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Best of the Web

US Army’s latest battlefield tech? Combat chewing gum

(Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

Our picks of the week from around the web, including the military’s war on tooth decay, the slow death of the microwave and the virtues of castration.

The slow death of the microwave
Roberto Ferdman | Quartz | 19 March 2014

Unit sales of microwave ovens in America have fallen 40% from a market peak in 2004. Saturation may be a factor: 90% of households now have a microwave. But sales of kitchen equipment in general have continued rising; and sales of toaster ovens – “which have similar market penetration and product longevity” – have been booming. More likely there’s a cultural shift under way, away from fast and towards fresh.

A mad world
Joseph Pierre | Aeon | 19 March 2014

A psychiatrist discusses “diagnostic creep” – the conceptualising of more and more patterns of behaviour as mental illness. “We don’t think that everyone is crazy, nor are we necessarily guilty of pathologising normal existence”. The question is always whether treatment might be useful: “A continuous view of mental illness extends into areas that might actually be normal, but still detract from optimal, day-to-day function.”

Zero dark cavity
Betsy Morais | New Yorker | 17 March 2014

A new chewing gum could save the US Army $100m a year by reducing tooth decay. “They’re calling it combat gum”. Dental emergencies “account for 10% of all injuries that cause soldiers to be evacuated from the battlefield”, not counting battle itself. The gum contains a “synthetic sequence of anti-microbial peptides” which mimics bacteria-killing molecules naturally found in saliva. Civilians will get it eventually.

A hundred thousand hourglasses
Brian Feldman | Medium | 17 March 2014

In praise of Purkinje cells, the neurons in our brain that collect the flurry of ambient chatter from our hundred-billion nerve fibres and extract from it the urgent messages that require the immediate attention of body and mind. “If you’re a cranky pessimist, the Purkinje cells might seem like autocrats, but if you’re an easygoing optimist, they’re like a good set of parents: strict, but always looking out for your best interests.”

Inside the milk machine
Mark Kurlansky | Modern Farmer | 17 March 2014

Big gruelling piece with detail that animal-lovers (and milk-drinkers) will find troubling. Industrial farming has made America the world’s biggest milk producer. Today’s dairy cow is being constantly impregnated, and produces six to seven times as much milk as she did a century ago. One-fifth of the Holstein cow’s genome has been re-engineered in the past 40 years. Is there a way back towards kinder, gentler milk?

Bruce Sterling’s closing remarks at SXSW 2014
Bruce Sterling | Pastebin | 15 March 2014

Sterling’s annual closing speech at the SXSW festival of technology and music in Austin, Texas, has become a festival institution, a rambling improvised tour-d’horizon of everything trending in global geek culture. This year’s rant includes generous admixtures of nostalgia, European and American politics, black-hat hacking, sci-fi and surveillance. “The future is about old people, in big cities, afraid of the sky.”

Einstein and Pi
Sean Carroll | Preposterous Universe | 13 March 2014

Elegant blogpost answering a relatively abstruse mathematical question – why does Einstein use pi in his basic equation of general relativity? – in an enjoyable and accessible way. Einstein, improving on Newton, saw that “gravity is best described by a field theory”; which involves “integrating over the surface of a sphere”; and “the area of a sphere is proportional to pi”. But read the whole thing.

The behavioural benefits of castration
John Brooke | New Statesman | 13 March 2014

A vet reflects. In a single week he has castrated “40 calves, two colts, three dogs, one cat, one ferret and a coatimundi”, mostly for “behavioural rather than medical reasons”. Dogs no longer lunge at the legs of passers-by; geldings graze peaceably in fields; rabbits fight less and cease to mate with their siblings. “Freed from desire, they appear to be contented. Brave new world! Time to sharpen the knives for Homo sapiens.”

Goodnight clock
Burrito Justice | 7 March 2014

What physics tells us about the universe of children’s book Goodnight Moon, as glimpsed in the movements of the moon through the window. “I have come to a rather startling conclusion. In the space of an hour and 10 minutes the moon has moved 10,000 km closer to the bunny’s room. The little bunny has about two hours sleep before the moon is torn apart by the Roche limit, and three hours sleep before another extinction event.”

Why physicists make up stories in the dark
Philip Ball | Nautilus | 6 March 2014

Masterly essay on light and darkness in science and culture. We used to think of light as a simple state of nature. But in the late 19th Century scientists found light to be “a small slice of a rainbow” extending “far into the unseen” via radio waves, infrared and X-rays. Physics found its new frontiers in the worlds of the dark and the invisible, and began advancing into the territory of myth and mystery, of “dark matter” and “dark energy.”

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