The Eternal Toil of the Motor Protein

A few days ago, I stumbled across this particularly arresting GIF while scrolling through my Facebook feed. The animation shows a stringy figure with huge feet lugging a rippling green sphere along a ribbed beam. “Look at that little guy plodding along,” I thought. “That looks like hard work.”

Here’s the thing: That “little guy” is a motor protein called kinesin. His feet are actually heads. And he isn’t simply plodding. Kinesin is propelled down structures inside the cell called microtubules (that beam in the GIF) as its heads bind and release. Humans plod. Kinesin is driven by chemistry. Continue reading

A Wolf Dies

A black wolf, photographed midstride, with a prominent GPS collar
OR 28. Photo courtesy of ODFW.

“The Silver Lake Wolves” sounds like the title of a young adult novel, or possibly an indie rock band with lots of close harmony and beards. Actually, it was the name given by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) and the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to a small family of wolves living near Silver Lake, Oregon, about 75 miles northeast of where I live in Klamath Falls. The family consisted of a male, known as OR 3, a female, known as OR 28, and a single pup. Earlier this month, someone killed OR 28. Because she lived in the western two-thirds of Oregon, she was protected by the Endangered Species Act. Killing her was a federal crime.

I’ve been covering wolves as a journalist for a few years now, and I’m endlessly fascinated by the complex ways we humans see them, relate to them, and interact with them. One clear tension is between seeing each wolf as an individual animal and looking at large numbers of wolves as a population. And the death of  a single wolf in a small population tugs hard on that tension. Continue reading

New Person of LWON: Emma Marris


We’re so pleased that Emma Marris — author, journalist, interesting thinker, and LWON guest poster — has agreed to join us as a regular contributor. Emma is the author of Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World, and she’s written for National Geographic, Nature, Slate, and other publications. She recently gave an excellent TED talk that you really should watch, and won an NASW Science-in-Society Award for her Orion essay “Handle With Care.” She can also tell you exactly how to dress for the Peruvian rainforest.

Emma and her family live in southern Oregon, close to some of North America’s most rambunctious gardens. I’ve been lucky enough to camp out in a few of them with her, so I know she’s superfine company in the woods: smart, witty, thoughtful, and always fun to argue with. Please welcome Emma to our virtual campfire, and look for her first post tomorrow.

Redux: The Other Signs of Fall

The other day I saw the fall crocuses and remembered that time last year when I learned that fall crocuses exist. Read on for my other signs of fall. What are yours? 

The "most normal looking picture we managed" says my college friend Cameron, on Robert's first day of second grade and Max's first day of kindergarten. (The chicken has completed her formal education.)
“The most normal looking picture we managed” from college friend Cameron on Robert’s first day of second grade and Max’s first day of kindergarten. (Gladys the chicken has completed her formal education.)

The equinox is past. At last, fall has come to the northern hemisphere.

Some of the ways the new season shows up are obvious. The sunset creeps earlier and earlier as we race toward the winter solstice. The air cools. Pumpkin spice is in every product imaginable.

Others are subtler. There’s the spooky Halloween decoration store that opened near my office, and the equally scary specter of potential government shutdown.

Here are some of the nicest ways that the world has let me know we’re tilting away from the sun.

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The Last Word

lyapunov-fractalOctober 17-21, 2016

Craig opened the week with a brave personal and scientific exploration of sexual assault’s effects on the brain and the psyche.

Revelations about Trump’s history with women warrants a revisit to Christie’s post on why harassment goes unreported.

Michelle plays detective in the extinction of an Australasian rodent. She finds that sometimes climate change as a cause of extinction is also an excuse that hides more proximal human causation.

Time travel is a recent thing to think about, says James Gleick, who has just spent more than four years writing a book about it. The idea of it, he concludes, is ultimately about eluding death.

Guest Brooke Borel, editor of a book on fact-checking, still finds herself tweeting first and asking questions later. Let her save you from the mistakes she has made.

Guest Post: Fact-Checking: the Polar Bear Test

Everyone has an embarrassing moment on social media. For me, the most memorable started with an adorable photo of a baby polar bear. The bear had gleaming white fur, big brown eyes, and a sweet expression. It floated into my line of vision one morning two summers ago, as I consumed Twitter while consuming my morning cup of tea.

Here’s what it looked like:

enhanced-buzz-29745-1374691846-49#cutealert indeed! I thought. Retweet!

Pleased with myself for sharing such a lovely image with my followers, I settled back with my tea. But not long after, I received this note:

brookeHm. Not real, you say? Continue reading

Conversation: James Gleick in the Fourth Dimension

ttgif-388-squareMay I introduce James Gleick?  He’s been on staff at the New York Times, and has written seven books, including Chaos and Genius (a biography of Richard Feynman), for which he’s won impressive prizes.  And he’s just published Time Travel, which Joyce Carol Oates called “another of [his] superb, unclassifiable books.”  It’s a compendium of all the explanations, implications, ramifications, aspects, and generally unpleasant outcomes of traveling to the future or to the past.


Ann:  When I look at your book-tour dates and places, I see that you’ve mastered time travel yourself, or at least you’ve managed to get from one place to another in unlikely intervals of time.  Are you exhausted?

James:  Oh, well, I’m fine, thanks, though space travel—the mundane kind, as opposed to the rocket-ship kind—can occasionally feel as disorienting as we imagine time travel to be. After all, jet lag is a kind of time sickness. At least I didn’t cross the International Date Line. I did have an uncanny moment at the Seattle airport when I wondered if I had slipped into a bygone era and was about to board a biplane:capture2 Continue reading

Who Killed the Bramble Cay Melomys?

bramble-cay-melomysThis summer, the Bramble Cay melomys, a reddish-brown rodent that resembles a large mouse, made international news. In mid-June, the Guardian reported that the melomys, last seen in 2009, had been confirmed extinct in its only known habitat, a tiny, isolated coral outcrop in the narrow strait between Australia and New Guinea. “First mammal species wiped out by human-induced climate change,” the headline read. The story, and the declaration, were picked up by publications around the world.

Climate change certainly dealt a blow to the melomys, and very likely the fatal blow. In 1998, about ten acres of Bramble Cay lay above the high tide line; by 2014, only six acres remained above the tide, and rising seas had flooded the entire island several times, killing or damaging most of the succulent plants the species depended on for food. The melomys was last seen alive in 2009, and this past June, a report by three scientists to the Australia’s Department of Environment and Heritage Protection concluded that there were no more melomys on Bramble Cay. The last remaining members of the species may have been simply washed away.

But did climate change kill the melomys? Yes and no.

Continue reading