An Unexpected Twist Lights Up the Secrets of Turbulence

In Quanta

Having solved a central mystery about the “twirliness” of tornadoes and other types of vortices, William Irvine has set his sights on turbulence, the white whale of classical physics.

From my article in Quanta Magazine, posted September 3, 2020

It’s time to feed the blob. Seething and voracious, it absorbs eight dinner-plate-size helpings every few seconds.

Irvine tightly controls the loops that are the blob’s building blocks and studies the resulting confined turbulence up close and at length. The blob could yield insights into turbulence that physicists have been chasing for two centuries — in a quest that led Richard Feynman to call turbulence the most important unsolved problem in classical physics….Read more

How 3M’s reputation took a big hit over N95 Masks

In Marker

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N95 masks are life savers, and could help control the pandemic. Why can’t 3M—or anyone else—make nearly enough of them?

From my article in Marker, posted Aug. 19, 2020

On the evening of April 2, some two weeks into America’s full-blown Covid crisis, President Donald Trump fired off a tweet to his more than 80 million followers:

We hit 3M hard today after seeing what they were doing with their masks… Big surprise to many in government as to what they were doing — will have a big price to pay!

The notion of 3M ending up square in the bilious crosshairs of the Tweeter-in-Chief would have seemed absurd just days earlier. A staid, 118-year-old, Midwestern manufacturing company, 3M is best known for Scotch tape, sandpaper, and Post-It notes — it sells enough of them that it pulled in $32 billion last year, and employs nearly 100,000. Unlike the flashy high-tech wizardry radiating from Silicon Valley, 3M was built on made-America-great, meat-and-potatoes innovation. The company owns some 120,000 patents, and sells some 55,000 products. So how did a much-admired all-American sticky-paper company end up being publicly cast as a pandemic villain?….Read more

How Trump Could Turn the Most Challenging Election Since the Civil War into an Unprecedented Disaster

In Newsweek

From my cover story in the August 14, 2020, edition of Newsweek

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….Even in the best of times, a president who threatens to disrespect election norms and laws would be cause for alarm. These are not the best of times. The number of things likely to go wrong in this election is unprecedented. Polls are vulnerable to hacking from China, Russia and North Korea. Efforts to block voter registration and other forms of suppression are rampant, particularly in Republican-controlled states. Skyrocketing COVID-19 infections are likely to keep people from the polls. In states including California, Texas and Washington, protesters have flooded the streets for weeks; in Portland, Oregon, they have clashed with federal troops, all of which could disrupt polling. The electoral college is uniquely positioned this year to collapse, leaving the election deadlocked and plunging the nation into a constitutional crisis. Taken together, these factors make it more likely than at any other time in more than a century that a U.S. election will fail to produce a winner who is accepted by a large majority as legitimate….Read more

Shopify Saved Main Street. Next Stop: Taking On Amazon

In Marker

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The Canadian e-commerce company is breathing down Silicon Valley’s neck as the next great enterprise behemoth

From my article in Marker, posted July 22, 2020

In late March, 15,000 gallons of beer were sloshing around in Peter Bulut’s tanks and barrels with nowhere to go. Bulut, the owner of Great Lakes Brewing Co., first started working in his father’s tiny craft brewery in Toronto almost 30 years ago, when he was 21. Back on March 13, when Covid-19 was creeping its way into Toronto, Bulut started taking small precautions, like suspending in-store beer tastings.  Five days after that, facing a 50% drop in business, he laid off a quarter of his 52 employees. Then Bulut had an employee call Shopify to find out what it would take to convert the company’s online merch shop into an online beer-sales-and-delivery store. Bulut was surprised by Shopify’s response. “They jumped all over it,” he says. “They wanted to help us hit big sales volumes”….Read more

Humidity vs. Coronavirus

In Newsweek

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From my article in Newsweek posted June 2, 2020

Walter Hugentobler, a Swiss physician who sometimes practices at a clinic in Zurich International Airport, noticed several years ago that pilots and flight attendants seemed unusually susceptible to the flu throughout the year, even though they were generally healthy. More recently, Hazhir Rahmandad, an engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management, noticed that COVID-19 tended to spread in his native Iran at different rates from one region to the next, even when population densities were similar.

Those two observations each led to recent studies that have converged on an important insight into COVID-19: the spread of the disease is likely to vary significantly with temperature and humidity….Read more

Inside the Flour Company Supplying America’s Sudden Baking Obsession

In Marker

A bag of King Arthur Flour propped up next to a baguette, eggs, and a whisk.

How King Arthur Flour found itself in the unlikely crosshairs of a pandemic

From my article in Marker, posted May 20, 2020

Baking bread was a regular family affair in Linda Ely’s childhood home, leaving her with a lifelong bread-baking habit and some powerful memories. “I think of my family every single time I bake,” she says.

Ely has been able to pay some of that gift forward to the thousands of people she has advised over the Baker’s Hotline run by the company she works for — and is to a tiny degree a part-owner of — King Arthur Flour. But in early March, Ely noticed a change in the questions. Partly it was an increase in the sheer number of calls, a jump that seemed more sudden and pronounced than the normal mild pre-Easter build-up. But even stranger was how many of the callers seemed, well, clueless. How do you tell if bread is done? Do I really need yeast? And strangest of all: What can I use instead of flour?….Read more

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Your Privacy or Your Life

In Newsweek

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Would you let the government track your smartphone if it meant we could reopen sooner?

From my cover story in the May 20, 2020, edition of Newsweek

Before the pandemic, the plan would have seemed like something ripped from a distant dystopian future in which the human race fully surrenders to Big Tech. On the April 10 online document, the logos of Google and Apple sat atop a description of the companies’ joint plan to enable America’s cellphones to keep track of everyone with whom their owners come into contact….Read more

A Prophet of Scientific Rigor—and a Covid Contrarian

In Wired

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John Ioannidis laid bare the foibles of medical science. Now medical science is returning the favor.

From my article for Wired, posted May 1, 2020

I’M STARING AT a small sea of frowning faces on Zoom. “I’m really angry about this,” says one of them. These are medical students at Columbia University, and I’m speaking to a class on communicating medicine. They’ve been friendly up until now, but that all changed when I brought up Stanford University epidemiologist John Ioannidis.

Ioannidis has been a fixture in medical-school curricula for years, achieving something akin to hero status. He’s one of the most-cited scientists of any type in the world, earning acclaim by dedicating his career to telling the fields of biomedicine (and others, too) how little trust one should have in their published research. But almost literally overnight Ioannidis has himself become a case study in how to screw up a medical study. And not just any study: This one concludes that Covid-19 isn’t all that dangerous….Read more

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The Experiments Revealing How Marijuana Could Treat Dementia

In Discover

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Slightly stoned mice show marijuana may fight age-related memory loss.

From my cover story in the March, 2020, issue of Discover Magazine

A longtime U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) researcher who now runs an institute at Germany’s University of Bonn, Andreas Zimmer has been on a long journey to answer a question that few researchers had thought to ask: Is it possible that weed, long seen as the stuff of slackers, might actually contain the secret to sharpening the aging brain? His findings have suggested that may be the case, and research in the U.S. at Harvard, Johns Hopkins and elsewhere hints the results seem to hold for humans. As the data continues to stream in, some in the Zimmer lab have begun quietly encouraging their aging parents to toke away….Read more

Tesla’s Cybertruck Has a Huge Cowboy Problem

In Medium’s Marker

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Can Tesla and Rivian convince practical Ford-loving pickup drivers to buy their futuristic machismo machines?

From my article in Marker, posted February 5, 2020

America’s coasts may well harbor pockets of tech-friendly, eco-conscious early adopters eager to jump to a Cybertruck, or some other whizzy, cool urban-warrior or off-road vehicle that happens to have a bed for hauling Whole Foods groceries and Patagonia gear. But Tesla and other electric truck startups won’t get far hitching their future to those sort of sub-sub-markets. They’ll need to figure out how to sell electric pickups in Houston and other places where trucks are king….Read more

You’re on the Verge of Getting a Cold: Can You Stop It in Its Tracks?

In Medium’s Elemental

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Most common advice won’t work. Surprisingly, though, the research suggests there are two supplements that might help.

From my article in Elemental posted February 5, 2020

….As with vitamin C, research on whether taking zinc at the onset of cold symptoms can shorten or ease the illness has been somewhat mixed. Harri Hemilä, a physician and public health researcher, and the author of the seminal 2017 study and co-author of the classic 2005 study on vitamin C, also recently tried to settle the question on zinc, in this case with a randomized controlled trial that he carried out with colleagues on 88 people who came down with colds. The results, just published in January, were surprising and a bit confusing, Hemilä confesses….Read more

Hunting for New Drugs with AI

In Nature

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The pharmaceutical industry is in a drug-discovery slump. How much can AI help?

From my article in the December 18, 2019, issue of Nature (“Innovations In” section)

….Because finding new, successful drugs has become so much harder, the average cost of bringing one to market nearly doubled between 2003 and 2013 to $2.6 billion, according to the Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development. These same challenges have increased the lab-to-market time line to 12 years, with 90 percent of drugs washing out in one of the phases of human trials. It’s no wonder, then, that the industry is enthusiastic about artificial-intelligence tools for drug development….Read more

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Do You Trust Jeff Bezos With Your Life?

In Newsweek

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Tech giants like Amazon are getting into the health care business

From my cover story in the December 3, 2019, Newsweek

NwswkDrAmazonCoverOnlyArmed with two-day delivery, Amazon put thousands of stores out of business and established hegemony in retail. Along with others in Big Tech, the company also turned what you might have thought were your private doings into a marketable product. Now Amazon is positioning itself to move into health care in a big way. Experts think the $230-billion-in-annual-revenues retail giant is preparing to launch a service aimed at bringing nearly all health care together in a single, user-friendly app with all the convenience and pricing-transparency of its online store–and all the privacy and competition-crushing concerns, too….Read more

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How Medellín, Colombia, Became the World’s Smartest City

In Newsweek

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With a combination of tech savvy, urban planning and public support, Colombia’s second-largest city rebounded from troubling times

From my cover story in the November 18, 2019, Newsweek

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Think of a gondola suspended under a cable, floating high off the ground as it hauls a cabin full of passengers up a long, steep mountain slope. To most people, the image would suggest ski resorts and pricey vacations. To the people who live in the poor mountainside communities once known as favelas at the edges of Medellín, Colombia, the gondola system is a lifeline, and a powerful symbol of an extraordinary urban transformation led by technology and data….Read more

What Actually Goes Down When You Get Sick on a Plane

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From paging a doctor to radioing one on the ground, airlines have ways of coping with illness. But none of them are ideal.

From my article in Elemental posted November 13, 2019

Cyrus Komer, MD, was flying on Delta Airlines from Boston to Vancouver, Canada, on a ski vacation, when a flight attendant asked a question over the PA system: “Is there a doctor onboard?” Komer, a physician specializing in internal medicine, who had never before been confronted with an in-flight medical situation, hesitated. “I had to think about it,” he says. “I worried about trying to help someone without any of the tools with me that I normally relied on”….Read more

Racing to Build the Starbucks of Weed

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The next gold rush in legalizing cannabis is public consumption. Entrepreneur J.J. Walker is already one step ahead.

From my article in Marker posted October 3, 2019

Several states and cities are already cautiously opening the door to the so-called social consumption of marijuana. These new laws would permit any adult who purchases cannabis in a specially licensed business to also consume the products right there. In other words, a legal future in which enjoying weed is as simple as walking into a bar or restaurant and enjoying a glass of chardonnay. Currently there are no credible projections of the size of the social-consumption market, but there’s enough relevant math to suggest it will likely be massive….Read more

Reaction to my Atlantic article on “the world’s worst patients”

Letters from readers about my July article, and my response, from the September, 2019, issue of The Atlantic

AtlPatients“I found this article to be a refreshing departure from most writing about health care. Of course culture matters. As a medical anthropologist, however, I thought David H. Freedman missed a key factor in health outcomes. Many people who have the worst compliance rates and outcomes (Freedman lists smokers, diabetics, and people with sedentary lifestyles as examples) also have the same socioeconomic status. In other words, they’re broke or too busy to do everything they’re supposed to….” Read more

Why autoimmune diseases are hard to diagnose

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Even specialists often struggle to make sense of the puzzling symptoms that come with these slow-moving disorders

From my article in Elemental posted September 30, 2019

Some 1.5 million Americans have been diagnosed with lupus erythematosus. And lupus is just one of more than 100 autoimmune diseases affecting nearly 25 million Americans, diseases that together present a challenging and often frustrating path to diagnosis for doctors and patients alike. “These patients often get sent on a long journey before they get an answer,” says Robert Lahita, M.D., the chairman of medicine at St. Joseph’s Healthcare in Wayne, N.J. “Some physicians will tell them it’s all in their head. It’s not, and they can be miserable for years until they get diagnosed.” Read more

How the five senses impact health

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Hacking the sensory-health connection can improve well-being in surprising ways

From my article in Elemental posted September 5, 2019

About a quarter of the human brain’s mass is devoted to processing information from the five senses. Given that the brain plays such a central role in health, it’s not surprising that the five senses are closely tied to well-being.

But beyond merely proving those connections exist, researchers have recently started to explore ways to purposely manipulate them for people’s benefit. “Interventions based on what we see, feel, and even taste can have a seemingly dramatic effect on health,“ says Charles Spence, an Oxford University PhD researcher who runs a lab dedicated to studying the role that perception plays in behavior and health. “They can reduce pain, speed recovery from illness, and much more.” Read more

CBD: Looking Beyond the Hype

Pop culture says CBD cures everything—here’s what scientists say

From my cover story in the September 6, 2019, Newsweek

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Hardly anyone had heard of CBD three years ago, but now two-thirds of Americans are familiar with it, according to a recent Gallup survey. One in seven Americans use it as an over-the-counter treatment for pain, anxiety and sleep problems. They have also turned to CBD for depression, muscle spasms, digestive issues and skin ailments. One in three pet owners give it to their dogs and cats, says a survey by market-research firm Packaged Facts. It’s also been touted as a treatment for cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. One medical clinic reported that CBD relieved 90 percent of all symptoms in all its patients.

Trouble is, almost all of the claims are currently unsubstantiated. “Consumers are participating in one of the largest uncontrolled clinical trials in history, and no one really knows what it is they’re taking,” says Pal Pacher, an investigator at the National Institutes of Health and president of the International Cannabinoid Research Society. “It’s scary”….Read more

Do You Have a Drinking Problem?

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The standard tools that flag high-risk imbibing don’t always send the right people for help

From my article in Elemental posted August 8, 2019

There are two fairly reliable ways to discern whether you may have a biological disposition for alcohol trouble, says one psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital who specializes in substance abuse. One is obvious: Look for alcohol trouble in your family history. The other is much less obvious: If you handle your alcohol better than most people around you, you’re at higher risk of a long-term problem….Read more

Precision Medicine Is Crushing Once-Untreatable Cancers–But There’s a Catch

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For tens of thousands of patients, precision medicine is rewriting their cancer stories. But only a fraction of patients benefit. Can medicine close the gap?

From my cover story in the July 26, 2019, Newsweek

Linda Boyed, an energetic 52-year-old occupational therapist, was thrilled to be on vacation with her family in Hawaii, hitting the beaches and taking long walks. But she couldn’t shake a constant feeling of fatigue. When she returned home, her doctor delivered the bad news: Cancer of the bile ducts in her liver had already spread too far for chemotherapy or surgery to do any good. He offered to help keep her comfortable for her final few months.

But then Boyed’s husband found a doctor at Ohio State’s cancer center who was running studies of experimental drugs for gastrointestinal cancers. That doctor gave her an experimental drug called BGJ398. Boyed’s symptoms cleared up, the tumors stopped growing, and she regained the weight she had lost….Read more

Can you work better high?

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Many insist that toking on the job improves their performance. Scientists and other experts are lending some surprising support to the claim.

From my article in Elemental posted July 17, 2019

Besides their outsized reputations in the annals of literature, Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Charles Baudelaire, and Honoré de Balzac had something else in common: their interest in weed. They were all members of the Club des Hashischins — the “Hash Club” — formed in the 19th century as a way to provide opportunities for these towering figures and other celebrated creatives to explore the benefits of writing while high.

There’s reason to believe mixing pot and work may not be as problematic as once thought for others, too. Some scientists, physicians, and other experts are going as far as to suggest that for some people, pot can even be a tool for increasing productivity….Read more

The Worst Patients in the World

In The Atlantic

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Americans are hypochondriacs, yet we skip our checkups. We demand drugs we don’t need, and fail to take the ones we do. No wonder the U.S. leads the world in health spending.

From my article in the July 2019 issue of The Atlantic

I was standing two feet away when my 74-year-old father slugged an emergency-room doctor who was trying to get a blood-pressure cuff around his arm. I wasn’t totally surprised: An accomplished scientist who was sharp as a tack right to the end, my father had nothing but disdain for the entire U.S. health-care system, which he believed piled on tests and treatments intended to benefit its bottom line rather than his health. He typically limited himself to berating or rolling his eyes at the unlucky clinicians tasked with ministering to him, but more than once I could tell he was itching to escalate….Read more

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The Neuroscience of Cravings

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Research explains why people have intense urges for specific foods — and reveals ways to train our brains to resist them

From my article in Elemental posted June 5, 2019

Serving as an experimental subject in the lab of Peter Hall means eating chocolate or potato chips — as much or as little of either as you want. And there’s no catch.

Well, maybe just a tiny one. While you’re scarfing down the goodies, you have to wear a device on your head that scrambles some of the signals in your brain with a blast of magnetic energy. It’s all in the service of advancing science. The science of food cravings, that is….Read more

What’s the Magic Behind Graphene’s ‘Magic’ Angle?

In Quanta

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A new theoretical model may help explain the shocking onset of superconductivity in stacked, twisted carbon sheets.

From my May 27, 2019, article in Quanta Magazine

The blockbuster discovery last year of superconductivity in a material called twisted bilayer graphene caught theorists off guard. None of them had even speculated about the sudden loss of all electrical resistance when two sheets of graphene — honeycomb lattices of carbon atoms — were stacked and twisted at a relative angle of 1.1 degrees. But one prominent proposal from Harvard University condensed matter theorists offers a detailed picture of what might be going on….Read more

The Superbugs Are Here

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Antibiotic-resistant bacteria will kill millions in the coming decades. Can we fix the broken economic and research models that could produce new treatments?

From my cover story in the May 31, 2019, Newsweek

In January, Columbia University revealed that four patients at its Irving Medical Center in New York had been sick with an unusual version of E. coli , a common gut bacterium. NwswkSuperbugsCoverAlthough the news largely escaped attention in the media, it ricocheted through the world of infectious disease experts. The Columbia E. coli had a mutation in a gene, MCR-1, that confers a terrifying attribute: imperviousness to colistin, the final-line-of-defense antibiotic for the bug. “We’re looking to the shelf for the next antibiotic, and there’s nothing there,” says Erica Shenoy, associate chief of the infection control unit at Massachusetts General Hospital….Read more

The Munchies Paradox

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Researchers are trying to untangle the surprisingly complex relationship between pot and appetite

From my article in Elemental on May 13, 2019

Convenience stores in about 2,000 of the United States’ 3,200 or so counties saw a jump in junk food sales between 2006 and 2016. The indulgent counties were all in or close to states that legalized recreational marijuana at some point during that 10-year time period, just before sales surged.

The new data fits well with the experiences of hundreds of millions of people who use cannabis and with what science knows about pot. Or does it? In hundreds of studies of pot and appetite, the results are, well, disjointed. If there is any sort of consensus, it’s that longer-term use of pot is more closely associated with people maintaining what doctors classify as healthier weights than it is with people ending up glued to the couch, overeating….Read more

With a Simple Twist, a ‘Magic’ Material Is Now the Big Thing in Physics

In Quanta

QuantaGrapheneImage2The stunning emergence of a new type of superconductivity with the mere twist of a carbon sheet has left physicists giddy, and its discoverer nearly overwhelmed.

From my April 30, 2019, article in Quanta Magazine (also published in Wired)

Pablo Jarillo-Herrero is channeling some of his copious energy into a morning run, dodging startled pedestrians as he zips along, gradually disappearing into the distance. He’d doubtlessly be moving even faster if he weren’t dressed in a sports coat, slacks and dress shoes, and confined to one of the many weirdly long corridors that crisscross the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Jarillo-Herrero has never been a slacker, but his activity has jumped several levels since his dramatic announcement in March 2018 that his lab at MIT had found superconductivity in twisted bilayer graphene — a one-atom-thick sheet of carbon crystal dropped on another one, and then rotated to leave the two layers slightly askew….Read more

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China is Winning the 5G Race. Who Cares?

NwswkChina5gImageThe U.S. Lags China in the next big technological advance in cellphone networks. But not where it counts.

From my article (part of the cover story) in the May 10, 2019, issue of Newsweek

“The race to 5G is on, and America must win,” said Trump in mid-April.

It’s no secret that he’s focused on China, led by giant telecommunications manufacturer Huawei. But which 5G race can the U.S. hope to win? There are really three: one to provide the equipment on which the new networks are built; one to roll out the services widely; and another to develop the whole package—the software, devices, services and business processes that take advantage of 5G’s blinding speed and near-instant responsiveness. The distinction is critical, because the U.S. has already lost the first race and may lose the second. But the U.S. could still win the third race—and reap the main economic benefits of 5G….Read more