Redux: Falling

Back in 2012, I wrote about falling and gravity’s terrible vengeance when we don’t perfectly obey and how, if we’d just learned our physics, all this wouldn’t be so surprising.  Re-reading the post now, it seems also to be a nice science metaphor.

That is, physics says the best way to not let gravity hurt you is to make the fall last as long as possible, drag it out, fall as long as you can.  Just keep falling, see if you can outlast it, maybe if you fall long enough you won’t ever be felled, the splat might never happen. I’m not sure that I’m saying anything coherent here, but the idea is comforting.  Anyway, here’s the post.


Photo:  Quinn Dombrowski

Redux: When is it time to revise our story?

This post first ran on January 26, 2012. We now have three years in a row that have set records for the hottest year on record, and it comes after a string of previous records

Today’s post began with a social media status update by my friend Paolo Bacigalupi. Paolo wrote:

At what point does a “drought” become an “arid climate?”

Paolo posed his question months ago, and at first glance, it seemed like nothing more than a jab at Texan politicians like Rick Perry, who deny climate change even as evidence for it accumulates in their own backyards.

But my mind has circled back to Paolo’s question because it touches on so much more than just rainfall in the Southwest. It’s also about the scientific process, the line between data and interpretation and the role of story in science. Continue reading

The Last Word

Drawing of four people in chairs, now with colorWhat a diverse week of posts! Seriously, take a peek at these:
You’ll love Helen’s artistic take on a scientific meeting about immunity. She sketched her experience rather than jotting notes, and it’s pretty great.
Emma introduced us to a field you’ve never heard of, taphonomy, the study of the gritty transition of a human corpse, especially the bones, from biologic to geologic.
Ann wrote about a guy in retirement who digs up the stories behind those old lonely family photos that stack up at junk stores. Some relatives are excited by his discoveries; others not so much.
A redux from Christie celebrates the ink-on-your-fingers experience of reading a real newspaper, like we did in the olden days.
And Jessa finished off the week with a redux on ravens, illustrated with beautifully textured hot-wax paintings by Yukon artist Nicole Bauberger.

Redux: Ravens among us

My son and I have been reading Neil Gaiman’s new novelization of Norse Mythology, which includes glancing reference to Odin’s raven informants Huginn and Muninn. It reminded me of this post from March 2011, which featured the artwork of raven-obsessed Yukon artist Nicole Bauberger. Ten years ago I asked Bauberger why she spent years on painstaking encaustic (hot wax) paintings of ravens–at least forty raven paintings in all–some of which now hang on my wall.

Why did this particular avian subject grab her? To the best of my decade-old memory, she told me the following:

“Looking at each other, the raven and I feel like equals. I can’t fly, but he can’t drive stick. And when I paint a raven, I don’t have to worry that I’m stealing his image, because I know it’s nothing he wouldn’t steal from me.”

Here’s the original story.

Redux: Newsprint is dead. Long live newsprint!

This post first ran in walk on moon

I died a little inside when I heard about the recent Today Show interview in which Jeff Bezos said, “I think printed newspapers on actual paper may be a luxury item. It’s sort of like, you know, people still have horses, but it’s not their primary way of commuting to the office.” As founder of and the new owner of The Washington Post, Bezos’s opinion on this matters. (Disclosure: I write a health column for the Post.)

I’m no luddite. I read Bezos’s comment on Twitter. I own two Kindles, and more than once, I’ve pulled up an electronic book on my iPhone while standing in line at the grocery store. I understand the convenience of reading news electronically — the news arrives instantly, snow or shine, it fits in your pocket, and there are no recyclables piling up on the kitchen table.

Like most of my peers, I read news online, but I still have three newspapers delivered to my house — the local daily, the weekly paper covering my rural county, and the Sunday Denver Post, which I read daily until they stopped delivery in my part of the state a few years ago.

Reading the newspaper has been my morning ritual since I could read, and online news has yet to replicate the experience in a satisfying way. I know what all you 20-somethings are thinking — oh, another curmudgeonly rant about new technology —  tl;dr. And it’s true that I’m nostalgic for a way of delivering news that’s probably hopelessly impractical in the digital age.

A story in newsprint has a genuine quality to it — a paper’s signature columns and font make the words seem weighty and bona fide. It exists in the physical world, not just the cloud. Continue reading

Stuff Chris Found


Chris Whitaker, a neighbor, retired with a plan.  Most retired people’s plans are to travel or to follow up on a hobby or to have no plan at all – all of which seem to make these people happy — but as one self-educating photographer said to me, “You can show your wife just so many pictures and she can say, ‘how nice, dear,’ and then it starts to get old.”  You retire, you’re finally able to do exactly what you want to do, live for yourself only, and you might run into the problem of uselessness, meaninglessness.  Anyway, this was not Chris’s problem; he had a plan.

He’d go to second-hand shops – he’s near a neighborhood rich in them – and find boxes of old photos.  He’d look for photos that had names written on the back, that were dated such that the people in it were clearly long gone, and that sometimes were of pretty women in fancy hats, or cute kids.  Then he’d buy those photos and track down those people.  That spiffy little delight in the photo up there is Lee Feete, born in 1899. Continue reading

On Taphonomy

An elk skull nestled in dewy grassTaphonomy is the study of what happens to bodies, especially bones, after death on their way to fossilization. Few remains make it that far, but when they do, taphonomy is the journey through which the biological becomes geological.

In life, bones are tissues, despite their rigidity. Calcium flows in and out of the bone bank as the body requires. Blood vessels feed bones; bones grow and heal. After death, if they escape immediate destruction through fire, mechanical pulverization, consumption by rodents, invertebrates or microbes, they can mineralize, becoming bone-shaped stones.

Continue reading

Sketches of Panels

A drawing of a microphone with a chair in front of it
I’m sorry about the handwriting. It says “chickenpox was licensed mostly because of parent days lost from work but there turn out to be other benefits.”

Every year, Johns Hopkins Medicine runs a boot camp for science writers in Washington, D.C. They cover some topic in science. For science writers, it’s a free introduction to a hot area of science (with breakfast, lunch, and tasty snacks). For Hopkins, there’s a chance someone will decide to use one of their experts in a story. Everybody wins, especially those of us who like cookies.

This was the first year I went to the boot camp; my employer sent several of us to spend the day learning about the latest research on the immune system.

The immune system is fantastically complex. I took a whole class on it in college and still have a weak grasp on how it works. I have a weak grasp on a lot of things from college. In fact, I just now started questioning whether I’d even taken immunology, so I checked my transcript, and don’t worry—I did. I even got an A.

From my seat of amazing immune system expertise, I can tell you that it involves a lot of kinds of cells, some of which produce antibodies, some of which respond to antibodies, and some of which have absolutely nothing to do with antibodies. It is very good at protecting you from stuff.

Including pollen. I would prefer mine to stop trying so hard to protect me from pollen. Continue reading