Selected Recent Work
Backchannel, February 2016
Why is it so difficult to get your own health data—and how do so many other people manage to make money off of it? Meet the data dissidents: a young man with a brain tumor who dissected his own cancer, then built a web site to host all his data. A mother who discovered the diagnosis of her baby’s mystery illness in his medical files. A security expert who doesn’t trust the code that runs her own pacemaker.
Audubon, March-April 2016
Mother Jones, Sept-Oct 2015
Wired, February 2015
A new generation of sexual pioneers is rebelling against a relentlessly horny culture, creating a new community of people who rarely, if ever, have sex. Demisexuals, grey-asexuals and their ilk aren’t prudes or moralizers, and they say there’s really nothing wrong with them. They’re just not that into you.
Aeon, March 2015
Inventors building brain-to-brain communication devices often predict that machine-assisted telepathy will launch a new era of empathy, peace and understanding. They have no idea how empathy really works. In this story, I review the new psychology of empathy: How it distorts our moral logic, helps bullies and sociopaths manipulate their victims, and directs us to ignore the suffering of strangers.
Quanta, August 2014
If DNA is your data, it is hopelessly corrupt: across the body, many cells are riddled with major mutations, and others have massive chromosome-sized errors. Large genetic errors are so common in some organs that some scientists are starting to suspect it’s not a bug but a feature, allowing our bodies to be more adaptable in the face of environmental change.
Aeon, November 2014
Quanta, July 2014
Single-celled creatures dominated Earth for billions of years, so why is the planet full of plants, animals and other multicellular life? Univeristy of California Berkeley biologist Nicole King studies choanoflagellates, tiny slime-slurping creatures that seem to have been the first organisms to form cooperative living arrangements more than 600 million years ago. She thinks bacteria triggered this first foray into multicellularity—the inspiration for one of life’s most important innovations. (Reprinted at Wired.com)
Slate, April 2014
We’re losing the war on bugs—insects eat a fifth of the crops we plant every year, despite the toxic chemicals we dump on them. A new generation of plant scientists is learning to defeat bugs by tuning into to the communication between plants—the ongoing chatter of chemicals that drifts through the air and allows plants to let one another know what’s going on.
Nautilus, August 2013
In tests of experimental cancer drugs, every once in a while one lucky person has a spectacular response to a drug that is ineffective for nearly everyone else. Doctors used to just shrug their shoulders in bewilderment, but DNA sequencing is now revealing what’s so different about these “extraordinary responders”—and making it possible for other people to benefit too.
Nautilus, April 2013
For the debut issue of Nautilus, I explore the fascinating ideas of Michael Tomasello, whose theories about human nature draw upon research in anthropology, primatology, psychology and child development. His “Vygotskian Intelligence Hypothesis” proposes that our species was forced to become smart in order to work together. Cooperation, he says, is what makes human beings unique.
DISCOVER, March 2011
People who survive brain injury may linger for years what seems to be a vegetative state—then suddenly snap out of it. Brain scanning studies reveal that thoughts and emotions still flicker through the minds of some of these people, who appear to be completely cut off from the world. New research carried out by a small band of dedicated neuroscientists and doctors is beginning to explain these mysteries, and get the first deep look at the biology of consciousness. Their work is showing us a new world and confronting us with a new responsibility: the duty to help people trapped in limbo. Read online or pdf.
DISCOVER, July/August 2009
We think we know what happened in the past. But memory turns out to be a grab-bag of half-truths and fabrications. Every time we recollect, our neurons edit and rewrite. The new neuroscience of memory is destroying our faith in what we remember. It might also liberate people who are haunted by PTSD and horrible visions from the past. Read online or pdf.
Selected for Best American Science and Nature Writing, 2010.