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Science & Technology

Hermit Crab

Consider the Hermit Crab

Katherine Rundell

27 January 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 of Renaissance courts look simplistic.

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Before there was Europe

Francis Gooding

22 December 2019

Deep inside​ the Bruniquel Cave, in southwestern France, there are a number of mysterious assemblages. Built out of broken and stacked stalactites, they form two circles, and half a dozen ‘raised . . .

Mescaline

Emily Witt

22 December 2019

The​ San Pedro cactus evolved thirty or forty million years ago in the deserts of South America. Today its native habitat is the barren cliffs of the high Andes, two thousand metres above sea level . . .

Medieval Bestiaries

Tom Shippey

9 December 2019

Medieval people​ lived in much closer proximity to animals than most of us do today, but had less sense of their variety. Who in 12th-century England would have seen an elephant or a crocodile? Tales . . .

California Burns

Meehan Crist

19 November 2019

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

What’s it like to be an octopus?

Amia Srinivasan, 6 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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It Zucks!

John Lanchester, 16 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, 9 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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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

Stepping onto an escalator is an act of faith. From time to time you see people poised at the top, advised by instinct not to launch themselves onto the river of treads. Riding the moving stairs...

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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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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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Bruno Manser Vanishes

Richard Lloyd Parry, 24 October 2019

Manser, intriguingly described as a ‘Swiss cowherd’, spent years in Sarawak living among the Penan, one of the last populations of genuine nomads in the world. For six years, he wore a loincloth,...

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Consider the Hedgehog

Katherine Rundell, 24 October 2019

Pliny the Elder​ was not an easy man. He reprimanded his nephew, Pliny the Younger, for walking instead of letting himself be carried, thereby wasting hours when he could have been reading. But...

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The Stuff of Life

Rosemary Hill, 10 October 2019

My friend Katy​ used to be fat: not medically obese, but what our mothers would have called ‘pleasantly plump’ with a wink and a remark to the effect that ‘men like something...

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Short Cuts: The Amazon Burning

Benjamin Kunkel, 12 September 2019

He​ who laughs hasn’t heard the news, Brecht wrote, probably in 1939. Eighty years later, the words could serve as the motto of the eco-tourist, to be pronounced in sardonic tones of...

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The original Siamese twins

Lynne Vallone, 12 September 2019

In 1824, a Scottish merchant was sailing down the Mekong when he saw a ‘two-headed Hydra-like creature’ climbing into a dinghy. He had been on the lookout for new ways to make money in Siam;...

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Consider the Swift

Katherine Rundell, 15 August 2019

A common swift​, in its lifetime, flies about two million kilometres; enough to fly to the moon and back twice over, and then once more to the moon. Weighing less than a hen’s egg,...

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Apollo 11

Inigo Thomas, 15 August 2019

In​ Neil Armstrong’s photograph of Buzz Aldrin standing on the moon, taken with a camera strapped to his chest, Aldrin stands at ease, his right arm hanging loosely at his side, the left...

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Our Alien Planet

Francis Gooding, 1 August 2019

‘We have already exited the state of environmental conditions that allowed the human animal to evolve in the first place,’ David Wallace-Wells writes, ‘in an unsure and unplanned bet...

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Dissidents and Scientists

Steven Rose, 18 July 2019

As​ a young researcher applying for a US visa to go to a conference in the mid-1960s, I presented myself at the fortress-like embassy in Grosvenor Square and ticked the boxes affirming that I...

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Rachel Carson’s Forebodings

Meehan Crist, 6 June 2019

As we grind up against the absolute limits of humanity’s use and misuse of our environment, it’s tempting to look to Silent Spring and ask why it had such a profound impact.

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Consider the Golden Mole

Katherine Rundell, 18 April 2019

The word​ iridescent comes from the Greek for ‘rainbow’, iris, and the Latin suffix, escent, ‘having a tendency towards’. Iridescence turns up in many insects,...

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Pigeon Intelligence

Jon Day, 4 April 2019

There are​ 290 species of pigeon in the world, but only one has adapted to live in cities. Feral pigeons are synanthropes: they thrive in human environments where they can skim a living off our...

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John Tyndall’s Ascent

Jonathan Parry, 21 March 2019

On 21 December​ 1859 John Tyndall, a professor of natural philosophy at the Royal Institution, set out to measure the structure and movements of the Mer de Glace, a glacier above Chamonix. In...

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Beaks and Talons

Francis Gooding, 21 February 2019

If​ you are at all familiar with bird guides, examining a first edition of The Ornithology of Francis Willughby is a strange experience. Despite its great age and large size, the many defunct...

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Travels in the Apocalypse

McKenzie Funk, 7 February 2019

Disasters like the conflagration that consumed Paradise, California, in November, killing 81 people – the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in the state’s history – do happen....

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Solving the Ribosome

Steven Shapin, 24 January 2019

RNA​ gets no respect. It is similar in make-up to its charismatic chemical cousin, with small structural variations. DNA is a very long double-stranded helix while many forms of RNA are shorter...

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Consider the Narwhal

Katherine Rundell, 3 January 2019

In 1584​, as Ivan the Terrible lay dying, he called from his bed for his unicorn horn, a royal staff ‘garnished with verie fare diamondes, rubies, saphiers, emeralls’. Unicorn...

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