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Writing Worth Reading

The Anaesthetized Queen

On the first use of anaesthetics in childbirth. A Scottish doctor called James Simpson experimented with ether in 1847 but found it too smelly and explosive. He switched to chloroform, which seemed to do the job pretty well; the first child born to a mother under chloroform was christened “Anaesthesia”. Widespread acceptance came after Queen Victoria took chloroform for her seventh delivery in 1853 (1,120 words)

Science And Ethics Of Ebola Treatment

How to administer a very few doses of untested medicine in an epidemic. Don’t worry about side effects: “If there were ever a disease for which this is not a big deal, it is Ebola. It seems unlikely that the drug could make matters any worse”. Do have a control group, however small: Toss a coin to see which of the two American patients gets ZMapp and which a placebo; next do the same for two African patients (2,090 words)

Suicide: A Crime Of Loneliness

Suicide is the tenth most common cause of death in America. Half a million Americans are hospitalised each year after failed suicide attempts. People with depression are especially prone to kill themselves. The rate of suicide is going up. “Suicide is a crime of loneliness, and adulated people can be frighteningly alone. Intelligence does not help in these circumstances; brilliance is almost always profoundly isolating” (1,240 words)

Shakespeare In The Bush

American anthropologist, doing fieldwork among the Tiv in West Africa, is cut off by rain in a small village with only a copy of Hamlet for entertainment. She discusses it with her hosts, and finds them well-equipped to understand it and critique it. “If your father’s brother has killed your father, you must appeal to your father’s age mates: they may avenge him. No man may use violence against his senior relatives” (4,630 words)

Wanting To Be Normal

A psychiatrist writes: Many patients say that they “just want to be normal”. But what’s so great about normal? “I stand to be corrected, but I’ll hazard a guess that there isn’t a Shakespeare play, classical drama, or opera that celebrates the protagonist attaining the state of normal as their climax or finale. A gulf seems to exist between the meaning of normality as an outward state, and its desirability as an inward state” (1,590 words)

Prison Journal Of A Child Bride

Heartbreaking. Horrifying. Zarbibi was married and four months pregnant at the age of 16, “in keeping with the norms of her Afghan community in Iran”. Her sister had been married and pregnant at eleven. But Zarbibi couldn’t stand it. She murdered her husband with a kitchen knife. “I tried very hard to work on myself and live with my husband. I really did. But I just couldn’t make it work. I had no life experience” (4,800 words)

Smart And Smarter Drugs

We are still “in the amphetamine age” of smart drugs — which may not be such a bad place. Stimulants such as Adderall and Ritalin can make users more interested in their work and more focused on it; they cannot add new capacities such as perfect memory or genius IQ. They benefit lower performers more than high-fliers — so perhaps their natural constituency should not be ambitious students, but the poor and the unemployed (4,100 words)

Guinea Worm Is Almost Eradicated

The guinea worm is a debilitating parasite which infected 3.5 million people in 1986. Last year there were just 148 cases. Eradication is in sight, achieved without a vaccine or a cure. The key was public education — teaching sufferers not to bathe in public water sources, which spread the worms’ larvae. Cost of campaign: $350 million. Huge win for ex-president Jimmy Carter, whose NGO led the effort (960 words)

Young Adult Cancer Story

An adult reads The Fault In Our Stars while helping care for a friend who, like Fault’s central character, has incurable Stage 4 cancer. “This is what three-Kleenex films can do at their best, and what Young Adult fiction can do when it works: open your veins or your tear ducts, and then staunch the flow with something in between what you want and what you have — more drama but no answers; more love but no miracles” (2,960 words)

Medical Research: Treat Ageing

Does getting old have to mean getting sick? Not if medicine raises its game and learns to stall the “incremental cellular damage and changes” associated with old age. This would be more efficient and more effective than treating diseases of old age on a case by case basis as we do now. Progress in this direction would be much faster if we broke down the divide between human testing and animal testing (1,970 words)

Are Liberals Rescuing Marriage?

The conventional wisdom of 1960s and 1970s America was that liberal values undermined marriage. But now the reverse seems to be true: educated liberals are the ones who get married, stay married, and care for their children; whereas “uneducated Americans” are “abandoning marriage and two-parent child-rearing”. Perhaps liberal morality is “better adapted for creating stable two-parent families in a post-industrialized world” (850 words)

Psychological Therapy Would Cost Nothing

Mental illness, especially depression, is the main sickness of the working age population in Britain. Cognitive-behavioural therapy costs, on average, £650 per person, and has a 50% success rate. The cost to the state of an unemployed person living on benefits is £650 a month. Depressed people also consume physical health-care at twice the average rate. So treating the depressed would probably pay for itself several times over (1,110 words)

Why Do We Have Blood Types?

Blood types were recognised by medical science in 1900. Types A and B go back at least 20 million years to a common ancestor of humans and gibbons. A few people have no blood type at all. But even now it’s a matter of debate what useful function is served by having various incompatible types of blood. It doesn’t seem to affect our physiology. Perhaps the diversity helps defend us against disease (3,760 words)

I Love All Your Teeth Equally

A dental hygienist talks about her work. Warning: grisly photos. “Today I received some brand-new, shiny instruments. Their smooth metal and aluminum surfaces seem to sparkle when the sun hits them just right. The power behind their modern technology makes me blush. It’s like receiving very expensive, razor sharp, pointy, water-squirty toys that I get to have fun with while having to act professionally” (2,935 words)

Gay, Jewish, Mentally Ill, And A Sponsor Of Gypsies

The author returns to Romania, whence his grandparents fled pogroms and poverty. “I looked at the local peasants and thought that, if their forefathers had not burned down the houses of mine, mine wouldn’t have left. And I looked at what had happened to us in two generations, and looked at what hadn’t happened to them in two or three, and instead of feeling outraged by their history of aggression I felt privileged by it” (2,370 words)

The Secret History Behind The Science Of Stress

The notion of stress as a danger to health was invented in 1936 by a Canadian scientist with funding from the cigarette industry. Tobacco makers also funded research into the “Type A personality” — the person “so full of stress and pressure” as to be at high risk of a heart attack. The industry’s aim was to advance stress as the cause of cancer and heart attacks, with smoking as the antidote (1,300 words)

Nature’s Perfect Killing Machine

The ebola virus announced itself to the modern world with two outbreaks in 1976. It carries a fatality rate of 50-90% — “the platonic ideal of a doomsday slate-wiper”. In almost 40 years science has found no predictable pattern to epidemics, no standard treatment, no vaccine. The best that doctors can do is to assuage panic, persuade sufferers to stay in bed, scatter bleach, and warn strangers away (3,690 words)

Classical Music’s Dark Secret

Stage fright strikes even the greatest performers, and for classical musicians the fear is especially acute. “Make a mistake in a jazz break and few will notice; make one in a string quartet and everybody will”. Many use Valium and beta-blockers. Cognitive therapies are gaining ground: “You retrain the performer to accept that there will inevitably be a few mistakes, and the audience is on their side” (Metered paywall) (1,260 words)

Life At 60

“I’ve always read the anniversary roll and over the years I’ve watched people my age go from rarely mentioned as sportsmen and pop stars to more commonly as leading actors and television presenters and now ubiquitously I find myself in the thick of captains of industry, ennobled politicians, retired sportsmen and character actors. You only notice the accumulating years in relation to other people” (2,650 words)

Why Are All The Cartoon Mothers Dead?

“Bambi’s mother, shot. Nemo’s mother, eaten by a barracuda. Lilo’s mother, killed in a car crash. Koda’s mother in Brother Bear, speared. Po’s mother in Kung Fu Panda 2, done in by a power-crazed peacock.” It’s getting hard to find a mother in an animated film who survives until the closing credits. In fairy tales of old, the mother-substitute was the wicked stepmother. For Disney and Dreamworks, it is the super-dad (4,100 words)

I Drive A Cryonics Ambulance

Tim Gibson runs a British cryonics emergency team which prepares bodies for long-term storage in America. The body is chilled, the blood replaced with anti-freeze. “As soon as we’re alerted, we start calling the patient’s doctor, coroner, mortuary shipping service, embalmer, airline, US Embassy and Homeland Security to smooth the way. These days, no one blinks an eyelid. Not long ago, they saw us as cranks” (760 words)

Freezing My Eggs Would Solve Everything

Memoir. “I told my therapist that I was considering freezing my eggs, and she said she thought it was a good idea if it would alleviate some of the anxiety I felt about dating. I said it would cause me a different kind of anxiety because it was so expensive in New York City. I would be looking at close to $15,000 to buy myself a few years of reduced anxiety, plus $2,000 or so each year to keep them frozen” (2,620 words)

The End Of Sleep

Imagine a disease that cuts your conscious life by one-third. You would clamour for a cure. There is no cure yet for sleep, but the palliatives are getting better. Take 400mg of modafinil every eight hours and you can sleep just one night in three. Mild electroshock therapy cuts optimal nightly sleep from eight to four hours. Winner of the 2014 Best Feature Award from the Association of British Science Writers (3,900 words)

Life Begins With Genome Revealed

Californian genetics researcher Razib Khan sequences his baby’s genome before birth — a first for a healthy human. It’s not illegal, but the average person would probably not find a lab or a doctor willing to take on the job, for ethical reasons. The great fear: “Discovery of a bad mutation could lead parents to an abortion”. Mr Khan did the job himself using free online software, and says: “The future is here, deal with it” (1,580 words)

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