is a Senior Editor at Aeon Magazine
. He has written extensively about science and philosophy for several publications, including The Atlantic and The Economist.
Inside the quest to understand whether the coelacanth is an early ancestor to tetrapods:
The Coelacanthus fossils caused a stir in the scientific world, particularly after the publication of Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” in 1859. In the coelacanth’s lobed fins, palaeontologists thought they saw clues to the identity of the “missing link”, the first fish that crawled out of the sea to evolve into amphibians, reptiles, mammals and, eventually, man. They postulated that the lobed fins of the fossil coelacanths suggested that they were the ancestor of the first fish that crawled out of the sea. Others put their money on the lungfish, the first living specimen of which had been discovered in the Amazon in the 1830s by Johann Natterer, a Viennese naturalist.
PUBLISHED: Nov. 1, 2013
LENGTH: 21 minutes (5444 words)
After his grandfather’s death, Samanth Subramanian attempts to piece together what he did not know about the man’s past—and understand why he hadn't sought out the information earlier:
Given all this, I now wonder, why did I fail to learn more about him? It is true that, for all the diligence my family has expended on passing down the rituals of our religion, it has never been as attentive to personal histories; I know absolutely nothing about my eight great-grandparents except for the name of one of them. Even so, my grandfather always felt like a special case — less a real person than a character pulled out of a fable, his abilities and his flaws both immensely larger than life, and his past obscured as much by my own ignorance as by the half-truths and legends that swirl around him.
PUBLISHED: Oct. 26, 2013
LENGTH: 11 minutes (2900 words)
A trip to experience what sculptor Charles Ross is building in the New Mexico desert. Star Axis is a naked-eye observatory that he's been working for more than 40 years:
"O’Bryan walked me slowly down the steep side of the mesa, to the desert floor, so I could see Star Axis in its entirety. The work’s centrepiece is a 10-storey staircase that lets you walk up through the rock of the mesa, your eyes fixed on a small circular opening that cuts through the top of the pyramid. The first section of the staircase is roofless and open to the sky, but the end of it has a stone overhang that makes it look and feel like a tunnel. This ‘star tunnel’, as Ross calls it, is precisely aligned with Earth’s axis. If you bored a tunnel straight through the Earth’s core, from the South Pole to North Pole, and climbed up it, you’d see the same circle of sky that you do when you walk through Ross’ tunnel. Gazing up through it in the afternoon glare, I saw a patch of blue, the size and shape of a dime held at arm’s length. But if the sun had blinked for a moment, fading the heavens to black, I’d have seen Polaris, glittering at the end of the tunnel, like a solitary diamond in the void."
PUBLISHED: Oct. 15, 2013
LENGTH: 32 minutes (8200 words)
This week's picks from Emily include stories from Vice, Buzzfeed, Aeon Magazine, and The New York Times Magazine.
New reading list from Emily Perper featuring picks from The New Yorker, Aeon Magazine, and the New Inquiry.
Our favorite stories of the week, featuring GQ, The New York Times, Gawker, Aeon, and Vanity Fair with a guest pick by Jessica Lussenhop.
What scientific, cultural and economic factors are still preventing the world from getting male contraception? There are several new approaches being researched, including testosterone injections and procedures that replicate a vasectomy—but companies aren't yet investing enough money to bring them to market:
"We have reached an impasse. As a society, we recognise the importance of providing options for reproductive control, yet the responsibilities (and side effects) of effective contraception are carried largely by women. Men might never be able to share the physical burden of pregnancy, but they can share the responsibilities of child-rearing and contraception. If the market cannot support this, we need to find an alternative route."
PUBLISHED: Aug. 1, 2013
LENGTH: 12 minutes (3000 words)
The writer accompanies a neuroscientist from Harvard on a trip to a Romanian orphanage. The Bucharest Early Intervention Project—a study of the effects of early institutionalization on brain and behavior development—has become well-respected on the scientific community, but it also raised questions about the ethics of scientific research:
"Two days before our visit to the orphanage, I accompanied Nelson to a homely green building that houses the psychology department of the University of Bucharest, where he holds an honorary doctorate. He had been invited by the Dean to give a talk on the ethics of human research.
"All reputable scientific institutions follow a few ethical principles to guide their human experiments: participants must give informed and unambiguous consent; researchers must thoroughly consider possible risks and benefits; the gains and burdens of research must be equally distributed to participants and society at large. These rules are largely unheard of in Romania, let alone enforced.
"In a packed auditorium, Nelson began his lecture by describing the fundamental moral dilemma facing all clinical studies. 'The real goal of research is to generate useful knowledge about health and illness, not necessarily to benefit those who participate in the research,' he said. That means, he added, that participants are at risk of being exploited."
PUBLISHED: July 29, 2013
LENGTH: 26 minutes (6500 words)