No one knows what the future will bring, but science fiction authors are willing to take a stab at imagining it. We take our own stab at imagining them imagining it. Find out why the genre of science fiction is more than a trippy ride through a bizarre, hi-tech world, but a way to assess and vote on our possible shared future.
ENCORE Electricity is so 19th century. Most of the uses for it were established by the 1920s. So there’s nothing innovative left to do, right? That’s not the opinion of the Nobel committee that awarded its 2014 physics prize to scientists who invented the blue LED.
Find out why this LED hue of blue was worthy of our most prestigious science prize … how some bacteria actually breathe rust … and a plan to cure disease by zapping our nervous system with electric pulses.
ENCORE It’s the most dramatic technical development of recent times: Teams of people working for decades to produce a slow-motion revolution we call computing. As these devices become increasingly powerful, we recall that a pioneer from the nineteenth century – Ada Lovelace, a mathematician and Lord Byron’s daughter – said they would never surpass human ability. Was she right?
We consider the near-term future of computing as the Internet of Things is poised to link everything together, and biologists adopt the techniques of information science to program living cells.
ENCORE Sherlock Holmes doesn’t have a science degree, yet he thinks rationally – like a scientist. You can too! Learn the secrets of being irritatingly logical from the most famous sleuth on Baker Street. Plus, discover why animal trackers 100,000 years ago may have been the first scientists, and what we can learn from about deductive reasoning from today’s African trackers.
Also, the author of a book on teaching physics to your dog provides tips for unleashing your inner scientist, even if you hated science in school.
ENCORE You think your life is fast-paced, but have you ever seen a bacterium swim across your countertop? You’d be surprised how fast they can move.
Find out why modeling the swirl of hurricanes takes a roomful of mathematicians and supercomputers, and how galaxies can move away from us faster than the speed of light.
Also, what happens when we try to stop the dance of atoms, cooling things down to the rock bottom temperature known as absolute zero.
ENCORE In the century and a half since Charles Darwin wrote his seminal On the Origin of the Species, our understanding of evolution has changed quite a bit. For one, we have not only identified the inheritance molecule DNA, but have determined its sequence in many animals and plants.
Evolution has evolved, and we take a look at some of the recent developments.
ENCORE We all have at least some musical talent. But very few of us can play the piano like Vladimir Horowitz. His talent was rarefied, and at the tail end of the bell curve of musical ability – that tiny sliver of the distribution where you find the true outliers. Outliers also exist with natural events: hurricane Katrina, for example, or the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs. Such events are rare, but they often have outsized effects.
Baby, it’s cold outside… but you still might want to be there. Some people claim that chilly temperatures are good for your health, and proponents of cryotherapy suggest you have a blast – of sub-zero air – to stave off wrinkles and perhaps halt aging altogether.
Meanwhile the field of cryonics offers the ultimate benefit by suggesting that you put future plans – and your body – on ice when you die. That way you might be revived when the technology to do so is developed.
You can’t pick your parents. But soon you may be able to change the DNA they gave you. CRISPR technology is poised to take DNA editing to new levels of precision and speed. Imagine deleting genes from your body that you don’t like and inserting the ones you want. The swap might not even require a fancy lab. Biohackers are already tinkering with genes in their homes.
Find out how CRISPR technology might change everything when the genetic lottery is no longer destiny.
ENCORE A single ant isn’t very brainy. But a group of ants can do remarkable things. Biological swarm behavior is one model for the next generation of tiny robots. Of course, biology can get hijacked: a fungus can seize control of an ant’s brain, for example. So will humans always remain the boss of super-smart, swarming machines?
We discuss the biology of zombie ants and how to build robots that self-assemble and work together. Also, how to guarantee the moral behavior of future ‘bots.
ENCORE Hang on to your globe. One day it’ll be a collector’s item. The arrangement of continents you see today is not what it once was, nor what it will be tomorrow. Thank plate tectonics.
Now evidence suggests that the crowding together of all major land masses into one supercontinent – Pangaea, as it’s called – is a phenomenon that’s happened over and over during Earth’s history. And it will happen again. Meet our future supercontinent home, Amasia, and learn what it will look like.
It was “one giant leap for mankind,” but the next step forward may require going back. Yes, back to the moon. Only this time the hardware may come from China. Or perhaps Europe. In fact, it seems that the only developed nation not going lunar is the U.S.
Find out why our pockmarked satellite is such hot real estate, and whether it has the raw materials we’d need to colonize it. A new theory of how the moon formed may tell us what’s below its dusty surface.
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.
Eat dark chocolate. Don’t drink coffee. Go gluten-free. If you ask people for diet advice, you’ll get a dozen different stories. Ideas about what’s good for us sprout up faster than alfalfa plants (which are still healthy … we think). How can you tell if the latest is fact or fad?
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.
Ask anyone what extraordinary powers they’d love to have, and you’re sure to hear “be able to fly.” We’ve kind of scratched that itch with airplanes. But have we gone as far as we can go, or are better flying machines in our future? And whatever happened to our collective dream of flying cars? We look at the evolution - and the future - of flight.
Animals and insects have taught us a lot about the mechanics of becoming airborne. But surprises remain. For example, bats may flit around eccentrically, but they are actually more efficient fliers than birds.
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?