Here’s a few excerpts from some pieces I’m particularly proud of publishing over the past year. I encourage you to go see the originals (see links below) to read them in full, if you’re interested. If you’re curious about other stuff I’ve written, take a look at the Articles & Writings page.
“Bite Marks and Bullet Holes”
Undark, 2 June 2017
The Attorney General ended the National Commission on Forensic Science, suppressing an opportunity for reducing convictions based on faulty evidence.
Keith Harward spent more than three decades in prison on the presumed strength of forensic dentistry. No fewer than six forensic dentists testified that his teeth matched a bite mark on a 1982 victim of rape and murder. But in April of last year, after serving more than 33 years in a Virginia penitentiary, new DNA evidence prompted the state Supreme Court to make official what Harward knew all along: He was innocent, and the teeth mark analysis was unequivocally, tragically wrong.
“Bite mark evidence is what the whole case hinged on and ultimately had me convicted,” Harward said. “But,” he added, “this stuff is just guesswork.”
Today, many forensic scientists would agree — and they’d say the same, or nearly so, about a menagerie of other techniques that are used to convict people of crimes, from handwriting analysis to tire track comparisons. And while some techniques fare better than others, everything short of DNA analysis has been shown to be widely variable in reliability, with much hinging on forensic practitioners with widely varying approaches and expertise.
It was with this in mind that many forensic scientists expressed dismay that the administration of Donald J. Trump had decided — nearly one year to the day after Harward’s bittersweet exoneration in Virginia — to disband the National Commission on Forensic Science…
[You can read the rest of the story at Undark magazine.]
“Is Planet Nine Even Real?”
The Atlantic, 8 December 2017
A year and a half after it was proposed, astronomers are still debating whether the giant mystery planet actually exists.
When Mike Brown first proposed that a hidden, massive planet lurks in the outer reaches of our solar system, he was confident someone would prove him wrong. “Planet Nine,” as the hypothetical world was nicknamed, was his explanation for the strange movements of half a dozen distant, icy planetoids that are farther away and smaller than Pluto: In theory, this huge, somehow-undiscovered planet could sway their orbits. But surely astronomers would be quick to find a more obvious explanation.
“Shockingly, in a year and a half, nobody has,” says Brown, an astronomer at the California Institute of Technology. “There have been so many claims of planets in the last 170 years, and they were always wrong. But I’m clearly a true believer at this point.”
Brown, the self-titled “Pluto Killer” who led the campaign that demoted the dwarf planet, and Konstantin Batygin, his coauthor at Caltech and a young star who plays in his own rock band, know how to spark debate. Since their proposal about Planet Nine, the lack of definitive evidence for or against its existence has divided the planetary community. Other astronomers have put forth alternative explanations, and some contend Brown and Batygin’s data are biased. Until someone clearly spots the new mystery planet in a telescope, they’ve come to an impasse…
[You can read the rest of the story at The Atlantic magazine.]
“Did Climate Change Bring Down Late Bronze Age Civilizations?”
Hakai, 10 August 2017
Marine archaeologists excavating the eastern Mediterranean are learning how the Bronze Age Mycenaean, Egyptian, and Anatolian Empires fell.
Clutching a set of drills, scuba divers plunge into a bay near the Gulf of Corinth, in central Greece. On the seafloor, they punch a 4.5-meter-deep hole into history. The divers are expecting to find sediment, bits of coral, and fish bones, but they’re hoping the core will reveal something more: evidence of the world of the ancient Mediterranean, and clues as to why multiple empires collapsed here more than 3,000 years ago.
The divers are part of a scientific team excavating on land and underwater to investigate why a string of Late Bronze Age civilizations toppled—the Mycenaean kingdom in Greece, the Hittite Empire in Anatolia, and the New Kingdom of Egypt. Each fell around the same time, in the 12th century BCE. Over the past year, the team has drilled nine cores. This month, they’re looking to open the first of the set.
“Each core is like gold,” says Thomas Levy, an anthropologist at the University of California, San Diego, and one of the leaders of the project. “It’s like a page of a book, an archive of paleoenvironmental data.”
Levy believes the cores may help explain how climate change contributed to the rapid downfall of the Mycenaean civilization…
[You can read the rest of the story at Hakai magazine.]
“To find aliens, we must think of life as we don’t know it ”
Aeon, 19 September 2017
From blob-like jellyfish to rock-like lichens, our planet teems with such diversity of life that it is difficult to recognise some organisms as even being alive. That complexity hints at the challenge of searching for life as we don’t know it – the alien biology that might have taken hold on other planets, where conditions could be unlike anything we’ve seen before. ‘The Universe is a really big place. Chances are, if we can imagine it, it’s probably out there on a planet somewhere,’ said Morgan Cable, an astrochemist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. ‘The question is, will we be able to find it?’
For decades, astronomers have come at that question by confining their search to organisms broadly similar to the ones here. In 1976, NASA’s Viking landers examined soil samples on Mars, and tried to animate them using the kind of organic nutrients that Earth microbes like, with inconclusive results. Later this year, the European Space Agency’s ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter will begin scoping out methane in the Martian atmosphere, which could be produced by Earth-like bacterial life. NASA’s Mars 2020 rover will likewise scan for carbon-based compounds from possible past or present Mars organisms.
But the environment on Mars isn’t much like that on Earth, and the exoplanets that astronomers are finding around other stars are stranger still – many of them quite unlike anything in our solar system. For that reason, it’s important to broaden the search for life. We need to open our minds to genuinely alien kinds of biological, chemical, geological and physical processes. ‘Everybody looks for “biosignatures”, but they’re meaningless because we don’t have any other examples of biology,’ said the chemist Lee Cronin at the University of Glasgow…
[You can read the rest of the essay at Aeon magazine.]
“Trump’s ‘America First’ Policies Won’t Work in Space”
Wired, 23 August 2017
Space is a big place, but our upper atmosphere isn’t. Rapidly increasing numbers of satellites orbit there, in addition to innumerable bits of space debris, and rockets fly through it on missions to the moon, Mars, asteroids, and deep space. President Trump’s newly revived National Space Council will have to manage this busy region and beyond.
The council members—which include heads of dozens of agencies, including the state, defense, commerce, transportation, and homeland security departments—have their work cut out for them as they develop recommendations for national space policy. Regulating and enabling commercial space activities will likely be a top priority, and the group will likely need to address issues including space debris and potentially militarized satellites. Given the risks of weaponizing space if the US, China, and Russia take their disputes beyond earth, and considering the commercial space industry’s uncertain position with respect to national and international law, the council’s first and primary goal should be to pursue space diplomacy…
[You can read the rest of this opinion piece at Wired magazine.]