Issue 78

The US govt pats 23andMe's back, the truth about Alzheimer's blood tests, and smoking with seniors

Aug. 3, 2019

Hello friend! Welcome to Scrap Facts.

I'm a reporter covering health and science with insatiable curiosity. I love everything I learn, not all of which gets its own story. Each week, I'll bring you some of my favorite facts that I picked up on the job or while out living life.

Archives from Tinyletter can be found here.

23andMe just got a ruling that makes their test even more appealing for US customers.

Found while reporting: The IRS decided that 23andMe tests aren’t just for fun—they’re medical care.

Last week when the IRS ruled that 23andMe’s medical and health package was considered medical care. It’s not totally clear what criteria it used for that definition. 23andMe is the only company cleared by the US Food and Drug Administration to give customers true direct-to-consumer information about their genetic health risks. However, that didn’t seem to come into play when the IRS made its decision, James Hazel, a biologist and lawyer at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, told me.

Regardless, it means that people with Flexible Spending Accounts or Health Savings Accounts as part of their health insurance may use some of these accounts to pay for up to nearly $118 of the $199 package.

These accounts allow people to put some of their paycheck, untaxed, into a savings account that can be used for medical and related purchases. Things like orthotic inserts for shoes, sunscreen, and prescription glasses all may be covered by the account.

But often, these accounts don’t roll over year-over-year—they have to be spent annually. So, if you were to reach the end of the year and realized you had some money left over in your FSA or HSA, there’s some pressure to spend it however you can.

As I’ve written before, companies like 23andMe play on the public’s curiosity about their DNA and impatience for actual, personalized medicine. I’d assume that if you have extra cash at the end of the year, more customers may be inclined to use it for 23andMe—especially because the full package promises to scratch that ancestry curiosity itch, too.

That said, what 23andMe can tell you about your genetic code is extremely limited—it’s like skimming the CliffNotes of Moby Dick, as my colleague Daniel Wolfe pointed out in our Gene Reading series. Medical facilities conduct separate genetic tests to confirm a 23andMe result before taking any action on behalf of your health care.

And on top of that, 23andMe is the second largest direct-to-consumer company on the market, behind AncestryDNA. A huge part of its business model is partnering with other groups who are conducting genetic research. 23andMe gives users the choice of whether they want their data to be included in this research, and a spokesperson from the company told me in March that the vast majority of customers consent to having their DNA used for scientific purposes.

I’m all about research participation, but I’m not sure I’d want to do it through 23andMe. It still feels like you’d be lacking total control over where your genetic information winds up. Even though you can always rescind your consent, you’ve still put it out there. And it’s your DNA—literally a unique identifier.

There’s one major downside to participating in early-Alzheimer’s testing research.

Found while reporting: There are a lot of promising blood tests for Alzheimer’s—here’s how to keep track.

On Thursday of this week, researchers from Washington University at St. Louis (WUSTL) published a second installment of trials looking at a blood test that accurately reflected whether they had the beginning stages of amyloid buildups in the brain, according to a PET scan (the standard Alzheimer’s diagnostics tool today). It was a solid follow up, but some outlets were calling it predictive. I wrote a thread on Twitter about why this isn’t the case (yet!).

I saw a trend in this story: for the past couple of years, news stories claiming that scientists have developed a blood test for Alzheimer’s have popped onto my radar. All of these headlines are misleading: no test is truly predictive yet and no test is ready for clinical use yet. They are only conducted on hundreds of (homogenous) individuals, and, because Alzheimer’s (and all dementias) form over decades, it will take at least that long to develop—not including the time it takes to recruit thousands of participants, plus time to get actual approval from regulatory agencies like the US Food and Drug Administration.

While these tests—and therefore research participation—is desperately needed, there’s also a tricky downside to them: at the moment, because there are no treatments for Alzheimer’s, there’s nothing researchers can really do for participants if a test indicates they may go on to develop the disease.

There’s been a lot of really promising work about the brain benefits of living a healthy lifestyle, but it’s not a guarantee of protection from the disease at all. That said, it can’t hurt—there are no negative side effects like there can be for drugs.

When Suzanne Schindler, a neuroscientists at WUSTL and co-author of the recent paper, brought that up for me, I thought about it for a long time. Personally, the harm from potentially learning I had evidence of early Alzheimer’s would be something that would deter me from participating in this kind of research. But if I’m hesitant and a fan of science, I have to imagine this is even a harder issue to wrestle with for other potential participants. I’m not sure how the field will get over this hurdle.

The proportion of seniors smoking weed has doubled in the past four years.

Found while reporting: Binge drinking among seniors is on the rise.

When I saw this study about seniors binge drinking (classified as having four or five drinks in one sitting) coming out, I thought it was a perfect example of why it’s critical that doctors ask everyone about all of their habits. And it also made me think—what about weed among those 65 and older?

It doesn’t seem like that’s something researchers have been asking for a long time, either! In the above study, 2% of adults over 65 reported using marijuana between 2015 and 2017. But when I tried to look back, there wasn’t consistently reported data. (Going through the actual results from the US National Survey on Drug Use and Health was a nightmare—I tried, I promise.)

Others have reported that same figure to be around 3%—and, it seems, largely for pain relief. And it looks like it’s doubled since 2013, when only 1.4% of seniors reported that they did.

Bonus fact: Big tobacco is deeply incestuous.

Found while reporting: The world’s largest tobacco company’s anti-smoking campaign relies on smokers.

Two of the largest tobacco companies, Philip Morris International and Altria, used to be the same company, but split up in 2008—reportedly so that Philip Morris International could evade US litigation. Now, Altria owns Philip Morris US, and licenses some of PMI’s products to sell in the US. Altria also owns a bunch of e-cigarette companies (including most of Juul) and it licenses them out to PMI to sell internationally (not including Juul).

Super bonus fact: PMI has a heated tobacco product (think, kind of like a vape lite) called IQOS. So many people call it I Quit Ordinary Smoking—even a scientific paper! But, as a rather annoyed spokesperson from PMI told me, IQOS doesn’t stand for anything. It’d be silly, he said, for an international product to have a name that only make sense in English.

Super ultra-mega bonus fact: Apparently the same is true for the SAT (h/t to Ben Daniels, this newsletter’s pro-bono copy editor.)

Stuff I learned from others:

Climate change is the latest of a growing number of threats to olive production in Palestine. Elon Musk’s brain-decoding implants require a 48-hour operation to be installed. Fitness trackers don’t work as well on people with dark skin. Banana peels used to make New Yorkers slip like cartoon characters in the early 20th century. Vets think that maybe we shouldn’t be neutering all dogs after all? Unicorns exist—kind of! Ocean spray in below-freezing air temperatures can overturn ships sailing through the Arctic. A squishy, dust-sized, asexual creature you’ve probably accidentally eaten may be the aging model researchers need. And finally, sharks pee through their skin.

Two quick programming notes:

  • If you’ve been following my work for a while, you’ve probably noticed that Quartz installed a paywall. If you’d like to get around that paywall, you can become a member by signing up here. For half off, you can use the promo code “KFOLEY3089”.

    If that’s not feasible for you and/or there’s an article from Quartz in Scrap Facts you’d like to read, email me at, or reply to this email and I’ll send you a copy.

  • I am going on vacation! I am leaving next week and will be gone for the majority of August. Scrap Facts will be back in September with tales from the other side of the world. I’ll miss you! But not that much, because, you know, vacation and adventure.

That’s all for now. Stay curious, friend! <3

If you love Scrap Facts, consider sending it to a friend. Send your feedback and scrap facts to Wanna keep in touch outside of this newsletter? Follow me on Twitter and Instagram.

Top image by E. Y. Smith, headshot drawing by Richard Howard.

Issue 77

Dispatch from AAIC 2019

July 20, 2019

Hello friend! Welcome to Scrap Facts.

I'm a reporter covering health and science with insatiable curiosity. I love everything I learn, not all of which gets its own story. Each week, I'll bring you some of my favorite facts that I picked up on the job or while out living life.

Archives from Tinyletter can be found here.

Hello, friend! Happy Saturday! This past week, I was out in Los Angeles for my first ever Alzheimer’s Association International Conference. It’s the biggest annual meeting where researchers focused on neuroscience and dementia from all over the world come to formally and informally chat about their work.

If you’ve been following this newsletter for a while (or even just last week) you know it is a topic of huge personal interest. When I talk about it with people in my peer group (mid-20s and 30s), they’re usually surprised: It seems an old-people problem, and therefore not on our radars.

That’s true—in the vast majority of cases, dementia is an age-related disease. But by the time symptoms start showing up, they’ve likely been there for decades—meaning it starts much earlier in life. In 99% of cases*, it’s not clear why: it’s gotta be a mix of risk factors like the environment, lifestyle factors, preexisting conditions, genetics, and maybe even common viruses like herpes.**

No one is totally sure what these circumstances are, or when they start—which is why conferences like AAIC are important. Researchers get together to debate ideas (sometimes heatedly), network, and even blow off a little steam*** at the end of the day.

And then there’s the issue of caregiving: Even if dementia is an age-related illness, all of us know someone who has either had dementia, or is older than 65 and may be at risk for it. It will be a personal problem for many of us, and a population-wide problem as Boomers continue to age.

I was the only young journalist at this conference. The few dozen or so journalists who attended were all older, and wrote for older audiences. The other people my age were all grad students presenting posters and enjoying the free food and drinks. When I wasn’t interviewing researchers, I spent a lot of time alone. I attended panels, looked at exhibits and posters, and then I’d go back and write about a fraction of the massive research dump I’d witnessed.

Here’s what I was able to come up with while I was out there:

Five habits can reduce dementia risk—but you’ve got to go all in

Social health disparities may put LGBT individuals at a higher risk for dementia

Earning a living buys women more time with a sharper brain

Excluding minorities from Alzheimer’s research is wrong—and it’s keeping us from finding a cure

And I’ve got loads more in the pipeline. It’s a fun, creative challenge challenge trying to present developments in this field in a way that accessible to readers of all ages. I don’t know if I always hit the nail on the head, and I’m always open to feedback on how I could do better.

No formal scrap facts this week. Your regularly scheduled programming of dead darlings**** will be back in 14 days before I take a month-long break. Please take these footnotes to the above essay as tokens of my affection for your readership:

*Three single, dominantly-inherited mutations cause early-onset Alzheimer’s. These families are rare, and make up 1% of cases.

**The infectious theory behind Alzheimer’s is really contentious. Five years ago, there’s no way it’d even be at the conference because it was considered off-the-walls. This year, there was a packed panel discussion of the theory featuring a contingent of researchers. They have continued looking for evidence of connections between viruses like various types of herpes, gum disease, and other microbes (excluding HIV-associated dementia, which is a separately documented condition). That said, it’s extremely hard to prove which way that street goes—it could be that Alzheimer’s weakens the brain’s immune system so that infections can take over more easily.

***It’s a pretty nerdy crowd. On the first night, AAIC bussed us out to Universal Studios where one closed-off section had a DJ and dance floor. For a while, no one was dancing and the DJ took a break and left the music playing. I witnessed three separate groups of scientists go up and take pictures pretending they were the DJ, having what looked like the time of their lives.

****In journalism, we sometimes refer to the trimming down stories as “killing your darlings.” It is a painful process for me, because I learn so much cool stuff reporting and I want to share it all. It’s also the inspiration for this newsletter! In retrospect, Dead Darlings would have been a much cooler name than Scrap Facts, but it probably would have tricked (and disappointed) readers looking for true crime.

Please enjoy these robot therapy seals named Paro:

Image description: A screen shot of an Instagram story picturing three robotic seals with grey, yellow, and white fur going from left to right on top of table with a black table cloth. The one in the middle is sucking on what looks like a pacifier to charge its battery. The text at the top reads “Meet Paro!! A robotic seal with artificial intelligence”

I made an Instagram story for Quartz about them. They provide patients with all the benefits of animal therapy, but without the risks or responsibilities of real animals.

When I was stressed, I’d go down and snuggle them. They are truly wonderful.

Also, I visited three of Lisa Vanderpump’s restaurants.

I love reality TV. It is a vice, much like over-planning. We’ve all got ‘em. On my last night in LA, a friend and I hit up three of the establishments made famous by this Real Housewives of Beverly Hills/Vanderpump Rules queen—Pump, TomTom, and SUR. We saw zero (0) D-list celebrities, despite the fact that I mistook several strangers for them.

Image description: A selfie of myself on the left and my friend Hanna on the right in front of PUMP. The letters are backwards because it’s a selfie.

That’s all for now. Stay curious, friend! <3

If you love Scrap Facts, consider sending it to a friend. Send your feedback and scrap facts to Wanna keep in touch outside of this newsletter? Follow me on Twitter and Instagram.

Image description: a sketched headshot of me.

Top image by E. Y. Smith, headshot drawing by Richard Howard.

Issue 76

Walking back the brain's information highway, male models, and failing levees

July 13, 2019

Hello friend! Welcome to Scrap Facts.

I'm a reporter covering health and science with insatiable curiosity. I love everything I learn, not all of which gets its own story. Each week, I'll bring you some of my favorite facts that I picked up on the job or while out living life.

Archives from Tinyletter can be found here.

Reversing information through the senses.

Based on the reporting I did for this story: Scientists may have found a better way to spot early signs of dementia: our eyes.

What that fascinates me about dementia research is that it’s been so hard for scientists to crack because the brain itself is so resilient. It does all this incredible work—like reading and listening and smelling and feeling—routinely and effortlessly. And it can handle so much damage, without giving us any indication that we should be worried.

By the time we do start to notice problems with our thinking and remembering, it usually means the brain has been suffering for some time, and finally hit its limits. It also means that it’s often too late for us to intervene on its behalf.

One way of possibly spotting damage sooner could be through our widows to the outside world.

Our senses collect data on the outside world for us, but our brains are the ones that have to make sense of that constant information dump.

This means that each and every one of us is living a slightly different reality—based on the world brains create for us, Alyssa Brewer, a neurologist and neurosurgeon at the University of California, Irvine, told me a couple months ago. It’s a trippy thought.

More importantly, idea that has led researchers to think that if our senses are the highways that transport information to our brains, perhaps they can reversed. Maybe by looking at our senses, we can get a picture of what is going on in the brain—which is otherwise isolated and elusive in the ivory tower that is our skulls.

If we can rule out that changes to our senses are not related to the hardware (organs like our eyes and nose), but rather the software (our brains), researchers can get an idea of what kind of bugs are causing trouble before we start to see things like actual cognitive decline.

It’s a relatively new line of thought. Blood tests and scans have been the more mainstream approaches to earlier dementia detection—but so far they haven’t been able to deliver. At this point in dementia research, it seems to me like scientists have realized that brain deterioration is so varied and so complex we can’t just try one solution or detection method—we’ve gotta throw every idea we can at it. Nothing’s stuck so far, so what’s the harm in trying to think outside the box?

Which leads me to another exciting development: Next week I’ll be at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Los Angeles. I’m going to be doing a lot of reporting out there, and I’ll be sending a special issue of Scrap Facts with the best stuff I find on the ground.

Women are underrepresented in clinical research, but that’s got nothing on the underrepresentation in animal models.

Found while reporting: 25 years of women being underrepresented in medical research, in charts.

Medical research tends to under-include women. This is not a new fact.

In clinical research, there are a number of reasons why this would still be the case—a lot of them having to do with social factors, like being the primary caregiver for family and therefore unable to make multiple medical appointments, rather than physiological ones.

But before any research can reach the clinical phase, a lot of work has to be done in the lab, either on cell (in vitro) or animal (in vivo) models. The thinking here is that you’d have to make sure that a potential new drug could be safe in animals before trying it out on people.

However, researchers tend to use more male animals and cell models than female ones. This issue is something Melina Kibbe, a vascular surgeon at the University of North Carolina, has studied for years. In 2014, she and her colleagues found that 80% of papers involving animal models from 2011 to 2012 used only male models—of those that even specified the sex of the animals they were working on. Only 78% of papers actually did.

In cell models, 76% of the papers didn’t include anything about the sex of the cells. Of those that did, 71% of them used only male cells.

By not including all kinds of genetic information in research, scientists aren’t doing research that benefits everyone. For some women, this has had some dangerous consequences—like taking too high doses of medication, or having life-threatening heart conditions being misdiagnosed.

When I asked Kibbe about why this persists, she said that some scientists are worried that including both sexes in model research would introduce too many variables. To which I said, “Isn’t that kind of the point?” We shared a sad laugh.

That kind of male model isn’t the problem.

Image description: a shot from the movie “Zoolander” where Ben Stiller gives the look “Blue Steel.”

DC’s flood protection system is sub par.

Found while reporting: Climate change could intensify DC floods, but engineering can help.

It’s the middle of the summer, which means its thunderstorm season in the District.

Flooding is pretty common in DC when we’ve got heavy rain. Huge portions of the city are pavement, which don’t absorb any water. Runoff goes directly into storm drains, which quickly fill up and spill their contents into the surrounding Potomac and Anacostia rivers. It’s gross.

What I didn’t realize about my home is that technically, it has a levee system along the National Mall that was built in the 1930s after some serious floods destroyed bridges and trashed the National Mall itself. There were at least some engineers who realized that building a city near swollen riverbanks was going to be a potential problem.

But the issue is, more than 10 years ago the Army Corps of Engineers gave this system a failing grade. The National Park Service has a makeshift system in place to try to protect important buildings like the National Building and the Internal Revenue Service building, but it’s hardly secure enough to be considered totally safe from flood zones.

That said, flooding is hardly a problem unique to DC. As of this morning, it appears that Louisiana’s levees are holding up against tropical storm Barry—but storm flooding a constant concern for some of its cities, which are below sea level.

Stuff I learned from others:

It’s even harder to find platonic friends to rent than it is to find a date. Even doctors and scientists have hoped that they could find some medicinal use for wine. The oil industry’s lone female CEO uses more inclusive language than her male peers. Cockatoos have sick dance moves. The first data privacy law in the US was written by a judge embarrassed by his love of Hitchcock films and British costume dramas. Facebook and the US Army funded an AI that can beat you at poker, for totally normal reasons, I’m sure.

That’s all for now. Stay curious, friend! <3

If you love Scrap Facts, consider sending it to a friend. Send your feedback and scrap facts to Wanna keep in touch outside of this newsletter? Follow me on Twitter and Instagram.

Image description: a sketched headshot of me.

Top image by E. Y. Smith, headshot drawing by Richard Howard.

Issue 75

Life's off-switch, generous soccer players, and sleepy birds

June 29, 2019

Hello friend! Welcome to Scrap Facts.

I'm a reporter covering health and science with insatiable curiosity. I love everything I learn, not all of which gets its own story. Each week, I'll bring you some of my favorite facts that I picked up on the job or while out living life.

Archives from Tinyletter can be found here.

Is one of life’s off switches a disease?

Found while reporting this obsession email.

Multicellular life was designed to end.

There are many external things that can induce cell death—radiation, infection, trauma, etc. But our cells also have their own internal grim reaper: Their own DNA.

It seems that cells only replicate a certain number of times before they stop, and enter a stage called senescence before dying. In the 1960s, a scientist called Leonard Hayflick identified this limit as between 40 and 60 replications—hence its name, the Hayflick limit.

In the decades that followed, other biologists found that perhaps, this limit was the result of the shortening of protective protein caps on our chromosomes called telomeres. With each division, these telomeres get a little bit shorter, making the chromosome a little more vulnerable to potentially fatal copying mistakes that could lead to cancer. Theoretically—and the science isn’t totally certain yet—when a cell’s telomeres have gotten really short, the cell has reached its limit and gone into senescence.

Senescence is a poorly understood state. Senescent cells don’t look any different from normal cells, but they give off proteins that can sometimes act as distress signals to the body’s immune system (perhaps an old evolutionary immune system trick). And yet, even though they may be an internal prevention against cancer, they also seem to contribute to aging in some way, Jan van Deursen, a cancer biologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, told me. They tend to be present in high numbers in older, sicker mice. When members of van Deursen’s lab removed them from old mice, however, the mice looked and acted like they were younger again.

So it would seem like maybe, if we figured out how to get rid of senescent cells after they form—or even maybe before they form by extending a cell’s Hayflick limit—we could slow aging and extend our lives.

There are a lot of questions science still has to answer in this field. It’s still not clear if that Leonard Hayflick’s theory is absolutely true for all cells in our bodies, and if they all have the same Hayflick limit. And also, we don’t know how much this limit works to prevent cancer. We’d want to figure that out before messing with it for sure.

And there’s an administrative problem—at least in the US. Aging, you see, is technically not a disease. It’s just a part of all life. So there’s no federal funding for scientists who are trying to stop aging. Instead, the best efforts we’ve got to fight aging have come from super wealthy, Silicon Valley types like Peter Thiel, which creates a bias in the research. (Van Deursen has also created a startup in this space around his work.)

My colleague Sangeeta Singh-Kurtz has written about these immortality startups extensively. Frankly, it all sounds a little nutty. The subtext to these companies is something my colleague Ephrat Livni astutely pointed out earlier this week: We don’t really want immortality. Instead, we want to be forever young. And that is a whole different game.

The first female soccer players were philanthropists.

Found while reporting: Women soccer players are younger than men because they can’t afford longer careers.

I was shocked to learn that the US women’s World Cup tournament is just a year or so older than I am.

Turns out that for five decades in the 20th century, soccer was considered “quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged." From 1921 to 1971, most national teams did not allow women to compete.

However, prior to 1921 during the first World War, women’s soccer was huge—particularly in England. Per Deutsche Welle news (cited earlier), in 1917 women who worked at a weapons studio in Preston England formed a soccer league and donated any money they raised with their games to injured soldiers and their families. After generating a crowd of 53,000 and raising 10 million pounds total (not clear if that’s 1921 pounds or 2019 pounds—still pretty impressive) for charity, they were shut down in 1921.

A DC local bird has a skill we all need: microsleeping.

Found on my first time birding.

Last week, I was invited (read: shamelessly invited myself) to go birding with an acquaintance in Washington, DC, where I live. At 6:30 am, we met at Malcom X Park and took walk around to see what we could learn about some of the local birds. We saw some house sparrows, some European starlings, and some chimney swifts!

Chimney swifts look like flying cigars with narrow wings. They got their name because, when they aren’t flying, hang out on vertical surfaces like the inside of chimneys. They can’t perch like most birds, and recent trends in architecture moving away from chimneys have actually hurt their populations in the north and midwestern parts of North America.

They also spend the majority of their time flying. Although they roost at night, they’re also capable of shutting off parts of their brains while they fly to get a micro-sleep in, like dolphins.

Image description: A silhouette of a bird sitting in on a branch.

This is not a chimney swift. It’s a catbird, which has one of the prettiest songs I’ve ever heard.

In general, I loved birding because it was so good to take a minute to learn about life that I usually ignore. That, and being up and out in the morning made it a 10/10 experience.

Other stuff I wrote:

The researcher behind the smartphone “horns” study sells posture pillows (Scoop!🍦)

A new study that ties common medications to dementia highlights the need for early detection

A Twitter account corrects one of the biggest problems in health reporting (if you’ve learned anything from this newsletter, it should be to ALWAYS check for absolute risk.)

And my last Bill Nye take for a while on how, after 26 years, Bill Nye the Science Guy still holds up. My favorite thing that Nye has ever said (and that I’ve ever seen/heard him say anywhere, frankly) with regard to why he set out to create such an inclusive science education show:

“I was born a white guy in the US. English is my first language. What else do you freaking want?…It gets back to this notion that every little kid complains about, which is life is not fair. I don’t think anybody would argue that it is. But wouldn’t it be better if it was?”

Stuff I learned from others:

Facebook accidentally named its new cryptocurrency off a famous tampon brand. Old millennials love CBD. You can buy Kirkland brand stuff on Amazon. Wanna make money? Be an anesthesiologist. The US is picking a fight with Canada over Arctic shipping routes. helped bust a counterfeit drug ring.

That’s all for now. Stay curious, friend! <3

If you love Scrap Facts, consider sending it to a friend. Send your feedback and scrap facts to Wanna keep in touch outside of this newsletter? Follow me on Twitter and Instagram.

Image description: a sketched headshot of me.

Top image by E. Y. Smith, headshot drawing by Richard Howard.

Issue 74

The best time to be alive, extreme athleticism of pregnant people, and the best wine to bring to parties

June 16, 2019

Hello friend! Welcome to Scrap Facts.

I'm a reporter covering health and science with insatiable curiosity. I love everything I learn, not all of which gets its own story. Each week, I'll bring you some of my favorite facts that I picked up on the job or while out living life.

Archives from Tinyletter can be found here.

“This is still the best time to be born for most people.”

Found while meeting Bill Nye.

When I was a kid, I believed anything and everything was possible with determination and a positive attitude. A lot of that came from my parents: They’re both chemists who encouraged me to read and write anything I wanted, to ask questions, and to dream big.

That same sentiment was frequently reflected back to me on the television screen as I watched Bill Nye, the Science Guy. Nye is a household name for American millennials. He was the host of a ~30 minute American TV show in the 90s in which he and fellow scientists brilliantly explained basic science for an elementary school audience. (He had a lot of help—be on the lookout for that story later.)

I completely idolized Nye, and I even met him when I was 7 (thanks Mom and Dad!). I think by now, most people have moved on, but I think about Nye a lot as a fellow science communicator. My dream has always been able to remind people that science is a great, wonderful force that we all benefit from daily.

But when I sat down with Nye on June 8, I was feeling a bit deflated. The news cycle is exhausting, and a lot of the time, it highlights what science hasn’t been able to do for us yet. Furthermore, as much as I love reporting on the body, sometimes I’m at a loss when I learn all the ways that systems inside us can fail. I look at global population trends and climate change and I think that even with scientific advances that have improved our lives so much, we’re just going to give ourselves more problems to solve, each more impossible than the last.

Nye, however, disagreed with me. He is relentlessly optimistic—something I learned from speaking with him last year—and reminded me that, based on a number of metrics, now is the best time to be alive. Most humans growing up today have better resources, like access to quality food and education, than those even a few generations before. There’s still a lot of work to be done, of course, but we can’t ignore progress humanity continues to make.

He’s not the only one with this opinion—it’s the same argument championed by Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, my colleague Akshat Rathi, and my former editor Elijah Wolfson.

Nye’s optimism comes from looking at the next generation of scientists. He believes that if you see how brilliant and motivated kids today are, you realize that as long as we empower them with education, they’re the ones who are gonna solve all these future problems I’m so worried about. The kids, he said, are doing all right—and we’ll be just fine if we listen to them.

Image description: A selfie of me on the left and Bill Nye on the right with the National Press Club logo in the background.

Do you have opinions about Bill Nye? I’d like to hear them for a story I’m working on. Email me at or Responses will be considered on the record.

It takes about 70,000 calories to grow a human baby in the womb.

Found while reporting: Pregnancy pushes the body nearly as much as extreme endurance sports.

Last week, my coworker Daniel Wolfe and I teamed up to visually break down a paper with an interesting finding: In the faced of prolonged exertion—as in, weeks to months of pushing ourselves to the max nearly every day—our metabolisms actually slow down to a rate of about 2.5 times what we normally burn.

Image description: A chart showing our bodies can burn about 2.5 times their resting metabolism when competing in long-term endurance activities.

Pregnancy is an interesting point on that map. It’s longer than any endurance event at 40 weeks (some of the other points on that chart are weeks of hiking, or near-daily marathons for 20 weeks), and, in total takes about 70,000 additional calories of energy, according to Herman Pontzer, an evolutionary anthropologist at Duke, and author of the above study.

Previous work suggests that pregnancy and lactation causes the body to burn about twice what it normally does—which would appear to continue the imaginary trend line above. It also kind of makes sense that it would be below the 2.5x threshold, because pregnancy requires one to gain weight.

Bonus fact: Why the 2.5x threshold, you ask? A limited number of overfeeding studies—in which participants are intentionally overfed and move very little—have suggested that 2.5x our normal caloric intake is as much as our bodies can routinely handle (think weeks at a time, not only US Thanksgiving Day). Of course, evidence is limited, because…well, would you want to sign up for that kind of work?

If you’re going to a party and you’re not sure of the menu, bring white, not red wine.

Found while reporting this obsession email on smellscapes.

I talked to a sommelier named Tim Keenan for a story about our sense of smell.

Smell, he said, make up about a quarter to a third of our experience drinking wine. The aromas your nose picks up when you life a glass of wine to it are like a movie trailer for your taste buds—they should tell you some of the flavors you’re about to experience, but not all of them.

He also said that wine is meant to be paired with food—which isn’t always present at some evening festivities. If you’re only drinking wine without eating, it’s best to try something lighter, with fewer tannins (naturally occurring bitter, lip-puckering flavors), like a white wine or a rose. In general, red wines (or tannin-heavy wines) go down rougher without food that complements them—like red meats. White wines, though, tend to go down smooth if they’re the only flavors in your mouth.

Keenan, therefore, recommends bringing a bottle of white to any party where you’re not sure what kind of food will (or won’t) be served.

That said, any rules about wine are silly! All of us have slightly different senses of smell, tastes, and preferences. The best wine is the stuff you enjoy, Keenan said.

Bonus fact: Your tastebuds, like your olfactory neurons, are pretty ancient chemical receptors. They’re some of the few neurons that are directly exposed to the outside world, although olfactory neurons have a slightly protective cover of snot.

Image description: Michael Scott sniffing a white wine and proclaiming that it is, in fact, white.

Stuff I learned from others:

Scientists are trying to give carp herpes to try to get them out of US midwestern waters. Racism and capitalism exacerbated tuberculosis in South Africa. Talking about themselves reduces burnout in doctors. In the US, marketing drugs to consumers helps jack up the price. Israel is such a start-up hub, there are now direct flights between Tel-Aviv and San Francisco. Movement, not exercise, is the key to fitness.

That’s all for now. Stay curious, friend! <3

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Image description: a sketched headshot of me.

Top image by E. Y. Smith, headshot drawing by Richard Howard.

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