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 […]

A Tree Persists in Brooklyn

The first pages of children’s classic A Tree Grows in Brooklyn describe eleven-year-old Francie Nolan sitting on her Brooklyn fire escape, daydreaming that she lives in a tree. For Francie, it wasn’t hard to imagine; tree limbs curled gracefully around the fire escape, shading her from the summer sun with umbrellas of pointed leaves. The tree […]

Redux: On Getting From “Wow!” to “[yawn]”: Yes!!!

Yesterday the Royal Swedish Academy announced that the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics would recognize the discovery of gravitational waves; the recipients would be Barry Barish, Kip Thorne, and Rainer Weiss, three of the visionaries who shepherded the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) through four decades of technological and bureaucratic innovations. (Another founder of the […]

Labyrinths and Mazes

There is a difference between the two. In one you can’t get lost; one way in, one way out. The other is full of dead ends and false passages. I take my kids to labyrinths. When they were little, we walked in socks along the path of a smooth stone labyrinth on the floor of […]

Wild-Animal Painting in the Jungle

It’s not obvious how to draw a snake. Here, let Isabel Cooper tell you about it, in a 1924 article she wrote for The Atlantic Monthly. For instance, there’s no such thing as a school of snake artists, so when the problem of making a portrait of a snake presented itself I had to think […]

Redux: Giving History the Finger

At a thousand words, this picture would be way undervalued. But there it was, waiting to be taken (the picture, that is, not the object). So I took, during a visit to Florence, and I wrote, in 2014, and I redux, here, because some images you just can’t get out of your head. The middle […]

Redux: Newsprint is dead. Long live newsprint!

This post first ran in 2013. 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 […]

Mrs. Whitcher and the Renegade Numbers

In 1938 a wallet manufacturer called the E.H. Ferree company had a genius idea: to show people just how well cards would fit in the wallet, by using a placeholder. This was before credit cards and before many drivers licenses were small enough to fit into wallets. So the thing they used to showcase the […]