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The Sneaky Life of the World’s Most Mysterious Plant

It looks so ordinary, this vine. But it’s not. It is, arguably, the most mysteriously talented, most surprising plant in the world.

Photograph Courtesy of Ernesto Gianoli
Photograph Courtesy of Ernesto Gianoli

It’s called Boquila trifoliolata, and it lives in the temperate rain forests of Chile and Argentina. It does what most vines do—it crawls across the forest floor, spirals up, and hangs onto host plants. Nothing unusual about that.

Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich


But one day a few years ago, Ernesto Gianoli, a plant scientist, came upon a Boquila trifoliolata while walking with a student in the Chilean woods. They stopped, looked, and “then it happened,” Gianoli says. On the forest floor, they could see that the vine’s leaves looked like this, kind of stumpy and roundish:

Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

But once the vine climbed up onto a host tree, its leaves changed shape. Now they looked like this—much longer and narrower:

Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich


Both leaves came off of the same vine, but when the vine changed hosts, its newer, longer leaves matched its new surroundings. In Gianoli’s photograph below, the vine leaves are marked “V” and the tree leaves “T,” for “tree.” As you can see, it’s hard to tell them apart.

Photograph Courtesy of Ernesto Gianoli
Photograph Courtesy of Ernesto Gianoli

It’s almost as if the plant is camouflaging itself, changing shape to resemble its host.

As Gianoli walked along, he kept an eye out for Boquila vines climbing through the forest, grabbing onto tree after bush after tree, and it happened again! What he saw he found “astonishing.”

Photograph Courtesy of Ernesto Gianoli
Photograph Courtesy of Ernesto Gianoli

In this photo, the vine is on a different tree, and this time the tree’s leaves (marked “T”) are rounder, more like flower petals. And the vine (the leaf marked “V”)? Its leaves are now roundish too!

Woody Allen once made a film called Zelig, about a guy who takes on the characteristics of whomever he’s standing next to. The more Gianoli looked, the more Zelig-like this vine became, morphing over and over to look like one different host after another.

As my blog-buddy Ed Yong described it in 2014, when he wrote about this same plant, it has all kinds of moves: “Its versatile leaves can change their size, shape, color, orientation, even the vein patterns to match the surrounding foliage.”

On this tree, for instance …

Photograph Courtesy of Ernesto Gianoli
Photograph Courtesy of Ernesto Gianoli

… the tree leaf is jagged-edged, like a saw blade. (We’ve marked it with a “T.”) Our vine tries to create a zig-zag border (see the leaf marked “V”) and sort of pulls it off. Here’s a case, said Gianoli to Yong, “where Boquila ‘did her best’ and attained some resemblance but did not really meet the goal.”

Good try, though. It’s a crafty little vegetable.

But Why? How Does Mimicry Help This Vine?

The probable answer is that it keeps it from being eaten.

The forest is full of leaf-eaters. Imagine a hungry caterpillar wandering up to a tree:

Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

It loves eating leaves. It might find vine leaves extra tasty. But if our vine is hiding among the many, many leaves of the tree, each vine leaf has a smaller chance of being chewed on.

Or maybe the vine is assuming the shape of leaves that are toxic to the caterpillar. This is called Batesian mimicry, when a harmless species tries to look like a very bad meal.

Whatever the reason, mimicry seems to work. Gianoli and his co-author, Fernando Carrasco-Urra, reported that when the vine is mimicking its neighbors higher up, it gets chewed on less. On the ground, it gets eaten more. But what’s really intriguing about this vine is how it does what it does: It’s been called the “stealth vine” because, like the classified American spy plane, its inner workings are still a secret.

Learning Its Secret…

No plant known to science has been able to mimic a variety of neighbors. There are some—orchids for example—that can copy other flowers, but their range is limited to one or two types. Boquila feels more like a cuttlefish or an octopus; it can morph into at least eight basic shapes. When it glides up a bush or tree that it’s never encountered before, it can still mimic what’s near.

And that’s the wildest part: It doesn’t have to touch what it copies. It only has to be nearby. Most mimicry in the animal kingdom involves physical contact. But this plant can hang—literally hang—alongside a host tree, with empty space between it and its model, and, with no eyes, nose, mouth, or brain, it can “see” its neighbor and copy what it has “seen.”

How Does It Do This?

Gianoli and Carrasco-Urra think perhaps something is going on in the space between the two plants. They imagine that the bush or tree may be emitting airborne chemicals (volatiles) that drift across, like so …

Gif by Robert Krulwich
Gif by Robert Krulwich

… and can be sensed by the vine. How the vine translates chemicals into shapes and then into self-sculpture nobody knows. The signal could be written in light, in scents, or perhaps in a form of gene transfer. It’s a mystery.

“It’s hard for us to grasp that there are … ‘scents’ that we cannot smell, but which plants, noseless and brainless, can,” writes science journalist Richard Mabey in his new book The Cabaret of Plants. It’s against the rules to call a plant “smart” the way we might call a dolphin smart; brainless beings aren’t properly called intelligent. Intellect, we like to think, requires a nervous system like our own, which is an animal thing, except that, as Mabey writes, “[I]n being able to cope with unfamiliar situations, [this vine] is demonstrating the first principle of intelligence.”

Hmmm. A knock, knock, knocking on the animal kingdom’s door? Or do plants have their own secret ways of reckoning, totally unknown to us? If Boquila can do this, surely there are others.

This little vine is sitting on a gigantic secret. I can’t wait to find out what it’s doing, because whatever it is, it’s whispering that plants are far more talented than we’d ever imagined.

To find out more about Boquila trifoliolata, you can start where I did, with Ed Yong’s wonderful post from a couple of years ago, then go on to geneticist Jerry Coyne’s post, which asks a barrage of provocative and stimulating questions, and finish up with Richard Mabey’s short essay in The Cabaret of Plants. Or you can check out the science paper from Gianoli and Carrasco-Urra that started it all.

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Look Up! There’s an Invisible Zombie Highway Right Above You

Step outside on a clear day this summer and look up.

What do you see? Blue. Nothing more. Or so you think.

But surprise! In July and August, an enormous herd of animals is passing directly over our heads. There are so many creatures up there, creatures that are so busy, so athletic, so tiny, so invisible. I’m talking about three to six billion of them every month soaring through the air directly above us. You should meet them. They are insects. High-flying insects. When I read about them in a science paper five years ago (I was at NPR at the time), I made this video, which provides a short introduction:

And now for the update.

It turns out, as you just saw, that the highest flying insect made it to 19,000 feet above sea level. That’s almost the height of Mount McKinley in Alaska. But more recently scientists have found another, even higher zone that’s also home to live critters that soar way, way up—miles higher, to the upper edge of the Earth’s atmosphere.

They are Earthlings that spend days, even weeks, practically in outer space.

What Are They?

According to David J. Smith and his team at the University of Washington and Kostas Konstantinidis and his team at Georgia Tech, there are thousands of species of very small, simple Earth life—bacteria, fungi, viruses—that get swept up by storms and make it to where there’s hardly any oxygen, where the temperatures are fiercely cold, and where they’re no longer protected from solar radiation by the Earth’s ozone layer.

And yet, write Peter Ward and Joe Kirschvink in their new book A New History of Life, most of these microbes will eventually come back down to Earth no worse for wear. They’re teeny. You can’t see them without a microscope. Typically, it would take almost 40,000 of them laid end to end to make it around your thumb.

Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

But there are lots of them up there, so many that Ward and Kirschvink say this zone is becoming “the most newly discovered ecosystem on Earth,” a vast territory (many, many times greater than our oceans) where microbes routinely spend time dancing in the air.

Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

Some bacteria have been in this high zone so regularly or for so long that they’ve adapted to life in the sky. Some species develop pigments that mimic sunscreen; some, says the New York Times, feed only on cloud water; and some can reproduce within clouds.

Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

Scientists call this new family of creatures-in-the-sky “high life,” and it is a biological zone with its own rules. Up there is not like down here.

How Do They Survive Up There?

For one thing, scientists differ about how microbes at the upper end of the zone stay alive. When deoxygenated and freezing, do they slow way, way down like a hibernating bear? Or do they go dormant and essentially suspend their lives until they return? Or, as Ward and Kirschvink suggest, do they spend a brief period being dead?


This is one of the most provocative passages in Ward and Kirschvink’s book. “Most of us would agree,” they write, “that for mammals, and perhaps all animals, dead is dead.” You don’t come back from “dead.” But then they go on:

“… in simpler life, such is not the case. It turns out that there is a vast new place to be explored between our traditional understanding of what is alive and what is not.”

What if, in this new airy realm high above the planet, there could be “a place in between,” where bacteria might take wing, arrive in that freezing, irradiated zone, lose their life-giving machinery, and then, somehow, on the trip back down, build it back again?

Ward and Kirschvink are both well-respected senior scientists. Ward studies mass extinctions, Kirschvink magnetofossils. Neither is given to overstatement, which is why when I hit this line in their book, I put down my copy, stared out the window and thought, What?

How can anything be undead?

In the chapter I was reading, Ward and Kirschvink explore how life came to be four billion years ago. They suggest that instead of a single Genesis-like event (a bag of inert chemicals suddenly sparks into living chemistry), maybe “in the beginning,” chemistry switched back and forth, sometimes alive (on), sometimes not (off), and maybe, just maybe, in the simplest creatures, this may still be a habit—in fact, it may be happening to this day. Very simple creatures high in the sky, they say, might be alive, then not, then alive again, or as they put it:

“Life, simple life at least, is not always alive.”

Woah! This is a new idea to me. I tried to talk more with Peter Ward, but he’s in Papua New Guinea doing ocean research in a dugout canoe and doesn’t have a good internet connection, and Kirschvink is not answering email at Caltech, where he teaches. But I’m curious: Have any of you readers bumped into this notion? Life de-animating, then reanimating? It seems wonderfully preposterous—and very intriguing.

Let me know …

Peter Ward and Joe Kirschvinck’s new book “A New History of Life: The Radical New Discoveries About the Origins and Evolution of Life on Earth” goes after the hardest questions in life’s history, how did we begin, how simple life grew more complex, the origin of sex; they attack these puzzles carefully, feasting on the latest and especially the wildest research, so if you want an up-to-date primer guaranteed to keep your inner-college-sophomore up all night arguing, binging on ideas, going “no way”—this is a pretty good book. I also relied on David Montgomery and Anne Bikle’s “The Hidden Half of Nature, The Microbial Roots of Life and Health,” to get my head around itty bitty bits of life, the fungi, the bacteria, the archaea, the viruses, the protists. Their book took me into intestines, soil, and, yes, to the sky. It comes out in November. Also, my artist for the video, Benjamin Arthur, is about the most elegant, sly, multi-talented illustrator around; give him a tale, he’ll give you a perfect look to tell it with. Each of our ventures has a completely different visual style. Check out Why Can’t We Walk Straight? Last year he even turned in a piece (not with me, alas) on microbes. You can find it here.

Editor’s Note: This post has been updated to correctly reflect the spelling of Anne Bikle’s name.

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What Do Snails Think About When Having Sex?

It starts with a light, soft touch, one tentacle gently reaching out, hesitant, hopeful, hanging lightly in the air. There’s a pause. Skin touches skin. One softly strokes the other and slides closer, and then, carefully, they wrap themselves together, stroking, probing, entwining. They glisten as they move, and because they are snails, everything happens very slowly. The rubbing, the rapture, the intensity of it all—snail sex is extraordinarily lovely to look at. (If you aren’t at your office desk or on a train where people can see your screen, I’ve got one about a garden snail named Chip who’s trying to lose his virginity, or take a quick peek—30 seconds will do—of this coupling in a garden.)

Lovely but So Dangerous

Garden snails make love in the open—on garden patios, in clearings on the forest floor—and they do it luxuriantly for one, two, three hours at a time, under the sky, where they can be seen by jays, orioles, frogs, snakes, shrews, mice, beetles, and other animals that might want to eat them. Snails can’t make quick getaways, so exposing themselves like this is dangerous, crazily dangerous. What’s going on? What’s making them so impervious, so deeply preoccupied with each other? Here’s one answer: Snail sex is very complicated. Snails have a lot to think about when they make love—because they’re hermaphrodites.

Unlike you, garden snails can produce sperm like males and carry eggs like females at the same time.

Drawing of a proud snail, with its hands on its shell hips
Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

Which is both an advantage and a problem. Professor David George Haskell, a Tennessee biologist, once squatted down on a patch of forest floor and watched what you just saw in that video—a snail couple going at it—except with a magnifying glass and only a few feet from the action. What he noticed was their mood. Hot as it was, he writes in his book The Forest Unseen, “Their extended courtship and copulation is choreographed like cautious diplomacy.” Snails don’t pounce, they circle. They “slowly edge into position, always ready to pull back or realign.” Their sex is tense, charged, on, off, then on again, “a prenuptial conference over the terms of the union.” What are they negotiating about?

In most animals, snails included, sperm is plentiful, cheap to produce, and fun to unload. So one presumes that both copulating snails are eager to get that part done.

A drawing of two snails, both looking at each other with thought bubble exclamation points above their heads
Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

Eggs, on the other hand, are limited and hard to produce—and therefore precious. You don’t let just anybody fertilize your egg sack. So, in Haskell’s imagination, if one of these snails picks up “a whiff of disease” on the other, it may be happy to poke but is not at all interested in being poked. No one wants its precious eggs fertilized by a sick dad, so the receiving snail might lock its partner out of its opening while also trying to penetrate it. This could produce feelings of frustration, confusion, and even unfairness in the other.

A drawing of two snails looking at each other, one with an exclamation mark thought bubble and one with an X through an exclamation mark thought bubble
Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

“In hermaphrodites,” writes Haskell, “mating becomes fraught, with each individual being cautious about receiving sperm while simultaneously trying to inseminate its partner.” Sexually speaking, two snails with four minds—a foursome in a twosome—makes for complex fornication. That’s why snails are always on tiptoe, Haskell thought as he watched them on the forest floor: They have so much to figure out.

Picture of a brown snail peering its head around to the side
Photograph by © Tetra Images / Alamy
Photograph by © Tetra Images / Alamy

Hermaphrodite Abundance

So why be a hermaphrodite? Are there a lot of them? Well, here’s a surprise: They’re everywhere.

Eighty percent of the plant kingdom produces both seeds (pollen) and eggs (ovules) and can give or receive, making them hermaphroditic. They’ve learned that when the weather gets wet or cold, bees can’t be depended upon to buzz by and pollinate, so they have a we-can-do-this-ourselves backup plan.

Animals, generally speaking, are sexual, divided into male and female. But, writes Stanford biology professor Joan Roughgarden in her book The Genial Gene, if you subtract insects, which make up more than 75 percent of the animal kingdom and are not hermaphrodites, we are left, she calculates, “ … with a figure of 1/3 hermaphrodite species among all animal species.” That’s a hunk of hermaphrodites.

So Who’s a Hermaphrodite?

They’re not animals we pay much attention to (flukes, flatworms, killifish, parrot fish, moray eels, barnacles, slugs, earthworms, and tapeworms, among many others), but they are switch-hitters: They can either give or receive or switch sides during their lifetime. “All in all,” writes Roughgarden, “across all the plants and animals combined, the number of species that are hermaphroditic is more-or-less tied with the number who has separate males and females, and neither arrangement of sexual packaging can be viewed as the ‘norm.’”

Anyone who thinks that male/female is nature’s preference isn’t looking at nature, says Roughgarden. And she goes further.

Adam and Eve or AdamEve?

She wonders, Which came first, the hermaphrodite or the male/female? We have lived so long with the Adam and Eve story—Adam first, Adam alone, Adam seeking a mate, God providing Eve—that the question seems almost silly: Of course complex animals started with males and females.

Painting of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, Eve is offering Adam an apple
Adam and Eve, 1537 (panel), Cranach, Lucas, the Elder (1472-1553) / Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria / Bridgeman Images
Adam and Eve, 1537 (panel), Cranach, Lucas, the Elder (1472-1553) / Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria / Bridgeman Images

But Roughgarden wonders if animals started as hermaphrodites …

Composite of Adam and Eve painting, creating one person
Composite image of Adam and Eve created by Becky Harlan from original paintings by Lucas Cranach © [Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels / photo : Guy Cussac, Brussels]
Composite image of Adam and Eve created by Becky Harlan from original paintings by Lucas Cranach © [Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels / photo : Guy Cussac, Brussels]

… and then “hermaphrodite bodies disarticulate[d] into separate male and female bodies?” How would that have happened? Roughgarden cites a paper she did with her colleague Priya Iyer.

They propose that maybe the earliest animals started out as both sperm and egg carriers, and a subgroup got especially good at inserting their penises into enclosures, aiming, and directing the sperm to its target (the authors call it “home delivery”). They did this so effectively that they needed fewer and fewer eggs and essentially became sperm sharpshooters or, as we call them now, “males.”

That development gave others a chance to give up sperm altogether to concentrate on chambering their eggs in nurturing nooks, thereby becoming “females,” and so more and more animals found it advantageous to be gendered.

Ayer and Roughgarden aren’t sure this happened. They say that, on available evidence, the story can go “in either direction.”

The alternate view is almost the story you know. It’s Adam and Eve, with a twist: In the beginning, early animals were gendered—except when it was inconvenient.

If, for example, you imagine a group of, well, let’s make them snails …

Drawing of a group of snails standing in front of a volcano erupting
Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

… and something awful happens—there’s a terrible disease, an ice age, a new ferocious predator, or maybe a volcanic eruption…..

Drawing of a snail all alone after the fallout of a volcanic eruption, standing in front of a volcano puffing smoke
Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

… so that we’re left looking at a lone individual, all by itself, looking around for a reproductive opportunity, crawling across the landscape, hoping to bump into somebody, anybody, to reproduce with, and after a long, long, anxious period, it finally sees what it’s been looking for. It crawls closer, closer, the excitement building.

Drawing of a snail in a vast and sunny landscape seeing another tiny snail in the distance
Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

But as it gets within wooing range, it suddenly sees that—oh, no—it’s the same gender!

A drawing of two snails with moustaches
Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

No possibility of babymaking here. And this happens half of the time. (Statistically, that’s the likelihood.) Now instead of being your friend, male/femaleness is your enemy. What wouldn’t you give for a hermaphrodite, a he/she snail that could, in a pinch, be whatever sex you need it to be. With a hermaphrodite, you can (again statistically) always make a baby. What a relief. So maybe that’s what happened. Gender difference disappears when gender no longer helps produce more babies (and when you don’t have to stick around and be a parent).

Which is the true story? We don’t know. Maybe the only story is that nature is flexible. When gender is useful, you get genders. When not, you don’t. What we forget, being humans, is that there are so many ways to flirt, to combine, to make babies—and the world is full of wildly different ways to woo. Tony Hoagland knows this. He’s not a scientist but a poet who lives in New Mexico, and in his poem entitled “Romantic Moment,” he imagines a boy on a date who sits next to his girl imagining … How shall I put this? … how the Other Guys do it.

Romantic Moment by Tony Hoagland

After the nature documentary we walk down,
into the plaza of art galleries and high end clothing stores

where the mock orange is fragrant in the summer night
and the smooth adobe walls glow fleshlike in the dark.

It is just our second date, and we sit down on a rock,
holding hands, not looking at each other,

and if I were a bull penguin right now I would lean over
and vomit softly into the mouth of my beloved

and if I were a peacock I’d flex my gluteal muscles to
erect and spread the quills of my cinemax tail.

If she were a female walkingstick bug she might
insert her hypodermic proboscis delicately into my neck

and inject me with a rich hormonal sedative
before attaching her egg sac to my thoracic undercarriage,

and if I were a young chimpanzee I would break off a nearby tree limb
and smash all the windows in the plaza jewelry stores.

And if she was a Brazilian leopard frog she would wrap her impressive
tongue three times around my right thigh and

pummel me lightly against the surface of our pond
and I would know her feelings were sincere.

Instead we sit awhile in silence, until
she remarks that in the relative context of tortoises and iguanas,

human males seem to be actually rather expressive.
And I say that female crocodiles really don’t receive

enough credit for their gentleness.
Then she suggests that it is time for us to go

to get some ice cream cones and eat them.

Thanks to the poet Thomas Dooley for suggesting Tony Hoagland’s poem, and to Mr. Hoagland for giving us permission to print it here in full. Reading “Romantic Moment” I giggled a little to think of eating ice cream on a sugar cone as a homo sapien mating ritual—but thinking back, I think he’s onto something. The poem can be found in Tony Hoagland’s collection Hard Rain.

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Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head: A Mosquito’s Lament

This, in case you were wondering, is a mosquito.

Picture of a drawing of a mosquito
Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

This is a raindrop.

Picture of a drawing of a blue raindrop
Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

And here’s a puzzle. Raindrops aren’t mosquito friendly. If you’re a mosquito darting about on a rainy day, those drops zinging down at you can be, first of all, as big as you are, and, more dangerously, they’re denser. Water is heavy, so a single raindrop might have 50 times your mass, which means that if one hits you smack where it hurts (between your wings) …

Picture of a mosquito being hit by a drop of water
Photograph by Tim Nowack
Photograph by Tim Nowack

… you should flatten like a pancake. A study says a mosquito being hit by a raindrop is roughly the equivalent of a human being whacked by a school bus, the typical bus being about 50 times the mass of a person. And worse, when it’s raining hard, each mosquito should expect to get smacked, grazed, or shoved by a raindrop every 25 seconds. So rain should be dangerous to a mosquito. And yet (you probably haven’t looked, but trust me), when it’s raining those little pains in the neck are happily darting about in the air, getting banged—and they don’t seem to care. Raindrops, for some reason, don’t bother them.

Picture of a drawing of mosquitos flying through the air, dodging large blue raindrops
Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

Why not? Why aren’t the mosquitoes getting smooshed?

How Mosquitoes Survive Raindrops

Well, in 2012 David Hu, a professor of mechanical engineering at Georgia Tech, became interested in this problem and decided to pelt some airborne laboratory mosquitoes with water droplets while filming them with a high-speed camera—4,000 to 6,000 frames a second instead of the usual 24. That way he could watch them in super slow motion and figure out what they’re doing when they’re out in the rain. He published his findings in a 2012 paper that I’m going to describe here in “executive summary” form. (His video, by the way, is waiting for you below, so you can see what he saw for yourself.)

What he found is that most of the time anopheles mosquitoes don’t play dodgeball with the raindrops. They do get hit but usually off center, on their long gangly legs, which splay out in six directions. The raindrop can set them rolling and pitching, but they recover quickly—within a hundredth of a second. But even in the worst case, where the mosquito gets slammed right between the wings—a dead-on collision, because the mosquito is so light compared to the heavy raindrop …

Picture of a drawing of a mosquito clinging onto a falling raindrop as it descends through the air
Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

… it doesn’t offer much resistance, and the raindrop just barrels along with the mosquito suddenly on board as a passenger. Had the raindrop slammed into a bigger, slightly heavier animal, like a dragonfly, the raindrop would “feel” the collision and lose momentum. The raindrop might even break apart because of the impact, and force would transfer from the raindrop to the insect’s exoskeleton, rattling the animal to death.

But because our mosquito is oh-so-light, the raindrop moves on, unimpeded, and hardly any force is transferred. All that happens is that our mosquito is suddenly scooped up by the raindrop and finds itself hurtling toward the ground at a velocity of roughly nine meters per second, an acceleration which can’t be very comfortable, because it puts enormous pressure on the insect’s body, up to 300 gravities worth, says professor Hu.

Picture of a drawing of a mosquito inside a raindrop, falling through the air
Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

300 Gs is a crazy amount of pressure. Eric Olsen, at his blog at Scientific American, says a jet pilot accelerating out of a loop-de-loop experiences “only about nine gravities (88/m/squared).” One imagines his cheeks all splayed, his face squishy, but hey, that’s a soft-skinned human. We’ve got mosquitoes here. Their heads are harder. They have exoskeletons. Sudden accelerations don’t hurt as much, but what mosquitoes should fear, what they do fear, are crash landings. The ground is a lot harder than a mosquito.

Picture of a drawing of a mosquito being squished by a large blue raindrop
Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

So what a mosquito has to do is get off that raindrop as quickly as possible. And here comes the best part: In most direct hits, Hu and colleagues write, the insect is carried five to 20 body lengths downward, and then, rather gracefully—maybe helped by a dense layer of wax-coated, water-repellent hairs—gets up and “walks” to the side, then steps off into the air, almost like a schoolchild getting off of a bus (albeit a fast-moving bus hurtling toward its doom). It does this almost matter-of-factly, like it’s no big deal. A mosquito, Hu writes, “is always able to laterally separate itself from the drop and recover its flight.” Always. (Unless the raindrop hits them too close to the ground.) If you want to see this for yourself, take a look at Hu’s video.

Video by David Hu and Andrew Dickerson

The moral here, should we need one, is that if you’re a mosquito on a rainy day, the place to be is high off the ground, and if you’re a human who worries about mosquito safety (not a big group, I know), you can move on. They solved this one roughly 90 million years ago.

Picture of a drawing of a mosquito with its arm around a raindrop, as though they were friends
Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich
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George Washington’s Oh-So-Mysterious Hair

That hair you’ve seen so many times on the dollar bill? That hair he’s got crossing the Delaware, standing by a cannon, riding a horse in those paintings? His hair on the quarter? On all those statues? The hair we all thought was a wig? Well, it wasn’t a wig. “Contrary to a common belief,” writes biographer Ron Chernow in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington: A Life, George Washington “never wore a wig.”

I’m stunned.

Illustration of George Washington on a quarter
Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton
Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton

Turns out, that hair was his. All of it—the pigtail, the poofy part in the back, that roll of perfect curls near his neck. What’s more (though you probably already guessed this), he wasn’t white-haired. There’s a painting of him as a young man, with Martha and her two children, that shows his hair as reddish brown, which Chernow says was his true color.

Picture of a painting of George Washington with Martha Washington and her two children
The Courtship of Washington, John C. McRae, 1860 Image Courtesy of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association

The whiteness was an effect. Washington’s hairstyle was carefully constructed to make an impression. It wasn’t a sissyish, high-society cut. It was, back in the 1770s and 1780s, a military look, something soldiers or want-to-be soldiers did to look manly. “However formal it looks to modern eyes,” Chernow writes, “the style was favored by military officers.”

Illustration of George Washington in profile, emphasizing his long hair, which is down in this illustration
Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton
Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton

Think of this as the 18th-century equivalent of a marine buzz cut. In Washington’s time, the toughest soldiers in Europe, officers in the Prussian Army, fixed their hair this way. It was called a queue. British officers did it too. So did British colonials in America.

Here’s how it worked. Washington grew his hair long, so that it flowed back toward his shoulders.

Illustration of George Washington in profile, showing his hair being gathered before putting it into a ponytail
Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton
Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton

Then he’d pull it firmly back, broadening the forehead to give him, Chernow writes in his biography, “an air of martial nobility.” The more forehead, the better. Nowadays we notice chins. But not then. Foreheads conveyed force, power.

The look was achieved with appropriate muscularity. In the British Army a tough hair yank was a rite of passage for young officers; it was common to yank really hard.

Illustration of George Washington in profile, showing his hair being pulled backwards before being put into a ponytail
Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton
Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton

A military journalist, Joachim Hayward Stocqueler, describes a British soldier from that time who says his hair and skin was pulled so fiercely, he didn’t think he’d be able to close his eyelids afterward.

Once gathered at the back, hair was braided or sometimes just tied at the neck by a strap or, on formal occasions, a ribbon. Washington would occasionally bunch his ponytail into a fine silk bag, where it would bob at the back of his head.

Illustration of George Washington in profile, showing his hair tied in a bow
Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton
Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton

Then he would turn to his side hairs, which he “fluffed out,” writes Chernow, “into twin projecting wings, furthering the appearance of a wig.” George Washington “fluffing out”? That’s such an odd image. Artist Wendy MacNaughton, my partner in crime, sees it this way:

Illustration of George Washington in profile, emphasizing his curled hair
Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton
Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton

You should close your eyes and see him fluffling in your own way.

Next question: How did those side curls stay curled? Betty Myers, master wigmaker at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, wrote to me that it was common to grease one’s hair with pomade. Oily hair helped. We don’t know how often Washington shampooed, but the less he showered, the firmer his fluffs.

And now, to the whiteness. Washington’s hair wasn’t splotchy. It was like a snow-covered mountain, evenly white. This was accomplished by sprinkling a fine powder on the head. There were lots of powders to choose from, writes Myers, including “talcum powder, starch, ground orris root, rice powder, chalk, [or] even plaster of paris …” Washington probably used a finely milled (expensive) product, which was applied, cloud-like, to his head. To keep from gagging in a powder fog, it was common to cover the face with a cone of coiled paper, like this:

Illustration of George Washington covering his face with a cone while he powders his hair
Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton
Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton

The powder was sometimes applied with a handheld bellows. An attendant would pump a cloud of powder from a small nozzle and let it settle on the hair. But Washington, says biographer Ron Chernow, would dip a puff, a snakelike bunch of silk striplings—into a powder bag, then do a quick shake over his bent head. Maybe a slave would do this for him. When being powdered, it was traditional to wear a “powdering robe,” basically a large towel tied around the neck, to keep from being doused.

Picture of a drawing of a woman having her wig powdered
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Circa 1750, A political cartoon entitled 'The English Lady in Paris, an Essay on Puffing by Louis le Grande', showing a seated old lady having her wig powdered by a nasty looking Frenchman. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Which leaves one last puzzle. Washington was a careful, self-conscious dresser. When he appeared at the first Continental Congress, he was the only important delegate to wear a military costume, choosing, Chernow writes, the “blue uniforms with buff facings and white stockings” of the Virginia citizen militia while adding his own “silk sash, gorgets, [and] epaulettes.” Later, he’s described dancing at balls in black velvet. So if Washington liked dark clothes, how’d he keep the powder from showing? The man would have been covered in dandruff-like sprinkles. (Editor’s Note: One of our readers, Mike Whybark, shared a painting that makes me wonder … Maybe his shoulders did look a little snowed-on.) Myers, the wig scholar, says that’s why Washington bunched his ponytail into a silk bag, to keep from leaving a white windshield wiper splay of powder on his back when he was dancing with the ladies (which he liked to do). As for keeping the powder off one’s shoulders, how Washington did that—if he did do that—nobody could tell me. Probably every powder-wearing guy in the 1760s knew the secret, but after a couple of centuries, whatever Washington did to stay spotless is lost to us.

Illustration of George Washington, on the left, with white powder on his houlders, and on the right without white powder on his shoulders
Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton
Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton

We can stare all we like at his shoulders and wonder, but the truth is, there are some things about our first president we may never, ever know.

Illustration of George Washington winking with his hair perfectly fixed
Illustration by
Wendy MacNaughton
Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton

Wendy MacNaughton draws people, cats, bottles, scenes, faces, places. If, totally out of the blue, I call her and say, “Can you imagine Leonardo da Vinci’s personal notebook or George Washington getting his hair done?” she just giggles and draws. And a week later, I’m doing a happy dance. If you want to see what she’s up to right now, you’ll find more of her work here. And if you enjoy presidential hair stories, here’s the other Big Guy, Abe Lincoln, on a day in 1857 when he clearly lost his comb. Hairstylists shouldn’t look—it’s too scary.

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Happy Thanksgiving! A Turkey Leg Repost

I’ve got a nasty cold this week, so I’m serving up an old post. But it’s a fun one! I wrote this story for Thanksgiving three years ago, and it’s just as fun and topical as ever. Hope all of you fellow Americans enjoy today’s feast!


This story is so kooky that I must lead with the video:

This slow-motion film stars turkeys of different ages, from hatchlings to adults, and yes, they’re furiously climbing a steep wooden ramp. The video comes from a study published earlier this month. But let me start at the beginning.

In January 2004, nine Australian brush turkeys were minding their own business in the Barossa Valley when a couple of researchers scooped them up in great big nets.

The scientists, visiting from the Flight Laboratory of the University of Montana-Missoula, wanted to find out how the birds’ locomotor performance changes as they grow up.

So every three days for the next two weeks, they weighed the birds, measured their wingspan, photographed them, and finally placed them at the bottom of a ramp — 6 inches wide, 6.5 feet long and, to maximize traction, “covered in a 30-grit sandpaper covered with rubber carpet backing and fine hardware cloth”. They set the ramp at different angles — from horizontal to 110 degrees (that’s 20 degrees past vertical) — and the turkeys ascended it as best they could. They didn’t even need a running start.

(I, too, wondered why birds would so eagerly run up a ramp. Turns out that many types of gamefoul evolved to do so in order to escape from predators and retreat to elevated roosts, as one of the Montana researchers, Kenneth Dial, first reported in Science in 2003.)

The researchers videotaped the turkeys scooting up the ramps and later categorized each attempt as either: success without slipping; slipping (occasional foot slips, but eventually getting there); treadmilling (running in place on the ramp with no forward progress); or failure (sliding backwards or giving up).

As you saw in the video, the youngest turkeys cleared the steepest slopes: 2-day-olds successfully climbed the 110 degree ramp, whereas the adults began to slip around 50 degrees.

So what gives? Well, in the wild, Australian brush turkeys are fiercely hunted when they’re young: just 15 percent survive the first three weeks. Also, young birds colonize new terrains and thus fly much more than adults do. The authors hypothesize that the youngest turkeys depend on forelimb (wing) strength, which helps them carry out these exquisite climbing feats. As they get older and larger, the turkeys develop stronger hindlimbs that allow them to out-run predators and build hefty (13,000 pounds!) nests, but make it much more difficult to scramble up trees.

All of the turkeys survived the ordeal and were eventually returned to their beloved brush.


Image of the Australian brush turkey courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

This post was originally published on The Last Word on Nothing

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Cells That Don’t Belong

Several years ago, biologist Thea Tlsty’s team at the University of California, San Francisco, was studying wound cells in breast tissue. These are adult cells that divide furiously in response to injury, helping to replace those that were damaged. The typical wound cell in the breast has the ability to turn into different kinds of breast cells, each specialized for a different role in the tissue, such as producing milk. But Tlsty’s team stumbled on a subset of repair cells that could do much, much more.

This tiny subset, making up just 1 out of every 10,000 cells in the breast, are pluripotent, meaning that they can be chemically coaxed to turn into a wide range of other cells. “Cells that we could get in the breast, they can make neurons, they can make beating heart cells, they can make bone, cartilage, fat, blood vessel cells — it was amazing,” Tlsty says.

Tlsty published these findings earlier this year, and I just wrote about them for Smithsonian Magazine. The work is exciting because the new stem cells could be used as therapies for a host of diseases, from diabetes to Parkinson’s. But it hasn’t been replicated yet, and until that happens, many scientists aren’t ready to believe it. Why? Because if the study is true, it means that one of biology’s central dogmas is wrong.

“Everybody thought that pluripotency was a condition that went away after you formed your whole body,” Tlsty says. “Because otherwise, why wouldn’t you have an eyeball forming in the middle of your back, right? Or a toenail growing out of your forehead?”

Good point. As it turns out, though, there have been a handful of examples of cells cropping up in tissues where they don’t belong. Tlsty cited a few medical case reports in her paper, and I looked them up. I don’t know if they necessarily bolster her argument, but they’re certainly weird and fascinating.

One of the most common examples of misplaced cells seems to be livers. They grow all over the place. The first reported case, in 1922, described a liver growing on a gallbladder. Since then doctors have found other livers in gallbladders (like the one pictured above), as well as in the thoracic cavity, pancreas, esophagus, and on adrenal glands sitting atop the kidneys. A recent review finds 74 so-called ectopic livers reported in the medical literature, and offers no explanation.

Then there are the errant bones. Take a 2005 report of an 85-year-old woman in the U.K. who went to the doctor for bowel troubles. For a month, she had experienced alternating diarrhea and constipation. The doctors had no idea what it could be, so they peered inside her large intestine. They found a 1.5-centimeter pale brown polyp and sent it to the lab for testing. And what was that polyp? A piece of bone. In her colon. Why was it there? Unclear. Similarly, last year, researchers from India described a 16-year-old girl who couldn’t see out of her right eye. The vision loss had started six years earlier, when she suffered “accidental trauma by fist of hand.” Surgeons removed the eye and, a few weeks later, gave her an artificial one. When they analyzed the damaged eye in the lab, they found pieces of adult bone, with marrow and all.

Just one more and then I’ll stop, promise. In 2007, researchers from Japan reported the case of an 11-year-old girl with a brain tumor. She had had the mass since birth and her doctors had been watching it closely throughout her childhood. By age 11, she needed surgery to remove it. Later, researchers analyzed the dissected tissue. And it was totally weird. As one study put it: “The initial histological analysis demonstrated a tumor growing out of what appeared to be nearly normal looking pancreas.” Pancreas. In her brain.

“Pathologists have known for a long time that sometimes the body makes mistakes,” Tlsty says. Her newly discovered stem cells might explain why, or they might not. Either way, it makes me wonder about my own eyes and gut and brain, and all of the misfit cells that may be lurking inside.

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Why Do Babies Twitch in Their Sleep? (Adorable Video Edition)

When I brought my puppy home last August, I knew he would be fun to play with. I had no idea how entertaining he would be when asleep. He dozed constantly, and more often than not, his whole body — legs, tail, lips, eyes, ears — would twitch. This isn’t a quirk of canines. Sleep twitching happens to “literally every mammal that has been looked at”, says Mark Blumberg, a psychology professor at the University of Iowa. Dogs, cats, rats, ferrets, sheep, squirrels — they all twitch. Even whales twitch their flippers. “I have YouTube videos of a guy who recorded his girlfriend’s toes when they twitched,” Blumberg says.

Speaking of videos…(the first one is Blumberg’s dog, Katy):

I undoubtedly spent too much time in the past couple of days doing YouTube searches for twitching babies. What’s funny about many of these videos is the commentary of those behind the camera. They tend to say one of two things: “OMG, look at that spaz!” or, “Awww, he’s dreaming.” And that’s how sleep researchers have traditionally thought of twitches, too, according to Blumberg.

“The sleep field really started off in many ways as an offshoot of Freudian psychoanalysis and the study of dreams,” Blumberg says. “People see these movements and they think, ‘Oh, Fido is chasing rabbits in his dreams.’ But it turns out that that’s almost certainly not the case.” In an engaging new review in Current Biology, Blumberg argues that these sleep twitches actually have an indispensible purpose: to teach a newborn what all of its limbs and muscles can do, and how to use them in concert to interact with the big, wide world.

The first big study to propose this idea was published more than 40 years ago in Science. Howard Roffwarg, then director of the Sleep Laboratory at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, described the behaviors and brain-wave patterns of newborn human babies as they sleep. He noted that a newborn spends “one-third of its entire existence” in a REM state, with intense brain activity and continuous muscle contractions.

“Grimaces, whimpers, smiles, twitches of the face and extremities are interspersed with gross shifts of position of the limbs,” Roffwarg wrote. “There are frequent 10- to 15-second episodes of tonic, athetoid writhing of the torso, limbs, and digits.” Since newborns can barely see, the idea that these spasms are useless byproducts of their dreams is unlikely, he added. What if, instead, twitches play a key role in the development of the nervous system?

That paper has been cited more than 1,000 times, but it took awhile to percolate*. A decade ago, two big Nature papers reinvigorated the idea that sleep twitches are important, Blumberg says. In the first, Swedish scientists reported that in young rats, spontaneous muscle twitches during sleep help program the cells in the spinal cord to carry out the withdrawal reflex. In the second paper, a French group showed that sleep twitches in newborn rats trigger patterned bursts of neuronal firing that are known to be important for motor coordination. Blumberg’s own experiments have found similar things; last year, for example, he reported that newborn rats twitch their whiskers frequently during sleep, and that these twitches drive certain bursts of activity in several brain regions.

Blumberg uses nifty high-speed video to precisely track the jerky movements of baby rats as they fall asleep. He doesn’t use any anesthesia in these experiments, so I asked him how he manages to get the animals to fall asleep on command. “The hard part is keeping them awake!” he said. Turns out newborn rats cycle from asleep to awake every 10 to 30 seconds. The cycle: They wake up, stretch, yawn, kick, and lift their head around. After about five seconds, they suddenly go limp, with no movement other than breathing. Then individual twitches begin — a limb here, tail there. “Then it starts to build, and almost starts to get this real powerful look of epilepsy to it,” Blumberg says. Then they wake up and it starts all over again.

Here are a couple of Blumberg’s videos. The one on the left shows the movements in real time; the one on the right is in slow-motion:


To the naked eye, the movements seem random. But Blumberg’s experiments have shown that the flailing is actually quite ordered in space and time. For example, when an animal brings its right elbow in toward its shoulder, there’s a high probability that the left elbow will immediately follow in the same pattern. Similarly, on the same limb, if the shoulder moves in toward the body, there’s a high probability that the elbow would then flex. Blumberg suspects that these predictable couplings are building blocks that help the developing motor system learn more complex behaviors.

“The brain is trying to understand, what are my limbs, how many do I have, and how many joints, and muscles, and how do they all move together?” he says. Once these simple commands are learned, he continues, the brain can use them to learn more complex sequences. “So that later, you can fire off a command somewhere in your mind, and generate a whole series of joint movements that would bring a bottle to your mouth, or make it possible to step.”

Nobody knows for sure how to read this code — that is, how any particular pattern of twitches leads to a specific complex behavior. But Blumberg says the future of figuring this out is with robots. Researchers can design computer simulations of simple neural networks, program in some random muscle contractions, and see what kinds of circuit patterns emerge. For example, roboticists Hugo Gravato Marques and Fumiya Iida of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (who co-authored the new review) have used such simulations to show that twitches help form the spinal cord’s withdrawal reflex — a neat confirmation of the earlier Nature paper. In the future, the robots will get more sophisticated, modeling twitches in multiple joints and multiple limbs, Blumberg says. “These feedback loops all have to be integrated and mapped, and it’s a very difficult thing to study in an animal.”

I asked Blumberg how the rest of the sleep field has responded to these ideas. He said he had just been to a big sleep conference in Baltimore and that, for the most part, sleep researchers still aren’t giving much thought to development. “I can’t tell you how many people have theories about sleep, and they all want to have a grand theory of sleep.” Some people think sleep is for memory consolidation, others that it’s for pruning synapses, or conserving energy, or even just limiting the time we have to make stupid decisions and put ourselves in danger.

But for Blumberg, the question, What is sleep for? is just as silly as, What is being awake for? Just as being awake is a good state for eating, drinking, and reproducing, perhaps sleep just happens to be the best time for consolidating memories, saving energy, and learning motor patterns. “What we have to come up with is the reason why sleep is so conducive for all of those things.”


Blumberg wrote a comprehensive historical review of the idea in Frontiers in Neurology 

You can read about other scientists using biological principles to build robots in my 2011 feature in New Scientist

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On the Road

Some sad-yet-happy news: I’m leaving the people of LWON. Next week I’m launching my own blog at a new network hosted by National Geographic. I’ll be sharing a web neighborhood with some amazing writers (and they’ll post their own announcements soon). My blog, called Only Human, will be all about people — our genes, cells, brains, behaviors, history and culture.

The move has prompted me to reflect on the last two-plus years of my contributions here at LWON. I wrote some posts that turned out to be unexpectedly controversial, cathartic, and popular. I experimented in cartoony multimedia. My voice matured, maybe, and word counts swelled, definitely.

My favorite posts are the quirky detective stories, like how to find out whether Napoleon is really buried in Napoleon’s tomb, or what disease killed Chopin, or in what country a mouse hopped aboard an otherwise sterile container ship.

In that spirit, I leave you with an offbeat tale about the Silk Road, Marco Polo, lamb fetuses, paleo-proteomics and a very old bible.

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Conan’s Umwelt: How a Dog Sniffs


This is my puppy, Conan, and the reason I’ve been buying a lot of dog books. For those of you who’ve never had the pleasure, dog books are for skimming, not reading. They’re hokey, repetitive, poorly written and peppered with pseudoscience. But Friday I found an exception: Inside of a Doga fascinating, science-rich story of how dogs think and perceive the world.

Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. The author, Alexandra Horowitz, worked for the New Yorker before becoming a scientist specializing in canine cognition. Unlike the other books, which focus on how to make a dog do what you want, this one asks, what does a dog want to do, and why?

Early on, Horowitz introduces German biologist Jakob von Uexküll and his concept of umwelt. The word translates to ‘environment’ or ‘surroundings’. The concept is that two animals can share the same environment but experience it quite differently.

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Why More Scientists Should Tell Stories

Scientists aren’t very good at telling stories.

That’s a generalization, but true. I’m constantly cajoling scientists to tell me the story — hell, any story, any anecdote, any remotely narrative nugget — of their work. More scientists than you’d expect are good at simplifying a complicated technology or theory into layman’s terms. And many are good, sometimes too good, at distilling years of research into a few “bottom line” bullet points. But the scientist who tells a real story — where people do things in some kind of compelling sequence and ultimately arrive at something new — is rare.

So rare that last week I paid $10.70 to hear a few at an event called The Story Collider. Every month, half a dozen people take the stage in the basement of a popular Brooklyn bar. Each gets 10 to 15 minutes to entertain a packed audience of 120 beer-drinking hipsters with a tale of science. Story Collider’s mission is to demonstrate that science affects all of us, every day, and most of the performers aren’t scientists. But some are, and their stories don’t disappoint.

Last week, for example, evolutionary biologist Diane Kelly told us about her research on armadillo penises. In the early ’90s, as a graduate student at Duke University, in North Carolina, she wanted to study how penises work. (Erectile tissue has pretty unusual mechanical properties, after all.) But Kelly, a lifelong animal lover, hated the idea of killing animals for her project. She nearly fainted once when attempting to demonstrate how to euthanize a frog. So her clever, if extreme solution was to temporarily move to a place (Florida) that had a bounty of big-penis roadkill (armadillos).

Kelly’s tale was full of surprising twists and turns, culminating with a policeman and a bloody crotch. But its essence was about how she came to terms with the cold fact that her work would require some animals to die. Take a listen:

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Even a Worm Will Turn

This worm is born to travel. It begins life in human lymph, only to seep out of the lymphatic vessels into the grimy fluid that bathes our organs. From there, it drifts into the blood stream. During the day, it keeps to deep veins. Once darkness falls, it migrates up to the skinny veins just under the skin.

Then one lucky night, a mosquito will find the sleeping human and feast on its blood. The worm will end up in the insect’s gut and, eventually, in its muscles. It will reach adolescence there, and then travel to the mosquito’s head, stinger and, finally, to the next person the insect bites. From the blood stream, the worm will find its way back to the lymph to mate and, after such a long journey, retire. It will stay there for six to eight years, the rest of its life, and pump out millions of new little worms to embark on the same cross-species adventure.

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2011 Houdini Awards

I always thought of Harry Houdini as a master trickster, fooling his audience into believing something had happened when, in fact, it had not happened. That’s not true. Houdini’s tricks — like escaping from a locked packing crate after it had been thrown into New York’s East River — were real. His “magic” was that nobody could figure out how he pulled them off.

In the November 1925 issue of Popular Science, Houdini wrote an essay describing his obsession with the other kind of mystifiers: those who claim to have supernatural powers. Every day of his 35-year career, Houdini wrote, he had been thinking about psychics who supposedly communicate with the dead. He visited dozens of them and, as described at length in the essay, uncovered all of their lazy tricks. To give just one fun example, Houdini showed how mediums, during pitch-black seances, used trumpets controlled by their feet and mouths to produce voices that their audience believed to be ghosts.

Houdini did not consider himself a skeptic, but rather a public servant.

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Dear Mom

My mother is spunky and smart and I love her very much. But she’s got this one trait that drives me crazy: she believes everything she sees on The History Channel.

I visited her in Michigan a few weeks ago. One night at a local brewery, with my sister, Charlotte, and her boyfriend, Greg, in tow, Mom began telling us about why she believes humans came to earth from another planet. “Your evolution theories can’t explain the pyramids,” she said triumphantly.

“How does that have anything to do with aliens?” I asked triumphantly.

Charlotte, who goes out to eat with Mom much more often than I do, looked at Greg and smirked.

“How else would the Egyptians have known how to build them?” Mom said.

“And what evidence, exactly, do you have to support our alien origins?” I said.

“Geometry!” she said.

She then went on and on about latitudes and longitudes and the Maya and alien images in cave paintings. I understood little of what she said, but knew enough to proclaim, too loudly, “That’s such bullshit, Mom!”

For the sake of continuing an otherwise pleasant meal, we dropped it. But I resolved to find out what nonsense she was talking about and eventually set her straight.

So I found out. And it’s as crazy as I thought.

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The Four Types of Scientists

In September 2010, I posted to my (now defunct) personal blog a cheeky theory: scientists can be categorized into four types, which roughly agree with some of the Myers-Briggs personality test buckets. I’ve re-posted it here, with a few updates and tweaks based on reader comments.

I took my first Myers-Briggs personality test in the seventh grade, on the one afternoon of the year my teacher had set aside for us to go ahead and choose a future fulfilling career already. We all sat down at a computer, answered a few hundred multiple-choice questions, and finally discovered which of the 16 types best fit our preferences.

I’m an ISTJ. In the system’s jargon, that’s ‘Introverted, Sensing, Thinking, Judging.’ In plain English, the type is often referred to as the inspectors, the truth-tellers, the ‘Just the facts, Ma’am‘s.