Climate change isn’t happening. Vaccines make you sick. When it comes to threats to public or environmental health, a surprisingly large fraction of the population still denies the consensus of scientific evidence. But it’s not the first time – many people long resisted the evidentiary link between HIV and AIDS and smoking with lung cancer.
(Repeat) Lost your sense of direction? Blame your GPS. Scientists say that our reliance on dashboard devices is eroding our ability to create cognitive maps and is messing with our minds in general. We don’t even look at landmarks or the landscape anymore. We’ve become no more than interfaces between our GPS and our steering wheels.
But in other ways, GPS can spark a new appreciation of the physical world. A real-time flyover app reveals the stunning geological features otherwise invisible from our window seat.
SMS isn’t the original instant messaging system. Plants can send chemical warnings through their leaves in a fraction of a second. And while we love being in the messaging loop – frenetically refreshing our browsers – we miss out on important conversations that no Twitter feed or inbox can capture. That’s because eavesdropping on the communications of non-human species requires the ability to decode their non-written signals.
(Repeat) Whether you yawn, gasp, sniff, snore, or sigh, you’re availing yourself of our very special atmosphere. It’s easy to take this invisible chemical cocktail for granted, but it’s not only essential to your existence: it unites you and every other lifeform on the planet, dead or alive. The next breath you take likely includes molecules exhaled by Julius Caesar or Eleanor Roosevelt.
Heredity was once thought to be straightforward. Genes were passed in an immutable path from parents to you, and you were stuck – or blessed – with what you got. DNA didn’t change.
But now we know that’s not true. Epigenetic factors, such as your environment and your lifestyle, control how your genes are expressed. Meanwhile, the powerful tool CRISPR allows us to tinker with the genes themselves. DNA is no longer destiny.
Okay you animals, line up: stoned sloths, playful pandas, baleful bovines, and vile vultures. We’ve got you guys pegged, thanks to central casting.
Or do we? Our often simplistic view of animals ignores their remarkable adaptive abilities. Stumbly sloths are in fact remarkably agile and a vulture’s tricks for thermoregulation can’t be found in an outdoors store.
(Repeat) We’re hearing about harassment of, and barriers to, women seeking careers in politics and entertainment. But what about science? Science is supposed to be uniquely merit-based and objective. And yet the data say otherwise. A new study reveals widespread harassment of women of color in space science.
Do we still need doctors? There are umpteen alternative sources of medical advice, including endless and heartfelt health tips from people without medical degrees. Frankly, self-diagnosis with a health app is easier and cheaper than a trip to a clinic. Since we’re urged to be our own health advocate and seek second opinions, why not ask Alexa or consult with a celebrity about what ails us?
Find out if you can trust these alternative medical advice platforms. Plus, lessons from an AIDS fighter about ignoring the findings of medical science.
(Repeat) The biotech tool CRISPR lets us do more than shuffle genes. Researchers have embedded an animated GIF into a living organism’s DNA, proving that the molecule is a great repository for information. This has encouraged speculation that DNA could be used by aliens to send messages.
Meanwhile, nature has seized on this powerful storage system in surprising ways. Scientists have learned that the 98% of our genome – once dismissed as “junk” – contains valuable genetic treasure. Find out what project ENCODE is learning about the “dark genome.”
(repeat) Changed your computer password recently? We all try to stay one step ahead of the hackers, but the fear factor is increasing. The risks can range from stolen social security numbers to sabotaging a national power grid.
(Repeat) Long before cyber criminals were stealing ATM passwords, phone phreaks were tapping into the telephone system. Their motivation was not monetary, but the thrill of defeating a complex, invisible network. Today “hacking” can apply to cyberwarfare, biological tinkering, or even geoengineering. Often it has negative connotations, but the original definition of “hacking” was something else.
The seas are rising. It’s no longer a rarity to see kayakers paddling through downtown Miami. By century’s end, the oceans could be anywhere from 2 to 6 feet higher, threatening millions of people and property. But humans once knew how to adapt to rising waters. As high water threatens to drown our cities, can we learn do it again.
(Repeat) Celebrations are in order for the physicists who won the 2017 Nobel Prize, for the detection of gravitational waves. But the road to Stockholm was not easy. Unfolding over a century, it went from doubtful theory to daring experiments and even disrepute. 100 years is a major lag between a theory and its confirmation, and new ideas in physics may take even longer to prove.
There’s evidence for a subsurface lake on Mars, and scientists are excitedly using the “h” word. Could the Red Planet be habitable, not billions of years ago, but today? While we wait – impatiently – for a confirmation of this result, we review the recipe for habitable alien worlds. For example, the moon Titan has liquid lakes on its surface. Could they be filled with Titanites?
Dive into a possible briny, underground lake on Mars … protect yourself from the methane-drenched rain on a moon of Saturn … and cheer on the missed-it-by-that-much planets, asteroids Ceres and Vesta.
Looking to boost your brainpower? Luckily, there are products promising to help. Smart drugs, neurofeedback exercises, and brain-training video games all promise to improve your gray matter’s performance. But it’s uncertain whether these products really work. Regulatory agencies have come down hard on some popular brain training companies for false advertising. But other brain games have shown benefits in clinical trials. And could we skip the brain workout altogether and pop a genius pill instead?
(Repeat) Astronauts are made of the “right stuff,” but what about their spacesuits? NASA’s pressurized and helmeted onesies are remarkable, but they need updating if we’re to boldly go into deep space. Suiting up on Mars requires more manual flexibility, for example. Find out what innovative materials might be used to reboot the suit.
DNA is the gold standard of identification. Except when it’s not. In rare cases when a person has two complete sets of DNA, that person’s identity may be up in the air. Meanwhile, DNA ancestry tests are proving frustratingly vague: dishing up generalities about where you came from rather than anything specific. And decoding a genome is still relatively expensive and time-consuming. So, while we refine our ability to work with DNA, the search is on for a quick and easy biomarker test to tell us who we are.
ENCORE Water is essential for life – that we know. But the honeycomb lattice that forms when you chill it to zero degrees Celsius is also inexorably intertwined with life.
Ice is more than a repository for water that would otherwise raise sea levels. It’s part of Earth’s cooling system … a barrier preventing decaying organic matter from releasing methane gas … and a vault entombing ancient bacteria and other microbes.
From the Arctic to the Antarctic, global ice is disappearing. Find out what’s at stake as atmospheric CO2 threatens frozen H2O.
ENCORE It’s not just tin cans and newspapers. One man says that, from a technical standpoint, everything can be recycled – cigarette butts, yoga mats, dirty diapers. Even radioactive waste. You name it, we can recycle it. But we choose not to. Find out why we don’t, and how we could do more.
Plus, a solar-powered device that pulls water from the air – even desert air.
And, something upon which life depends that seems dirt cheap, but can’t be replenished: soil. What happens when we pave over this living resource?
ENCORE It’s one of the most bizarre biological experiments ever. In the 18th century, a scientist fitted a pair of tailor-made briefs on a male frog to determine the animal’s contribution to reproduction. The process of gestation was a mystery and scientists had some odd-ball theories.
Today, a 5th grader can tell you how babies are made, but we still don’t know exactly what life is. In our quest to understand, we’re still at the frogs’ pants stage.