Top Science Longreads of 2013

I’m really optimistic about the future for long, deep, rich science reporting. There are more places that a publishing it, more ways of finding it, and a seemingly huge cadre of people who are writing it well. So without further ado, here’s a list of my top pieces of the year. It has blossomed to 15 from last year’s 12 because I was gripped by indecision and they’re all so good. In no particular order:

1)       Bones of Contention, by Paige Williams for the New Yorker. The curious case of USA v. One Tyrannosaurus Bataar Skeleton frames this exquisitely crafted tale about a Florida man’s trade in Mongolian dinosaurs, and the amazing world of fossils, auctions, and private collectors.

“He sold sloth claws, elephant jaws, wolf molars, dinosaur ribs—a wide range of anatomical fragments that went, mostly, for between ten and fifty dollars. Increasingly, Florida Fossils got into triple digits, especially when Prokopi started selling dinosaur parts. In the fall of 2011, he sold two Mongolian oviraptor nests for more than three hundred and fifty dollars each, a tyrannosaurus ileum for five hundred and sixty-one dollars, a tyrannosaurus tooth for three hundred and twenty-five dollars, and a tyrannosaurus tail vertebra for four hundred and ten dollars.”

2)       Imagining the Post-Antibiotics Future, by Maryn McKenna for Medium. The post-antibiotic world is much worse than you might imagine, and this sweeping piece takes us through the implications for medicine, agriculture & more.

““Many treatments require suppressing the immune system, to help destroy cancer or to keep a transplanted organ viable. That suppression makes people unusually vulnerable to infection. Antibiotics reduce the threat; without them, chemotherapy or radiation treatment would be as dangerous as the cancers they seek to cure… Similarly with transplantation. And severe burns are hugely susceptible to infection. Burn units would have a very, very difficult task keeping people alive.””

3)       Uprooted, by Virginia Hughes for Matter. An incredible story about how DNA testing is changing the way people look at their genealogy, and revealing that some people aren’t who they thought they were. (And a special shout-out to Hughes’ piece on Romanian orphans—it was very hard to choose between these.)

“Searching your genetic ancestry can certainly be fun: You can trace the migration patterns of 10,000-year-old ancestors, or discover whether a distant relative ruled a continent or rode on the Mayflower. But the technology can just as easily unearth more private acts—infidelities, sperm donations, adoptions—of more recent generations, including previously unknown behaviors of your grandparents, parents, and even spouses. Family secrets have never been so vulnerable.”

4)       The Social Life of Genes, by David Dobbs for Pacific Standard. A stunning piece about how our day-to-day lives quickly influence how our genes are deployed, and how cells are machines “for turning experience into biology”.

“Half were European honeybees, Apis mellifera ligustica, the sweet-tempered kind most beekeepers raise. The other half were ligustica’s genetically close cousins, Apis mellifera scutellata, the African strain better known as killer bees. Though the two subspecies are nearly indistinguishable, the latter defend territory far more aggressively. Kick a European honeybee hive and perhaps a hundred bees will attack you. Kick a killer bee hive and you may suffer a thousand stings or more. Two thousand will kill you.”

5)       A Race to Save the Orange by Altering Its DNA, by Amy Harmon for the New York Times. A nuanced and insightful piece that brings fresh light, and a lot of humanity, to the contentious issue of genetically modified crops.

“His quest to save the orange offers a close look at the daunting process of genetically modifying one well-loved organism — on a deadline… Only in recent months has he begun to face the full magnitude of the gap between what science can achieve and what society might accept.”

6)       The Short Happy Life of a Serengeti Lion, by David Quammen. Put yourself in a lion’s head with this rollicking tale of C-Boy, the Killers, and the brutal Serengeti.

“She sat in a Land Rover, 30 feet away, while three other males ganged up on C-Boy and tried to kill him. His struggle to survive against those daunting odds, dramatic in itself, reflected a larger truth about the Serengeti lion: Continual risk of death, even more than the ability to cause it, is what shapes the social behavior of this ferocious but ever jeopardized animal.”

7)       A Life-Or-Death Situation, by Robin Marantz Henig, for the New York Times. A moving and compassionate piece about end-of-life care.

“Suffering, suicide, euthanasia, a dignified death — these were subjects she had thought and written about for years, and now, suddenly, they turned unbearably personal. Alongside her physically ravaged husband, she would watch lofty ideas be trumped by reality — and would discover just how messy, raw and muddled the end of life can be.”

8)       Drive-Thru Astronomy, by Lee Billings for Aeon. Billings goes on a roadtrip through a scale model of the Solar System that spans the United States, and it’s a fantastic ride.

“McCartney half-jokingly asked if Pluto was still there. Its box is mounted at eye level, and the building is open to all comers, all day. McCartney said he had a half dozen ceramic dwarf planet replacements squirrelled away in a desk drawer for when the planet goes missing. I assured him that Pluto was in place. ‘Great. Call me when you’re at Uranus and I’ll meet you at Saturn,’ McCartney said, before hanging up abruptly.”

9)       The Case of the Missing Ancestor, by Jamie Shreeve for National Geographic. In 2011, we discovered a new group of ancient humans by sequencing DNA form a tiny bone chip. This amazing piece, which reads like a thriller, tells the story.

“Krause himself recalls that Friday as “scientifically the most exciting day of my life.” The tiny chip of a finger bone, it seemed, was not from a modern human at all. But it wasn’t from a Neanderthal either. It belonged to a new kind of human being, never before seen.”

10)   Omens, by Ross Andersen for Aeon. A beautiful essay on extinctions and the end of humans, suffused with gorgeous poetry.

“It’s a sad story from the dinosaurs’ perspective, but there is symmetry to it, for they too rose to power on the back of a mass extinction. One hundred and fifty million years before the asteroid struck, a supervolcanic surge killed off the large crurotarsans, a group that outcompeted the dinosaurs for aeons. Mass extinctions serve as guillotines and kingmakers both.”

11)   The Boy Whose Brain Could Unlock Autism, by Maia Szalavitz for Matter. This stunning piece looks at a neuroscientist’s quest to understand his autistic son, and the new “intense world” hypothesis of autism.

“Imagine being born into a world of bewildering, inescapable sensory overload, like a visitor from a much darker, calmer, quieter planet. Your mother’s eyes: a strobe light. Your father’s voice: a growling jackhammer. That cute little onesie everyone thinks is so soft? Sandpaper with diamond grit. And what about all that cooing and affection? A barrage of chaotic, indecipherable input, a cacophony of raw, unfilterable data.”

12)   Beyond recognition: the incredible story of a face transplant, by Katie Drummond for Verge. This thoughtful piece explores the science and ethics behind a mind-blowing new technology, and the hope it provides for victims of unbelievable tragedy.

“He said to me, ‘Isn’t this an amazing result?’” Dubernard recalls of the patchwork of skin grafts used to remodel Woods’ face. “And I told him, ‘Yes, this is good. But you know what? A face transplant would be better.’”

13)  Cows might fly, by Veronique Greenwood for Aeon. What begins with some quirky trivia about Swiss airlifted cows slowly reveals itself as a meditation on our environmental future in a world that’s running out of land. Relentless entertaining and fascinating.

From time to time, a hiker through the Swiss Alps might witness a startling sight. First, the sound of a helicopter reverberates off the valley walls. Then the chopper appears, a long cable hanging from its belly. When the burden at the end of the cable heaves into view, it is not a rescued mountaineer, en route to the hospital. Nor is it a pot of cement or a pallet of planks, on the way to a high-mountain building project. It is a single cow, hanging gently from a harness, her dark eyes alert, her hooves high above the ground.

14)   Bad Blood, by Will Storr for Matter. This chronicle of the life and death of Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko, and the poison that killed him, has won awards, and rightly so.

“As [uranium] throws out these chunks — cannonballs containing two protons and two neutrons, a combination known as an alpha particle — it cascades down the periodic table, transforming itself into a different element each time. Just before its arrival at lead-206, it becomes a substance called polonium-210. And it is at this point that the elements of science become the elements of murder.”

15)   The Spy Who Loved Frogs, by Brendan Borrell for Nature. A gripping piece about a young scientist must follow the jungle path of a herpetologist who led a secret double life.

“Before leaving for the Philippines as an undergraduate in 1992, Rafe Brown scoured his supervisor’s bookshelf to learn as much as he could about the creatures he might encounter. He flipped through a photocopy of a 1922 monograph by the prolific herpetologist Edward Taylor, and became mesmerized by a particular lizard, Ptychozoon intermedium, the Philippine parachute gecko. With marbled skin, webs between its toes and aerodynamic flaps along its body that allow it to glide down from the treetops, it was just about the strangest animal that Brown had ever seen.“

And finally…

Here are three of my own longreads from this year.

  • Ant Farm (Aeon), about how ants are killing Ghana’s coffee supply, how plant diseases could bring the world to its knees, and why we’re woefully unprepared to stop them.
  • The Power of Swarms (Wired), about the surprising, amazing science of herds, shoals, flocks, tumours, brains, and other collectives.
  • Dynasty (Nature), about Bob Paine: a man who changed science not just through his own work, but by inspiring a legacy of other scientists.

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