This weekly column is The Daily Beast's contribution to the growing Longreads community on Twitter, where fans of longform journalism collect and share their favorite stories. Follow along through the hashtag # longreads, and visit Longreads.com and Longform.org for suggestions throughout the week. To take these stories on the go, we recommend using smartphone applications such as Instapaper or Read It Later. You can download either at your mobile phone's application store. To send us suggestions, tweet the story to @ thedailybeast on Twitter with the hashtag #longreads.
“Chernobyl, My Primeval, Teeming, Irradiated Eden”
Henry Shukman, Outside
The area around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in eastern Ukraine—the site of the biggest nuclear disaster in history—has been forbidden to humans for 25 years. With a guide and a photographer, Shukman ventured deep into the ruins, now overgrown and teeming with wildlife—deer, elk, wolves, foxes, birds. Scientists studying the animals have discovered that much of the wildlife has unstable DNA and that their mutating genomes may cause them to evolve into a brand new species. The eerily beautiful Chernobyl, and the abandoned city of Pripyat, have become both a vibrant example of rapid microevolution and a reminder of the possible fate of humanity.
“Another Runaway General”
Michael Hastings, Rolling Stone
The journalist whose profile ended the career of U.S. General Stanley McChrystal is back with another military bombshell: the Army ordered Afghanistan-based soldiers trained in “psychological operations” to manipulate visiting American senators into approving extended funding for the war. The orders came from three-star Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, and were in direct violation of federal law. (Military propaganda specialists are forbidden from practicing their mind tricks on Americans.) When an officer tried to stop the operation, the military slapped him with an investigation—and a “report” that tried to manufacture sexual misconduct from innocuous Facebook comments.
“Queen of the Mommy Bloggers”
Lisa Belkin, New York Times Magazine
Heather Armstrong, a liberal ex-Mormon living in Utah, lost her job when her bosses discovered she had filled her blog with hilarious, thinly disguised rants about her co-workers. A short few years later, she's shared everything about her life with her growing audience: her dramatic conflicts with her family, her postpartum depression, and her famous war with Maytag's customer service department. Her blog, Dooce, is read by millions and earns her upward of $50,000 per month. Belkin follows Armstrong on her path from blogger to businesswoman, and observes her navigating the increasing complexity of spilling family details as a profession.
“The Rude Warrior”
Peter Biskind, Vanity Fair
Mel Gibson could do no wrong in Hollywood until 2006, when he was arrested driving drunk and unleashed a stream of anti-Semitic slurs. Then his girlfriend accused him of physical violence and produced recorded phone calls full of Gibson's shockingly obscene and abusive rants. Now, Hollywood is deeply perplexed about him; his friends and movie colleagues describe him as a generous, sincere person who never uttered a hateful word around them. But they also have all seen hints of his lifelong struggle with alcohol and his attempts to overcome his addiction. Behind the scenes of Gibson's public embarrassments was a high-stress movie, a tumultuous end to his 26-year marriage, and a right-wing, fundamentalist Catholic father who still exerts powerful influence over Gibson.
“How We Know”
Freeman Dyson, New York Review of Books
James Gleick, the author of The Information, theorizes that information in human history can be separated into three periods: the “history,” the thousands of years humans shared information without having a name for it; the “theory,” the beginnings of a theoretical study of information; and the “flood,” the period since the rise of electronic devices that has increased the volume of human transmissions at a staggering rate. The flood of information modern humans face, and the sense of meaninglessness it often provokes, fit with the central axiom of information theory: information is meaningless. Freeman Dyson elegantly explains how information can be shared and understood—even between cultures totally foreign to one another—as long as some type of code exists to unlock it. When humans understand information as something abstract, like a mathematical formula, they can stop fearing it and get to work carving out “islands of meaning” in the midst of the deluge.
“Refuting a Myth About Human Origins”
John J. Shea, American Scientist
For decades, archeologists believed humans developed modern behaviors tens of thousands of years after they first emerged, that there is a sharp divide between “archaic Homo Sapiens” and modern man. But evidence is showing it happened differently: Our ancient ancestors exhibited many of the behaviors previously considered to be the results of recent evolution. The cultural notion of “cavemen” has embedded the notion of biologically inferior beings that developed into a highly civilized race, but that narrative has been unchallenged for so long scientists have rarely bothered to examine it. But the more we dig, the more we find that the evidence doesn't fit that story, that the transition to “behavorial modernity” happened very gradually, over thousands of generations.