In this piece for Nautilus, I talk to the director of Colombia's Humboldt Institute, the inimitable Brigitte Baptiste, on her "grand ecological experiment" -- bringing broad biodiversity research to a post-conflict Colombia. It might be said that Baptiste's lesser (but no less fascinating) ecological experiment is her ever-changing self. photo Caussette Magazine/Antonia Zennaro
In Colombia in 2013, I met a researcher from Princeton University working on Chagas, a vector-borne disease that's ubiquitous in Latin America, with a very high public health burden, that I'd never heard of. I wasn't alone; Chagas remains one of the least studied and least publicized tropical diseases though it causes serious heart damage in about a third of people who have it. As it turns out, both the parasite that causes disease and the bugs that carry it have long been in the United States as well, as researchers in Texas are starting to realize. In this piece for the New Yorker's Elements blog, I write about how military scientists began taking note of Chagas when dogs at Lackland Air Force Base began dropping dead, and worried about the implications for troops.
In July 2014 my friend Maren Meinhardt and I went to Ecuador in an attempt to follow the path of the German explorer Alexander Von Humboldt. Our trip went well except for one day that went very badly, as I recounted in Guernica magazine, where Maren explained why this 19th century explorer's footsteps are so tempting to retrace, even when it means getting stuck on a volcano and having to be rescued.
The patterns of many shell species are never seen in the darkness where they reside. Some cover their elaborate designs with an extra layer of protein, making them look like mossy rocks. For a long time researchers suspected that shell patterns had lost any ties to natural selection. Recent findings suggest that genetic relationships do, in fact, correlate closely with shell patterns. But what is the point of them? My review of Helen Scales's clever Spirals in Time.
In the final days of 1932, three field-weary anthropologists meet and take stock of one another in colonial New Guinea, at a government station on the Sepik River. One of them, Nell Stone, is malarial, hobbling, covered in ulcers, and squinting – her glasses have been smashed by her husband, Schuyler Fenwick, and she has recently suffered a miscarriage, another result of his outbursts. At a party they encounter Andrew Bankson, a young Englishman who, after two years of living in a treehouse, has recently tried to drown himself, only to be rescued by bemused tribesmen.
Bankson persuades the couple to set up on the Sepik. He promises to find them a “decent” tribe to study, a day’s boat ride away from his own. They will be close enough to keep him from feeling desperately alone, far enough away that they won’t feel that their work is stepping on his toes. Bankson dresses Nell’s wounds with the kind sensitivity that spells romantic trouble. He escorts the couple to their new study site, and awaits the right day to reappear in their lives.
My review of Lily King's Euphoria, a clever if gothic take on a reveletory sexual and intellectual episode in the life of Margaret Mead...