Science & Technology

Risk-Free Assassinations

Andrew Cockburn

3 December 2020

The record of this year’s wars shows that although these weapons may not provide a decisive edge in combat they excel in self-advertisement, projecting an image of all-seeing omnipotence. Drones induce terror in civilian populations and healthy profits for manufacturers. The spell persists even when they are unarmed.

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Consider the Giraffe

Katherine Rundell

19 November 2020

Horace​ was stridently anti-giraffe. The animal was, he believed, conceptually untidy: ‘If a painter had chosen to set a human head on a horse’s neck [or] if a lovely woman ended repulsively . . .

Flour Fixated

Bee Wilson

24 September 2020

Not​ many people have heard of Norman Borlaug, but his invention – the high-yield, short-straw wheat that fuelled the Green Revolution – is consumed every day by the majority of humans . . .

In the Lab

Rupert Beale

13 August 2020

On​ 29 July, I received ‘Coronavirus (Covid-19) update: issue 97’ from my university. I understand from dimly remembered friends and colleagues outside the Covidology bubble that 2020 . . .

Consider the Hare

Katherine Rundell

2 July 2020

Hares​ have always been thought magical. In their long-limbed quivering beauty, they were believed to be walking, breathing love potions. Philostratus warned his third-century readers that there . . .

The Sucker, the Sucker! What’s it like to be an octopus?

Amia Srinivasan, 7 September 2017

Their intelligence is like ours, and utterly unlike ours. Octopuses are the closest we can come, on earth, to knowing what it might be like to encounter intelligent aliens.

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You Are the Product: It Zucks!

John Lanchester, 17 August 2017

I am scared of Facebook. The company’s ambition, its ruthlessness, and its lack of a moral compass scare me.

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In Hyperspace

Fredric Jameson, 10 September 2015

Science fiction is not the only mass-cultural genre (or subgenre) whose relationship to ‘high literature’ and to modernism in particular presents problems.

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Ghosting: Julian Assange

Andrew O’Hagan, 6 March 2014

It was exciting to think that no novel had ever captured this new kind of history, where military lies on a global scale were revealed by a bunch of sleepy amateurs two foot from an Aga.

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Diary: After the Oil Spill

Rebecca Solnit, 5 August 2010

New Orleans’s Saint Charles Avenue is lined with oak trees whose broad branches drip Spanish moss and Mardi Gras beads from the pre-Lenten parades, and behind the oaks are beautiful old...

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Why does it take so long to mend an escalator?

Peter Campbell, 7 March 2002

The descent to the tunnels through which the deep lines run is a tax on the spirit that is paid willingly because it makes it easier to live in an old, tight-packed city. But when the system fails it is strongly resented.

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What’s left of Henrietta Lacks? HeLa

Anne Enright, 13 April 2000

I don’t know where I heard of her first: a woman whose cells are bred in culture dishes in labs all over the world; a woman whose cells were so prolific that there is more of her now, in...

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On the Darwinian View of Progress

Amartya Sen, 5 November 1992

It is now a century and a third, almost exactly, since the publication in 1859 of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. In this period the view of evolutionary progress introduced by Darwin...

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The man who mistook his wife for a hat

Oliver Sacks, 19 May 1983

The scientific study of the relationship between brain and mind began in 1861, when Broca, in France, found that specific difficulties in the expressive use of speech (aphasia) consistently...

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The more we learn about ourselves and the universe, the more we appreciate that aliens probably won’t just be humans with longer limbs and waving antennae. How do you communicate with a planet-sized...

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All hail the microbe: Things Pile Up

Lavinia Greenlaw, 18 June 2020

As a concept, ‘future fossils’ seems a bit reductive, too slickly oppositional, when put to work in such open terrain. What we’re really talking about is stuff. From plastic teaspoons...

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Drain the Swamps

Steven Shapin, 4 June 2020

It​ starts with bone-shivering chills, which give way to a high fever. The attacks last between six and twelve hours, and end in profuse sweating. When the chills and fever subside, they leave...

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Not in Spanish: Bilingualism

Michael Hofmann, 21 May 2020

The author is obviously in love with his subject, taking it everywhere with him, seeing it wherever he goes. ‘Most of the people I know are bilingual’ is his delightful shrug.

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The government is now keen to claim it was never prepared to tolerate high levels of infection in order to achieve herd immunity, but while it was defending the mitigation strategy it was prepared to argue...

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Short Cuts: Internet Speak

Lauren Oyler, 7 May 2020

The tone of my correspondence veers from ebullient to combative to conspiratorial to semi-ironically frustrated, outraged, mournful. A message that follows spelling and grammar conventions is rare; it’s...

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Consider the Greenland Shark

Katherine Rundell, 7 May 2020

I am glad not to be a Greenland shark; I don’t have enough thoughts to fill five hundred years. But I find the very idea of them hopeful. They will see us pass through our current spinning apocalypse,...

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The Arrestables

Jeremy Harding, 16 April 2020

Extinction Rebellion has come under fire for suggesting, as Roger Hallam has, that prison isn’t such a bad experience. Eda Seyhan, a lawyer and civil liberties campaigner, delivered a blistering...

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Short Cuts: Built from Light

Daniel Soar, 16 April 2020

The virtual part of virtual reality has been with us for ever – or at least since the 1790s, when Wordsworth complained that the crowds were too easily pleased by the room-sized illusions...

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Quaresima: Indefinite Lent

Thomas Jones, 2 April 2020

The belief that ‘it won’t be like that here’ is strong: it was strong in Italy – it was strong in me – when the disease was concentrated in China. When I talk to friends and...

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Short Cuts: Wash Your Hands

Rupert Beale, 19 March 2020

Humanity will get through this fine, but be prepared for major changes in how we function and behave as a society.

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Consider the Hermit Crab

Katherine Rundell, 6 February 2020

They are not, in fact, hermitical: they’re sociable, often climbing on top of one another to sleep in great piles, and their group behaviour is so intricately ordered that they make the politics...

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Hell Pigs: Before there was Europe

Francis Gooding, 2 January 2020

The dwarf elephant of Cyprus was only a metre high at the shoulder; the island was also home to a tiny, sheep-sized hippo. Minorca, meanwhile, had a giant rabbit as big as a medium-sized dog.

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The Unpredictable Cactus: Mescaline

Emily Witt, 2 January 2020

‘No mind-altering substance has been described more thoroughly and from such a variety of perspectives,’ Mike Jay writes in his new history, Mescaline.

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Throw your testicles: Medieval Bestiaries

Tom Shippey, 19 December 2019

One can’t help wondering where the notion of the bonnacon came from. Surely no one in medieval Europe could have encountered a skunk?

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Diary: California Burns

Meehan Crist, 21 November 2019

As we glide along the path of our own destruction, this is how we normalise it – one tweet at a time.

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Diary: Bearness

David Trotter, 7 November 2019

Bears, we have been led to believe, are super-cuddly – right up until the moment when they rip your throat out.’

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Consider the Hedgehog

Katherine Rundell, 24 October 2019

The Ebers Papyrus, dating from around 1550 bce, suggested that an amulet in the shape of a hedgehog would stop hair thinning. Its skin and spines have been thought to help with toothache, kidney stones,...

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