Popular theories about depression are wrong

People often think they know what causes chronic depression. Surveys indicate that more than 80% of the public blames a “chemical imbalance” in the brain. The unbalanced brain chemical in question is serotonin, an important neurotransmitter with fabled “feel-good” effects. But the causes of depression go far beyond serotonin deficiency. Clinical studies have repeatedly concluded that the role of serotonin in depression has been overstated. Indeed, the entire premise of the chemical-imbalance theory may be wrong, despite the relief that Prozac seems to bring.

The Montreal Mafia murders: Blood, gore, cannolis, and hockey bags

On the morning they were arrested for allegedly burning bodies as part of a series of Mafia murders, Marie-Josée Viau and Guy Dion had already finished breakfast and packed their daughter off to elementary school. A Mother’s Day card hung on the fridge next to family photographs. Viau, 44, didn’t have to go to her shift at the roadside poutine restaurant until later that day, so she tried baking something new: blueberry phyllo puffs. The pastries were still on the stove top when police arrived at 9:56 a.m. on October 16, 2019. “We’re normal people,” Viau swore to the arresting officers. “We didn’t kill anyone.” But undercover recordings made by investigators told a different tale.

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Are there mammoth tusks in Manhattan’s East River?

In a recent interview on “The Joe Rogan Experience,” which has an estimated audience of 11 million listeners per episode on Spotify, a guest from Alaska presented an explosive discovery: There are tens of thousands of priceless woolly mammoth tusks lying on the river floor. “I’m going to start a bone rush,” the guest, John Reeves, a fossil collector and gold miner, announced. The podcast episode, which aired Dec. 30, was an instant sensation. Without hesitation, teams of men and women from around the country drove, flew and floated to New York City for a chance at finding a many-thousands-year-old artifact that could be worth at least six figures. “You can’t win the lottery if you don’t play,” said one.

Scientists are training ants to sniff out cancer

Ants live in a world of odor. Some species are completely blind. Others rely so heavily on scent that ones that lose track of a pheromone trail march in a circle, until dying of exhaustion. Ants have such a refined sense of smell, in fact, that researchers are now training them to detect the scent of human cancer cells. A study published this week highlights a keen ant sense and underscores how someday we may use sharp-nosed animals — or, in the case of ants, sharp-antennaed — to detect tumors quickly and cheaply. That’s important because the sooner that cancer is found, the better the chances of recovery. “The results are very promising,” said Baptiste Piqueret, a postdoctoral fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology who co-wrote the paper.

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Aldous Huxley on the future of leisure

In his book “Along the Road,” published in 1925, Aldous Huxley imagined a future in which everyone would have more leisure time — and he wasn’t optimistic about the idea:

“If, to-morrow or a couple of generations hence, it were made possible for all human beings to lead the life of leisure which is now led only by a few, the results, so far as I can see, would be as follows: There would be an enormous increase in the demand for such time-killers and substitutes for thought as newspapers, films, fiction, cheap means of communication and wireless telephones; to put it in more general terms, there would be an increase in the demand for sport and art. The interest in the fine art of love-making would be widely extended. And enormous numbers of people, hitherto immune from these mental and moral diseases, would be affiicted by boredom, depression and universal dissatisfaction. The fact is that, brought up as they are at present, the majority of human beings can hardly fail to devote their leisure to occupations which, if not positively vicious, are at least stupid, futile and, what is worse, secretly realized to be futile.”

This farmer secretly paid for his neighbors prescriptions

When the doctor in Alabama saw what a hornet sting had done to Eli Schlageter, his advice to Eli’s parents was unequivocal: Get an EpiPen. But they were stunned to learn that a single dose of the lifesaving drug, used to treat severe allergic reactions, cost $800 — even with insurance coverage. So the pharmacist in the small farming town of Geraldine turned to an envelope full of carefully folded hundred-dollar bills from an anonymous donor. Every month for more than a decade, a local farmer made anonymous cash donations to the pharmacy, aiming to help neighbors struggling to pay for prescription medication. They learned of his good deed only after he died at 80 in January.

Women in the age of polar exploration

Opportunities were restricted during the so-called Heroic Age, but women still dreamed of exploration… and sometimes managed to reach the polar regions. Ernest Shackleton, known for his expeditions to Antarctica, received a letter from three women eager to join his crew. “We are three strong healthy girls,” they explained. “Willing to undergo any hardships that you yourself undergo.” They even offered to trade their “feminine garb” for “masculine attire” if their clothes proved to be a hindrance. In 1806, Isobel Gunn disguised herself as a man named John Fubbister so she could join an expedition with the Hudson’s Bay Company. Her secret was only discovered when she got sick and went to her supervisor, Alexander Henry, for help.

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A BBC documentary highlights growing social-media censorship in India

Last weekend, the Indian government ordered YouTube to remove clips from a BBC documentary. It sent a similar order to Twitter, telling that platform to remove any tweets that featured links to those clips and pointing to more than fifty specific posts that had done so. The documentary, called India: The Modi Question, covers, in part, a series of violent riots in the western Indian state of Gujarat in 2002. More than a thousand people died—most of them Muslims. The documentary features quotes from UK government correspondence that described the riots as having had “all the hallmarks of an ethnic cleansing” and held Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist who was then the chief minister of Gujarat, “directly responsible.” Modi is now India’s prime minister.

According to the orders from India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, the clips from the documentary and the tweets referring to them were to be removed under information technology laws that the Modi government implemented in 2021. According to one report, senior officials from different branches of the government reviewed the documentary and found it to be “an attempt to cast aspersions on the authority and credibility of the Supreme Court of India, sow divisions among various Indian communities, and make unsubstantiated allegations regarding the actions of foreign governments in India.” (The Supreme Court had previously cleared Modi of blame for the riots.) One official told The Hindu that the documentary undermined “the sovereignty and integrity of India,” and had the potential to “adversely impact public order within the country.”

India has several laws that give officials the authority to order information providers to remove or block access to content, including the Information Technology Act of 2000, which allows the government to block content “in the interest of sovereignty and integrity of India, security of the State, and public order.” The additional law that the Modi government passed in 2021 bills itself as a “digital media ethics code” that requires social media platforms to take down content within thirty-six hours of receiving a government order, and to otherwise assist law enforcement agencies with their inquiries. Foreign social-media companies are also required to employ a local staffer who can handle such official requests. Some critics have referred to this as a “hostage-taking law,” on the grounds that these local employees could end up in prison should their employer refuse to play ball.

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Earth’s core has stopped and may be reversing direction

Earth’s inner core has recently stopped spinning, and may now be reversing the direction of its rotation, according to a surprising new study that probed the deepest reaches of our planet with seismic waves from earthquakes. The results suggest that Earth’s center pauses and reverses direction on a periodic cycle lasting about 60 to 70 years, a discovery that might solve longstanding mysteries about climate and geological phenomena that occur on a similar timeframe, and that affect life on our planet. But while it sounds like the plot of a disaster movie, most scientists think this periodic spin switch is a normal part of its behavior that does not pose risks for life on our planet.

The Wright Brothers’ flight wasn’t the first

We’reused to thinking that the Wright brothers flew the first powered flight, but Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft – the definitive source for airplane-related facts – says a 1901 flight by Connecticut aviation pioneer Gustave Whitehead was the first successful powered flight in history, beating the Wright brothers’ first flight by more than two years. Jane’s has traditionally backed the Wright Brothers as first in flight, but now they say the evidence for Whitehead’s flight is strong enough for the publication to reverse course and recognize it as the first successful powered flight. Jane’s Editor Paul Jackson describes what happened in Bridgeport, Connecticut, on August 14, 1901.

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An iconic photo of American workers is not what it seems

Eleven pairs of shoes were dangling over the New York City skyline. It was September of 1932, as the Great Depression was reaching its height. Unemployment and uncertainty could be felt throughout the city and the entire country. But on West 49th Street, a pillar of hope was under construction: the art deco skyscraper that would come to be known as 30 Rockefeller Plaza. The ironworkers constructing its 70 floors were taking a break, sharing boxed lunches and cigarettes. They appeared to be completely unfazed by the location of this break: a narrow steel beam jutting out into the sky, hundreds of feet above the pavement. But this iconic photo is not really what it appears to be.

What happens when anaesthesia fails

Donna Penner’s panic attacks began after a small medical procedure that she had before her 45th birthday. She was working in the accountancy department of a local trucking company and had just celebrated the wedding of one of her daughters. But she had been having severe bleeding and pain during her period, and her family physician had suggested that they investigate the causes with exploratory surgery. It should have been a routine procedure, but, for reasons that are far from clear, the general anaesthetic failed. Rather than lying in peaceful oblivion, she woke up just before the surgeon made the first cut into her abdomen.

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Playing music to cheese as it ages changes the flavor

Last September, Swiss cheesemaker Beat Wampfler and a team of researchers from the Bern University of Arts placed nine 22-pound wheels of Emmental cheese in individual wooden crates in Wampfler’s cheese cellar. Then, for the next six months each cheese was exposed to an endless, 24-hour loop of one song using a mini-transducer, which directed the sound waves directly into the cheese wheels. The “classical” cheese mellowed to the sounds of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. The “rock” cheese listened to Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” An ambient cheese listened to Yello’s “Monolith,” the hip-hop cheese was exposed to A Tribe Called Quest’s “Jazz (We’ve Got).”

What it’s like to be the only person with a unique genetic condition

Beverly Gage writes about finding out she has a unique genetic disorder: “In early 2021, Dr. Michael Ombrello, an investigator at the National Institutes of Health, received a message from doctors at Yale about a patient with a novel genetic mutation—the first of its kind ever seen. A specialist in rare inflammatory and immune disorders, Ombrello was concerned by what first-round genetic tests showed: a disabling mutation in a gene, known as PLCG2, that’s thought to be crucial for proper immune functioning. It was hard to discern how the patient, a forty-eight-year-old woman, had survived for so long without serious infections. That’s how I ended up as a patient in his clinic.”

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In medieval times, women could be troubadors too

Unlike what history tells us medieval women were like, these “trobairitz” or female troubadors  openly criticized men and even made fun of their romantic advances. They felt no need to submit or be meek simply because society expected it of them. Some of them, such as Comtessa de Dia, openly sang about sexual exploits and infidelity. On at least one occasion, a trobairitz song was written specifically from a woman’s point of view addressing another woman! Trobairitz wrote and performed in the same accepted styles of their male counterparts (the troubadours). Themes were similar of course, as was poem structure. Singing or writing about politics or other “masculine” topics was still off limits to women, so the trobairitz stuck with love and romance.

This subterranean cave city in Turkey could hold 20,000 people

The ancient city of Elengubu, known today as Derinkuyu, burrows more than 85m below the Earth’s surface, encompassing 18 levels of tunnels. The largest excavated underground city in the world, it was in near-constant use for thousands of years, changing hands from the Phrygians to the Persians to the Christians of the Byzantine Era. It was finally abandoned in the 1920s by the Cappadocian Greeks when they faced defeat during the Greco-Turkish war and fled abruptly en masse to Greece. Not only do its cave-like rooms stretch on for hundreds of miles, but it’s thought the more than 200 small, separate underground cities that have also been discovered in the region may be connected to these tunnels, creating a massive subterranean network.

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