Zoned Out


shutterstock_110442686There a few moments in your childhood that stick with you the rest of your life. I don’t mean first kiss, prom, or that time you punched Kelly Weir in the stomach for stealing your bike (believe me, he had it coming). Those are big moments. I mean the little things – the things that everyone else has forgotten but you.

For me, one such moment was during my first week of seventh grade. It was gym class and Mr. Morris wanted me to do something. I don’t remember what it was, that’s not the crucial bit. I just remember it was on the grass, near the softball field that no one ever used. Morris, who had the sort of chiseled, aged face that you could imagine drove all the girls nuts in 1962, snapped his fingers and said, “Focus!”

Then he said something I’ll never forget. “Focus on what you are doing, Erik. You’ve heard that before, haven’t you?”

Indeed, I had heard it before. I heard it every year, in fact, in elementary school. Mrs. Ward, Mrs. Kraft, Mr. Manegetti, they all probably said it. What – I was kind of a space cadet, okay? I daydreamed. I had my own world that was way more interesting than cloud charts and “To Kill A Mockingbird.” So sue me. My grades were good and I didn’t cause trouble. Continue reading

The Chessmen That Conquered the World (of Cinema)


two of the Lewis chessmen

Last night I was watching the movie Brave. It’s the story of a Scottish princess with exuberantly curly red hair who doesn’t want to be married to some dumb scion of a clan just because their dads are allies. She shoots arrows. There are magic spells and lots of bagpipes.  It was a good thing to watch on a Sunday evening at the end of a very long week.

About 15 minutes into the movie, I noticed something familiar.

Merida’s mother picks up a chess set. “Once, there was an ancient kingdom,” she says. She carries the board and the figures over to her daughter. She holds up a king, using the chess set and some dramatic flashbacks to tell the story of “war and chaos and ruin.”

It was the chess set that looked familiar. Continue reading

The Last Word


9090924965_6d083a971f_kJuly 14 – 18, 2014

First we domesticated our pets, says guest David Grimm, and then over a long, long period of time, they civilized us.  For which, thank goodness.

Christie had a friend who was dying.  In the meantime, how should he stay alive?  Nice answer: by inviting friends over for a Colorado summer afternoon.

Such splendid galaxies out there, colliding and ricocheting and merging and parting again — the individual ones you can see, the dance can only be simulated.  Once again, I give in to poetic tendencies.

Cameron, who’s never writing about what she seems to be writing about, writes about the dog days, her old dog and his old fears, and his naps on the sun-warmed stones.

GlaxoSmithKline has a vaccine for Lyme disease but it’s not profitable so they don’t sell it. What’s a clever researcher to do?  Vaccinate the mice who carry the ticks who carry the bug, says Cassie approvingly.


Mouse Medicine to Combat Lyme


mouseimageLyme disease is a growing scourge. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention receives about 30,000 reports of the disease each year, but agency says the number of actual diagnoses could be ten times higher.

Once upon a time, we had a safe and effective vaccine to prevent the disease. But this vaccine, called Lymerix, was withdrawn in 2002, just four short years after it was approved. GlaxoSmithKline, the vaccine’s manufacturer, claimed that it pulled Lymerix because of poor sales, but it’s also true that the company was mired in lawsuits alleging that the vaccine caused serious side effects. In this month’s issue of Nature Medicine, I dive deep into the controversial history of that vaccine and explore how its withdrawal has impacted development of a new vaccine. But that piece focuses on vaccines designed for humans. Today I want to look at another type of Lyme vaccine, one designed for mice. Continue reading

Dog Days


374px-Close-up_of_SiriusThese are the dog days. Hot as a dog, lazy as a dog, wanting to curl up and take naps like a dog. Please, let us lie, sleeping like them, on these summer afternoons.

But the phrase didn’t originate from the habits of our earthly canine companions. Instead, it came from Sirius, the dog star. In July and early August, Sirius rises and sets with the sun. People once thought that the combined power of our daytime star and the brightest one in our night sky brought the full heat of summer.

Here below, our own dog star’s light has started to dim. We got him from a rescue group nearly six years ago. He’s a strange brew of Labrador and possibly Great Dane—100 pounds with an enormous head—and somewhere between eight and ten years old. We might be seeing the shine from Sirius, 8.7 light years away, from around the time he was born.

He was not born under a lucky star, it seems. Continue reading

Union and Reunion


UGC 8335Splendid, isn’t it. It’s UGC 8335 — one name, so once it was apparently mistaken for one thing though obviously it’s two. They’re spiral galaxies in the process of running into and through each other. This is a photograph by the Hubble Space Telescope; the galaxies are really there; this is real.  You could think of this photo as a single frame in an extremely long movie.  But you could see the movie only if somebody made it up out of whole cloth, i.e., not real.  Like this: Continue reading

The Wisdom of a Summer Afternoon, Redux


During the summer and fall, my husband and I spend most of our evenings sitting on the front porch, drinking a glass of wine and watching the sun move across the sky and below the horizon. The light show unfolds differently each time and cannot be binge-watched or replayed. It can only be fully experienced in the here and now, and that’s where we sit and savor it.

This time of year, we often have the pleasure of sharing our evening ritual with friends, and today I’d like to take a moment to remember and honor a friend who taught me how to appreciate the importance of these simple moments. I first told the story here in August of 2011, and I’m sharing it again now, because it’s a lesson whose significance never fades. 

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the nature of knowledge and how we acquire it. My training as a scientist taught me to revere the scientific method, and I continue to hold science in the highest regard. Science can teach us much about the world and ourselves, and as I’ve written elsewhere, it can allow us to see beyond our biases — if we can keep open minds.

Yet I’ve grown to understand that not all knowledge worth possessing can come from a book, an experiment or a Google search. Science is very good at answering questions that involve quantifiable elements — how far away is that planet? Which drug produces the best response? But it’s less helpful at answering some of life’s most vexing questions like, what should I do with my life? Where should I focus my attention?

Continue reading

Guest Post: How Our Pets Domesticated Us


13408372845_b803a279b7_kOne of the most fascinating tidbits I came across while researching my new book, Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship with Cats and Dogs, concerns the 10,000-year-old village of Shillourokambos. Located on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, the site was once home to an early farming community whose inhabitants stored grain in stone silos and corralled livestock behind wood fences. In 2001, archaeologists digging beneath the foundation of what was once a small, circular house made a surprising discovery: a shallow grave containing the skeleton of a human, and next to it, surrounded by carved seashells, the remains of a cat.

That wasn’t the fascinating part. Archaeologists had long suspected that cats first entered human society to hunt the rodents that early farming villages attracted. What surprised me was learning that the Shillourokambians had shipped in foxes for the same purpose. And yet only cats became pets. Dogs, likewise, became treasured companions when plenty of other animals could have theoretically fit the bill. Of all the species on earth, only two have morphed from wild animal to family member. It’s a process that took thousands of years.

And yet, as we were transforming these animals, they were also transforming us. Continue reading