Chessmen of the Silver Screen

chessmen on parade I love the British Museum. One of my favorite things there is the Lewis Chessmen. Once you know the Lewis Chessmen, apparently you see them everywhere. I wrote about them for The Last Word on Nothing.

The Chessmen That Conquered the World (Of Cinema)

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Snake on a Bridge

Spotted this morning on a footbridge at Brookside Gardens in Wheaton, Maryland: this gorgeous big snake.

snake in wheaton

I was so excited about taking its picture that I forgot to try to estimate its length, but I’d say it was upwards of 4 feet long. And not super happy about being chased by two excited humans.

snake headphotos: me

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Electronics You Can Bend

flexible electronicsI write for magazines for 11 years without a single cover story–then I get two in a row. The first was my solar plane story in the June issue of Discover; the other is a story I wrote about flexible electronics for GW Research magazine.

The flexible electronics are little tunnels of liquid metal that run through a block of silicone, about the size of a bandaid. You can make the tunnels really small and fill them with very small amounts of metal; the hope is that someday this kind of system could be used to monitor your bodily fluids. You could divert teensy quantities of blood into it to test insulin levels, for example. And because it’s not rigid like traditional chips, it can bend and wiggle right along with you.

I think that kind of application is a long way off, but I had fun learning about the system and meeting the GWU professors who are working on it.

Bending the Rules

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From Dry to Wet

greenery!Today for The Last Word on Nothing I wrote about coming home from Saudi Arabia. I still can’t get over trees. Big old deciduous trees, pulling water out of the ground like it’s no big deal. You keep doing your thing, big trees. You’re the best.

A friend of mine pointed out that this experience, of moving from a dry place to a wet place, is something you can have without leaving the country, but I decided it was worth writing about anyway.

It’s fun being able to write about this trip immediately after coming back. Usually when I go somewhere exotic it’s because there’s some big feature story coming out, so I have to save up my random stories and observations in case I need them later.

Doing it this way is also challenging, because I haven’t turned all the thoughts over in my head as thoroughly as I like to. Also, I wasn’t there as a reporter, so I have done absolutely zero reporting. It’s an interesting exercise.

Coming Home from Saudi Arabia

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Hoopoes in Saudi Arabia

hoooooooopoeI spent the month of June teaching writing to teenage girls in Saudi Arabia. It was a real adventure. The girls were great–funny, enthusiastic, nerdy. Teaching was rewarding, fun, creative, and hard. I have new respect for people who actually do that full-time. And apparently they have to keep track of more than 14 students at a time, too.

While I was there, I barely had time for anything but planning, teaching, and sleeping. But yesterday for the website of The Science Writers’ Handbook, I wrote a little item about one of the few leisure activities I managed to squeeze in: birdwatching. And one of my favorite birds, the hoopoe.

Snapshot: Birdwatching in Saudi Arabia

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Swine Flu

pigs in the cotswoldsI had a new adventure earlier this year: Coming up with the text and data for an infographic on swine flu. It was for GW Research magazine, a publication from George Washington University. A designer came up with the graphics and arrangement, but I enjoyed the challenge of picking the data for the elements on the page and writing a text that complemented the graphics without restating the information with them.

It looks best in print, but you can see it online here.

It Happened: Pigs’ Flu

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Bug on my Train Window

On Monday I went for a ride on the Ffestiniog Railway, a railway that was originally for transporting slate down from the mountains to the Welsh coast. Now it mostly carries tourists the other way, from Porthmadog up to Blaenau Ffestiniog and back. Slate is still mined at Blaenau Ffestiniog–I brought a piece back–and the village is surrounded by mountains with their innards showing, covered in little pieces of dumped slate.


While they were moving the locomotive from one end of the train to the other at the station in Blaenau Ffestiniog, this bug found its way into our carriage. I took the opportunity of a stop partway down to take its picture. Hello, bug! It’s a fly of some sort. Doesn’t it have pretty wings?

Also in this picture: the steam locomotive David Lloyd George, built in 1992. Lloyd George was a local boy–he represented Carnarvon, which is a half-hour drive or three-hour steam train ride north of Porthmadog–and was prime minister during the First World War.

Photo: me

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Flying on the Wings of the Sun

2014_04_04_SolarImpulse2_revillard_07_thumbA story I worked on for more than a year is finally out, on the cover of the June issue of Discover. It’s about Solar Impulse, a plane powered only by the sun that is supposed to fly around the world next year.

Solar panels don’t make a lot of energy, compared to, say, jet fuel. That means a lot of the process of making this plane has been about figuring out how to make it as light as possible. It’s made of carbon fiber; it has super-efficient batteries; the insulation is as light as it can be.

In a way, I’ve been working on this story since 2004. In that year, I wrote about the Piccards, a family of Swiss explorers, for U.S.News & World Report. (Which has, regrettably, taken its archives off the website, so no link.) This project is the brainchild of Bertrand Piccard. In 1999, he was one of the pilots on the first non-stop round-the-world hot air balloon flight. After that, he thought maybe it would be interesting to fly around the world in a solar airplane.

Unlike the balloon flight, though, this flight won’t be non-stop. Piccard and the other guy in charge of the project, a former Swiss fighter pilot and engineer named Andr√© Borschberg, will trade off legs as the plane hops around the world.

Last February I went to Switzerland to meet Borschberg at the hangar where they were building the plane. I showed up at the appointed time and discovered that a meeting had tied him up in another town. So he gave me the tour via Skype on the PR person’s laptop. It was, shall we say, a little awkward. Then I spent two weeks in Switzerland, waiting for them to let me know I could come watch some of the load testing in the hangar. Finally I got sick of waiting and went on to the next stage in my 2013 European Adventure.

But, finally, the story came out. The June issue of Discover is just arriving in mailboxes this week; you’ll have to find a paper copy if you want to read it.

Photo © Solar Impulse | Revillard |

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Visiting Spacecraft

IMG_4933This weekend I met a giant stack of spacecraft: the MMS mission, at NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center. Then I wrote about it for The Last Word on Nothing.

MMS is a physics mission. Its purpose is to figure out exactly what happens when the solar wind bumps into the Earth’s magnetic field. Scientists know some of what happens: the aurora. And they’ve poked at the sky with a lot of little rockets carrying instruments.

But the four spacecraft of MMS will actually go out and fly around in formation where the encounter is taking place, making measurements in four places at the same time.


Giant Stack of Spacecraft

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New Hobby Report: Drawing

olive oilThis week I was really stuck for a topic for The Last Word on Nothing, so I wrote about something I’ve been doing lately: drawing.

I love the drawings in old-timey scientists’ field notebooks. Drawing is particularly a natural history thing: Going out into the world, recording new species or behaviors.

My impression is that people do very little of it these days. But it’s something that I’d like to be better at, so I’ve been making an effort. Who knows if I’ll stick with it.

Drawing What I See

Art: Me

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