In 1800 the weather remained a mystery. The sky was the last part of nature to be classified: a relic of the arcane, chaotic world that had existed before Newton and the Scientific Revolution. ... Very few in scientific circles would have heard of William C. Redfield’s name before the publication of his storm paper in 1831. A New York businessman, he had made his name with his Steam Navigation Company. Redfield’s steamers plied up and down the Hudson, from New York to Albany, carrying passengers and freight. Redfield’s success had come through his natural instinct for innovation. In the 1820s, the early years of steam, passengers had been wary of traveling too close to the engines, worried that they might explode—as they often did. Redfield’s solution to the problem had been simple but effective. He had designed “safety barges” for the passengers to travel in, precursors of the railway carriages of the future, drawn in strings behind the steamer. Over time, as safety standards had improved and passengers had become more confident, he had switched his tactics: moving the passengers back into the steamer and filling the barges with cargo. ... But Redfield was more than a wily businessman. He had worked as a mechanic in his youth in small-town Connecticut, and he had retained his interest in engineering. ... Traveling on a steamer from New York to New Haven one day in 1831 Redfield chanced to meet Denison Olmstead, professor of mathematics and physics at Yale. Spotting Olmstead on deck he had approached and “modestly asked leave to make a few inquiries” about a paper Olmstead had recently published on hailstorms in the American Journal of Science. Soon Olmstead and Redfield were talking about storms and it was then, for the first time, that Redfield unveiled his theory of whirling winds. It was a pivotal moment in the history of meteorology. ... Redfield’s idea of circular winds was clearly perplexing. Espy could find no reason why winds should dart about the central axis of a storm. Eventually he concluded that Redfield was wrong. A more logical answer, Espy reasoned, was that winds rushed toward the central column at the core of the storm as air in a room would be drawn in toward a burning fire—cool air from beneath replacing the warm heat traveling upward. The science behind this idea was sound. In a powerful storm, Espy thought, the effect would simply be magnified.
He watched his brother die from a cancer that no drug could cure. Now one of the world’s most renowned cancer researchers says it’s time for Plan B. ... The answers Bert Vogelstein needed and feared were in the blood sample. ... Vogelstein is among the most highly cited scientists in the world. He was described, in the 1980s, as having broken into “the cockpit of cancer” after he and coworkers at Johns Hopkins University showed for the first time exactly how a series of DNA mutations, adding up silently over decades, turn cells cancerous. Damaged DNA, he helped prove, is the cause of cancer. ... Now imagine you could see these mutations—see cancer itself—in a vial of blood. Nearly every type of cancer sheds DNA into the bloodstream, and Vogelstein’s laboratory at Johns Hopkins has developed a technique, called a “liquid biopsy,” that can find the telltale genetic material. ... The technology is made possible by instruments that speedily sequence DNA in a blood sample so researchers can spot tumor DNA even when it’s present in trace amounts. The Hopkins scientists, working alongside doctors who treat patients in Baltimore’s largest oncology center, have now studied blood from more than a thousand people. They say liquid biopsies can find cancer long before symptoms of the disease arise.
Conceptually, bioelectronics is straightforward: Get the nervous system to tell the body to heal itself. But of course it’s not that simple. “What we’re trying to do here is completely novel,” says Pedro Irazoqui, a professor of biomedical engineering at Purdue University, where he’s investigating bioelectronic therapies for epilepsy. Jay Pasricha, a professor of medicine and neurosciences at Johns Hopkins University who studies how nerve signals affect obesity, diabetes and gastrointestinal-motility disorders, among other digestive diseases, says, “What we’re doing today is like the precursor to the Model T.” ... The biggest challenge is interpreting the conversation between the body’s organs and its nervous system, according to Kris Famm, who runs the newly formed Bioelectronics R. & D. Unit at GlaxoSmithKline, the world’s seventh-largest pharmaceutical company. “No one has really tried to speak the electrical language of the body,” he says. Another obstacle is building small implants, some of them as tiny as a cubic millimeter, robust enough to run powerful microprocessors. Should scientists succeed and bioelectronics become widely adopted, millions of people could one day be walking around with networked computers hooked up to their nervous systems. And that prospect highlights yet another concern the nascent industry will have to confront: the possibility of malignant hacking. As Anand Raghunathan, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Purdue, puts it, bioelectronics “gives me a remote control to someone’s body.”
Imagine you've been accused of a crime. The police say that you stole something, but the evidence is murky. So the judge comes up with a creative solution: He decrees that you must plunge your arm into a caldron of boiling water. If you come away unhurt, you will go free; if your arm is disfigured, you will go to prison. ... This is what happened in Europe for hundreds of years. During the Middle Ages, if a court couldn't determine whether a defendant was guilty, it often turned the case over to a priest who would administer an "ordeal" using boiling water or a smoking-hot iron bar. The idea was that God, who knew the truth, would miraculously deliver from harm any suspect who had been wrongly accused. ... As a means of establishing guilt, the medieval ordeal sounds barbaric and nonsensical. But according to Peter Leeson, an economist at George Mason University, it was surprisingly effective—because it let the garden weed itself. ... how can a Nigerian scammer tell who is gullible and who isn't? He can't. Gullibility is, in this case, an unobservable trait. But the scammer could invite the gullible people to reveal themselves. ... How? By sending out such a ridiculous letter—including prominent mentions of Nigeria—that only a gullible person would take it seriously. Anyone with an ounce of sense or experience would immediately trash the email. "The scammer wants to find the guy who hasn't heard of it," Dr. Herley says. "Anybody who doesn't fall off their chair laughing is exactly who he wants to talk to." Here's how Dr. Herley put it in a research paper: "The goal of the e-mail is not so much to attract viable users as to repel the nonviable ones, who greatly outnumber them."
Studies in the past two decades indicate that people often understand and remember text on paper better than on a screen. Screens may inhibit comprehension by preventing people from intuitively navigating and mentally mapping long texts. … In general, screens are also more cognitively and physically taxing than paper. Scrolling demands constant conscious effort, and LCD screens on tablets and laptops can strain the eyes and cause headaches by shining light directly on people 's faces. … Preliminary research suggests that even so-called digital natives are more likely to recall the gist of a story when they read it on paper because enhanced e-books and e-readers themselves are too distracting. Paper's greatest strength may be its simplicity.
In some ways, everything had changed, for Schadt now had four hundred people working for him, along with nine gene sequencers at his disposal and a supercomputer named Minerva in the basement. In other ways, however, he remained a guy in shorts, a guy whose face was always agleam in the light of his laptop, a guy whose office walls were decorated with a palimpsest of indecipherable equations. Most important, he remained a guy who never said no—who never rejected anything as impossible—and when he learned that a woman from Mississippi whom Esquire had written about eight years earlier had been told she had terminal colon cancer, Schadt looked up and said: "That's exactly the kind of patient we take." … It was, in the end, the reason he had come to New York. He probably didn't really need nine gene sequencers. He probably didn't even really need Minerva, because he could do supercomputing with Google and Amazon. But as both a lapsed molecular biologist and a lapsed Christian looking to establish a new faith, he needed something he had never had before. He needed patients. He needed someone like Stephanie Lee.
Inside a lab in Pisa, forensics pathologist Gino Fornaciari and his team investigate 500-year-old cold cases … Gino Fornaciari is no ordinary medical examiner; his bodies represent cold cases that are centuries, sometimes millennia, old. As head of a team of archaeologists, physical anthropologists, historians of medicine and additional specialists at the University of Pisa, he is a pioneer in the burgeoning field of paleopathology, the use of state-of-the-art medical technology and forensic techniques to investigate the lives and deaths of illustrious figures of the past. … Its practitioners worldwide are making startling discoveries.
Why did it take so long to invent the wheelbarrow? Have we hit peak innovation? What our list reveals about imagination, optimism, and the nature of progress. ... The Atlantic recently assembled a panel of 12 scientists, entrepreneurs, engineers, historians of technology, and others to assess the innovations that have done the most to shape the nature of modern life. The main rule for this exercise was that the innovations should have come after widespread use of the wheel began, perhaps 6,000 years ago. That ruled out fire, which our forebears began to employ several hundred thousand years earlier. We asked each panelist to make 25 selections and to rank them, despite the impossibility of fairly comparing, say, the atomic bomb and the plow. (As it happens, both of these made it to our final list: the discovery and application of nuclear fission, which led to both the atomic bomb and nuclear-power plants, was No. 21 of the top 50, ahead of the moldboard plow, which greatly expanded the range of land that farmers could till, at No. 30.) ... Less evident from the final list is what I was fascinated to learn from my talks with many of the panelists. That is the diversity of views about the types of historical breakthroughs that matter, with a striking consensus on whether the long trail of innovation recorded here is now nearing its end.
What can business learn from Big Science? … AS A technical feat, ATLAS takes some beating. It is the world’s biggest microscope, used by physicists at CERN, a large laboratory near Geneva, to probe the fundamental building blocks of matter. Its barrel-shaped body, 45 metres long, 25 metres tall and weighing as much as the Eiffel tower, was assembled in a cavern 100 metres beneath the Swiss countryside from 10m parts, nearly twice as many as in a jumbo jet. It generates more data each day than Twitter does. … It is also a remarkable organisational achievement. The components were designed by hundreds of scientists and engineers from dozens of institutions. They were subsequently sourced from 400-odd suppliers on four continents, at a cost of $435m. At any one time the experiment involves more than 3,000 researchers from 175 institutes in 38 countries. … Does a multinational science project like ATLAS have much in common with a multinational business?
Olivia Fox Cabane says she can make anyone more likable—for a price. But can charisma really be taught? … Whether it’s the way someone always remembers your name, seems to care about your life, or notices your new haircut, the draw of charismatic people is almost universal. We don’t just like who they are; we like who we are around them. They make us feel important, and yet we are the ones who end up wanting to please. Popularity and power are the birthright of the naturally charismatic. … But Olivia wasn’t born with it. She is, and has always been, an introvert. As a teenager she was a high-school outcast—the kind of kid who sits silently, then says too much, and at the wrong time. She has an engineer’s mind and an occasionally clumsy grasp of social nuance. It took her years to learn how to be a good host, and to do so she had to seek out the science of charisma. She had to assemble tools and tricks that could transform a shy teenager into a socialite. She had to reverse-engineer the intangible. Now she earns a six-figure salary by teaching others how she did it.
Thinking about it makes you a better person, not a worse one … “THE love of money”, St Paul memorably wrote to his protégé Timothy, “is the root of all evil.” “All” may be putting it a bit strongly, but dozens of psychological studies have indeed shown that people primed to think about money before an experiment are more likely to lie, cheat and steal during the course of that experiment. … Another well-known aphorism, ascribed to Benjamin Franklin, is “time is money”. If true, that suggests a syllogism: that the love of time is a root of evil, too. But a paper just published in Psychological Science by Francesca Gino of Harvard and Cassie Mogilner of the University of Pennsylvania suggests precisely the opposite.
A flawed system for judging research is leading to academic fraud … As China tries to take its seat at the top table of global academia, the criminal underworld has seized on a feature in its research system: the fact that research grants and promotions are awarded on the basis of the number of articles published, not on the quality of the original research. This has fostered an industry of plagiarism, invented research and fake journals that Wuhan University estimated in 2009 was worth $150m, a fivefold increase on just two years earlier. … Chinese scientists are still rewarded for doing good research, and the number of high-quality researchers is increasing. Scientists all round the world also commit fraud. But the Chinese evaluation system is particularly susceptible to it.
Seventy years after the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by nuclear weapons, David Kaiser investigates the legacy of 'the physicists' war'. ... The Second World War marked an unprecedented mobilization of scientists and engineers, and a turning point in the relationship between research and the state. By the end of the war, the nuclear weapons project, code-named the Manhattan Engineer District, absorbed thousands of researchers and billions of dollars. It sprawled across 30 facilities throughout the United States and Canada, with British teams working alongside Americans and Canadians. Allied efforts on radar swelled to comparable scale. ... the term had been coined long before August 1945, and originally it had nothing to do with bombs or radar. Rather, the physicists' war had referred to an urgent, ambitious training mission: to teach elementary physics to as many enlisted men as possible. ... Both views of how scientists could serve their nations — the quotidian and the cataclysmic — have shaped scientific research and higher education to this day.
A remote island, an Arctic expedition, a one-way trip to Mars – what drives our urge to explore the farthest reaches? ... People tend to go out to the edges of things. Which things, exactly, depends on the era: 1.8 million years ago, our early ancestors moved overland out of Africa. Thousands of years ago, early Polynesians sailed outrigger canoes over the horizon, eventually populating the entire Pacific. In the late 19th century, nearly every year a new batch of European explorers headed northwards, throwing themselves into the jaws of the ice. Today, the planet’s atmosphere seems to be the edge of choice. It is not clear how many people applied to be on Mars One’s much-discussed mission to colonise the Red Planet, but what is clear is that a one-way ticket away from Earth sets some people’s eyes alight. ... That the urge to explore is glorious and universal is one of today’s most persistent romances. It has yielded great rewards for the people who go and for their societies; leaving the known is a fast way to learn new things. ... Yet exploration is not as obvious a thing to revere as you might think. It is often absurd. ... The tendency to become restless in the absence of something new they dubbed ‘sensation-seeking’. ... The key, though, is that there must also be people who don’t want to ramble, who turn their talents and energies to exploiting, to the best of their abilities, the place where they have settled. If there are too many explorers, the group is likely to starve.
Perhaps the greatest polo player ever, Adolfo Cambiaso is planning to compete on a pony that died nearly a decade ago—a clone of his beloved stallion Aiken Cura. With more than 25 replicas of champion horses now in existence, Haley Cohen explores how the science came to polo. ... Aiken Cura is one of a number of horses that Cambiaso has duplicated. Through their company, Crestview Genetics, Cambiaso and two wealthy polo enthusiasts—the founder, Texan Alan Meeker, and Argentinean tycoon Ernesto Gutiérrez—have created more than 25 clones of Cambiaso’s champion polo horses and around 45 clones in total. Some are already breeding, and a few others began to play in top tournaments last year. Since the company’s establishment, in 2009, the partners have cloned not only for themselves but also for other international polo players who are willing to shell out around $120,000 per horse. Crestview is one of only two commercial groups in the world replicating polo horses, and it is the more prolific. ... Cloning began long before the world started paying attention to it, in 1996, when Dolly the Sheep, the first mammal successfully cloned from an adult cell, clomped into the world. One hundred years before, in 1885, Hans Driesch created two identical sea urchins by jiggling a two-celled urchin embryo until the cells separated and grew into their own creatures. Through much more sophisticated processes, scientists have since cloned pigs, cows, dogs, cats, ferrets, goats, and horses. (It is estimated that there are now around 300 cloned horses in the world, although no one has really kept track.) Now, with Crestview’s efforts, polo—the ancient “game of kings”—has found itself on the frontiers of cloning technology. ... “I did the math and realized it would take me $100 million and 50 years to get the quality of horses I wanted through conventional breeding,” he says. “I decided I didn’t want to spend either.” Instead, he turned to cloning.
On the seventh floor of a building overlooking the Federal Reserve Bank in lower Manhattan, two medical clinics share an office. One is run by a podiatrist who’s outfitted the waiting room with educational materials on foot problems such as hammer toes and bunions. The other clinic doesn’t have pamphlets on display and offers a much less conventional service: For the advertised price of $525, severely depressed and suicidal patients can get a 45-minute intravenous infusion of ketamine—better known as the illicit party drug Special K. ... Patients receive a low dose of the drug: about one-tenth of what recreational abusers of ketamine take or about one-fifth of what might be used as a general anesthetic. ... During the infusions, which are gradual rather than all at once, patients often experience strange sensations, such as seeing colors and patterns when they close their eyes. ... The U.S. Food and Drug Administration hasn’t approved ketamine for the treatment of mood disorders, but dozens of medical studies show that it can quickly alleviate severe depression.
The ocean-filled moon might hold the life we’ve long searched for in space. And scientists have one shot to reach it. ... Everything we know about life says that it needs water. Conversely, every place on Earth where water exists, life does too. The conventional thinking, then, is that if you want to find alien life, the first thing you look for is alien water. Europa is the wettest known world in the solar system. Life also needs food and energy. Europa scores there too: Its ocean might be nourished by a drizzle of organic chemicals and stirred by volcanic vents like the ones dotting the mid-Atlantic ridge. If any place in the solar system holds the answer to the “Are we alone?” question, it’s a good bet that Europa, not the Red Planet, does. ... Which is not to say that getting the answer will be easy—not by a long shot. To give you a sense of exactly how hard it will be, consider three more numbers: 600 million—the average flight distance, in miles, from Earth to Europa, meaning that the journey there could take at least six years; 500—the average radiation dose, in rem per day, on Europa’s surface, enough to fry unprotected spacecraft electronics within a matter of days; and 10—the average estimated thickness, in miles, of Europa’s ice shell, more than four times as thick as the glaciers covering Antarctica. Overcoming those numbers will test the limits of human ingenuity. But a growing chorus of scientists has argued that we must try. ... most of the liquid water in the solar system is found not on the surface of rocky worlds like Earth but inside icy bodies like Europa. That raises the stakes for NASA’s upcoming mission. If we find evidence of life on Europa, it would point to a whole new class of habitable worlds across the solar system, and probably across the universe.
Diseases spread by ticks are on the rise around the world, spurred by a combination of factors, including shifting climates and population sprawl into rural areas. Reported cases of Lyme, the most common US tick-borne illness, have nearly tripled in the country since 1992, although some of the increase could be due to heightened awareness. Lyme is also a growing problem in parts of Europe, Mongolia and China. Yet as bad as it is, there are nastier threats on the rise. In parts of Africa, the Middle East, Asia and southern Europe, ticks can spread Crimean–Congo haemorrhagic fever, which is fatal in 40% of cases. And a tick-borne relapsing fever afflicts as many as 1 in 20 residents in parts of Senegal. In the United States, ticks spread at least 16 illnesses, including anaplasmosis, babesiosis, ehrlichiosis and Rocky Mountain spotted fever, all “serious, life-threatening infections”, Beard says. And many are increasing in incidence more quickly than Lyme. In a July 2015 position statement, the Entomological Society of America argued for a national strategy to combat tick-borne diseases. “The recent confluence of environmental, ecological, sociological, and human demographic factors,” it said, “has created a near 'perfect storm' leading to more ticks in more places throughout North America.”
Everyone at the Napa meeting had access to a gene-editing technique called Crispr-Cas9. The first term is an acronym for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats,” a description of the genetic basis of the method; Cas9 is the name of a protein that makes it work. Technical details aside, Crispr-Cas9 makes it easy, cheap, and fast to move genes around—any genes, in any living thing, from bacteria to people. ... Using the three-year-old technique, researchers have already reversed mutations that cause blindness, stopped cancer cells from multiplying, and made cells impervious to the virus that causes AIDS. Agronomists have rendered wheat invulnerable to killer fungi like powdery mildew, hinting at engineered staple crops that can feed a population of 9 billion on an ever-warmer planet. Bioengineers have used Crispr to alter the DNA of yeast so that it consumes plant matter and excretes ethanol, promising an end to reliance on petrochemicals. Startups devoted to Crispr have launched. International pharmaceutical and agricultural companies have spun up Crispr R&D. Two of the most powerful universities in the US are engaged in a vicious war over the basic patent. Depending on what kind of person you are, Crispr makes you see a gleaming world of the future, a Nobel medallion, or dollar signs. ... It brings with it all-new rules for the practice of research in the life sciences. But no one knows what the rules are—or who will be the first to break them. ... As it happened, the people who found it weren't genome engineers at all. They were basic researchers, trying to unravel the origin of life by sequencing the genomes of ancient bacteria and microbes called Archaea (as in archaic), descendants of the first life on Earth. Deep amid the bases, the As, Ts, Gs, and Cs that made up those DNA sequences, microbiologists noticed recurring segments that were the same back to front and front to back—palindromes. The researchers didn't know what these segments did, but they knew they were weird. In a branding exercise only scientists could love, they named these clusters of repeating palindromes Crispr. ... Pick your creature, pick your gene, and you can bet someone somewhere is giving it a go.
To help feed billions of people, scientists braved the snake-infested and croc-filled swamps of northern Australia in search of rice. ... Musgrave is one of a few pit stops along the rutted, mostly dirt road that traverses Cape York, Australia, and ends at the northeasternmost tip of the continent, just 100 miles from Papua New Guinea. The peninsula is part of the world’s greatest concentration of free-flowing rivers and its most extensive network of intact tropical savannas, which stretches across the country’s north for hundreds of miles. Even in a country where open spaces rule the landscape, this place looms in the national mind as an uncharted, prehistoric mystery. This year alone, scientists discovered 13 new spider species on the peninsula. Cape York is roughly the size of Nebraska but with only 17,000 residents, most of whom are indigenous and clustered in a few towns along the coast. ... Grown on six continents and in 117 countries, rice is the world’s most important food. There are 144 million farms that grow rice, more than for any other crop. The vast majority of these are in developing countries, and virtually all of them are small, averaging just over 2 acres apiece. Simply put, the crop is the daily sustenance of the world’s poor. The primary reason is its remarkable biology. Rice is naturally prolific, each plant generating perhaps 25 times as many grains as a single wheat plant. When grown in water, its microbiome regenerates the soil’s nutrition, making fertilizer unnecessary. ... In recent decades, an increasing number of geneticists and plant breeders have realized that crops’ wild relatives hold immense value because they have not been domesticated. Instead of being narrowed and homogenized by humans, these crops have produced immeasurable genetic diversity as a result of their natural adaptation to pests, diseases, and climatic fluctuation. Their genes have already begun to help agriculture tackle the enormous challenges it faces today.
How a 500-year experiment to revive dormant microbes could reveal the secrets to cheating time ... For almost as long as we have known about micro-organisms, we have known about dormancy. In 1702, the Dutch biologist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek collected some dried ‘animalcules’ from a nearby gutter and added water. Peering through his handmade microscope, he observed that ‘they began to extend their bodies and in half an hour at least 100 of them were swimming about the glass’. ... Aged 70, van Leeuwenhoek had just discovered the dormant states of rotifers – small, wheel-shaped animals that can be found in many transient freshwater habitats. When conditions become too Spartan, these humble organisms contract into dry, oval-shaped husks in order to survive. ... Water is essential for life, and yet anhydrobiotes appear to get by without it. How? According to the ‘water replacement hypothesis’, they exchange their cellular fluid for sugars such as sucrose and trehalose. The result is a glass-like substance that not only retains the cell’s shape on rehydration, but also slows down a lot of unwanted chemical reactions. With this scaffolding in place, they reduce the fires of their metabolisms to embers, conserving their energy like a ground squirrel within its winter den, waiting for conditions to improve. They keep things ticking over.
Science is not a ‘body of knowledge’ – it’s a dynamic, ongoing reconfiguration of knowledge and must be free to change ... each scientific discipline is governed by an accepted set of theories and metaphysical assumptions, within which normal science operates. Periodically, when this rather humdrum ‘puzzle solving’ leads to results that are inconsistent with the regnant perspective, there follows a disruptive, exciting period of ‘scientific revolution’, after which a new paradigm is instituted and normal science can operate once more. ... When Newton said: ‘If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants’, he wasn’t merely being modest; rather he was emphasising the extent to which science is cumulative, mostly building on past achievements rather than making quantum leaps. ... the accumulation process generates not just something more, but often something altogether new. Sometimes the new involves the literal discovery of something which hadn’t previously been known (electrons, general relativity, Homo naledi). At least as important, however, are conceptual novelties, changes in the ways that people understand – and often misunderstand – the material world: their operating paradigms. ... The world’s factual details are in continual Heraclitean flux, but the basic rules and patterns underlying these changes in the physical and biological world are themselves constant. ... Our insights, however, are always ‘evolving’. ... Science is a process, which, unlike ideology, is distinguished by intellectual flexibility, by a graceful, grateful (albeit sometimes grudging) acceptance of the need to change our minds, as our understanding of the world evolves. Most people aren’t revolutionaries, scientific or otherwise. But anyone aspiring to be well-informed needs to understand not only the most important scientific findings, but also their provisional nature, and the need to avoid hardening of the categories: to know when it is time to lose an existing paradigm and replace it with a new one. ... Holding still is exactly what science won’t do.
Industrial production destroyed both the taste and the nutritional value of wheat. One scientist believes he can undo the damage. ... Commodity wheats are defined in just three ways: hard (high in protein, which is good for bread) or soft (better for pastries); red (dark color and strong flavor) or white (pale and more delicate-tasting); and winter or spring, depending on when they are planted. ‘‘Hard red spring,’’ for example, is often used for bread; ‘‘soft white winter’’ is better for pastries. A vast majority of America’s 56 million acres of wheat grow in a belt stretching more than 1,000 miles from the Canadian border to Central Texas. Around half of the crop is exported, and most of what remains is funneled to feedlots for cattle or to giant mills and bread factories, which churn out all those bags of generic white flour and limp sandwich bread sleeved twice in plastic. This industrial system forces plant breeders to prioritize wheat kernels of highly specific sizes, colors and hardness. ... What would happen, Jones wondered, if he developed unique varieties of wheat adapted to the Skagit’s cool, wet climate and extremely fertile soil? What if he could interest local millers and bakers in dealing primarily with Washington wheat? What if wheat, like wine, had terroir? After all, it used to. ... A grain of wheat has three main components: a fibrous and nutrient-rich outer coating called the bran; the flavorful and aromatic germ, a living embryo that eventually develops into the adult plant; and a pouch of starch known as the endosperm, which makes up the bulk of the grain. Before roller mills, all three parts were mashed together when processed. As a result, flour was not the inert white powder most of us are familiar with today ... Roller mills solved this problem. Their immense spinning cylinders denuded the endosperm and discarded the germ and bran, producing virtually unspoilable alabaster flour composed entirely of endosperm. It was a boon for the growing flour industry: Mills could now source wheat from all over, blend it to achieve consistency and transport it across the nation without worrying about shelf life. That newfound durability came at a huge cost, however, sacrificing much of the grain’s flavor and nutrition.
“Fire left,” instructs Pederson. Mistry flips a switch on the center console and deploys a flare on the left wing. “Fire right.” There are 24 cylinders resembling sticks of dynamite wired to racks on the plane’s wings, 12 on each. The flares are filled with combustible sodium chloride—pulverized table salt mixed with a flammable potassium powder. When the switch is flipped, the end of the flare shoots orange fire and trillions of superfine salt particles are released into the cloud. Water molecules are attracted to salt, so they bond to the particles and coalesce into raindrops. ... During our mission over Maharashtra, we have cooperative clouds. Twenty-two minutes after seeding the first cloud, Pederson returns to the location where he fired that initial flare. It’s pouring. “We’ve got drops!” he shouts. He dips the King Air into a victory swoop before gunning over to another cluster of clouds. My stomach churns, and I can’t hold it in any longer; I heave into my purse. Pederson doesn’t notice. The computer barks out another warning about excessive banking. He laughs and says, “Shove it, Betty.” ... Cloud seeding has been controversial since it was invented by Vincent Schaefer in 1946. A chemist for General Electric, Schaefer made the first snowstorm in a laboratory freezer. The media predicted that cloud seeding could perform miracles, from dousing forest fires to ensuring white Christmases. But doubts quickly arose about the impact of meddling with nature. Concerns that cloud seeding might “steal” water from an area a cloud is traveling toward—robbing Peter to water Paul, as it were—have been dispelled. Storm clouds continually regenerate and release only a portion of their moisture when they rain, which means you can’t “wring out” all the moisture from one cloud.
In the 1980s, two ecologists, Jim Brown at the University of New Mexico and Brian Maurer at Brigham Young University, coined the term macroecology, which gave a name and intellectual home to researchers searching for emergent patterns in nature. Frustrated by the small scale of many ecological studies, macroecologists were looking for patterns and theories that could allow them to describe nature broadly in time and space. ... Brown and Maurer had been influenced heavily by regularities in many ecological phenomena. One of these, called the species-area curve, was discovered back in the 19th century, and formalized in 1921. That curve emerged when naturalists counted the number of species (of plants, insects, mammals, and so on) found in plots laid out in backyards, savannahs, and forests. They discovered that the number of species increased with the area of the plot, as expected. But as the plot size kept increasing, the rate of increase in the number of species began to plateau. Even more remarkable, the same basic species-area curve was found regardless of the species or habitat. To put it mathematically, the curve followed a power law, in which the change in species number increased proportionally to the square root of the square root of the area. ... Power laws are common in science, and are the defining feature of universality in physics. They describe the strength of magnets as temperature increases, earthquake frequency versus size, and city productivity as a function of population.