Science & Technology

Bed illustration by Anne Rothenstein

Why do we sleep?

Mike Jay

4 April 2024

Across the life sciences in the 19th century, sleep was generally considered to be a vestige of our deep evolutionary past with no present value. Given its obvious disadvantages so far as economic productivity is concerned, there was much speculation that modern medicine would discover a way to reduce the need for it, or even eliminate it altogether. 

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Capitalism Decarbonised

William Davies

4 April 2024

The​ words ‘market’ and ‘capitalism’ are frequently used as if they were synonymous. Especially where someone is defending the ‘free market’, it is generally understood that they are also . . .

AI Doomerism

Paul Taylor

21 March 2024

Late​ last year, Rishi Sunak interviewed Elon Musk in front of an invited audience after the Bletchley Park summit on AI safety. He asked Musk what impact AI would have on the labour market, and tried . . .

At the Recycling Centre

Georgie Newson

7 March 2024

One​ of the shiniest new initiatives at COP28 in Dubai last December was the world’s first ‘Voluntary Recycling Credit’ scheme, which will allow companies to ‘offset’ their waste products by . . .


James Vincent

22 February 2024

The legend​ goes like this. In the spring of 1562, the 16-year-old prince Don Carlos of Asturias, grandson of the Holy Roman Emperor and heir to the Castilian throne, lay dying. The prince had been chasing . . .

The Sucker, the Sucker! What’s it like to be an octopus?

Amia Srinivasan, 7 September 2017

Octopuses frustrate the neat evolutionary division between clever vertebrates and simple-minded invertebrates. Their intelligence is like ours, and utterly unlike ours. Octopuses are the closest we can come, on earth, to knowing what it might be like to encounter intelligent aliens.

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You Are the Product: It Zucks!

John Lanchester, 17 August 2017

I am scared of Facebook. The company’s ambition, its ruthlessness, and its lack of a moral compass scare me.

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In Hyperspace

Fredric Jameson, 10 September 2015

The time-travel story literally depicts the physical conditions of ‘the Place’ where the ‘points’ from which we ‘view’ plots unfolding must be presumed to abide. But modernity has in fact invented such a hyperspace from which to observe the observer: it is called the camera.

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Ghosting: Julian Assange

Andrew O’Hagan, 6 March 2014

It was exciting to think that no novel had ever captured this new kind of history, where military lies on a global scale were revealed by a bunch of sleepy amateurs two foot from an Aga.

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Diary: After the Oil Spill

Rebecca Solnit, 5 August 2010

The blowout was not only the biggest oil spill in American history by far: it’s a story that touches on everything else – taints everything, like the black glop on sandy beaches, on pelicans, terns, boats, sea turtles, marshlands and dolphins. It’s about climate change, peak oil, the energy future, the American presidency, about corporate power and the corrosive effect of Big Oil on global politics.

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Why does it take so long to mend an escalator?

Peter Campbell, 7 March 2002

The descent to the tunnels through which the deep lines run is a tax on the spirit that is paid willingly because it makes it easier to live in an old, tight-packed city. But when the system fails it is strongly resented.

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What’s left of Henrietta Lacks? HeLa

Anne Enright, 13 April 2000

I don’t know where I heard of her first: a woman whose cells are bred in culture dishes in labs all over the world; a woman whose cells were so prolific that there is more of her now, in...

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On the Darwinian View of Progress

Amartya Sen, 5 November 1992

It is now a century and a third, almost exactly, since the publication in 1859 of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. In this period the view of evolutionary progress introduced by Darwin...

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The man who mistook his wife for a hat

Oliver Sacks, 19 May 1983

The scientific study of the relationship between brain and mind began in 1861, when Broca, in France, found that specific difficulties in the expressive use of speech (aphasia) consistently...

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Unicorn or Narwhal? Linnaeus makes the rules

Lorraine Daston, 22 February 2024

Linnaeus’s personal contradictions do not make him a historical chimera. If he sounds odd to those who hold a view of Enlightenment science as rational and orderly, perhaps that’s because real Enlightenment...

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I don’t know whether these billionaires know what a city is, but I do know that they have laid their hands on the city that’s been my home since 1980 and used their wealth to undermine its diversity...

Read more about In the Shadow of Silicon Valley: Losing San Francisco

Petrifying Juices: Fossilised

Liam Shaw, 25 January 2024

Like sculptures, fossils need curators. A raw lump of stone must be prepared and cleaned before it can be studied as a fossil; scientists of the past may well have inadvertently destroyed interesting surface...

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A National Evil

Jonah Goodman, 30 November 2023

At the turn of the 20th century, the Swiss were plagued by strange, interlinked medical conditions, which existed elsewhere to a degree, but in Switzerland were endemic in more than 80 per cent of the...

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‘We’ve messed up, boys’: Bad Blood

Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite, 16 November 2023

Ultimately, the companies responsible for producing and distributing infected blood products paid more than a billion dollars in compensation worldwide, but most victims never got a penny.

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Take that, astrolabe: Medieval Time

Tom Johnson, 19 October 2023

 ‘Medieval people’, Gillian Adler and Paul Strohm write, were ‘more keenly aware of simultaneous and contending temporalities than we are, and more skilled at entertaining a wider range of temporal...

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Are you still living? Counting Americans

Kasia Boddy, 19 October 2023

Who is counted, how, and for what purpose, has changed a lot since 1790. No census has exactly matched its predecessor in method or design: each time, some questions are dropped and others added, while...

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Let them eat oysters: Animal Ethics

Lorna Finlayson, 5 October 2023

It hardly needs to be said that all is not well with our world. We are disempowered, isolated and (quite rationally) anxious about the future. The animal world offers both an escape and the promise of...

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The need for prosthetic brainpower has been apparent throughout human history, evidenced by the continual development of techniques and technologies to compensate for our biological inadequacies. The first...

Read more about Instrumental Tricks: Prosthetic Brainpower

Who scored last? Collision Sport

Gavin Francis, 5 October 2023

Is rugby a participation sport, or an entertainment spectacle? Which should take priority? The newer style of play is making a lot of money for a lot of people, but there is unequivocal evidence that injury...

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Short Cuts: Orca Life

Francis Gooding, 21 September 2023

We may understand less about orcas than they do about us. The example of Twofold Bay suggests they are able to understand human desire and intention, at least when it overlaps with theirs.

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Get a rabbit: Don’t trust the numbers

John Lanchester, 21 September 2023

Data and statistics, all of them, are man-made. They are also central to modern politics and governance, and the ways we talk about them. That in itself represents a shift. Discussions that were once about...

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Diary: Desperate Midwives

Erin Maglaque, 7 September 2023

‘What do you do?’ a midwife asked as she helped me to the bathroom. We were in the postnatal ward for people who have had a bad time of it. ‘I’m a historian of ... all this,’ I answered, and...

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Aha! Plant Detectives

Liam Shaw, 7 September 2023

Pollen is difficult to dislodge, burrowing down into the weave of fabric and insinuating itself into crevices. Inside our noses are delicate curled plates of bone known as the nasal turbinates, each covered...

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Treading Thin Air: Catastrophic Thinking

Geoff Mann, 7 September 2023

The point of highlighting the vertiginous degree of uncertainty is that we might not be making nearly as big a deal of climate change as we should. We are, as a result, tragically under-prepared for the...

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At Wiels: Marc Camille Chaimowicz

Brian Dillon, 10 August 2023

Deciding what to show at Wiels, Chaimowicz wrote to the curator, Zoë Gray: ‘I would like to send you my sitting room.’ The result is a theatrical approximation of The Hayes Court Sitting Room, an...

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In the Alchemist’s Den

Mike Jay, 27 July 2023

Smell has always been a crucial diagnostic sense, the one that brings us closest to the fundamental properties of matter, and the evolution of perfume follows an unbroken narrative thread that extends...

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On Marshy Ground: Fen, Bog and Swamp

Fraser MacDonald, 15 June 2023

Peatlands are wetlands, the argument goes, and wetlands disturb us; they’re the abject backwaters of modernity – marginal and malarial, disavowed and despoiled. We’ve ruined them and now they’ll...

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