Welcome to the creepier side of science.
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Welcome to the creepier side of science.

Please Welcome Erika Engelhaupt to Phenomena!

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Erika only has eyes for you, dino (shot at the Phil Fraley studio, while on assignment for the Philadelphia Inquirer).

Today, Phenomena gets a little spookier as we welcome Erika Engelhaupt to the salon. The name of her blog says it all: In Gory Details, she’ll be bringing you tales from the darker side of science — creepy thrills, macabre reality checks, and stuff for which the term “morbid fascination” aptly applies.

Maybe it has something to do with all the time she spent tromping around in swamps while studying environmental science, earning a couple of master’s degrees and – in her words – publishing “boring science papers.” After that, Erika ditched the science papers and began writing for newspapers, triggering a metamorphosis from scientist to science journalist. Now, in addition to being our newest Pheno-type, Erika is also the online science editor for National Geographic, and will help manage the Phenomena blog network.

I’ve known Erika for a while now (she was one of my editors at Science News), and she’s always seemed so…normal? To celebrate the launch of Gory Details, I asked Erika some questions about where she’s headed.

So what’s this obsession with gory stuff?

I suspect I may have read too many Stephen King novels at a young age. My mom and I would tear them in half down the spine so we could each read half at the same time. I’ve always enjoyed reading about creepy stuff (but no scary movies—I prefer my imagined horrors over Hollywood’s versions). Combine that with a love of science, and I guess you get Gory Details.

How did Gory Details come about?

I was an editor at Science News, and one day I was sitting in my office and looked at a shelf filled with books I had reviewed for the magazine. There were titles like Blood Work, The Killer of Little Shepherds (a fantastic forensic history), and That’s Disgusting. It had never really dawned on me until that point that maybe I had a morbid fascination. Suddenly it just popped into my head—I should write a column on the dark side of science and call it Gory Details.

At the time the magazine was soliciting ideas for news columns, but mine was initially considered too gross for a column. So I had to bide my time for two years until we were launching new blogs, and I got my chance. And it turned out that other people shared my curiosity.

What do you want this blog to be about?

So many things! First, I want to really delve into forensic science, because there’s so much going on right now. We’re at this strange point where there are really amazing high-tech methods being developed to analyze crime, but mostly what police have to work with is very old-school, and actually a lot of basic forensic analyses, like hair analysis, are being questioned — is this stuff even really science?

I’m fascinated by all manner of dead things, too. That includes archaeology, and pretty much anything involving old bones. I’m a sucker for a Neanderthal story, because I love to think about how close we are to our beetle-browed cousins.

Then there is, of course, the gross beat. I ended up writing a lot of stories about pee and poop in the blog previously, and every now and then I would announce a hiatus on bodily functions stories. But then someone would come along with some fascinating thing about fecal transplants or something, and I’d be off to the races with that.

I’d also like to branch out into some other areas that people might not immediately think of as gory, but that fall into the “huh, weird” category. So robots and artificial intelligence, perception (which, trust me, is full of really strange stuff), and the dark side of human nature.  And I’m an environmental scientist by training, so I’m going to claim that environmental nasties are something we need to examine in gory detail too.

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Evidence of actual past scientific endeavor: Erika studying soil microbial activity in Costa Rica.

 So…sort of the “eww” beat?

I’m happy to claim the “Eww” beat! When Maryn McKenna joined Phenomena recently with her scare-tastic blog Germination, someone on Twitter pointed out that she was claiming the “oops” beat (since she often covers how we humans have messed up the good thing we had going with antibiotics). And they noted that Ed’s on the “Wow” beat, and Nadia, I think we decided you were the “Boom” beat, right? Or maybe “Oooh”? And if Brian’s “Rock” and Carl’s “Life,” I guess that leaves me with “Eww”!

What are some of the spookier stories you’ve uncovered so far?

Some of my favorites have been ones that pose a “scary thought” kind of question. I really delved into what would happen if a nuclear bomb went off in Washington, D.C., where I live and where sometimes the threat of an attack feels quite real. I wrote about my own odds of survival less than a mile from the White House (not terrible, actually) and how to do the math on whether to seek better shelter or stay put.

Also along those lines are questions like “What lives on us after we die?” and “What drives ‘nice’ people to aggression?

One I found chilling in a different way was a story I uncovered about police in Israel who have developed a way to get fingerprints off rocks. They want to use the technique to find and prosecute Palestinians, often kids, who throw stones at Israelis. It’s a sad reminder of all the people hurt by that conflict.

I also love finding really weird stuff in out-of-the-way corners of science. I had great fun with  the story of a researcher who set up a re-enactment of da Vinci’s painting of the Mona Lisa using toy figures and posited that the original and a studio copy may have been made as the world’s first experiment in 3-D imaging. No one knew about this guy’s work, and after I broke the story it went nuts.

I imagine you’ve got a pretty thick skin since you’re used to diving into the world of weird. Is there anything that’s too creepy, scary or gross for you to deal with?

You know, it’s funny—there’s a psychology test for how easily disgusted a person is, and I tested out dead average. I’m not especially hard to gross out. Maybe that’s part of the fun; that I have a very normal response to this stuff.

But to answer your question, I have tried to be careful about writing about gory medical conditions, because I don’t want to come across as making light of people’s very real problems. And as for what I’m personally freaked out by, it’s gotta be crocodiles. They populate my nightmares.

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“I took this in Costa Rica, at a bridge where people gather and occasionally throw meat to the crocodiles,” Erika says. “Nightmares for weeks.”