Virtual-reality surgery in the mountains of Mexico

Jose Mosso

No hospitals here: surgeon Jose Mosso uses virtual reality to relieve patients’ pain (J. MARCHANT)

[Mexico City surgeon Jose] Mosso’s Jeep Cherokee is full to bursting. Tents, plastic food boxes, surgical equipment, medication, sanitary products and bags filled with clothes, sweaters and shoes are squeezed into every available space inside and tied precariously to the roof. On the back seat are Mosso’s wife, Veronica – a gynaecologist – their youngest son, Olivier, and, to keep the nine-year-old entertained, two baby iguanas recently captured from the forest near Acapulco, confined for the journey in a green net bag.

There’s a long drive ahead. We are going to El Tepeyac, an isolated village hundreds of kilometres away in the mountains of Guerrero state. It’s home to an indigenous Me’phaa community (often called Tlapaneco by outsiders), one of Mexico’s poorest. “They have been forgotten,” says Mosso. “They live with cold, on top of the mountain. They don’t have hospitals, clinics, nothing.”

As the high-rise blocks of Mexico City give way to sprawling shanty towns and then forested mountains, Mosso tells me about his father, Victorio. He was born close to El Tepeyac but left when he was 13, eventually becoming a teacher near Acapulco. He returned briefly to his childhood home after getting married, but never visited again until Mosso took him 40 years later. They found Victorio’s youngest brother, Faustino. At first, neither brother recognised the other. “They said ‘You look too old!’” recalls Mosso. “Then they were hugging, crying, a lot of emotions. It was the first time I saw my father cry.”

Mosso was shocked by the poverty he saw, with dwellings that he felt could barely be described as houses. The villagers asked him to examine a patient, an old woman with a fever who was lying in a puddle on the floor (there had been a recent flood, and it was the only place close to the fire). She had pneumonia; Mosso told them there was nothing he could do. “She was my aunt,” he says. “It was the last time I saw her. She died a few weeks later.” He pauses, eyes fixed on the road. “That’s why I go back. Because of my aunt.”

This excerpt is from “Virtually painless: How VR is making surgery simpler”, my article for Mosaic. To read more (it’s free), click here:

Secrets of the griffin warrior tomb

gold ring

This stunning gold ring was among hundreds of treasures found in the griffin warrior tomb (CHRONIS PAPANIKOLOPOLOS/UNIV. CINCINNATI)

They had been digging for days, shaded from the Greek sun by a square of green tarpaulin slung between olive trees. The archaeologists used picks to break the cream-colored clay, baked as hard as rock, until what began as a cluster of stones just visible in the dirt became four walls in a neat rectangle, sinking down into the earth. Little more than the occasional animal bone, however, came from the soil itself. On the morning of May 28, 2015, the sun gave way to an unseasonable drizzle. The pair digging that day, Flint Dibble and Alison Fields, waited for the rain to clear, then stepped down into their meter-deep hole and got to work. Dibble looked at Fields. “It’s got to be soon,” he said.

The season had not started well. The archaeologists were part of a group of close to three dozen researchers digging near the ancient Palace of Nestor, on a hilltop near Pylos on the southwest coast of Greece. The palace was built in the Bronze Age by the Mycenaeans—the heroes described in Homer’s epic poems—and was first excavated in the 1930s. The dig’s leaders, Jack Davis and Sharon Stocker, husband-and-wife archaeologists from the University of Cincinnati, in Ohio, had hoped to excavate in a currant field just downslope from the palace, but Greek bureaucracy and a lawyers’ strike kept them from obtaining the necessary permits. So they settled, disappointed, on a neighboring olive grove. They cleared the land of weeds and snakes and selected a few spots to investigate, including three stones that appeared to form a corner. As the trench around the stones sank deeper, the researchers allowed themselves to grow eager: The shaft’s dimensions, two meters by one meter, suggested a grave, and Mycenaean burials are famous for their breathtakingly rich contents, able to reveal volumes about the culture that produced them. Still, there was no proof that this structure was even ancient, the archaeologists reminded themselves, and it might simply be a small cellar or shed.

Dibble was clearing earth from around a large stone slab when his pick hit something hard and the monotony of the clay was broken by a vivid flash of green: bronze. The pair immediately put down their picks, and after placing an excited call to Davis and Stocker they began to carefully sweep up the soil and dust. They knew they were standing atop something substantial, but even then they did not imagine just how rich the discovery would turn out to be…

This excerpt is from “The Golden Warrior: A 3,500-year-old tomb exposes the roots of Western civilisation”, my cover story in the January/February 2017 issue of Smithsonian magazine. To read on (it’s free), click here:

Antikythera wreck yields human skeleton


Hannes Schroeder snaps on two pairs of blue latex gloves, then wipes his hands with a solution of bleach. In front of him is a large Tupperware box full of plastic bags that each contain sea water and a piece of red-stained bone. He lifts one out and … [Continue reading]

When fake pills have real effects

placebo pills

In April, Ted Kaptchuk addressed hundreds of physicians and scientists at the Behind and Beyond the Brain symposium in Porto, Portugal. Within minutes, ripples of laughter were spreading around the conference hall. Kaptchuk, a researcher at … [Continue reading]

Indonesia’s 40,000-year-old cave art

Leang Jarie

I struggle to keep my footing on a narrow ridge of earth snaking between flooded fields of rice. The stalks, almost ready to harvest, ripple in the breeze, giving the valley the appearance of a shimmering green sea. In the distance, steep limestone … [Continue reading]

Wonders of the microscopic world


I have a background in microbiology - for my PhD I studied the corkscrew-shaped bacterium Campylobacter jejuni - so when I was recently asked to interview Rutgers University microbiologist Paul Falkowski for the brilliant website Five Books, I jumped … [Continue reading]

The sphere of Archimedes

Archimedes sphere

Here’s a gorgeous video featuring a mechanical model of the solar system, attributed to the famed Greek inventor Archimedes and now reconstructed by the London-based mechanician Michael Wright. This globe, made from copper and brass (although the … [Continue reading]

Antikythera wreck yields new treasures

Divers at Antikythera

A blue game pawn, bone flute and part of a plate, made up of delicate coils of blue and yellow glass, are among the latest artefacts to be retrieved from the famous Antikythera shipwreck. My article about the expedition is published in today's issue … [Continue reading]

Leap of the horsetail

spore cone

Here’s my favourite tiny thing of the week: plant spores that leap and dance. Philippe Marmottant of the University of Grenoble, France, and his colleagues used fast microscopy to reveal that horsetail spores have a cunning dispersal method. Each … [Continue reading]

Pregnant women really do “nest”


I’ve never been one to get stuck in with DIY, but when I became pregnant with my first child, I felt impelled to decorate the house. Despite my growing bump I was on my knees scrubbing skirting boards and climbing ladders to roller paint the ceiling. … [Continue reading]