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Archive for February, 2008

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I returned from Antarctica nearly two months ago to find it considerably busier ’round these northern parts. Among the things that almost slipped past:

Dumping iron in the ocean to get carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. It’s premature to do it commercially, and it may never turn out to be a good idea. But we could learn a lot about how the ocean works if we do some more experiments in that direction. That’s the gist of a special issue of Oceanus on the subject, in which I got to write five of the articles. Also covered: It’s become quite common to ridicule the idea for various appalling but unspecified side-effects; here are some details. Also, could it ever work? Why are economists and carbon traders interested? And what makes us think it might work in the first place?

Apparently, way more water has been dragged into the bowels of the Earth under Costa Rica than anyone ever thought before. Time was you could just dig up a handful of olivine crystals and spin the story any way you wanted – but that was before Jenn Wade got ahold of some clinopyroxenes and squeezed from them the truth. The verdict: Throw away your boron, your beryllium. Cast out your futile barium/lanthanum assays. Stop clinging to the illusions conjured in your strontium-neodymium dens. There are two kinds of magma beneath Costa Rica, and I, for one, am not going to pretend otherwise any longer. Questions? Ask the magmatic maverick herself (and check out her dancing skills) at Danger Bay.

There’s a fascinating story about whether chickens came to South America in Spanish galleons, via the Atlantic, or Polynesian outriggers, via the Pacific, here. (Thanks to El Nuthatchenyo for the tip.)

And thanks to the New York Times for keeping tabs on kimchee‘s inexorable expansion around the globe… and into outer space.

p.s. Hands up who wants to hear the best parts from Bleak House?

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There Goes the Neighborhood

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File under Not-Cute Baby Pictures #1: Large white shark eats small elephant seal at Ano Nuevo State Park, about 25 miles north of Santa Cruz. (Photo via park ranger-surfer Ziad, via Heathcliff, via GeeVeePee.)

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Every once in a while the New York Times runs an article just to see how many jokes it can slip under the radar; today is just such a day.

How else do you explain the most revered newspaper in America dedicating valuable paper (ca. $1,200 a column inch, if I’m not mistaken) to news about the punctuation on a city train? Siccing their reporters on the likes of Louis Menand and the woman who wrote “Eats, Shoots, and Leaves” (never mind Menand’s arch New Yorker review of ES&L, which was far more haughty than a mere pan; here, they agree)? Digging up a Kurt Vonnegut quote that includes both Hemingway and his second-most despised punctuation mark? Someone even drew out the perfect quote from Noam Chomsky, giving Bush detractors and Chomsky haters alike something to laugh about.

And the coup de grace – was this the brilliant late addition of an overworked copyeditor? – bringing a mass murderer into the story; it’s just a setup for a groaner at the end of the sentence.

One of the school system’s most notorious graduates, David Berkowitz, the Son of Sam serial killer who taunted police and the press with rambling handwritten notes, was, as the columnist Jimmy Breslin wrote, the only murderer he ever encountered who could wield a semicolon just as well as a revolver. (Mr. Berkowitz, by the way, is now serving an even longer sentence.)

(Thanks: C.A.H.)

(Image: semicolon subway commuters; Scribble Images)

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Funny sign alert #5

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You know you think about it every time you have to ride over the tracks. Or those storm drains with the big slots in them.

(Christchurch, New Zealand)

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Tracker Alerts the Headline Police

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Would you read a story about a new advance in in vitro fertilization, whereby an inherited mitochondrial disease is averted through transplantation of a fertilized nucleus?

How about a story about scientists creating the first embryo with three parents?

That’s what I thought. Never mind the scientists, who in one well-reported story, said “it would be incorrect to say that the embryos have three parents.”

What really happened was a neat but unfrightening transplant of a fertilized egg nucleus (with the standard set of DNA from two parents) into a donor egg containing a third woman’s mitochondria. As you may remember, mitochondria are those little steam engines that live in our cells by the thousands. They have their own set of DNA that governs how their machinery converts glucose into energy the rest of the cell can use.

Interestingly, mitochondria are the descendants of bacteria that our cells enveloped way back in the mists of evolutionary time back when “we” were some version of multicellular sludge in a tidepool somewhere. Mitochondrial DNA has had very little to do with the rest of our genes ever since – it’s one reason why they’re so useful to biologists tracing evolutionary lineages. So given the origin of mitochondria, you might just as well argue that we all have three parents.

But what good is explaining all that to a headline writer who has only 10 words with which to catch the eyes of thousands of readers? That’s how we get “Brit scientists brew up three-parent embryo” and similar rickety headlines appearing all over the world.

Fortunately, the world has someone who calls out headline abuses such as these: the Knight Science Journalism Tracker. It’s his job to scan news stories each day and point out what’s been done right and wrong. It’s much-needed peer review for journalists, conducted by one of their own with four decades (correct me if I’m wrong) of experience. Worth checking regularly.

And how did the Tracker resist the too-easy headline for his own post? He bypassed “parents” and went straight for the oldest attention grabber of them all: Sex triangle – though the headline continues, honorably: “An embryo with one woman’s mitochondria, and another’s nuclear DNA (a man’s involved too) “

(Image via the X-men)

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