The sun is out! The weekend is in sight! Here are a few long reads to enjoy outside while you’re getting some much-needed vitamin D. But these aren’t your average-sized stories, so bring sunblock.
Direct Eye Contact
By John McPhee for The New Yorker
Approx. length: 2,000 words
John McPhee is one of my favorite long-form writers. He’s been writing for The New Yorker for decades, but it’s been a while since he contributed. So I was excited to see a new piece about the black bears of New Jersey.
McPhee has a geometer’s sense of structure when he writes (which he outlines in his book, Draft No. 4)—each element, from lead sentence to closing scene, builds a story that perfectly complements its themes. He knows how to frame a subject to make the reader see why it’s interesting, why it matters, and he does this because he understands that chronologically is usually not the most compelling way to reveal a story.
I never think much about bears (except when I’m hiking at certain hours), but this story goes beyond the fluctuating bear population of New Jersey. It considers geography, politics, guns, tragedy. In it, the bears aren’t monsters—the real bogeyman is time, sweeping up animals and their human neighbors in changes they can’t avoid. McPhee isn’t showy or sentimental, but his writing is beautiful and deeply felt, and I love that.
Proof of why he’s great: “In the past three years, twenty-one bears have entered New Jersey homes, with no human fatalities. For example, Diane Eriksen, of West Milford (Passaic County), was under the impression that she was alone in her house. Hearing a sound in her living room, she went and had a look. A bear looked back. She beat a retreat and called 911. The bear, at the coffee table, helped itself to half a bowl of peppermint patties, scattered the wrappers all over the floor, and took off. The 911 call resulted in its death.”
The Fake Sex Doctor Who Conned the Media into Publicizing His Bizarre Research on Suicide, Butt-Fisting, and Bestiality
By Jennings Brown for Gizmodo
Approx length: 5,000 words
This insane profile had me at the title. It’s always interesting/terrifying to read how willfully gullible a reporter, program host, or publication can be in the name of a good hook. This time, the hook was Dr. Damian Jacob Markiewicz Sendler, a self-proclaimed forensic sexologist and research scientist, who is actually neither. He’s not even a doctor. It took one reporter making a bunch of calls to Harvard and Columbia (whose medical schools Sendler didn’t attend) and checking his license to practice in New York State (which he doesn’t have) to completely dismantle the good doctor.
But Sendler was able to sell himself as an expert to every outlet—from Huffington Post to Savage Lovecast (the popular sex podcast by Dan Savage)—hungry for a shock factor. Described by Brown as a “serial fabulist,” Sendler delivered shock—waxing faux-scientific on everything from necrophilia to suicide.
Backing up his fake credentials were fake research papers—about a dozen of them, published in peer-reviewed academic journals. There’s a lot of conversation about why peer review is flawed, and this guy certainly makes the case. But it’s satisfying to read as Sendler paints himself into a corner and, one by one, every claim he made on his website disappears. Luckily, there are screenshots!
What will happen to the “scientific” papers he published? Will news outlets offer retractions for the times they trusted Sendler’s imaginary expertise? Will he be arrested for practicing without a license? This article left me wanting a part 2.
The implications: “The articles published in forensic journals [Sendler’s ‘studies’ have been published in the Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine] are often based on case files. And even if they’re wacky, they could influence legal cases, according to Anna Randall, a certified sex therapist who has researched sexual asphyxiation and paraphilia. ‘Oh absolutely. They could use this in court,’ Randall told me, referring to Sendler’s published articles.”
The Hunt for Planet Nine
By Shannon Stirone for Longreads
Approx. length: 9,000 words
This story is an epic in the truest sense: it’s an adventure that involves high stakes and new worlds (literally), the main figures are both heroic and fallible, and as it continues, the journey becomes more important than the destination.
Science writer Shannon Stirone does a wonderful job of capturing part of that journey as Caltech astronomers Konstantin Batygin and Mike Brown search for a massive planet they believe exists around the edges of the solar system. Looking to prove their very complicated calculations, the pair end up on the summit of Mauna Kea (the highest peak in all of Hawaii), using one of the world’s most powerful telescopes to find their prize.
Stirone brings life to the landscape, describing technicolor Hawaiian sunrises and isolated Martian-like mountaintops with equal beauty. She also observes the two astronomers in all their comical humanity: gobbling Pop-Tarts and making crazy calculations before realizing they may need to hit the oxygen tank.
If found, the mythical Planet 9, estimated to be 5-10 times larger than Earth, could reveal a lot about how our solar system was formed. But between the astronomers and it are limited time, billions of stars, and lots of handmade algorithms.
SPOILER ALERT: They didn’t find it. Yet. But there’s increasing confidence that it’s out there.
Fun fact: Finding Planet 9 would allow Brown—whose earlier discoveries in space led to Pluto being demoted from a planet to a mere planetary-mass object (aka dwarf planet)—to replace the one planet he removed from models of our solar system with a much larger and more informative one. Meanwhile, Batygin mathematically proved that eventually Mercury could either fall into the sun or collide with Venus and be ejected from the solar system. Essentially, these guys are smart enough to undo the galaxy.