The comparison trap

Social media and body image, extracting water out of thin air, and what hit Uranus?

At the risk of turning this newsletter into a diary of my own Instagram habits, here’s a story I wrote for BBC Future about the complicated relationship between social media and body image.

Most of the studies so far are quite small and correlational (which obviously does not = causation). But we’re starting to get hints of what exactly about social media makes us feed bad about our bodies, and what could be good.

What’s emerging is that comparisons seem to be key to those bad feelings. In particular, it’s not comparing ourselves to celebrities that seems to do the most damage, but comparing ourselves to acquaintances. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that acquaintances, or ‘distant peers’ as they’re referred to in the research, are the people who exist mostly as highlight reels on social media, and that we rarely see IRL.

Of course, comparisons on social media don’t just make us feel bad about our bodies – they can make us feel inadequate in many, many ways. As a freelancer working on my own a lot, it’s especially easy to fall into the comparison trap. Instead of chatting to real life colleagues with multifaceted lives, I can spend whole days only getting glimpses into other people’s lives online. I spend far too long scrolling through Twitter instead of either doing something more productive, or just giving my brain a break.

Which is why I’ve deleted Twitter from my phone, and moved Instagram to the far reaches of the fourth screen – to break the habit of turning to social media during downtime, and hopefully to live more in my own brain and care less about what everyone else is doing.

I’ve also read six books this month, which I don’t think is a coincidence. (Shout out to Bad Blood, by John Carreyrou, and The Psychology of Time Travel, by Kate Mascarenhas, for both being mind-bending page turners, albeit for very different reasons.)

The rest:

What hit Uranus? (All About Space)

Uranus is weird. The ice giant is tilted, with its north and south poles where you would expect the planet’s equator to be. Its magnetic field is off-centre. And though you’d expect an ice giant to be cold, Uranus is even colder than scientists think it should be. Now researchers is starting to unravel how it came to be this way.

(This is in print only, so you’ll have to buy it to find out)

Getting water out of thin air (Technologist)

Fog catchers have been providing water to people in dry, mountainous regions for decades. As more regions get drier thanks to climate change, could recovering water from air solve some of our problems?

How we can save hydropower (Technologist)

The way we’ve historically generated energy from water is not good for the environment. Here’s how that’s changing.

Nearly half of global childhood cancers go undiagnosed (Nature News)

Tens of thousands of cancers are missed each year, particularly in countries where children have poor access to health care.

“No vaccine, no school”: the stark reality of low vaccination rates (Prospect)

Unvaccinated children aren't only at risk themselves—if too few people receive their vaccinations, the protection of "herd immunity" can be threatened.

Until next time: say hi at @kahoakes, or lurk at

– Kelly

In defence of Instagram and space elevators

Digital hoarding, getting to space without a rocket, and everything you never wanted to know about fatbergs.

Here’s a bumper edition of stuff I’ve written over the last couple of months. Read to the end if you want a very expensive way to prove Elon Musk wrong (and, I guess, help humanity become a properly spacefaring species).

Marie Kondo-ing your digital life

Towards the end of last year I spent some time thinking about my own digital possessions, while researching a feature about the emerging research on digital hoarding for BBC Future.

I came to what some people would probably think is a weird conclusion for someone writing about why it pays to declutter your digital life: my New Year’s resolution would be to post on Instagram more.

For the feature I had spoken to Jo Ann Oravec, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, who told me that her aunt, who recently died aged 100, had kept six carefully-curated photo albums that spanned her whole life. In her old age, she would look back over the photos and feel a sense of satisfaction at a life well lived. Even when her health deteriorated and she could no longer remember every event in the album, it still made her happy to look over those photos.

While speaking to Oravec I realised that my own photo collection was a total mess. All I have to show from a two week holiday to California in September is an amorphous blob of blue and green on my camera roll – a few gems, mixed in with endless duplicates and an embarrassingly large number of photos of my forearm as I tried to get the hang of a selfie stick.

So on New Year's Day I made myself actually sit down and look through my photos from the year, and post something. And it felt good! I realise that Instagram isn’t the whole solution to this (for one, it probably won’t last as long as those photo albums did, at least not in its current form) but it will at least make me sit down and review my photos, so it’s a start.

How to get to space if you hate rockets

One thing I would post on Instagram with zero hesitation is the view from an elevator ride up to space. A space elevator is exactly what it sounds like. You build a giant structure with one end on Earth and one end in space – technically in geostationary orbit – and run some elevator cars between them.

It’s one of those ideas that people get excited about every now and again but that most write off as too fantastical to work. So I went into researching this New Scientist feature on whether we’ll ever build one quite sceptical, but emerged a little less so.

The biggest obstacle still in the way is finding a material strong enough to support such a tall structure. Graphene (that all purpose wonder material) is the latest to be touted as a possibility, but is yet to be made in large enough quantities. Only time will tell if it could work in reality – but it will also need people (specifically, people with money to spend on research) to get behind the idea, or we’ll never find out.

If you need any additional motivation, Elon Musk has said before that he doesn’t think the idea “makes sense” right now, so you’d also get to prove him wrong.

The rest:

Flow Neuroscience wants to use electricity to help your depression at home - but does it work? (The Daily Beast)

It’s set to be the first headband you can buy online to treat depression in your own home – without a prescription or the supervision of a doctor.

Here’s what scientists searched for in 2018: AI is up, stress is down (Nature News)

The most-searched keywords in the Scopus database and on Google, revealed.

5 things the ISS has done for us (BBC Focus)

The International Space Station is 20 years old – here are some of the scientific advances that have been made in low Earth orbit.

Bringing tech to the farm (Technologist)

Technology is helping farmers feed the world. It can also make agriculture more environmentally friendly – for conventional and organic farmers alike.

Using data to make cities greener (Technologist)

As politicians stall when it comes to dealing with climate change on a national level, local data-based projects are trying to reduce carbon emissions on their own doorsteps

All you want to know about fatbergs but were too disgusted to ask (New Scientist)

Huge lumps of fat and waste keep appearing in sewers, particularly in the UK – are they really on the rise, or are we just paying more attention?

Until next time: say hi at @kahoakes, or lurk at

– Kelly

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