Epigenetics, the misunderstood science

A little over a decade ago, a clutch of scientific studies was published that seemed to show that survivors of atrocities or disasters such as the Holocaust and the Dutch famine of 1944-45 had passed on the biological scars of those traumatic experiences to their children.

The studies caused a sensation, earning their own BBC Horizon documentary and the cover of Time (I also wrote about them, for New Scientist) – and no wonder. The mind-blowing implications were that DNA wasn’t the only mode of biological inheritance, and that traits acquired by a person in their lifetime could be heritable. Since we receive our full complement of genes at conception and it remains essentially unchanged until our death, this information was thought to be transmitted via chemical tags on genes called “epigenetic marks” that dial those genes’ output up or down. The phenomenon, known as transgenerational epigenetic inheritance, caught the public imagination, in part because it seemed to release us from the tyranny of DNA. Genetic determinism was dead…

DNA methylation

This article first appeared in The Observer on 10 October 2021. To continue reading, click here.

John von Neumann, not the coldest of cold warriors

IN 1945, while in a state of exhaustion, the mathematician John von Neumann had a kind of stammering premonition. He was in Los Alamos, working on the atom bomb, and he told his wife Klari that the “energy source” he was helping to develop would make scientists “the most hated and also the most wanted citizens of any country”. Then he informed her that his other ongoing project, the computer, would one day be even more important—and potentially even more dangerous…

John von Neumann

This article first appeared in The Economist on 6 October 2021. To continue reading, click here (paywall).

Covid lawsuits and inquiries loom

EARLIER this month, proceedings opened in Austria in a civil suit brought against the authorities by the widow and son of a man who died of Covid-19 after staying in Ischgl, the ski resort widely regarded as having hosted a super-spreader event early in the pandemic. The week before, former French health minister Agnès Buzyn was ordered by a court to answer, essentially, for the government’s lack of anticipation of the pandemic…

Ischgl, Austria

This article first appeared in The Guardian on 29 September 2021. To continue reading, click here.

Could whistling shed light on the origins of speech?

FOR centuries, shepherds from the small village of Aas in the French Pyrenees led their sheep and cattle up to mountain pastures for the summer months. To ease the solitude, they would communicate with each other or with the village below in a whistled form of the local Gascon dialect, transmitting and receiving information accurately over distances of up to 10 kilometres…

This article first appeared in The Observer on 26 September 2021. To continue reading, click here.

 

writer & journalist