National Geographic, March 2015

The Age of Disbelief, by Joel Achenbach, photographs by Richard Barnes

The cover of this issue of National Geographic calls The Age of Disbelief,  “The War on Science.”  That’s really oversimplifying this article.  In fact, there are so many ideas here that I’m having a difficult time figuring out where to start here.  I guess I can see where they were coming from on that “war on science” blurb.  Oversimplification is certainly tempting.

We start out with a quote from Dr. Strangelove, in which comedy comes from what was then seen to be self-evidently obvious — that fluoridation was safe — and in which the comedy comes from the then-laughable idea that it could be seen as dangerous.  Then we go to the anti-fluoridation movement, which keeps the water of Portland, Oregon, unfluoridated to this very day.

We then go on to how polarized our society has become in recent decades, with people drawing all sorts of conclusions at odds with other opinions while looking at the same research.  Part of the problem, according to Achenbach, is that some of the conclusions that form the consensus of scientists is counterintuitive.  Additionally, our brains crave predictability and patterns.  As a result,  the counterintuitive consensus  of science cause conflict with this desire for patterns and predicability.

Tribalism comes into this as well.  The argument is that we tend to side with those we feel close to and thus adopt the beliefs and attitudes of this group.  This is true of both science believers and science skeptics.  And despite some of the damage caused by the conspiracy theorist types of skeptic, such as the recent measles and whooping cough epidemics, some skepticism is good. Asking if this answer is the correct one is what keeps scientists asking new questions and refining our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.

Fleeing Terror, Finding Refuge (Out of Eden Walk — Part Four), by Paul Salopek, photographs by John Stanmeyer

In Fleeing Terror, Finding Refuge, Salopek follows Syrian refugees into Turkey.  At the time of publication, there were over a million Syrian refugees in Turkey fleeing civil war in their homeland. We see the lives of these refugees, most of whom are women and children, in their crowded camps, scrabbling to make an existence for themselves.

This disorganized, itinerant existence is contrasted throughout the article with discussions with archaeologists of the ancient history of Turkey as they discover layers of civilizations dating back around 9,000 years.  This comparison between the transient lives of the refugees with the nearby cities that came and went, often one on top of another, makes this article fascinating reading.

Luminous Life, by Olivia Judson, photographs by David Liittschwager

Luminous Life is about bioluminescence, the life-forms that make it, and the reasons they do so.  Many underwater lifeforms are bioluminescent, and since most come from areas that scientists have not been researching as exhaustively as they have been researching places like coral reefs and underwater vents, these lifeforms have likewise gone relatively unexamined.

And scientists are discovering some fascinating things about bioluminescent animals.  There are three basic reasons why an animal or plant might have evolved to glow.  One, and perhaps the most common, of these is for defense.  An animal might glow to startle a predator, or as a decoy.  Some even glow only from underneath, so that predators underneath them cannot see them against the glow of light from above.  Other lifeforms glow for offensive purposes. Some use light to blind or lure prey, or to find it (either by shining light on the prey or by looking for the glow of bioluminescent lifeforms in the dark).  And then there are the ones that we see most often, which is bioluminescence for reproductive purposes.  Many of us have seen fireflies, example, which glow to attract genetically compatible mates.

The article also goes into the mechanics of how bioluminescence works.  It involves two chemicals, a luciferin and a luciferase.  The luciferin is the molecule that lights up and the luciferase is the molecule that activates the luciferin.  Judson does make a comment in this paragraph that is the sort of thing that bothers me.  She says that “Lucifer” is a name for Satan “before his fall” in English.  Apparently, Judson is not a theologian.  Neither am I, honestly, but I have friends who are, and here is what I know about the origin of “Lucifer.”

The whole thing starts with Isaiah 14:12, “How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning, how art thou cut down from the ground, which didst weaken the nations!”  However, most theologians today pretty much agree that “Lucifer” is a reference to a king of Babylon, perhaps Nebuchadnezzar II.  The equivalence between the figure of the fallen “morning star” and Satan comes thousands of years later in Dante’s “Inferno,” and, more than two hundred years after that, in Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” Most of the “Satan is an angel who rebelled against God” stuff comes from Milton and has been assumed into popular theology since then.  So, no, “Lucifer” is in no way the name of Satan.  To the extent that theologians actually believe in Satan, which is a completely different topic.

Two Cities, Two Europes, by Adam Nicolson, Berlin photographs by Gerd Ludwig, Athens photographs by Alex Majoli

I wasn’t sure what to expect of Two Cities, Two Europes.  The blurb says that this is an article about Berlin lending money to Greece in 2010 and 2012.  Economics is really not my thing.  I can balance a household budget and know that, on a microeconomic level, loans are best to be avoided.  Even so-called “good debt,” such as mortgages, should be kept to a minimum because over the life of the loan, you may well end up paying much more than the value of the property.  Macroeconomics, the way that nations govern their finances and interact economically, is a totally different field and I only have just the barest understanding of how countries loaning money to each other even works.

So I wasn’t sure if I would even understand this article.  On the other hand, the only way to understand things you don’t understand is to learn about them, so I figured it was worth the effort to try.

As it turned out, most of my fretting was for nothing.  Aside from some background on the reasons for the loan and some pretty direct criticism of the austerity measures imposed by the lenders on Greece, much of this article is a sort of “character study” comparing these two cities, Berlin,  which is trying to redefine itself after the turbulence of the 20th century, and Athens, which is trying to find its way in the 21st.

End of the Earth, story and photographs by Murray Fredericks

End of the Earth is a short essay and accompanying photographs regarding a three-year project that Fredericks undertook of taking photographs in  Fredericks took six trips to Greenland in those three years.  During that period, Fredericks lived in tent on the ice and he nearly gave up.  Fortunately, he didn’t, and the photographs he took during these trips, featureless white below, and dynamic white and gray above, are truly breathtaking.

(originally published May 2015)



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