Mercury and Birds

confluenceA story I’ve been working on since April came out this week. It’s about the effects of mercury pollution on bird songs. It appeared on the websites of both Environmental Health News and National Geographic. It also got a nice mention from the New York Times.

The story is mostly about the research of Dan Cristol, an ecologist at William and Mary. He started studying the effects of mercury contamination from an old DuPont factory on the birds in a tributary of the Shenandoah River a decade ago. He’s part of a big project, funded by DuPont.

For the story, I took the train to Williamsburg and spent an afternoon with Cristol there, meeting the zebra finches in the animal research facility. (So cute.) The next morning, he picked me up early for the 150-mile drive to the Shenandoah Valley, where he was meeting a professor and a grad student from another university to give them a tour of his field sites along the river. On the way back to Williamsburg in the afternoon, he dropped me off at Richmond to catch the train back to D.C.

Read the story: Heavy metal songs: Contaminated songbirds sing the wrong tunes

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DotW: Dictionaries on Another Website

Dictionaries by my deskI have pretty much abandoned my Dictionary of the Week feature. In fact, I’ve neglected my whole blog lately. You see, I have a full-time job now, and it’s really hard to keep up with a blog when you’re at work for a big chunk of the day.

I mean, I worked all day when I was freelancing, but back then, writing for this blog was part of my work responsibilities.

This week for the Science Writers Handbook blog, I wrote about the dictionary I use the most, my Webster’s New World Dictionary. (Here’s the DotW I wrote about it in 2010.) I love that book.

Looking Up Words

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Ice Cream Essay

Transcript of actual e-mail conversation between me and another contributor to The Last Word on Nothing, a little over a week ago:

Me: I’ve been particularly low on lwon ideas lately. Got anything for me?

Cameron: Ooooo…. I’m low, too. Something summer related?

Me: The total awesomeness of homemade ice cream? Not sure I have 500 words about that, though.

Her: I think it doesn’t have to be 500. You could look for some ice cream studies.

Me: Or mint studies. Mint chocolate chip is the best. It’s not my favorite flavor, it’s just *amazing* when it’s homemade with real mint leaves.

Her: Oooo, yes. When we did it at home we did a combo of mint leaves and mint extract, but now I feel like that was cheating! Do you just pulverize a lot of mint leaves?

Me: Yup! I don’t even pulverize them. I just kinda chop them. I use the Joy of Cooking recipe – when you’ve heated the milk and sugar, you turn off the heat, dump in the mint, cover it, and leave it for half an hour. Then you strain it. It’s amazing – it tastes so planty.

And that, girls and boys, is where essays come from.

Very Aromatic Plant Chocolate Chip

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Looking for the Great Tinamou

great tinamous

When I travel the world, I see a lot of birds. I don’t usually go out of my way to look for them, but I stop and look when they cross my path. Last week for The Last Word on Nothing I wrote about the time I went to Panama and got excited about the great tinamou.




On the Trail of the Great Tinamou

photo: me. See the birds?

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Life in the Gig Economy

A few weeks ago I took part in a conversation with some other smart science writers about the “gig economy”–a new world in which nobody has jobs and everybody makes a living by stringing together gigs. It’s a tough way to make a living.

The Gig Economy

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Solar Plane Story is Online

In case you missed it in the print edition of Discover, my story about the Solar Impulse, a solar plane that’s supposed to fly around the world next year, is available online now.

Light Makes Flight

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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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