Anastomosing Rabbit Holes

I’m having trouble with a story.  First I went down one rabbit hole (the effects, on both sides of the Atlantic, of the Irish Potato Famine) until it branched into two (now-dead towns, one in Maryland, one in Ireland), and then I went down both.  You can picture me heading down one, scrambling back up, […]

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

A few weeks ago I was talking to one of the founders of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), the collaboration that last September made the first detection of gravitational waves. Even if you’re not science-savvy, you will almost certainly recall the worldwide breathless news coverage following the February announcement of that detection. Now Rainer Weiss, MIT […]

Redux: The Botanist Nobody Knew

Before dawn on October 3, 1932, in the small Columbia River town of Bingen, Washington, an 82-year-old man walked to the depot to catch the morning train to Portland. Under circumstances that remain unclear, the arriving train struck him down, killing him almost instantly. The man had lived in town for more than half a […]

A Pilgrimage for the Soul

On Friday, May 13, group of road bikers got together for the 44th annual Pacific Coast Century Ride. I guess that’s its name. Honestly, I have no idea what to call it. Ever since I was a kid, we just called it “The Ride.” It started back in the 70s with a guy named George Andrews, […]

H.G. Wells’ Advice on Science Writing

H.G. Wells is remembered today for his science fiction, but he had a solid foundation — and an enduring interest — in science fact. As a university student in London in the 1880s, he was deeply influenced by a course with Thomas Henry Huxley, a biologist so fiercely committed to evolutionary theory that he was known […]

Damage Patterns

The other night I was in the midst of writing about the Ice Age when I strayed to the internet. Up came the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news photography that went this year to New York Times photographers Mauricio Lima, Sergey Ponomarev, Tyler Hicks and Daniel Etter for their coverage of the European refugee crises. Fresh from writing a […]

Redux: What Luis Alvarez Did

This post originally ran on November 11, 2013. I rerun it now partly because I liked it and mostly because it’s a conversation with Hope Jahren and Ben Lillie. Hope has a new book out, written with her usual brilliant, nail-gun verve; Ben runs an on-going travelling theatrical anthology that’s like nothing else I’ve heard of. […]

Ding Dong Moose

I recently became familiar with a scientist whose productivity makes me exhausted: Georges-Louis Leclerc, the Count of Buffon, who produced a 36-volume work on natural history in the mid-18th century. Trained as a lawyer, he became interested in mathematics and then botany on his family’s lands in France. His work propelled him into a choice position as the […]