I’m a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine, and I tend to describe myself as both a journalist and historian. In addition to the Sunday Magazine, my writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, Wired, The New Yorker, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Technology Review and Fast Company. Usually I write about science, nature, technology, and business. But oftentimes my work explores the intersections between all those areas. At least to me, that’s where the most interesting things happen.
Greenland is melting at an unprecedented rate, causing vast quantities of ice to disappear and global sea levels to rise. The fate of the ice sheet is not sealed, but unless CO2 emissions are sharply cut, the long-term existence of Greenland’s ice is in doubt.
As the effects of a warming climate intensify and a sense of impending catastrophe grows stronger, it’s becoming easier to give in to environmental despair. Having spent the past five years studying the Arctic and traveling around Greenland, I feel the pull as well. Glaciers and sea ice are melting at an alarming rate; temperatures are rising at a steady clip. To make matters worse, the Trump administration’s recent efforts to ignore a fact-based, scientific approach — rejecting, for instance, the use of computer projections to assess how a warming world might look after 2040 — leads me to worry that climate denialism is moving from the scientific fringes to the institutional center. Yet I also feel we’re in danger of losing sight of two crucial and encouraging aspects of our predicament.
IBM was originally a holding company cobbled together to please investors. Then Thomas Watson gave the firm a purpose and a sales-driven culture.
Great companies tend to have alluring stories to explain their origins: a charismatic founder, an innovative idea, or a product or technology that goes on to become part of the culture of America itself. IBM’s story isn’t like that.
Just over a century ago in Ludwigshafen, Germany, a scientist named Carl Bosch assembled a team of engineers to exploit a new technique in chemistry. A year earlier, another German chemist, Fritz Haber, hit upon a process to pull nitrogen (N) from the air and combine it with hydrogen (H) to produce tiny amounts of ammonia (NH₃). But Haber’s process was delicate, requiring the maintenance of high temperatures and high pressure. Bosch wanted to figure out how to adapt Haber’s discovery for commercial purposes — as we would say today, to “scale it up.” Anyone looking at the state of manufacturing in Europe around 1910, Bosch observed, could see that the task was daunting: The technology simply didn’t exist.
SCIENCE SEASON IN Antarctica begins in November, when noontime temperatures at McMurdo Station climb to a balmy 18 degrees Fahrenheit and the sun hangs in the sky all day and night. For a researcher traveling there from the United States, the route takes time as well as patience. The easiest way is to fly from Los Angeles to Christchurch, New Zealand—a journey of 17 hours, if you’re lucky—and then to McMurdo, a charmless cluster of buildings that houses most of the southern continent’s thousand or so seasonal residents and both of its ATMs. McMurdo isn’t the end of the line, though. Often it’s just a pass-through for scientists hopping small planes to penguin colonies or meteorological observatories farther afield.
To historians of technology, the story of the internet—essentially, the story of how our cognition and culture began to merge with machines—is often focused on hackers and software engineers. Who wrote the code? Who did it first? And then who did it better?
Twenty Miles East of Reno, Nev., where packs of wild mustangs roam free through the parched landscape, Tesla Gigafactory 1 sprawls near Interstate 80. It is a destination for engineers from all over the world, to which any Reno hotel clerk can give you precise, can’t-miss-it directions. The Gigafactory, whose construction began in June 2014, is not only outrageously large but also on its way to becoming the biggest manufacturing plant on earth. Now 30 percent complete, its square footage already equals about 35 Costco stores, and a small city of construction workers, machinery and storage containers has sprung up around it. Perhaps the only thing as impressive as its size is its cloak of secrecy, which seems of a piece with Tesla’s increasing tendency toward stealth, opacity and even paranoia.
Silicon Valley’s achievements are typically viewed through the lens of innovations that have transformed modern life. We can go back a few decades and look to Intel’s development of the integrated circuit, for instance, or Apple’s reimagining of the personal computer. More recent are planet-spanning websites, such as Facebook; search engines that resemble magic mirrors, such as Google’s; and bazaars without end, such as Amazon’s. Many of us over 35 see this as a mixed blessing, of course: Access to wondrous technological tools has also brought us too much email, too many distractions and too much vulnerability — hackings, trollings, stalkings and worse. But what if the trade-offs are much larger than we realized? In the midst of our digital lives, Franklin Foer argues, doesn’t it seem possible that Silicon Valley’s darkest, stealthiest triumph has been to merge personal technologies that improve our efficiency with personal technologies that alter our humanity?
In late August, as Hurricane Harvey began smashing into the Texas coast, a flood of data began pouring in along with the catastrophic quantities of rainwater. It wasn’t from the nonstop news coverage on CNN and elsewhere; it was from the transmissions that lay behind it, in the pulses of information coming down from space. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s geostationary and polar-orbiting satellites, crucial tools for monitoring big storms in the Gulf of Mexico, were capturing cloud formations, surface temperatures and barometric pressures, which were then fed into computer models tracking the storm’s strength and intensity. At the same time, NASA was using a group of satellites to keep tabs on soil moisture, flood patterns and power failures all over East Texas. In various ways, this torrent of data was being collected continuously from hundreds (or even thousands) of miles overhead, through radar instruments and spectroradiometer sensors and exquisitely calibrated imaging cameras. The machines being used aren’t household names — they go by acronyms like GOES-13, Modis and SMAP — but they demonstrate why the popular view of Earth as a big blue planet with only the Moon as its companion could do with some revising. We are also surrounded by a constellation of satellites spinning elliptical webs of environmental observation, day and night.
On William Del Monte, the Final Survivor of San Francisco’s 1906 Quake and Fire, From “The Lives They Lived,” The New York Times Magazine, December 21, 2016.
A Complicated Man: A Review of “A Truck Full of Money,” Tracy Kidder’s book on Paul English, The New York Times Book Review, October 16, 2016.
Does the Disappearance of Sea Ice Matter? The Melting Arctic and Its Dangerous Ripple Effects, The New York Times Magazine, July 29, 2016.
Should We Save Tangier Island From Oblivion? It’s a Choice That Climate Change Will Force Us To Confront Again and Again, The New York Times Magazine, July 6, 2016.
The Rise and Fall of Iridium: A Review of John Bloom’s book, “Eccentric Orbits,”The Wall Street Journal, June 3, 2016.
An Astronaut Finds Himself in Greenland: With a Year to Live, Piers Sellers Travels to the Arctic, The New Yorker, May 13, 2016.
On the Origins of AOL and the Future of Tech: A Review of Steve Case’s book “The Third Wave,” The Washington Post, April 7, 2016
Wisdom Has a Time and Place: A Review of ‘The Geography of Genius,’ by Eric Weiner, The Washington Post, January 21, 2016.
The Secrets In The Ice: By Studying The Largest Glaciers On Earth, Scientists Hope To Determine Whether We’ll Have Time To Respond To Climate Change, The New York Times Magazine, November 15, 2015.
What Will Alphabet Be When It Grows Up? The Prospects For Success At Google’s New Parent Company; Technology Review, October, 2015.
Anonymously Saving the World: A Review of Guru Madhavan’s “Applied Minds: How Engineers Think”; The Wall Street Journal, August 4, 2015.
Rocket Man: A Review of “Elon Musk,” by Ashlee Vance, New York Times Book Review, May 17, 2015.
Mission to Mars: A Q&A with Ellen Stofan, NASA’s Chief Scientist; Fast Company, May 2015
Gut Check: Will the Science of the Microbiome Lead to a Slew of Innovative New Drug Companies?; Fast Company, February 2015.
A review of “How We Got to Now,” By Steven Johnson; New York Times Book Review, December 28, 2014
California’s Fresh Water Problem: If the Current Technologies For Desalination Aren’t the Answer, Then What Is?; Fast Company, December 2014.
What If Your Home Made Its Own Energy?; Fast Company, November 2014.
The Contrarian’s Guide to Changing the World: A Review of Peter Thiel’s New Book, “Zero to One”; Technology Review, October 2014.
Inside Toyota and Tesla’s Duel to Make the Electric Car of the Future; Fast Company, September 2014.
Can Jeff Immelt Make the World 1% Better? Inside General Electric’s Push to Build an Industrial Internet; Fast Company, July 2014.
Why the (LED) Light Bulb Can Teach You Almost Everything You Need to Know About Innovation; Fast Company, March 2014.
Space For Rent: How The International Space Station Became a Lab for Private Enterprise; Fast Company, March 2014.
A New Act for an Old Bell Labs Building; Fast Company, March 2014.
Making Sense of the Failure of Medtronic’s Symplicity Device; Fastcompany.com, March 2014.
George Mitchell: The Father of Fracking (From, The Lives They Lived); The New York Times Magazine, December 2013.
Why General Motors is Betting on Mary Barra; Fast Company, December 2013.
Trying on “The Year Without Pants,” (review) Strategy + Business, Spring 2014
Intel Corp’s Mobile Strategy: First Infiltration, Then Domination; Fast Company, July 2013.
Nate Silver, Big Data, and Creativity; Fast Company, June 2013
Is It Legal to Sell Used Digital Goods? Redigi Wants to Find Out; Fast Company, May 2013
Mike Lazaridis, Blackberry Inventor and Tech Philanthropist, Takes a Quantum Leap of Faith in Waterloo; Fast Company, February 2013.
Calling Dr. Watson: A Few Years Ago IBM’s Computer Was a Game-Playing Curiosity. Now Watson Is Poised To Change The Way Human Beings Make Decisions About Medicine, Finance, and Work; Fast Company, November 2012
Plenty to Go Around: “Abundance,” by Peter Diamandis and Steve Kotler (Review); The New York Times Sunday Book Review, March 30, 2012.
The Risk of a New Machine: Elon Musk’s Tesla Motors is Perhaps the Greatest Test of the Silicon Valley Innovation Model. And Now It’s Do-Or-Die Time, When Everything is Riding on a New, $50,000 Sedan; Fast Company, April 2012.
True Innovation: Bell Labs Offers a Number of Insights Into How Our Country’s Technology Companies—and Our Country’s Longstanding Innovative Edge—Actually Came About; The New York Times Sunday Review, February 26, 2012.
Does America Need Manufacturing? Amid the Working-class Ruins of Michigan, the Obama Administration is Pursuing What Amounts to a Stealth Industrial Policy, Based on the Assumption that Manufacturing is Essential to the Nation’s Well Being. But Is It? The New York Times Magazine, August 27, 2011.
The Rise And Fall Of The G.D.P.: Economists And Even Governments Now Claim There Might Be Better Ways To Take Measure Of A Country’s Health And Happiness; The New York Times Magazine, May 16, 2010.
The Calorie Restriction Experiment: Eating Much, Much Less Helped Rats Live Longer. Will It Work On Humans? The New York Times Magazine, October 11, 2009.
Getting Up To Speed: Last Fall, Californians Voted To Approve The Most Expensive Infrastructure Project In The Country’s History. But How Do You Actually Build A High-Speed Train That Will Take You From Los Angeles To San Francisco In 2 hours 40 Minutes? The New York Times Magazine, June 14, 2009.
Why Isn’t The Brain Green? Decision Scientists Are Trying To Figure Out Why It’s So Hard For Us To Get Into A Green Mind-set. Their Answers May Be More Crucial Than Any Technological Advance In Combating Environmental Challenges; The New York Times Magazine, April 19, 2009.
The Year In Ideas: Positive Deviance; The New York Times Magazine, December 14, 2008.
Best Books of 2008: On Innovation; Strategy + Business, Winter 2008.
The New New Economy: Can The V.C.s At Kleiner Perkins Reduce Our Dependence On Oil, Help Stop Global Warming — And Make A Lot Of Money At The Same Time? The New York Times Magazine, October 5, 2008.
The Low Carbon Catalog: Green Collar Work Forces; Scientist Cynthia Rosenzweig; Low Emission Cookouts; Superconducting Cables; Scientist Katey Walter; Zero Waste; The New York Times Magazine (The Green Issue), April 20, 2008.
For Good, Measure: Can Better Metrics Prove Philanthropy Has An Impact? The New York Times Magazine, March 9, 2008.
Mad Scientist: Can Legendary Bell Labs—And Its Struggling Parent, Alcatel-Lucent—Be Saved By A “Crazy Risk Taker” Who’s Betting That Innovation Can Be Captured In A Mathematical Formula? Fast Company, February 2008.
A Clicker Is Born: Robert Adler (1913-2007) Inventor Of The Remote Control; From “The Lives They Lived” Issue, The New York Times Magazine, December 30, 2007.
The Future Is Drying Up: The West Is the Fastest-Growing Part of the U.S. It’s Also The Driest. And Climate Change Could Be Making Things Much, Much Worse; The New York Times Magazine, October 21, 2007.
Appreciating Depreciation: A Homeowner’s Reflections; The New York Times Magazine, September 9, 2007.
Playing Sim City for Real: Tejon Ranch, Just 60 Miles North of Los Angeles, Is Over 270,000 Acres Of Open Space Attached To An Equally Vast Question—How Do You Build A City From Scratch? The New York Times Magazine, Spring, 2007.
From Zero To 60 To World Domination: Toyota Has A Market Capitalization Greater Than That Of The Biggest American Competitors Combined, And Soon It Will Produce More Vehicles Than General Motors. How Did A Japanese Company That Started Out Making Textile Looms Become Not Only The Best Automaker In The World But Also (Maybe) The Best Corporation? The New York Times Magazine, March 4, 2007.
Funny Money: Why Making A Comedy Film Is Such A Good Bet; The New York Times Magazine, November 12, 2006.
Atomic Balm: For The First Times In Decades, Increasing The Role Of Nuclear Power In The United States May Be Starting To Make Political, Environmental, And Even Economic Sense; The New York Times Magazine, July 16, 2006.
Forgive Us Our Student Debts: Rising Education Costs Have Created An Opportunity To Lure Pharmacists To Rural Areas And Teachers To Cities—To Do All Sorts Of Social Engineering, In Fact; The New York Times Magazine, June 11, 2006.
Home Economics: Why Do Houses Cost So Much When There’s Plenty Of Land To Build On? Is Public Housing A Good Thing? Why Do People Still Move to Detroit? Ed Glaeser Has Some Answers; The New York Times Magazine, March 5, 2006.
Is How Much You Pay A Worker A Moral Issue? Why the Living Wage Is A Grass Roots Cause That Could Decide Elections In November; The New York Times Magazine, January 15, 2006.
Job For Life: John Slade, 1908-2005, From “The Lives They Lived” Issue; The New York Times Magazine, December 25, 2005.
The House-Building Industrial Complex: How The Mega-Developers Have Transformed What We Call Home; The New York Times Magazine, October 16, 2005.
Incendiary Device: A New Cigarette Filter May Make Smoking A Lot Less Harmful. But Is That A Good Thing? The New York Times Magazine, June 12, 2005.
Morgan Stanley v. Morgan Stanley; The New York Times Magazine, June 5, 2005.
Our Ratings, Ourselves: How Technology Is About To Radically Change TV-Audience Monitoring — And How That Will Transform Advertising, The Networks And, Possibly, The Very Nature Of Television; The New York Times Magazine, April 24, 2005.
The Power of the Power Bar: Brian Maxwell, 1953-2004, From “The Lives They Lived” issue, The New York Times Magazine, December 26, 2004.
The Year In Ideas: The Micropolis; The New York Times Magazine, December 12, 2004.
Hey Mom, Is It O.K. If These Guys Market Stuff To Us? Inside The Geppetto Group, An Advertising Firm That Aims At Kids — And Their All Consuming Mothers; The New York Times Magazine, November 28, 2004.
Box Office In A Box: How The DVD Is Changing Everything About Hollywood; The New York Times Magazine, November 14, 2004.
Eat Chocolate, Live Longer: The Scientific (And Profit-Seeking) Quest At The Mars Candy Company To Make Cocoa A Healthful, “Functional” Food; The New York Times Magazine, October 10, 2004.
The Virtue in $6 Heirloom Tomatoes: John Mackey Wants To Change Not Only The Way America Eats But Also The Way American Companies Do Business. Is There A Greater Good To The Whole Foods Way? The New York Times Magazine, June 6, 2004.
Proceed With Caution: That’s What Bill Joy, Silicon Valley Legend, Says That Markets Need To Do, But Don’t; The New York Times Magazine, June 6, 2004.
The Very, Very Personal Is the Political: Political Parties Are Using Enormous Databases So They Can Tailor Their Pitches For Candidates Just For You. Are Campaigning And Voting Becoming Just Marketing And Consumption? The New York Times Magazine, February 15, 2004.
The Year In Ideas: Social Networks; The New York Times Magazine, December 14, 2003.
Clouds In Her Coffee: The Sculptures Of Tara Donovan; The New York Times Magazine, November 30, 2003.
Newman’s Own: Two Friends And A Canoe Paddle; The New York Times Sunday Business, November 16, 2003.
The Futile Pursuit Of Happiness: Researchers In The Burgeoning Field Of “Affective Forecasting” Are Finding That When It Comes To Personal Satisfaction In Life, You Can’t Really Know What You Want; The New York Times Magazine, September 21, 2003.
The History Of American Capitalism In A Single Industrial Complex: From The Assabet Mills To Monster.com, With A Century And A Half Of Boom-And-Bust Cycles In Between; The New York Times Magazine, June 8, 2003.