Reading List

Yummy Mummys, Mongoose Mine-Detectors, and Leg-Lengthening Surgery

What the Brits are reading about science and technology.

If you ever tire of reading about what Barack Obama ate for breakfast or who’s on John McCain’s short list of female Hispanic governors under 30, I recommend a stroll into the wonderful world of science. Discoveries and technologies are unfolding at breakneck speed, transforming how we live, what we think, and who we are. Cloning, artificial intelligence, and cyborg limbs are just a few of these developments. The best place to read about them is at Slate’s “Human Nature” portal. But the second-best place isn’t in the United States; it’s in the United Kingdom. Fortunately, the Internet will take you there.

Six weeks ago, news broke that researchers had created the first genetically modified human embryo. Was it on CNN? The New York Times? No, it was in the Times of London, which, like every major British newspaper, maintains a special online section devoted to science. British editors and readers follow science in a way that too many Americans don’t. By the time Americans realize what’s going on, technology has run them over and moved on.

A good example is surveillance. With more than 4 million security cameras, Britain is probably the world’s most closely watched society. Its people are simultaneously nosy and alarmed by invasions of their privacy. That’s why you can read about mandatory breathalyzers on BBC News, airport face-recognition scanners in the Guardian, and lie-detecting brain scans in the Daily Telegraph. Or you can wander over to New Scientist to monitor corporate development of eye-tracking technology that will record what you’re looking at in shop windows.

Brits love their robots. The Guardian has updates on robots with personalities and robots modeled on human brains. The Daily Telegraph has a report on child care robots—already being tested in American schools, the paper says—that pacify children so effectively that parents and teachers may be tempted to relinquish children to them. New Scientist has the goods on the latest military doodads: a robot urban-infiltration contest, iPhones that operate battlefield drones, and a cyborg land-mine detector consisting of a mongoose connected to a robot. Animals are just another expendable machine.

Then there’s all the news that’s just plain weird: New Scientist on rats that eat their young; the Daily Telegraph on worms that eat their mothers’ skin; the Independent on commercialized dog cloning; BBC News on a family that walks on all fours; the Guardian on stranded island mice that evolved into oversize carnivores; and the Daily Mail on surgery that makes people taller by adding 2 inches to the tops of their heads.

Did I mention odd sex practices? The Brits can’t get enough of them, yet they’re wonderfully rational about it. The latest uproar is over first-cousin marriages in some immigrant communities (never mind that Charles Darwin did it, too). In contrast to the pious calls for prohibitive legislation that we’d surely have heard from Congress under similar circumstances, the British press actually looked at the genetics of cousin marriage. And the answer seems to be that education and genetic screening are a better way to go.

When you’ve had your fill of our British cousins, click over to Agence France-Presse, the wire service that tells you what’s going on in the rest of the world. There, you can find out about trends bubbling out of faraway continents. Nipple and genital piercings? Australians have already begun to ban them for minors. Cosmetic surgery for kids? A crackdown is under way in Germany. Dog-meat restaurants? South Korea is making peace with them. Performance-enhancing Olympic swimsuits? Japan is hard at work. Genetic modification of animals? Malaysia is planning it for mosquitoes. Commerce in human organs? It’s standard practice in Filipino slums. Condoms and drug syringes? They’re already being offered through vending machines … in Iran.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to BBC News to read about the latest leg-lengthening surgery. It’s positively mind-stretching.

A version of this article also appears in the Outlook section of the Washington Post.