Only two of the following three creations have had lasting scientific or cultural impact: The telescope … the Sistine Chapel ceiling … the electric banana. Find out why one didn’t make the cut as a game-changer, and why certain eras and places produce a remarkable flowering of creativity (we’re looking at you, Athens).
You are not alone. You can’t see ‘em, but your face is a festival of face mites. They’ve evolved with us for millennia. And a new study finds that hundreds of different tiny spiders, beetles, and – our favorite - book lice make your home theirs. But before you go bonkers with the disinfectant, consider: eradicating these critters may do more harm than good. Some are such close evolutionary partners with humans that they keep us healthy and can even reveal something about our ancestry.
In astronomy, the rule of thumb was simple: If you can’t see it with a telescope, it’s not real. Seeing is believing. Well, tell that to the astronomers who discovered dark energy, or dark matter … or, more recently, Planet 9. And yet we have evidence that all these things exist (although skepticism about the ninth – or is it tenth? – planet still lingers).
Find out how we know what we know about the latest cosmic discoveries – even if we can’t see them directly. The astronomer who found Planet 9 – and killed Pluto – offers his evidence.
ENCORE Germs can make us sick, but we didn’t know about these puny pathogens prior to the end of the 19th century. Just the suggestion that a tiny bug could spread disease made eyes roll. Then came germ theory, sterilization, and antibiotics. It was a revolution in medicine. Now we’re on the cusp of another one. This time we may cure what ails us by replacing what ails us.
Bioengineers use advancements in stem cell therapy to grow red and white cells for human blood. Meanwhile, a breakthrough in 3D printing: scientists print blood vessels and say that human organs may be next.
ENCORE If you move with the times, you might stick around long enough to pass on your genes. And that is adaptation and evolution, in a nutshell.
But humans are changing their environment faster than their genes can keep pace. This has led to a slew of diseases – from backache to diabetes – according to one evolutionary biologist. And our technology may not get us out of the climate mess we’ve created. So just how good are we at adapting to the world around us?
ENCORE The stars are out tonight. And they do more than just twinkle. These boiling balls of hot plasma can tell us something about other celestial phenomena. They betray the hiding places of black holes, for one. But they can also fool us. Find out why one of the most intriguing discoveries in astrobiology - that of the potentially habitable exoplanet Gliese 581g - may have been just a mirage.
Plus, the highest levels of ultraviolet light ever mentioned on Earth’s surface puzzles scientists: is it a fluke of nature, or something manmade?
ENCORE Sure you have a big brain; it's the hallmark of Homo sapiens. But that doesn't mean that you've cornered the market on intelligence. Admittedly, it's difficult to say, since the very definition of the term is elusive. Depending on what we mean by intelligence, a certain aquatic mammal is not as smart as we thought (hint: rhymes with "caulpin") … and your rhododendron may be a photosynthesizing Einstein.
And what I.Q. means for A.I. We may be building our brilliant successors.
We may be connected, but some say we’re not communicating. The consequences could be dire. A U.S. Army major says that social media are breaking up our “band of brothers,” and that soldiers who tweet rather than talk have less cohesion in combat.
ENCORE Do you feel happy today? How about happily disgusted? Maybe sadly surprised, or sadly disgusted? Human emotions are complex. But at least they’re the common language that unites us all – except when they don’t. A tribe in Namibia might interpret our expression of fear as one of wonderment. And people with autism don’t feel the emotions that others do.
The Paris climate talks are scheduled to go ahead despite the terrorist attacks, and attendees hope to sign an international agreement on climate change. A BBC reporter covering the meetings tells us what we can expect from the conference.
Also, it’s unclear whether Pope Francis himself will travel to the City of Light, but his encyclical may have already influenced the talks there. A historian considers whether the Church’s acceptance of climate change represents a departure from its historical positions on science. Galileo, anyone?
ENCORE What’s for dinner? Meat, acorns, tubers, and fruit. Followers of the Paleo diet say we should eat what our ancestors ate 10,000 years ago, when our genes were perfectly in synch with the environment.
We investigate the reasoning behind going paleo with the movement’s pioneer, as well as with an evolutionary biologist. Is it true that our genes haven’t changed much since our hunter-gatherer days?
Plus, a surprising dental discovery is nothing for cavemen to smile about.
ENCORE One day, coffee is good for you; the next, it’s not. And it seems that everything you eat is linked to cancer, according to research. But scientific studies are not always accurate. Insufficient data, biased measurements, or a faulty analysis can trip them up. And that’s why scientists are always skeptical.
Hear one academic say that more than half of all published results are wrong, but that science still remains the best tool we have for learning about nature.
Also, a cosmologist points to reasons why science can never give us all the answers.
ENCORE For many, the word virus is a synonym for disease – diseases of humans, plants, and even computers. Ebola is an example: a virus with a big and terrifying reputation. And yet the vast majority of viruses are not only friendly, they are essential for life.
Find out how viruses make plant life in Yellowstone’s hottest environments possible, and fear your spinach salad no longer: a scientist recruits viruses to defeat E. coli bacteria.
ENCORE Is space the place for you? With a hefty amount of moolah, a trip there and back can be all yours. But when the price comes down, traffic into space may make the L.A. freeway look like a back-country lane.
Space is more accessible than it once was, from the development of private commercial flights … to a radical new telescope that makes everyone an astronomer … to mining asteroids for their metals and water to keep humanity humming for a long time.
Plus, move over Russia and America: Why the next words you hear from space may be in Mandarin.
It’s the starkly beautiful setting for the new film “The Martian,” and – just in time – NASA has announced that the Red Planet is more than a little damp, with liquid water occasionally oozing over its surface. But Mars remains hostile terrain. Mark Watney, the astronaut portrayed by Matt Damon, struggles to survive there. If he has a hard time, what chance does anyone else have?
ENCORE We all have worries. But as trained observers, scientists learn things that can affect us all. So what troubles them, should also trouble us. From viral pandemics to the limits of empirical knowledge, find out what science scenarios give researchers insomnia.
But also, we discover which scary scenarios that preoccupy the public don’t worry the scientists at all. Despite the rumors, you needn’t fear that the Large Hadron Collider will produce black holes that could swallow the Earth.
ENCORE Imagine not knowing where you are – and no one else knowing either. Today, that’s pretty unlikely. Digital devices pinpoint our location within a few feet, so it’s hard to get lost anymore. But we can still get stranded.
A reporter onboard an Antarctic ship that was stuck for weeks in sea ice describes his experience, and contrasts that with a stranding a hundred years prior in which explorers ate their dogs to survive.
ENCORE Picture a cockroach skittering across your kitchen. Eeww! Now imagine it served as an entrée at your local restaurant. There’s good reason these diminutive arthropods give us the willies – but they may also be the key to protein-rich meals of the future. Get ready for cricket casserole, as our relationship to bugs is about to change.
Also, share in one man’s panic attack when he is swarmed by grasshoppers. And the evolutionary reason insects revolt us, but also why the cicada’s buzz and the beetle’s click may have inspired humans to make music.
Ever gone bungee jumping on Venus? Of course not. No one has. However your great-great-great grandchildren might find themselves packing for the cloudy planet … or for another locale in our cosmic backyard. That’s what we picture as we accelerate our imagination to escape velocity and beyond – and tour vacation spots that are out of this world.
ENCORE Nuclear fission powers the Sun. Or is it fusion? At any rate, helium is burned in the process, of that you are certain. After all, you read that article on astronomy last week*.
You know what you know. But you probably don’t know what you don’t know. Few of us do. Scientists say we’re spectacularly incompetent at recognizing our own incompetency, and that sometimes leads to trouble.