Humankind’s Most Important Material

Glass has changed the world like no other substance, but people usually overlook it.

by Douglas Main

Glass has shaped the world more than any other substance, and in many sneaky ways, it’s the defining material of the human era.

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The Atomic-Bomb Core That Escaped World War II

Before two deadly nuclear mishaps, scientists used to risk “tickling the tail of a sleeping dragon.”

by Julian G. West

Today, nuclear warheads go unseen and unconsidered, even as nuclear war feels closer than it has in decades.

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The Bidet’s Revival

Invented centuries ago in France, the bidet has never taken off in the States. That might be changing.

by Maria Teresa Hart

Bidets were such an integral part of civilized life that even the imprisoned Marie Antoinette was granted a red-trimmed one while awaiting the guillotine. She may have been in a dank, rat-infested cell, but her right to freshen up would not be denied.

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Women Are Reinventing the Long-Despised Speculum

The gynecological apparatus, designed by men, has a sordid history.

by Daniela Blei

The speculum offered a solution to a problem that had plagued gynecology from the beginning: How could a man inspect a woman—“a serious sacrifice in delicacy,” as the French doctor Marc Colombat de L’Isère put it—without violating her modesty?

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The Jet Engine Is a Futuristic Technology Stuck in the Past

Rockets and turbofans have promised to realize dreams of transportation progress—for decades.

by Christopher Schaberg

Turbofan engines offer an audible reminder of the paradox of progress. As much as people may want to experience new things, they have to use old tools and means to do so.

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The Case for Locking Up Your Smartphone

Lockers and sleeves for phones can feel like an infringement on personal rights, but they also might save people from their worst habits.

by Marcel O'Gorman

Given that the mere presence of one’s smartphone can reduce cognitive capacity, Yondr offers a way to surf between the waves of a device’s presence and absence. You can hold it, but you can’t use it.

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My Pacemaker Is Tracking Me From Inside My Body

Cloud-connected medical devices save lives, but also raise questions about privacy, security, and oversight.

by Neta Alexander

Health providers can review my data from afar, and unauthorized hackers might have access to it, too. But it proved surprisingly difficult to access these medical records myself.

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The Accidental Poison That Founded the Modern FDA

Elixir Sulfanilamide was a breakthrough antibiotic—until it killed more than 100 people.

by Julian G. West

The FFDCA protected the public from unsafe medications, but its limitations quickly became apparent.

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Does ‘Counting Your Blessings’ Work?

Doing so has appealed to people for centuries, but the power of a gratitude list can be misused.

by Sonya Huber

As the gratitude trend spreads, the practice can feel compulsory.

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The Power Suit’s Subversive Legacy

Women have long borrowed from men’s dress to claim the authority associated with it. It hasn’t always worked.

by Angella D'Avignon

The term “working girl” is a double entendre. Used to describe women’s labor outside the home—whether that was sex work or desk work—the turn of phrase also connotes class.

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A Birth Certificate is a Person’s First Possession

Around the world, the document establishes legal, social, and economic legitimacy. But it also makes compromises.

by Christine Ro

Overall, legal changes relating to birth certificates show how quickly the law is catching up to social attitudes about sex and gender.

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How the Index Card Cataloged the World

Carl Linnaeus, the father of biological taxonomy, also had a hand in inventing this tool for categorizing anything.

by Daniela Blei

The act of organizing information—even notes about plants—is never neutral or objective.

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Dog Poo, an Environmental Tragedy

When industrial fertilizer replaced dung heaps, its spoils helped fund the spread of plastics.

by T. Hugh Crawford

Dog waste is now timeless.

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How a Glass Terrarium Changed the World

The Wardian case made intercontinental plant transport possible—and helped spread empires.

by Jen Maylack

The Wardian case emboldened European powers to continue global expansion.

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How Racial Data Gets ‘Cleaned’ in the U.S. Census

The national survey offers more identity choices than ever—until those choices get scrubbed away.

by Roby Autry

If racial data must be cleaned, then some data is dirty. And that dirtiness is undeniably political.

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The Saintliness of Undecayed Corpses

In the medieval church, “incorrupt” remains signaled virtue, chastity, and holiness.

by Katherine Harvey

If a corpse was found to have decayed, a cult’s potential would be seriously undermined.

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Your Bones Live On Without You

The human skeleton inspires wonder and terror because it lasts much longer than its owner.

by Chip Colwell

People around the world are distraught that their ancestors lie as specimens on museum shelves.

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The Underclass Origins of the Little Black Dress

The upper classes once imposed the fashion staple on their servants—then they stole it back from them

by Shelley Puhak

There was a “revolution in dress, not by the fashionable folk, but by New York’s army of shopgirls.”

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How to Escape a Death Spiral

The aviator’s hazard offers a lesson about responding to supposed crises.

by Toni Wall Jaudon

To tame the death spiral, devices had to become part of how aviators kept control of the plane.

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The Contentious Physics of Wiffle Ball

An engineer sheds light on the ball’s much-debated curve.

by Jenn Stroud Rossmann

Wiffle balls wouldn’t be possible without the ubiquity of plastic.

Read this essay at The Atlantic