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Does the Loneliest Plant in the World Need Help?

One day in 1895, while walking through the Ngoye Forest in Zululand, southern Africa, a botanist with the oh-so-suitable name of John Medley Wood caught sight of a tree. It sat on a steep slope at the edge of the woods and looked quite unlike its neighbors, with a fattish trunk (actually it had two trunks) and what seemed like a splash of palm fronds on top.

It’s now called E. woodii, in Wood’s honor. It is a cycad. Cycads are a very old order of tree. They’ve been on the planet for roughly 280 million years, but this one is special—in a bite-your-lip kind of way. Richard Fortey, one of the world’s great biologists, calls it “Surely … the most solitary organism in the world.”

Illustration by Stocktrek Images, Inc., Alamy Stock Photo
Illustration by Stocktrek Images, Inc., Alamy Stock Photo

What Wood found may be the last surviving wild example of an ancient species of cycad, which stretches back in an unbroken line to the age of the dinosaurs. Now it’s all by itself, writes Fortey, “growing older, alone, and fated to have no successors. Nobody knows how long it will live.”

Unless there’s a twist ending. And thereby hangs a tale:

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

In the 1890s Wood, who made his living collecting rare plants (he directed a botanical garden in Durban), had some of this odd tree’s stems pulled up and removed and, in 1903, sent one of them to London, where it sat in a box in the Palm House at the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew. It was a very long sit, being on display—by itself—for the entire 20th century. It’s still there.

Two hundred million years ago, cycads were everywhere. The giant continent that includes today’s Greenland and Antarctica were covered with them. Pterodactyls flew between them. Big dinosaurs munched on them. During the Jurassic period, small, stumpy, palm-looking trees made up about 20 percent of the world’s plants.

Illustration by Stocktrek Images, Inc., Alamy
Illustration by Stocktrek Images, Inc., Alamy

Somehow these E. woodii survived the catastrophe that wiped out the dinosaurs, got through five different ice ages, learned to live with bigger, newer trees—conifers and leaf bearers, followed by a profusion of fruiting and flowering plants—then got pushed into smaller, then even smaller, spaces until there were merely tens of thousands, then thousands, then hundreds, and then, for this particular species, perhaps, just this one.

The problem is that these trees cannot fertilize themselves. Some plants contain male and female parts on the same individual. Not E. woodii. It is, as the botanists say, dioecious. It needs a mate.

Photograph Courtesy of RBG Kew
Encephalartos woodii, Photograph Courtesy of Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

When a cycad is ready to reproduce, it grows a large colorful cone, rich with pollen or seed. It signals its readiness by radiating heat or sending out attractive odors to pollinators, who travel back and forth. Once fertilized, the seed-rich cone is ripped apart by hungry seed carriers (who’ve included, over the years, not just birds and insects, but also dinosaurs, pterosaurs, and bats—these trees have been eaten by just about everybody).

But what if you can’t find a mate? The tree in London is a male. It can make pollen. But it can’t make the seeds. That requires a female.

Researchers have wandered the Ngoye Forest and other woods in Africa, looking for an E. woodii that could pair with the one in London. They haven’t found a single other specimen. They’re still searching. Unless a female exists somewhere, E. woodii will never mate with one of its own.

But it survives. Plant geneticists have cloned it.

Photograph Courtesy of Mark W. Skinner, hosted by the USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database
Photograph Courtesy of Mark W. Skinner, hosted by the USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database

Indeed, botanic gardens across the world asked Kew for clones, or “offsets,” and now you can see genetically identical versions on display in Europe, Australia, California, South Africa. The plant is frozen genetically. It’s a living fossil, “an example of the curious but expanding process of the democratization of rarity,” says science writer Richard Mabey. It might be terminal, but if you like you can shoot a selfie in front of its exact genetic doppleganger. Or visit the original. Or maybe even buy a clone for yourself.

Cycads (there are several surviving species) are popular garden plants. Some of the rarest are bought and sold secretly. “Enormous sums of money change hands,” says the Kew Gardens website, “and because of the rarity of the species and their colourful history, offsets can sell for as much as $20,000 each.”

Left: Photograph by Julian Parker, Getty; Right: Photograph by Todd Williamson Archive, Getty
Left: Photograph by Julian Parker, Getty; Right: Photograph by Todd Williamson Archive, Getty

The problem is serious, Kew says:

It is so serious that the San Diego Police Department in southern California assigned an officer to ‘cycad beat’ to monitor these precious plants. Elsewhere in the Hollywood Hills, Brad Pitt, Oprah Winfrey, [the late] David Bowie and Kevin Costner are among the celebrities that cycad-sellers report as collectors. ”I planted a huge grove of them in Brad Pitt’s garden,” says Jay Griffith, his landscape designer. ”And Brad flipped. He kept saying, ‘I want more and more.’ To me, they are most majestic when you plant gobs of them. You expect a triceratops to come around the corner and just gobble them up.” Brad is not infringing any regulations though: his cycads are the commoner cycad species, Cycas revoluta, the so-called sago palm.

Genetically Engineered Females

There is even a move, supported by Kew, to solve E. woodii’s problem scientifically. Plant geneticists have taken pollen from our still fertile surviving male and fertilized a very close cycad cousin, E. natalensis. The hope is, by “back-crossing” the two plants, they may eventually create a very close genetic approximation of a female E. woodii and so reboot the species.

This reminds Richard Mabey of “the scientific dream that woolly mammoth hybrids may be brought back from the dark world of the extinct by inserting fragments of fossil DNA into elephant genes.”

We’re trying it with animals. Why not with plants?

Yes, why not?

To Stay or Go?

Interesting question. On the one hand, we humans have crowded the world, hemmed in, poisoned and savaged any number of plants, denying them the space to grow and thrive, so shouldn’t we, when the occasion arises, repair what we’ve done? Restore when we can?

These cycads come down to us through a long tunnel of time; they’re like a chain letter from a “magical once” (as Oliver Sacks wrote). Somehow they’ve made it down to us, and isn’t our duty to keep them going, to not break the chain?

Maybe. But on the other hand, if the only way to keep them going is to take them to a lab, add a gene here, subtract one there, and try to engineer back what once was—what have we done? Is this still a “natural’ cycad? An almost-but-not-quite female cycad would keep the line going, but whose line is it then? Its own? Ours? Whose?

There’s something not quite right with scuffling through the scrapheap of disappearing plants and animals, choosing a favorite few, and “pickling” them, as Richard Mabey says, to preserve their ancientness, when we know full well that a truly living thing must make its way on its own, must adapt, mutate, crossbreed, or die. An “almost” version of a cycad may look right, but we know deep down that the chain has been broken. This is not a real descendant. It’s our clever substitute.

So I don’t want to rescue the loneliest plant in the world. I want it to get lucky.

Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

Which could still happen. After all, there are acres and acres of uninspected bush in South Africa. Somewhere, on the side of a hill, tucked up against a rock, hanging in a shadow, I can still imagine a shy female E. woodii. She could be out there, waiting.

I’ve written about E.woodii before, so this is, in effect, a rethink, occasioned by my reading Richard Mabey’s wonderful new book of plant essays, The Cabaret of Plants (W. W. Norton & Company, 2016). The last time I wrote about the lonely cycad in London, I was all for saving it and unapologetically mournful. Now, thanks to Mabey, I’m finding this tale richer and harder to resolve. Which is a good thing. The great British biologist Richard Fortey talks about the London E.woodii in his classic Life: An Unauthorized Biography (Vintage, 1997). Oliver Sacks describes his personal encounter with the Kew cycad in The Island of the Colorblind (Vintage, 1997).


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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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Romania’s Science Problem: A Tale of Two Florins (Part 1)

On September 12, 2001, as many of us recoiled from television footage of airplanes on fire, 25-year-old Florin Ţibu headed to the Bucharest airport. For him, the day’s line-up would be chaotic, yes, but also exciting: his first flight, his first trip outside of Romania, and the first step of his new life as a scientist.

Ţibu flew to London’s Heathrow airport, and it was everything he expected of the West — clean, friendly, and full of overpriced fast food restaurants. After another flight and a long drive, he reached his new home at Liverpool Hope University. He was in the U.K. for a year, working on a Master’s degree in psychology. A few years later, he came back to England for his doctorate. Then, shiny new Ph.D. in hand, Ţibu did what the vast majority of Romanians who get professional training abroad do not: He went home.

I met Ţibu in November, in Bucharest. He is a post-doctoral fellow for the Bucharest Early Intervention Project, or BEIP, a 13-year study tracking the brain and behavioral development of Romanian orphans. I had gone to Bucharest to shadow Charles Nelson, one of the three U.S. scientists who launched BEIP, and to meet some of the orphans. But Ţibu opened my eyes to another problem. Romania, a democratic country of 19 million people and part of the European Union, has shockingly few scientists, and even fewer successful scientists.

The problem is complex but boils down to too little money and too much corruption. Nature reporters Alison Abbott and Quirin Schiermeier have been closely following Eastern European science over the past few years. As their pieces attest, Romania’s university system is based largely on meaningless titles and personal connections, and few science professors actually do scientific research. The country has also been through several high-profile plagiarism scandals; even its prime minister seems to have plagiarized parts of his Ph.D. thesis. In 2009, a young, foreign-trained chemist named Daniel Funeriu became the country’s research and education minister, and enacted reforms — including more research funding, more merit-based competition and rigorous evaluation by international scientists — to fix the many holes in the country’s scientific infrastructure. But last year a new government was voted in, Funeriu was pushed out and his reforms were swiftly reversed.

Romania is a long way, geographically and culturally, from us in the United States. For many people reading this post, Romania’s science problem may seem abstract, irrelevant, or both. That probably would have been my attitude, too, if not for meeting two young Romanian scientists named Florin.

Both Florins grew up in the 1980s under the oppression of communism and both, against all odds, became successful working scientists. Florin Albeanu — whose story I’ll share in a later post — did it by leaving Romania, whereas Florin Ţibu stayed. Both Florins are part of a younger generation of Romanians who believe it will be possible, one day, to reform their country’s corrupt university system and fund science based on merit rather than cronyism. Whether they’re right is anybody’s guess.

When Florin Ţibu was growing up, he never dreamed of leaving Romania. He was born in 1976 in Radauti, a city of about 30,000 people in the northern tip of the country. Most people in Radauti couldn’t afford a car, let alone an airplane ticket. And even if they had the money, they weren’t allowed to leave. Besides, in the 1980s, they had more pressing worries, like getting food from the state-controlled shops.

“You had these groceries where the shelves were practically empty. And there were certain days and times when sometimes quite unexpectedly they brought food and you could see people queuing, like 200 people queuing in five minutes. Everyone had heard that they had brought bread or salami or X,” Ţibu says. “And many times, I mean practically all of the time, my parents had to wake up at 5 a.m. and queue in order to buy milk.” Heat and electricity were also in short supply.

Propaganda poster of Nicolae Ceaucescu and his wife, Elena
Classic propaganda poster of Nicolae Ceaucescu and his wife, Elena

Romania’s economic meltdown happened in large part because the country’s dictator, Nicolae Ceaușescu, had spent the 1970s borrowing money — at least $13 billion — from western countries, and funneling it into ill-conceived building and development projects. In 1981, Ceaușescu abruptly outlawed foreign loans and tried to repay his debts as quickly as possible. He slashed imports and upped exports, leading to drastic food shortages. (Even in the midst of this economic crisis, with many of his people hungry, in 1983 Ceaușescu started construction on the 1,100-room Palace of the Parliament, which was to be the new home of all government offices and his luxurious personal residence. As several people proudly told me when I was in Bucharest, it is the largest building in the world outside of the Pentagon.)

Ţibu’s father was trained as an auto mechanic, his mother as a nurse, and the family was no better or worse off than any of their neighbors — with one small exception. The Ţibus had a rare luxury: a television, and a color one at that. They had it because in 1979, Ţibu’s father was one of the lucky men chosen to work as a laborer in Libya, ruled by Muammar Gaddafi. “Gaddafi was quite close to Ceaușescu, so they had some exchange schemes for workers,” Ţibu says. “My father earned like at least double or triple what he earned here.” After two years working on incredibly hot construction sites, with no contact with his family, Ţibu’s father returned with the TV. “We had neighbors pouring into our flat when the big football matches were on. Everyone was amazed,” Ţibu says.

Television sports were rare, though. There was just one, state-controlled TV channel, and it aired programming for just three hours each evening. “Two and a half of them were about how great communism was and how great our leader was,” Ţibu says.

From a very young age, Ţibu says, he knew not to speak badly of communism or Ceaușescu — nor to speak highly of America or the West — outside of the safety of his home. He remembers once when a classmate was caught with a $1 bill in school. The classmate and his parents were interviewed by the police. “The scandal was huge,” Ţibu says. The same was true in bigger cities. “I heard this from people who lived in Bucharest. If you went by the embassy of a Western country and you raised your eyes and looked over the fence, and particularly if you stopped and had a good look at it, you would have been spotted by agents who were planted around,” Tibu says. “They would have followed you and they would have taken you to the police. It was that bad.”

Despite the extreme censorship, even as a child Ţibu had heard about America, and idolized the very idea of it. “We heard that people were free to speak whatever they wanted to. And we heard that there were well-paid jobs, and that people could afford having their own car, and that you had access to sweets and Coca Cola and food and heating,” he says. “That was heaven, for us.” In school, he was thrilled to be assigned to the English language class, rather than Russian, French or German, not because he thought he’d ever go to America, but just to be a bit closer to its culture.

On Christmas day of 1989, when Ţibu was nearly 14, Ceaușescu and his wife, Elena, were executed by revolutionary forces. Video footage of the event* aired on the national television channel. All of the police in Radauti fled, Ţibu says. “They knew they would have been killed by the people.”

After high school, Ţibu studied nursing, following in his mother’s footsteps. But he didn’t like it, so he switched to psychology with the aim of becoming a therapist. That would have been impossible just a few years before. In 1977, Ceaușescu closed down all psychology departments at Romanian universities, citing “ideological purification.” In 1982, he banned psychological practice altogether. (According to the American Psychological Association, he was incensed by research on transcendental meditation, which he thought would “undermine public order.”)

Ţibu earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Iasi. During his last year, he found a job through a newspaper ad to be a research assistant at the National Institute for Sport Sciences. It wasn’t lucrative — pay was less than $100 a month — but it was pretty flashy. Ţibu’s job was to provide psychological counseling to the men’s Olympic gymnastics team as they prepared for the 2000 summer games in Sydney. Ţibu loved the job and was given a bonus of one-year’s salary after the Olympics. “They weren’t very good, but it had been their best performance ever,” he says, laughing.

“On the other hand, I felt pretty overwhelmed and unprepared,” Ţibu says. “I realized that I might get more interested in more technical aspects, rather than clinical apsects of psychology. That’s when I thought that research might be good for me.”

Virginia Hughes
Florin Tibu in Bucharest
Florin Tibu in Bucharest

In his college psychology courses, Ţibu had learned about famous research experiments and some basic ingredients of research, like the definition of a hypothesis and a t-test. But he never practiced science, and neither did his professors. After browsing webpages of psychology graduate programs outside of Romania, Ţibu was floored to see that most universities had bona fide research departments. He spent the next year trying to get into a research job or postgraduate program. At a job fair in Bucharest in 2001, he met a recruiter from Liverpool Hope University. Based on Ţibu’s experience at the Olympics, the recruiter asked him to join the Master’s program.

Ţibu’s post-9/11 flight experience was perhaps a foreshadowing of the many challenges he would face during that first year in the U.K. He struggled with English for the first few months. The university paid for his tuition but offered no stipend, so he worked nights and weekends as a carer in a nursing home. (Even making minimum wage, the pay was far better than Ţibu was used to: He earned about £55 pounds a day, equivalent to a month’s pay in Romania.) His visa expired after a year, so he had to return to Romania before he had completed his Master’s.

In early 2003, browsing the same Bucharest newspaper ads that had gotten him the Olympics gig, Florin found a job as a research assistant for the BEIP. He was hired, he thinks, because he spoke English well and had studied abroad. “Those who manage to go usually don’t come back,” he says. As part of the BEIP team, Ţibu learned rigorous research methods and had many interactions with other ambitious scientists, both from the U.S. and Romania. He started thinking he might have a shot at getting into a solid Ph.D. program abroad. He was right, and in the fall of 2007, he moved back to Liverpool to begin his training at Manchester University. He earned his Ph.D. in developmental psychopathology at the end of 2010.

Most people in Ţibu’s position would not have come back to Romania. Since the country joined the European Union in 2007, it has been much easier for Romanians to work in Europe. But Ţibu never considered moving away permanently. He and his girlfriend (now wife) wanted to be close to their aging parents. “But also, it’s just, this is our home,” he says.

Moving back wasn’t easy for him, even with his impressive credentials. Over the course of ten months, Ţibu applied to dozens of jobs, mostly for private companies or NGOs. He didn’t even get interviews for most of him. Then, luckily, the post-doc position with the BEIP opened up. He’s not sure what’s in store for him should the project lose its funding, but he is optimistic that the Romanian research tide is changing.

“In the younger generation, there’s an increasing number of people who studied abroad, either at the Master’s or Ph.D. level, and who have come back. And depending on luck and on circumstances, they can now get into university positions,” he says.

For example, he says that his best friend is a psychology lecturer at Iasi. “Once you’ve spent years abroad and you’ve seen how open and transparent the system is, and how the academic ladder is based on competence, you just can’t come back to the old mentality.”

Next week, I’ll share the story of a Florin who left Romania to become a neuroscientist, and is now trying to boost Romanian science from afar.

*You can watch riveting (and graphic) video footage from the Ceaușescus’ 90-minute trial and execution here.

Update: One sentence of this post has been corrected to reflect that Ţibu’s Ph.D. was in developmental psychopathology, not psychology , and that he earned it in 2010, not 2011.

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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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Jonah Lehrer, Scientists, and the Nature of Truth

Last week the journalism world was buzzing about — guess who? — Jonah Lehrer. Yes, again. We knew about the science writer’s self-plagiarism and Bob-Dylan-quote fabrication. Last week a New York Magazine exposé by Boris Kachka claimed that Lehrer also deliberately misrepresented other people’s ideas.

Kachka’s piece led to some fascinating discussions about whether it’s possible to tell a science story that’s both riveting and fully accurate. Science journalist Carl Zimmer, for example, wrote a thoughtful, inspiring post about the messiness of science. All of the commentary left me wanting to hear more details from the scientists in Lehrer’s stories. Had they been misrepresented? If so, how? Were they upset? Did they complain?

Kachka and Zimmer zeroed in on a 2010 story about the scientific method that Lehrer wrote for the New Yorker. The story’s premise is clear from the title (“The Truth Wears Off”), the subtitle (“Is there something wrong with the scientific method?”), the nutgraf (“It’s as if our facts were losing their truth: claims that have been enshrined in textbooks are suddenly unprovable.”), and the last few lines (“Just because an idea is true doesn’t mean it can be proved. And just because an idea can be proved doesn’t mean it’s true. When the experiments are done, we still have to choose what to believe.”). (more…)

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Galápagos Monday: World Within Itself

This is the third installment of a six-week series about my recent trip to the Galápagos. You can read the first post, about tortoises and donkeys, here, and the second, about eerie mounds of black coral, here.

If you go to the Galápagos, and even if you go, as I did, in a herd of clumsy American tourists, you will at some point feel like a field biologist. Regulations dictate that you be accompanied by licensed guides, and ours reminded me of my favorite college professors: authoritative and rhetorical most of the time, with sudden bursts of passion when they get a whiff of their pet topic.

Within an hour of my arrival, one of the guides launched into the difference between the islands’ endemic, native and introduced species. Endemic species arrived naturally but struggled to survive in the strange environment. Over many generations, they gradually adapted and are now found, in their modified form, nowhere else on earth. Native species also came naturally, but didn’t struggle as much and didn’t need to change. So they’re found in the Galápagos as well as other places. Introduced species did not “naturally” arrive, but were brought in by people.

My guides seemed to be obsessed with these definitions, mentioning them dozens of times over the course of my eight-day visit. When discussing endemic species — such as the marine iguana or Galápagos tortoise — they beamed like proud parents. But introduced species were the shameful family secret. “What are those trees?” someone asked guide Jason while hiking in the highland swamps of Isabela. “Those are cedars,” he said with a long sigh and a sad shake of his head. “Introduced.”

I rolled my eyes. I understand the concept, professor, really I do, now can we please move on? But, like most of the other times I’ve been annoyed with a good teacher, I was wrong. Several weeks and a lot of reading later, I’m finally beginning to get it. If you understand endemism, you understand the value of the Galápagos.

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Galápagos Monday: Southern Inhospitality

This is the second installment of a six-week series about my recent trip to the Galápagos. You can read my first post, about tortoises and donkeys, here.

At dawn on June 6, more than 30 years after Lynn was chasing tortoises at the top of Alcedo, our boat anchored near the volcano’s base in Urbina Bay. By 8 a.m., I was fully breakfasted and eager to begin the scheduled 2-mile hike, on which we were likely to see giant tortoises and land iguanas.

My mood dampened after disembarking on the beach. Even at this early hour, and even doused ear-to-toe with 100-SPF sunscreen, I felt an unrelenting solar assault. (Turns out it’s hard to concentrate on nature’s glories while obsessively imagining your skin cells morphing into irregularly shaped cancerous moles.) The beach was narrow and surrounded by foreboding gray rocks. Maybe this, I thought, is what Darwin meant when describing his first visit to these islands: “Nothing could be less inviting than the first appearance.”

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Galápagos Monday: Lynn’s Tortoises

Every Monday for the next six weeks I’ll be posting about my recent trip to the Galápagos. After a week on a big boat, hopping from one imposing volcanic island to the next, I saw most of the odd creatures that Charles Darwin famously wrote about: century-old tortoises, finches with beaks of all sizes, swimming iguanas. But most of what I learned was new to me — like how the Ecuadorian government hired expert hunters from New Zealand to shoot down thousands of goats by helicopter, or how, in 1954, a massive geological uplift almost instantaneously raised one island’s coast 15 feet, taking with it mounds of coral that have since blackened with dust. Many of the stories converge on what’s, for me, a perplexing theme: that people can be sources of both ecological destruction and impressive restoration. As the climate changes, and population and tourism rates continue to skyrocket, it will be fascinating to see how the economic-political-scientific ecosystem of the Galápagos evolves.

I kick off the series (below, after the jump) with a story about one of my naturalist-guides, Lynn, who has lived on the islands since 1978.


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Family Ties

It’s been almost a year since I wrote about my genetic testing results from 23andMe. That’s because, despite paying $5 a month for the site’s mandatory Personal Genome Service®, I rarely look at it.

It’s not that I’m scared of the data (been there), and not because I forgot — every six or eight weeks I get an email from the company saying things like, You have 8 new results from 23andMe! New discoveries have been made about your DNA! I hadn’t visited the site because, frankly, I was bored of it. How many times is one expected to look sort-of-interesting, sort-of-meaningless risk calculations and ponder healthier ways to live?

Then at a conference last week, while trying to make small talk with a scientist, I mentioned my 23andMe subscription. Turns out he has one, too. “Isn’t it funny when you get those messages from your distant relatives?” he said. I told him I didn’t know what he meant. “I get them all the time,” he said, shaking his head.

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Dry Spells

In the spring of the year 73, thousands of Roman soldiers raided Masada, a fortress on top of a cliff in the Judean Desert. For seven years, the Jews had tried, unsuccessfully, to split from the Roman empire, and Masada was the last holdout. According to the ancient historian Josephus, when the Romans breached Masada’s walls, they found 960 dead bodies of Jewish extremists, called Sicarii, who had killed themselves to avoid the inevitable enslavement. Because of Masada’s remote location and harsh, dry climate, nothing much happened to the site for the next 2,000 years, until archaeologists started digging it up in 1963. They found attack ramps and siege towers (some of the best examples we have, apparently, of Roman war technologies), palaces, cisterns, swimming pools, 27 human skeletons and, deep under the rubble, a handful of seeds.


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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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Alcohol, Retinol and a 50-Year Quest for the Male Pill

Last Sunday, the day before the world’s population hit 7 billion, I went to a scientific meeting on the future of contraception.

I had expected to hear, and did hear, about a slew of labs trying to develop a birth control pill for men. What I did not expect: one pill was shown to work in men more than 50 years ago.

In the late 1950s, researchers from the University of Oregon and University of Washington tested drugs called ‘bis(dichloroacetyl) diamines’ on inmates from the Oregon State Penitentiary.* The scientists doled out one of three pills — dubbed Win 13,099, Win 17,416 and Win 18,446 — to 26 volunteers once or twice a day for up to 54 weeks, and measured the men’s sperm counts along the way.

The results were stunning: the compounds reduced the amount of sperm in the men’s semen, and sometimes completely wiped it out. The pills didn’t affect libido, and the only reported side effect was bloating and gas. What’s more, within a few weeks of stopping treatment, sperm counts went back up. It was, perhaps, the horny grail: reversible birth control for men, no rubber required.

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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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Getting Under a Mummy’s Skin

Years ago, when her young son was going through a mummy phase, Eve Lowenstein wound up reading a lot of mummy books. A dermatologist and one-time molecular biologist, she was soon hooked on paleopathology, the study of ancient diseases. Her obsession would long outlive her son’s.

At first, just curious, she sat down to do a quick scan of the scientific literature to find out what mummies had revealed about skin diseases. “It turned into a year-and-a-half project,” says Lowenstein, who practices dermatology in Brooklyn, New York. She found mummy studies of more than 100 skin-related diseases, from leprosy and scurvy to cancer and diabetic foot ulcers. In 2004, she published a comprehensive review of these so-called ‘paleodermatoses‘ — several of which, she discovered, had been misdiagnosed.

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The Not-So-Feeble Frédéric Chopin

How would you describe the Minute Waltz, by 19th-Century composer Frédéric François Chopin?

Minute Waltz

Lighthearted and whimsical? Dainty, delicate, fragile?

In some classical music circles, Chopin’s work has a sissy reputation. As a Washington Post critic wrote last year, “Chopin’s music has sometimes been branded effeminate, or ‘salon music’: not quite serious, not quite healthy.” Chopin the man is also known for a certain lack of virility. The American composer Charles Ives once wrote, rather viciously, of Chopin: “One just naturally thinks of him with a skirt on, but one which he made himself.”

Part of Chopin’s feeble image comes from the fact that he was always sick. As a teenager, he suffered long bouts of respiratory illness, with swollen glands and dramatic weight loss. For the rest of his life, he dealt with frequent episodes of bronchitis and laryngitis. He never developed facial hair. He was extremely weak: after long piano performances he had to be carried to bed.

When Chopin died, at just 39 years old, his death certificate blamed tuberculosis, a common bacterial infection. But, as described in a review published last month, some medical experts are skeptical of that diagnosis.