People with extreme political views have trouble thinking about their own thinking

Radical political views of all sorts seem to shape our lives to an almost unprecedented extent. But what attracts people to the fringes? A new study from researchers at University College London offers some insight into one characteristic of those who hold extreme beliefs—their metacognition, or ability to evaluate whether or not they might be wrong.

“It’s been known for some time now that in studies of people holding radical beliefs, that they tend to… express higher confidence in their beliefs than others,” says Steve Fleming, a UCL cognitive neuroscientist and one of the paper’s authors. “But it was unknown whether this was just a general sense of confidence in everything they believe, or whether it was reflective of a change in metacognition.”

He and his colleagues set out to find the answer by removing partisanship from the equation: they presented study participants with a question that had an objective answer, rather than one rooted in personal values.

They studied two different groups of people—381 in the first sample and 417 in a second batch to try to replicate their results. They gave the first sample a survey that tested how conservative or liberal their political beliefs were. Radicalism exists on both ends of the spectrum; the people at the furthest extremes of left and right are considered “radical.”

After taking the questionnaire, the first group did a simple test: they looked at two different clusters of dots and quickly identified which group had more dots. Then they rated how confident they were in their choice.

People with radical political opinions completed this exercise with pretty much the same accuracy as moderate participants. But “after incorrect decisions, the radicals were less likely to decrease their confidence,” Fleming says.

Unlike political beliefs, which often have no right or wrong answer per se, one group of dots was unquestionably more numerous than the other. But regardless of whether or not there was an objective answer, the radicals were more likely to trust their opinion was correct than to question whether they might have gotten it wrong.

This finding—which the team replicated with tests on the second group of participants—suggests that the metacognition of radicals plays a part in shaping their beliefs. In other words, they actually can’t question their own ideas the same way more moderate individuals can.

It’s not currently known whether radical beliefs help shape metacognition, or metacognition helps shape radical beliefs, Fleming says. That’s something his team is still trying to unravel. But their work already has potential social implications, he says.

There is a body of work out there—small, but growing, Fleming wrote in an email—showing it may be possible to help people gain better metacognitive skills. This might enable individuals to get along better and make shared decisions.

“Widening polarization about political, religious, and scientific issues threatens open societies, leading to entrenchment of beliefs, reduced mutual understanding, and a pervasive negativity surrounding the very idea of consensus,” the researchers write. Understanding the role that metacognition plays in this polarization may help us step back from it.

Written By Kat Eschner

Your internet year in review: See how you spent time online in 2018

Screwing around on the internet is awesome. In fact, you’re doing it right now. Pretty great, right? But the end of another year is upon us, which means it’s time to look back at how we spent our precious time on earth since last year. Some sites and apps we use frequently put out year-end features to show you your most popular posts, or how you spent your time. Others bury that information deep under many links to keep you from realizing how much of your life force you’ve shoveled through a screen and into the never ending cycle of content consumption. Either way, here are some ways to look back at your year-end usage stats for popular apps and services in 2018. Fair warning: It might get a little ugly.


The most fun—and potentially embarrassing—year-end wrap up comes from Spotify, which built a handy little microsite and two curated playlists to commemorate the end of the year. If you go into your playlists, you’ll find a queue of your top 100 songs for the year, as well as a Taste Breakers playlist that suggests stuff outside your normal listening patterns that it thinks you might like. The playlist above is composed of songs from PopSci staffer most-played lists.

If you go to you can see a more in-depth look at your year of jams. It tells you how much time you spent listening, what types of artists you typically choose, and even the most common astrological sign among your favorite artists. Mine was “Libra.”


The big blue social network had a tough year full of scandals regarding compromised user data, election tampering, and relatives who insist on adding you and leaving embarrassing comments on every single thing you post. Facebook’s traditional year-end ritual involves using AI to generate a video that includes your posts that got the most interaction from your friends. It probably already rolled through your feed if you’ve signed in during December, but you can also go and find it at any time on your Memories page.

If you want a broader look at what was happening on Facebook this year, the company has an official blog post about its year in review. According to FB, the number one most talked about “moment” was International Women’s Day (which also topped the list in 2017). The soccer World Cup also generated 2.3 billion posts, comments, and reactions. Goal!


The analytics tab in your Twitter account gives you mini-summaries of your top tweets by various metrics on a month-to-month basis, so you can click this link and see a rundown of your best work, or whichever tweet earned you the most online ridicule in that specific month.

Twitter hasn’t given us the official list of the biggest tweets of the year yet, but it’s safe to say that a promise from NFL player Damarious Randall to buy his retweeters a jersey if the Cavs win the 2018 NBA championship is certainly up there. Luckily for Randall, the Golden State Warriors ended that dream in the playoffs.


There’s no snazzy dashboard or graphic presentation to sum up your Netflix watching habits, but you can scroll through a never-ending stack of everything you’ve streamed if you go to the ViewingActivity section of your account. You can also download all of your watching info as a .csv file you can open in Excel or Numbers. Scroll down to the beginning and you can see the very first thing you streamed this year, or ever.

Amazon Prime Video

Your Amazon Prime video streaming data is buried under a handful of menus, but you can see what you’ve streamed by clicking on this link. You might get an incomplete picture, however, if you’re not the primary Amazon Prime account holder.


The default way to find out about your most successful Instagram photos is with a service called TopNine, which mashes together your posts with the most likes into a shareable collage that will, presumably, get you even more likes. TopNine does this every year, but in 2018, it requires that you share your email address, and then they send you a link. [The company](most popular YouTube videos of 2018) says it’s because the huge volume can make generating the images take longer than some users are willing to wait while staring at a progress bar.

Social media strategists suggest looking at your top nine to plan for social media success next year. So, if you had a baby this year and it got you lots of likes, consider having another baby next year and every year to maximize engagement.

Instagram hasn’t done an official year-end wrap-up post just yet, but if it does, we’ll add it here so you can enjoy whatever thing Kylie Jenner did that earned her the most popular earth.


If you’re curious about your own YouTube habits, you won’t find a nice slideshow of stats— the results are likely horrifying for most people. You can, however, check in on your daily and weekly stats if you check out the Time Spent tab in the account menus of the YouTube mobile app.

never-ending look back on 2018, YouTube put together a very polished recap to highlight some of its most notable moments. Unfortunately, it quickly achieved the notable accomplishment of becoming the most disliked video in the service’s history. A New York Times piece about the video went so far as to say that it set off a “civil war.”

If you want to see the most popular YouTube videos otherwise, you can check out the Top Trending Videos playlist as well as the Top Trending Music Videos playlist

Written By Stan Horaczek

Megapixels: Two stars in a fight to the death

Two stars are locked in a fight to the death a mere 650 light-years from Earth. A new camera system on the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope zoomed in on the action.

You’re looking at a binary star system, named R Aquarii, that consists of a red giant star and a white dwarf orbiting around a common center of mass. Binary star systems are actually really common in the universe—more than four-fifths of the stars in our sky are actually a cluster of stars orbiting together. R Aquarii is one of the closest such systems to Earth.

Many binary systems consist of two stars peacefully dancing together. Not so with R Aquarii. These two stars are both nearing the end of their lives and are slowly but surely destroying themselves and each other. The red giant is what’s called a Mira variable star, an enormous class of star that pulsates as it expands Mira variable stars cast their outer layers out into space, sometimes reaching a brightness 1,000 times that of our sun as they grow.

The other star in this suicide pact is an old, compact white dwarf star that has long since consumed its nuclear fuel and is feeding off the red giant. As it does so, the material accumulating on the surface of the dwarf will trigger a thermonuclear reaction every so often. Clouds of debris from the regular explosions and expansions surround the system.

By interstellar standards, R Aquarii is basically our sun’s next door neighbor. As such, astronomers have paid a lot of attention to the system over the years, making it the perfect target to test a new camera subsystem. Scientists hooked up the device, called the Zurich IMaging POLarimeter, or ZIMPOL, to the VLT in the Atacama Desert in Chile to capture this unusually clear image, which is sharper than many photos taken in space. Eventually, ZIMPOL will search out new exoplanets with the near-infrared imaging technology on display in this image.

Written By Jillian Mock

Four rockets could go to space in the next 24 hours. Here's how to watch them all.

While many industries are winding down in anticipation of the holidays, the space industry is ending not with a whimper, but with a bang — specifically, several bangs characterized by fiery explosions streaking all the way out of the atmosphere. Although Tuesday was originally set to host four (4!) different missions into space, various conditions have postponed three of the flights (more on that later). For now, however, at least one major launch is still set to go, two have been shifted over to Wednesday, and the fourth is still a wild card. But you should be able to catch them all from the comfort of your favorite device.

Delta IV Heavy Launch, By ULA

What’s the mission: On Tuesday, after a two-week delay, United Launch Alliance will take up a classified satellite, NROL-71, for the National Reconnaissance Office, from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The launch is set for 8:57 p.m. E.T. But it’s worth noting there’s only a 20 percent chance for favorable weather conditions for a launch to take place, so stay alert for updates.

Why is it important: ULA remains the military’s preferred choice for launching payloads into space. For over a decade, the ULA’s Delta IV had the largest payload capability of all operational rockets in the world, before SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy stripped ULA of that mantle. Still, the Delta IV is able to ferry the types of payloads into space that few rockets can, and it remains a reliable launch system for military assets. Plus, its sheer power means, it’s just plain awesome to watch.

How to watch: Pull up the webcast on Tuesday evening before the 8:57 p.m. E.T. target for launch, at the link below.

Falcon 9 Launch, by SpaceX

What’s the mission: SpaceX is no stranger to launching national security payloads for the U.S. government, and the latest is an Air Force satellite called GPS III SV01. It was originally meant to go up on a United Launch Alliance mission, but the Air Force elected to go with SpaceX instead. The Falcon 9 rocket was set to take the satellite into orbit on Tuesday, between a launch window of 9:11 a.m. to 9:35 a.m. E.T., from the company’s launch site at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. But an onboard computer initiated an abort sequence, and this mission is now set for, Wednesday, at the same 9:11 a.m. to 9:35 a.m. E.T. launch window.

Why is it important: As mentioned, the company has a strong relationship with the military, and GPS III SV01 is just the latest. But curiously enough, Air Force requirements are actually preventing SpaceX from pulling off another of its wicked rocket booster landings after the launch. That means the company gets to stay buddies with the Air Force, but it loses an opportunity to show off its ability to bring its rocket back to Earth and reuse it for a future mission.

How to watch: Pull up the webcast on Wednesday morning, which should begins about 15 to 20 minutes before liftoff, at the link below.

New Shepard, by Blue Origin

What’s the mission: Blue Origin will conduct another test flight this week, as it looks to fly its New Shepard rocket into suborbital space. This time, it will carry a plethora of scientific payloads important to NASA and other research institutions, including a system for measuring rocket fuel in microgravity; another for measuring electromagnetic fields during flight; and a third that will study how dust particles interact in microgravity to glean insight into how planets and other celestial bodies form. Like previous flights, this one will also take up a test dummy into space—Mannequin Skywalker–as a stand-in for future space tourists who might take a ride aboard New Shepard someday soon. The launch, originally set for 9:30 a.m. E.T. Tuesday, was delayed thanks to problems with the ground infrastructure. As of now it’s unclear when Blue Origin will try again, but the company has opportunities from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. E.T. on any day through December 20.

Why is it important: Jeff Bezos’ company continues to make steady strides in suborbital flights. This is the third New Shepard flight of the year, and could be the fourth flight in a row for the same vehicle (a reusable rocket capable of landing vertically back on Earth).

How to watch: Unlike most of its previous launches, Blue Origin is live-streaming this one. An updated link will be posted when launch details emerge.

Souyouz, by Arianespace

What’s the mission: Arianespace, Europe’s premier launch provider, is using a Russian Soyuz rocket to send up a French military satellite into space this week. The satellite, CSO-1, is one of three identical satellites the France and several of its European allies will use for national security surveillance. The flight was originally meant to take place 11:37 a.m. E.T. Tuesday, from Arianespace’s launch facility in French Guiana. The launch is now taking place on Wednesday, at the same 11:37 a.m. E.T. target.

Why is it important: Apart from the payload having major implications in the military capabilities of France and its partners, the launch is set to be Arianespace’s 11th mission in 2018. Although the multinational does not boast the sort of notoriety Blue Origin and SpaceX might, its role in the space industry should not be overlooked.

How to watch: Pull up the webcast Wednesday morning at the link below.

Written By Neel V. Patel

The Chemical Weapons Detectives | Popular Science

The first bomb landed shortly after sunrise on April 4, 2017, in Khan Shaykhun. Unlike the three that would explode ­moments later in other parts of the rebel-­controlled ­Syrian town, this one produced ­little noise and even less physical ­damage, leaving behind a jagged 5-foot-wide-by-20-inch-deep crater in an otherwise empty road. ­Minutes earlier, a group of volunteer rescue workers in town had received an ominous alert: Spotters had observed a Syrian Armed Forces bomber taking off from Shayrat airbase 68 miles away, and it was likely carrying a chemical payload. “Guys, tell people to wear masks,” the voice on the other end of the walkie-​­talkie implored.

Most of the town’s 16,000 residents were in bed or getting ready for work when a milky-white cloud began to spread near the bombed-out bakery and grain silos shortly after 6:30 a.m. The first people on the scene arrived to find bodies lying on the ground outside and in homes, with no signs of blunt trauma. Some had bluish lips and were convulsing. Others foamed from the mouth and nose. Nearly all of them had pinpoint pupils.

As news of the attack appeared on his computer screen, Stefan Mogl felt a horrible sense of déjà vu. Sitting in his office at Switzerland’s premier national-defense lab, the analytical chemist was all too familiar with the images coming out of Syria that spring morning. Four years earlier, he’d watched hours of similar footage originating from the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, and helped the German magazine Der Spiegel determine that the attack’s victims likely had been exposed to an outlawed nerve agent. He worried that a similar weapon had been used in Khan Shaykhun; a U.N. fact-finding mission would soon confirm the attack had used sarin. Strikes like these are not uncommon in Syria. This past April, the U.N.’s Human Rights Council reported 34 confirmed chemical assaults since the civil war began in 2011 (more than 80 have been reported). Most reputable sources would eventually estimate that up to 100 civilians, including as many as 32 children, died during the Khan Shaykhun attack that day in April 2017—or shortly thereafter.

As it turned out, the soft-spoken 52-year-old chemist was a few weeks away from joining the leadership panel of the Joint Investigative Mechanism, a kind of elite international Justice League established in 2015. Formed through a partnership between the United Nations Security Council and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons—the independent intergovernmental body created to oversee compliance with 1997’s Chemical Weapons Convention—the team was tasked with identifying the perpetrators, organizers, and sponsors of chemical attacks in the Syrian conflict. Now that Mogl would be in charge of the technical side of this investigation, he was aware that he and his new position were about to get a lot more attention. “I wouldn’t just be investigating this incident,” he says. “If there’s enough information, I’d be one of the people who would determine responsibility.”

After a nearly two-decade absence from the world stage, banned nerve agents such as ­sarin have re-emerged as modern-day tools for dictators, assassins, and other malefactors. Whether it’s the Russian nerve agent Novichok, used to poison ex-spy Sergei Skripal in the U.K. in March, or the brazen use of VX to murder North Korean despot Kim Jong-Un’s half-brother in broad daylight at the Kuala Lumpur airport in 2017, we are once again living in a world where invisible molecules are regularly being deployed as murder weapons.

From a forensic perspective, it’s easy to see why these illicit agents are attractive. In its purest form, sarin is colorless, tasteless, and odorless, and can kill in minutes. It’s also volatile, meaning it will evaporate from liquid into vapor, and, depending on environmental conditions and the quantity used, murder and maim lots of people before gradually vanishing over the course of days or weeks. While it’s relatively easy to tell if a nerve agent killed or hurt someone, figuring out who deployed it can be notoriously difficult.

Difficult, but not impossible. As any forensic chemist will tell you, every crime leaves behind traces of molecular evidence. In the same way DNA can provide essential clues about the identity of an individual, toxic substances like sarin and the ingredients used to make it can also provide distinctive signatures. Today, with the help of an increasingly sensitive array of chemistry tools such as gas and liquid chromatography, nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, and mass spectrometry, experts are finding subtle but persistent impurities and other so-called marker compounds in a variety of poisonous weapons. These compounds can be used not only to determine how the toxic chemicals are made and under what conditions, but in combination with other ­evidence, they might help identify the culprit.

Within three weeks of the Khan Shaykhun attack, Mogl was on a plane headed for The Hague, home of the OPCW and soon to be his base of operations for the next five and a half months. He would be working against a deadline; the U.N. had authorized the JIM team’s work only through November 17, 2017. After that, it would be case closed, no matter what the investigation turned up. “We had one critical element, and that was time,” Mogl says. After poring over U.N. documents outlining the parameters of his new investigational powers, Mogl met with colleagues in the Netherlands and formulated a plan for investigating the attack. It would be a crucial set of decisions, particularly since the U.S. had already rendered its own judgment in the form of 59 cruise missiles launched at the Shayrat airbase on April 7.

Enlisting the help of deadly chemi­cals and poisons to kill and maim is a time-honored tradition for humans. Hunters in South Africa were shooting ricin-tipped arrows at least 24,000 years ago. No one knows when we first turned our ­poison-​­making skills to warfare, but until the beginning of the 20th century, military use of this noxious stuff was fairly small scale. Then World War I happened. In 1915, Germany released some 5,700 pressurized cylinders of ­greenish-­yellow ­chlorine gas across 4 miles of the Western Front, changing the world’s perception of chemical weapons. The attack killed more than 5,000 French and Algerian soldiers in a particularly gruesome and painful way: literally corroding the insides of their lungs and throats. Within 10 years, nearly every nation that had deployed poison gas during WWI signed the Geneva Protocol, which prohibited the “use in war of asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, and of bacteriological methods of warfare.” It didn’t entirely stop the utilization of these lethal agents, but it did lead to a much more comprehensive treaty: the ­Chemical Weapons Convention.

Today, 193 countries have signed that agreement, which took effect on April 29, 1997. The treaty bans the development, production, ­acquisition, stockpiling, and transfer of all chemical weapons. Using them on combatants or civilians is also prohibited, and countries must destroy any stockpiles they have when they sign on (or if they have a lot, like the U.S., provide a timeline for destruction).

Twenty-one years in, it’s hard to argue with the results: By the end of 2016, 94 percent of the world’s declared and now-banned stockpiles had been destroyed. That’s 67,753 ­metric tons of poison gone from Earth. But before you start feeling too good about that statistic, note the word “declared.” After an August 21, 2013, sarin attack on Ghouta—still the deadliest chemical-weapon attack in the country—Russia and the U.S. brokered an agreement for the Syrian government to hand over its chemical weapons to the OPCW for destruction. As is evidenced by the continued attacks, Syria clearly neglected to declare some part of its chemical-weapons arsenal.

This is the bleak irony organizations such as the U.N. and OPCW are now grappling with: Despite the elimination of these storehouses of poison (a feat for which the OPCW won the Nobel Prize in 2013), chemical-weapons use is higher today than it’s been in decades.

As head of the ­chemistry division of the Spiez Laboratory in Switzerland, Mogl oversees experts who help implement the CWC, including those who synthesize nerve agents to verify and catalog the routes used to make such weapons. Two months after the Khan Shaykhun attack, and just days into his investigation, Mogl noticed something strange. Scanning through a list of compounds that had turned up in the Khan Shaykhun samples, one in particular leaped out at him: phosphorus hexafluoride, or PF6 in chemistry shorthand. “I just couldn’t place why it was there,” he says. “It wasn’t from the sarin itself, so I thought it must be an impurity that was ­either carried forward during the synthesis process or formed at some other point.”

Six feet tall, with a slim, athletic build, Mogl is a little like a Swiss Joe Friday—if Joe Friday was also really good with the periodic table. His no-nonsense, “only the facts” approach to scientific investigations is highly valued within the OPCW, given the political posturing, ­finger-­pointing, and allegations of bias that often follow its inquiries. Mogl also has a gift for explaining complicated science to diplomats, a skill that’s made him a popular figure both within the organization and among the scientists who work in affiliated labs. There are few positions he hasn’t held at the group over the past two decades. In 1997, Mogl was a part of the first wave of inspectors sent out to ensure that countries that had signed on to the CWC were actually destroying their declared stockpiles. Three years later, he was running the organization’s main laboratory in Rijswijk, Netherlands. There, he trained analytical chemist inspectors and managed the proficiency tests that international labs had to pass to become OPCW-certified.

Mogl suspected the OPCW had kept samples from Syria’s declared 581-metric-ton stockpile of a key sarin ingredient before overseeing its destruction in 2004. “I figured an analysis of those precursor samples would either show there was no link between Khan Shaykhun and the stockpile, or maybe I can find more about these marker chemicals,” he says.

That summer, Mogl devised a forensics plan to investigate the origin of the PF6 in the Khan Shaykhun samples. He wanted to know whether the samples from the 2014 Syrian stockpile contained the same compound. A lab analysis confirmed this was the case—for every single sample. He also had to determine how the impurity ended up in those Syrian chemicals and, more important, when. Sarin is typically stored and delivered in a munition as two separate ingredients: isopropyl alcohol—a purified version of what you buy at the drugstore to clean cuts—and methyl­phosphonic difluoride, or DF—the material Syria had turned over to the OPCW. Chemists call these precursors. Once made, sarin usually lasts only a few weeks or months. This binary method keeps two relatively stable precursor ingredients separate until right before they’re used. In essence, the nerve agent is stored and delivered in its penultimate state. Figuring out how the PF6 got into Syria’s stockpile of DF could help reveal if the marker could be used to flag their weapons. But it would ­require making some batches from scratch.

Because DF is virtually impossible to obtain legally, most manufacturers make it from another chemical: methylphosphonic dichloride, or DC. It’s slightly less dangerous and easier to get your hands on. Swap the ­chlorines of this white crystalline solid with fluorines, and you’ve got yourself some DF. This can be done a number of ways. Most chemists would use sodium fluoride (the cavity-fighting stuff found in your toothpaste); it’s safe and works perfectly as a fluorinating agent. Another option—more common in industrial-­scale ­operations—is hydrogen fluoride, or HF. A much more aggressive and dangerous chemical, HF is harder to work with but yields more DF. Using it would suggest a high degree of competence and sophistication on the part of the mixer making the DF. It would also suggest the manufacturer was making tons of it.

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When Mogl’s team had independent labs use hydrogen fluoride to turn DC into DF, PF6 always appeared. When they used other fluorinators, it never appeared. Armed with this new information and other impurities data, Mogl grew increasingly confident that the sarin used in Khan Shaykhun must have been made with some of the same precursor that Syrian authorities had handed over between October 2013 and June 2014.

With a damning pile of evidence in their hands, Mogl and his team were now running out of time. On October 18, 2017, with the chemistry portion of his report yet to be written, Mogl flew to New York City (where the JIM team’s political branch was based), checked in to a hotel, and got to work. “I had a clear picture of what the chemistry section should contain,” he says, “but it also needed to be readable for non-experts yet still technically precise.” After several drafts and some editorial guidance from multiple team members, Mogl (and U.N. lawyers) felt they had crafted a chemically compelling argument.

Eight days later, the JIM team submitted a 33-page report to the U.N. Security Council. Within 12 minutes of being issued, someone leaked it. The conspiracy theories flooded in: false-flag operations carried out by terrorist groups, forged evidence by pro-American groups, elaborate hoaxes by Syrian rebels. “We knew what we were getting into,” Mogl says of the attempts to discredit the report and the people conducting it. “As far as I know, no one has questioned the chemistry.”

Twelve days after that, at an official U.N. Security Council briefing, the head of JIM, Edmond Mulet, summarized its findings to the world: “The sarin used in Khan Shaykhun was very likely to have been made from the same precursor that came from the original stockpile of the Syrian Arab Republic,” he told members. The final report summarized the results of assessing video recordings, photos, and satellite images; interviews with eyewitnesses; and analyses from experts on explosives and smoke plumes. But it was Mogl’s sleuthing that ultimately helped make one of the strongest scientific cases for responsibility, laying the grisly deaths at the feet of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. “We knew this report was going to be read by the entire world, that every word was going to be scrutinized,” Mogl says, “but at the end, I was totally ­confident about the attribution.”

Related: It’s not just Syria—chemical weapons still pose a global threat

Mogl, now back at Spiez, is less confident in the world’s ability to curtail the use of chemical weapons. In the year following the JIM report, not much has changed in Syria. Russia, a member of the U.N. Security ­Council, refused to renew the mandate of the investigative commission, which disbanded when its time was up. And while treaty members voted this past June to ­double down on efforts to identify any state or nonstate actor that decides to use chemical weapons, what that will look like ­remains ­undecided. Since Mogl and his colleagues ­r­eleased their report, there have been at least four more chemical attacks in Syria, including one in the city of Douma in April, when dozens of people were reportedly killed by chlorine bombs. No investigation into accountability is currently underway. But Mogl and an international crew of chemical sleuths are standing by should the world call on them again—ready to find traces of a smoking chemical gun.

Written By Bryan Gardiner

These skulls look purple and orange. They are both red.

If a sign tells you To follow the purple skull to your destination, the answer seems simple: Veer left. But isolate the stripes that make up the skulls, and you’ll find neither skull has purple bones; in fact, all the bones are the same color. Slot them back into the banded setting, and they shift to purple and orange.

The pigments morph because of the ­Munker-​White illusion, which shifts the perception of two identical color tones when they’re placed against different surrounding hues. No one knows for sure, but the illusion probably results from what David Novick, a computer scientist at the University of Texas at El Paso, calls the color-completion effect. The phenomenon causes an image to skew toward the color of the objects that surround it. In a black-and-white image, a gray element would appear lighter when it’s striped with white, and darker when banded with black.

Many neuroscientists think that neural ­signals in charge of relaying information about the pigments in our visual field get averaged—creating a color somewhere in the middle. Here, one skull is covered by blue stripes in the foreground and the other with yellow ones. When the original skulls take on the characteristics of the separate surroundings, they look like different colors entirely. Don’t be fooled: Follow both skulls by going straight.

This article was originally published in the Winter 2018 Danger issue of Popular Science.

Written By Nicole Wetsman

Can scientists predict flu outbreaks?

You might not think of internet oversharing as a lifesaving habit, but maybe it is. For more than a decade, epidemiologists and data scientists have scanned our search-engine queries and social-media posts with the goal of discerning who is infected, what they have, and where they live. But deriving meaning from our consultations with Dr. Google faces an ironic obstacle: For all our copious snaps, selfies, and status updates, we’re just not sharing enough to consistently forecast disease outbreaks—including the flu.

Of course, influenza’s reign of terror started long before the birth of our modern social networks. A hundred years ago, the infamous “Spanish flu” spread rapidly around the world, infecting a third of the population and killing at least 50 million people. With the rapid evolution of the virus, and increasing international travel and urbanization enabling the quick spread of illnesses, a modern version of that pandemic could cause twice as many casualties, along with widespread disruption to the global supply of food, medicine, and energy. It doesn’t matter where you live or what you do. The flu could infect you.

Even in the absence of Flumageddon, improving our ability to forecast the illness is vital. Influenza viruses kill up to 646,000 people worldwide every year, including as many as 56,000 people in the U.S. Americans pay as much as $5.8 billion in medical care annually to fight the pestilence. If we know when it’s coming, health agencies could push people to get vaccinated. Hospitals could plan ahead.

Augmenting official flu reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) with data harvested from the internet is another step in our online evolution. According to a 2012 Pew Research Center study, about 184 million Americans (more than half the nation’s residents) use the Web to find ­health-​­related information. These searches are like tips to a crime hotline, enabling researchers to identify suspected flu cases. In 2006, Gunther ­Eysen­bach, associate professor of public health at the University of Toronto, found that searches for the terms “flu” or “flu symptoms” spiked a week before a jump in doctor visits. “The internet has made measurable what was previously immeasurable,” he wrote in 2006, christening the new field “infodemiology.”

In 2008, Google rolled out Flu Trends, ­harnessing its own big data to look for worldwide flu surges and hot spots through symptom searches in 29 countries. Google scrapped the program in 2014—because of at least one factor that researchers hadn’t counted on.

Your search history, it turns out, can be misleading. It’s impossible for data collectors to know whether you were looking up “headache and fever” for yourself, or because you heard your co-worker complaining about their kid’s symptoms. In 2007, Americans suddenly started Googling “cholera”—had a new epidemic taken hold? Nope. Oprah Winfrey had just recommended Love in the Time of Cholera for her book club. “You should have seen what happened when Brad Pitt had viral meningitis,” says Lone Simonsen, professor of epidemiology at Roskilde University.

After culling search data from public resources, researchers run them through complex algorithms. These formulas reveal patterns that investigators can then compare with whatever the CDC or other health agencies report about the sickness. If a computer-generated prediction matches reality, we know the experts are onto something.

Search queries aren’t the only vein of data that researchers mine for flu clues. Svitlana Volkova, a data scientist at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, looks for gems of information on Twitter. She recently verified a new deep-learning method that probes tweets for signs of the flu. In an analysis of more than 170 million tweets posted over three years, Volkova and her colleagues found their model could accurately produce three-day forecasts of flu-like illnesses at a local level. That’s much quicker than waiting for flu reports from the CDC, which lag up to two weeks behind what’s happening in the world. (Facebook says it’s not in the flu-predicting business, so for now, your sick emoji doesn’t serve a greater good.)

Social media adds more data for researchers to work with, but it still has limitations. Annoyingly, the image we present online doesn’t always match the mucus-plagued person we are at home. Michael Paul, an information scientist at the University of Colo­rado at Boulder, recently found that people rarely tweet about their flu-like symptoms. In fact, the researchers found that people tweet less when they’re ill. So the next time your ­favorite Twitter personality seems oddly quiet, it could be because they’re sick of ­Twitter—but it might just be that they’re sick. Paul also investigated Instagram and found that acute illness is the least-common health topic for photo posting. Not surprisingly, flu-ridden people don’t love taking selfies.

Disease detectives, including Simonsen, hope that electronic health records could augment data from our tweets and posts. Insurance-claim forms, which list ailments and how they were treated, are particularly crucial. But people are typically reluctant to share private health data with researchers.

Epidemiologists would like to calm those privacy worries. They want only the numbers, never the names. But the final call ultimately lies with individuals. The public, Simonsen says, must weigh the balances: “Privacy on one side and the need to know more on the other.” That deliberation is even more ­pertinent since the EU implemented the General Data Protection Regulation this year—giving people more say in how their information is used.

Related: Fewer people got the flu shot last season—and that may be why it was one of the deadliest

Adding information from an app used to log health status—just as we do with fitness trackers or diet programs—could make big data-based flu forecasts even more accurate, Simonsen says. And private companies might come around: UNICEF is working with several, including IBM, to gather data in order to improve responses to global illnesses.

Ultimately, the potential for big data to predict the next flu pandemic might depend on people around the globe all oversharing our illnesses. The more we tweet about our #flu symptoms, the more data we generate. The more we allow companies to share that data with researchers, the more accurate they can make their predictions. And all that sharing, Volkova says, “will help the world.”

This article was originally published in the Winter 2018 Danger issue of Popular Science.

Written By Jessica Wapner

We need to talk about extreme weather

We’ve seen natural disasters before, but this year reached new levels of extreme. California has seen its fair share of wildfires, but the Camp Fire burned 150,000 acres, a megafire among megafires. Florida is no stranger to hurricanes, but with its Category 4 winds, Hurricane Michael was the strongest to ever reach the state’s panhandle. And typhoons occur in the Pacific with the regularity of hurricanes in the Atlantic. But this year, Hong Kong officials issued a rare Signal 10 warning before Typhoon Mangkhut slammed into the city.

As natural disasters get even more extreme and even more common, we need to toss out the old ways of thinking about, talking about, and preparing for dangerous weather. This December, Scientists at the Society for Risk Analysis meeting in New Orleans made a case for writing a new playbook to deal with an increasingly uncertain world.


Wildfires in the United States are getting bigger, more abundant, and raging farther and wider.

Alison Cullen is an environmental policy and risk assessment expert at the University of Washington. With Harry Podschwit, a graduate student studying quantitative ecology and fire at UW, Cullen looked at satellite data to track fire simultaneity over 32 years. For the first 16 years, from 1984 to 1999, only two fires burned more than 50,000 acres in the southwest, defined as that enormous swath of arid land that comprises New Mexico, Arizona, a third of Texas, and the sliver of Oklahoma panhandle.

The next 15 years looked rather different. From 2000 through 2015, 34 fires of that size burned in the same region. Seeing more than one big fire raging at a time also became more common. At one point, five very large fires lit up the southwest in one month, Podschwit says. Before, you would rarely see more than one.

Weather patterns can also help experts pin down when a particular region is most vulnerable to simultaneous wildfires. For example, in the northern rockies, higher than normal temperatures were linked to higher chances of simultaneous large fires. For the great basin fuel moisture—that’s the dryness of brush and quick-burning plants—was tightly linked to these fire events in this region.

States and cities tend to share firefighting resources, be it manpower or water tankers or helicopters or other operational powers to help them stand down their fiery foe, says Cullen. So understanding regional conditions, like those Cullen and Podschwit identified in the southwest, is essential if people on the ground are to adopt regionally-appropriate fire prevention practices and prepare for the unavoidable.

Coastal Flooding

With sea levels expected to rise worldwide, many coastal cities are trying to prepare for unprecedented flooding by the end of the century. But how do you figure out what practical steps to take, and how to get city residents onboard with the changes?

That’s what Tamsin Lyle, founder of the engineer firm Ebbwater Consulting, is working to figure out in her home city of Vancouver. She started by making hazard maps to figure out which areas of the city could expect to see more flooding, and how much.

Then, using the picturesque Kitsilano neighborhood as a model, she worked with city employees to figure out how much water inundation plumbing, roads, and other neighborhood infrastructure could handle. She met with other city employees to tell them about the flooding and survey their reactions. How much flooding people were willing to tolerate, Lyle asked, and which possible mitigation strategies they were OK with?

People were predictably more comfortable with parks and tennis courts flooding than their homes or schools. But Lyle says people’s flood tolerance was much lower than she expected. Several people—often residents of the neighborhood—walked out of her meetings because they were so uncomfortable with the hypothetical flood scenarios, she says. “It’s a super wicked problem.”

Figuring out what matters most to the people living in the neighborhood could give engineers a place to start. Take Kitsilano’s iconic seaside pool. Some people have swum in that pool every day in the summertime for their entire lives, Lyle says. Protecting the pool matters to them, even though it may seem counterintuitive to protect a pool from additional flooding.

How you engage with residents also matters. Pictures, testimonials, and storytelling goes a lot farther than hitting people with facts, Lyle says. People have to engage with the problem in order to help solve it, rather than just walking out.


Education can go a long way in protecting people from natural disasters like tsunamis. Meanwhile, taking other steps to protect city shorelines, like installing seawalls, could actually put more people at risk.

Tsunamis are caused by deep ocean earthquakes, and differ from wildfires and coastal flooding in that they are not caused by the atmospheric conditions that are directly affected by climate change. Tsunamis are caused by deep ocean earthquakes, but Logan says his simulations show tsunamis could grow as sea levels rise, giving them the potential to inflict more damage.

“Something I want to stress is we need to move away from exposed areas but we also can’t just abandon the people who are there,” says Tom Logan, a Ph.D. candidate in operations and industrial engineering at the University of Michigan. Logan is the lead author on a new study about mitigating tsunami risks, which was published in Nature Sustainability and presented at the risk analysis conference.

To look at the intersection of adaptive measures, like building sea walls, urban development, and human behavior, Logan zoomed in on Taro, Japan. The city has been hit by four tsunamis in the last 120 years. He built a model integrating land use change, human behavior, and tsunamis magnitude to look at how exposed the city would be with seawalls of various sizes. The sense of security these walls give residents can cause more people to settle in near the tsunami zone, putting them in harm’s way.

This was especially true when you factored in our human tendency to forget really traumatic events over time. As collective memory of the last tsunami fades, it influences ongoing and future vulnerability. Ironically, this means more frequent natural disasters can curtail our vulnerability because frequency keeps that memory fresh. But, Logan says, we shouldn’t underestimate “soft adaptations” like education when it comes to dealing with natural disasters.

Climate change

Protecting ourselves from these kinds of events has to involve the factor pushing many natural disasters into the extreme: climate change. And taking action on climate change can only start once people engage with the issue in a meaningful way.

To figure out more effective ways to reach people about this planet-sized problem, Janet Yang, a communications professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo, looked at messages about climate change that resonated with people with different political leanings. In keeping with a trove of psychological research, she found we’re more likely to care about, and feel moved to take action on, threats that are psychologically closer to us.

She designed a series of surveys that first had viewers watch a short video, and then asked them a series of questions. The video either described a threat that people could relate to (no more coffee!) or one that felt abstract (a largely unknown tick borne disease) in either the United States or Indonesia.

What message resonated with viewers depended on their self-reported political affiliation pretty, found Yang. Conservatives tended to report the highest level of concern and policy support after watching a video about tick-borne illnesses in the United States, which the authors see as an extension of many conservatives’ sensitivity to novel ideas and psychological distance. Meanwhile, liberals were more responsive to climate-related messages, but reported being less motivated to act when shown videos about the close and immediate impacts of climate change, raising concerns over how feasible climate action really is. A follow up survey found liberals also responded better to articles framed around solutions to climate change rather than just listing the seemingly insurmountable problems.

Yang concludes that the key to talking about climate change is finding a message that resonates with a person’s particular worldview. Talking to someone left-leaning? Try to engage on solutions to climate change. Talking to someone more conservative? Avoid the polar bear on an iceberg example and go for something more immediately relevant to that person. We need to highlight the local examples of climate change’s impacts, and the tangible steps we can take to mitigate it. Otherwise, it’s too easy for people of all political stripes to tune out. And don’t let yourself off the hook—everyone needs to reevaluate what’s standing between them and climate action.

We are all in uncharted territory. That means we need to talk more about extreme weather—and how it’s evolving. Updating our playbook might just help us protect ourselves and the most vulnerable among us from future disasters.

Written By Jillian Mock

Last week in tech: Where's that robot with our burrito?

If 2018 was the song “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen, we’d be in the slow emotional part that winds down the track after the operatic section and the guitar solo. It’s almost over. But, even as the year winds down, this chaotic year has stayed very much on-brand, at least in the tech world. We saw more data breaches, tech CEO testimonies, and robots ready to hit the streets. So, fire up your Queen playlist on Spotify and read on to catch up on everything you missed last week while you panic-shopped for the office Secret Santa you totally forgot about until three hours before the exchange.

Google’s CEO went to Washington

Until this week, Sundar Pichai’s name was notably absent from the list of tech CEOs asked to testify in front of Congressional committees this year. But on December 11th, Google’s CEO sat for roughly 3.5 hours and answered some of the most ill-informed and sometimes downright pointless questions you could imagine. We did learn a few tidbits, like Google has been internally workshopping a search product that could work on the censored internet in China, but has no plans right now to go back to the country it left in 2010.

Your private Facebook photos were less private than you’d probably like for a little while

From Sept. 13 until Sept. 25 of this year, a Facebook bug allowed developers using the Facebook Photo API unauthorized access to user photos. The bug reportedly affected the images of roughly 5.6 million users who will be getting a notification (if they haven’t already) about the issue.

YouTube’s own video is the most disliked clip of all time

Right now is the time for media companies and platforms to recap the year’s biggest trends. YouTube put together a look back at 2018 and users of the site quickly clicked the “thumbs down” button more than 13 million times at the time of this post. That’s compared to 2.3 million likes. Honestly, I don’t see how it could possibly have gone any other way.

You may lose some YouTube followers soon, but they weren’t real in the first place

Every so often, big social media networks need to scrub out some of the fake and spam accounts that clutter up the services. Last week, YouTube went on a year-end bot-bashing spree to wipe out bad accounts, so if you saw your subscriber account fall, that may be the culprit. It could also be that everyone got bored of your repetitive ASMR videos where you rub various flavors of Pringles together to see if you can get a different tone from Sour Cream & Onion than you do out of Screaming’ Dill Pickle.

Postmates built a burrito-delivering robot that’s functionally adorable

The face on the front of the Postmates autonomous delivery robot sure is cute, but it’s also functional. Those expressive digital “eyes” were created to communicate with people as the rover tries to navigate terrain like crowded sidewalks with up to 50 pounds of takeout food inside. Unfortunately, this version, doesn’t have the capability to frown if your delicious bowl of pho spills during transit.

A facial recognition kiosk kept a lookout for Taylor Swift stalkers at one of her concerts

An unassuming kiosk showing video footage at a Taylor Swift concert earlier this year was reportedly a facial recognition system on the lookout for stalkers who may have come to the venue with bad intentions. When a concert-goer looked into the camera hidden in the kiosk, a scan of their face made its way to a control center where a system could check it against a database of known stalkers.

Puma made a computer shoe in 1986 and it’s coming back

Name a piece of clothing and there’s a good chance you can buy a “smart” version of it today, but that wasn’t the case when Puma released its RS-Computer running shoes in 1986. The company is only re-releasing 86 pairs of the decidedly retro shoes, which can keep track of your step count. Of course, you could always just use a smart watch, or a fit bit or just count every single step you take at all times.

Instagram now lets you send voice DMs

As Facebook continues to emphasize the direct messaging functions in Instagram, the company recently added the ability to send recorded voice messages through the DM feature. Sending a photo with a voice message attached seems like a gateway drug to getting users into video chat, which Instagram added earlier this year. I would try the new voice message feature to tell you how well it works, but I’m pretty sure anyone to whom I sent one would stop being my friend and ghost me forever.

Smartphone screens have holes in them instead of a notch to make room for the camera

The front of every phone needs to have as much screen on it as possible, even if that means making weird, distracting gaps to fit essential pieces like a front-facing camera. The new Samsung A8s doesn’t have a notch, but rather a circular hole through which the camera peeks out. The Samsung isn’t the only device taking this track: Huawei also has a phone with a little dot on the screen.

Written By Stan Horaczek

Sex, starvation, and saltwater moats: snail farms are wilder than you could ever imagine

Before he could start farming escargot, Ric Brewer needed to get his hands on some sexually-active snails. Fortunately, in western Washington state, where Brewer now oversees a large and slow-moving herd, that’s as simple as turning over a few leaves. “My mother had all of her church lady friends out in their gardens gathering snails for me,” he says. “They were the founding stock.” Now Little Gray Farms sells about 300 pounds of their offspring each year.

Brewer breeds Cornu aspersum, known by its excessively common common name, the “common European garden snail.” The species is often overshadowed by its more soulful or mysterious cousins. The phylum mollusca, to which all snails belong, contains 100,000 creatures: the endless spiral of the nautilus; the brainless but delectable oyster; the seafloor obscenity that is the geoduck. But the snail’s dull shell is hiding a secret all its own.

“Even though it’s this homely, kind of bland, not-that-interesting snail,” it’s the main species used in escargot, says Jann Vendetti, a malacologist at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles. (The other edible snail is Helix pomatia, also called the Roman or Burgundy snail.) “Petit gris” may be the pride of Paris, but, Vendetti says, it’s “the wet sidewalk snail, just fancied up.”

Humans have indulged in this meaty treat since the Stone Age. Archaeologists unearthed evidence of 30,000-year-old snail shells emptied, cooked, and discarded in Spain. Similarly insightful garbage has been unearthed across the Balearic Sea in Algeria, and along the African coast into Tanzania: snails all the way down.

The preparation may have changed—ancient humans charbroiled their catch, while contemporary Europeans typically sauté snails in garlic sauce—but the fundamental appetite persists. Each year, the French consume some 66 million pounds of escargot. That’s more than a billion one-ounce organisms.

In the United States, escargot is what would politely be termed an “acquired taste”—one we’ve most assuredly failed to acquire. Even Vendetti hasn’t tried them. Despite the depressed national appetite, snail foragers have always lurked among us. (One helpful blog recommends “luring” snails in with oranges). But the real heroes of American escargot are farmers like Brewer, who have run headfirst into what’s arguably the strangest form of animal husbandry on Earth. Though it’s a dark, damp, do-it-yourself affair, they promise snail farming is not without its (slime-covered) charms.

Before you can eat a wild snail, you must starve it. Just as oysters are contaminated by dirty water, snails pick up the toxins around them, imbibing pesticides and heavy metals. Earlier this year, an Australian teenager who ate a slug on a dare contracted rat lungworm and died. The parasite hasn’t showed up in common snails, but Vendetti says, “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” To ward off illness, humans must handle any foraged food with care.

Brewer subjected his garden snails to a week-long “purging process” before he began breeding them. “Keep them moistened in a fairly warm environment, and that will ensure they’re digestively active,” he tells me, almost as if he’s dolling out directions. “Once they stop defecating, then you know they’re pretty well cleaned out.”

If this sounds cruel, it’s because it is. Farming anything other than alfalfa requires sacrifice. That’s particularly true when it comes to snails, because the creatures are considered pests by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, whose agents are therefore perplexed by the rare farmer who wants them to propagate. To the USDA, breeding escargot is like tenderly raising a plague of locusts. But because they’re snails—a-not-so-charismatic creature—the carnage can also be morbidly comical.

Related: Americans used to eat pigeon all the time—and it could be making a comeback

As you might expect, European garden snails are European. How exactly they got here is anyone’s guess, but it seems the brown helix has floated its way to every part of the world. It now thrives in New Zealand, South Africa, and across North and South America. In California, Vednetti says, “the story goes there was a man who moved here and missed escargot and snail mailed—no pun intended—no, wait, pun definitely intended—himself some snails.” A few escaped from their mesh, and bred rapaciously in the desert heat.

Their insatiable appetites quickly caused problems. C. aspersum eats cabbage, carrot, cauliflower, celery, bean, beet, brussels sprouts, lettuce, mangel, onion, peas, radish, tomato, and turnips. It eats barley, oats, and wheat. It loves flowers more than your mother on Mother’s Day. It crawls up the bark of apple, apricot, citrus, peach, and plum trees—and then eats them, too. “It is federally illegal to take a live snail across state lines,” Brewer says. “You can be fined, there’s potential jail sentences.” Even on the farm, keeping them fed is a struggle. “They go through quite a bit of vegetation,” he says. “Kind of the way a herd of cattle will eat all the grass in that area, and you have to move them.”

Taylor Knapp, owner of Peconic Escargot on the north fork of Long Island, New York, was one of the first snail farmers in the United States. He found that most escargot on the market was frozen and shipped in from Europe; finding something alive, or at least alive recently, was almost impossible. So he decided to go into business himself. “It was three long years of working with the government,” Knapp says, but eventually he helped to establish the USDA’s containment protocol for the entire species.

What looks like a greenhouse is actually Peconic’s elaborate gastropod prison. Groups of snails are stored in sealed, soil-lined crates. “It’s kind of like an indoor beekeeping operation,” according to Knapp, who gave himself the official title of “head snail wrangler.” The bins are shelved, turning a 300-square-foot greenhouse into a vertical maximum-security farm stocked with more than 50,000 snails. Should a snail escape from the sealed container, it will fall into a vat of concentrated saltwater, “which is kind of sad,” Knapp says. If it miraculously survived that assault, it would die outside: the greenhouse is surrounded by a non-vegetative perimeter, 12 feet by 12 feet, that Knapp laces with pesticides. “I basically just pick weeds all summer,” he says. “That’s my job.”

Once their snails are subdued, farmers hope for a love match—or several thousand. “Fortunately, snails are hermaphrodites,” Brewer says. Each snail can inseminate, and each snail can be inseminated and then lay eggs. The courtship ritual remains obscure, even to scientists, but it does involve those infamous “love darts.” If all goes well, one partner slides away with a clutch of 50 to 100 fertilized eggs.

Before a new generation can emerge, the eggs must be buried. “It’s kind of like a turtle,” Knapp says. “They burrow headfirst, using this special muscle to dig a hole into the soil… They’ll come back out of the hole, cover it in mucus and dirt, and then they’ll leave.” They never return.

The eggs, high in calcium, have a pearl-like finish. If the soil is right—loose and aerated, with a perfectly balanced moisture content—the eggs will incubate without drying out or swelling with water. Over a two-week incubation period, the snail inside doesn’t so much hatch as turn its smooth white bead into a mobile home. “If you watched a timelapse, you’d just start to see a spiral form on the outside of the egg,” Knapp says. “There’s nothing left over.”

It takes about six to eight months for each of Knapp’s snails to reach maturity, at which point they offer as much protein per pound as fish, and other essentials like iron and magnesium. “We know they’re as big as they’re going to get when they form this little lip on the edge of their shell that looks like a baseball cap,” he says. What size a snail is when it displays this lip varies widely—never a good thing in livestock. “Sometimes we end up with these teeny-tiny snails,” Knapp says, “and sometimes we end up with these monsters.”

Little Gray Farms has the same size problem, and Brewer is working to optimize his two-antennaed progeny. He recently secured USDA approval to move live snails across state lines, enabling him to introduce new and much-needed genes to the group. He also has a control population where he’s selecting the largest snails from each successive generation to breed, in hopes of growing bigger snails overall.

Peconic, for its part, is playing with taste. “We had a restaurant that asked for them to be finished on mint,” Knapp says. For the last two weeks of their lives, that’s all the members of the impending shipment ate. “When you ate this thing, the snail tasted like mint.” They’re also experimenting with snail caviar. The majority of Knapp’s eggs get to hatch, but some get salted. The eggs taste like the soil they come from: “earthy, mushroom-y, herbaceous,” Knapp says. “I think they taste like carrots.” Given they’re more shell than egg, they’re harder than other forms of caviar, like salmon roe, to burst. “You could roll them around in your mouth like bubble tea,” Knapp says.

Part of caviar’s appeal is that it’s easy to transport: just salt, pack, and ship. Escargot is more challenging. Peconic keeps its snails alive until a chef places an order. When the calls come in on Monday, Knapp kills the precise number of snails to fill the request on Tuesday, and the spoils arrive in cities across the country on Wednesday. This process, designed to guarantee the snail is fresh and the taste pure, means a shelf life of just seven days.

Most people still abhor the idea of eating snails, but maybe it’s nothing more than a PR problem. The flavor and texture of C. aspersum tends to hide beneath its preparation: like any Paula Dean recipe, most snails are served smothered in butter, so they mostly taste like butter. Even when prepared more plainly, escargot is similar to other, less frightening foods. It’s often described as having the texture of a clam, but denser, and with the ocean tang replaced by flavors of the forest. If that still doesn’t sell you on escargot, consider this: the snail’s family is “gastropod,” which (very loosely) translates to “portable food unit.” And what’s more American than that?

Written By Eleanor Cummins