China’s great wave of nostalgia | The New

A powerful wave of nostalgia is sweeping the generation of Chinese born between 1980 and 1989, known in China as baling hou, or “post-eighties.” This piece I wrote for The New details evidence I found of the epidemic in several cities. It also explores how research on nostalgia’s psychological function may explain why the bittersweet sentiment has China’s post-eighties cohort so firmly within its thrall. The article is drawn from reporting for my forthcoming book on nostalgia and the role it plays in shaping our identity.

Battle at the end of eden | The Atlantic

Exotic and isolated, animals found only on islands are quietly dying off. To many, the vexing wave of extinction portends an ecological crisis. To a cadre of brash scientists who think they’ve discovered a solution, these desperate times call for desperate measures—a strategy involving guns, poison, traps, and a wholesale rethinking of modern conservation. This longform story, published as The Atlantic’s first original e-book, details the fight to preserve the most delicate places on Earth.

Click here to read an excerpt from the story and here to view slideshows that explore behind-the-scenes of reporting this piece.

The improvisational brain | Seed magazine

Watching a musician in the throes of an improvisational solo can be like witnessing an act of divine intervention. But embedded memories and conspiring brain regions, scientists now believe, are the true source of this off-the-cuff creativity. This feature dives into the brain of renown classical pianist and improviser Robert Levin during performance. With a cognitive ethnomusicologist and neuroscientist acting as guides, it explores Levin’s process at the neuronal level.

Galápagos: the inhabited isles | Battle at the end of eden (multimedia)

  • Galápagos: The Inhabited Isles

    Exploring the cultural identity of the world's most sacred ecosystem

  • Images from the Galápagos typically feature sweeping vistas of volcanic terrain, devoid of people and lush with some of the most storied flora and fauna on earth. While it's true that 97% of the archipelago's land is maintained as a nature preserve, nearly 30,000 people live on the remaining 3% (approx. 100 sq mi), spread over five islands.
    Map creator: Eric Gaba; Translator: NordNordWest; Source: Wikipedia Commons

  • Santa Cruz Island has the largest population, with approx. 20,000 residents.

    Map creator: Eric Gaba; Translator: NordNordWest; Source: Wikipedia Commons

  • Puerto Ayora, located on the island's southern shore, is the archipelago's hub of tourism and economic activity. The main street is lined with restaurants, hotels, clothing boutiques, and souvenir shops.

  • The Galápagos has no indigenous culture and is one of the most recently colonized places on the planet. Most residents emigrated from Ecuador, with the first inhabitants arriving on Floreana Island in 1807. Permanent settlements on Santa Cruz date back to 1920.

  • A public awareness campaign, sponsored by the Ecuadorean Navy, aims to instill within residents a sense of appreciation and responsibility to care for the archipelago's unique wildlife. This billboard reminds passersby that nature is life and to be careful not to harm it.

  • A poster on a main street kiosk announced a public festival with the theme: "Defending the ecosystems of the Galápagos Islands is the responsibility of everyone."

  • Still, on any given street, the species that possess an almost mythical status in science history and Western consciousness, often retain all the grandeur of a pigeon or squirrel on the streets of Manhattan.

  • Galápagos sea lions snooze on a city sidewalk close to the waterfront.

  • A marine iguana, belonging to the world's only species of marine lizard, returns from a mid-day meal of algae off the ocean floor. Behind it, surfers head out into the waves.

  • A lone blue-footed booby perches on a guano- and graffiti-stained rock wall that lines Academy Bay just off the coast of Puerto Ayora.

  • The fishermen and brown pelicans of the Galápagos have a special relationship. Hoping to partake in the spoils of the fishermen's daily conquests, the birds, with their long bills and papery throat pouches, track the fishermen's every move. Here they stay close at hand as fish are transfered from boats to the shoreside scaling-and-gutting station.

  • This pod of pelicans stood rapt, as a fisherman prepared his catch. Moments later, as he set the fish carcass on the ground and used a hose to wash out the innards, the birds swarmed him, their powerful beaks snapping up bits of offal dislodged by the spray. The spectacle occurs every morning and evening as the fishermen skin, cut, and debone their fresh hauls of yellowfin tuna. (see video, next slide)

  • A mural on the outside wall of an elementary school features portraits of Galápagos wildlife painted by local children. Below it reads: "We live in the marine reserve."

  • In this child's rendering, a stark, black fence represents the marine reserve, protecting the abundant Galápagos sea life. Outside the fence, the waters are empty. 

  • Co-opting the archipelago's ecological attributes, a local band bills its music as endemic nature rock. 

  • A small church on the west side of town weaves imagery of Galápagos wildlife among its traditional iconography.

  • Stained glass windows, usually reserved for the portrayal of apostles, instead show dolphins, flamingos, sharks, opuntia cacti, coral reefs, frigate birds, and manta rays.

  • Above the altar, a stained glass window depicts a pelican with its wings outstretched.

  • At the east end of the island, sculptures and statues bear reverence to a different deity.

  • Centered on the arch, Charles Darwin's divine, white-bearded visage presides over a sculpture of a blue-footed booby.

  • Signs posted all along Ave. Charles Darwin, Puerto Ayora's main drag, tempt tourists with promises of access to the archipelago's untouched wilderness. The first organized tours of the islands began in 1974. By 1990, the Galápagos was hosting 40,000 tourists annually. Today, the yearly number of visitors exceeds 170,000.

  • If there is one species whose likeness has been enlisted to bear the brunt of souvenir exploitation, it's the blue-footed booby. 

  • But with its striking blue feet, suggestive name, and funky mating dance, the sea bird perhaps was destined to become charismatic fauna.

  • This store is named after Lonesome George, the last remaining giant tortoise from Pinta, an island located at the archipelago's northern edge. In 1972, Lonesome George was brought to live at the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz, where scientists hoped he would mate with females from a closely related species. The attempts were unsuccessful. His death in June 2012 marked the extinction of the Pinta Island tortoise.

  • On the east side of town, the main street tapers to a smaller road that leads to the Galápagos National Park offices and the Charles Darwin Research Station, which houses the tortoise nursery.

  • The influx of people to the Galápagos over the past 40 years has introduced an estimated 1,500 invasive species, some intentional (such as livestock) and some not (black rats, a fly that parasitizes finch chicks, and the A. aegypti mosquito, which carries dengue fever.) Poison traps like the one above were ubiquitous on Santa Cruz. Their target, an invasive paper wasp, arrived via cargo in the '80s and is now found on all major islands.

  • Scientists at the Charles Darwin Research Station design educational materials to alert residents and tourists alike as to how destructive invasive species can be to native Galápagos wildlife.

  • In this cartoon, the villainous fanged berries, declaring their infinite reign, belong to the Mora or blackberry plant, an aggressive invasive that has spread across several Galápagos islands. An opuntia cactus tree, endemic to the archipelago, perspires in the background.

  • This poster at the Charles Darwin Research Station shows some of the invasive species that appear on each island, as well as those that have been successfully eradicated.

  • Next to the human footprints are the claw tracks and trail a marine iguana leaves as it drags its tail through the sand. Efforts to remove invasive species from the inhabited Galápagos islands will require tight collaboration between residents and scientists. Read about the quest to protect the Galápagos and other islands threatened by invasive species in the The Atlantic's single "Battle at the End of Eden."

Images from the Galápagos are typically devoid of people and lush with some of the world’s most storied flora and fauna. Yet people first settled in the archipelago in 1807 and today, nearly 30,000 residents live on five of the major islands. While in the U.S. and Europe, the Galápagos is revered for its role in the history of science, to Galapagueños, most of them emigrants from Ecuador, the islands symbolize something totally different: a paradise refuge from poverty and crime on the mainland. This slideshow explores the emerging cultural identity of the Galápagos as one of the most recently colonized places on earth. Read about the quest to eradicate invasive species from the archipelago’s inhabited islands.

All photos and video by Amanda R. Martinez and Rob McGinnis unless otherwise noted

Floreana: a virtual tour | Battle at the end of eden (multimedia)

  • Floreana Island, Galápagos

    A virtual tour

  • Floreana is located at the southern edge of the Galápagos, about a two-hour boat ride due south of Santa Cruz, the archipelago's most populous island. 

    Map creator: Eric Gaba; Translator: NordNordWest; Source: Wikipedia Commons

  • Ninety-seven percent of Floreana's land is a nature preserve, owned by the Galápagos National Park. The island's 150 residents own the remaining 3% and live in Puerto Velasco Ibarra, Floreana's only town.

  • When I visited, Floreana had no pier. A few feet from shore, I transfered from the boat I was on to a smaller water taxi, capable of pulling up alongside the concrete slab that stood in for a dock. Residents were in the process of building a pier.

  • Entering Puerto Velasco Ibarra, Floreana's only town

  • Floreana's church

  • Up the road, a sign points to Floreana's elementary school. Floreana's roads are unpaved. There are, at most, eight cars on the island.

  • Escuela Amazonas is attended by the kids of Floreana's 38 families. At age 12, the kids leave the island to attend high schools on Santa Cruz or San Cristóbal.

  • A student's drawing reflects efforts by scientists from the Charles Darwin Research Station to help kids on Floreana develop an appreciation and respect for the island's wildlife and environment.

  • A multi-purpose space for community performances

  • This mural lines one wall of the open-air performance space

  • Several billboards, like this one, which hangs in the performance space, can be found around town. Designed by scientists at the Charles Darwin Research Station, the signs aim to foment a sense among residents that they are intimately connected to Floreana's land and wildlife, and that this connection can serve as a source of pride.

  • A billboard on the side of a home celebrates biodiversity

  • Floreana only has a few restaurants, which are essentially set up on the front lawn of owners' homes. This restaurant, run by the family of Floreana's president, features another pro-biodiversity billboard by Charles Darwin Research Station scientists.

  • A finch solicits food from diners at a restaurant run by one of the archipelago's most famous dynasties, the Cruz family.

  • There was no menu. You just walk up to the kitchen window of the house and ask if they'll make you a meal. The food was amazing. Lunch consisted of yucca soup, fried banana chips, and this shrimp-and-rice dish. For dinner: a creamy pea soup, deep-fried yucca root, and salted fish with rice, broccoli, carrots, and green beans.

  • In one of the island's three trucks, I accompanied Floreana's president, Max Freire Salgado, on a tour of the agricultural region located in the fertile, humid highlands. Except for rice and a few other crops, residents grow almost all their own food.

  • As we ascended, the black lava rocks and dry vegetation of the coast morphed into lush and verdant scenery and the temperature cooled.

  • Freire Salgado leads the way with his black lab, Negro, through farmland owned by his 100-year-old grandmother.

  • In the rich soil at Floreana's high altitudes, residents grow pineapple, yucca, oranges, lemons, guavas, bananas, carrots, onions, corn, peas, and coffee (pictured here).

  • Freire Salgado holds great pride in the bounty that Floreana's residents are able to provide for themselves. At one point, standing amid a field of crops, he spread his arms wide and said, "This is our good life."

  • Freire Salgado emerges from a cluster of trees with a handful of limas, a hybrid fruit, half lemon, half orange, that tastes like a sweet lemon.

  • In 2009, the Galápagos National Park eradicated Floreana's feral goats, sheep, and pigs. The free-roaming livestock had overgrazed opuntia cactus, the mockingbird's preferred habitat. "This is a huge difference," said Ruiz Ballesteros, an anthropologist who studies Floreana culture. Before it was like "a paradise, the possibility of hunting animals for free and now you have to breed them." Cows, pigs and donkeys are now kept in enclosures.

  • Freire Salgado's dog, Negro, came along for the ride.

  • As Floreana flirts with modernization, there exist fascinating contrasts between old and new ways of life. Residents live off the land as subsistence farmers ...

  • But they all have Facebook accounts.

  • Some residents burn trash in their backyards ...

  • But the island has more sophisticated recycling infrastructure than most any interstate rest stop in the United States.

  • The view from my hotel—a private beach by virtue of Floreana's extremely low population density. Both Freire Salgado and the anthropologist Ruiz Ballesteros say that residents most value the serenity and simplicity of their lifestyle ...

  • Yet they desire the economic prosperity and entrepreneurial opportunities that restoring the island's native ecosystem could bring in the form of increased tourism.

  • One morning, as residents built Floreana's new pier, a boat-load of recently arrived tourists (background, right) surrounded two marine iguanas that were sunning themselves on black lava boulders. As the cameras clicked away, the reptiles quickly escaped to the sea.

  • Read about the quest to save the Floreana mockingbird and other threatened island species across the globe in the The Atlantic's single, "Battle at the End of Eden."

When Charles Darwin visited the Galápagos in 1835, Floreana was the archipelago’s only inhabited island. Floreana’s endemic mockingbird helped to spur Darwin to his insights on natural selection and evolution. But the species has been extinct on Floreana for more than a century, driven from the island by invasive rats and feral cats to two tiny islets just off the coast. Island Conservation hopes to help Galápagos scientists reintroduce the critically endangered bird by eradicating Floreana’s rats and feral cats in 2014. But first, Floreana’s 150 residents must approve the project. Read the story of the quest to save this iconic bird and other threatened island species across the globe.

All photographs by Amanda R. Martinez and Rob McGinnis unless otherwise noted

The smallest hitchhikers | Scientific American

When scientists slid a one-cm-size sliver of plastic bag they’d fished out of the North Atlantic Ocean under a microscope (L image), it looked relatively clean and smooth. But when they zoomed in a few thousand times (R image), a new world appeared. Marine microbes, the ocean’s flagrant opportunists, had not only colonized the fragment; some of them appeared to be eating it. Read more about plastic as a drifting buffet for marine microbes in this story I wrote for Scientific American.

On the eve of animal evolution | Marine Biological Laboratory

Choanoflagellates, pictured above in the rosette colonies they are wont to form, are single-celled organisms that scientists believe represent one of evolution’s last stops on the way to animals. Just one spot over on the evolutionary chart, multicellular sponges, the earliest branching lineage of animals, appear. This piece considers the clues these pivotal nanoplankton could hold to understanding the origin of animals.

The unfinished miracle: how plastics were lost at sea | MIT Archives

Only sixty years after the mass production of plastic began, the material is in every ocean and seabed on the planet. This is the story, published as my master’s thesis at MIT, of how it got there, how it’s transforming the ocean ecosystem, and what it means for the future of material design.

Look beneath the surface | PRI’s Living on Earth

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

A month and a half after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and sank, I headed out into the Gulf of Mexico with marine scientists from Louisiana State University. Their mission was to use sonar to try and detect giant oil layers trapped hundreds of feet beneath the Gulf’s surface—oil that NOAA scientists had just reported finding, but that BP continued to deny existed. I describe what they found in this satellite phone interview with Living on Earth host, Jeff Young.

The perfect oyster | MIT Tech TV

America’s first European settlers found shores lined with oyster reefs so tall and thick they had to blasted out to make way for ships. Now oyster reefs are virtually extinct worldwide due largely to coastal development and overharvesting. This short documentary I co-wrote, co-directed and co-produced with Camille Carlisle and Scott Berdahl looks at efforts by conservationists in Wellfleet, Massachusetts to restore oyster reefs to the town’s coast. Additional cinematography and filming by Stephen McCarthy.

An unwilling agent of disorder | MIT Scope magazine

Meet James. James is at war with the universe… This essay explores the concept of entropy and the second law of thermodynamics through the life of James, a fictional character whose obsession with maintaining order makes Sisyphus look like a lightweight.

The virtues & villainy of being small | Santa Cruz GT Weekly

The word “nanotechnology” has crept into the social lexicon as of late, but what is it exactly and what is its potential to transform the way we live? This cover story zooms in for a close-up of the excitement and reservations of scientists who work with these tiny materials.

Elephant seals & inner beauty | Santa Cruz GT Weekly

Northern elephant seals may have faces only a mother could love, but they’re two tons of physiological triumph. They spend up to 90 percent of their life in the open ocean, migrate 10,000 miles each year and collapse and re-inflate their lungs several times daily during 1,500-feet feeding dives. For this cover story I wrote in 2007, I hiked out to see the enormous pinnipeds with filmmaker Drew Wharton, whose documentary “A Seal’s Life” explores the species’ science and history.