IN 1598, a European miner working in the Bolivian highlands stumbled across a 10-year-old Andean girl who was still alive, despite having been walled up inside a funerary tower three days earlier. Several decades had passed since the Inca Empire—the most sophisticated in the world at that time—had fallen, but its practices lived on among the Incas’ descendants in the region, including human sacrifice. The practice held on a little longer after this incident. Around 20 years later, a boy, who had escaped from local chiefs attempting to bury him alive, took refuge in a Spanish community in the Peruvian Sierra. But the tradition was incompatible with the moral outlook of the new Catholic regime, and die it did, eventually…
This article first appeared in The Atlantic on 27 February 2018. To continue reading, click here.
TUNE into a discussion of how diseases get their names on BBC Radio 4’s Word of Mouth, hosted by Michael Rosen with linguist Laura Wright, and guests me and Prof Peter Piot, who co-discovered Ebola, was a pioneer in the science of AIDS, and now heads up the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine…
This programme first aired on 6 February 2018. To listen, click here.
ON 3 November 1793, in the thick of The Terror, the porter of the disaffected Val-de-Grâce abbey in Paris took advantage of the general commotion to slip into a stairway that led into the network of tunnels under the capital, and set off in search of treasure…
This article first appeared in The Idler around 1 January 2018. To continue reading, subscribe here or hunt it down in WHSmiths or bookshops.
WHEN, in 1996, French nun Mariannick Caniou found out she didn’t have Huntington’s disease, the lethal, degenerative genetic disorder, she fell into a depression. Throughout her life, she had been convinced that she would develop the illness that had killed her mother and grandmother. So convinced, in fact, that all her most important decisions had been based on that conviction: her decision not to marry, for example, or not to have children. She didn’t regret her decision to enter the religious life, but now she had to wonder if the specter of Huntington’s had haunted that too: “Everything I had built, my life, seemed no more substantial than air…”
This article first appeared in Slate on 29 September 2017. To continue reading, click here.
COMPUTER scientist Luc Steels uses artificial intelligence to explore the origins and evolution of language. He is best known for his 1999–2001 Talking Heads Experiment, in which robots had to construct a language from scratch to communicate with each other. Now Steels, who works at the Free University of Brussels (VUB), has composed an opera based on the legend of Faust, with a twenty-first-century twist. He talks about Mozart as a nascent computer programmer, how music maps onto language, and the blurred boundaries of a digitized world….
This article first appeared in Nature on 14 September 2017. To continue reading, click here.