of the perils of human hubris and a brilliantly imaginative response to a global disaster.” Will we take its lessons and inspiration to heart in the face of our own monstrous creation, climate change?

J-Shame: “It hits when your beat is way out of synch with a big tragic thing that’s on everyone’s mind,” says Jennifer.

Right now, detecting gravitational waves is thrilling. Someday soon, it might be a snooze.”That’s how science at its best proceeds,” Richard says. “The outlandish becomes commonplace, the impossible predictable.”

Guest Bryn Nelson writes an ode to a gay bar, and to Orlando: “And if we as a country want to ever begin considering how to put the pieces back together and keep it from happening again and again and again, whether in a gay bar or an African-American church or a Jewish community center or a Sikh temple or a movie theater or a high school or a college campus, it’s important to remember that facts matter. That words matter. That history matters.”


Candlelight vigil at the Stonewall Inn for victims of the Pulse nightclub massacre, courtesy of Elisa G Schneider, via Flickr.



Guest Post: Ode to a Gay Bar

Candlelight vigil in front of the Stonewall Inn for victims of the Pulse nightclub massacre

Let me tell you a story.

In the summer of 1991, when I was 21 years old, I worked in a genetics lab at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. I wasn’t yet out, but had heard about a popular gay bar called Heaven in the city’s Montrose neighborhood. When a new friend asked me to go to Heaven with her for a night of dancing over the July 4th weekend, I felt a shiver of excitement and fear. My fear won out, and I declined.

On July 5th, at two o’clock in the morning, a 26-year-old gay man named Paul Broussard was walking home from Heaven with two friends when they were confronted by a group of 10 intoxicated young men, some of whom had also taken marijuana and LSD. As several members of the group later admitted, they were specifically targeting gay men that night. Broussard’s friends escaped by running down a busy street. Broussard wasn’t as lucky, and ran into a dead end. Outnumbered and surrounded, he was stabbed and pummeled to death with steel-toed boots, a Buck knife and a 2-by-4 spiked with nails at one end.

I remember gasping in horror at the story in the Houston Chronicle. I couldn’t tell anyone else about my terror, but I avoided the entire Montrose neighborhood for the rest of the summer. Four months later, I was back in Moorhead, Minn., for my senior year in college when a 24-year-old gay man named Phillip Smith was gunned down after leaving the same Houston gay bar. He reportedly enraged his attacker, who had planned to rob him, by smiling at him. During an ensuing protest by the group Queer Nation, one man held a placard that read: “Hate Kills.”

Facts matter. Words matter. History matters. As a science writer, I deal in facts all the time, and live in fear of making a big mistake. In the aftermath of the horrific attack on Orlando’s Pulse bar, I’ve been dealing with intense emotions and have seen many of my friends living in fear. I’ve seen easily debunked statements about the gunman and guns and gay bars and the history of violence aimed at LGBT establishments go uncorrected, and it makes my heart hurt.

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On Getting From “Wow!” to “[yawn]”: Yes!!!

Black_Swan_bgA few weeks ago I was talking to one of the founders of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), the collaboration that last September made the first detection of gravitational waves. Even if you’re not science-savvy, you will almost certainly recall the worldwide breathless news coverage following the February announcement of that detection. Now Rainer Weiss, MIT professor emeritus, had further news. He told me that the LIGO collaboration would soon announce another detection of a gravitational-wave-producing event.


For now.

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