The Loom

Latest Posts

Junk and Jewels in the Genome

In this Sunday’s issue of the New York Times Magazine, I have a feature about clashing visions of the genome. Is it overwhelmingly made up of “junk”–pieces of DNA that provide us with no useful function–or is it rife with functional pieces that we have yet to understand? Or is the reality of the genome […]…

Genius and the Brain

The 92nd St. Y in New York is presenting “Seven Days of Genius” this week. As part of the festivities, the video site Big Think invited me to film a conversation with neuroscientist Heather Berlin about the nature of genius and the origin of creativity in the brain. Here’s the video, which we taped at YouTube […]…

We Are Instant Number Crunchers

If you have ever struggled through a math class, you may not think of numbers as natural. They may seem more like a tool that you have learn how to use, like Excel or a nail gun. And it’s certainly true that numbers pop in the archaeological record just a few thousand years ago, with […]…

Is It Worth Imagining Airborne Ebola?

Back in September, when the West African Ebola outbreak was getting worse with every passing week, a lot of people began to worry that the virus could spread by air. And even if it couldn’t spread by air yet, they worried that it might be on the verge of mutating into an airborne form. When […]…

Parasitic Wasps Infected with Mind-Controlling Viruses

In November, National Geographic put a ladybug and a wasp on its cover. They made for a sinister pair. The wasp, a species called Dinocampus coccinellae, lays an egg inside the ladybug Coleomegilla maculata. After the egg hatches, the wasp larva develops inside the ladybug, feeding on its internal juices. When the wasp ready to develop into […]…

How The Measles Virus Became A Master of Contagion

Here are two recent stories about viruses. They started out alike, and ended up very differently. In October, a woman in Guinea died of Ebola, leaving behind two daughters, one of them two years old, the other five. A relative named Aminata Gueye Tamboura  took the orphaned children back to her home in northwest Mali–a 700-mile journey. […]…

Our Inner Viruses: Forty Million Years In the Making

Each year, billions of people get infected with viruses–with common ones like influenza and cold viruses, and rarer ones like polio and Ebola. The viruses don’t stay all that long inside of us. In most cases, our immune systems wipe them out, except for a few refugees that manage to escape to a new host […]…

The Tumor Within A Tumor

Biologists who study cancer have been borrowing a lot of concepts from evolution in recent years. That’s because the changes that occur inside a tumor bear some striking resemblances to what natural selection does to a population of animals, plants, or bacteria. Evolutionary biologists who study societies–from human tribes to ant colonies–have investigated how cooperation can evolve […]…

Frankenstein Can’t Come Out And Play Today

In the standard Frankenstein story, a scientist creates an unnatural monster that breaks out of the lab and runs amok. But why should unnatural make something unstoppable? The contrary is possible, too. Imagine a different story: Frankenstein’s monster escapes, realizes that it can’t survive in the outside world, and retreats back to the lab. This story […]…

Can the Microbiome Mutiny?

It’s an ugly fact of life that getting old means getting infections. Old people get attacked more by pathogens, and the damage that these germs cause can speed up the aging process, leading to even more infections. The standard explanation for this vulnerability is that the immune system falters in old age, opening an opportunity for pathogens to invade. […]…

Sitting on a Cliff Vs. Falling Off a Cliff

The Steller’s sea cow is gone. This mega-manatee swam the North Pacific for millions of years, and then in the 1700s humans hunted them to extinction. Today on the front page of the New York Times, I write about a warning from a team of scientists that if we keep on doing what we’re doing now–industrializing the ocean and […]…

The common–and fairly awesome–cold virus

Like me, you may be snuffling with a cold today. You’re infected–typically in your nose–with a virus. The dominant cold-causing virusers are known as rhinoviruses, and they’re quite lovely. Here’s I’ve embedded a video of one, which lets you orbit the virus like you’re visiting an alien moon:…

A Very Different Kind of Selfie

Human sexuality is obviously complicated. But it’s a mistake to think that, if you could somehow strip away human culture, sex would get simple. Even if you could find the simplest animal out there with a sex life, you wouldn’t find that imaginary simplicity. This week I’ve written an essay on just such an animal, the […]…

On Genes and Time

You’d be forgiven for calling FTO the “fat gene.” There are two variants of the gene, and in study after study, one of those variants, known as rs993609, is associated with more weight, as well as a much higher risk of obesity. The comparison holds up in different countries, and in different ethnic groups. The […]…

2014: A Storyful Year

Thanks to everyone for sharing a year of science with me over the course of 2014. It was a year of frantic writing, as I tried (and failed) to keep up with all of the new research that expanded my appreciation of the natural world. In addition to blogging here, I wrote my weekly “Matter” columns […]…