Hiding in Plain Out-of-Sight


If you haven’t seen the movie Interstellar, you might not recognize the image above. It’s the black hole that figures prominently in the climax. But even if you have seen the movie, chances are excellent you still don’t know what you’re looking at. I didn’t, anyway, at least the first few days I spent staring at it.

This past summer I worked on a media project involving this fictional black hole. The project didn’t come to fruition, but I did sign a confidentiality agreement, so I don’t know how much I can reveal about it. What I can discuss, however, is the science behind the movie’s black hole, if only because part of my job was to understand it.

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Guest Post: What science can learn from religion

unnamedSharel was twenty when she died from an overdose. Her funeral was held at the Holy Temple Christian Church on Althea Street in Providence, Rhode Island. The church tried to raise $5,000 for the expense, but only managed to raise $347.

Althea Street is short, only three blocks long. It is poor. Boarded up buildings mingle with renovated homes. An empty lot sits in the middle of one block, filled with garbage. A small path weaves through the garbage back towards a ring of old chairs under a tree. Around the chairs, on the ground, are needles, cheap bottles of vodka, and tiny bags used to hold crack. At each end of the street are stores that sell milk and cereal but make most of their money from selling single cigarettes (loosies) and cheap malt liquor. They also sell crack pipes disguised as pens or flower holders.


You can find a version of Althea Street in any American city.  At the center of all of these streets you find churches. Lots of churches. Continue reading

Guest Post: the Truth about Cats & Dogs

cat-dog 2 credit b1ue5ky flickrDogs have owners; cats have staff. Dogs are man’s best friend; cats are man’s best frenemy. Dogs come when called; cats take a message and get back to you.

As long as we’ve had dogs and cats, we’ve had dogs versus cats. Dogs are obedient, loyal, and love unconditionally. Cats are obstinate, fickle, and love when they feel like it. But are these personality differences rooted in reality—or are they just in our heads?

Science is coming closer to providing an answer. Continue reading

Ira Glass is Not My Friend and Some Thoughts on Serial

IraGlass1Last year, I told a story for This American Life (TAL), my favorite radio show. My story was about being so lost in grief over my sister-in-law’s death from cancer that I mistook a pizza delivery guy for an undertaker.

My error wasn’t as ridiculous as it seems. The pizza guy had the wrong house, and the only stranger we were expecting at the door was the one who was coming to take away our beloved’s body.

As I wrote in an essay about the experience,

For a while, the pizza was the only thing I could really talk about. In hindsight, it was funny and that took some of the edge off. But in a way, it also explained everything. A few days before she died, Pia had told me, “My world has gotten so small.” Her universe had become mine, but my accidental collision with the pizza guy had given me a glimpse beyond Pia’s death bed. Out there, the world was going on without us, oblivious.

I learned that TAL wanted my story, and the next thing I knew, I was at my local public radio station getting ready for a call from Ira Glass. At the appointed time, Glass called in. After a bit of small talk, which gave me a chance to express my bewilderment that TAL could have omitted my all-time favorite segment from their recent highlight reel, he asked me to tell the story.

I recalled how the doorbell rang, and there was the undertaker — a teenage boy wearing a baseball cap backwards, which seemed odd. He handed me a bottle of root beer, which seemed ever weirder, but my mind instantly fixated on the little square, padded box he was holding. She’s not going to fit in there, I thought. And what the hell are you planning to do with the root beer? I want no part of this. Continue reading

The Last Word, December 1-5, 2014



Yesterday, Cameron wrote another one of her beautiful essays that make you remember how nice it is to be alive. Or, (in her words), once again she’s vomiting rainbows.

“You’re going to have to forgive us our shouting about Europe for now,” says guest poster Chris Lintott, an astrophysicist at University of Oxford, in the wake of the Philae’s landing on a comet, yes, a comet! The European Space Agency has always defined itself in opposition to NASA, he says, and if ESA wants funding for other expeditions they’ll need to get the European public and their distracted and harried politicians on board.

Drawing on his experience as a member of a grand jury, Richard finds parallels between the scientific process and the judicial system, notices that the word “trial” is applied to both science and justice, and comes to a verdict on the prosecutor’s strategy in the Michael Brown case.

Helen discusses how the thing about extraordinary experiences is that they’re hard to share without seeming like a showoff or a jerk. Or, as one of her Facebook friends remarked, “It’s not just that the person regaling you with their adventures in the Days of the Raj hunting Indian rhinos is an asshole or overbearing: it’s that we weren’t there…”

Jessa shares the paralyzing shock of being capsized in an icy cold Great Slave Lake. Don’t try this at home.

Rainbow Connection

7797880070_58378e001e_zThe other day, as our kids played around a big, messy tree–one with patchy bark and drooping sickle-shaped leaves–a friend told me she was going to show me a picture of a eucalyptus she knew I would love.

A eucalyptus? Not one of these troublesome trees, I thought. But then she held up her phone. I peered in at the photos, and then we grinned at each other. I did love it. Continue reading

Thumbs Up! Don’t Shoot!

Like millions of other Americans, I’ve spent some time in the last week wondering whether the grand jury proceedings in the shooting death of Michael Brown were a perversion of justice from the get-go. I don’t claim to have had any great societal insights as a result, but I can claim a personal one—the kind of epiphany that sometimes comes from thinking about a universal problem by drawing on your own experience and applying your own area of relative expertise. In my case, I drew on my memories of serving on a grand jury and applied my interpretation of the scientific method.

In the spring of 1998 I was one of 23 members on a grand jury in Manhattan. We met every weekday morning for a month, deciding a variety of cases, probably several dozen in all. We spent a lot of time waiting. Reading. Chatting. Dozing. Then the door would open, and a prosecutor would walk in. He or she would tell us about the case and what the charge was (or charges were), read aloud the relevant statute(s), and then go about presenting evidence that the defendant was guilty, guilty, guilty: testimony from witnesses, documents, videotapes. Then the prosecutor would leave the room and we would vote whether or not to indict.

For me, the experience was an education. Despite all the evidence of a suspect’s guilt, our job wasn’t remotely to determine guilt or innocence. It was, basically, to give our blessing. We saw no contradicting evidence. We heard no contradicting testimony. We simply had to assess whether prosecutors had enough indications of guilt to go to trial; only then would the contradicting evidence and testimony receive an airing.

Twice that month I voted not to indict.  Continue reading

Gasp. Pant. Brr.


“Go on, get ‘em!” is what I could have sworn he said to his dog.

And get us he did. I don’t remember what kind of dog it was, but the key factor here is that the dog was heavy.

I was on assignment, the second year in my job for Up Here magazine, and I was to profile a nice couple living on one of the floating houses that dot the shores of Great Slave Lake, the deepest lake in North America. The ice having recently come off the lake, this was my first time in a canoe all season. Except in its shallowest and most sheltered bays, “the Big Lake” never gets anywhere near what one would call warm.

My photographer was in the bow, while I manned the stern and got distracted navigating a maze of floating platforms. There was some anxiety around this assignment, because the woman of the couple worked for the Catholic School Board and didn’t want to get in trouble for publicizing that fact that she lived with her boyfriend.

So when the hefty paws thudded onto our starboard gunwhale and began to scrabble, it took me a while to process what was happening. We flipped. I don’t remember a splash, so much. I was just vaguely reaching out as if the surface of the water could prop me up while I righted the bucking canoe.

GASP. I have never felt such paralyzing shock. My wheezing lungs felt like they were up around my collarbone and fighting for oxygen. My chest had a will of its own, working in and out whether I wanted to hold my breath or not. I was making little honking sounds. My relatively strong swimming skills seemed to count for nothing. Two months pregnant, I felt sure I would miscarry. Continue reading