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22 DECEMBER, 2010

2010′s Best Long Reads: Science & Technology

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Longreads and Brain Pickings have teamed up to highlight the most fascinating in-depth stories published on the web this year. Earlier, we featured the best of Business and Art, Design, Film & Music. Our final spotlight shines on Science, Medicine & Technology.

FOR THE LOVE OF CULTURE

Google, Copyright and Our Future (Lawrence Lessig, The New Republic, Jan. 26, 2010)

Time to read: 26 minutes (6,454 words)

In the wake of the Google Books project—and the subsequent settlement with publishers — Lessig calls for a new approach that untangles copyright law and helps keep information accessible to all.

What are the rules that will govern culture for the next hundred years? Are we building an ecology of access that demands a lawyer at every turn of the page?”

For more on this complex and controversial subject, see our continuous coverage of remix culture.

SEARCH FOR A STRESS VACCINE

Under Pressure: The Search for a Stress Vaccine (Jonah Lehrer, Wired, July 28, 2010)

Time to read: 23 minutes (5,700 words)

Lehrer profiles Robert Sapolsky, a scientist researching ways to create a vaccine-like treatment to protect people against stress. (In early research he’s injected a modified herpes virus into rodents’ brains.)

Sometimes it’s not enough just to tell people, ‘Jeez, you should really learn to relax.’ If stress is half as bad for you as we currently think it is, then it’s time to stop treating the side effects. It’s time to go after stress itself.”

NEW DRUGS AND CLINICAL TRIALS

New Drugs Stir Debate on Rules of Clinical Trials (Amy Harmon, New York Times, Sept. 19, 2010)

Time to read: 17 minutes (4,173 words)

A heartbreaking story from Harmon’s “Target Cancer” series about two cousins with skin cancer enrolled in the same clinical trial — but only one of them received the powerful new drug.

At times beseeching and belligerent, Mr. McLaughlin argued his cousin’s case to get the new drug with anyone he could find at U.C.L.A. ‘Hey, put him on it, he needs it,’ he pleaded. And then: ‘Who the hell is making these decisions?’”

THE STATUS QUO OF ELECTRIC CARS

The Status Quo of Electric Cars: Better Batteries, Same Range (Gail E. Tverberg, The Oil Drum, May 19, 2010)

Time to read: 16 minutes (3,940 words)

The Chevy Volt is Motor Trend‘s Car of the Year, but Tverberg argues that, in many ways, we’re no better off with electric cars than we were a century ago.

Weight, comfort, speed and performance have eaten up any real progress. We don’t need better batteries, we need better cars.”

AUTISM’S FIRST CHILD

Autism’s First Child (John Donvan and Caren Zucker, The Atlantic, October 2010)

Time to read: 33 minutes (8,165 words)

While there is quite a bit of attention on autism as it relates to children, what happens when they grow up? Donvan and Zucker track down Donald Gray Triplett, 77, the first person ever diagnosed with autism.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Donald’s life is that he grew up to be an avid traveler. He has been to Germany, Tunisia, Hungary, Dubai, Spain, Portugal, France, Bulgaria, and Colombia—some 36 foreign countries and 28 U.S. states in all.”

THE GOLDEN BOY AND THE INVISIBLE ARMY

The Golden Boy and the Invisible Army (Thomas Lake, Atlanta Magazine, June 2010)

Time to read: 19 minutes (4,777 words)

Writer Thomas Lake puts the H1N1 virus in human terms with this story of John Behnken, a 27-year-old Atlanta man who seemed an unlikely target for swine flu.

Dr. Stauffenberg had done close to 1,600 autopsies, and this was the first time she had seen an otherwise healthy person die from the unaided influenza virus.”

SHOULD WE CLONE NEANDERTHALS?

Should We Clone Neanderthals? (Zach Zorich, Archaeology, March/April 2010)

Time to read: 17 minutes (4,274 words)

An examination of the scientific, legal and ethical questions raised by the possibility that scientists may one day be able to clone neanderthals. At least one paleoanthropologist predicts: It’s going to happen.

If your experiment succeeds and you generate a Neanderthal who talks, you have violated every ethical rule we have, and if your experiment fails…well. It’s a lose-lose.”

THE PEANUT SOLUTION

The Peanut Solution (Andrew Rice, New York Times, Sept. 2, 2010)

Time to read: 21 minutes (5,258 words)

A peanut-buttery paste called Plumpy’nut is praised for its potential to help end malnutrition across the globe. Patents, intellectual property and competing interests make distribution more complicated.

I wouldn’t want to see a new world order where poor people are dependent on packaged supplementary foods that are manufactured in Europe or the United States.”

SHOOTING FOR THE SUN

Shooting for the Sun (Logan Ward, The Atlantic, November 2010)

Time to read: 13 minutes (3,149 words)

The story of Lonnie Johnson, an inventor with some 100 patents who is best-known for creating the Super Soaker squirt gun. His latest obsession: Bringing affordable solar power to the world.

Johnson is a member of what seems to be a vanishing breed: the self-invented inventor.”

THE PLASTIC PANIC

The Plastic Panic (Jerome Groopman, The New Yorker, May 31, 2010)

Time to read: 19 minutes (4,788 words)

Is the BPA found in plastic bottles actually harmful to us? And if so, why isn’t it banned in the United States? A look at the regulatory issues that keep potentially toxic chemicals in the marketplace.

The Toxic Substances Control Act, passed in 1976, does not require manufacturers to show that chemicals used in their products are safe before they go on the market.”

See more Longreads 2010 “best-of” lists here.

Mark Armstrong is a digital strategist, writer and founder of Longreads, a community and Twitter service highlighting the best long-form stories on the web. His thoughts about the future of publishing and content can be found here.

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03 DECEMBER, 2010

Hans Rosling for BBC: 200 Countries Over 200 Years in 4 Minutes

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Statistical stuntsman Hans Rosling, mastermind of revolutionary visualization platform Gapminder, is a longtime Brain Pickings darling. From his blockbuster TED talks, better described as performances than mere talks, to his projection of the future of humanity in LEGO, Rosling is easily the most vocal and engaging advocate for data visualization as a sensemaking mechanism for culture and the world.

Now, The Hans strikes again with an absolutely brilliant 4-minute distillation of 200 countries over 200 years, part of BBC’s The Joy of Stats. (An excellent companion to The Beauty of Maps.) With his signature sports commentator style, Rosling narrates two centuries worth of income and life expectancy data in a way he never has before: Using augmented reality animation. To see the impact of historical and political milestones, from colonization to the Industrial Revolution to WWII, in such a visceral way contextualizes these events and their aftermath in a way no history book or verbal storytelling ever could — a living manifesto for the power and importance of data visualization as a storytelling device.

For more on the storytelling and sensemaking art and science of data visualization, the journalistic importance of which we’ve previously examined, we highly recommend Data Flow 2 and Beautiful Data: The Stories Behind Elegant Data Solutions, both of which reference Rosling’s work, among countless other masters of the discipline.

HT @TEDchris

In 2010, we spent more than 4,500 hours bringing you Brain Pickings. If you found any joy and inspiration here this year, please consider supporting us with a modest donation — it lets us know we’re doing something right and helps pay the bills.





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s an example. Like? Sign up.

19 NOVEMBER, 2010

Sounds of HIV: Music Made of AIDS Virus Nucleotides

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A few months ago, we spotlighted 7 fascinating experimental music projects, but this is positively the strangest album you’ll ever hear. And possibly one of the most conceptually ingenious. To draw attention to the AIDS epidemic, which claims more than 2 million lives every year, composer Alexandra Pajak decided to capture the “sonic beauty” deep in the genome of the virus. Sounds of HIV “plays” the patterns of the AIDS virus nucleotides and amino acids transcribed by HIV in 17 eerie, mesmerizing tracks.

To create the recording, Pajak used the National Institutes of Health’s record of the retrovirus’ genome to identify the thousands of coded letters transcribed onto DNA once a cell is infected. She then assigned specific pitches to the 20 amino acids manufactured in an infected human cell, ordering them according to their affinity for water. To reflect the profound sadness of the disease, Pajak composed the work in the A minor scale and meticulously double-checked that each of the 9,181 nucleotide-notes was in the right place.

Just knowing that the disease is so devastating and personal, I just wanted to make sure all the notes were right.” ~ Alexandra Pajak

Proceeds from Sounds of HIV benefit breakthroughs in HIV vaccine research at Emory Vaccine Center.

via SciAm

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