Guest Post: I Have a Beaver I Am Going to Kill

1I have a beaver, which I am going to kill, which is a complex thing to do.   The beaver moved into a small pond on my property a month after I moved from Brooklyn. I came 100 miles, the beaver had to move less than a mile, coming from wetlands that border part of my property. Beavers are not known to travel much more than that.

The pond is small and roughly rectangular, about half an acre. Two of its sides are ringed with trees. Those sides are where the action is. Frogs, snakes, voles, mice, birds, raccoons, and hedgehogs fight for room.

2Two weeks ago, near midnight, I was photographing frogs on the pond’s edge, sitting under a bright moon. The beaver announced itself with a loud slap of its tail on the water, a sound I mistook for a bass jumping.

The sound repeated within a few minutes, only louder. Bass don’t jump like that.

The beaver was swimming across the pond, head out, its teeth reflecting in the light from my flashlight. It made five or six laps, staring straight ahead.  Ok, beaver, I get it, you can swim fast. It then slipped under the water. Gone.

Beyond the beaver, floating in the middle of the pond, was a branch about fifteen feet long, still with the orange leaves of early fall.

Earlier in the day I had found a small tree, perhaps six feet tall, its trunk about 2 inches in diameter, lying across the footpath in the further woods that rings the pond.  I cleared it away, confused that wind had knocked it down.

I had a beaver. I was content. This is why I had moved out of Brooklyn. Continue reading

Window Seat


At 3 a.m., a quiet settles like fog around the neighborhood, freckled by a few bursts of sound. Sometimes there’s the whistle of an incoming train. An acoustical trick might carry sea lion barks from distant buoys, the deep buzz of fishing boats, even a wave pummeling the rocks. Occasionally, a single too-loud bird call coughs and silences itself. I imagine that it’s a youngster, unable to stop from bursting into laughter, with its parents giving it the avian equivalent of the look that means pull yourself together right now or else. Continue reading

Happy Lady Ada Day

10618433553_6fd8d1f039_zI’m not, in general, huge on holidays. I often wish that those of us in the U.S. would observe the weeks between Halloween and Martin Luther King, Jr., Day with a nice long nationwide nap. But I feel differently about Ada Lovelace Day, founded by British digital-rights activist Suw Charman-Anderson in 2009. Now, every year in mid-October, the world has a chance to recognize Lady Ada, the woman some call the first computer programmer.

This year, Ada Lovelace Day arrives with a fine new Lovelace biography, Ada’s Algorithm: How Lord Byron’s Daughter Ada Lovelace Launched the Digital Age. The last major standalone biography of Lovelace was published in the late 1990s, and a lot has happened since then: a new set of letters between Lovelace and her collaborator Charles Babbage was discovered in 2000, and we’ve all clicked and poked and LOLed our way through another decade of the digital age. Ada’s Algorithm argues that Lovelace was one of the first—if not the first—to foresee just how deeply computing would affect our lives. Continue reading

Guest Post: Affair of the Heart: II. Neglect Not So Benign

This is the second post in Affair of the Heart, a series that takes place at the intersection of a highly-experienced science writer and the medical system.

B0003379 Heart and cogs - computer artworkA few months after my brother almost died from an aortic dissection, when his aorta began to break down right where it emerges from the heart, I  was in the office of a respected Washington cardiologist to get myself checked out.

He ordered a stress test, which I completed with no sign of any problems—I was a dedicated runner, after all.  But when I asked him whether a stress test would indicate precursors to aortic dissection, he agreed it probably wouldn’t.  That would require an echocardiogram—ultrasound imaging that shows the structure of the heart and aorta and, thanks to the Doppler effect, displays the flow of blood through the heart chambers  and major blood vessels in hues of red and blue.  It so happened that an echo machine was available in his office at that moment, so I had the  procedure there and then. The cardiologist left to see another patient, saying he would be very surprised if the echocardiogram showed any abnormalities.

The next morning, however, he called to say the imaging had turned up something: a mild dilation of the aortic root.  He prescribed a beta blocker, a drug that lowers blood pressure, slows the heart rate, and reduces the strength of the heart’s contraction, relieving some of the stress on the aortic root.  And he recommended a follow-up echocardiogram in 6 months.

The follow-up echo apparently showed little or no change, and another one a year later also showed no further dilation.  So I became complacent.  I let the time between supposedly annual imaging stretch out a couple of years–or more. Continue reading

The Last Word

4916889438_957bf88f4b_oOctober 6 – 10

This week was devoted to being Off Our Meds, looking calmly and as rationally as possible at scary issues in medicine.

Ebola is about as bad as it gets, and no vaccines or drugs. Guest Robin Mejia suggest we learn some R numbers: “for each day that we’re not effectively isolating people . . .the job of stopping the outbreak, turning it around, gets much bigger and much, much more difficult.”

Sometimes, says Erik who’s a cradle Christian Scientist, the placebo effect, which everybody says is powerful but nobody knows how it works, might just be a doctor and patient talking to each other.

Do you want to know a diagnosis that’s uncertain? do you want to await certainty? and what’s your doctor supposed to do about this?  Cassie tells the most godawful story, commenters argue with her.

Richard got very sick.  Doctor was seen, tests were done, hospitalization was had, doctor seen again:  “Finally, he spoke: ‘Medicine is an art, not a science.’  Screw you, bub. I’m the writer here. You’re the empiricist. So let’s go: What’s the diagnosis?”

Guest Colin Norman retired, then decided to stop ignoring his family history, then began his medical education.  In the last post of the series Off Our Meds, and the first post in the series Affair of the Heart, he takes us with him.  Next in the series is this Monday.


Off Our Meds: Guest Post

Affair of the Heart: I. A Brush with Death

This is the last post in the series, Off Our Meds, in which LWON examined some scary issues in medicine but didn’t resort to fear mongering because we didn’t have to, medicine being scary enough as it is.  

This is also the first post in Affair of the Heart, a series that takes place at the intersection of a highly-experienced science writer and the medical system.

B0005911 Mechanical heartBefore I retired as news editor of Science magazine last year, I promised myself I would never become one of those old men who go on and on about their ailments.  Yet here I am,  starting a series of posts on my unexpected journeys through the medical system.  My excuse?  At 68 I don’t consider myself an old man, and after more than 40 years in science journalism, I can’t resist the urge to tell a good science story.  Cutting-edge genetic research, pioneering surgery, the propensity of  high-resolution imaging to come up with troublesome “incidental” findings, family genetics, the cost of medical care, and a bit of negligence on my part—they all feature in this saga.

After a lifetime of good health, aside from old rugby injuries and wear and tear on the knees from a half-century of running, it was something of a shock to learn earlier this year that I have two scary medical “conditions,” as the doctors like to call them: an aortic aneurysm that requires some serious cardiovascular re-plumbing,  and a pancreatic cyst that has a potential to develop into an invasive cancer. Most people who have either of these silent lesions—and that turns out to be a surprisingly large number—are blissfully unaware of them until it’s too late.  I’m lucky:  It looks like I have a chance to deal with both of them before either deals with me.

Let’s start with the aortic aneurysm.  That’s the part of the story that involves some personal negligence. Continue reading

Off Our Meds: Physician, Screw Thyself (Or, Um, Not)

This week LWON presents “Off Our Meds,” an examination of some scary issues in medicine. We won’t resort to fear mongering, because we don’t have to. Medicine is scary enough as it is.

Vesalius for post

The doctor was sitting in a chair next to the window, gazing out. His features gave nothing away, save serious thought. I watched him from my hospital bed, trying to discern meaning in his own effort to discern meaning in my symptoms. Silence. Finally, he turned back to me and spoke: “Medicine is an art, not a science.”

Screw you, bub. I’m the writer here. You’re the empiricist. So let’s go: What’s the diagnosis?

Continue reading

Off Our Meds: Doctor Knows Best

This week LWON presents “Off Our Meds,” an examination of some scary issues in medicine. We won’t resort to fear mongering, because we don’t have to. Medicine is scary enough as it is.

4916889438_957bf88f4b_oThe woman came to Scott Haig, an orthopedic surgeon, because she had a lump on her collarbone. Usually these lumps are caused by arthritis or an infection, but this one felt odd. It was rubbery, and didn’t seem tender. Haig wanted to do a biopsy, a surgery that usually requires general anesthesia. But the woman didn’t want to be knocked out. So they struck a bargain: Haig would do the surgery with the woman awake, if she agreed to have an anesthesiologist present in case she needed to be sedated.

The surgery went off without a hitch. Haig took a section from the woman’s lump and sent it to the pathology lab. But before he could close up the incision, he needed to know that the pathologist had what he needed to make a diagnosis. So together they waited. As the minutes ticked by, he tried to make small talk. Finally the intercom crackled to life.

The pathologist began to speak, and so did Haig. He tried to tell Jose to call the phone. But the intercom only allowed one person to talk at a time, and Jose was already delivering bad news. “Jose, shut up,” he thought, or maybe even said. Haig can’t remember the exact words Jose used to describe the woman’s cancer – malignancy or tumor or neoplasm – but the diagnosis was clear to everyone in the room, including the woman on the operating table. Naturally, she panicked. Continue reading