I Cried Wolf

On August 21, 2017, I woke up shortly after dawn. Peering at the sky through the window in my tent, I saw that it was pale but clear, and I breathed a sigh of relief. I’m not usually an early riser, but on this morning, I was anxious. I’d been anticipating this day for years and had come to this cattle ranch outside Casper, Wyoming to view the Great American Eclipse.

The previous evening, we’d had thunder and a few raindrops after dinner. The forecast for eclipse time was favorable, but still I worried we might wake up to clouds. So when I saw the clear skies that morning, I felt elated. What to do, but go for a run?

While my husband continued snoozing, I laced up my running shoes and called my dog, Molly, out of the tent. Let’s go for a run, I told her. She leaped in the air, as she does, and then led the way.

We ran down an ATV track along a small creek surrounded by open meadows and vast vistas. The air was clear and the sun was bright. My anticipation of the eclipse put a spring in my step. And then we turned a corner and I heard a scary, weird bark.

At first, it struck me as the sound of an aggressive dog. I called Molly close, and the sound continued. I assumed that we’d crossed some other human campsite and their dog was now staking its claim. This worried me so far as it might mean a dog-to-dog encounter, but I wasn’t particularly frightened. Then I looked to the creek on my left.

On the hillside on the other side of the creek, I spotted the coyote making these sounds. Although the aggressive barking sounded nothing like any vocalizations I’ve heard from the coyotes that frequent the space around my farm in Colorado, I felt reassured. It’s just a coyote, I thought.

I kept running, and for a few minutes, all was well. Then I looked down the road and saw the coyote had crossed the creek and was coming for me. Except it wasn’t a coyote. HOLY F-ing SHIT!! It was HUGE. And it wasn’t just barking at me, it was running toward me. It was at least as large as my Catahoula Leopard dog/standard poodle mix — that is, BIG! I looked at Molly and looked at it, and then my heart rate rose to about 230 beats per minute.

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The Beginning of the Endling

Last spring, I wrote a story about the origin and evolution of “endling,” a word used to describe the sole surviving member of a species. Endling was coined in the mid-1990s by Robert Webster, a Georgia doctor who, during his work at a convalescent center, realized that there was no precise English word for a person who was the last surviving member of his or her family. Webster wrote a letter to Nature about his neologism, and since then, scientists, writers, artists, and others have used the word to capture the poignancy of species extinction.

Webster died in 2004, but a colleague—the co-author of his letter to Nature—told me what he recalled about Webster and the invention of endling. Weeks after the story was published, I noticed a comment under a friend’s Facebook post: “I’m Robert Webster’s grandson,” John Thompson wrote. “I remember when he came up with endling.”

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Tepid Feelings about Neutron Clashes

Newbie journalists love to ask where seasoned journalists find their story ideas. I’ll tell you where I find mine: Editors. They have really good ideas and sometimes they’ll just hand them to you. That’s called an assignment, and I take a lot of them.

Unfortunately, LWON doesn’t give assignments. So when you sign up for an open slot, you have to think of something to fill it. I had nothing for today, until Craig asked me to write about the neutron star thingamajig. (If you haven’t heard, scientists announced on Monday that they had, for the first time, observed evidence of a neutron star collision. Such clashes seem to be responsible for most of the universe’s heavy elements).

I laughed because I don’t do space. (Remember, I’m the one who was surprised to learn that Hubble is a space telescope.) So I responded, “The day I write about a neutron star collision is the day hell will freeze over.”

I don’t understand physics or astronomy, and I don’t care about them.  Continue reading

It’s Raining Baby Oak Trees

These early fall days have been especially musical here, in my house under the trees. The mornings ding and clink and the afternoons ping and donk and the nights are broken up by knocks, clangs, and cymbal crashes that startle me awake. (Part of my roof is metal.)

It’s the acorns falling, but in a relative hail storm rather than the usual drizzle. The massive dumping of seeds and occasional strike on the head might suggest I’ve totally pissed off some squirrels.

But squirrels pretty much just make grumpy noises and twitch their tails when annoyed. Instead, it’s the oaks showing off their progeny, with gravity’s help. The trees are shedding fruit as though it’s their last chance to seed the land.

That’s not too far from the truth. It turns out we are in a mast year—the boom of the boom-and-bust cycle describing oak (and beech) tree reproduction. The trees weighted down with acorns this fall (a big oak might produce as many as 10,000 of them!) will most likely support a much lighter load for the next three to five years. This is a parent tree’s best chance to spread her genes and grow the neighborhood forest before lean times commence. Continue reading

How I Eat Salad At Work

salad with half a donut

I’ve always had trouble with lunches at the office. No matter what I took from home, it was almost always not that good. Reheated leftovers? I wanted more. Peanut butter and jelly? Just sad. At my current job, if left to my own devices, I would go to the pizza place across the street every day. Which would be delicious.

But a few years ago, Bethany, a woman at my office, convinced me to start eating the salad she brought every day, and now I am super healthy and will live forever.

Salad?!? I know! And sometimes it even keeps me full until dinnertime!

When I figure out a system for something, I get excited and tell people about it, like I did when I figured out how to eat vegetables a few years ago. So here you go: How to Eat Salad at work, if you happen to have the kind of office job I have, which provides a fridge and plates and forks.

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The Last Word

Greetings, Gentle LWON Readers,

Here’s what happened this week on your favorite science blog:

Guest blogger Elizabeth Svoboda made us a little woozy (in a good way) in her post about seasickness. In her essay she dives into the psychology of her own gut-wrenching experiences.

Then Rose rolled her eyes at the shock many men express when other men behave badly toward women. Women, she reminds us, aren’t surprised one iota because it HAPPENS ALL THE DAMN TIME. (Emphasis mine.)

Our dear Ann got compared to a grandmother, and it takes her a little while to accept that maybe that’s a compliment. (Really, I’m sure it was!)

Cassie gave us a fascinating Redux about the tragic deaths decades ago associated with the Elixir Sulfanilmide, pointing out that in some ways not much has changed. She writes: “Tragedy is still a key driver of new regulation.” Indeed.

And finally, Helen revisited a museum of bones, or, really, revisited her visit to a museum of bones. She learned a lot of cool stuff there, so give her nice piece a read.

See you next week!




Redux: A Visit to the Museum of Osteology

This post originally ran March 31, 2015.

inside the museum

I knew what I expected from the Museum of Osteology in Oklahoma City: amusement. I go to a lot of museums, and in my experience, privately-run museums based on one person’s obsession are always quirky and often pretty fun. This museum was founded by a guy and his wife who have a business next door cleaning skulls. (Apparently there are enough people who need skulls cleaned to support this business.)

But here’s the thing: It was a surprisingly interesting and educational visit. The skeletons are well organized and set up for maximum learning. The contents communicate stories about anatomy and evolution–don’t worry, there was a human in the ape corner, right next to our cousins the bonobo and the gorilla.

Osteology is the study of bones. Bones are an organ like any other. They make blood cells and provide a reservoir of calcium, which you need to make your cells work. They coordinate with the muscles and the tendons to move you around and keep you moving at dance parties. Continue reading

Redux: Watkin’s Lethal Elixr

This post first ran on March 13, 2015. 

On September 27, 1937, Susie Mae DeLoach caught her leg on a strip of barbed wire. The wound festered, and the infection spread, eventually reaching her heart. None of the remedies DeLoach’s doctor recommended seemed to have any effect. And by the time her family called Dr. Johnston Peeples for a second opinion, she was gravely ill. Peeples prescribed a new medication—a sweet, ruby liquid called Elixir Sulfanilmide. DeLoach’s kidneys began to fail, and a little over a week later, she was dead.

Others in the South were dying too—a farm laborer in Mississippi, a butcher in Tennessee, an eight-year-old boy in Oklahoma. More than 100 people died in the fall of 1937. They suffered from a variety of maladies, but all exhibited remarkably similar symptoms toward the end: vomiting and an inability to urinate. And all shared a common remedy—Elixir Sulfanilmide. Continue reading