The New York Times, August 30, 2022


One of the most remarkable things about our species is how fast human culture can change. New words can spread from continent to continent, while technologies such as cellphones and drones change the way people live around the world.

It turns out that humpback whales have their own long-range, high-speed cultural evolution, and they don’t need the internet or satellites to keep it running.

In a study published on Tuesday, scientists found that humpback songs easily spread from one population to another across the Pacific Ocean. It can take just a couple of years for a song to move several thousand miles.

Continue reading “Humpback Whales Pass Their Songs Across Oceans”

The New York Times, Aug. 18, 2022


A team of scientists has found a cheap, effective way to destroy so-called forever chemicals, a group of compounds that pose a global threat to human health.

The chemicals — known as PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — are found in a spectrum of products and contaminate water and soil around the world. Left on their own, they are remarkably durable, remaining dangerous for generations.

Scientists have been searching for ways to destroy them for years. In a study, published Thursday in the journal Science, a team of researchers rendered PFAS molecules harmless by mixing them with two inexpensive compounds at a low boil. In a matter of hours, the PFAS molecules fell apart. Continue reading “Forever Chemicals No More? PFAS Are Destroyed With New Technique”

The New York Times, July 27, 2022


In many ways, humans are weird mammals. And our relationship with milk is especially weird.

In every mammalian species, females produce milk to feed their young. The nursing babies digest the milk with the help of an enzyme called lactase, which cuts milk sugar into easily absorbed fragments. When the young mammals are weaned, they stop making lactase. After all, why waste energy making an enzyme you no longer need?

But it is common for our species to keep consuming milk into adulthood. What’s more, about one-third of people carry genetic mutations that allow them to produce lactase throughout their lives, making it easier to digest milk. Continue reading “Early Europeans Could Not Tolerate Milk but Drank It Anyway, Study Finds”

The New York Times, July 20, 2022


One of the biggest myths of evolution is that it is a relentless march of progress. In fact, evolution is not a linear track, but a branching tree. New species do not arise as part of some long-term goal; they adapt to new opportunities in their surroundings.

On Wednesday, paleontologists unveiled a fossil that proved a potent antidote for the march-of-progress myth. It was a fish that lived about 375 million years ago, when our ancestors were scaly creatures vaguely resembling giant eels, walking across mud flats with four limbs complete with elbows, knees, wrists and ankles. The newly discovered fossil, called Qikiqtania wakei, belonged to this lineage. Continue reading “These Fins Were Made for Walking … and Then Swimming”

The New York Times, July 15, 2022


In mid-2020, a team of scientists catching bats in Laotian caves discovered coronaviruses that were strikingly similar to the one that had begun wreaking havoc around the world.

In the months since, some of those researchers have been studying one of these mysterious bat viruses in a high-security laboratory in Paris, hoping to discover clues about how its cousin, SARS-CoV-2, went on to become a global threat that has killed an estimated 15 million people.

Their work has been scientifically fruitful. Last year, the scientists discovered that the bat virus was capable of latching on to human cells, at least in Petri dishes. Last month, the team reported more reassuring news: that the virus is not particularly harmful to lab animals. The finding suggests that SARS-CoV-2 evolved its abilities to spread quickly and cause deadly disease only after the two lineages branched apart on the viral evolutionary tree.

Continue reading “Bat Virus Studies Raise Questions About Laboratory Tinkering”