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Nature’s Brendan Maher: My Top 5 Longreads of 2011

Brendan Maher is biology features editor for the news team at Nature, the UK-based science journal.

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My selection of the best science-themed longreads for 2011 suffers from two major limitations: 1.) I couldn’t read everything, so have probably missed some very worthy entries. 2.) I purposely did not include articles from Nature, where I am an editor. For some top stories from our pages see our end-of-year special.

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1. “Autistic and Seeking a Place in an Adult World,” Amy Harmon, New York Times

The science supporting new behavioural approaches to treating autism is slipped in subtly in this wonderful tale about a teenage boy with autism trying to engage with the world of “neurotypicals.” So is practically every other theme about the social and scientific difficulties that autism presents. The multimedia efforts are a treat, but Harmon’s writing is an absolute clinic in pacing.

2. “The Possibilian,” Burkhard Bilger, The New Yorker

An obligatory nod to The New Yorker and to the ubiquitous David Eagleman, who has become something akin to the Oliver Sacks of our time (of course our time already has an Oliver Sacks). The details Bilger pulls into this profile are delicious. How could one not love a lab that studies the perception of time in which everyone seems to be wearing a broken wristwatch?

3. “The Behavioral Sink,” Will Wiles, Cabinet Magazine

This was a weird, wild and utterly immersive history of John B. Calhoun’s Universe 25, a mouse utopia of sorts where food was plentiful, but space was not. Once the population reached maximum density, behaviour turned pathological. The results of this experiment fit neatly’with apocalyptic fears prevalent during the late 1960s and early 1970s inspired in part by the book “The Population Bomb”. These themes are fun to reflect on, without alarm, in the year that the 7 billionth human was born

4. “False Positive,” Jon Cohen, Martin Enserink, Science

“Done. Case closed. Finito, lights off, The End,” is the ironic lede to this retelling of the story of Judy Mikovits, a passionate virologist hell-bent on proving that chronic fatigue syndrome is caused by a retrovirus originally referred to as XMRV. The beginning is ironic because unbeknownst to anyone, the story would erupt again and again late in the fall, when Mikovits was sued by her former employer for allegedly stealing lab notebooks and then arrested as a fugitive from justice in a soap-opera-worthy postscript. I’ll note (in the gentle, ribbing way of a friendly competitor) that we called the death of this hypothesis several months prior in our pages, but Science’s take is as detailed as it is riveting.

5. “How Digital Detectives Deciphered Stuxnet, the Most Menacing Malware in History,” Kim Zetter, Wired

This is one of the few things that keeps me up at night. We also did some coverage of this next evolution of computer viruses as weapons of war. Wired’s blow-by-blow account was, as you might expect, exceptional.

BONUS

"One in a Billion: A boy’s life, a medical mystery," Mark Johnson Kathleen Gallagher, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

I’m taking an extra turn because this three part series ran in late December after I had submitted my five best last year. Yes, it’s a bit obvious of me to pick a Pulitzer-Prize-winning package, but if you haven’t read this, you really should. The themes and challenges spelled out in this story of a sick child being helped by genomics will become a much larger part of the health-care discussion in the next few years.

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