I love living in Ireland.

On 19 May 2014, I sat down at my desk for the first time as a full-time freelance journalist. The first few months felt good as they went by, though looking back at my accounts now, I can see that I only just about made enough money in those early days.

But things got better. My original plan was to freelance for a year and then try and get a reporter or staff writer job but I soon decided I didn’t really want that. Freelancing was too much fun.

Over the years, I’ve been approached for jobs at publications a…


Crumlin Glen, Co. Antrim. Photo: Chris Baraniuk.

Stand in a forest, no strangers near you, and you can feel as secure as ever you might, locked in the house. Or a bunker, if you have one. The trees stand too. Their tops may sway in the breeze, but that is all far above. Down here, on the woodland floor, leaves lie decomposing, ants and beetles shuffle mostly out of sight, moss unfurls, and old sticks idle for years until finally they crumble or are kicked away.

Hear the guttural trill of a wren, or a robin’s jubilance. Maybe catch a glimpse, but they fly on. Maybe walk…


They can help, but there are some things you need to know

Image: NosUA/Getty Images

Over the summer, the owners of Boedecker Cellars in Oregon could leave their doors open to let fresh air circulate while socially distanced customers enjoyed glasses of the company’s prize pinot noir. But now winter is coming.

“We wanted to make sure that every table in here had coverage,” says co-owner Athena Pappas. So she and her partner, Stewart Boedecker, decided to buy portable air purifiers (some call them air cleaners), which continually cycle air through filters that catch tiny particles, including viruses. …


The race is on to contain it while it’s still possible

Photo: Sven Hagolani/Getty Images

The new border fences stretch for hundreds of kilometers. Helicopters and drones circle overhead, scanning for sick individuals while biological samples are ferried to labs for analysis. As fatalities mount, soldiers scour wide areas, searching for corpses. Sniffer dogs have been trained to locate the dead.

This is not a nightmarish vision of what is to come during the Covid-19 pandemic, but the reality on the ground as Europe reckons with a deadly virus affecting wild boar and pigs.

The African Swine Fever (ASF) virus is a merciless killer. Nearly 100% of infected pigs die. There is no cure or…


Illustration: Xinmei Liu

Six Months In

Intensive care has risen to the challenge of 2020. Here’s what has changed.

This story is part of “Six Months In,” a special weeklong Elemental series reflecting on where we’ve been, what we’ve learned, and what the future holds for the Covid-19 pandemic.

Matt Morgan, MD, an intensive care doctor at the University Hospital of Wales, in the United Kingdom, vividly remembers his first Covid-19 patient. It was a busy day at his hospital, and the patient was so ill upon arrival at the intensive care unit (ICU) that they needed life support almost immediately.

Back then, in late March, Morgan knew that Covid-19 had already caused havoc in Italy and begun spreading…


A.I. researchers are turning to neuroscience to build smarter, more powerful neural networks

Engineered Arts prosthetic expert Mike Humphrey checks on Fred, a recently completed Mesmer robot that was built at the company’s headquarters in Penryn on May 9, 2018, in Cornwall, England. Photo: Matt Cardy/Stringer/Getty Images

In 1998, an engineer in Sony’s computer science lab in Japan filmed a lost-looking robot moving trepidatiously around an enclosure. The robot was tasked with two objectives: avoid obstacles and find objects in the pen. It was able to do so because of its ability to learn the contours of the enclosure and the locations of the sought-after objects.

But whenever the robot encountered an obstacle it didn’t expect, something interesting happened: Its cognitive processes momentarily became chaotic. The robot was grappling with new, unexpected data that didn’t match its predictions about the enclosure. The researchers who set up the…


I’m yet to part with my lockdown locks.

It’s been a strange year so far, hasn’t it. Since at least late January, I had been aware of news stories about the new coronavirus then causing havoc in Wuhan. However, over the next month or so I largely stuck to pitching stories on other topics that I had been researching previously, such as antimicrobial resistance and wildlife conservation.

By March, the pandemic (as we began calling it that month) had emerged as a gigantic problem for the whole world, not just China. …


The desert locust upsurge is yet another of 2020’s horrors

Photo: Jasius/Getty Images

In June, remote sensing analyst Raj Bhagat noticed a strange signal on India’s weather radar. It looked like a small band of rain near Delhi, moving southwest, but Bhagat was convinced it was a locust swarm.

“People began to report it,” he says, referring to sightings on the ground. Giant locust swarms had spread to northern India earlier in the year, ravaging crops and destroying people’s livelihoods. “The timelines were perfectly matching.”

In mid-July, Bhagat, who works at the World Resources Institute India, identified a similar formation, this time near the city of Lucknow. …


Search data holds great potential for predicting the spread of a disease

A man wearing a face mask types into his phone.
A man wearing a face mask types into his phone.
Photo: LEREXIS/Moment/Getty Images

Even if all you could see of humanity during the pandemic was our internet search data, you’d know something was wrong. Google searches for the word “prayer” have boomed to the highest level ever recorded in a sample of 95 countries, according to a recent preprint.

And Google’s predictive search tool, which offers to complete your query before you’ve finished typing it, seems to have soaked up the pandemic-themed questions and concerns tumbling around people’s heads.

Type “when will” into Google and the first suggested query will likely be along the lines of “when will lockdown end.” “Do I have”…


ProMED had previously spotted outbreaks of MERS, Zika, and Ebola

Image: Peter Zelei Images/Getty Images

The rumors first surfaced on WeChat and Weibo. Users of the Chinese social media platforms were saying a pneumonia-like illness had hit Wuhan — and that it was killing people. Staff at EcoHealth Alliance, a global nonprofit that monitors emerging diseases, noticed this chatter in late December 2019.

Peter Daszak, president of the organization, combed through the material himself, popping paragraphs into Google Translate and getting back imperfect translations. Colleagues who spoke Chinese also helped him figure out what was going on.

“Clearly something was out there,” he told OneZero. …

Chris Baraniuk

Freelance science and technology journalist. Based in Northern Ireland.

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