All posts by Paul Voosen


What’s Driving Human Evolution Now?

Sterling Hayden as Brig. Gen. Jack D. Ripper (left), with Peter Sellers as Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake in Dr. Strangelove (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Last year, when Sir David Attenborough, the British naturalist and broadcaster, speculated that human beings had ended natural selection through cultural and technological innovations, he got a deserved amount of blowback. The criticism started with his toy-model view of evolution, and went from there. But beneath it all, there was one lingering…


A Disease Ecologist and His Discontents

The white-footed mouse, a favored home of the Lyme bacterium. Copyright John White

The white-footed mouse, a favored home of the Lyme bacterium. Copyright John White

If we save the animals, do we, in the end, save ourselves?

There is so much nature can do for us. It can clean our water. Absorb our carbon. Inspire us. Each of those benefits can be quantified, in the language of modern conservation, as an “ecosystem service,” as I describe this week in The Chronicle Review.

The stories behind some services are more alluring than others: Few people become environmentalists out of…


In Vancouver, a Young Science Confronts Its Limits

Black rockfish

Consider, if you will, the black rockfish.

Its skin a mottled black-gray, its belly white, and its dorsal fin spiny, the black rockfish is a saltwater species of unremarkable size and value. It’s a common catch off Vancouver Island, but only a blip in British Columbia’s commercial fishing haul. Sport fishermen, many from First Nation tribes, catch the rockfish occasionally, sure, but if you were appraising a fishery solely on the monetary value it provides—a strategy at the core…


Hallucinations Happen, and That Can Be OK

Fish feeding

One hallmark of the revolution in psychiatric research begun by the National Institute of Mental Health, as I explored in The Chronicle Review last week, is the sliding scale of the many symptoms that, together, compose the traditional psychiatric disorders. There is no on or off switch for mental illness, researchers say. There is only a dial.

For some disorders this makes intuitive sense; few people balk at the idea of being a little depressed or anxious. We’re human. It comes with the territ…


High in Sky, a Refrain: ‘Squawk, Data’

A red kite, sans blog. Copyright Sean Gray

A red kite, sans blog. Copyright Sean Gray

Like any young adult moving to a strange new land—a common occurrence at this time of year—Wyvis, a resident of Scotland, took to blogging about her new home in late August.

Out on her own, far from relatives, she was making long trips around the farms of Durisdeer Mill, a village in the country’s southwest lowlands, she wrote. She loved the isolation. She would rest in the woodlands around Sanquhar. Then came the odd journey to the moors, worms squishi…


Claims of Detection Confuse Hunt for Football’s Brain-Trauma Disease

For football fans, there is no time longer than the two weeks, in late January, between the NFL’s conference-championship games and the Super Bowl. It’s a news wasteland, a long pause in the postseason’s frenetic action, and sports reporters scramble to find the slimmest fresh angles to corral their fickle, and hungry, readers.

So you can imagine that a press release sent out by the University of California at Los Angeles just before this year’s Super Bowl, “UCLA Study First to Image Concussion-…


There Is No Gene for Finishing College

A couple of years ago, Daniel J. Benjamin, a behavioral economist and associate professor at Cornell University, noticed a disturbing trend in genoeconomics, the nascent discipline that seeks to tie human genetics to traits relevant to the social sciences, like risk aversion, happiness, or even self-employment.

Most of the work was statistically weak, he found, conducted on small samples of a few hundred people. Benjamin calculated that scientists could legitimately conclude almost nothing from …


Bending the Curve on a Long War’s Mental Toll

Washington — The annual convention of the Association for Psychological Science, held here over the Memorial Day weekend, presented plenty of worry for those concerned over the field’s recent, high-profile troubles with replication, data quality, and fraud.

There was the half-day session on “Building a Better Psychological Science,” which featured several scientists who have raised alarms about the field in the past two years, including Daniel Kahneman, a professor emeritus of psychology and pub…


Geologists Chip Away at Mystery of Climate’s Influence on Volcanoes

Watt, right, and Ferguson came across a series of roadcuts, some striated, like this one, with layers of basaltic scoria.

David Ferguson and his colleague Sebastian Watt (above) learned a lot from Chilean road cuts, some striated with layers of basaltic scoria.

If there’s a lesson David Ferguson has learned in his early years as a volcanologist, it’s this: Always carry a big hammer.

“You just have to pound away, smash as much rock as you can,” said Ferguson, a postdoc at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. “There’s nothing more frustrating than having gone all that way and then you discover your…


CO2 Level to Reach 400, Soon Enough

The Keeling Curve


Above all else, Charles D. Keeling was fastidious with his data.

A couple of years ago, I found myself on assignment at Mauna Loa Observatory, the U.S. weather station perched just below the summit of a Hawaiian volcano. Spurred by Keeling, a longtime climate scientist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, this lab—still not much more than a bunch of prefab white containers sited below lava breaks—has measured the accretion of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere for 55 ye…