Nautilus5 min read
Darwin’s Lost Beetle Is Back
On August 24, 1832, HMS Beagle dropped anchor at Bahía Blanca, a deep natural harbor in present-day Argentina. On board was a 23-year-old naturalist, Charles Darwin. He had been at sea since December 27, 1831, when the Beagle left Plymouth. Darwin h
Nautilus4 min readFashion & Beauty
Yes, It Matters What You Wear to an Exam
In May 2015, an official vote was held by the Oxford University Student Union about clothing policy. It was over whether to keep “subfusc,” a traditional uniform dating back to the mid-seventeenth century—comprised of a dark suit or skirt, black shoe
Nautilus6 min read
How to Give Mars an Atmosphere, Maybe
Earth is most fortunate to have vast webs of magnetic fields surrounding it. Without them, much of our atmosphere would have been gradually torn away by powerful solar winds long ago, making it unlikely that anything like us would be here. Scientists
Nautilus9 min readSelf-Improvement
How to Tell If You’re a Jerk: If you think everyone around you is terrible, the joke may be on you.
Here’s something you probably didn’t do this morning: Look in the mirror and ask, am I a jerk? It seems like a reasonable question. There are, presumably, genuine jerks in the world. And many of those jerks, presumably, have a pretty high moral opini
Nautilus11 min read
Andy Weir Visits the Moon: The best-selling writer of “The Martian” has a new book out, and it’s set closer to home.
World building is the best part of writing,” Andy Weir tells me. The software engineer turned writer is getting his practice in. In his 2011 novel The Martian, he built a Mars base, complete with carefully calculated Earth-Mars rocket schedules and c
Nautilus14 min read
The Rise and Fall of the English Sentence: The surprising forces influencing the complexity of the language we speak and write.
An iconic sentence, this. But how did it ever make its way into the world? At 71 words, it is composed of eight separate clauses, each anchored by its own verb, nested within one another in various arrangements. The main clause (a decent respect to t
Nautilus9 min read
When Mollusks Fall in Love: Two stories from the remarkable work of Sy Montgomery and Elizabeth Marshall Thomas.
Outside of gothic works of fiction set in Transylvania, we rarely read of enduring friendships that have been initiated by a bite. But that is exactly how nature writers Sy Montgomery and Elizabeth Marshall Thomas—the two extraordinary, quirky, and i
Nautilus5 min read
The Hidden Science and Tech of the Byzantine Empire
Byzantine civilization, the eastern Roman empire whose capital was at Constantinople, is mostly known today for its spirituality and eccentricities, including the spectacular church of Hagia Sophia (a feat of Roman engineering), glittering mosaics, s
Nautilus5 min read
The Prison Guard with a Gift for Cracking Gang Codes
As a corrections officer at a Westchester County, N.Y., prison in the 1990s, Gary Klivans was a one-man gang unit. Members of The Latin Kings and the Bloods made up a sizable part of the prison population. Klivans learned quickly that to handle them,
Nautilus5 min readPsychology
What Tech Can Learn from the Fruit Fly’s Search Algorithm
Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.” Verse 7:7 from the Gospel of Matthew is generally considered to be a comment on prayer, but it could just as well be about the power of search. Search h
Nautilus7 min readPop Culture
Why Beauty Is Not Universal
We’re all human—so despite the vagaries of cultural context, might there exist a universal beauty that overrides the where and when? Might there be unchanging features of human nature that condition our creative choices, a timeless melody that guides
Nautilus6 min read
How to Teach Science With Sugar and Cream: High school teachers are bringing ice cream into the lab.
During July’s heat wave, as the Larsen C iceberg began its ocean journey, an ice cream “support session” convened in Manhattan. A classroom of high school teachers were shakin’ it like a Polaroid picture, investigating how a vigorous agitation of ice
Nautilus20 min read
Is There Beer in Space?: How the emptiness of the void got filled.
Space is a cold and barren place. Nothing can exist there, nothing!” Ludwig Von Drake, an obscure uncle of Donald Duck and a professor of astronomy, is sitting on a high stool in his observatory. When he sees that he is being filmed, he falls off and
Nautilus10 min read
Physics Has Demoted Mass: Modern physics has taught us that mass is not an intrinsic property.
You’re sitting here, reading this article. Maybe it’s a hard copy, or an e-book on a tablet computer or e-reader. It doesn’t matter. Whatever you’re reading it on, we can be reasonably sure it’s made of some kind of stuff: paper, card, plastic, perha
Nautilus14 min read
Consciousness Began When the Gods Stopped Speaking: How Julian Jaynes’ famous 1970s theory is faring in the neuroscience age.
Julian Jaynes was living out of a couple of suitcases in a Princeton dorm in the early 1970s. He must have been an odd sight there among the undergraduates, some of whom knew him as a lecturer who taught psychology, holding forth in a deep baritone v
Nautilus4 min readScience
This Will Help You Grasp the Sizes of Things in the Universe
Caleb Scharf wants to take you on an epic tour. His latest book, The Zoomable Universe, starts from the ends of the observable universe, exploring its biggest structures, like groups of galaxies, and goes all the way down to the Planck length—less th
Nautilus3 min read
Make the Cosmic Perspective Your Next Coping Mechanism
I am often asked how I cope with the vast and seemingly incomprehensible abyss beyond Earth. As with modern politics, it’s thought that contemplating the cold, indifferent, cosmos—as I do for a living—can make us feel small, powerless, and unimportan
Nautilus8 min read
7 Major Experiments That Still Haven’t Found What They’re Looking For
Being an experimental scientist can sometimes seem like a thankless task. You may be used to reading headlines about experiments that end up making great discoveries, but less is heard about the (often heroic) efforts of experimentalists that have ye
Nautilus3 min read
Why Einstein Just Got Ranked as History’s Greatest Hero
Two predictions of Albert Einstein’s—one scientific, one sentimental—have recently been confirmed. The first came early in 2016: the existence of gravitational waves. The second came late last month: the handsome price of a pair of notes Einstein wr
Nautilus6 min read
How to Tell If You’re a Supertaster: For one thing, you won’t like IPAs.
Most humans can be placed into three major categories of tasters—nontasters, tasters, and supertasters, roughly in the ratio of 25 percent: 50 percent: 25 percent. There is also a small percentage (less than 1 percent) of humanity categorized in a su
Nautilus11 min read
Ice Fishing for Neutrinos: Ignorant and lucky at the bottom of the Earth.
One afternoon in February 2000, after a long day’s drilling, Bruce Koci and I sat together on the sand in the volcanic crater on the 19,000-foot summit of Kilimanjaro. As we leaned against our packs and watched the sun set, he reminisced about his ca
Nautilus13 min read
Ideology Is the Original Augmented Reality: How we fill gaps in our everyday experiences.
Released in July 2016, Pokémon Go is a location-based, augmented-reality game for mobile devices, typically played on mobile phones; players use the device’s GPS and camera to capture, battle, and train virtual creatures (“Pokémon”) who appear on the
Nautilus12 min readPsychology
The Trouble With Scientists: How one psychologist is tackling human biases in science.
Sometimes it seems surprising that science functions at all. In 2005, medical science was shaken by a paper with the provocative title “Why most published research findings are false.”1 Written by John Ioannidis, a professor of medicine at Stanford U
Nautilus4 min read
A Holiday Guest Is Leaving Dangerous Poop in Your Couch
We have long known that we can catch germs while traveling. Recent years have shown that we can also bring home bed bugs. A 2014 study informs us that by merely plopping into the seat of a car or airplane, we can unknowingly pick up dust mites—microscopic 8-legged arthropods that eat the dead parts of our bodies such as skin scales, dandruff flakes, and hair. Dust mites are eyeless, headless, and heartless, yet they’re expert travelers. They’ve been trekking around the world for 400 million years; in the modern era, they travel fast and in style, stowing away inside our seat cushions, luggage,
Nautilus6 min read
Why Medieval Cats Approved of the Plague
From the 12th century onward there were two distinct attitudes to cats. For many people the cat population operated as important rodent-controllers, and every so often a cat would go beyond being a mere working animal and become a welcome pet inside the house. Working cats and house cats were always popular, but now a negative attitude began to run alongside the friendly one. For some people, the cat was now seen as an evil animal, in league with the Devil. For them, the cat needed to be persecuted if Satan and his followers were to be defeated. As early as 1180 the warning bells were soundin
Nautilus4 min readScience
Here’s How to Make Climate Change Extra Scary
Thirty thousand years ago, a woolly mammoth in Siberia shed a giant virus. It soon became encased in ice and, for tens of thousands of years, the virus slept. As global temperatures warm and the permafrost begins to melt, the virus stirs. It is sucked into the nostril of a researcher where it injects its DNA into a cell. The DNA commandeers the cell’s proteins and generates new viruses, turning the researcher into a walking pathogen factory. As she interacts with people, the virus swarms around the world, infecting millions and causing devastation on a massive scale. Such a scenario isn’t yet
Nautilus4 min read
The Stranger Things That Gave Birth to Science
Finding regularity in nature is the bread and butter of science. We know that reptiles lay eggs, while mammals bear live young; the Earth revolves around the sun every 365.25 days; electrons glom onto protons like bears onto honey. But what if some oddity seems to defy the laws of nature, like the platypus, an egg-laying mammal? What about an anomaly like a two-headed snake? Or a newborn baby who seems to be neither boy nor girl, but something in between? These questions fascinated the founding fathers of science, and their attempts to explain such rarities and marvels helped shape modern scie
Nautilus9 min read
How Evolution Designed Your Fear: The universal grip of Stephen King’s personal terrors.
The most effective monsters of horror fiction mirror ancestral dangers to exploit evolved human fears. Some fears are universal, some are near-universal, and some are local. The local fears—the idiosyncratic phobias such as the phobia of moths, say—tend to be avoided by horror writers, directors, and programmers. Horror artists typically want to target the greatest possible audience and that means targeting the most common fears. As the writer Thomas F. Monteleone has observed, “a horror writer has to have an unconscious sense or knowledge of what’s going to be a universal ‘trigger.’ ”1 All co
Nautilus17 min read
Is the Modern Mass Extinction Overrated?: We are ignoring the gains that balance the losses.
After decades of researching the impact that humans are having on animal and plant species around the world, Chris Thomas has a simple message: Cheer up. Yes, we’ve wiped out woolly mammoths and ground sloths, and are finishing off black rhinos and Siberian tigers, but the doom is not all gloom. Myriad species, thanks in large part to humans who inadvertently transport them around the world, have blossomed in new regions, mated with like species and formed new hybrids that have themselves gone forth and prospered. We’re talking mammals, birds, trees, insects, microbes—all your flora and fauna.
Nautilus10 min readScience
Math’s Beautiful Monsters: How a destructive idea paved the way for modern math.
Much like its creator, Karl Weierstrass’ monster came from nowhere. After four years at university spent drinking and fencing, Weierstrass had left empty handed. He eventually took a teaching course and spent most of the 1850s as a schoolteacher in Braunsberg. He hated life in the small Prussian town, finding it a lonely existence. His only respites were the mathematical problems he worked on between classes. But he had nobody to talk to about mathematics, and no technical library to study in. Even his results failed to escape the confines of Braunsberg. Instead of publishing them in academic
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