Category Archives: Evolution

Who names diseases?

REMEMBER the Naples Soldier, the vicious flu pandemic that swept the globe almost 100 years ago, infecting one in three people and killing up to 50 million? You probably don’t, but you might remember the Spanish flu, the name by which that pandemic is better known. ‘Naples Soldier’ was what the Spanish called it, after a catchy tune that was being played in local music halls at the time. They knew the origins of the disaster lay beyond their borders and, understandably, refused to take the blame…

 

This essay first appeared in Aeon on 23 May 2017. To continue reading, click here.

“I’ve always thought I’d be good at naming diseases,” muses Dan Piepenbring in The Paris Review (24 May 2017). “The problem with most disease names is that they have all these scary words in them: flu, disorder, virus. That’s bad for business. If I were in charge, I’d name them after deodorants (Aqua Reef, Cool Burst, Sport) or Yankee Candles (Bahama Breeze, Vanilla Cupcake, Clean Cotton). But get this: It’s not just one person naming all the world’s diseases. It’s a whole committee of international bureaucracies, which explains why so many of our world’s most dangerous illnesses have such lousy titles.” Read Dan here:

I Can Name Your Disease, and Other News

History lessons

ns_logo“MY NAME is Ozymandias, king of kings: look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” So run the famous lines of Percy Shelley’s poem about Ramses the Great, a pharaoh who ruled Egypt’s New Kingdom in the 13th century BC, when it was the world’s most sophisticated society. But the poem’s theme is the transience of glory. It describes the ruins of a giant statue to Ramses that lie scattered in the desert: “Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away…”

This article first appeared in New Scientist on 15 October 2016. To continue reading, click here.

Seshat, ancient Egyptian goddess of wisdom
Seshat, ancient Egyptian goddess of wisdom

 

 

A Faustian bargain

economist-logoHUNTINGTON’S disease is awful. It slowly robs its victims of mobility, wits and emotions. And there is no cure. The idea that it might be the obverse of something good sounds, to say the least, counter-intuitive. Yet that is the contention of a small band of neuroscientists who have been studying it. They suggest the underlying cause of Huntington’s, a strange form of genetic mutation called a triplet-repeat expansion, might also be one of the driving forces behind the expansion of the human brain. Huntington’s, these people suspect, may be a price humanity pays for being clever…

This article first appeared in The Economist on 7 March 2015. To continue reading, click here.

Funny feet

ns_logoMY RUNNING shoes have a thick sole and cushioned heel. I bought them five years ago, before the “barefoot” craze for minimalist shoes that would allow people to better emulate how our ancestors ran. Soon after that, reports began appearing of injuries sustained by runners who had adopted these shoes, and lawsuits were filed against some manufacturers. Now the maximally cushioned or “fat” shoe is back in vogue, and suddenly my old shoes look high-tech again…

This article first appeared in New Scientist on 24 January 2015. To continue reading, click here.

Ella Albrecht/Gallerystock
Ella Albrecht/Gallerystock