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.

Identifying humans

economist-logoWITH the construction of the railways in the 19th century, a new sociological phenomenon was born: the travelling criminal. Until then, police had relied on local communities to recognise a bad apple in their midst, but now the felons were on the move, wreaking havoc in communities which had no knowledge of their past and hence no reason to be wary. For law enforcers trying to contain the problem by sharing descriptions of known recidivists, it became imperative to answer one question: what is it that identifies someone as a particular person?

This article first appeared in the Economist on 17 December 2009. To continue reading click here.

Charles Sabine’s battle

il_logoIN 1996, an NBC war reporter and his crew were captured by a renegade platoon of mujahideen guerrillas near the Bosnian town of Doboj. As the sun set and the call to prayer went up, the reporter stared at a blood-spattered wall while a young warrior pulled the pin from a grenade, replaced it with his finger and pressed it to his head. The warrior closed his eyes and prayed…

This article first appeared in Intelligent Life in autumn 2009.

Anthony Allison, unsung hero

il_logoSIXTY years ago, a young graduate was kicking his heels in Oxford, waiting to embark on his medical studies, when he was invited to join an expedition to a country he knew well. Kenya was his childhood home, but this would be more than a nostalgia trip for him. His head stuffed with new-fangled notions about human evolution, he saw it as an opportunity to put his ideas to the test. Thus began one of the great unsung scientific journeys of the last century, whose impact continues to be felt in this one…

This article first appeared in Intelligent Life in spring 2009. To continue reading, click here.

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