May 20, 2012
Where did the old forests go? Sailing masts for the British navy. Staves for wine barrels. They went into railroad cars, “snake fences,” and orange crates; they went up the hugely inefficient chimneys of settlers… From American Canopy, a May 20 column in the Sunday Globe.
April 1, 2012
Not Mom, not the prim librarians stamping return dates onto slip after slip. No one ever said: This book is outside your age range; this book is too complicated.… From Let Us Now Praise Libraries, Librarians, an April 1 op-ed in the Sunday Boston Globe.
March 4, 2012
This is how I feel, lately, about my reading life: dizzy, overwhelmed. Somehow, seemingly overnight, I have 70,000 choices… From Too Many Books, Too Little Time, a March 4 op-ed in the Sunday Globe.
February 5, 2012
Preachy fiction is so often joyless fiction. It is uncomplicated fiction. Yet, despite its narrative breadth and complexity, more than any novel I’ve read in the past few years, “The Street Sweeper’’ risks being called preachy. It’s very last line, after all – no spoiler here, don’t worry – is “Tell everyone what happened here.’’ From a review of Elliot Perlman’s The Street Sweeper in the Feburary 5 Sunday Globe.
January 1, 2012
Anthony’s column about his favorite science titles from 2011 features books about our freshwater crisis, books about information overload, a memoir by the world’s most famous ornithologist, and a fascinating new title about how impressive science (in mathematics, genetics, astronomy) is being accomplished by crowds using the tools of the Internet.
October 18, 2011
Groundwater supplies all over the nation are dropping, even in the relatively wet Southeast. Wetlands have become as rare as sea-run salmon, and Lake Mead, which supplies 90 percent of Las Vegas’s water, could be dry by as soon as 2021. From Draining America, an October 2nd column in the Sunday Globe.
July 24, 2011
There’s certainly a chance we would not have heard of John James Audubon, still probably the world’s most famous ornithologist, if he’d decided not to get on a ship in New Orleans in April of 1826. Or if Lucy Audubon hadn’t supported her husband’s wishes to do so… An outtake from Birdman of America, which appeared in the July 24 Sunday Globe.
May 15, 2011
Lewin is six feet two, silver-haired, and speaks with a Dutch accent. In the videos of his lectures he lopes energetically in front of his chalkboards and makes pronouncements like “Now, I’m going blow your minds!” You can watch him shoot bullets through paint cans, ride a bike with a rocket attached to the back, or make a battery with trash cans and water. From The Music of Physics a May 15 column in the Globe.
March 20, 2011
MHII. SHF. WMIETG. Are these text messaging acronyms? Scientific organizations? Weird tweets? Nope, they’re abbreviations suggested by the machinist Alfred Vail in the 1840s for making telegraph messages more efficient. MHII meant “my health is improving.” SHF stood for “stocks have fallen.” WMIETG was “When may I expect the goods?” Senders and receivers who could strip extraneous clutter out of their messages had an economic advantage… From Anthony’s 50th On Science column, which appeared in the March 20 Sunday Globe.
January 23, 2011
Oh, you know, the idea that if the cosmos is infinite, it’s large enough to contain infinite versions of everything. Infinite copies of you in infinite universes reading infinite copies of this newspaper. From Chasing Pythagoras and Parallel Universes, a January 23 column in the Globe.
November 28, 2010
The American writer Eleanor Clark, upon moving to Rome in the late 1940s, found herself swamped by the city’s “mess and the blazing sun, the incongruities, the too-muchness of everything.” That’s a pretty fair analogy for how one feels reading Chasing the Sun: it’s fascinating, but the “too-muchness” of the experience gradually overwhelms. From Tales of sun and Pluto run hot and cold, a November 28 column in the Boston Globe.
September 19, 2010
Once we improve sequencing and cell-transformation technologies, a well-to-do couple hoping to have a child could potentially create tens of thousands of embryos. Screen them all, select the strongest, smartest, prettiest, and — bingo — designer children. From Mastering Our Own Evolution, a September 19 column in the Globe.
June 27, 2010
Without insects we’d have no vegetables, no birds, no flowers, no hamburgers, no cotton, no trout. No ice cream! No rose bushes! Terrestrial ecosystems would collapse. Dead bodies would rot in the streets. From
March 21, 2010
For years researchers have produced riveting evidence that genes and environment interface dynamically. Yellow grasshoppers can turn black if exposed to charred environments. Fertilized crocodile eggs can become male or female depending on temperature. Put the offspring of rats who test well solving mazes in boring, unstimulating cages and the pups will grow up to be terrible at mazes.. From
The many origins of intelligence, a March 21 column in the Globe.
January 17, 2010
Labs around the country are finding that glial cells are involved in epilepsy, fetal brain development, mental illness, and the even generation of new neurons in adults. Some glia form a kind of super-aggressive Secret Service that can tunnel through the snarls of dendrites and attack intruding organisms. Still others serve more like maniacal sidewalk sweepers, collecting and absorbing discarded potassium ions that are released by neurons when they fire. From Fresh thinking on the brain, a January 17 column in the Sunday Globe.
November 9, 2009
Now we Americans rely on honeybees to pollinate our apples, almonds, blueberries, melons, onions, turnips, celery, squash, among dozens of other fruits, nuts, and seeds—a third of every forkful you put in your mouth. They also pollinate the alfalfa that feeds our beef and the cotton that’s spun into our T-shirts. All told, a Cornell University study values the contributions of bees to the U.S. economy at somewhere around $15 billion. From
We Have Met the Enemy, a November 15 column in the Sunday Boston Globe.
October 18, 2009
Anthony writes about gigantic Frisbees and whale carcasses and huge smacks of jellyfish demolishing salmon farms, as well as the future of global warming, in a chilling new essay for
September 20, 2009
Can we transform media, divorce money from politics, build a carbon-neutral society, protect much larger sections of our oceans, and find leaders that can put sustainability into a moral context, as Lincoln was able to do with slavery? If we fail, the lives we’ll ruin are not only those of tree frogs or spotted owls or people who live in low-lying coastal cities. The lives we’ll ruin are the lives of our children. From
July 10, 2009
One way to look at the history of modern science is to say that it represents a century-by-century reordering of common sense. Copernicus showed us we weren’t standing still at the center of the universe. Galileo showed us that all motion is relative depending on who observes it. Darwin showed us that our bodies and minds are the result of eons of natural selection. None of these things seemed true at first glance. An outtake from
May 17, 2009
When British soldiers arrived in Jamestown in 1676 to quell a Colonial rebellion, a few daring farmers slipped some jimson weed into the British chow. The soldiers hallucinated for 11 days. “One would blow up a feather in the air,” writes a historian, “another would dart straws at it with much fury; and another, stark naked, was sitting up in a corner like a monkey.” From
April 19, 2009
The Milky Way belongs to a cluster of galaxies (we call it the Local Group), which in turn belongs to a vast conglomerate of tens of thousands of galaxies (the Virgo supercluster). Spiral-shaped, ellipse-shaped, sombrero-shaped – in the visible universe, at any given moment, there are hundreds of thousands of millions of galaxies. Maybe as many as 140 billion. All those galaxies, stuffed with all those stars, stuffed with how many worlds? If our sun is one in 10 sextillion, could our Earth be one in 10 sextillion as well? Or the Earth might be one – the only one, the one An outtake from
January 18, 2009
One can only hope, however naively, that in another 200 years, Darwin’s theory of natural selection will have ceased to be so controversial. Two centuries from now we may understand exactly how life originated on Earth. We may be synthesizing new kinds of life in laboratories. We may have even detected it on a distant planet. From
November 16, 2008
Morton points out that phrases like ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming’ brutally simplify what human inputs have done to the global atmosphere over the past two centuries. As utilitarian as phrases like these seem, to call what’s going on in Earth’s atmosphere ‘climate change’ is akin to calling what’s going on in global markets, ‘financial change.’ An outtake from
September 22, 2008
The most prominent and mystifying of Brooks’s 13 anomalies are the twin riddles of dark energy and dark matter. These enigmas account for 96 percent of the mass in the observable universe, yet their existence remains inferred and hypothetical. Some of our smartest cosmologists have invested two decades in figuring out dark matter, but we still don’t know what it is. From
August 23, 2008
E. coli, Zimmer shows us, have sex, make chemical weapons, wage wars, get old, deceive one another, and even “build microbial cities.” They can make heat-shock proteins to protect their colonies when they get too warm; they can maintain a sense of direction; they can even communicate with other members of their species. What we think of as infinitesimal and primitive, Zimmer reminds us, is often totally remarkable and intensely complicated. From
July 20, 2008
Yank all the starfish off a sea stack in coastal Washington, and within months the mussels that the starfish would normally eat form a diversity-crushing monopoly. Take sea otters out of the ocean around an Aleutian island, and the sea urchins the otters would normally eat mow nearby kelp forests into oblivion. Remove cougars from the Eastern Seaboard, and white-tailed deer lay waste to forests. Take wolves out of Yellowstone, and elk decimate the cottonwood, willow, and aspen seedlings. From
March 16, 2008
The implication was that big-brained Homo sapiens, perched at the top of the topmost twig, formed the pinnacle of evolution. This is a fallacy. Evolution proceeds by blind chance, not by design. We are adapted creatures, but we are not optimized creatures. As counterintuitive as it might seem, it’s inaccurate to suggest that humans are more evolved than, say, horseshoe crabs, which have been living and dying for 400 million years
From All Creatures, Great and Overrated, a March 16 column in the Sunday Globe.
January 20, 2008
Ultimately, Maeterlinck writes with the same intrinsic humility that will be familiar to admirers of John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, Annie Dillard, or Mary Oliver. His conclusions match Thoreau’s: that we humans are only part of a network of much greater systems, and that we occupy a position in those systems which is located at neither the pinnacle nor the center. His is a post-Copernican, Enlightenment project: to rid our perception of the natural world of its human-centric context.
From reviews of new editions of Maurice Maeterlinck’s The Intelligence of Flowers and Henry David Thoreau’s Excursions in the Jan 20 Sunday Globe.
November 19, 2007
History didn’t start with the first humans—they were cavemen! They were pre-history, pre-literacy, pre-everything. Early humans squatted in dusty dioramas and lived short, terrifying lives. The Stone Age wasn’t history; the Stone Age was a preamble to history, a dystopian era of stasis before the happy onset of civilization, and the arrival of nifty developments like chariot wheels, gunpowder, and Google. Right?
From reviews of Matthew Hedman’s The Age of Everything and Daniel Lord Smail’s On Deep History and the Brain in the Nov 18 Sunday Globe.
September 15, 2007
So what did the scientific community think when a devoutly Christian paleontologist cracked open the femur of a 68-million-year-old Tyrannosaurus rex and claimed she had found soft, stretchy tissues inside?…
The Best American Science Writing 2007 from the Globe.
July 10, 2007
…Weisman is actually at his best when exploring the past, tracing the world as it was before homo sapiens to extrapolate what it might be like after homo sapiens. He conjures the mammoths and beavers (big as black bears) and sloths (big as cows) of North America in the late Pleistocene; he imagines the ancient, brooding forest that once shrouded Europe from Ireland to Siberia… Did you know that 13 million gallons of water need to be pumped out of New York City’s subway systems every day? Or that ancient underground cities are carved into the volcanic tuff of Cappadocia, Turkey?…
The World Without Us in the July 15 Globe.
May 20, 2007
…Any world map shows that the earth’s surface is about 75 percent ocean. But it’s easy to forget that the seas are, on average, 2 1/2 miles deep. On land, animals live on the ground or within about 200 feet of it. In the ocean, animals live at the surface, or at the bottom of the deepest trenches, 6 1/2 miles down. Multiplied out, that means 99 percent of the space inhabitable by the earth’s animals exists in the oceans…
The Deep: The Extraordinary Creatures of the Abyss and Tony Koslow’s The Silent Deep: The Discovery, Ecology, and Conservation of the Deep Sea.
March 20, 2007
… Try termites. These blind creatures, rarely more than a twelfth of an inch long, routinely construct monumental castles 20 feet tall, replete with staircases, gardens, nurseries, royal chambers, waste dumps, air conditioning systems, and water wells that can sometimes be as deep as 150 feet. How far, the Goulds want to know, does the imagination of a termite extend?…
January 27, 2007
…Modern astrophysics, it turns out, is built mostly on the analysis of spectra of light, much of which is entirely invisible to the naked eye. The universe throbs with the kinds of electromagnetic radiation we need specialized instruments to detect; radio waves radiate from nebulae, X-rays leave dying stars, and microwaves pour out of the chemical forges of the Milky Way…