Part of what makes a total eclipse so breathtaking has to do with invisible light. During the “moment of totality”—the minutes when sun is completely blocked—observers experience the exquisitely odd and wondrous sensation of solar emissions, both visible and invisible, vanishing right in the middle of the day.

You have a chance to experience this firsthand. The United States has reached the end of the longest total-solar-eclipse drought in its history. A total solar eclipse—or totality—has not been observed from anywhere in the mainland United States since February 26, 1979. This bizarre thirty-eight-year hiatus ends on August 21, 2017, when a coast-to-coast totality sweeps across the continent, ramping up an eclipse fever that is already highly publicized.

For those who do not live in or travel to the narrow, ribbon- like path of totality—the area from which the sun will appear to be in total eclipse, which stretches from the Pacific Northwest to the Carolina coast but is about 70 miles wide2—a second totality will unfold on April 8, 2024. Two in a mere seven-year period.

Then, as if to compensate for the scarcity of these events (even the 1979 eclipse was a mostly cloudy, far-northern event only observable in a few places such as Helena, Montana), the middle and late parts of the twenty-first century will offer a second sudden flurry of them.

In any given place on earth, a totality appears just once every 375 years. If it’s cloudy, you have to wait another 375 years. So a totality is a very rare event for any location. But that interval of time is just the average. Here and there, a few places will enjoy two totalities in a single decade: Carbondale, Illinois, for example, sits at the intersection of both eclipse tracks—2017’s and 2024’s. Yet residents of other cities, including Los Angeles, must cool their heels for more than a millennium.

In the United States, no major urban center has seen a total solar eclipse since the dual events of Southern California in 1923 and the now-famous New York City totality of 1924. Boston was scheduled for a sunrise totality in October of 1925, but it was cloudy.

Every eclipse path—a map of the places on earth from which the sun is completely blocked and where stars are seen during the day—is long and narrow. During that Roaring Twenties Big Apple eclipse, for example, the totality ran from central Canada southeast to Albany, in upstate New York, then down through the Bronx and Harlem, and ended unceremoniously at 86th Street in Manhattan, near an eatery that would someday be famous for hot dogs and papaya drinks. People south of the subway stop there stood in daylight: no stars out, no mind-numbing glimpse of the solar corona, no hot-pink flares shooting from the sun’s edge. Volunteers were dispatched to each street so scientists could later know the precise location of the edge of the moon’s shadow. The next day, a newspaper writer, watching the disappearing sun’s final dazzling pinpoint, described it as a diamond ring—a term that has since been fully incorporated into eclipse-speak.

The event has an indescribable effect on observers. While most experienced astronomers would concede that a total solar eclipse is the most powerful, gorgeous, and even life-altering of all celestial phenomena, they’d rate a vivid display of the northern lights as not too shabby, either. A big gap separates those two from the rest of what I call the top four natural spectacles, including a rare brilliant comet and a meteor storm, in which more than a dozen shooting stars flash across the sky each minute. Like the aurora borealis, a solar totality often invokes involuntary gasps and cries of wonder. You’ll often hear that some kind of “feeling” accompanies the visual spectacle. Perhaps this has to do with the fact that both these events are indeed accompanied by large changes in the amount of incoming electromagnetic radiation. It should also be noted that lunar eclipses, even total ones, do not make this top-four list. Those fairly commonplace eclipses, which unfold every few years and are never limited to a narrow section of our planet but instead are visible to half the world, are certainly pretty and worth watching. But they are not life-altering

During a solar totality, animals usually fall silent. People howl and weep. Flames of nuclear fire visibly erupt like geysers from the sun’s edge. Shimmering dark lines cover the ground. In both the 2017 and the 2024 events, the entirety of the United States and Canada will experience a partial eclipse, so that anyone using protective eyewear will be able to see it by standing outside or by looking out a window (provided that it’s not cloudy, of course). In contrast, less than 1 percent of the continent will experience totality. To most people, it might seem that seeing a partial eclipse ought to be almost as good as seeing a total eclipse, and it’s certainly a lot more convenient. Why travel? The sun being 99.9 percent eclipsed doesn’t sound too different from its being 100 percent eclipsed, right?

Actually, seeing an almost total eclipse is no better than almost falling in love or almost visiting the Grand Canyon. Only full totality produces the astonishing and absolutely singular phenomenon that resembles nothing else in our lives, on our planet, or in the known universe.

No discussion of totality should omit the strange science lurking behind it. It starts with a bizarre coincidence: the moon is four hundred times smaller than the sun, but it also floats four hundred times nearer to us. This makes the two disks in our sky appear to be the same size. Now, if the moon appeared larger than the sun, it could still occasionally stand in front of it, but it would also blot out the dramatic prominences along the sun’s edge, those geysers of pink nuclear flame. So for maximum amazingness, these bodies must have identical angular diameters—i.e., they must appear to be the same size. And they do.

The moon wasn’t always where it is now, which makes the coincidence even more special. The moon has really just arrived at the “sweet spot.” It’s been departing from us ever since its creation four billion years ago, after we were whacked by a Mars-size body that sent white-hot debris arcing into the sky. Spiraling away at the rate of one and a half inches per year, the moon is only now at the correct distance from our planet to make total solar eclipses possible. In just another few hundred million years, total solar eclipses will be over forever.

For early cultures that regarded celestial phenomena as magical to begin with, eclipses occupied a spot entirely off the weirdness scale. Some, such as the Aztecs and the Babylonians, were obsessive enough to make astoundingly accurate observations that ultimately gave their priests the power to predict astronomical events.

The ancient Babylonians noticed that although some sort of eclipse happens every year, the exact same type of eclipse returns after precisely eighteen years and eleven and one-third days. The accuracy of this observation remains very impressive, especially because that one-third-of-a-day business means that the next eclipse can be best seen (or maybe only seen) in an entirely different region of the world. Babylonians called this eighteen-plus-year period a Saros. The ancient Greeks loved that word and concept so much that they embraced it without even translating the word into their own language.
The Saros’s third-of-a-day feature means that the earth turns through 120 degrees of longitude before the next eclipse in that particular Saros takes place. Therefore, for an eclipse with specific properties (such as total versus partial, long versus short, and tropical versus arctic) to make a repeat appearance in any particular region, one has to wait while eclipses work their way around the world like a set of gears, which requires three Saroses—a length of time equal to fifty-four years and around one month, or, more precisely, thirty-three days. Because this surpasses human life expectancy in that era four thousand years ago, it’s astonishing that the cycle was noticed at all. This three-Saros interval is called the exeligmos, which is Greek for “turning of the wheel.” Using the exeligmos, we can calculate that there must have been a total solar eclipse in the United States fifty-four years and one month before the 2017 event and fifty-four years and one month before the 2024 event. Sure enough, a total eclipse in Maine unfolded in 1963, and another one amazed onlookers when it raced up the East Coast and covered Virginia Beach and Nantucket on March 7, 1970.

That three-and-a-half-minute March 1970 totality over Virginia Beach belongs to a series of Saroses given the number 139. This series consists of total (not partial) eclipses with paths that always move northeastward. In 1988, this Saros presented its next event a third of the world west of Virginia—a three-and- three-quarter-minute totality over Indonesia. Yet another Saros later, in March of 2006, the same northeastward totality swept from Libya to Turkey. Saros 139’s next return, another third of the world west, will show residents of Cleveland, Rochester, Buffalo, and Burlington, Vermont, a totality in 2024.

So now our stage is set for the next eclipses over North America. After the two-and-a-half-minute coast-to-coast 2017 spectacle, the eclipse on April 8, 2024, will appear longest over central Mexico, at well over four minutes; then the moon’s shadow will move northeastward like a tornado to the north-eastern United States.

After 2017, a solar totality will happen once, somewhere in the world, during most years. None will occur in 2018, but we’ll get a sunset totality over central Chile and Argentina on July 2, 2019, then another in those same countries on December 14, 2020.

Ignoring a strictly Antarctic totality in 2021 and the eclipse-less year 2022 takes us to a marginal one-minute event in steamy equatorial Indonesia in 2023. But then things pick up, convenience-wise.

The 2024 US totality will be followed by the totality of the longest duration between 2017 and the end of the century—six and a half minutes—which will occur in Egypt and Gibraltar on August 2, 2027. That decade will be rounded out by a wonderful five-minute Australian totality on July 22, 2028.

If you want to limit your eclipse tourism to the United States, Canada, and Europe, note that the United States will see its longest-ever solar eclipse on August 12, 2045, a six-minute totality running from Northern California to Florida. Florida gets another eclipse just seven years later, on March 30, 2052. Then the United States will enjoy two within a twelve-month span, on May 11, 2078, and May 1, 2079, while France and Italy will experience their only totality of the century on September 3, 2081.
I have had the good fortune to see eight totalities; please allow me to share the experience. The fully eclipsed sun is always a breathtaking surprise.

Be Prepared (Except That’s Impossible)

First off, no one is really prepared for a total eclipse. Pictures one may have seen don’t do the event justice, because cameras never capture its true visual appearance. The reason has to do with the difference between human retinal sensitivity and the vagaries of a camera’s exposure, whether using digital imaging or film. The inner corona is bright; the outer corona faint and delicate. The correct exposure for one part of the eclipsed sun either underexposes the other so that it’s invisible or overexposes it so that it looks like a huge burned-out area ringed by wide white flares. So a real eclipse does not resemble the ones you see on nature documentaries or in magazines, even when the images are taken by professionals. To get an accurate image, you would have to Photoshop multiple images together.

The magic really starts around ten minutes before totality, when the sun is still partially blocked but almost gone. You need eye protection at this point; I prefer welding goggles fitted with shade 12 filters if the sun is low and shade 14 if the sun is high. These display a clearer, higher-quality image than cheap plastic eclipse glasses do. (Get the goggles from a welding supply store, which is absolutely never located in the mall but rather in the worst part of town, usually adjacent to a fenced-in yard protected by snarling dogs.)

At this stage the sun resembles a crescent moon, but the best thing to do is look at the surrounding countryside. Colors are saturated; shadows are stark; contrast is boosted; the shadows of trees and bushes contain innumerable strange crescent shapes. Ordinary objects such as trees and houses seem unfamiliar, as if illuminated by a star other than the sun. Everyday scenery has been transformed into something extraordinary.

Expectation fills the air. Then a minute or two before totality, shimmering dark lines suddenly wiggle over all white surfaces, such as sand or a sheet spread on the ground. These are called shadow bands, and they can’t be photographed! If you try, your video or still images will show the white substance or object without any wavy bands at all. The rather anticlimactic reason for this is simply that shadow bands have extremely low contrast. Because they shimmer, the eye readily picks them out. But they lie below the contrast required to show up in a photographic image.

Then comes totality, which can last anywhere between one second and around seven minutes. Now you take off your welding goggles and look at the sun directly. The bright stars come out. The sun’s corona leaps across the sky, much farther than you expected. Its delicate wispy structure, following the sun’s normally invisible magnetic-field lines, depends on the part of the solar cycle you’re in. At a glance you’ll know if you’re at sunspot minimum or maximum: during the latter period the corona is round and symmetrical, as if the sun’s springs have been wound up tightly and all the power held in place is ready to pop. But a quiet sun, paradoxically, lets go with long, irregular coronal streamers. Whenever it’s seen, the glow is obviously that of a light different from anything nature normally offers. There is a logical reason for this, too: the sun’s corona is by far the hottest thing the human eye can observe. It’s made of plasma—broken fragments of atoms—rather than the whole atoms that comprise the solar surface and everything else around us on earth.

It’s an experience that does not seem of this life or this world. “The home of my soul” is how one eclipse watcher described it to me. But why? What has really happened? It’s obviously not sim- ply a matter of the sun’s visible light being blocked. Its invisible rays are extinguished, too. (As Victor Hess discovered during a 1912 near-total eclipse, when he went up in a balloon to measure the sun’s radiation, cosmic rays do not decrease when the sun is blocked. But many other energies do indeed vanish.) Solar ultra-violet energy drops to zero. So does infrared radiation, whose absence starts to be felt long before totality arrives. With the drop in infrared energy, clouds, rocks, and the air just above the ground are suddenly cooled. This chill creates a pressure difference that manifests itself as a haunting eclipse wind. Moreover, the decreasing temperature as the sun is steadily blocked can shrink the gap between the temperature and the dew point, allowing clouds to suddenly form. That’s what happened during the Siberian eclipse of the 1980s, with exasperating consequences, as the large international party of professional astronomers who had gathered to observe the event saw nothing when thick clouds materialized. They had meticulously planned for what the sun’s visible rays would do—but they’d neglected its invisible rays!

When the eclipse is over, observers immediately start thinking about how they can get to the next one. So don’t even think of being anywhere else but in the narrow ribbon of totality on August 21, 2017, and on April 8, 2024. Be sure to factor in likely cloud cover. For example, eastern Idaho is a safer bet than the Pacific Northwest for the 2017 event, whereas in 2024, you’d be better off staying in the dry parts of southern Texas than in the Buffalo, New York, area. Also know that, in most places, midmornings tend to be clearer than midafternoons. When an eclipse offers a long track, as the one in 2017 does, one could choose a late morning event in Idaho or a midafternoon totality in Nashville; the odds somewhat favor the former.

I know someone who went to seven total eclipses but was clouded out of four of them. There are even several people who, on August 11, 1999, inexplicably chose to view the eclipse from Cornwall, England (overcast and drizzling), instead of from Turkey (crystal clear). This is a case in which considerations of convenience—or, perhaps, having friends or relatives in a particular location—can steer us wrong.


A Belgian town honored its 22-year-old tradition of making a giant omelet on Tuesday amidst an egg contamination scare, cooking 10,000 eggs in a pan four meters wide.

Millions of chicken eggs have been pulled from European supermarket shelves as a result of the scare over the use of the insecticide fipronil, which is forbidden in the food chain and can cause organ damage in humans.

Hundreds of people gathered in the eastern Belgian city of Malmedy undeterred by the scare and the president of the local branch of the giant omelet fraternity, Benedicte Mathy, said she was confident Tuesday s dish was safe to eat.

Under a timid Belgian sun and with music playing they tucked into the giant omelet cooked over an open fire by “The World Fraternity of Knights of the Giant Omelette”, which was created in 1973.

The then 36-year-old chairman of Virgin Records arranged for a hot-air balloon masquerading as a flying saucer to land in a field in Surrey, outside London. An alien in a space outfit exited the UFO, who turned out to be a midget.

Meet Helen Lavretsky, Professor of Psychiatry at UCLA, recently completed a pilot study of Kundalini yoga vs memory training in older adults with subjective memory complaints and mild cognitive impairment.

Patients assigned to yoga practice for 12 weeks with daily meditation for 12 minutes in weekly one hour classes did better than those who participated in memory training classes in verbal and visual memory, executive function, mood resilience, anxiety, and connectivity of the brain.

Results suggest that yoga can be a cognitive enhancement or brain fitness exercise that can confer similar or even more extensive cognitive resilience than memory training—the gold standard—in older adults.

Meditation in this study was practiced with music recorded on the White Sun album, which received a Grammy award this year.

Dr Lavretsky is Professor of Psychiatry at UCLA. She also directs the Late Life Mood, Stress, and Wellness Research Program at the Semel Institute at UCLA.

Eyre HA1, Siddarth P1, Acevedo B1, et al. A randomized controlled trial of Kundalini yoga in mild cognitive impairment. Int Psychogeriatr. 2017;29:557-567.

Yang H, Leaver AM, Siddarth P, et al. Neurochemical and Neuroanatomical Plasticity Following Memory Training and Yoga Interventions in Older Adults with Mild Cognitive Impairment. Front Aging Neurosci. 2016;8:277. eCollection 2016.

by Lisa Ryan

As genetic-ancestry kits increase in popularity, more white nationalists have been taking the spit-in-a-cup tests to prove their heritage — and many are left disappointed by results showing they aren’t as “white” as they had hoped, STAT News reports.

A new study from researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the Data & Society Research Institute examined comments left in 12 million posts on the website Stormfront, left by more than 300,000 users. The team was able to find 70 discussion threads, where 153 users posted about their test results from companies like 23andMe and — with more than 3,000 posts in response.

Sociologist Aaron Panofsky explained to STAT News that many of the white nationalists would post their results, even if they were upset to learn they weren’t completely “white” — which was surprising because “they will basically say if you want to be a member of Stormfront you have to be 100 percent white European, not Jewish.”

Only a third of people who posted their ancestry results were pleased with what they discovered — a commenter with the username Sloth even wrote, “Pretty damn pure blood.” Those who found themselves with results that weren’t 100 percent white European dealt with their disappointment by rejecting the test or disputing the results with the help of other users. Some would say they knew their genealogy better than whatever a genetic test may reveal; certain users also apparently tried to discredit the tests as a Jewish conspiracy.

Panofsky notes that there is “mainstream critical literature” on these tests that ague people should be cautious about the results. J. Scott Roberts, an associate professor at the University of Michigan who wasn’t involved in the study, told STAT News, “The science is often murky in those areas and gives ambiguous information. They try to give specific percentages from this region, or x percent disease risk, and my sense is that that is an artificially precise estimate.” However, STAT News points out that and 23andMe are “meticulous” in how they analyze a person’s genetic material, and exclude outliers that can distort a person’s genetic data.

If you unwittingly pass through this Midwestern town on the first weekend in August, you might think you’ve stumbled into a mirrored funhouse.

Everywhere you look there are identical twins, all of them wearing matching outfits. Here, two stout gray-haired men dressed as pilgrims. Over there, a pair of bearded dudes in lederhosen, hoisting trays stacked with mugs of beer. Even the baby girls in the two-seat stroller, sporting Steelers onesies, are spitting images.

This double-vision spectacle is Twins Days, an annual festival that brings thousands of twins from around the globe to northeastern Ohio to celebrate their twin-ness. The festival bills itself as the largest annual gathering of twins in the world.

It’s also one big petri dish for scientists, who flock to the festival every summer to study twins’ genetics and behavioral differences.

“It’s a club you can’t buy your way into,” says Katie Barry, 32, of New York City, who has been coming to Twins Days with her twin sister Kristy every year since they were 7. She gazes around at the carnival of costumed couples with a smile, searching for the right words.

“It’s this oasis of twin love.”

‘Where’s your twin?’

It’s almost too perfect that Twins Days is held in Twinsburg. The Cleveland suburb is named for identical twin brothers who helped settle the town and died of the same ailment in 1827, within hours of each other.

The festival got off to a quiet start in 1976, when 36 sets of twins showed up. It grew fast. This year, the event attracted more than 1,900 sets of twins, along with a smattering of triplets and at least one set of quadruplets. They come from almost every US state and from as far away as Australia.

The event has a county fair feel and includes a parade, look-alike contests, a talent show and an enormous group photo — a human blanket of twins — taken in a field from atop a crane.

Twin humor is abundant. Siblings stroll the grounds in T-shirts that say, “Thing 1” and “Thing 2,” “The Good Twin” and “The Evil Twin,” or “I’m not Steven” and “I’m not David.”

More than a few have rhyming names, like Bernice and Vernice, Carolyn and Sharolyn and Jeynaeha and Jeyvaeha.

It may be the only place in America where you can stroll into a hotel and be asked by a staffer, “Where’s your twin?”

For many identical twins, who spend the rest of the year drawing stares and enduring stupid questions — actual example: “Do you have the same birthday?” — it’s a rare chance not to stand out.

Twins say they enjoy profound bonds that few “singletons” — as non-twins are called here — fully understand.

“Some people bring spouses or boyfriends, and it’s a terrible mistake,” says Barry, “because they feel isolated.”

Katie and Kristy Barry, 32, of New York City, in homemade costumes inspired by “Wonder Woman.”

An exclusive club

About 33 in every 1,000 human births in the US are twins, a rate that has climbed in recent decades as more women marry later and take fertility drugs or employ in vitro fertilization. Identical twins are an even more exclusive club — roughly 4 in every 1,000 births.

They are formed when a single fertilized egg splits in two after conception, creating two embryos with the same genetic makeup and DNA.

Scientists love to study them because they help answer the age-old question about nature vs. nurture. Because identical twins share the same genes, any differences between them — say, more wrinkled versus less wrinkled skin — must be the result of their environment.

Take Laura and Linda Seber, 41, from Sheffield, Ohio.

The pair tied for 8th in their high school class of 404 students, attended the same grad school — “It was great to buy one set of books,” Linda says — and now share a home while working as physical therapists.

“If we’re genetically identical, I should be able to do everything that she does,” says Linda. “But sometimes it’s difficult being compared to each other. Because if I can’t achieve what she achieves, it’s like … why? Why can’t I do that?”

Indeed, it is hard to underestimate the mysterious psychic forces that bind one twin to another.

Don and Dave Wolf, 59, have identical graying beards that hang halfway down their chests. The identical twins live in Fenton, Michigan, and do long-haul trucking, sharing turns at the wheel during marathon cross-country drives.

The pair recall waking up one morning as boys, age 11 or 12, to discover they had just had the same dream. A few years later, Dave suddenly became overwhelmed with concern for his brother only to learn from their dad that Dave had just broken his collarbone in a motorbike crash.

“I can’t explain it. I didn’t feel any pain,” Dave says. “But I just knew something had happened.”

Don and Dave Wolf, 59, share a home in Michigan and drive a tractor-trailer together.

In the name of science

In a long white tent on the festival grounds, a long row of twins sit at tables before trays of color-coded food flavors: milk, potato chips, artificial sweeteners. Wearing nose clips to mask aromas, they uncap each sample, take a taste and then spit into a plastic cup before taking a swig of water and tasting the next. They record their opinions on an iPad.

These twins are serving as volunteer subjects for the Monell Chemical Senses Center, a nonprofit research institute in Philadelphia whose sponsors include such food giants as Coca-Cola and General Mills.

“Our question is whether some people are taste-blind and if so, to what? Our interest is whether this is a genetically determined trait,” says Danielle Reed, a Monell behavioral geneticist. “We like to compare genetically identical twins to twins that are no more similar than ordinary siblings.”

This can help food scientists understand which traits — say, an affinity for bitter flavors — are most strongly determined by genetics.

Tara Louis tastes different types of milk as part of genetic research into food preferences.

“You can imagine if we look subjectively at their DNA we could predict what will taste better or worse to people,” Reed says. “So you can tailor dietary advice to people’s actual ability to taste and smell.”

Monell is just one of a handful of research groups that attend Twins Days. A few feet away at Procter & Gamble’s Olay tent, scientists are studying twins to better understand the aging process and its effect on skin. Nearby, a forensics expert from the Los Angeles Police Department is collecting latent fingerprints from identical twins — yes, twins’ prints are slightly different — to improve fingerprint-identification tools.

And at West Virginia University’s tent, biometric researchers take hi-res photos of twins and record them speaking to help computer scientists create better facial and voice recognition systems. The FBI has funded similar research here as well.

“If you can build a system that can differentiate between identical twins,” says Jeremy Dawson, a WVU associate professor of computer science, “then it’s a lot easier to tell the difference between (regular) people.”
Gregarious identical twins Doug and Phil Malm grew up in Idaho. Identical twins Jill and Jenna Lassen, both introverts, grew up in Michigan. Their father would address them as “sisters” because he was too proud to admit he couldn’t tell the girls apart.
All four were visiting the Twinsburg festival in 1991 when they met and sparks flew. Luckily, there was never a question over who would be with who.
“It was instant,” says Phil, who chose Jenna. “We knew right away which one we were with.”

Patrick M. Ketter and Paul R. Ketter Jr. sport patriotic outfits. One twin is liberal, the other more conservative.

Doug and Jill and Phil and Jenna

Twins Days is also about the science of attraction.

New kings and queens are crowned here each summer. But the closest thing to perennial festival royalty are the Malms.

Phil, Jenna, Jill and Doug Malm. The foursome met at Twins Days in 1991 and were married here two years later.

The foursome now live in Moscow, Idaho, as members of a tiny subset — identical twins married to identical twins. Doug and Phil, 60, are retired carpenters, while Jill and Jenna, 50, work in day care.

All four share one home. Separate houses, even side by side, wasn’t an option.

“It never would have worked,” Doug says.

But the couples have had to learn to solve domestic disputes as a foursome.

“When we fight, we can’t work it out as just two of us. We have to work it out as four,” Phil says.
And yes, sometimes household confusion reigns.

“When I look at my wife and her sister, there are days when I cannot tell them apart,” Doug says.

He has been known to come up behind Jill and give her a playful bite on the neck, only to realize he’s nuzzling Jenna. “And then,” he says, “we get teased for a while.”

Lauren and Allison Knight wear matching tops celebrating their Canadian heritage.

A year’s worth of data

Back at the research tents, the twins line up, sometimes for an hour or more, to participate. It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement.

The twins enjoy it because they get money or free samples. Many say they feel good knowing they are contributing to science.

The scientists like it because it’s an efficient way to gather data from a hard-to-find group of people.

The Monell Chemical Senses Center expects to collect research on some 450 twins over the course of the weekend.

“We collect a year’s worth of data in four hours,” Reed says.

Braeden and Aaron Chulskiy, 2 1/2, are pulled in a wagon by their dad.

The saddest man at Twins Days

Amid the procession of coupled siblings, one man wanders alone.

Shawn Riggins, 45, wears a T-shirt with images of his twin brother Shane’s face and a festival badge bearing both their names. And he wears his heart on his sleeve.

Shane is not here. He died last September of colorectal cancer.

“There’s a sense of emptiness that no words can describe,” Shawn says. “There is a pain that’s so deep you can’t cry it out. You can’t scream it out. You just need to walk through.

“He’s not here in the physical, but I see him every day when I walk past a mirror.”

The two brothers had been coming to Twins Days together for 20 years. They thought they were fraternal twins until 2002, when they took DNA tests at the festival and learned they were identical.

Shawn Riggins, center, talks with friends at his first Twins Days without his twin brother Shane, who died last year.

“We looked exactly alike,” says Shawn, who is a kindergarten teacher in Columbus, Ohio, and remains cancer free. “We did everything together. We had the same eyeglasses. We had the same facial hair. If we went to an event, we always had to walk in at the same time.”

Shawn agonized for months about whether to come to Twins Days this year. But in the end, he decided the support of his fellow twins, many of whom knew Shane, made it worth the trip.

“I came back here because no one else but a twin can understand the enormity of what I’m feeling,” he says.
The scientists, focused on sets of twins, no longer want to study Shawn. They can measure twins’ DNA, but they can’t fathom the depths of their grief.

But twins here, many of whom remember his brother, take him in their arms for tearful embraces.
Just then, as if on cue, a woman approaches Shawn and gives him a long hug. He thanks her.

For now, he says, “the energy in this place has given me the strength to stay.”

Riggins takes a deep breath, pulls himself together and shuffles toward a passing throng of festivalgoers. He’s ready for more hugs, two at a time.

by Andy Greenberg

WHEN BIOLOGISTS SYNTHESIZE DNA, they take pains not to create or spread a dangerous stretch of genetic code that could be used to create a toxin or, worse, an infectious disease. But one group of biohackers has demonstrated how DNA can carry a less expected threat—one designed to infect not humans nor animals but computers.

In new research they plan to present at the USENIX Security conference on Thursday, a group of researchers from the University of Washington has shown for the first time that it’s possible to encode malicious software into physical strands of DNA, so that when a gene sequencer analyzes it the resulting data becomes a program that corrupts gene-sequencing software and takes control of the underlying computer. While that attack is far from practical for any real spy or criminal, it’s one the researchers argue could become more likely over time, as DNA sequencing becomes more commonplace, powerful, and performed by third-party services on sensitive computer systems. And, perhaps more to the point for the cybersecurity community, it also represents an impressive, sci-fi feat of sheer hacker ingenuity.

“We know that if an adversary has control over the data a computer is processing, it can potentially take over that computer,” says Tadayoshi Kohno, the University of Washington computer science professor who led the project, comparing the technique to traditional hacker attacks that package malicious code in web pages or an email attachment. “That means when you’re looking at the security of computational biology systems, you’re not only thinking about the network connectivity and the USB drive and the user at the keyboard but also the information stored in the DNA they’re sequencing. It’s about considering a different class of threat.”

A Sci-Fi Hack
For now, that threat remains more of a plot point in a Michael Crichton novel than one that should concern computational biologists. But as genetic sequencing is increasingly handled by centralized services—often run by university labs that own the expensive gene sequencing equipment—that DNA-borne malware trick becomes ever so slightly more realistic. Especially given that the DNA samples come from outside sources, which may be difficult to properly vet.

If hackers did pull off the trick, the researchers say they could potentially gain access to valuable intellectual property, or possibly taint genetic analysis like criminal DNA testing. Companies could even potentially place malicious code in the DNA of genetically modified products, as a way to protect trade secrets, the researchers suggest. “There are a lot of interesting—or threatening may be a better word—applications of this coming in the future,” says Peter Ney, a researcher on the project.

Regardless of any practical reason for the research, however, the notion of building a computer attack—known as an “exploit”—with nothing but the information stored in a strand of DNA represented an epic hacker challenge for the University of Washington team. The researchers started by writing a well-known exploit called a “buffer overflow,” designed to fill the space in a computer’s memory meant for a certain piece of data and then spill out into another part of the memory to plant its own malicious commands.

But encoding that attack in actual DNA proved harder than they first imagined. DNA sequencers work by mixing DNA with chemicals that bind differently to DNA’s basic units of code—the chemical bases A, T, G, and C—and each emit a different color of light, captured in a photo of the DNA molecules. To speed up the processing, the images of millions of bases are split up into thousands of chunks and analyzed in parallel. So all the data that comprised their attack had to fit into just a few hundred of those bases, to increase the likelihood it would remain intact throughout the sequencer’s parallel processing.

When the researchers sent their carefully crafted attack to the DNA synthesis service Integrated DNA Technologies in the form of As, Ts, Gs, and Cs, they found that DNA has other physical restrictions too. For their DNA sample to remain stable, they had to maintain a certain ratio of Gs and Cs to As and Ts, because the natural stability of DNA depends on a regular proportion of A-T and G-C pairs. And while a buffer overflow often involves using the same strings of data repeatedly, doing so in this case caused the DNA strand to fold in on itself. All of that meant the group had to repeatedly rewrite their exploit code to find a form that could also survive as actual DNA, which the synthesis service would ultimately send them in a finger-sized plastic vial in the mail.

The result, finally, was a piece of attack software that could survive the translation from physical DNA to the digital format, known as FASTQ, that’s used to store the DNA sequence. And when that FASTQ file is compressed with a common compression program known as fqzcomp—FASTQ files are often compressed because they can stretch to gigabytes of text—it hacks that compression software with its buffer overflow exploit, breaking out of the program and into the memory of the computer running the software to run its own arbitrary commands.

A Far-Off Threat
Even then, the attack was fully translated only about 37 percent of the time, since the sequencer’s parallel processing often cut it short or—another hazard of writing code in a physical object—the program decoded it backward. (A strand of DNA can be sequenced in either direction, but code is meant to be read in only one. The researchers suggest in their paper that future, improved versions of the attack might be crafted as a palindrome.)

Despite that tortuous, unreliable process, the researchers admit, they also had to take some serious shortcuts in their proof-of-concept that verge on cheating. Rather than exploit an existing vulnerability in the fqzcomp program, as real-world hackers do, they modified the program’s open-source code to insert their own flaw allowing the buffer overflow. But aside from writing that DNA attack code to exploit their artificially vulnerable version of fqzcomp, the researchers also performed a survey of common DNA sequencing software and found three actual buffer overflow vulnerabilities in common programs. “A lot of this software wasn’t written with security in mind,” Ney says. That shows, the researchers say, that a future hacker might be able to pull off the attack in a more realistic setting, particularly as more powerful gene sequencers start analyzing larger chunks of data that could better preserve an exploit’s code.

Needless to say, any possible DNA-based hacking is years away. Illumina, the leading maker of gene-sequencing equipment, said as much in a statement responding to the University of Washington paper. “This is interesting research about potential long-term risks. We agree with the premise of the study that this does not pose an imminent threat and is not a typical cyber security capability,” writes Jason Callahan, the company’s chief information security officer “We are vigilant and routinely evaluate the safeguards in place for our software and instruments. We welcome any studies that create a dialogue around a broad future framework and guidelines to ensure security and privacy in DNA synthesis, sequencing, and processing.”

But hacking aside, the use of DNA for handling computer information is slowly becoming a reality, says Seth Shipman, one member of a Harvard team that recently encoded a video in a DNA sample. (Shipman is married to WIRED senior writer Emily Dreyfuss.) That storage method, while mostly theoretical for now, could someday allow data to be kept for hundreds of years, thanks to DNA’s ability to maintain its structure far longer than magnetic encoding in flash memory or on a hard drive. And if DNA-based computer storage is coming, DNA-based computer attacks may not be so farfetched, he says.
“I read this paper with a smile on my face, because I think it’s clever,” Shipman says. “Is it something we should start screening for now? I doubt it.” But he adds that, with an age of DNA-based data possibly on the horizon, the ability to plant malicious code in DNA is more than a hacker parlor trick.

“Somewhere down the line, when more information is stored in DNA and it’s being input and sequenced constantly,” Shipman says, “we’ll be glad we started thinking about these things.”