Sliding Baselines

pacifier-158379_1280Most days we here at the Last Word on Nothing write engaging non-fiction about the scientific questions of our age that vex us and inspire us. Most days we blend excellent reporting with excellent writing told with heart, guts, and a dash of humanity. Most days, you the reader get to the end of one of our stories and feel smarter than when you started.

This is not one of those days. I give you …


Erik Vance and his wife Liz prepare for an adventure: Age 29.

Erik: Harness?

Liz: Check.

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People being wrong on the Internet


On August 12th, a story entitled “The Death of the Bering Strait Theory” opened thus: “Two new studies have now, finally, put an end to the long-held theory that the Americas were populated by ancient peoples who walked across the Bering Strait land-bridge from Asia approximately 15,000 years ago.”

The History Channel posted along the same lines: “A new study challenges the popular theory that the first Ice Age humans who migrated to North America arrived by a land bridge that once linked Siberia and Alaska over the Bering Strait.”

As more and more similar stories popped up, I felt a mounting sense of exasperation. I had to remind myself that it’s not my job to correct everyone who’s wrong on the Internet, especially when all the comments rolled in: “I’ve known this all along — it was such a ridiculous theory”, and so on. When I had seen the embargoed press release that generated these stories, I’d been mistaken, too. I read on because I was having trouble picturing a workable alternative to the Bering Strait route. But a thorough reading of the study left the “Bering Strait Theory” firmly intact. The new evidence in no way challenges it. Continue reading

Helen and I Smack Down Unhappiness

17654054938_aca84e3eb0_kOh my but it was hot.  The sun stayed out, the humidity kept climbing, the air was flat-white and dense, walking through it took more effort than it was worth.  The temperature was in the upper 90’s, heat index in the upper 110’s, and they stayed that way for days.  A cardinal sat in the graying lilac outside my living room window, its beak open, panting.*  A hummingbird appeared on the feeder and drank and drank and drank, I’ve never seen one sit so long.  The garden flowers were wilting, the whole garden seemed to be having a lie-down.  Unhappiness had seized the world and nothing was going to get better. Continue reading

Guest Post: Lost Amid the Smartness

silhouette of child holding smartphone

At least once a week, my almost three-year-old and I will wander through the “100 aker wood” with Winnie-the-Pooh and friends in search of heffalumps and woozles. At some point — a voice (mine) — will tell my toddler we’re about to leave the woods. This usually happens a few minutes before I end the viewing experience on my phone — a move that’s met with more than a simple Pooh-inspired “oh, bother” but, fortunately, not by much.

Others in this precious age group aren’t as compliant, suggests new research that found similar warnings tend to make tantrums worse. In fact, transitions away from gadgets aren’t as smooth as parents and other caretakers would hope when they issue a two-minute warning that their kids’ “screen time” is about to end.

Still, in all my 2.83 years of parenting, I’ve learned some ways to help stave off several screen-time related tantrums. One that I’m not terribly proud of is to blame sudden, mysterious outages on the grave failings of technology — to a point where my son will ask hopefully if a desired video is “bufferin’.” Another, more successful solution, is to simply wait until we get to a good stopping point in a show or movie such as the absolute end after the last credit has made its slow ascent off the screen.

Parenting in the age of brutally smart devices is constantly on my mind. Although I’m not at all against technology, I’ve found that my son’s mood will change the longer he uses the phone — whether it’s to listen to music, watch a show, or look at photos — and he tends to get more possessive and increasingly upset as I try to take it away. Which led me to wonder: How much is too much, are smart phones and iPads such a bad thing for young kids (they aren’t the best, according to several tech parents including Steve Jobs), how much longer before technology swallows my son whole? Continue reading

The Last Word


This week was summer-themed and — with one fresh exception from Judith Mernit — recycled, in the most exciting sense of the word. This allowed us all to actually experience summer, in order to have more stories to share with you, dear Reader.

In the summer of 2010, Heather spent eight-hour hiking days in the Sonoran Desert with archaeologists

Guest Judith Lewis Mernit drove into the Sierra Pelona Mountains at four in the morning to watch the Perseid meteor shower. It was more like a dribble, but it was a good excuse for much-needed fresh night air and companionship.

In 2011, Richard had adventures in the Chilean mountains at some of the world’s finest astronomy facilities. By switching hemispheres, he avoided summer altogether.

Niki Wilson wishes summer could last a little longer, for the sake of a homework reprieve for her hard-working fourth-grader.

The summer of 2012 was a nasty fire season in Colorado. Christie saw it first hand and thanked her stars for the quick-responding volunteer fire-fighters.

Image: Luc Viatour , c/o Wikimedia Commons

Redux: Summer of Smoke


At three this afternoon, the sky above the mountains here was the kind of blue that signals a classic summer day. Thirty minutes later, we looked back toward the ridgeline to see a huge plume of orange-tinted smoke. As of tonight, the new Rey Fire has burned about 600 acres.

Smoke is an unfortunate sign of summer in many places in the West. In 2012, Christie reported on her own summer afternoon when blue skies turned to black and contemplates how losing what she owns might feel. Her fire was extinguished quickly, without injury and with one burned barn. We both hope, from that summer to this one, that all neighborhoods could be so lucky.


photo by Christie Aschwanden


Redux: I’ll Miss You Summer

SchoolWalkDamn you, carefree summer, for being such a fleeting thing! Trading you in for homework and sports practice and band performances…the season of school and tight schedules can be hard on bodies and souls. Parents may suffer the most, according to Niki Wilson in her lovely post from last September–now part of this special summer Redux Week at LWON. In it she laments watching her feral summer boy scrub the dirt from his nails and head back to school, and looks for ways to keep a pocketful of summer at hand (free time, family, and fun) no matter what the calendar is telling her.

Redux: How I Spent My Summer Vacation (Winter Edition)

It’s a real treat for photographers and astronomers alike: our skies are currently witnessing a phenomenon known as a syzygy — when three celestial bodies (or more) nearly align themselves in the sky. When celestial bodies have similar ecliptic longitude, this event is also known as a triple near-conjunction. Of course, this is just a trick of perspective, but this doesn't make it any less spectacular. In this case, these bodies are three planets, and the only thing needed to enjoy the show is a clear view of the sky at sunset. Luckily, this is what happened for ESO photo ambassador Yuri Beletsky, who had the chance to spot this spectacular view from ESO's La Silla Observatory in northern Chile on Sunday 26 May. Above the round domes of the telescopes, three of the planets in our Solar System — Jupiter (top), Venus (lower left), and Mercury (lower right) — were revealed after sunset, engaged in their cosmic dance. An alignment like this happens only once every few years. The last one took place in May 2011, and the next one will not be until October 2015. This celestial triangle was at its best over the last week of May, but you may still be able to catch a glimpse of the three planets as they form ever-changing arrangements during their journey across the sky. Links Images Three planets dance over La Silla (annotated) Three people, three telescopes and three planets
The phenomenon known as a syzygy — when three celestial bodies (or more) nearly align themselves in the sky. In this case, Jupiter, Venus, and Mercury. From ESO’s La Silla Observatory in northern Chile. (Credit: European Southern Observatory

This week as summer hits its balmy peak, we look back at LWON posts from summers gone by. Five years ago, Richard spent his summer vacation in Chile’s winter, getting to know the astronomers and donkeys of the Chilean mountainside. It’s classic Richard, basically, and the delight is in the details. Here it is.