Graeme Wood


Science of the Apocalypse

The L.H.C. could reveal the nature of matter and confirm physicists’ best guesses about the validity of string theory. These would be advances comparable to Einstein’s or Newton’s — but they are possibilities only because we do not know what will happen when we switch the contraption on. Scientists protest that the probability of their experiments’ causing the end of the universe is astronomically low, and they are telling the truth. But tinkering with the unknown is what experimental science is all about, and even the scientists must admit that there is a chance of doomsday (and, indeed, a chance of many other things) in any project like this. Read the rest of this entry »

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Tour of Duty

The Smart Set

I tried getting into Iraq the easy way first, by applying for a tourist visa. The first Iraqi I ever met, a diplomat in Bangladesh, clapped me on the shoulders when I rang the embassy’s buzzer and asked for a visa in early 2001. “Let me tell you about my country,” he said, shifting in his sandals and flicking a cigarette butt into a puddle. No one gets in as a tourist, he explained, except by joining an expensive group tour. He looked me over — my dirty hat, scuffed boots, goofy grin — and said I could never afford it.
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One of J. M. Coetzee’s characters says the history of zoos is an extension of the history of warfare. The first zoos erected fences less to protect man from beast than to protect beast from man. Zoo-goers viewed the animals as POWs in a long inter-species war, on display to be jeered and attacked as representatives of the enemy. This hostility survives today in the sick exhibition of Knut, the cute bear-orphan who has been the object of exploitation for the first fifteen months of what one hopes will be a short life. Read the rest of this entry »

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A Courtroom of One’s Own

A madman had his day in court yesterday. Ahmad Edwards, a schizophrenic who tried to kill a security guard in 1999, appealed his conviction on grounds that the judge hadn’t let him act as his own lawyer. The Indiana court that eventually convicted him appointed a public defender after Edwards filed nonsense motions and wrote a letter addressing the judge as “old man.” (Edwards has counsel representing him on appeal.) Is it possible, the Supreme Court asked yesterday, to be too crazy to represent yourself in your own trial, but sane enough to stand trial to begin with? Read the rest of this entry »

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The Buddhist Street

“All things,” Lord Buddha reminds us, “are ephemeral.” The two Buddhist autocrats who saw their power eroded this week in South Asia might have kept this advice in mind. From his Dharmasala lair, His Holiness the Dalai Lama lamented helplessly as the violent protests in Lhasa — and the crackdown by Beijing — proceeded apace, not obviously affected by his pleas for calm. And Jigme Khesar Namgyel, son of the Scourge of Thimpu, watched his subjects vote for a national assembly for the first time, in a ballot he himself decreed, but that still diminishes his authority.

There may be something or nothing to learn about democracy from these spectacles. The first suggests that the movement for Tibetan independence does not answer only to the Dalai Lama, and that China may have a bigger problem, with a wider and more distributed base, than it thought. Perhaps Lhasa would prefer to exchange the unquestioned rule of Hu Jintao for something more than the unquestioned rule of Tenzin Gyatso. As for the Bhutanese monarch, all signs point to democracy — except for the often and freely expressed desire of the Bhutanese to keep and revere the monarchy, with or without elections. Whatever else this shows, it should put rest to the notion that democratization of the Buddhist street is any simpler — or more welcome — than democratization of the Arab one.

Originally appeared at

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Hex President

Few politicians are as accomplished as Richardson; even fewer are as accomplished while projecting his air of bumbling and incompetence. By many accounts this impression is just a lack of charisma, and he has “substance” to make up for it. But the endorsement, embraced publicly by Obama, should provoke private shudders: This man is hexed.

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Head Case

Henry Marsh, the sawbones in question, has traveled to the Ukraine serially for fifteen years, always with the goal of helping Ukrainian colleagues make do with poor equipment, or none. Cutting open patients’ heads and using screws and drills bought at a hardware store would be grounds for license-suspension and possibly imprisonment in England. Here, it appears to be an act of compassion — and one that reveals a pernicious double-standard in medical ethics. Read the rest of this entry »

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Defective: Return to Sender

Sgt. Jenkins‘s punishment is in his face — a withered, jug-eared mug that looks about two decades older than its sixty-odd years. In January 1965, Jenkins deserted his unit in the Korean DMZ and slinked into North Korean territory, where he intended to turn himself in and go home after a prisoner-swap. The scheme failed badly. Instead of going home, he ended up confined with a handful of other American deserters, beaten bloody by one, malnourished from the start, and forced every day to do nothing but read and memorize the works of Kim Il Sung. It is a measure of the unpleasantness of the ensuing four decades that one low point was the ripping of a U.S. Army tattoo off his arm without anesthetic, and a high point was watching a bootleg video of Michael Jackson’s (admittedly sublime) “Thriller,” with the volume turned to nearly inaudible levels, lest someone hear it, turn him in, and possibly have him shot. Read the rest of this entry »

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