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Glacier prayer

titlepieceYOU’VE got to hand it to the Catholic church, sometimes its methods work. In 1678, the inhabitants of Fiesch in the Swiss canton of Valais, exasperated with the glaciers that loomed ever larger over their village, swallowing up their pasturage, inaugurated an annual pilgrimage. The hope was to banish the ice forms with chants, prayers and holy water. Several centuries later, their prayers appeared to have been answered…

This article was first published in the Guardian on 29 July 2012. To continue reading click here.

Aletsch Glacier
Aletsch Glacier

 

The underhand ape

ns_logoIN 2004, Benjamin Olken visited a road-building project in rural Indonesia. There was just one small section missing – a bridge over a stream – but the money had run out because of embezzlement, and construction abandoned. “By the time I got there, you could see where the road had been cleared and built, but the grass had completely grown back,” he says. “The road had fallen into decay…”

This article was first published in New Scientist on 9 November 2011. To continue reading click here.

God-loving linguists

il_logoIN 1963 Barbara and Joseph Grimes sat down with their Huichol neighbours to discuss what to do about the bandits terrorising their remote community. It was clear to everyone that the Grimes themselves were the problem. Seeing Americans living there, at the southern tip of the Rocky Mountains, the bandits assumed the community was rich. The Grimes recognised that it would be best for everyone if they left…

This article was first published at More Intelligent Life on 19 November 2010.

Dreampond revisited

page11-nature_logoOLE Seehausen didn’t expect to find much when he dropped his trawling net into Lake Victoria in 1991. The fish he was studying, called cichlids, had been disappearing from the East African lake for years. So he was astounded when he hauled in dozens of them. Close inspection of their coloration and shapes revealed five distinct species. The graduate student couldn’t wait to deliver the news to his supervisor, Frans Witte, at Leiden University in the Netherlands. “The quality of the phone line was so horrible that I wasn’t sure he had understood that we had caught cichlids offshore again,” he recalls…

This article first appeared in Nature on 8 July 2010. To continue reading click here.

The fine print

page11-nature_logoTHE terrorist explosions that ripped through Madrid’s crowded commuter trains on the morning of 11 March 2004 killed 191 people, wounded some 2,000 more and prompted an international manhunt for the perpetrators. Soon after, Spanish investigators searching the area near one of the blasts discovered an abandoned set of detonator caps inside a plastic bag that bore a single, incomplete fingerprint. They immediately shared the clue with law-enforcement colleagues around the world. And on 6 May 2004, the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) arrested Oregon lawyer Brandon Mayfield, proclaiming that his print was a match…

This article first appeared in Nature on 17 March 2010. To continue reading click here.