Pacific Standard

Can Culture Make us Crazy?

Originally appeared in Pacific Standard.

Review of The Truman Show Delusion by Joel and Ian Gold.

In 2003, at New York’s Bellevue Hospital, Dr. Joel Gold met his first patient suffering from what is now called the Truman Show delusion: the belief that he was being stalked by reality television, and that almost everyone was in on the gag but him. Gold’s current book, written with his brother Ian, a philosopher, is an attempt to explain the cultural roots of madness, with Truman Show patients and others as case studies.


Brain Power

Doctor solves mystery of ‘silent killers’ linked to mad cow disease

Originally appeared in The Daily.

A staple of kung fu movies is the “silent killer” punch that feels like a tap when delivered but that minutes, hours or years later causes the victim to keel over, stone dead. Biology has many such silent killers, such as cancer and HIV, but none is stealthier or more insidious than the family of diseases uncovered by American neurologist Stanley Prusiner in 1982. And, he found, to deal a death blow, these diseases needed nothing more exotic than a plain old delicious steak.

Atlantic Monthly

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.

Atlantic Monthly

Anthrax and English Breakfast

Originally appeared on

In the current issue of Microbiologist, researchers report that tea could be an antidote to anthrax.

Anthrax, scourge of tabloid staffers, has infected exactly one person in the U.S. during the last five years — a New York musician who contracted it from the raw African animal skins he used to make drums. Those of us who procure our hides from reputable sources face no danger. But if anthrax does break out, commonly consumed plants (slightly modified) do seem to be one of our best defenses. A few years ago, researchers rejiggered the genomes of tobacco cells to produce anthrax antigens, a first step toward making a safer vaccine. And now it appears that Earl Grey, in addition to his supposed aphrodisiac effects, could fight off the bacillus, without any modification at all.

Atlantic Monthly

Need a Lawyer, Stat

Sub-Saharan Africa has it bad. The Lancet notes that it “carries 25% of the world’s disease burden yet has only 3% of the world’s health workers.” The doctors tend not to get paid on time, and they often have to fight the world’s ghastliest diseases with the medical equivalent of bows and arrows. A tropical disease specialist in London once advised his patient to save airfare: rather than visit the Congo, he said, just open your mouth and leap into a cesspool.

Atlantic Monthly

Elsie’s Revenge

Workers at the Westland-Hallmark beef factory poked very sick cows, prodding them into the abattoirs with with the prongs of forklifts.  What makes a cow non-ambulatory?  Mad cow disease, for one thing.  The dreaded kuru relative attacks the central nervous system and leads to immobility and a terrible demise.


Let’s Harvest the Organs of Death-Row Inmates

GOOD magazine, issue 009 (“All You Can Eat”)

An unfortunate side effect of hanging or poisoning a man is that his organs go sour before they can be transplanted. Death-row inmates have repeatedly asked to donate their organs, but their requests are always denied. The simple reason is that execution generally ruins organs before they can be harvested. By the time you cut someone down from the gallows or pronounce the injection lethal, the heart and lungs will have thumped and puffed for the last time. Soon after, the kidneys start rotting, and before long nothing is useful but the corneas. Even with beheading— still practiced in Saudi Arabia—the heart and lungs probably wouldn’t make it, says Douglas Hanto, chief transplant surgeon at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.

Mental Floss

The Annotated Pig

I wrote a spread for Mental Floss on parts of pigs that you can now, or will soon be able to, install in your body for medical purposes.  Examples: fetal pig stem-cells, potentially injectable into one’s brain to fight the effects of Parkinson’s; transgenic pig skin, to treat burn victims; human sperm, produced in bulk by modified pig testes.

I don’t have an electronic copy of this graphic, but when I have one, I’ll post it here.