How your DNA could solve a murder

This story originally appeared in The New York Times. Used with permission.

In the year since the arrest of the man believed to be the notorious Golden State Killer, the world of criminal investigation has been radically transformed.

Using an unconventional technique that relies on DNA submitted to online genealogy sites, investigators have solved dozens of violent crimes, in many cases decades after they hit dead ends. Experts believe the technique could be used to revive investigations into a vast number of cases that have gone cold across the country, including at least 100,000 unsolved major violent crimes and 40,000 unidentified bodies.

Many have called it a revolutionary new technology. But credit for this method largely belongs to a number of mostly female, mostly retired family-history lovers who tried for years to convince law enforcement officials that their techniques could be used for more than locating the biological parents of adoptees.

One was Diane Harman Hoog, 78, director of education at DNA Adoption, who realized in 2013 that she could apply the techniques she was using to identify two bodies she had read about in a Seattle newspaper. “This is too complicated,” she said she was told when she reached out to a detective. Four years later, Margaret Press, 72, a retired computer programmer and skilled family-tree builder in California, tried to help her local sheriff with a similar case. No one would return her calls.

Fast-forward to April 25, 2018, the day that a gaggle of California prosecutors announced that an “innovative DNA technology” had been used in the Golden State Killer case. The innovator was Barbara Rae-Venter, a genetic genealogist who had uploaded crime scene DNA to GEDmatch.com, a low-key genealogical research site run out of a little yellow house in Florida. Rae-Venter, 70, and her team soon found a suspect by …read more

Source:: The Week – Science

      

Psychedelic parenting: The sad new trend of microdosing moms

Parents who struggle to cope with the daily grind of raising kids are turning to mind-altering, illegal drugs. According to a recent report from The Guardian, a small but growing number of child-rearers in the U.S. and U.K. are now “microdosing”: taking teensy amounts of psychedelic substances — mostly ground up, home-grown magic mushrooms or LSD — to help ease the drudgery of parenting. As one shroom-consuming mom put it: “You don’t feel high, just … better.”

Moms and dads may be new to microdosing, but the trend has been bubbling for years in Silicon Valley. The tech set claim that taking 10 to 20 micrograms of LSD every few days (a trip-inducing dose is around 100 micrograms) makes them more creative and focused. Parents say it makes them feel more engaged and patient with their kids.

In principle, I’m not against parents adding feel-good molecules to their armory of coping mechanisms. I, for one, rarely turn down an invitation to a moms’ happy hour. But self-medicating, however minimally, with under-researched chemicals could be dangerous in ways we might not yet realize. My larger concern is that microdosing is just the latest manifestation of parents pursuing that impossible goal of having it all.

The science behind mircodosing is currently limited and wobbly at best. One study published in February followed 98 microdosers who were already using drugs classed as psychedelics, which includes LSD and psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms. While all participants anticipated the benefits of microdosing to be “large and wide-ranging,” most experienced only some positive changes, such as increased focus and reduced stress and depression. There was no bump in creativity or life satisfaction. And, six weeks in, the study actually found a small increase in neuroticism.

Clearly, we need more quality studies on mircrodosing, …read more

Source:: The Week – Science

      

The death of a tiny fish in the desert

Excerpted from an article that originally appeared in High Country News on April 15, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

They passed around a bottle of Malibu rum as gunshots bellowed in the desert night. A trio of young men had set up camp near the unincorporated town of Crystal, 80 miles outside of Las Vegas. As recently as 2005, the tiny town hosted two brothels, but by April 2016, it was pretty much empty, ideal for carefree camping on a moon-like stretch of desert, the perfect place to pass around a bottle and a shotgun for some bunny blasting.

As often happens on a night like that, things went downhill. Drunk on rum and the roar of the gun, the three men fired up an off-road vehicle and drove away from camp. Riding in back was Trent, a chestnut-haired, bearded 27-year-old, who carried the shotgun and blasted away at road signs as they tore across the Amargosa Valley and Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge. They headed toward a remote unit of Death Valley National Park: Devils Hole, a deep pool inside a sunken limestone cavern. The area is surrounded by 10-foot-tall fencing, a fortress erected to protect an endangered species of pupfish found there.

Trent shot at the gate to the pedestrian walkway area and then shot the surveillance camera and yanked it from its mount. Then he and one of his companions, Steven, stumbled into the enclosure. Steven was so intoxicated that it took him multiple tries to clear the fence. Inside the enclosure, he paused to empty his bladder.

Filled with mischief, Trent lunged toward his partner and punched him in the crotch with a left hook. Then, as Steven stumbled over to a large boulder to vomit, Trent dropped the shotgun, stripped off his clothes, and slipped into the …read more

Source:: The Week – Science

      

The future of hamburgers

Adapted from an article that originally appeared in Politico Magazine.

Politicians often rally their supporters with partisan red meat, but these days Republicans are using actual red meat. They’re accusing Democrats of a plot to ban beef, trying to rebrand the “Green New Deal” for climate action as a nanny-state assault on the American diet. At a rally in Michigan, President Donald Trump portrayed a green dystopia with “no more cows.” In a recent Washington speech, former Trump aide Sebastian Gorka warned conservatives that leftists are coming for their hamburgers: “This is what Stalin dreamt about, but never achieved!” Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) actually ate a burger during a press conference on Capitol Hill, an activity he claimed would be illegal under a Green New Deal.

In reality, nobody’s banning beef. Rep. Al­ex­an­dria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), the driving force behind the Green New Deal, really did suggest that “maybe we shouldn’t be eating a hamburger for breakfast, lunch, and dinner,” and her office did release (and then retract) a fact sheet implying a desire to “get rid of farting cows.” But the actual Green New Deal resolution calls only for dramatic reductions of greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture. It says nothing about seizing steaks, and no Demo­crats are pushing to confiscate cows, regardless of their tailpipe emissions.

This Washington stir over the burger police is classic political theater, the latest tribal skirmish in America’s partisan culture wars. But livestock really do have a serious impact on the climate — and the extreme rhetoric about cow farts and rounding up ranchers is obscuring a consequential debate over the future of animal agriculture in general and beef in particular. Red meat has a greater impact on the climate than any other food; if the world’s cattle formed their own nation, it would have …read more

Source:: The Week – Science

      

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