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Are These Crime Drama Clues Fact or Fiction?

Steven Avery, featured in the Netflix documentary Making a Murderer, served 18 years in prison for rape, then was exonerated by DNA. He was convicted of murder in 2007, based partly on DNA evidence.
Steven Avery, featured in the Netflix documentary Making a Murderer, served 18 years in prison for rape before being exonerated by DNA in 2003. In 2007, he was convicted of murder, based partly on DNA evidence.

I’m often just as surprised by what forensic scientists can’t do as by what they can. In the Netflix documentary Making a Murderer, for instance, the question of whether police planted the main character’s blood at a crime scene comes down to whether or not the FBI can detect a common laboratory chemical called EDTA in a bloodstain.

On a TV crime show, this would be a snap. The test would take about five minutes and would involve inserting a swab into a magic detector box that beeps and spits out an analysis of every substance known to humankind.

In real life, there’s no common and accepted test in forensic labs for EDTA even today, nine years after the FBI tested blood for the Steven Avery trial featured in Making a Murderer. In that case, the FBI resurrected a test they had last used in the 1995 O.J. Simpson trial, and testified that the blood in question did not contain EDTA and therefore was not planted using EDTA-preserved blood from an evidence vial. (Avery was convicted.)

Questions about the test’s power and reliability have dogged the case ever since. There’s even an in-depth Reddit thread where fans of the Netflix show are trying to sort out the science.

Having worked in chemistry labs, it surprised me at first that this analysis would be difficult or controversial. After all, a quick search of the scientific literature turns up methods for detecting low levels of EDTA in everything from natural waters to beverages.

Steven Averys
Steven Avery’s attorneys Jerome Buting (shown) and Dean Strang struggled to dispute chemical evidence introduced mid-trial that undermined the idea that police had planted blood evidence.

But the key here is that we’re talking about forensic science, not beverage chemistry. Beverage chemistry, in this case, is much more exacting. Was there really no EDTA in the blood swabbed from victim Teresa Halbach’s vehicle, or was the chemical simply too diluted or degraded to be detected with the FBI’s method? Could the test have missed a small amount of EDTA? It would be hard to say without further experiments that replicate crime scene conditions, experiments that essentially put the test to the test.

The reality is that forensic science today is a strange mix of the high-tech and the outdated, so questions about evidence like those in Avery’s case are not uncommon. Methods that we take for granted, like measuring a particular chemical, or lifting a fingerprint off a gun and matching it to a suspect, can be difficult—and far from foolproof. On the other hand, some of the real science happening now sounds like something dreamed up by Hollywood script writers, such as new methods aiming to reconstruct what a person’s face looks like using only their DNA.

Making a Murderer, whether it sways your opinion on Steven Avery or not, has done a service by getting people interested in something as arcane as EDTA tests, and by showing why real-life crimes are not solved nearly so neatly as fictional ones.

I see the messiness of forensic science all the time, because I scan its journals and often come across new studies that make me think either “you mean we couldn’t already do that?” or “I had no idea that was possible.” I’ve gathered a few recent examples for a quiz.

How well can you separate CSI fact from fiction? Here are a few crime-solving scenarios I’ve cooked up; see if you can tell which use real methods based on new forensic research. You’ll find the answers below.

  1. A skeleton is found buried in a shallow grave. The body’s soft tissues have completely decomposed, so only the teeth and bones remain. A forensic anthropologist examines the bones and reports that they come from a female who was five foot six inches tall, and obese. Could she really tell the person was overweight?
  2. The body of a white male in his 50s turns up on a nature trail, scavenged by animals. The victim’s bones show a number of puncture wounds consistent with animal bites, but x-rays reveal fine lines of different density in the bone around some of the punctures. An expert says these lines show that the wounds were made about 10 years before death. Is it possible to tell the approximate age of these wounds from x-rays?
  3. A woman is found dead in her home, bludgeoned to death. A bloody frying pan lies on the floor next to her. Her husband is the main suspect. Fingerprints on the pan’s handle are too smudged to make a definitive ID, but an analyst says she can still rule out the husband: All of the fingerprints on the pan came from a woman, the expert says. Is it possible to tell if the fingerprints were from a male or female?
  4. A woman is sexually assaulted and identifies her male attacker in a lineup. The suspect’s DNA matches DNA found on her body. It looks like an easy case for the prosecutor—until the suspect reveals that he has an identical twin. Neither twin admits to the crime. Is it possible to tell which twin’s DNA was found at the crime scene?
  5. A witness sees a man in a stocking mask rob and shoot a man outside his home. A stocking is found near the house, and a hair-analysis expert testifies that 13 hairs in the mask are all human head hairs from an African-American. A microscopic analysis matches the characteristics of one hair to a particular African-American suspect. The prosecutor tells the jury that the chances are one in ten million that this could be someone else’s hair. Can hairs be matched to an individual this accurately?


Answers Below


  1. Yes. Biologists have long known that greater body mass changes the weight-bearing bones of the legs and spine, and a new study shows that even bones that aren’t supporting most of the body’s weight, such as arm bones, have greater bone mass and are stronger in obese people. So even in a skeleton missing its legs, our forensic anthropologist might be able to tell that the person was obese.
  2. No. This one is from an actual episode of Bones (The Secret in the Siege, Season 8, Episode 24, reviewed here by real-life bioarchaeologist Kristina Killgrove). In the episode, Dr. Temperance Brennan uses Harris lines to determine the age of bone injuries in two victims. Harris lines are real, but they form only in growing bones, so are useful only in determining childhood injuries or illness.
  3. Yes. A study published in November showed that the level of amino acids in sweat is about twice as high in women’s fingerprints as in men’s. Of course, as with all the new methods, this one could face challenges as evidence in a U.S. court of law, where the Daubert standard allows judges to decide whether scientific evidence is admissible based on factors including its degree of acceptance by the scientific community.
  4. Yes, if you do it right. Standard DNA tests don’t distinguish between twins, who are born with nearly identical DNA, but it’s possible to do a more sophisticated test to catch post-birth mutations and epigenetic differences, which you can think of as genetic “add-ons” that don’t affect the DNA sequence itself. One new test distinguishes between twins by looking for small differences in the melting temperature of their DNA that are caused by such epigenetic modifications.
  5. No. The field of hair analysis has come under heavy scrutiny, especially after a review by the U.S. Justice Department revealed major flaws in 257 out of 268 hair analyses from the FBI. The case described here is the real-life case of Santae Tribble, convicted in 1978 of murder. In 2012, DNA tests showed that none of the hairs matched Tribble—and one was from a dog.
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Should You Put a Baby Bird Back in the Nest? Depends If It’s Cute

Ah, the first days of summer—the smell of cut grass, kids on vacation… and baby birds falling out of trees.

Every year, I see a new flock of people rescuing fallen birds, and then arguing on Twitter and Facebook about whether it’s OK to put them back in the nest.

Some are adamant that if you handle a baby bird, its mother will reject it. Others say it’s fine; just put the bird back.

A lot of people face this dilemma at the beginning of summer, when many baby birds are taking their first flight from the nest—in bird-nerd speak, they’re fledging. I was in Mississippi in early June, and it seemed like it was raining dead baby birds there. One fell from its nest onto my car, and another mysteriously turned up on the porch steps. It was too late for those birds, but what do you do when faced with a little peeper like this?

First, you should ask yourself how cute the bird is.

Okay, that sounds cruel and judgmental. But it’s basically true. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology gives excellent advice: The first thing you need to know is whether the baby is a nestling or a fledgling. Most of the birds people find are fledglings. Fledglings have feathers, can hop, and are “generally adorable and fluffy, with a tiny stub of a tail.”

“When fledglings leave their nest they rarely return, so even if you see the nest it’s not a good idea to put the bird back in—it will hop right back out. Usually there is no reason to intervene at all beyond putting the bird on a nearby perch out of harm’s way and keeping pets indoors.”

And if you’ve got an ugly little unfeathered friend?

“If the baby bird is sparsely feathered and not capable of hopping, walking, flitting, or gripping tightly to your finger, it’s a nestling.

If you can find the nest (it may be well hidden), put the bird back as quickly as possible. Don’t worry—parent birds do not recognize their young by smell. They will not abandon a baby if it has been touched by humans.”

So leave the cute ones alone, and put the little ratty-looking ones back in the nest.

And if you don’t stumble across any fledglings this year, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has a website where you can watch live video of baby birds on Birds Cams.

There are plenty of adorable Bird Cam moments, like this fledgling hawk returning to the nest and checking out the camera.

But it wasn’t all pretty. “This has been probably our toughest year on record,” says Charles Eldermire, who runs the Bird Cams program. The ospreys were hit by dime-sized hail a week before their eggs were to hatch, cracking all the eggs. A baby owl died, and the parents fed it to its siblings. Eldermire even had to put up warnings that viewers had to click on before watching particularly bad things happening.

“We started this project in part to help people learn about what happens in nature,” Eldermire says. “We’re aware that many have never had an unfiltered view of what happens in nature.”

The Bird Cam folks make a point of not interfering. “We can learn by letting it play out. Any intervention could have a negative impact; if we feed that baby owlet to save it, maybe it’s sick, or maybe the environment won’t support another barn owl.”

I love what Eldermire said next. Think about this as you watch the ospreys in the video above hunker over their eggs in a hailstorm: “The struggles that we go through as people in our own lives aren’t all that different from the animals on the screen.”

“The truth is we can’t control everything in our lives. One thing we can all learn from watching wild things and how they survive is that sense of resilience that is really at the core of any wild thing.”

Please Welcome Robert Krulwich to Phenomena!

krulwich_lgRobert Krulwich is a host of the show Radiolab, but he’s also a blogger, having written many posts over the years for National Public Radio. I’m delighted to welcome Robert to Phenomena, which is host to his new blog, “Curiously Krulwich.”

(Full disclosure: I’ve known Robert for a long time. We first met to hunt for autumn leaves in my neighborhood. And we’ve carried on a long-running conversation on a variety of topics such as whether parasites are terrible or awesome. Spoiler alert: they are awesome.)

To celebrate Robert’s arrival, I asked him a few questions about his blogging experiences:

You started out in television, then headed into radio. How did blogs make their way into your creative stream?

Like anything in life, first you hear a strange word, blog, and you wonder “What could that mean?” It sounds like something you’d find on a tugboat. Then, knocking around the web, I bumped into a few, and the ones I bumped into six years ago were gorgeously written, dazzlingly illustrated (bldgblog by Geoff Manaugh, Jason Kottke’s daily roundup at Kottke.org, Information is Beautiful from David McCandless, LoverofBeauty from I don’t know who, he never tells), each one wildly different from the other, yet all of them classy, dangerous, totally new to me, and I thought, how do I get in on this? I have story ideas all the time. I like to draw. I like to write. The fact that NPR (where I was at the time) is a radio network, and isn’t exactly into eyeball products, being more into ears, was no problem. They have a website and they let me launch a science based, sometimes meandering blog, Krulwich Wonders, where I wrote about history, animals, plants, puzzles, math, chemistry, music, art — and found a delightful audience of crabby, over-informed, sometimes charming, sometimes maddening readers who loved telling me how wrong I was or how right I was, while mailing me ideas that kept me going many times a week. It was so much fun. One time I even got a note from astronaut Neil Armstrong when I wondered out loud why he didn’t wander a larger patch of the moon when he visited up there. Here’s why, he barked back, sending me a long, fascinating letter that gave me goosebumps. So how’d I fall into blogging? I fell very, very happily, and when NPR downsized last year and let me go, I felt a little empty inside and wanted a new place to do it. This, I am happy to announce, is the place.

Does blogging feel the same as what you do on RadioLab, or does it feel like a different way to express yourself?

Well, the conversational tone is the same. I want to sound like myself. I don’t want what I do to be too studied, too formal, or too packaged. I want to sound like some guy who sits next to you on a train and turns out to be a good storyteller, and to your surprise (and, I’m hoping, delight) isn’t a bore. That’s how I try to be on the radio. That’s how I’ll try to be here. But, of course, there’s an obvious difference. On the radio (or the podcast) I’m playing with sound, and the thrill is to invent into your ear (which I do with my “genius” pal, Jad). On my blog, I’m playing with your eye. Every post I do is intentionally visual; it features something to look at; sometimes a video, sometimes a series of drawings, sometimes a photo, sometimes something I devise with friends that’s interactive and let’s you play with an idea. The important thing is that both Radiolab and the blog are designed to spill something you didn’t know into your head as intelligibly and as joyously and as carefully as I know how. That’s the goal; to make you learn something you didn’t think you needed or cared to know, but whoosh! Now you know it. That’s what I like to do.

You work in lots of artwork into your blog posts. What’s the process behind that? Do the artists come to you with ideas, or do you ask them to visualize something you want to write about?

I wish I had artists. When I started “Krulwich Wonders,” I did. I had a little budget and could hire people to help me. But those were the early days when managers were given play money to launch these adventures. The play period has long since ended and now I’m down to me, my box of colored pencils, my desk top scanner and an eraser. I can still call friends, and I do, and I will, but mostly I sit there thinking about, oh, I don’t know, “snail sex,” and I end up looking up pictures of snails, trying to find their genitalia (not the easiest thing to do if you’re not a snail) and sitting at my desk drawing one lopsided snail after another until, eventually, I get the thing right plausibly snaily enough and anatomically correct enough to publish. Then if my wife happens by, sees the drawing, and says, “Oh, what a nice pineapple,” I start over.

The ideas, by the way, come from whatever it is I’m wondering about.

What’s your favorite blog post so far? (Disclosure: my favorite is the one you wrote about the giant insects that were rediscovered on a remote island.)

Thanks, I liked that one too. But if I had to choose, I’d nominate one I wrote about why bees love hexagons, which you can find here. Or another about bees being totally and mysteriously absent from a cornfield, or this short meditation on absolutely nothing.  And, oh yes, a dance I posted that still makes me so happy I use it like alchohol whenever I’m gloomy. It’s here. 

What’s your plan for blogging from here on out?

To try things I’ve never tried before. To scare myself. To experiment with newfangled gifs, loops, slo-mo photography, and, if I dare, watercolor. To go wherever my curiosity takes me, and to take you (that’s right, I’m whispering in your ear, Carl Zimmer, you who know everything I know several weeks before I do), even you are coming with me.

My bags are packed.

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This Is What Happens When You Use Rat Poison: Flymageddon

I killed the rats in my basement ceiling. At the time, they were my biggest problem.

Then I found myself in my car one night with the headlights aimed at my back door, hoping to lure a swarm of carrion flies out of the house. Carrion flies, if you’re not familiar, are the kind that lay their eggs on dead things. So then that was my biggest problem.

It all started with a gnawing sound in my basement, in the ceiling above the family room. The steady crunch-crunch of rat teeth on rafters didn’t bother me much at first; I just turned up the volume on the TV. But then the entire basement began to smell of rat urine, which turns out to smell a lot like people urine. Eventually, it didn’t matter how much Febreze I sprayed; we had hit, as I called it, RATCON 5.

My next step was to push little green blocks of rat poison into the ceiling space behind the recessed lights. This turned out to be a mistake. Not only is rat poison bad for the environment and wildlife, but this tactic also left the sated rats free to scurry into some far corner of the ceiling space to die. An exterminator poked around up there, and shrugged. “Can’t find ’em.” Soon, my basement took on a new odor: eau de dead rat.

For the next week, I slept with my windows wide open for fresh air, and the flimsy lock on my bedroom door set against possible intruders.

But the gnawing stopped. And I celebrated my hard-won victory. I had toughed out the stink, and the worst was past. I thought.

Two weeks later,  I came home from a trip and opened the door to Flymageddon.

The house was filled with giant flies.  I realized instantly that the dead rats had become a breeding ground for blowflies. Blowflies are described by Wikipedia as medium to large flies, but I would describe them more as flying bookends.

Dozens buzzed around the kitchen, thunking into me as I made my way in. I needed a weapon, and I needed one fast. Years ago, Uncle Rocky and Aunt Martha, who live in Abilene, gave me a gag gift in the form of a giant three-foot, turquoise Texas-Size Fly Swatter. Turns out, it was the best gift ever.

So there I was. I gripped the Texas Fly Swatter like a baseball bat and slowly opened the basement door.  I could hear the hum. My pulse was pounding.

Bluebottle fly. Ripanvc
Kinda pretty, actually. The bluebottle fly.

I flipped on the light and saw thousands of big dark flies, each the size of a dime, peppering the walls and window shades. Flies filled the air, and bumped against the ceiling with little buzzing thuds. Suddenly a squadron broke ranks and rushed straight up the basement stairs at me.

Or at least it seemed like they were flying toward me. I was watching a black wave of flies boil out of a light fixture in the ceiling, so I was a little distracted. But I’m pretty sure I made a noise like a creaky hinge, and slammed the door shut.

Now what? No way was I opening that door again without chemical weapons.

So armed with a can of Raid, I cracked open the basement door, stuck my arm in and sprayed a long satisfying ssssssssssssss. Yessssssssssss, I thought as I sprayed.

Now normally, I’m the live-and-let-live, shoo-em-out the door kind of person. So I also tried opening the kitchen door and stirred up a cluster of flies to usher them out. In return, they promptly flew straight for my head. All bets were off.

I needed a plan—and a partner. I was home alone, but that didn’t stop me from dragging my husband Jay into the scene from 500 miles away. I called him on speakerphone blubbering about flies.

The great thing about being married is that you can take turns being brave, and when one of you is freaking out and ready to burn your house down, the other one can spring into action. And even from 500 miles away, Jay sprung. “Go downstairs and open all the windows to let them out,” he instructed. I politely declined. As in, “What?! NO NO NO NO! Not until some of them are dead. Or most of them.”

Jay thought.

“OK,” he said, “Turn off all the lights in the house, and go turn on the car’s headlights. In fact, put the brights on. Then, open the basement door.” Flies, of course, are drawn to light. It’s not entirely clear why some insects fly toward light, but it’s probably why you’ll find flies clustered on windows. (At least at my house you will.)

Erika Engelhaupt
One of the fallen in my battle with the flies. Erika Engelhaupt
One of the fallen in my battle with the flies.

It sounded like a plan that might work. So I carefully unlocked the basement door from outside; a couple dozen flies hovered between the glass and the window shade. I pushed the door open and ran for the safety of the car.

“Don’t fall and hurt yourself running from flies!” Jay yelled, still on speakerphone. “They can’t hurt you.” At this point, he’s picturing me laid up with a broken leg, a victim of my own horror of animals that don’t even have mouths that can bite.

“I know that, logically,” I said. But when it comes to a swarm, it’s not about logic. Since I write a blog called Gory Details, you might think it should be hard to turn my stomach, but it’s not. There’s a psychology test for how easily disgusted a person is, and I turn out to be entirely average.

So this is how I found myself in my car at 10:30 p.m., watching flies meander out the door and trying to decide how long I could run the brights before the battery died.

On cue, my mother called. Hoping to help, she looked up flies in the encyclopedia and reported that the pupal stage lasts two weeks. (My mother does not use the Internet much.) Her book didn’t say how long the adults live. “Hm, well, anyway, they’ll die eventually,” she said, “if you wait long enough.”

And I waited. The flies have kept coming. Every morning now, I vacuum up the night’s casualties, and every evening I come home to more. The other day, I arrived at work and dropped my purse on my desk, and a fly flew out. To cope, the Texas Fly Swatter and I have created a no-fly zone in my bedroom.

In the meantime, I have learned a few things about my opponents. I have three kinds; one is big with a shiny blue backside and another small and the prettiest green up close. The big blue ones might be the bluebottle fly Calliphora vomitoriaappropriately named—or  Calliphora vicina, the urban bluebottle fly. The little green guys are probably a species of Lucilia, the nice entomologists at bugguide.net told me after I posted photos.

As those petered out, the biggest flies emerged—flesh flies of the genus Sarcophaga. Like sarcophagus. They’re enormous, and they buzz when they fly, and they are still in my house.

My little Lucilia.  Erika Engelhaupt
My little Lucilia.
Erika Engelhaupt

All three have their charms. Lucilia maggots have an amazing ability to eat dead flesh and ignore the living, so they’re used in maggot therapy to eat away dead, infected tissue. This works fantastically, but of course assumes that you can talk someone with, say, an oozing foot ulcer into letting a mass of maggots eat away at their foot—I suppose you say to the person that they’re only going to eat your dead foot.

I thought talking to a forensic entomologist might help me appreciate my new housemates. Sibyl Bucheli studies insects at Sam Houston State University (home to a great criminal justice program) in Huntsville, Texas (home to the busiest execution chamber in the United States). I knew I’d like her when her email arrived with a photo of her wearing a Wonder Woman tiara. (You should also check out her entomology lab’s Harlem Shake video.)

Bucheli told me about the first recorded case of forensic entomology in the 1300s. It involved carrion flies—maybe one of the species zipping around my head as I talked to her. The Chinese lawyer Sung Tzu was investigating a stabbing in a rice field and had all the workers lay out their sickles. Blowflies immediately landed on just one, even though it had been wiped clean, and Sung Tzu knew that the sickle bore traces of blood.

One of Bucheli’s students tested this method, she tells me—and found that blowflies can indeed find a bloodied and wiped-clean surface within minutes, or even seconds.

As for my flies, Bucheli says I’m probably on the second generation by now, at least. The flies have been multiplying, babies growing up and having babies of their own. I suppose it would be sweet, if the family home being handed down wasn’t a dead rat.

What’s more, she gives me bad news about the yellow-orange spots all over my windows. “That’s fly poop,” she says. “Sorry. They’re pooping on your curtains.”

Still, she made me feel a little better about them. For one thing, she’s totally brave about flies, and it made me want to be just like her. Bucheli has been at actual crime scenes, with dead bodies covered in flies. Even then, they don’t bother her. “I feel calm if I’m in a place with a million flies,” she said. “But if I’m in a city with a million people around me, that freaks me out… I understand the flies.”

They’re just being flies—eating, mating, pooping, laying eggs. They aren’t out to get me, or anyone else. “The whole six-legs, four-wings thing is beauty to me,” Bucheli said.

I’m trying to get there. In fact, I only used the Texas Fly Swatter once this morning.

But last night, after I cleared the sofa of dead flies and settled in for an episode of Bones, I heard it. The crunch-crunch of rat teeth on rafters.

This time, it’s war.

[to be continued]


(Note: I have updated the link to a test for how easily disgusted a person is. It now takes you to the appendix of Valerie Curtis‘ excellent book “Don’t Look, Don’t Touch: The Science Behind Revulsion.”)

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Catching Up

I’m taking a short break so there won’t be any new posts for a bit. If you want something to read during the hiatus, here are some favourites from this year.

Long-form writing

Best of Not Exactly Rocket Science, 2013

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The Ed’s Up – a newsletter

Following in the digital footsteps of my fellow Phenomenites, I’m starting a simple weekly email newsletter that lists what I wrote during that week, on this blog and elsewhere. It’ll also have some miscellaneous tomfoolery, including interviews, talks or other news, and a few links to good reads from others.

I know everyone’s probably inundated with emails, but this is for folks who want to catch up with my writing but who don’t regularly check Twitter, RSS feeds, Facebook, or my ravens.

You can sign up here.


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Who are you? The 2013 edition

It’s that time of the year again, when I sit back and let you talk about yourselves.

Every year, I ask readers to identify themselves, say something about their background, and tell me a bit about why they were reading this blog. I spend the whole year telling stories so it’s great to hear everyone else’s for a change, especially given the diversity that typically crops up.

What to do: Tell me who you are, your background, and what you do. What’s your interest in science and your involvement with it? How did you come to this blog, how long have you been reading, what do you think about it, and how could it be improved?

Say as little or as much as you like, but do say something, even if you’ve never commented before and even if you commented on the previous ones.

If you’re a first-time commenter, there may be a small delay before your comment is approved. From that point, on, you can comment freely.

And one really important thing: Every year, at least one person says that they have no science background, and they feel intimidated by the folks on the thread who are researchers and professors and what not. Well, dear people, I want to remind you that I started writing because I wanted to be read by you. I still do. Come and have your say.

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The Science of Swarms, Flocks, Herds, Hives, Brains and Tumours

I was interviewed on NPR’s Talk of the Nation show about the amazing science of collective behaviour, which I wrote about for Wired a few months back. If you’ve got a spare 16 minutes, have a listen.

PS. I don’t know why headline writers insist on talking about “predicting the future”, something that my piece never actually talks about or promises.

PPS. Apologies to the caller, whose question on electric grids I completely failed to answer. My knowledge of such grids effectively amounts to “the wall magic that makes my computer work”.

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Mexico Photo Safari

I took a much-needed holiday to Mexico’s Yucatan region last week. (Being about 10 miles out of Chicxulub is a great place to read news about meteors hitting the planet, let me tell you.)

Anyway, normal blogging service has already resumed but in the meantime, here are some wildlife + nature pics that I took on the trip. There should be a slideshow above, with back and forward buttons on the side of the big central image. The pics are also reproduced below.

Green turtle
Green turtle
Green turtle
Common iguana
Common iguana
Black hawk frown
Black hawk frown
Magnificent frigatebird is correctly named.
Magnificent frigatebird is correctly named.
Osprey perching on one leg, because it can.
Osprey perching on one leg, because it can.
Shy brown pelican
Shy brown pelican
Common iguana
Common iguana
Ed, and a wall of Gonzos
Ed, and a wall of Gonzos
Relaxed Ed is relaxed.
Relaxed Ed is relaxed.
A starburst of stalactites.
A starburst of stalactites.
Saw shape in water, stuck camera off side of boat, snapped blindly. TA-DA!


How many turkey vultures need to gather overhead before you feel nervous?
How many turkey vultures need to gather overhead before you feel nervous?
Altimara oriole
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Happy New Year!

Best wishes for 2013, everyone. I hope that in the new year, the things that you love doing will be the things you get to do.

On this page, you can find a almost complete list of the 230 posts that I wrote for Not Exactly Rocket Science this year (excluding the missing links). I’ve got one more lined up to launch in a few hours and then we dive straight into 2013 with tomorrow morning.

See you on the other side. My plan is to dive to the bottom of the ocean, send a robot to Mars, and jump to Earth from the stratosphere. Unless, of course, someone has already done those things, in which case I’ll just write more posts…

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Begin Phase Four! Welcome to Not Exactly Rocket Science

A few billion years ago, when life was just a motley collection of single cells, one microbe swallowed another. This happened a lot. But in this case, unlike all the millions of other such engulfments, the big microbe didn’t digest the smaller one. Instead, the two formed a partnership. The swallowed microbe (a bacterium) provided its swallower (an archaeon) with a rich source of energy, allowing both to jointly evolve into something more complex. This alliance revolutionised life on Earth. You can see the results all around you, in your cells, and those of every animal, plant and fungus, all descended from that fateful partnership. That ancient bacterium became our mitochondria – small, battery-like structures that power our existence. (Here’s the longer version of this literally life-changing tale.)

This is a needlessly convoluted way of saying that I’m delighted to have been swallowed by National Geographic, and I hope that it will be start of a beautiful, mutually beneficial relationship. If we’ve learned anything from the history of life, it’s that symbiosis is a good strategy.

This blog is still Not Exactly Rocket Science, but it’s now part of a self-styled “science salon” called Phenomena, together with Carl Zimmer’s The Loom, Virginia Hughes’ Only Human, and Brian Switek’s Laelaps. Here’s the new feed for this blog and the combined feed for all four of them.

For readers who join me from earlier editions of Not Exactly Rocket Science, you know the drill. A post about an apocalyptic yet strangely secretive frog fungus awaits you in the next room.

For new visitors, hello!

I’ve been writing about science for around six years, and Not Exactly Rocket Science has always been at the heart of my efforts. It’s my playpen. It’s a place where I can write about the kind of science that fascinates me, by trying to fuse good narrative storytelling, solid rigorous journalism, and a sense of playful, wide-eyed fun. I’ve been lucky enough to win a few awards for it, including a National Academies Science Communication Award in 2010. This is the blog’s fourth host body incarnation.

This is ostensibly a news site. It covers what I like to call the “wow beat”—the wonderful bits of science that we’re learning about every day, which make you raise an eyebrow and go, “Ooooo”. It strongly gravitates towards things that are, or once were, alive: people, other animals, plants, fungi, microbes, and (as you’ll see in the upcoming posts) interesting clashes between all of the above. You’ll find stories starring fossils, brains, genes, and more. Here’s a tasting platter of some favourites:

If you don’t have a science background at all, great! This blog is for you. Science can be complicated, but it should never been impenetrably so. My goal is to avoid the quagmire of jargon and opacity, without sacrificing the rich, luscious details that make new discoveries interesting. I’m roughly aiming at me, still at school, circa 1994—curious, eager to learn, but ignorant. If you’re the same, pull up a chair.

I write features for magazines like Nature, Wired, and New Scientist, as well as news and columns for the BBC, Nature, and The Scientist. You’ll find pointers to these other pieces here, along with the occasional DVD-style “extras”, where I include bits that never made it into published pieces, or expand on the same ideas at depth.

I also care a lot about science journalism. I care about getting things right, and avoiding the many pitfalls that plague the profession (these posts will give you an idea of where I stand). I’m also keen to celebrate the best that my peers have to offer. You can find such celebrations every Saturday, in the form of my “missing links” compendium of fascinating content from around the web.

I encourage discussion, questions and comments, and moderate with a light touch. If you’re a first-time commenter, your comment will enter a moderation queue. Once you get your first approval, you can comment freely. Criticism is fine and useful – as I said, I want to get things right. Abuse, bigotry, and content-free ranting will go down less well. Have a look at National Geographic’s community rules for more.

So, come on in. Hang your coats up, and make yourself at home. Say hi to my incredible roommates Carl, Brian and Ginny. Breathe in that “new blog” smell.

Let me tell you some stories.

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I’m Moving My Blog to National Geographic

For the last 2.5 years, I have enjoyed a cosy symbiosis with Discover, providing bloggy sustenance in exchange for shelter, like many a gut bacterium. But in a week’s time, this happy relationship will come to an end.

Next week – most likely on Tuesday 18th December, but to be confirmed – Not Exactly Rocket Science will be moving to National Geographic, as part of a small and brand-new collective of science blogs called Phenomena.

Phenomena will include three of the most accomplished science writers working today: Carl Zimmer (The Loom), Brian Switek (Laelaps), and Virginia Hughes (starting a brand new blog, Only Human). I love these people and their work, and seeing this group come together behind the scenes has been like watching Nick Fury recruit the Avengers.


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Ten million

Sometimes, when you have insomnia and you’ve read the entire internet and you idly check your blog stats, something nice pops up. Not Exactly Rocket Science has been with Discover since March 2010, and at some point today, it will hit it 10 millionth page view since being with the site. Hooray! I have the smile of a proud father.

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Not Exactly Rocket Science turns six today

Snf… they grow up so fast.

Anyway, I’m currently travelling so this is little more than a stick, hammered into cyberspace to mark the occasion. More science to come in a few hours. You’ll barely notice an interruption in service, although Missing Links is unlikely to make an appearance on Saturday.

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The Dork Knight Rises

An old friend of mine found and forwarded an email that I had written on 22nd August, 2006. I sent it to a group of close university mates, telling them about this new science blog that I had created.

It makes me almost embarrassingly sentimental to read this, but hopefully it might help those of you who are in the same situation. Here is me, six years ago, working at a cancer charity, miles away from being a professional science writer, looking for opportunities, and taking a step. Also, note that 6 years ago, I knew even less than the little I know now, so if anything in this seems even remotely prescient, it’s probably best to interpret it as naivety that looks good in hindsight.

The bit where I say “Hopefully, I’ll be able to write a new one every week” cracks me up.

Subject: Shameless self-publicity



Over the last three years, I’ve written three non-work science articles and all three have won runner-up prizes in the Daily Telegraph’s Young Science Writer competition. Which is cool, because it makes me think that I might be able to do this full-time.

So, following kind encouragement from Alice and various friends, I’ve decided to put more effort into this science writing malarkey, stop waiting for others to publish my stuff, and do it myself. To this end, I’ve set up my own blog – go mighty Interweb, go!

The plan is to fill it with feature-length science-related articles on whatever takes my fancy. It’s been live for a week and has three articles thus far, and hopefully, I’ll be able to write a new one every week. It’s an outlet for me to flex a couple of interests – science and writing – and get some good practice in combining the two. It’s also a chance for me to write without worrying about the usual constraints of accessibility, journalistic styles, finding stories that haven’t been covered yet etc. It’s just me, writing for the sake of it, about stuff wot I find fascinating, in the discursive narrative style that I feel most comfortable with.

So come on in, have a read, leave some comments if you wish. If you like it, come back often, or better yet, tell a friend. At best, you might find out something interesting. At worst, you’ll be terribly bored and curse me for wasting your time, but you’ll ramp up my hits and maybe WordPress will send me a muffin. Or some such.