Good Reads: From vanishing monarchs, to superveggies, to scientific knowledge

This week's roundup of Good Reads includes monarch butterflies in peril, identity theft, crossbreeding super vegetables, a profile of E.E. Cummings, and how much we don't know about science.

Marco Ugarte/AP/File
A monarch butterfly rests on a tree in Mexico’s Sierra Chincua Sanctuary.

In winters past, majestic monarch butterflies blanketed 16.6 acres of Mexican forest with a patchwork of fluttering orange and black stripes. This year, the entire winter population fit into just 1.7 acres, a decrease of 90 percent, reports Tracy Wilkinson for the Los Angeles Times. While illegal logging in Mexico has destroyed the oyamel fir forests where the insects winter, herbicides in the United States have wiped out much of the country’s milkweed, the only plant that monarch caterpillars eat.

Scientists, artists, and environmentalists have issued a desperate plea to the leaders of Mexico, Canada, and the US to salvage the beloved butterflies’ breeding grounds in a letter delivered to representatives of the three governments last month. “As Mexico is addressing the logging issues, so now must the United States and Canada address the effects of our current agricultural policies,” the letter says.

The other identity theft

While credit-card identity theft routinely makes headlines, another, more lucrative form of identity theft is on the rise, reports Michael Kranish for The Boston Globe. Thieves of all kinds have found a way to use stolen Social Security numbers to extract billions from the Internal Revenue Service in fraudulent tax refunds, according to a US Treasury audit.

The scam has become so common that the IRS has had to issue a special PIN to 1.2 million taxpayers who have previously been the target of such identity theft, up from just 250,000 in 2012. The problem persists because the IRS is required to pay all returns as soon as possible by a congressional mandate, Mr. Kranish reports. “Under the current system, the IRS cannot always be certain that a return is filed by the person whose name and Social Security number is on it, but it often pays the refund anyway.” In one instance, the IRS delivered 2,000 refunds to the same address.

Monsanto ditches GMOs for crossbreeding

Americans love to hate Monsanto. The Fortune 500 company has been blamed for the rise of rat poison as an artificial sweetener, the evolution of pesticide-resistant weeds, and the introduction of so-called Frankenfoods into the American diet. However, Monsanto’s latest foray into the produce aisle has taken a decidedly natural turn, writes Ben Paynter for Wired.

Monsanto’s newest “superveggies” – a sweeter and crunchier lettuce, an antioxidant-rich broccoli, and a less tear-inducing onion – “have all the advantages of genetically-modified organisms without any of the Frankenfoods ick factor.” While these veggies are born in a lab, they are created using the same process of crossbreeding that farmers have employed for centuries. “Keep them away from pesticides and transport them less than 100 miles and you could call them organic and locavore too,” Mr. Paynter writes.

The difference is Monsanto brings to the lab extensive knowledge about each plant’s genome, and consequently can breed new strains more precisely than the farmer can in the field. “In nature, it can take a millennium. Monsanto can do it in just a few years.”

E.E. Cummings: the beloved heretic

“History has given us very few heretics who have not been burned at the stake,” writes Susan Cheever in Vanity Fair. E.E. Cummings “was our generation’s beloved heretic, a Henry David Thoreau for the 20th century.” As the daughter of acclaimed novelist John Cheever – one of Cummings’s entrusted friends – Ms.Cheever was privy to a three-dimensional version of the poet not usually visible to fans.

Cheever provides a glimpse of a man who ate burgers at White Castle, would “stand on his head for a laugh,” and managed “to live elegantly on almost no money.” Her father deeply admired Cummings and subsequently peppered his own life advice with lessons that he gleaned from the poet and his partner Marion Morehouse. Thus she learned not to be “so open-minded that your brains fall out” and that “being right was a petty goal – being free was the thing to aim for.”

What we don’t know about science

“Does the Earth go around the Sun or does the Sun go around the Earth?” Roughly, one-quarter of Americans incorrectly answered that the sun revolves around the Earth in the National Science Foundation’s most recent science literacy survey, reports Eleanor Barkhorn for The Atlantic. More than 15 percent of respondents were unaware that continents continue to shift location, and nearly half believed atoms to be smaller than electrons. According to the twice-a-year survey, Americans’ scientific literacy has remained relatively constant and on par with that of other developed nations over the past two decades.

Some of the responses may tell us more about Americans’ beliefs than scientific knowledge, Ms. Barkhorn writes. When statements about evolution and the big-bang theory were presented as facts, only 48 percent and 39 percent of Americans, respectively, responded that they were “true.” However, when the same statements were attributed to evolutionary theory and astronomers, 72 percent and 60 percent, respectively, responded “true.” “This seems to indicate that many Americans are familiar with the theories of evolution and the Big Bang; they simply don’t believe they’re true,” she writes.

Editor's note: The original print version of this story incorrectly identified E.E. Cummings' companion Marion Morehouse.

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