28 articles
We Weren’t Designed to Appreciate Good Perfume: Our sense of smell may have evolved to detect danger, not beauty.
Every day, we inhabit a vast and complex brew of odors. Take a walk in New York City, and you’ll pass through aromas of car exhaust, garbage, coffee, baking pizza, flowers, damp soil, cleaning fluid, and urine—all in the space of a few blocks. At wor
This Is Your Brain on Silence: Contrary to popular belief, peace and quiet is all about the noise in your head.
One icy night in March 2010, 100 marketing experts piled into the Sea Horse Restaurant in Helsinki, with the modest goal of making a remote and medium-sized country a world-famous tourist destination. The problem was that Finland was known as a rathe
Brian Eno Plays the Universe: A physicist explains what the composer has in common with the dawn of the cosmos.
Everyone had his or her favorite drink in hand. There were bubbles and deep reds, and the sound of ice clinking in cocktail glasses underlay the hum of contented chatter. Gracing the room were women with long hair and men dressed in black suits, with
The Noise None of Us Can Live Without
Noise is one of my favorite things in the universe. I don’t mean the neighbor’s rusty old lawnmower thundering you out of bed on a Sunday morning; like everybody else, I despise that kind of noise. No, what I am talking about is noise as the scientis
How Language Helps Erase the Tragedy of Millions of Road Deaths
In the first decades of the 20th century, people around the world began succumbing to an entirely new cause of mortality. These new deaths, due to the dangers of the automobile, soon became accepted as a lamentable but normal part of modern life. A h
Bothered by Noise? Try Being a Bat
Human noise is a rising global pollutant. Urbanization, road networks, and energy extraction infrastructure are all widespread and expanding sources of acoustic waste. In the contiguous 48 states today, to take just one illustration, nearly 4 million
These Nature Photographs Aren’t What They Seem: The visual playfulness of Simen Johan.
Simen Johan’s photographic series reads like an off-kilter field guide. Giraffes lose their heads in the fog, louche primates debauch with domestic animals, and tapestry-like camouflage both conceals and dazzles. Climate, habitat, and species are fra
The Noise At The Bottom Of The Universe: The origin of quantum noise is the modern incarnation of a millennia-old debate.
To a physicist, perfect quiet is the ultimate noise. Silence your cellphone, still your thoughts, and muffle every kind of vibration, and you would still be left with quantum noise. It represents an indeterminacy deep within nature, bursts of static
The Last of the Earthquake Predictors: A handful of underfunded researchers still believe science can defy the odds.
In late winter of 1975, a seismologist named Cao Xianqing tracked a series of small earthquakes near Haicheng, China, which he took to presage a much larger one to come. On the morning of February 3, officials ordered evacuations of the surrounding c
My Rap Guide to Climate Change
Even though there’s virtually nothing you can do as an individual to combat climate change, the problem remains solvable. It’s almost like a riddle, the world’s thorniest challenge. In my new off-Broadway production, “Rap Guide to Climate Chaos” (now
Martian Colonists Could Be Genetically Engineered for Democracy
It sounds like science fiction: A citizenry genetically engineered to be democratic. It’s not implausible. Last month, the National Academy of Sciences issued a report touting the promise of a biological engineering technique called gene drive—partic
These Clumps of Undigested Food Used To Be Medicinal Charms
When you get right down to it, a body like ours is basically a bony scaffold that a strange collection of organs, interconnected by a complex entanglement of piping, hangs on. In some of these pipes, clumps of gunk can form and create blockages. A be
Your Terrifying Dreams Could Be Rehearsal for Real Life
Once, I dreamed I was at a man’s funeral. According to the deceased’s instructions, each of his toes were to be buried in tiny, individual coffins. When I woke up, I wondered, “What could it mean?” According to some neuroscience research on dreams,
The Man Who Designed Ghost Armies and Opera Houses: The storied career of the centenarian and acoustician, Leo Beranek.
The most celebrated and maligned living acoustician, Leo Leroy Beranek, now 101 years old, has had a storied career. As director of Harvard’s Electro-Acoustic Laboratory, he perfected the Hush-A-Phone, a telephone accessory that triggered a cascade o
The Hidden Science of the Missing Gravitational Waves: A relatively unknown experiment is already drawing conclusions from the sound of silence.
Space should be churned up like a speedboat-filled lake, crisscrossed by gravitational waves rushing at the speed of light in every direction. That’s because any kind of acceleration, of any kind of mass, will produce a gravitational wave. When you w
Spark of Science: France A. Cordova: The director of the National Science Foundation on what brought her back to science.
France A. Cordova, the director of the National Science Foundation of the United States, former NASA Chief Scientist, and former Chancellor of the University of California, Riverside, had to petition to get into her high school physics class because
This Is What Musical Notes Actually Look Like
A few months ago, I sat poolside with friends in Palm Springs. Amid the quiet desert sublime, we reminisced about all the live music we’ve experienced over the years, just about every big and small act since the mid-80s: Prince, David Bowie, Guns ‘n
New York City Battles on Against Dutch Elm Disease
To many people in New York City, a beautiful summer day is all about the trees. To be more specific, the American elm trees in the Central Park Mall, which form a promenade through the heart of the park. “Everybody’s always impressed by the wonderful
How Sound Can Make Food Taste Better
When you consider the earthy aroma of a cup of cappuccino or the salty tang of a potato chip, you may overlook the sounds they make as you savor them. The glug-glug of coffee as it’s poured into your mug, the crackle of the chip on your teeth, even a
This Physics Pioneer Walked Away from It All: Why Fotini Markopoulou traded quantum gravity for industrial design.
Inside the South London offices of Doppel, a wearable technology start-up, sandwiched into a single room on a floor between a Swedish coffee shop and a wig-making studio, CEO and quantum physicist Fotini Markopoulou is debating the best way to descri
The Case For Leaving City Rats Alone: A Vancouver rat study is showing us how pest control can backfire.
Kaylee Byers crouches in a patch of urban blackberries early one morning this June, to check a live trap in one of Vancouver’s poorest areas, the V6A postal code. Her first catch of the day is near a large blue dumpster on “Block 5,” in front of a 20
Noise Is a Drug and New York Is Full of Addicts: We may complain about a defining feature of the city, but we also feed off it.
As soon as the door slams, I slide to the floor in a cross-legged position and hold my breath. The room in which I have just barricaded myself looks a bit like Matilda’s chokey; a single light bulb casts a sickly yellow glow about the room, its walls
Joys of Noise: The reliability of some technologies depends on just the right amount of randomness.
In engineering, uncertainty is usually as welcome as sand in a salad. The development of digital technologies, from the alphabet to the DVD, has been driven in large part by the desire to eliminate random fluctuations, or noise, inherent in analog sy
We Should Not Accept Scientific Results That Have Not Been Repeated
A few years ago, I became aware of serious problem in science: the irreproducibility crisis. A group of researchers at Amgen, an American pharmaceutical company, attempted to replicate 53 landmark cancer discoveries in close collaboration with the au
Angry Apes “Flick” Each Other Off. Is That Where We Got Our Gesture?
One evening last spring, I sat down at the American Museum of Natural History’s 85th annual James Arthur lecture, in New York, on the evolution of the brain. This year’s speaker was Richard Byrne, who studies the evolution of cognitive and social beh
Politicians Need to Understand This Computer Science Concept Better
I have an idea that would keep 100 percent of foreign-born terrorists out of the United States. Not only that, it’s far simpler than any presidential candidate’s proposals. All we have to do is this: Never let anybody in. Most of us find this idea lu
50 Million Tinnitus Sufferers Just Got Some Bad News and Some Good News
Fifteen years ago, almost as soon as she arrived in the Cleveland suburbs, her hometown, a high-pitched ringing disturbed Katie Hellmuth Martin’s sense of peace. She was looking forward to settling into the gentle sounds of summer she’d grown up with
7 Ways Humans Have Tried to Predict Earthquakes
Humans have been trying to predict earthquakes at least since first-century China, when the device of choice was a vessel fitted with metal dragons facing each compass direction. If the ground shook somewhere in the region, the metal ball in the drag