The Last Word

October 2-6, 2017

The People of LWON start off the week with a letter to The Modern Talking website. The site vanished around the same time. Coincidence?

It’s still fire season, and Jenny is the Lorax, she speaks for the trees. We don’t tend to think of a body count when plants are the victims, but if we did, the number would be tragically high.

Richard reduxes a post about the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory; three of the founders won the Nobel Prize this week. Discovering gravitational waves was what they’d designed LIGO to do; if gravitational waves were out there, this latest iteration of LIGO’s instruments, which had just come on-line, would find them. 

A tree grows in Brooklyn (and lots of other places), but many people wish it didn’t. Michelle writes about the successful, hated, beloved Ailanthus. As the trees matured, their human neighbors discovered a problem: they stink. In summer, when Ailanthus are flowering, their smell—likened to rancid peanuts, gym socks, or semen—can be overpowering.

I have trouble identifying a friend in a motorcycle helmet—and learn that I’ll likely never be hired for Scotland Yard’s team of super recognizers.

See you next week!


Top photo of an Ailanthus canopy by Flickr user Magnus Hagdorn. Creative Commons.


The Girl in the Motorcycle Helmet

I was walking up the street the other day when a woman cruised by me on a motorcycle, slowed down and pulled over. Some quick calculations went through my mind: she’s wearing yoga pants because she’s a Pilates teacher, I only have one girlfriend in town who rides a motorcycle regularly, she’s about the right height, those are the kind of shoes she would wear, she’s stopping to talk to me.

I stopped too, knowing that it must be my friend. Still, when she flipped back her visor, I squinted at the rider’s eyes, the only part of her face that I could see. Even though I knew I was right, something told me I was terribly, terribly wrong. Who was this person under the helmet? Continue reading

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 that sheltered Francie, writes author Betty Smith, was the kind that people sometimes called the tree of heaven, but it usually grew in prosaic places like abandoned lots and garbage heaps. It grew out of cement sidewalks and brick walls, and at the turn of the last century, when the book takes place, it grew only in the city’s tenement districts. “That was the kind of tree it was,” Smith writes. “It liked poor people.”

It wasn’t always so. In the 1820s, the tree of heaven—Ailanthus altissima—was a pricey, sought-after Chinese import to the United States, promoted as a quick cure for urban ills. City reformers argued that trees beautified the streets, cleaned the air, raised property values, and cooled an increasingly crowded populace, and the insect-resistant Ailanthus, which can grow ten feet in a season, was welcomed at New York’s best addresses. Continue reading

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 project, Ronald Drever, died earlier this year and was therefore ineligible for the Prize.) LWON has twice published essays based on discussions with the new Nobel laureates. The first, in December 2014, explained the physics behind the black hole in Interstellar, a movie that Thorne helped conceive and produce. The second post, republished below, addresses the LIGO experiment itself; the post originally appeared in June 2016.
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 professor emeritus, had further news. He told me that the LIGO collaboration would soon announce another detection of a gravitational-wave-producing event.


For now.

Continue reading

Speaking of the Trees

The fires, the fires. When I started writing this some weeks back there were 137 of them torching forests across the American West. There are many fewer now—thank firefighters and weather—but so far they’ve consumed some 8.5 million acres of trees, some of them old growth, many of them on parkland filled with wildlife. British Columbia, too, has seen more fire destruction in recent months than anyone alive can recall. While massive hurricanes and flood waters and devastating earthquakes have steered our collective empathy to the south, parts of the Northwest smolder on.

Appropriately, we mourn for the people who have died or are still suffering from all of these disasters. Their agony isn’t abated by clear skies. Some of us also ache for the animals, those killed but maybe even more so those left behind in the chaos, confused and terrified.

And then there are the trees. Up north fires gobbled up huge swaths of them in no time; down south, winds ripped individuals out by the roots or snapped their spines and flung their limbs. We don’t tend to think of a body count when plants are the victims, but if we did, the number would be tragically high.

Continue reading

If You’re Reading this on the Modern Talking Website, They Stole Our Work (Again)

Official Letterhead of The People of LWON

Dear Madam/Sir/Bot:

We are going to enjoy seeing this letter show up on your website. [Update, 6:17 a.m. 10/2/2017:  The Modern Talking website may or may not have been taken down since yesterday.  If so, we hope we played our part — see the following.]

You are the proprietor(s) of a website called The Modern Talking. We are the proprietors of a website called The Last Word on Nothing (LWON). The Modern Talking lists 22 posts under the tab, Science. Of those, 20 were originally published on LWON, either the day before or that same day.

The 20 science posts on The Modern Talking are published under the byline, Ajesh Joy. No link or credit lets the reader know that the posts were written, not by Ajesh Joy, but by the various People of LWON.

The People of LWON think that The Modern Talking is poopyheads and we don’t like you one bit. We don’t like you even if y’all are bots and not real people.

You never asked our permission to publish our works, we certainly never granted it, and we each own the copyright on our own posts. It says so right at the bottom:

Copyright © 2017 All Rights Reserved.
The writing on this blog belongs to the person who wrote it and should not be re-published without explicit permission of the author. Thank you!

So you’re infringing on our copyright and we’re science writers, so we can read the law and find lawyers and sue you for damages. Which we’d like to do, because we make no money on LWON and, if you have to pay us damages, then we can pay the hosting service and the tech guy.

Here’s what we want: We want you to stop swiping our work and we want you to stop immediately. Right now this minute. And don’t start up again either. Never publish our work without our permission again so long as you live. Assuming you’re alive.

Also, don’t steal anyone else’s work either. Stealing is very bad manners.

We also want you to remove from your website all the posts you swiped from us.

Now go away. Git. Stay away from The Last Word on Nothing. And cripes, you guys don’t even Google: type “The Modern Talking” and the first 5 pages are some German pop group.


The Last Word

September 25 – 29, 2017

Emma started off the week by writing about why she cried while doing the dishes and listening to an NPR podcast. It’s not the reason you might think: What got me about this moment was that this successful, professional woman was using such a traditionally feminine example from her own life—and completely without apology. 

What could possibly be better than Ann Finkbeiner arguing with herself about the Finkbeiner Test? I thought I might have to write a profile that would consciously fail the Finkbeiner Test, then change my name and move to New Zealand. 

Rose reduxes a post about all the clever inventions people have come up with to assist with women’s menstrual periods. Have you ever wanted to know what’s going on with your tampon? Is it too full? Is it ready to come out? Or is it still ready for more uterine gold? Well, there might at some point be an app for that.

Science poetry comics. It’s a thing. It’s a wonderful thing (see image above), and Sarah showed us so on Thursday. They say she must eat light, and steer by it too –/the stars her lamp and compass.

Erik lives in Mexico City. He and his family are okay, but some of their neighbors aren’t. What happened in Mexico City was not what was expected. The buildings that came down not the ones we expected.And regardless of whether you think the city performed better or worse than expected, it was a brutal reminder that none of us is really in control. 

See you next week!


Image by Sarah Gilman

Losing Control Every Day

You’ve never heard a kid scream until you’ve heard one who knows his daddy is no longer in control.

When the earthquake struck, I had my headphones in. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t working, I was starting to zone out a bit. Some days I’m more productive than others and this was not a productive moment. Sue me.

Normally in Mexico City it takes a minute to recognize a quake but not this time. At the first jolt I snapped the earbuds out and bolted for my baby sleeping in the nursery. Normally I would wait a moment by his door to make sure it was a big enough quake to bother waking him up but, again, not this time. This time I grabbed him out of the crib and stuffed him under it, then stuffed as much of me as I could in after him. That’s when he started screaming.

When it was over, we calmly filed out and met with some of the other folks in the building out in the street and made our way to the park around the corner. It was only when I was sure we were safe and started canvassing the neighborhood that I realized what had really just happened.

For blocks and blocks it looked exactly the same as it had the day before. A few bricks on the ground perhaps. For a moment I even lamented the fact there wouldn’t be a decent story in it for me. I saw a building with a piece of a wall missing so that I could see a desk inside. I snapped a photo.

Then I saw the first building down. It was a squat little brown thing I must have passed a hundred times – right next to that cheesy 1950’s-themed hamburger joint I swore I’d never go back to. And it was nearly pancaked. Oddly enough, the bottom floor was still intact but the three above it kind of looked like one. Neighbors were hammering away, trying to rescue those trapped inside. People who had come to their office. People taking a cooking class.

My neighbors were trapped. In other places my colleagues were trapped. My neighbors were dying. Not in some far off place, down the street. People I pass on the way to the cantina. Next to that cheesy burger joint.

Whenever a natural disaster strikes, it’s easy to find a reason why you were clever enough to escape it. Oh, look at that building, why would they live there? Well look where their house is. Well why did they get in their car during a flood? Why didn’t they get in their car during a fire? It gives us a sense of control.

It’s only when control is totally gone that you realize you never had it in the first place. Continue reading