The Last Word


July 21 – 25, 2014

Helen traces the Hebridean history of the Lewis chessmen, with a technical note on walrus tusk carving.

Erik had difficulty focusing throughout childhood, and that was before fast-paced animations and iPads. Where will the new generation find their focus?

Forget retro-chic and steam-punk – Craig likes to rock it ancestral style. He got his hands on some red ochre, upon which it seems traditional societies the world over have converged, adopting it as their paint of choice.

Dan Vergano, senior writer-editor at National Geographic, joins a scrum of LWONers who moan about the perils of piecework and its effect on quality and the fourth estate in general. We swap recipes for eating rocks, flavoured with dirt.

Pathetic fallacy is not just for literature and film. Michelle samples some children’s art from a sociologist’s study, and the works – in all their variety – express angles of nature that reflect all manner of hopes and fears.

Photo credit: Travis Nep Smith

Draw Me a Picture of Nature


3987263373_c27ea2298e_oThe literary critic Raymond Williams once wrote that “Nature is perhaps the most complex word in the language.” It’s a head-scratcher right up there with love, or goodness: We depend on it for survival, but we’re often not quite sure where it is, what it is, or whether we’re a part of it. Jessica Mikels-Carrasco, who recently completed her Ph.D. in sociology at the University of Notre Dame, asked a group of kindergarten and elementary-aged children in South Bend, Indiana, to weigh in on the puzzle. “Draw me a picture of nature,” she told them, and they did. Continue reading

The Gig Economy


186192167_670725de74_bA number of the People of LWON are freelancers.  They work from story to story, one publication after another, holding multiple positions all the while. One reason for freelancing is that staff jobs at newspapers or magazines, which have always been sparse, are now outright rare. So writers go out on their own; they put their careers together out of spare parts.  Dan Vergano, veteran newspaperman and science writer at National Geographic, says this kind of freelance career feeds something called the “gig economy.”

Dan thinks the gig economy creates a poorer, less-responsible climate for science writing. The LWONers, apparently part of a national trend in openness, have opinions.  Dan is kind enough to elicit them.

Dan:  Shall we call this “gagging on the gig economy?” Continue reading

The Ritual of Red Ochre


Sarah's face My face

Sarah dipped her fingers in mineral paint and lifted them to her face. Standing on the bold, white surface of the Harding Icefield in south-central Alaska, she painted brown-red stride-marks across wind-dried skin. We were several days into a trek by skis, ropes, sleds and backpacks, and were as far out as we’d get. She then turned to Q and me, two others in our team of five, and fixed each of our faces in her gaze, then swiped pigment on us, hydrated iron oxide the color a deep, warm blush.

The pigment came from the Southwest, something I’d wheedled out of a fine, mineral-laden clay in the Bright Angel Shale formation, northern Arizona. No more than a thumb wrapped tightly in a plastic grocery bag, I’d been carrying the dry pigment in my pack for 15 years, and would pull it out whenever the notion struck me.

Ochre is a general term for hematite, iron oxide, the ceremonial stone connected to ritual behavior at Upper Paleolithic sites around the world. Continue reading

Zoned Out


shutterstock_110442686There a few moments in your childhood that stick with you the rest of your life. I don’t mean first kiss, prom, or that time you punched Kelly Weir in the stomach for stealing your bike (believe me, he had it coming). Those are big moments. I mean the little things – the things that everyone else has forgotten but you.

For me, one such moment was during my first week of seventh grade. It was gym class and Mr. Morris wanted me to do something. I don’t remember what it was, that’s not the crucial bit. I just remember it was on the grass, near the softball field that no one ever used. Morris, who had the sort of chiseled, aged face that you could imagine drove all the girls nuts in 1962, snapped his fingers and said, “Focus!”

Then he said something I’ll never forget. “Focus on what you are doing, Erik. You’ve heard that before, haven’t you?”

Indeed, I had heard it before. I heard it every year, in fact, in elementary school. Mrs. Ward, Mrs. Kraft, Mr. Manegetti, they all probably said it. What – I was kind of a space cadet, okay? I daydreamed. I had my own world that was way more interesting than cloud charts and “To Kill A Mockingbird.” So sue me. My grades were good and I didn’t cause trouble. Continue reading

The Chessmen That Conquered the World (of Cinema)


two of the Lewis chessmen

Last night I was watching the movie Brave. It’s the story of a Scottish princess with exuberantly curly red hair who doesn’t want to be married to some dumb scion of a clan just because their dads are allies. She shoots arrows. There are magic spells and lots of bagpipes.  It was a good thing to watch on a Sunday evening at the end of a very long week.

About 15 minutes into the movie, I noticed something familiar.

Merida’s mother picks up a chess set. “Once, there was an ancient kingdom,” she says. She carries the board and the figures over to her daughter. She holds up a king, using the chess set and some dramatic flashbacks to tell the story of “war and chaos and ruin.”

It was the chess set that looked familiar. Continue reading

The Last Word


9090924965_6d083a971f_kJuly 14 – 18, 2014

First we domesticated our pets, says guest David Grimm, and then over a long, long period of time, they civilized us.  For which, thank goodness.

Christie had a friend who was dying.  In the meantime, how should he stay alive?  Nice answer: by inviting friends over for a Colorado summer afternoon.

Such splendid galaxies out there, colliding and ricocheting and merging and parting again — the individual ones you can see, the dance can only be simulated.  Once again, I give in to poetic tendencies.

Cameron, who’s never writing about what she seems to be writing about, writes about the dog days, her old dog and his old fears, and his naps on the sun-warmed stones.

GlaxoSmithKline has a vaccine for Lyme disease but it’s not profitable so they don’t sell it. What’s a clever researcher to do?  Vaccinate the mice who carry the ticks who carry the bug, says Cassie approvingly.


Mouse Medicine to Combat Lyme


mouseimageLyme disease is a growing scourge. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention receives about 30,000 reports of the disease each year, but agency says the number of actual diagnoses could be ten times higher.

Once upon a time, we had a safe and effective vaccine to prevent the disease. But this vaccine, called Lymerix, was withdrawn in 2002, just four short years after it was approved. GlaxoSmithKline, the vaccine’s manufacturer, claimed that it pulled Lymerix because of poor sales, but it’s also true that the company was mired in lawsuits alleging that the vaccine caused serious side effects. In this month’s issue of Nature Medicine, I dive deep into the controversial history of that vaccine and explore how its withdrawal has impacted development of a new vaccine. But that piece focuses on vaccines designed for humans. Today I want to look at another type of Lyme vaccine, one designed for mice. Continue reading