Variables

 
Reported features, essays, op-eds, columns, and reviews.

Before the Bridge Falls Down

Experts have said for decades that engineering schools should do more to prepare their students for the ethical challenges they’ll face in the industry, including powerful incentives to cut corners and hide mistakes. Some schools are making such ethics coursework mandatory, but critics say it’s not enough.

Five Questions for Todd Moss

In 2013, the Obama administration launched an ambitious, $7 billion project to expand and modernize electrical power in sub-Saharan Africa. Todd Moss, an economist and expert in U.S.-Africa relations, expects that support to continue — with some possible shifts in emphasis — under Donald Trump.

We Need to Study Weed

We need to be studying cannabis, its myriad cultivated strains, and their effects on a variety of medical conditions. We also need to examine public health and policy implications. In short, we need to be doing research — but because of federal restrictions, it’s nearly impossible to do in this country.

The Last Word

We love stories about dying languages and their last speakers for the same reasons that we love stories about the last buffalo, the last passenger pigeon, or the last cowboy: They confirm an evolutionary story we tell ourselves about what’s fit for the modern world, and what’s unsuited for the times.

Five Questions for John Gunn

A robust industry has grown up around harvesting trees for generating electricity, but researchers continue to urge caution, noting that the presumed “carbon neutrality” of woody biomass is a complicated matter. John Gunn, a New Hampshire forest scientist, is among them. “We need to do the math,” he says.

The Problem of the Lazy Brain

A host of recent research suggests that, at one time or another, we are all susceptible to being duped. The science also helps to explain why the late American novelist and Nobel laureate, William Faulkner, was spot-on when he observed that “Facts and truth really don’t have much to do with each other.”

The Slow Death of Ecology’s Birthplace

Brazil’s cerrado has many faces: arid tablelands, open grasslands, palm-dotted marshes — though most people see it only as a dry, unruly expanse of low, twisted shrubs. As a result, this unique ecosystem where a pioneering botanist once traced the evolution of plants is in danger of being lost forever.

Just Warming Up

Scientists say the stakes for climate research have never been higher. But by questioning employees of the Department of Energy and installing climate skeptics and fossil fuel executives to lead the EPA and serve as Secretary of State, Donald Trump’s administration is gearing up to rally against it.

A Dubious Golden Elixir

In parts of India, where cows are revered, their urine is thought to have healing powers. Studies investigating these claims come mainly from Indian researchers and their work is rarely published in Western journals. But scrutiny must come from outside this cultural context for the science to hold up.

Oil and Water

Over 70,000 miles of crude oil pipelines spread like vasculature across the United States. Some of it, like the contentious Dakota Access pipeline, is new and outfitted with the latest safety technologies. Nearly half is old and prone to problems. And all of it is necessary until our thirst for oil subsides.

Good for the Heart, Good for the Brain

Just as public health campaigns on the benefits of diet, exercise, and quitting smoking have raised awareness that reducing heart disease risk is at least partly within our control, experts say more should be done to increase public understanding that lifestyle choices can reduce Alzheimer’s risk, too.

Five Questions for Judith Edersheim

In this installment of the Undark Five, we asked Judith Edersheim, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and also a lawyer who specializes in forensic evaluations, what brain imaging can reveal about the “criminal brain,” and how this research ought to be used in the courtroom.

This Price Is Not Right

The head of the Department of Health and Human Services has a moral responsibility to care for all people. Based on his track record, U.S. Rep. Tom Price — an orthopedic surgeon himself, as well as a Christian — seems poised to make basic health care more difficult for millions of women and children.

The Ancient Magic Power of Alien Creatures from the 17th Dimension

The only science behind the Q-Ray bracelet, sold on late-night television as a cure-all for everything from headaches to sciatica, was that of the placebo effect: the potency of beliefs to trigger physiological changes. In that sense, it had ties to both ancient mysticism and cutting-edge science.

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