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ANCIENT THREAT AWAKENS
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Contents
JUNE 2018
VOL. 39, NO. 5
Website access code: DSD1806
Enter this code at: www.DiscoverMagazine.com/code
to gain access to exclusive subscriber content.
FEATURES
28 Long
in the Tooth
Teeth are storytellers,
time-stamping when we’re
exposed to toxins. Now,
researchers are drilling
down to connect speciic
substances to disease.
BY RACHEL CERNANSKY
36 Something
Stirs
Earth’s permafrost
is thawing, exposing
prehistoric seeds, animal
carcasses and maybe
something more sinister:
ancient infectious pathogens
against which we have
no defense. BY BRIDGET ALEX
46 Whatever
Happened
to the Future?
Though time machines
and warp-speed travel aren’t
the norm, other tech still
promises a Jetsons-esque
future. BY BILL ANDREWS
56 Beyond
Time
BRANDT MEIXELL/USGS
A physicist tries to grasp
the enigmatic landscape
of a timeless world.
BY CARLO ROVELLI
Ancient permafrost is thawing
in northern latitudes, including
along Alaska’s Arctic coast.
Read about the dangers on page 36.
June 2018 DISCOVER
3
Contents
COLUMNS & DEPARTMENTS
6 EDITOR’S NOTE
Into the Future
Some far-out high-tech promises
actually feel within reach today.
7 INBOX
Readers weigh in on the quantum
rabbit hole that is human
consciousness and on the velocity
of space junk.
THE CRUX
Sulfur might be the Hail Mary
to beat global warming;
how the chemtrail conspiracy
lives on; a Lower Mississippi
River model could hold clues
to stemming bayou erosion;
revisiting the potential of
a memory boost in a pill;
and more.
22 VITAL SIGNS
Helping Hands
Doctors race to save a middle-aged
man who collapses on a commuter
train and has no signs of life.
BY TONY DAJER
26 MIND OVER MATTER
Background signals
that have puzzled
scientists for decades
could be coming
from black holes.
Read about the
theory on page 70.
64 ORIGIN STORY
Was Science Wrong
About Being Right?
Researchers try to get a grip on
our right-handed preference,
but uncover more questions
than answers. BY GEMMA TARLACH
he Power of hree
70 OUT THERE
Two’s company, but three can be too,
at least when it comes to keeping
everyone honest. BY MARINA KRAKOVSKY
As the Mighty Quasars Flow
ANCIENT THREAT AWAKENS
P.36
I QUASARS’ MYSTERIOUS ENERGY
P.70
Discover
SCIENCE FOR THE CURIOUS
®
JUNE 2018
How Close Are We To
Flying
Cars...
. . . JETPACKS
WARP SPEED
TIME TRAVEL?
AND MORE!
PLUS
P.46
62 PROGNOSIS
P.14
ON THE COVER
Ancient Threat Awakens p.36
74 20 THINGS YOU
A test of bodily luids
may one day detect
residual disease in
cancer patients.
DIDN’T KNOW ABOUT …
Sand
BY DELIA O’HARA
Sand
flea
DISCOVERMAGAZINE.COM
P.28
P.64
Could the universe’s most
mysterious signals emanate from
billions of sources? Two Harvard
astronomers think so. BY STEVE NADIS
In the Blood
4
What Baby Teeth Reveal
Was Science Wrong
About Being Right?
A Little Blue Pill for Memory
Learn why it’s highly sought,
out of this world and a builder
of countries. BY SYLVIA MORROW
Quasars’ Mysterious Energy p.70
How Close Are We to Flying Cars . . . ? p.46
What Baby Teeth Reveal p.28
Was Science Wrong About Being Right? p.64
A Little Blue Pill for Memory p.14
COVER: Terrafugia/Barcroft Cars/Barcroft Media
via Getty Images
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SCIENCE FOR THE CURIOUS
Editor's Note
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BECKY LANG Editor In Chief
DAN BISHOP Design Director
Into the Future
This memory — and it’s quite a
vivid one — is of such a leeting,
mundane moment. I’m 7 years old
and it’s summer. I’m riding in the
hot car, staring out the window, as
we’re stopped at the intersection
of Lyndale Avenue and Main
Street in Helena, Montana. I’m on
a rant, badgering my dad about
how I really, really, really want to
see this awesome new movie called
Star Wars. I want to be part of
what everyone’s talking about.
I eventually did see it, of course,
and was swept away into its
bigger-than-life world of good and
evil. The interplanetary journeys
of the raggedy Millennium
Falcon, the ighters battling it out
inside the Death Star, and those
droids — they had feelings! And
what about the holographic message squirreled away in R2-D2?
The miniature mirage seemed far-off, but possible.
That’s where we take you with this issue’s cover story — the
possibilities dangled before us in so many books and ilms over
the years. Whatever happened to the jetpacks, lying cars and
time travel, anyway?
Ride along as Senior Associate Editor Bill Andrews guides
you on a tour of pop culture, and brings a dose of reality
to the futuristic conveniences woven into the scripts. Is it so
unreasonable to expect a personal avatar, a virtual being in
which we can shape who we are in the digital world? Not at all.
But that trip that takes you back through the centuries? It may
be a while.
As for the future? It’s our next stop . . .
EDITORIAL
GEMMA TARLACH Senior Editor
BILL ANDREWS Senior Associate Editor
ELISA R. NECKAR Production Editor
MARK BARNA Associate Editor
ERIC BETZ Associate Editor
LACY SCHLEY Assistant Editor
DAVE LEE Copy Editor
AMBER JORGENSON Editorial Assistant
CHARLOTTE HU Intern
Contributing Editors
TIM FOLGER, JONATHON KEATS,
LINDA MARSA, KENNETH MILLER,
STEVE NADIS, ADAM PIORE,
COREY S. POWELL, JULIE REHMEYER,
STEVE VOLK, PAMELA WEINTRAUB,
JEFF WHEELWRIGHT,
DARLENE CAVALIER (SPECIAL PROJECTS)
ART
ERNIE MASTROIANNI Photo Editor
ALISON MACKEY Associate Art Director
DISCOVERMAGAZINE.COM
CARL ENGELKING Web Editor
LAUREN SIGFUSSON Associate Editor
NATHANIEL SCHARPING Assistant Editor
Bloggers
MEREDITH CARPENTER, LILLIAN FRITZ-LAYLIN,
JEREMY HSU, ERIK KLEMETTI, REBECCA KRESTON,
NEUROSKEPTIC, ELIZABETH PRESTON,
SCISTARTER, AMY SHIRA TEITEL,
CHRISTIE WILCOX, TOM YULSMAN
ADVERTISING
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MICHAEL SOLIDAY Art and Production Manager
CATHY DANIELS New Business Manager
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KIM REDMOND Single Copy Specialist
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Becky Lang
Thanks to BetterWOMAN,
I’m winning the battle for
Inbox
DOWN THE
Bladder Control.
QUANTUM
RABBIT HOLE
PRINT FEEDBACK
Fellow scientists labeled
him a crackpot. Now
STUART HAMEROFF’S
quantum consciousness
theories are getting
support from unlikely
places.
Quantum Craziness
in the Brain
BY STEVE VOLK
PHOTO BY STEVE CRAFT
(“Down the Quantum
Rabbit Hole,” March 2018)
Frequent nighttime trips to the bathroom,
embarrassing leaks and the inconvenience of
constantly searching for rest rooms in public–
for years, I struggled with bladder control
problems. After trying expensive medications
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and uncomfortable liners and pads, I was
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isolation and depression. But then I tried BetterWOMAN.
Anesthesiologist Stuart
Hameroff believes tiny
structures in our cells
called microtubules could
explain consciousness.
Again with the March
issue, I afirm why I
love this magazine and
read it cover to cover
twice. Your article about
Stuart Hameroff’s theory
of consciousness and
quantum physics amazed
me. I’ve read it three times.
To think — how is that
done? To say, “I am” —
how is that done? I hope
Hameroff continues to
explore the unknown and
inspire others to do so.
Douglas Gibson
Springfield, Mo.
ADDRESS LETTERS TO:
DISCOVER
21027 Crossroads Circle,
P.O. Box 1612
Waukesha, WI 53187-1612
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EMAIL:
editorial@DiscoverMagazine.com
MULTIMEDIA FEEDBACK
The Realities of Space Wars
I was reading your online article “Space Wars Will Look
Nothing Like Star Wars,” and I had a question. If space
debris is moving at such a high velocity, wouldn’t that
just cause a chain reaction and blow up anything in its
path? I’m interested in the future of space travel and
what we as a human race could do in the future, and I
would like to learn more.
Dylan Hackner
Baldwin, Wis.
Editor Nathaniel Scharping responds:
Space debris is a definite worry for anyone operating
craft in orbit; it has damaged space stations, satellites and
space shuttles. A chain reaction — where one craft gets
destroyed and creates more debris that goes on to damage
other objects in orbit — could happen, but it’s unlikely.
The biggest factor is just how huge space is. Some
satellites orbit over 20,000 miles from Earth — far greater
than the planet’s diameter — and it means that there’s
a whole lot of, well, space separating most satellites
from one another. That lowers the odds of one getting hit
and starting a chain reaction. And it’s why we don’t see
more collisions, even though countless pieces of debris
already circle Earth.
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THE CRUX
T H E L ATEST S C I E N C E N E WS A N D N O T ES
MOMENT OF TENSION
Photographing a metal safety pin floating on water isn’t easy, even with surface tension on your side. Physics teacher Richard Germain covered
a light with a grid of black squares to reflect the distortion created when an object bends but does not break the water’s surface. Then he used
tweezers to gently place the pin in a cooking pot full of water. The slightest vibration would quickly sink his efforts. Eventually, he captured
the concept without any digital trickery. “A science photo has to be a very truthful witness of reality,” says Germain, who uses his photos to
demonstrate concepts to his high school students in Vaudreuil-Dorion, Quebec.  ERNIE MASTROIANNI
June 2018 DISCOVER
9
THE CRUX
Mount Pinatubo erupted in 1991, spewing
so much smoke and ash into the atmosphere
that it cooled large regions of the globe.
10
DISCOVERMAGAZINE.COM
dangerous for animals adapting to
climate change than never attempting
it at all.
Aerosols also relect sunlight
— instead of trapping heat like
CO2 — so they’d overcool the tropics
and undercool the poles, creating
unpredictable results.
Amid climate inaction, scientists confront an idea that scares them.
All this makes researchers worry
about a rogue nation altering climate
MOUNT PINATUBO ERUPTED in the
without considering global impacts. In
(SCoPEx). The researchers will send
Philippines in 1991, spewing millions
Nature Communications last fall, Jones’
a balloon into the stratosphere above
of tons of ash and chemicals into the
team studied the impacts of releasing
Tucson, Arizona, to spray particles
atmosphere. Over the next year, large
aerosols in one hemisphere. In short,
across an area roughly half a mile long
parts of Earth cooled by almost a full
it would be bad. Releasing aerosols
and a football ield wide. A sensordegree Fahrenheit.
in the Northern Hemisphere could
studded gondola will dip back through
Volcanoes historically have caused
suppress tropical cyclones. Doing the
the cloud to measure how aerosol
some of the planet’s sharpest temperature
same thing in the Southern
particles interact with one
drops. In addition to ash and ire, they
Hemisphere would increase
another and the atmosphere.
Picture fleets their frequency in the
belch sulfur dioxide that lingers as a ine
“If [geoengineering is]
particle spray called an aerosol. These
north. And both would
really going to be used in this
of aircraft
aerosols help Earth’s atmosphere relect
monsoons critical to
sort of emergency climate
ferrying sulfur shift
incoming light, creating a cooling effect.
tropical agriculture.
catastrophe scenario, then
across the
Some scientists speculate that seeding
But if the world ramped
you’re not going to have that
such sulfur aerosols — absent iery
up
aerosols in a measured
chance to learn about things
stratosphere
eruptions — could someday be a Hail
way — say, 1 percent of
going into it,” says climate
year-round.
Mary to counteract climate change. The
Pinatubo’s sulfur emissions
scientist Ken Caldeira of
idea is called geoengineering. Picture
this year, 2 the next, and so
the Carnegie Institution for
leets of aircraft ferrying sulfur across the
on — that might slowly and smoothly
Science. “You pretty damn well better do
stratosphere year-round.
even out the rise in temperatures,
the research up front.”
University of Exeter climatologist
Caldeira thinks.
So far, computer climate models simulating solar geoengineering have predicted
Anthony Jones says developing aerosolThat still leaves a more human
signiicant reductions in global warming,
releasing technology might take a few
concern, though. In behavioral
Caldeira says.
years — and likely won’t happen for
economics, it’s called a moral hazard:
Yet researchers are hardly optimistic.
decades — but it is possible.
When humans feel protected, we’re
“If you ask me today to vote whether
Cost estimates range from around
more likely to take risks — like
we should geoengineer, or never, ever do
$1 billion to $10 billion per year. That’s
driving recklessly after putting on a
it, I would be on the never, ever side,”
less than current spending on climate
seat belt. If we see scientists trying to
says Gernot Wagner, executive director
research and mitigation, and far cheaper
save us, we may stop worrying about
of Harvard’s Solar Geoengineering
than coping with its consequences. Sulfur
greenhouse gases. And geoengineering
Research Program.
is even easy to get. It’s a byproduct of
isn’t a real ix — sulfur only covers up
Many climate scientists agree.
fossil fuel production so abundant that
climate change.
One reason is that aerosols aren’t the
a mining outit in Alberta, Canada, is
That leaves many climate scientists
opposite of carbon dioxide, says Peter
stacking the stuff into a sulfur pyramid
concerned about overselling geoengineering’s potential. Researchers on
Irvine, a Harvard expert in climate
that could eventually dwarf Egypt’s.
Harvard’s SCoPEx team even declined
models. Aerosols counteract some
The problem? We don’t fully
interviews for this piece, saying their
symptoms of excess greenhouse gases,
understand the consequences of
project “gets too much hype.”
but not others, like ocean acidiication.
geoengineering. Few real-world tests
“Will somebody, somewhere, try
And sulfur depletes Earth’s ozone layer.
have taken place. And that’s driving
things? That’s a yes, within 50 or 100
It’s also a long-term commitment: Stop
a surge of new research.
years,” Wagner says. “Will it happen as
pumping out aerosols, and the climate
Later this year, a Harvard University
would snap back. In fact, a January study part of a semi-rational climate policy
team hopes to gather some of the irst
globally coordinated? That’s a bigger
in Nature Ecology and Evolution showed
real-world data in the Stratopheric
question.”  NATHANIEL SCHARPING
sporadic geoengineering could be more
Controlled Pertubation Experiment
BIG IDEA
BULLIT MARQUEZ/AP PHOTO
Should We Cool Earth?
June 2018 DISCOVER
11
THE CRUX
SNAPSHOT
Settlers of the Sea
A better way to restore coral reefs.
where the star shape really shines. Rather than manually attaching
coral larvae to existing reefs, which is time consuming, divers
simply wedge the tiles into a reef’s crevices. And the zip ties?
They act as handles that allow scientists to move the tiles without
disturbing their residents.  CHARLOTTE HU
KELLY LATIJNHOUWERS/SECORE INTERNATIONAL
THESE STAR-SHAPED CEMENT TILES act as mobile nurseries for
budding coral colonies that take hold within their grooves and
ridges. Once the colonies start maturing, researchers from the
conservation group SECORE International will relocate them to
help rehabilitate damaged or destroyed reef ecosystems. This is
12
DISCOVERMAGAZINE.COM
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THE CRUX
ReDISCOVER
Where’s That Viagra
for Memory?
Nearly 20 years later, we’re still searching
for the little blue pill for learning.
low levels. In a setup to test
learning rates, high-CREB flies
knew, after one zap, to avoid
a smell associated with getting
shocked. The results led the team
to consider possible brain gains
in humans.
At the time of our original coverage,
researchers estimated human trials
would start in two to five years, but
those plans didn’t quite pan out.
Now, after almost two decades,
several human trials of CREB-boosting
drugs are finally underway. The most
advanced treatments have passed the
FDA’s initial safety phase and are in
proof-of-concept studies with humans,
says Tim Tully, one of the scientists then
with Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory who
was featured in the story.
Tully, who went on to work
at a pharma startup called Dart
NeuroScience, says the realistic timeline
for FDA approval is another decade.
“I’m 63, so I’m really starting to get
worried about this,” he jokes.
However, the treatment currently
under development isn’t targeting
memory boosts, but rather brain trauma
that stroke patients experience. Just as
high CREB levels increased connections
in the fruit flies, the protein could help
stroke victims reestablish damaged or
lost connections.
Tully expects that, once they’re
available, results from human trials will
be concrete evidence of the treatment’s
effectiveness. “If the patient can move
his arm again, he’s moving his arm
again,” Tully says. “You don’t have to
debate.”  MICHAEL STONE
LIGHTSPRING/SHUTTERSTOCK
IN JUNE 2000, Discover published an
article about how we could someday
be speedier learners. Want to memorize
a Shakespearean play? Just read it
through once. Want to learn another
language? Give yourself about a month.
All this with the help of a memoryenhancing pill.
At the center of the article (“Smart
Pills: How About a Little Viagra for Your
Memory?”) was a protein called CREB,
or cyclic AMP response element binding
protein. It works as an on-switch in the
brains of humans and many animals,
promoting new connections between
neurons to help build long-term
memory.
Scientists at New York’s Cold Spring
Harbor Laboratory, featured in the
2000 article, were inspired by fruit flies.
They had genetically engineered one
group of the insects to produce high
CREB levels and another to produce
14
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THE CRUX
INFOART
ou
R.
pi
ip
iss
iss
M
R.
ri
iss
M
A Mighty
Model
io
Ar
Oh
ka
nsa
R.
sR
.
Mississippi River
drainage basin
Big science does
the Big River justice.
16
DISCOVERMAGAZINE.COM
LOUISIANA
Mississippi
River Delta
Source:
National Park Service
on top of land. You put levees around
the river system and you have no more
of that.” The land washes away without
constant replenishment from the wild
river; another 2,250 square miles or more
could drain away over the next 50 years.
To help restore some of that lost
land, CPRA has proposed eight sediment
diversion structures — high-tech gates
in the water that would release slurries
of replenishing soil into the bayou —
along the lower Mississippi. But where
they should go is hard to pin down.
This giant model will give researchers
a powerful tool to understand river
dynamics, sediment movement and
how planned diversion structures
will affect one another.
Though numerical models and
computer simulations are valuable,
the physical model generates a steady
stream of data that fills in digital gaps.
It allows CPRA to investigate different
scenarios to see how the river responds
not just in one year, “but really five,
10, 25, 50 years into the future,” says
Willson, the Louisiana State University
professor who heads the research. Big as
it is, the model is still just a small piece of
a 50-year, multibillion-dollar master plan
for coastal restoration.
 STORY AND PHOTOS BY ERNIE MASTROIANNI
MAP: ALISON MACKEY/DISCOVER
IN A CAVERNOUS BUILDING in Baton
Rouge, Louisiana, just steps from
the Mississippi River, environmental
engineer Clint Willson lifts a beaker
filled with dark plastic crumbs. They
look like black lava salt, but in this
room, the granules are a stand-in
for river sediment. The tiny particles
are an essential part of the massive
Lower Mississippi River Physical Model: a
working, flowing simulation of the river.
The model, bigger than two
basketball courts — with bleachers
— elicits gasps from first-time visitors.
Carved into the surface of a huge
white table is a precise re-creation of
14,000 square miles of southeastern
Louisiana, gleaned from more than
4 billion data points. A deep winding
channel crosses the entire model,
representing 179 miles of the mighty
Mississippi from just south of Baton
Rouge to the delta. Projectors beam
satellite views onto the table, turning
the white surface into a photorealistic
replica of the terrain, and real water
moves the artificial sediment, mimicking
how the river moves sand.
Researchers are using this model to
find ways to stem alarming land loss in
the lower Louisiana bayou. Nearly 1,900
square miles have disappeared since the
1930s, when hundreds of miles of levees
went up in response to the Great Flood
of 1927, one of the nation’s worst.
“The river, before the levees were put
in, acted like a garden hose that was left
unchecked,” says Jason Lanclos, deputy
executive director of Louisiana’s Coastal
Protection and Restoration Authority
(CPRA), which funded the model. “The
river would basically spray everywhere
across the coast and deposit sediment,
fresh water, and continue to build land
AREA OF STUDY
Above: Louisiana State University
environmental engineer Clint Willson
holds plastic particles created specifically
for the physical model. They will behave
and flow just like the river’s sediment.
Right: Willson works at the upstream end
of the physical model, adding a slurry of
water and plastic particles into the model.
BY THE
NUMBERS
COST
$18 million for model,
displays and building
DIMENSIONS
120 feet by 90 feet, simulating
14,000 square miles
SCALE
• 1 foot equals about 1 mile
• 50 hours of the model’s
run time equals 50 years
of real-world river time
COMPONENTS
• 1 mile of steel support beams
• 20-inch-thick concrete
slab for base support
• 20 high-definition
overhead projectors
• 216 high-density foam core
panels at 5 by 10 feet,
each 700 pounds
• 864 individual jack stands
• 6,000 gallons of water
to replicate sea level
A movable bridge allows
researchers and engineers
to get a closer look at the
Lower Mississippi River
Physical Model at the LSU
Center for River Studies
in Baton Rouge. Twenty
overhead projectors work
together to superimpose
data over the model,
such as satellite imagery,
shown here.
At the model’s upriver entrance is an acoustic gauge that measures the height
of the water in the simulation. The location of this and other gauges match
those placed in the real river by the Army Corps of Engineers, so model
operators know exactly how close their water level matches the level of the
river on a given date. Roads are elevated lines, and the elevated rectangles are
fertilizer and ammonia plants.
Underneath the model are 864
automotive jack stands, which
support the 216 foam panels.
June 2018 DISCOVER
17
THE CRUX
CLOSE UP
PESTICIDE PUZZLER
Colorado potato beetles have pestered farmers around the world since the late 19th century. The bugs are extra tough to kill because of their
annoying habit of quickly developing resistance to pesticides. To better fight the beetles, University of Wisconsin-Madison entomologist
Sean Schoville helped sequence their genome — only to find it resembled the genomes of less-resistant beetles. “It wasn’t diversifying their
genome, adding new genes, that would explain rapid pesticide evolution,” he says. “So it leaves us with a whole bunch of new questions.”
But Schoville’s team did find a kind of genetic insecticide, giving farmers a way to target the beetles’ cellular machinery.
 ERNIE MASTROIANNI; PHOTO BY ZACH COHEN
18
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THE CRUX
TRENDING
BY LACY SCHLEY
The Chemtrail Conspiracy
Lives On
Completely
false
32%
The Great State of Water
Looks like boring ol’ water is more
interesting than we thought. In a recent
paper in Nature Physics, scientists
describe a new state of the substance,
called superionic water. Here on
Earth, we’re used to seeing water
in either its liquid form or as solid
ice. Now, it seems the life-supporting
compound can exist as both a liquid
and a solid simultaneously. Though not
found naturally on our planet, superionic
water could be present in extremely high-pressure
environments, like those on the ice giants Uranus and
Neptune. The discovery could help researchers better
understand these frozen worlds.
Hope for Huntington’s
Somewhat
true
19%
Unsure
25%
Somewhat
false
15%
Huntington’s disease — a genetic, neurodegenerative
disorder that leads to a buildup of toxic proteins in
the brain — is fatal and currently incurable. But in a
Frontiers in Neuroscience paper, experts explained how
they’ve used a more precise version of the gene-editing
tool CRISPR/Cas9 on human DNA samples with the
Huntington’s mutation. Normally, CRISPR/Cas9 will snip
out sections on both strands of a DNA’s double helix.
But in this case, the researchers used a variation that
allowed them to alter only one DNA strand. After the
edits, the mutated bits of the DNA were inactivated,
and production of the toxic proteins shut down.
Everything the Light Touches
Completely
true
9%
Beliefs in whether the
government is using
chemtrails
Source: “Solar geoengineering and the chemtrails conspiracy on social media,” Palgrave Communications, 2017.
Light’s a fickle thing. Photons — the
particles that make up light — usually
don’t like hanging out with other
photons. It’s why flashlight beams
simply pass through each other.
But experts have figured out a way
to coax these particles to cozy up
enough to form bonds like those we
see from regular atoms. Researchers
explain that these new interactions,
detailed in a paper published in Science,
could be useful in quantum computing and information
storage, though we’re still a long way off from those
applications.
Closing in on Cancer
In a human trial of 55 patients from 4 months to 76 years
old, roughly 75 percent responded positively to a new
cancer drug. The trial, outlined in a New England Journal
of Medicine study, examined the effects of larotrectinib,
a drug that targets all sorts of cancers that evolve
from a mutation in the gene responsible for creating
tropomyosin receptor kinase (TRK). TRK is a family of
protein receptors usually present in brain cells; recently,
oncologists realized TRK is involved in triggering tumor
growth. The drug’s promise is twofold: Larotrectinib, a
TRK inhibitor, was engineered based on genetics rather
than tumor type, and it’s effective in patients within a
wide age range.
20
DISCOVERMAGAZINE.COM
CLOCKWISE FROM UPPER LEFT: CHEMTRAIL CHART BY DAN BISHOP/DISCOVER, AIRPLANE PHOTO BY ZULFACHRI ZULKIFLI/SHUTTERSTOCK; NASA; CARLOS YUDICA/SHUTTERSTOCK
Look, up in the sky! It’s
a plane! And that puffy
streak in its wake? It’s
called a contrail: a watervapor byproduct that
jet-engine planes spit out
at high altitudes. Some
people, however, think
these contrails are actually
a covert government
scheme to douse the
planet with chemicals that
could do any number of
things, from making us
all victims of mind control
to artificially manipulating
the climate. All this, despite
the fact that the EPA,
scientists and independent
journalistic investigations
have repeatedly debunked
the idea, often called the
chemtrail theory. But a
recent study based on
a 1,000-person poll from
2016 found that the
conspiracy is still alive
and well.
Building Blocks
Mountains’ Majesty Melting
When it comes to shrinking glaciers,
researchers usually keep track by
periodically photographing the frozen
masses via satellite. But some glaciers
sit atop lofty mountains, so why
not add elevation measurements to
better monitor those losses? That’s
what a team from the University
of Washington has done to keep
tabs on the diminishing coverage
and thickness of glaciers in the
continental U.S. over the last four
decades. The team pulled previous
elevation measurements from
U.S. Geological Survey maps from
the days before satellite, and more
recent data comes from a satellite
imaging technique that results in
a three-dimensional rendering of
the mountaintops. In this image of
Mount Rainier, losses are represented
by warmer colors, with some areas
having shrunk roughly 130 feet in
height.
DAVID SHEAN/UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON
1970-2016
2 km
40
30
20
10
0
-10
-20
-30
-40
Elevation Change in Meters
June 2018 DISCOVER
21
Helping Hands
A middle-aged man collapses and, for 15 minutes, has no pulse.
Can he return to life?
BY TONY DAJER
→
“Is there a
doctor?”
The call rippled
through the packed
rush-hour train
soon after we had
pulled away from
the platform.
Recalling false
alarms on airplanes
(usually fainting
spells from too much alcohol and too
little oxygen), I hesitated.
But this was the 5:37 express, not a
plane. It could be something serious.
I set my book down and stood up.
Stepping down the aisle, I came to
a ring of onlookers peering down at a
middle-aged man slumped across two
seats. He wore a creased, stylish shirt
open at the collar.
“Sir, are you OK?” I asked, jostling
a shoulder. No response. I pressed two
ingers on his neck. No pulse.
I tore open his shirt, locked my
hands over his sternum and started
chest compressions. But the angle was
wrong. He needed to be horizontal
on a lat surface for my compressions
to be effective. Sliding him partially
off the seat dropped his head like
a trussed deer’s.
“Please hold the head,” I urged a
woman looking on. She cradled it,
and we shimmied him lengthwise into
the aisle and onto his back. With my
hands on his chest, I locked my elbows
and pushed down hard at a rate of 100
per minute, each time letting the chest
fully re-expand.
“Pull the emergency brake!”
someone shouted. The train shuddered
to a stop.
22
DISCOVERMAGAZINE.COM
he math is simple:
Deprived of oxygen,
a brain starts dying
in four minutes.
My focus stayed on the chest. Up,
down. Up, down. Do not stop.
A man crouched across the aisle.
“Want to switch?” he asked. “I’m a
doctor.” Compressing a chest is hard
work, best done in shifts.
“Sure,” I said.
Leaning partly over one of the seats,
he took over. From my angle, his hands
seemed off the sternum. “Here, like
this,” I said, cupping his hands and
shifting them over. “Keep the heels
on top of each other. Make them a
pile driver.”
He shot me a wry look.
“What kind of doc?” I asked.
“Hearts.”
“Oh, cardiologist?”
“Cardiothoracic surgeon.”
“Ah.” I grimaced. “Sorry.”
“No worries,” he said, smiling.
A third doc arrived. “I’m a
dermatologist, but ER was my second
choice,” he said excitedly.
He maneuvered to relieve the surgeon.
A woman in the crowd spoke up. “I’m
an operating room nurse. Shouldn’t you
be doing mouth-to-mouth?”
“We’re OK,” I told her. The man’s
face had lost color.
But studies show
that hands-only
CPR moves enough
air in and out of
the lungs to sustain
blood oxygen levels.
Estimates vary,
but a recent study
in The New England
Journal of Medicine
found that 61
percent of sudden
cardiac arrests stem from ventricular
ibrillation, or V-ib, an electrical misire
sparked by diseased or stressed heart
cells. A heart attack, which is a sudden
blockage of blood low in a coronary
artery, is probably the most common
cause of V-ib. But many cases do not
happen that way.
V-ib’s random discharges trigger
neighboring cells to ire chaotically
rather than follow the heart’s pacemaker
cells. This sends out a steady beat of
electrical impulses from their perch in
the heart’s right atrium.
An automated external deibrillator,
or AED, can remedy the situation. It
delivers an electric charge that silences
every cell simultaneously, allowing the
pacemaker cells to ire irst and regain
control of the heartbeat. AEDs are
ubiquitous in airports, train stations
and other public spaces.
“We need your AED!” I shouted at
the conductor.
“We don’t have one!” she hollered.
Oh Jesus, I thought. CPR generates
roughly a third of the heart’s normal
output of oxygenated blood. And every
minute of delay to deibrillation drops
the odds of survival by 10 percent. We
were already six minutes in.
“Call 911. Get us back to the
platform!” I urged.
FROM LEFT: NUTTHAPOHN/SHUTTERSTOCK; CHARNSTIR/SHUTTERSTOCK
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Vital
Signs
PUBLIC SHOCK
Every year, 360,000 Americans suffer
sudden cardiac arrest. Less than 10
percent survive. One of the wrenching
aspects of being an emergency room
doc is to restart a heart, only to have the
patient never wake up because, before
getting to the ER, the brain had been
starved of oxygen.
Even more tragic is that V-ib is
eminently treatable in public places. In
Las Vegas casinos, people shocked in
less than three minutes have a stunning
74 percent chance of survival. Sure,
the world is not a casino festooned
with deibrillators, but a lifeline exists
between collapse and deibrillation:
cardiopulmonary resuscitation, or CPR.
First proved effective in 1960,
CPR included chest compressions
plus mouth-to-mouth breathing. But
evidence mounted that mouth-tomouth was unnecessary. Besides, very
few people will lock lips with a dead
stranger. When done right, hands-only
CPR is highly effective. In 2008, the
American Heart Association upended
dogma and endorsed CPR using only
chest compression.
The math is simple: Deprived of
oxygen, a brain starts dying in four
minutes. To generate oxygen for
the brain, compressions must start
immediately and continue non-stop
until deibrillation. A study involving
Phoenix emergency medical dispatchers
showed that when they coached
bystanders over the phone on CPR,
compressions began on average
3.5 minutes after heart stoppage rather
than 4.5 minutes. Survival leaped.
MODERN-DAY LAZARUS
We had been doing CPR for 15 minutes
when the train inched back to the
platform. Grabbing limbs, we scooted
him to the train’s exit doors. Two
paramedics met us and opened their
portable deibrillator box. They applied
the sticky pads to his chest: one to the
upper right part and the other to the
lower left part.
24
DISCOVERMAGAZINE.COM
The deibrillator’s robot voice
intoned: “Analyzing.” Twenty seconds
later: “Shockable rhythm. Stand clear.
Shock advised.”
One of the paramedics pressed a
red button. The man’s body jerked.
I felt blind without a heart monitor
to tell if the shock had worked.
Following protocol, the paramedics
resumed compressions for two more
minutes.
“Strong femoral pulse,” the surgeon
announced.
I touched his face
as much to prove
I wasn’t dreaming
as to soothe him.
“You just died,” I said.
Other paramedics wheeled in a
stretcher. They strapped an oxygen
mask to the man’s face. He pinked up.
My stomach clenched. Should we have
given him mouth-to-mouth? Then the
man’s lips twitched.
The signs of life were great to see.
But even the most advanced care after
cardiac arrest wasn’t getting us those
15 minutes back, during which his brain
might not have received enough oxygen
to prevent brain damage. The medics
hoisted him onto a stretcher.
“No. Wait. I don’t want to go to the
hospital.”
We all did double takes. The voice was
coming from the stretcher. The man’s
eyes were open.
“I’m OK. Why are you doing this?”
he said through the oxygen mask.
I’ve had patients wake up after being
deibrillated in the ER, but never alert
and talking right after bystander CPR.
I was amazed. For 15 full minutes, the
CPR had kept oxygenated blood lowing
to his brain. Look Ma, only hands.
A thought struck me: When you’re
dead, nothing moves, so your body’s
organs and muscles consume almost no
oxygen. The brain uses 20 percent of the
oxygenated blood pumped by the heart,
which means CPR’s one-third output is
plenty to keep the brain healthy.
I touched his face as much to prove I
wasn’t dreaming as to soothe him. “You
just died,” I said. “You should do what
the medics suggest.”
He blinked. “What?”
“Your heart stopped. We shocked
you.”
HEARTFELT VISIT
The next day, I visited the man in his
hospital room. Sitting up in his bed, he
looked healthy and chipper. His wife
and two grown children were sitting
around his bed, looking relaxed.
“I came to apologize for the shirt,”
I said.
He stared blankly, then: “Oh my
gosh, it’s you!”
“I have to give you a hug,” I said.
His wife’s eyes welled up.
Tests on him later showed no
coronary artery blockages and healthy
heart muscle.
One of the mysteries of V-ib is the
frequent lack of an obvious trigger.
The cardiologists’ best guess was that
scar tissue from a prior heart procedure
had disrupted the man’s electrical
rhythm. Two days later, to ward off a
repeat performance, surgeons placed
an automated implantable deibrillator
in his chest.
I called him two weeks after his
surgery.
“I’m doing great! Back at work like
nothing happened,” he told me. “All I
remember is feeling queasy for a minute,
then waking up.”
CPR is a way for thousands more
who suffer cardiac arrest to have a
chance of waking up, too. Look Ma,
only hands. D
Tony Dajer is director of the emergency
department at New York-Presbyterian/Lower
Manhattan Hospital. The cases described in
Vital Signs are real, but names and certain
details have been changed.
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Mind
Over
Matter
How third parties can keep everyone honest.
BY MARINA KRAKOVSKY
→
Back in 2008, on a trip
to Russia, I got lost. My
husband was working at his
employer’s Moscow ofice, and I
had gotten off at the wrong bus
stop on my way to meet him.
With no way to tell him I’d be
late, I thought I’d take a taxi.
But there were no yellow cabs in
sight, and back then, Uber was
still just a German word. Hailing
one of the city’s gypsy cabs —
unmarked, unlicensed cars often
driven by people unassociated
with any company — seemed
like my best bet.
Still, I was wary of hitching a
ride with a random stranger. As I
spotted another pedestrian with
his arm stretched out for passing cars, I
had an idea: Maybe I’d be safer getting
into a total stranger’s car if this other
stranger got in with me.
Sure enough, I arrived on time and
unscathed — and my fellow passenger
wouldn’t take a ruble from me to split
the fare.
THREE’S COMPANY
I’ve thought of this incident many
times in the years since, especially
while working on a book about
middlemen. Many of us see third
parties as extraneous. We’re often eager
to cut them out, assuming trade would
be quicker and cheaper without an
intermediary. That was the promise
with the internet, whose connections
would, it seemed, enable everyone to
communicate and do business directly.
But that didn’t really pan out. In fact,
middleman businesses like Amazon,
Airbnb and Uber wouldn’t even exist
without the internet.
26
DISCOVERMAGAZINE.COM
Social scientists have
long known that without
information about who’s
trustworthy, people
tend to favor those who
seem similar to them
— and this can lead to
discrimination.
And there’s a large body of research
pointing to a key role that middleman
platforms like these play: keeping both
sides honest.
“When people talk about these
companies [like Uber and Airbnb],
they talk about ‘peer-to-peer’ or
‘sharing economy,’ as if it’s just putting
two people together and making
them interact,” says Bruno Abrahao,
a computer scientist at New York
University who has studied how people
make decisions on Airbnb. But the
platforms do much more, enabling
strangers to trust each other, Abrahao
points out. “Otherwise, you could just
go to Craigslist.”
Social scientists have long
known that without information
about who’s trustworthy, people
tend to favor those who seem
similar to them — and this
can lead to discrimination.
Researchers also have found
that having a solid reputation
instills a certain degree of trust.
But to what degree did someone
need a stellar reputation
to prevent discrimination?
Airbnb and Abrahao’s team of
sociologists and data scientists
wanted to answer that question.
KEEPING TABS
The researchers conducted an
experiment on nearly 9,000
volunteer Airbnb users, forcing
them to choose between trusting
someone completely similar (for
example, another middle-aged woman)
and trusting someone different but
with a better reputation than anyone
else. In the study, published in 2017
in the Proceedings of the National
Academy of Sciences, Abrahao’s
team showed, among other indings,
that seeing even one positive review
(compared with none) was enough to
offset people’s natural instincts to trust
other people similar to them.
That inding explains much of the
early success of eBay. The auction
website’s feedback system, which lets
buyers and sellers rate each other,
eased the way for people to send
money and goods to strangers from
all over the world. Similarly, whenever
I step in a rideshare today, I trust the
driver to give me a safe ride — even if
the driver’s in-app photo makes him
look sketchy.
Even when third parties don’t
AXLLLL/ISTOCK
The Power of Three
track reputations, they can still create
accountability. That’s because these
people often have reputations of their
own, already known to others to
punish wrongdoing. Diego Gambetta,
a sociologist at Nufield College,
Oxford, has studied how the Sicilian
maia helps guarantee contracts when a
weak government fails to do so. In his
classic 1993 book about this research,
he summed up the role by quoting a
cattle rancher who does occasional
business with a butcher. “When the
butcher comes to me to buy an animal,
he knows that I want to cheat him,” the
rancher explained. “But I know that he
wants to cheat me.” With such mutual
distrust, it seems there’d be no deal at
all — so the two men turn to a third, a
maioso named Peppe. “We need Peppe
to make us agree. And we both pay
Peppe a percentage of the deal.”
How does this tie into my ride in
Moscow? Sure, the unlicensed cabbies
were unregulated, but it’s not as if my
fellow passenger was a known tough
guy. Yet having a third party around —
even one without a reputation — can
affect behavior for the better.
Consider the so-called Trust Game,
which social scientists often use in the
lab. Usually there are two players, and
the irst player can send money to the
second. And the more trust there is
between the players, the more money
they can get. For example, if I send
you $2, the game will triple that to $6.
Now you have $6 and I have nothing.
But if you send $3 of that back to me,
we’ll each have more than we started
with. So, the more I send you, the more
I stand to gain by trusting you to send
me money back. But you can abuse my
trust by keeping more than your share.
DO THE EYES HAVE IT?
Fewer people take advantage of the
irst player when the experiment
introduces a third player who watches
over the other two, according to a 2017
paper that examined the effects of
adding a third player to the trust game.
“As individuals, we want to be good,
to do what’s right, but we also have to
Playing the Trust Game
Having a third set of eyeballs pays off.
$3
$10
™Player 1 (P1) gets $10
at the start of the game
and needs to decide how
much to transfer to player
2 (P2). The amount player 1
sends is a measure of their
trust in player 2.
$3
$3
$3
šWhatever
amount P1 sends
gets tripled before
being sent to P2. This
tripling represents
the gains from trust.
›After P2
??
œWhen the game introduces a third player (P3),
whose only role is to see how the others are playing,
P1 sends an average of 23 percent more than in a twoplayer game. P2 returns more as well. The upshot: Having
a third party increases both trust and trustworthiness.
gets the tripled
amount, P2 can
choose how to
share these gains
with P1. Zero?
Half the tripled
amount? Or just
whatever P1
originally sent?
The amount
P2 sends back
is a measure
of this player’s
trustworthiness.
take care of ourselves,” explains Ernan
Haruvy, an economist at the University
of Texas at Dallas who co-authored
the paper. A third party helps resolve
that conlict.
Does Haruvy’s logic explain why I
felt safer in Moscow sharing a car with
two strangers, rather than just one? Yes
and no. Although I wasn’t thinking
the driver would want to make a good
impression, I did believe a potential
criminal wouldn’t want witnesses.
Scientists have hypothesized that
people’s concerns with their public
image run so deep, even hints of
oversight might elicit good behavior.
A 2007 experiment had the image
of a big-eyed robot named Kismet
“watch” participants playing a game
in which they could contribute
resources to a common pool; a
control group played the same game
without Kismet. The Kismet group
contributed 29 percent more.
Since then, other studies seem to
have found similar effects. But Stefanie
Northover, a psychology doctoral
student at Arizona State University,
recently conducted two reviews of
such research and is skeptical. In each
study she scrutinized, hints of artiicial
supervision only occasionally elicited
good behavior. For example, in some
studies, watchful eyes worked on men,
not women. Other studies found they
improved behavior only when very few
people were around. In other words,
don’t count on supposed surveillance
to protect you.
Human oversight is better, though
we can’t rely on the kindness of
strangers: Some will give you a free
ride, some will charge you for a ride,
and others might take you for a ride.
But as my Moscow experience reminds
me, two strangers are usually better
than one. D
Marina Krakovsky, author of The Middleman
Economy, writes and speaks about the social
sciences.
June 2018 DISCOVER
27
Long
Tooth
in the
Teeth, like trees, grow in rings.
Reading this record may expose new
links between toxins and disease.
BY RACHEL CERNANSKY
28
DISCOVERMAGAZINE.COM
June 2018 DISCOVER
29
TREE RINGS: TOOYKRUB/SHUTTERSTOCK; TOOTH: OCSKAY BENCE/SHUTTERSTOCK
Manish Arora studies a young boy’s tooth
on his computer screen, searching for crucial
details about the child’s past. he boy, 10 — we’ll
call him Max — lives outside a poor community
in Mexico City where lead exposure is a chronic
problem. And it shows in the tooth. Max has
been around lead from polluted air and water —
and even food, because the metal leaches from
lead-glazed pottery.
he image on the screen is essentially a colorcoded map of the boy’s tooth. It shows Max had
a spike in lead exposure just before birth, in the
inal months of fetal development. After birth,
his exposure dropped of to a level common in
the local population.
Blood tests can detect lead at any given
moment, but they don’t reveal past exposures or
time-stamp when they happened. Teeth, Arora
has discovered, can do both — not just for lead,
but for a growing number of other elements and
chemicals, too. hat inding holds tremendous
potential for environmental health research,
like trying to unravel causes of autism spectrum
disorder. And it’s why scientists around the
world, from Mexico to Sweden to Iraq, have been
flocking to Arora, a dentist and exposure biology
director at Mount Sinai’s Frank Lautenberg
Environmental Health Sciences Laboratory.
He’s turning teeth into time machines.
30
DISCOVERMAGAZINE.COM
YANA PASKOVA
“Imagine if you measured
TEETH FORM
blood lead level here,” Arora
says, pointing to a part of the
A DISTINCT
tooth that had grown after
RING ON
birth. “You’d think there’s
less risk. But travel back
THE DAY OF
in time. Just before birth,
there’s a huge spike in lead
BIRTH, THE
exposure.”
NEONATAL
Steps from Arora’s surprisingly modest upper ManhatLINE.
tan ofice, where his desk is
dotted with pictures of his
young triplet daughters, his
sprawling lab is illed with unassuming-looking equipment. But in a matter of hours to a little more than a
day, Arora can determine what a tooth — often one dug
up from years of sentimental storage — was exposed to
over the course of its lifetime. For baby teeth, that often
extends back to the end of the irst trimester. This time
machine has not only turned Arora into something of a
celebrity in environmental health, it is also revolutionizing
a ield that has long focused on the dose of a substance a
person is exposed to when evaluating its toxic effects.
Teeth form rings as they grow — just like trees, but
every day rather than every year. They also form a distinct ring on the day of birth, the neonatal line. Arora uses
these rings to measure, with surprising speciicity, when
the body was exposed to certain substances. In the process, he’s shown that timing can be critical in determining
the type and severity of harm from a chemical exposure.
YOU KNOW THE DRILL
A soft-spoken man, Arora had a dental practice in India,
but gave it up to pursue ways of integrating the environment into his work. He didn’t discover that teeth store
records of past exposures; he had studied the work of
environmental scientists who’d used ground-up teeth to
measure the total amount of a metal in the tooth. He
also wasn’t the irst to use a laser to reveal chemical ingerprints — geologists had long used them on rocks. But
Arora says nature inspired him to combine the techniques.
He knew that tree rings record environmental conditions
in speciic years, and he thought surely the growth rings in
teeth could be used for a similar purpose.
At the time, however, in the early 2000s, he was a struggling graduate student in Australia. When he sought
funding to test his unconventional concepts, grants didn’t
exactly roll in. He was also taking an unconventional
approach to research, mixing disciplines and talking with
nuclear physicists, geologists, biostatisticians and others
rather than looking to mentors in his own ield. “I kept
reaching outside my training, which was scary,” he says.
Conident he was onto something, he persisted, inding
A tiny baby tooth like this one, held by Manish Arora, can reveal
an enormous amount of information about environmental toxins.
small grants and eventually a sympathetic geologist who
let him use his earth and planetary sciences lab when
it was empty. He didn’t have his own key, though, and
there were no restrooms inside the lab. With no way to
re-enter, he learned quickly to moderate his water intake
before his long nights would begin. Eventually he got
used to trapping himself in the lab at night, alone, for
months on end, trying to see if teeth served as biomarkers of lead exposure.
Now, he runs his own lab and employs researchers whose
expertise ranges from histology — the detailed study of
biological cells and tissue — to hummingbird songs.
It’s an unusual mix. In a research group focused on
teeth, he’s the only dentist. “I’m not really interested
in treating tooth decay,” Arora says. “I’m interested in
June 2018 DISCOVER
31
Researchers use a precision saw to slice a tooth in half
before studying it in Arora’s lab at the Icahn School of
Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York.
people who can look at any human tissue and see what
information it is carrying.”
CHASING LEAD
The whole process starts in a small room where a saw sits
at the edge of a long counter.
Here, Arora or one of his lab researchers divides a
tooth in two using a special blade, then polishes the resulting surface with a paste containing ine diamond particles
until it’s smooth. Then he feeds it into a laser that creates
tiny craters and detects metals. Or, if he’s searching for
organic chemicals in the tooth, he hands it off to a robot
that can suss them out using a mass spectrometer that
produces a series of numbers, like points on a map. These
instruments tell Arora what compounds are in the tooth
and where they’re located. Each data point, he explains,
adds a pixel to his overall map of the tooth.
Arora is chasing exposures to a range of chemicals. But
often, he’s looking for lead exposure. Lead is found all
around us, and it can harm a signiicant number of vital
systems and organs. That’s because lead competes with
essential minerals like calcium and zinc in the body. It’s
especially dangerous for kids because their growing bodies absorb more lead and their nervous systems are more
sensitive. Scientists are also learning that lead is stored
alongside calcium in our bones, accumulating over time.
Using Arora’s lab, Henry Ford Health System epidemiologist Andrea Cassidy-Bushrow and her team discovered
that some children in Michigan were exposed to lead
before they were born, and the lead exposure declined
after birth. The babies likely absorbed lead that their
mothers were exposed to years, perhaps decades, earlier.
“I’m sitting here kind of dumbfounded,” says Barbara
Williams, a Detroit mother who took part in the study.
“When you’re pregnant, you think about everything you
are intaking. . . . You don’t think about how something you
did maybe six months ago might affect your pregnancy.”
Researchers believe that instead of absorbing calcium,
32
DISCOVERMAGAZINE.COM
the babies were absorbing
lead — which the body can
mistake for calcium — from
their mothers’ bones during
the latter half of pregnancy.
That’s the time when a
rapidly growing fetus needs
huge amounts of the bonebuilding mineral.
And there was a clear
exposure pattern. “We’re
seeing very consistent disparities along racial and
ethnic lines in lead exposure,” Cassidy-Bushrow says.
“African-American children
are at much higher risk of
lead exposure than Caucasian children, and this persists
even when we take into account where they live, the age
of their housing and their household income — anything
you think might be a cause.”
For Arora, this disparity is an environmental justice
issue. Women, even those who do everything they can
during pregnancy to give birth to healthy babies, essentially pass down their prior lead exposure. That happens
with any woman regardless of race. But because AfricanAmerican women tend to have had greater exposure to
lead in their lifetimes than white women, their children
more often enter the world with an automatic disadvantage. While there are many ways to prevent lead exposure
in the irst place, these women and children can’t do anything to prevent or ix it in their circumstances.
“African-American kids have more lead, we know
that,” Arora says.
“It just seems like something that should be unacceptable in a First World country like ours,” he adds. “Why
are you inheriting such an injustice even before you
were born?”
SCIENTISTS
ARE LEARNING
THAT LEAD
IS STORED
ALONGSIDE
CALCIUM IN
OUR BONES,
ACCUMULATING
OVER TIME.
{ Life
in
Layers { WHAT CAN A TOOTH TELL ABOUT A PERSON’S LIFE?
Quite a lot, it turns out — each layer tells a story.  ALISON MACKEY
TEETH: THE BASICS
Enamel
A tooth is divided into two parts: the roots embedded in the jaw, and a
crown that erupts above the gum line. The crown is covered in a protective
layer of enamel. Beneath the enamel, a layer of hard tissue called dentin
makes up the bulk of the tooth, surrounding and protecting nerves and blood
vessels in the dental pulp.
Dentin
Crown
Gum line
Pulp
cavity
Roots
DEVELOPING BABY TOOTH (side view, crown only)
Teeth begin forming in the womb
and create daily growth lines in
the dental tissues. The day of birth
is recorded in a prominent neonatal
line. Researchers use these lines to
estimate a child’s age.
Dentin
GESTATION
(weeks 14 – 19)
BIRTH
POSTNATAL
(months 2 – 11)
Dentin (left) and
enamel (right) grow
in opposite directions
HOW TO READ A TOOTH
A record of chemical exposure over time is also etched into our teeth. To
reveal this history, Manish Arora and his team use a wordy technique called
laser ablation inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry. Once a
tooth is prepped, scientists use a laser to blast the surface, creating tiny holes
where material is ejected. The tooth material that shoots out is read by a mass
spectrometer, which can identify elements and their concentrations.
Laser
Type of element
Teeth
are split
open for
analysis
Ejected
material
Intensity
OPPOSITE: YANA PASKOVA. THIS PAGE: ALISON MACKEY/DISCOVER; LARGE TOOTH ILLUSTRATION COURTESY OF IAN HARROWELL, CHRISTINE AUSTIN AND MANISH ARORA; DENTIN INSET BY BIOPHOTO ASSOCIATES/SCIENCE SOURCE
Neonatal
line
INTENSITY OF ELEMENT
Low
Time
MASS SPECTROSCOPY
High
The intensity of an element
can be plotted on a
spectral map
Sources: Morishita, Hirofumi et al., “Tooth-Matrix Biomarkers to Reconstruct Critical Periods of Brain Plasticity,” Trends in
Neurosciences, 2017; Arora, M. et al., “Fetal and postnatal metal dysregulation in autism,” Nature Communications, 2017.
85,000 CHEMICALS
Arora irst used his tooth time machine to detect lead.
Now, he and his colleagues are trying to expand their Detroit
study to lead-stricken Flint, Michigan, and beyond, looking
for additional impacts from the widespread recent lead exposure. He’s also shown that teeth record weight changes and
stress. And he’s now examining a range of other substances
that the technology can detect in teeth, including other mineral elements, and chemicals like pesticides and phthalates —
a potentially harmful compound in many consumer goods.
His team studied the children of California farmworkers,
for example, and found elevated levels of manganese, which
is used in fungicides. It’s an essential nutrient for plants and
animals, but at high levels, it can harm the central nervous
system, including brain function. Arora’s team tied those high
manganese levels — seen before and just after birth — with
negative behavioral patterns in kids aged 7 to 10. They even
showed manganese levels were higher when farmworkers
brought their work shoes or clothes inside.
Ultimately, his vision is to revolutionize how we understand
environmental health. First, he wants scientists to appreciate
the timing of exposures, as opposed to just the dose. He’s also
trying to help shift the ield away from studying chemicals
one by one, and toward studying how mixtures of substances
June 2018 DISCOVER
33
Arora (left) is tracking exposure to pesticides,
lead and other elements during specific times
in a child’s life — even in the womb — all
using their teeth (above).
34
DISCOVERMAGAZINE.COM
In the past, scientists have
used personal history questionnaires to assess exposure to
lead and other toxins. But such
surveys are imperfect; people
rarely self-report accurately
because they’re unaware of
their exposures. “That’s the real
breakthrough that Manish’s
work has generated,” Wright
says. “We can measure exposures objectively going back
in time.”
Wright is now expanding this
approach to do population-level
studies. He’s measuring air pollution levels back to 2005 to better understand how the pollutants affect people’s health.
It’s a far cry from looking at individual teeth, but it builds
on Arora’s work.
ARORA SEES
THIS TOOTH
TECHNIQUE
AS AN EQUALOPPORTUNITY
ASSISTANT
FOR STUDYING
DISEASES OF
ALL KINDS.
CONNECTING AILMENTS TO EXPOSURES
Arora sees this tooth technique as an equal-opportunity
assistant for studying diseases of all kinds, and it may be
starting to ill in knowledge gaps on causes of conditions
that have long eluded scientists.
Sven Bölte and Kristiina Tammimies, researchers at
Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, have been studying environmental connections to autism spectrum disorder for
years. Bölte says they’ve controlled for genetic causes as
much as they can. Now he hopes Arora’s techniques will
let them identify environmental factors. Discordant twins
— twins who don’t share the same physical disorders or
traits, such as one with asthma or autism and one without
YANA PASKOVA (5)
— which is how people are exposed to things in real life —
affect human health.
In doing so, Arora is advancing an emerging ield called
the exposome; he wants to study a lifetime of exposures
and the resulting health impacts. The ield has gained
momentum among environmental health researchers and
with government funding from agencies like the National
Institutes of Health (NIH).
But it also faces intense skepticism. Exposome research
could be compared to casting a vast ishing net, whereas
the conventional scientiic method is more like using
individual ishing rods. The single rod — a focused
hypothesis to test in a traditional experiment — is great
if you know what you’re looking for and where it is. But
researchers have realized the wider net is useful when you
recognize how much you don’t know, and you want to
account for all possibilities that may exist.
“It’s a completely different way of doing research than
everybody in the ield was trained to do,” says Robert
Wright, director of Mount Sinai’s Institute for Exposomic Research.
Wright is an exposome proponent, and he helped bring
Arora to Mount Sinai and helped ind resources for his
lab. And he says the exposome is gaining traction, but it
was once controversial enough that just mentioning it in a
proposal might kill funding.
This wider-net approach could be crucial if researchers
are going to catch up to the realities of modern environmental health risks. Studying one chemical at a time —
like lead or bisphenol A, a common additive in plastics
— will never make a dent in understanding the impacts
of the 85,000-plus chemicals on the market today. And
from the beginning, Arora has made a point of defying
traditional approaches.
Families and dentists from
all over the world send baby
teeth (left) to Arora’s lab for
analysis. Those samples get
zapped by lasers, creating
tiny craters (below) along
the tooth. The particles
blasted from the tooth
are then analyzed (right)
for trace metals and other
potential toxins.
Laser sampling marks
Neonatal line
— provide opportunities to look at environmental factors
while also eliminating genetic variables. A tooth offers a
time capsule of what a child was exposed to before autism
appeared. “Everything else, we collect when the symptoms
are already there, or children are already diagnosed,” he
says. Hair could have been one other possibility, he continued, but it doesn’t go as far back as teeth, and some
children aren’t born with hair.
When Arora examined the teeth collected by Swedish
researchers, he uncovered a surprising pattern. Children
with autism had lower levels of zinc and manganese in
the third trimester of pregnancy — and lower levels of
manganese after birth — than their twin siblings. “From
the irst study, I was really amazed about the timing,”
says Tammimies. “That is one of the key impacts. We can
use [Arora’s] tools to start pinpointing the exact timing
of the exposure.”
Starting in 2015, Arora led an NIH study that reached
similar results. Again looking at twins, his team found that
baby teeth from kids with autism had higher levels of lead
and lower levels of manganese and zinc. Their indings
suggest that exposure to metals — and how the body processes them — could be important to the risk of autism.
Arora and his colleagues have since replicated these early
results in a larger study presented to the NIH in February.
Right now, Arora has collaborations with researchers
all around the world — looking at autism in Sweden and
Mongolia, neurodevelopmental disorders in Mexico
City, impacts of arsenic in Bangladesh, plus lead
in Michigan, among others. In New York City, he’s
collecting teeth shed by children born around 9/11,
analyzing what they were exposed to and how those
exposures may be inluencing their health. He’s also
looking at health problems in adults, such as Parkinson’s
disease and Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Arora has intentionally avoided a more conventional
focus on one particular disease. His goal is to understand
many diseases and the impacts of many exposures — and
to move the entire ield of environmental health toward
studying a bigger picture, rather than one disease or
chemical at a time.
“If the environment is important to our whole physiology, then by that deinition it’s also important to many
perturbations of that physiology, so it’s important to
many diseases,” he says.
With excitement for the future, Arora says he aims
to analyze teeth for tens of thousands of chemicals at a
time. He has proposed working with the Undiagnosed
Diseases Network to study rare, poorly understood
diseases, and he is trying constantly to igure out new
ways to understand the environment’s inluence on
human health.
Sitting in his ofice, between phone calls with distant
collaborators and consulting with his lab staff, he looks
at the boy’s tooth from Mexico City. The lead analysis
was part of an ongoing study he’s conducted with partners including the National Institute of Public Health of
Mexico, which wants to reduce lead exposure.
“Their mission is to bring about positive changes for
public health,” he says.
Ultimately, that’s what he wants the tooth-as-timemachine technology to be used for. The more we learn
about which things in the environment are harming our
health and when, the more we can avoid them when it
matters most. D
Rachel Cernansky is a science, environmental and health journalist
in Denver.
June 2018 DISCOVER
35
New and ancient threats emerge
as permafrost thaws. Are we ready?
BRANDT MEIXELL/USGS
BY BRIDGET ALEX
Erosion along the Arctic coast in
Alaska’s Teshekpuk Lake Special Area
lays bare pale permafrost just beneath
the ground’s surface. Caused by the
disappearance of sea ice, the rapid
erosion is one of several problems
in the area caused by climate change.
June 2018 DISCOVER
37
HOMES ARE SINKING AND TREES ARE TIPPING OVER
in Alaska. Mammoth bones are surfacing in the Russian
Far East — so many that people have begun selling the tusks
as a substitute for elephant ivory. And in 2016, more than
70 people in western Siberia were hospitalized for exposure
to anthrax, likely spread from a decades-old reindeer carcass
that thawed from frozen ground.
Originally built
on a bluff, a cabin
on Alaska’s Arctic
Coast is claimed
by the sea, a victim
of erosion linked
to permafrost thaw
and climate change.
In 2016, meltwater seeped into the entrance
tunnel of the Global Seed Vault, a subterranean
facility in Arctic Norway nicknamed the
Doomsday Vault. There, millions of collected
seeds are supposed to stay frozen indeinitely,
with little upkeep, a safeguard to restart
agriculture should the world’s crops be lost in
a large-scale disaster. No seeds were harmed —
the water refroze long before reaching the vault
— but the breach made the world wonder: Will
the Doomsday Vault last until doomsday?
The events are connected, caused by the same
phenomenon: They occurred in regions covered
in permafrost, ground that should stay frozen
throughout the year but is now thawing because
of global warming.
Permafrost covers about 25 percent of all
ice-free land in the Northern Hemisphere.
For millennia, much of this ground has been
a cemented mass of soil, rock and ice, along
with bits of organisms preserved from decay in
a deep freeze.
But as temperatures rise, “the ground’s giving
way to mush,” says archaeologist Jeff Rasic,
chief of resources for Gates of the Arctic
National Park in Alaska. Warming ground
leads to erosion, sinking and structural damage.
Frozen organisms, including pathogens that can
infect living hosts, also thaw.
And the worst is yet to come. Organic matter
trapped in permafrost — everything from
mammoth carcasses to ancient fruit — contains
massive stores of carbon, an estimated 1,500
billion tons, or nearly twice the carbon currently
in the atmosphere. As the ground warms, the
long-frozen material will decay and release the
carbon as greenhouse gases.
“The more carbon we have in the atmosphere,
the more warming we have, and that creates a
feedback,” says Northern Arizona University
ecologist Christina Schädel, who coordinates a
global network of scientists studying the impact
of permafrost thaw.
As researchers scramble to predict the effects
of climate change on permafrost, Arctic people
are already witnessing it, right beneath their feet.
EUROPE
ICELAND
OPPOSITE: BENJAMIN JONES/USGS. THIS PAGE, FROM TOP: NASA EARTH OBSERVATORY MAP BY JOSHUA STEVENS; QAI PUBLISHING/UIG VIA GETTY IMAGES; JEFF VANUGA/GETTY IMAGES; BO ELBERLING (CENTER FOR PERMAFROST, CENPERM)
PERMAFROST
PLANET
Defined as ground —
including rock, soil, ice
and other organic
material — that
remains frozen
for at least two
consecutive years,
permafrost
covers much of
the Northern
Hemisphere’s
upper latitudes,
but it’s not
remaining
frozen anymore.
As global
temperatures
rise, especially in
polar regions, vast
amounts of it are
thawing, creating a
host of problems.
Atlantic Ocean
GREENLAND
RUSSIA
Arctic Ocean
CANADA
ALASKA
PERMAFROST COVER
Pacific Ocean
Continuous
Discontinuous
Sporadic
TYPES OF PERMAFROST COVER
Isolated
Source: National Snow
and Ice Data Center
Isolated patches
Continuous
Discontinuous/
Sporadic
Soil, ice and
air bubbles
permeate a chunk
of permafrost.
Also present
but not visible:
microorganisms.
Permafrost
covers about
25 percent of
all ice-free land
in the Northern
Hemisphere.
Beneath a thin layer of active soil and vegetation, icy-looking permafrost
thaws on the Arctic island of Svalbard, home to the Global Seed Vault. The
facility holds millions of seeds collected from around the world to safeguard
crops and other plants, but a meltwater breach in 2016 raised questions
about whether the “Doomsday Vault” would last until doomsday.
June 2018 DISCOVER
39
REVIVING ANCIENT PLANTS AND VIRUSES
A flowering specimen of Silene
stenophylla sprouted normally
from fruits frozen for 30,000
years in Siberian permafrost.
The deposits also contained two
still-viable viruses new to science,
raising concerns about possible
ancient pathogens that might
emerge from the world’s
thawing permafrost.
On Siberia’s Kurungnakh
Island, thawing layers
of permafrost slump and
erode away, a process that
can destabilize buildings
and also expose longdormant viruses and other
potentially deadly threats.
Permafrost is cold, dark, oxygen-free and
has a neutral pH — that is, neither acidic nor
basic, like water. “It’s really the best place to
keep alive something that doesn’t need any
kind of metabolic activity,” says Jean Michel
Claverie, a microbiologist at Aix-Marseille
University in France. That means microbes,
seeds and spores, frozen in a dormant state,
could awaken with a little warming.
This was proven in 2012, when
researchers from the Russian Academy
of Sciences sprouted three dozen Silene
stenophylla, herby white tundra lowers,
from 30,000-year-old fruits. The specimens
were recovered from ancient squirrel burrows, 125 feet deep in the permafrost of
northeast Russia, according to the study
published in Proceedings of the National
Academy of Sciences. After sprouting in
nutrient-rich test tubes, the seedlings had
run-of-the-mill plant lives: They grew into
fruit-bearing lowers in plastic pots and
soil, resuming normal biological activity
after being frozen for 300 centuries.
Seeing the study, Claverie, who researches
virus evolution, thought, “If they were able
to revive a plant, we should be able to revive
a virus.”
Within four years, his team resurrected
two never-before-seen viruses from the same
30,000-year-old deposits. Both reawakened
in laboratory dishes and infected living
amoebas.
Through these experiments, researchers
can directly study how viruses and life-forms
evolved over time. “I think we can really try
to understand better the origin of life,” says
Claverie. “Permafrost is important because
we can go deeper and ind ancestors of those
viruses.” Currently, his team is preparing to
analyze samples taken from more than 500
feet deep in the permafrost, dated to about
600,000 years ago.
Although the scientists have only worked
on amoeba-killing viruses, the research
heightens concerns that pathogens infectious to humans will also emerge — outside
of the laboratory — as permafrost thaws.
This is already an issue in the Russian
Arctic, where anthrax outbreaks in the early
20th century killed an estimated 1.5 million
reindeer. Many of these animals, along with
infected cattle, are buried in near-surface
permafrost — the so-called active layer
Researchers discovered two ancient viruses in the
same sample of permafrost: Mollivirus sibericum
(left), found in 2015, and Pithovirus sibericum
(right), described in 2014. After “reawakening”
in the lab, both viruses infected living amoebas.
CREDIT
that thaws in summer and freezes in winter. When warmed, the carcasses release
anthrax spores, which readily reactivate into
infectious bacteria. The phenomenon likely
caused a 2016 outbreak that hospitalized 72
Nenets reindeer herders.
And it’s not just anthrax from rotting
reindeer. Cemeteries across permafrost
zones of North America and Russia contain
victims of smallpox, plague and inluenza.
However, Claverie believes there is low
risk of a global pandemic from these diseases in permafrost. “If it’s an old known
disease like smallpox, it will be sad for the
poor people who get it, but it could be OK
because it could be recognized quite easily,
and you put the people in quarantine.”
He is more concerned about unknown
diseases deeper in the permafrost being
brought suddenly to the surface by mining
and industrial development in the Arctic —
prehistoric pathogens, for which we have no
defense.
CLOCKWISE FROM UPPER LEFT: REPRODUCED WITH PERMISSION FROM PROCEEDINGS OF THE NATIONAL ACADEMY OF SCIENCES, S. YASHINA ET AL. MARCH 6, 2012. 109 (10) 4008-4013; INFORMATION GÉNOMIQUE ET STRUCTURALE, CNRS-AMU; UNIVERSITY OF ALASKA MUSEUM OF THE NORTH;
KARL HOREIS/POLARTREC/ARCUS; PAOLO VERZONE/AGENCE VU/REDUX
ARCHAEOLOGICAL SITES FOUND — AND LOST
Permafrost thaw is opening other windows to the past at archaeological
sites. “It’s this incredible archive of information,” says Rasic, who works
at digs in Arctic Alaska. “Things that should have rotted away a long time
ago have been frozen and preserved.”
Perishable items, like basketry, wooden tools and clothing, can be
preserved for millennia in permafrost, and show how ancient peoples
survived one of the toughest environments on Earth.
For example, at Birnirk, a site in far north Alaska dated to
A.D. 600-1300, archaeologists recovered parkas, boots and even baby
clothes made from sealskins and
polar bear fur — “incredibly highperforming garments out of all natural
materials,” says Rasic. “They made
ine needles and threads and could
sew watertight seams in a time before
Gore-Tex and all the high-tech ibers
we have now.”
At another Alaskan site, Raven Bluff,
bones were so well preserved that Rasic Ancient footwear emerged from
assumed they were a few hundred years thawing permafrost in remarkable
shape at northwestern Alaska’s
old. But results from radiocarbon dat- Birnirk archaeological site, which is
ing brought a shock: Raven Bluff was more than 700 years old.
inhabited 11,000 years ago. Permafrost
sites of this era are key to understanding how Ice Age people migrated
from Siberia and settled the Americas.
Permafrost thaw may help archaeologists discover sites because the
warming ground leads to erosion, which exposes artifacts, but it’s a
double-edged sword. Unless the sites are quickly excavated, the perishable
artifacts rot away, and there are not enough Arctic archaeologists to keep
pace with the thaw. “We’re resigned to always losing more sites than we
can ever address or save, but there’s a real pressure right now to be very
eficient with our triage decisions,” Rasic says. “It’s a matter of collecting
information before it disappears.”
A team digs up artifacts at Raven Bluff, another Alaskan archaeological site revealed
by thawing permafrost. Originally thought to be only a few centuries old, bones
found at the site turned out to be more than 10,000 years old.
June 2018 DISCOVER
41
A TOXIC THREAT
42
DISCOVERMAGAZINE.COM
Modern human settlements are also in peril.
Permafrost includes ice that is both pervasive —
binding soil components together like glue — and
concentrated in thick, pure chunks. When gluelike
ice melts, the soil becomes mud, causing gradual
sinking and erosion. When ice chunks melt, the
overlying ground can suddenly collapse.
But buildings can lose structural integrity and
become unstable even with modest increases in
ground temperature, well before all-out melt. In
Alaska alone, the destruction of buildings and infrastructure due to permafrost thaw over the next
century could cost more than $2 billion, according
to a 2017 study.
Regions affected may seem remote and largely
uninhabited to outside eyes, but permafrost lands
contain settlements ranging from small villages to
industrial cities with populations over 100,000.
Norilsk, Russia, typiies the urban Arctic.
Erected in 1935 as a gulag work camp, Norilsk has
grown into a nickel mining and smelting center.
With 178,800 residents, it’s about the size of Fort
Lauderdale, Florida, but similarities end there.
Norilsk is one of the world’s northernmost cities
and Russia’s most polluted. In December, the sun
does not rise, and temperatures dip below minus 20
degrees Fahrenheit.
Like most cities in the Russian Arctic, Norilsk
was custom built for permafrost. “The colder
the permafrost, the harder or stronger the freezing force that holds foundations,” says Dmitry
Streletskiy, a geographer at George Washington
University who studies the effect of permafrost
thaw on human habitations.
Twentieth-century engineers calculated how
much weight foundations could support based on
ground temperatures — but those temps have risen
by up to 3.6 degrees across Russian permafrost
zones in the past three decades. “Those designs
were not accounting for such a fast pace of climate
change,” says Streletskiy.
In his research, Streletskiy does that accounting. Instead of temperatures from the time of
construction, he subs in current climate data. The
result of a study he authored in 2012: Foundations
across Siberian cities can bear up to 46 percent
less load in 2010 than in the 1960s, putting them
at risk of collapse.
In Norilsk, hundreds of residential buildings
are visibly deformed because of ground thaw, according to the municipal government’s last count
in 2015. In other permafrost cities, 10 to 80 percent
of structures are in potentially dangerous states.
In some cases, engineers have saved buildings
WILLIAM COLGAN/GEUS
LIFE ON SHIFTING GROUND
Permafrost thaw isn’t the only threat: Melting ice sheets bring
additional risks.
Last summer, climatologist William Colgan, a researcher for the
Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, led an expedition
of scientists to Camp Century, an abandoned U.S. military base
buried in the Greenland Ice Sheet.
“When you get to Camp Century today, it’s totally flat white.
There’s nothing showing above the surface. It’s just a pancake,
white, ice sheet,” says Colgan.
But 10 stories beneath the surface are the remains of the
facility, which in the 1960s spanned more than 100 football fields
and housed as many as 200 soldiers from the U.S. Army. One
mission was top secret and code-named Project Iceworm: install
ballistic missiles under the ice sheet, within range of Russia.
By 1967, the Army had abandoned the project, leaving
behind hazardous wastes including sewage, radioactive coolant
and carcinogenic industrial chemicals, as well as diesel fuel.
Engineers at the time assumed these toxins would be preserved
indefinitely under ice.
But the Greenland Ice Sheet is melting, and faster than once
projected. From 2007 to 2011, the ice sheet shrunk by about 290
billion tons per year. Compare that with an average loss of 83
billion tons per year from 1900 to 1983.
According to Colgan, the good news is that if countries meet
goals laid out in the Paris Agreement and other climate changefighting guidelines, the site should stay frozen.
The bad news: If current warming trends continue unabated,
the toxic wastes will likely begin
to melt out of the ice sheet,
irreversibly, within 75 years.
To make these predictions, the
authors estimated the extent of
debris using historical records and
maps from the camp. The goal of
the 2017 expedition was to set up
long-term monitoring of the site.
The scientists couldn’t
physically enter Camp Century
because decades of snow and
ice accumulation have sealed the
entrance. “It doesn’t look like
there’s any air space left in the
tunnel network, so even if we
were to dig down to 30 meters
to one of the access points, it
looks like all the tunnels are
just crushed completely shut,”
Colgan says.
Instead, the researchers
collected ice cores for analysis
and installed weather and
ice-monitoring devices,
which transmit real-time data
back to lab headquarters in
A researcher drills a borehole
Copenhagen. Donning cross240 feet deep into the
country skis, they also towed
Greenland Ice Sheet to insert
ice-penetrating radar across the
sensors that will monitor
surface to produce more accurate
temperatures around the
subsurface of Camp Century.
maps of subterranean debris.
The radar data showed that
waste is spread about a mile across — double the area expected
— and in some spots is at a depth of less than 100 feet.
Despite the extensive spread, Colgan believes the waste could
remain trapped in ice. “Whether or not Camp Century becomes a
problem has very much to do with our choice of climate pathway
as a society,” he says.  B.A.
FROM TOP: SERGEY PONOMAREV/THE NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX; RYERSONCLARK/ISTOCK; MICHELLE HOLIHAN/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO
by installing thermosyphons, devices that cool the
ground through evaporation and condensation.
But “those are pretty much point solutions. You
have a couple meters around it where it works,”
says Streletskiy. “They can save one building, but
they don’t save an entire city.”
While Arctic urbanites grapple with collapsing
buildings, traditional coastal villages face total
destruction. Over the past ive decades, shorelines throughout the Arctic have receded by an
average of 1.5 feet annually. Some spots have lost
as much as 70 feet in mere hours during violent
storms. These Arctic coasts are disappearing due
to the combined effects of permafrost thaw, sea
level rise and longer summers when the seas are
ice-free. In short, more waves are crashing farther
onto softer land.
This will mean the end for some communities.
A report by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
concluded that Kivalina, a native Iñupiaq village
of 85 homes at the tip of an 8-mile leck of land in
northwest Alaska, will likely be “lost to erosion”
within the next decade. Yet the 374 residents remain. Relocation would cost over $95 million and
jeopardize their lifestyle, which depends on hunting and ishing coastal resources. They are tethered
to the sea, as it consumes their village.
Seen in the gloom
of a November day
in Siberia, Norilsk
(top) is Russia’s
northernmost city,
and its most polluted.
Thawing permafrost
is causing hundreds
of buildings there to
crack and destabilize.
Permafrost thaw is also
buckling roads in the
Canadian Arctic (right)
and turning cemeteries
in Barrow, Alaska, into
swampy sites (below).
June 2018 DISCOVER
43
METHANE AND MYSTERIOUS CRATERS
1 mile
Batagaika
Crater
Aug. 27, 1999
July 23, 2013
Mysterious and explosive craters
appear suddenly in the Arctic, but
Siberia’s massive Batagaika Crater
is no overnight sensation. Tracked
by satellite imagery for decades,
the crater is a “megaslump”
induced by permafrost thaw,
and it continues to grow.
44
DISCOVERMAGAZINE.COM
To the untrained eye, they appear to be
meteor impacts: massive, funnel-shaped
craters, about 80 feet across and 15
stories deep, that suddenly appear in
the Russian tundra. But according to
Vladimir Romanovsky, a geophysicist at
the University of Alaska who has been
monitoring permafrost since the 1970s,
“nothing like this was described in any
scientiic or even not-scientiic literature.
“We don’t even have a good name for it
yet,” he adds.
At last count, at least nine craters have
been conirmed in Yamal, a Russian territory
jutting 400 miles north of the Arctic Circle,
and neighboring Gydan. Yamal is home
to more reindeer than people, as well as
Russia’s largest natural gas deposits and the
infrastructure to exploit them.
The cause of the craters is uncertain
— no one has witnessed one form — but
researchers have a hypothesis: Icelike
mixtures of methane and water, trapped
below and within the permafrost, expand
as they warm, heaving up the ground until
it erupts.
Supporting this explanation, local reindeer
herders reportedly heard loud booms soon
before craters were irst noticed. At the sites,
researchers found explosively high methane
concentrations and chunks of earth littering
A giant crater discovered
in Siberia’s Yamal territory
dwarfs the human visitors
standing above it.
the periphery for thousands of feet. Satellite
images from previous years showed the
craters were once small hills, bulging from
the tundra.
“The fact that they have appeared and
weren’t really predicted tells me that there
are probably surprises out there that we
don’t know about yet, that I’m sure we’ll be
seeing soon,” says Ted Schuur, a permafrost
researcher at Northern Arizona University.
Although the craters have never been
observed before, bulging hills are common in
CLOCKWISE FROM UPPER LEFT: NASA EARTH OBSERVATORY/JESSE ALLEN (2); VASILY BOGOYAVLENSKY/AFP/GETTY IMAGES; THOMAS NASH/NASHPIX.COM; MIRIAM JONES/USGS; YURI KOZYREV/NOOR/REDUX
OUR CARBON FEEDBACK FUTURE
permafrost regions. Systematic surveys,
using helicopters and satellites, counted
7,000 such mounds in Yamal and Gydan
and 1,350 in the Tuktoyaktuk Peninsula
of northwest Canada — at that rate,
there could easily be 100,000 such
potential time bombs across the Arctic.
Most are likely due to frost-heave, when
the water in saturated soil freezes and
expands, pushing the ground up. But
an unknown number could be methane
mounds on the verge of eruption.
Bubbles of methane (above) are trapped
in an icy lake, the result of permafrost
thaw. The creation and slow expansion of
Siberia’s Batagaika Crater (left) is also due to
permafrost thaw: As the ground continues
to soften and erode, the “megaslump”crater
grows in size, occasionally revealing animal
remains that were frozen for millennia.
To see what other surprises permafrost thaw will bring, Schuur is speeding
up global warming — experimentally — in a dozen plots of permafrost
land in the tundra of central Alaska. Since 2008, the plots, each about
half a tennis court in size, have been passively heated a few extra degrees:
In winter, surrounding fences accumulate an insulating blanket of snow
and in summer, the team installs open-topped, greenhouse-like structures
made of clear plastic to maximize warming.
“We cause the permafrost to degrade and look at the impact of that,
to try to push the tundra into a future
state,” Schuur says.
The project is one of many trying
to understand the permafrost carbon
feedback: The idea that thawing permafrost will allow long-frozen organic
matter to be decomposed by soil microbes, which will release greenhouse
gases, accelerating global warming.
The feedback was irst described in
a 2006 Science paper. Yet permafrost
carbon has not been included in most
climate projections. There are just too
many unknowns, including how much
carbon is in the permafrost, how easily it could degrade and how quickly it
might be released.
To address these questions, experimental heating studies like Schuur’s
are being combined with observations
of permafrost thawing naturally. Scientists now systematically measure
ground temperature and depth of seasonal thaw at hundreds of locations.
In 2015, Schuur and Schädel were
Ted Schuur, a permafrost expert at
co-authors on a landmark paper in Northern Arizona University, checks
Nature that synthesized the available on monitoring equipment set up
near Healy, Alaska, to track how
observations and experiments. They the once-frozen ground degrades
concluded that a portion of the per- and releases stored carbon.
mafrost is destined to thaw, which
will add about 150 billion tons of carbon to the atmosphere over the
next century. That’s comparable to the projected amount contributed by
land-use changes such as deforestation, or roughly one-tenth the carbon
of fossil fuel emissions.
Beyond this inescapable amount, it’s hard to predict how much more
permafrost will thaw — mainly because that depends on human decisions.
According to a 2017 study in Nature Climate Change, if countries stick to
the Paris Agreement, holding global average temperature to 1.5 to 2 C (2.7
to 3.6 F) above pre-industrial levels, then 55 to 70 percent of permafrost
land area could be saved, compared with its near elimination under our
current warming trajectory.
Says Schuur, “If we follow the Paris accord, if we reduce our emissions
elsewhere, it will just slow everything down and help keep carbon in the
ground, in the Arctic where it is now.” D
Harvard University anthropologist Bridget Alex is a frequent contributor to Discover.
June 2018 DISCOVER
45
Whatever
Happened to the
FUTURE?
Jetpacks, flying cars and other cool
inventions still aren’t standard issue.
BY BILL ANDREWS
Clockwise from top:
Legendary artist
Chesley Bonestell’s
winged rocket from
a 1952 Collier’s
magazine cover. A
1956 illustration of
the H.G. Wells classic
The Time Machine.
Comic book illustrator
Alex Schomburg’s
1953 cover art for
Science Fiction Plus.
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CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT: COURTESY OF THE ESTATE OF ALEX SCHOMBURG; FIRST CLASSICS INC., FROM THE COVER OF CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED, VOL. 133, 1956 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED;
COURTESY OF BONESTELL, LLC; NBC UNIVERSAL/GETTY IMAGES; MCA/EVERETT COLLECTION; JOE RAEDLE/GETTY IMAGES; WARNER BROS./EVERETT COLLECTION; TERRAFUGIA
T
he future’s not what it used to be.
By all accounts, it should be here by
now. It’s 2018. The new millennium is
old enough to vote. NASA has been
in space for half a century. Virtually
every house has a computer, and every
pocket a smaller, cuter one.
And yet the promised future is
incomplete. Where, as the refrain
goes, is my flying car? Our jetpacks?
Why does it even still rain on us? Is it
not the future?
Well, yes and no. Some of our
promised future gizmos have already
arrived — even if they’re prohibitively
expensive — and some are literally
impossible. As novelist and future
fabulist William Gibson has said, “The
future is already here — it’s just not
very evenly distributed.”
Ultimately, the future is whatever
you make it, Doc tells us in Back to
the Future Part III.
So here’s what we’ve
made of some
of the most
popular promised
technologies.
Clockwise from top left:
NBC’s Timeless, a show in
which a group of heroes
saves history. Back to the
Future’s DeLorean, useful
for saving history and
the future. The JetLev
water-propelled jetpack,
which saves the rich
from boredom. Neo from
The Matrix Reloaded,
a film that could have
used some saving. And
finally, Terrafugia’s hope
for the future, the TF-X.
June 2018 DISCOVER
47
Clockwise from top left:
This free-flying astronaut
couldn’t get far in outer
space without a jetpack.
Disney’s 1991 film The
Rocketeer — based off
a comic book — was
set in the 1930s, but
remains fantasy. But the
Flyboard Air, a jetpack
on your feet, is trying to
change that. And JetPack
Aviation has already
proven itself by circling
the Statue of Liberty —
just don’t try to buy one.
Fun Fact
CREDIT
George Jetson’s workweek
consisted of pushing a
button for an hour a
day, two days a week.
Clearly, some of the show’s
predictions were more
realistic than others.
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Jetpacks
What is it?
A machine worn as a backpack that lets you fly, usually via jet engine.
Where you’ve seen it
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The Rocketeer, The Jetsons, Iron Man (though not a back-based variation)
Why it’d be so cool
Fun Fact
The Rocketeer wasn’t all
lies. The Nazis really did
try to get their hands on
jetpack technology over 80
years ago. Luckily, creating
a flying backpack wasn’t
any easier back then.
One of our most primal urges is to soar around as easily as birds. The
jetpack lets us do it in the most “natural” way: no cockpits shielding us
from the wind, no hot air balloons leaving us at the mercy of air currents,
just pure high-flying action. You could take the fastest route to work every
day, literally as the crow flies. Or shoot over to the neighboring country to
see the sites. And let’s not forget about the military advantages if a jetpack came
standard with every soldier’s uniform. Ultimately, the jetpack is about freedom. Fly in or out of
any situation you want, and look badass while doing it.
When were we supposed to have it
Although usually shorthand for “the future,” The Rocketeer’s jetpack came about in the 1930s, so
we’re way behind on that score.
How close are we?
You could fly around in a jetpack right now … if you’re in the right environment.
In space, astronauts have been scooting around in so-called manned
maneuvering units since 1984. Not an astronaut? You’ll have better luck over
water. Hydro jetpacks, including the name brand Flyboard, use Jet Skilike technology to shoot water instead of a gas propellant. The catch:
It needs a fuel source. So while these machines look and apparently
feel an awful lot like traditional flying jetpacks, they’re still literally
tethered to the water.
So what about the real deal? It’s possible, but not exactly as
consumer tech. JetPack Aviation, whose CEO flew around the Statue
of Liberty in 2015, offers promotional flights and training; no FAA
pilot’s license required. Or how about the Flyboard Air, a jetpack for
your feet? The catch: It lasts only 10 minutes, costs $250,000 and isn’t
actually for sale yet.
Ultimately, there’s a reason consumer jetpacks are not
more available in real life. The jet itself would be
extremely dangerous to other fliers and careless
pilots — to say nothing of the flames shooting
out — and it would probably be uncomfortably
loud and cumbersome. And, basically, humans
just aren’t very aerodynamic, so controlling such
a device at any speed is tricky.
Still, at least there are options.
Above: A Flyboard
in Japan provides
thrills via a jet of
high-pressure water.
Left: Astronaut Bruce
McCandless II flies
through space using
the nitrogen-propelled
manned maneuvering
unit in 1984.
June 2018 DISCOVER
49
Flying Cars
What is it?
It’s a car … that can fly. (Usually a sportier
model.)
Where you’ve seen it
Back to the Future, Blade Runner,
Futurama, The Fifth Element
Why it’d be so cool
Controlled flying is a relatively recent
development for our species — the first
airplane flew only about 115 years ago.
It still feels cool and futuristic to picture
ourselves, as a species, casually puttering
around in the air. Just as a prosperous
family could enjoy a personal boat trip or car ride,
the personal flying car symbolizes one more realm
we’ve mastered, another technological hurdle we’ve
cleared. Plus, the views are nicer, the traffic less
congested, and it looks like so much fun.
Left: This Convair
Model 118 actually
flew in 1947. The
company hoped
to make flying cars
mainstream after
World War II. Below:
Ford floated the
idea of a levitating
car in 1959 with its
Mach I Levacar —
no wheels needed.
When were we supposed to have it
The Back to the Future trilogy optimistically
suggested they’d be
ubiquitous by 2015, and
Blade Runner in 2019.
Either way, the not-toodistant future.
The idea of flying cars goes
Fun Fact
back further than you may
think. The first patent for
one was issued in 1918.
How close are we?
Surprisingly close!
CREDIT
Flying cars already exist
as prototypes. Right now for a
cool $10,000 deposit, you can reserve an honestto-God flying car from Terrafugia, called the Transition. The problem
is they’re more like drivable planes. You’d still need a special area for takeoffs and landings,
and, oh yeah, you need to know how to fly a plane. And another thing, the Transition isn’t
currently in production; it’s still a few years away. (In other words, the not-too-distant future.)
Ultimately, planes are plane-shaped for a reason, and it’s much more practical to use one to
fly, and a car to drive. After all, we don’t try to combine power saws and flamethrowers into
one ultracool multitool.
Still, the basic technology is there, and combined with autonomous driving possibilities —
Uber is promising flying drone cars by 2020 — it just might be possible that we’ll have our
flying cars after all.
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OPPOSITE FROM TOP: AVIATION-IMAGES.COM/MARY EVANS PICTURE LIBRARY; ARCHIVE PHOTOS/GETTY IMAGES. THIS PAGE, CLOCKWISE FROM TOP: ADVERTISING ARCHIVES.CO.UK; COLUMBIA/TRISTAR PICTURES/EVERETT COLLECTION; WARNER BROS./EVERETT COLLECTION;
HANNA-BARBERA/EVERETT COLLECTION; TERRAFUGIA (2)
This page, clockwise from
top left: This 1958 ad from
America’s Independent
Electric Light and Power
Companies pushed a flying
car for the “modern”
family. Flying cop cars
feature in both 1997’s The
Fifth Element and 1982’s
Blade Runner. The Jetsons,
the ultimate modern family,
never even landed their
flying car on solid ground.
A more realistic flying car
— Terrafugia’s Transition
— could be available for
purchase in the years
ahead.
June 2018 DISCOVER
51
Time Machine
What is it?
A contraption that lets you explore different
time periods.
Where you’ve seen it
The Time Machine, Back to the Future,
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Doctor Who
Why it’d be so cool
We’re a species that likes to roam, to
explore the wild blue yonder. What greater
unexplored realms are there than the past and
the future? Historians could answer all their
unsolved questions, and scientists could get
a leg up on upcoming technology. You could
spend time with departed loved ones, and see
what awaits your family — and species — in
the years to come. The possibilities are as
endless as time!
When were we supposed to have it
The Time Machine came out in 1895, so at
least since then. They’re usually depicted as
contemporary technology taking
place whenever the story
happens, so really,
they should be
here already.
Fun Fact
How close
are we?
Not at all.
Technically,
simply by
existing we are
traveling forward in
time at 1 second per second, so in that
sense everything is a time machine. Physics
has also taught us ways to toy with that flow of time
a little bit. You age faster the closer you are to a large mass like
Earth, for example.
But as for a machine that transports you wherever you want in time
and, presumably, space? Nope. It’s pretty much impossible, as far as
we know. Sorry.
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Top: In a 1960
film adaptation
of H.G. Wells’ The
Time Machine, actor
Rod Taylor plays a
Victorian-era inventor
who journeys into
the fourth dimension
on a sled attached
to a large clock. Left:
Lucy Preston (Abigail
Spencer) poofs in and
out of eras via a giant
sphere in Timeless.
TOP: EVERETT COLLECTION. BOTTOM: NBC UNIVERSAL/GETTY IMAGES
Because they’re farther
from Earth’s gravity,
astronauts who spend
six months in space have
aged some 0.007 seconds
slower than everyone
who stayed on the
ground. Baby
steps?
Warp Speed
What is it?
The ability to travel faster than the speed of light — often at multiples of it.
Where you’ve seen it
Star Trek, Star Wars, The Last Starfighter — pretty much anything with
“star” in the name
Why it’d be so cool
“Space,” Douglas Adams informs us, “is big. Really big.” In order to get
anywhere, either you need to plan for years’ worth of travel, or you need to
travel faster than the speed of light — the current speed limit for matter, if Albert
Einstein is to be believed. But if we could somehow achieve superluminal speeds, we’d
be free to travel almost anywhere, “boldly going” wherever we
like, the solar wind in our hair. The galaxy, and
possibly the universe itself, opens up to us.
When were we supposed to have it
The only firm date seems to be when
Star Trek’s Zephram Cochrane invents a
warp drive in 2063; otherwise, it’s just a
background staple of sufficiently
advanced societies.
How close are we?
TOP: PARAMOUNT/EVERETT COLLECTION. BOTTOM: CHESLEY BONESTELL/COURTESY OF BONESTELL, LLC
Not very.
Above: The Enterprise
jumps to warp speed
in 1979’s Star Trek:
The Motion Picture.
Left: We now know
Chesley Bonestell’s
winged rocket,
illustrated in 1959,
could never hit light
speed. But its design
does recall today’s
space planes.
Fun Fact
Einstein’s theories have been
Pluto is over 5 light-hours
verified enough to suggest if we
away, and it would take
ever can break the cosmic speed
more than four years
limit, it’s going to take more
traveling at light speed
than just going really fast.
to reach the nearest star.
Mexican theoretical physicist
That’s a lot of sitting
Miguel Alcubierre came up with a way to
around.
sort of do it: Simply warp space-time around a spaceship
to create a moving bubble within the fabric of the universe. Make
the bubble just right, by shrinking the space in front of it and expanding
the space behind, and it could zip around the universe much faster than light.
The ship and its immediate surroundings wouldn’t be traveling faster than light — they
wouldn’t even feel the effects of the movement — it’d be the universe itself moving the
bubble around. And that’s OK by Einstein. It’s an elegant solution, but unfortunately it requires
currently impossible technology to work (such as creating something with negative mass).
Einstein also doesn’t forbid warp drives that tap into a hidden dimension — like Han
Solo jumping to “hyperspace” — allowing spaceships to take faster-than-light shortcuts
throughout the cosmos. But again, there’s no evidence any of that is actually possible; we
just can’t say for sure that it isn’t.
June 2018 DISCOVER
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Your Virtual Self/Avatar
What is it?
A way to appear exactly as you’d like to be seen; often limited to digital spaces.
Where you’ve seen it
The Matrix, Ready Player One, Snow Crash, Blade Runner 2049
Why it’d be so cool
You could easily become everything you’ve ever wanted to be. What’s not
to love? Shave a few pounds, or show off the curls you’ve always dreamed
about. Or go further and let people see you as the mythical beast you
see yourself as. The race and sex you were
born with need no longer affect you. Suffer
from a physical disability, or confined to
bed rest due to an illness? Now it wouldn’t
even matter. Traveling the world, or digital
worlds, from the safety of your computer,
looking exactly how you envision yourself, is
the ultimate way to live life on your own terms.
Fun Fact
As virtual reality becomes
more widespread,
programs like VR
Chat and Sansar make
interacting with other
users’ avatars easier
and more realistic.
When were we supposed to have it
Usually this is a near-future technology; most of the examples above
take place over the next few decades.
How close are we?
We’re there! Sort of.
From top: A hologram
ad appeals to K
(Ryan Gosling) in
Blade Runner 2049. In
Surrogates, everyone
lives via avatars.
That’s much like The
Matrix — except there,
people don’t know it.
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Video games and internet forums have used a form of this for years,
allowing players and users to customize their appearance, often called
their avatar (as in Snow Crash). As the technology has improved, so has the
virtual you, appearing ever more intricate and complex — possibly even
photorealistic at this point. Whether it’s an actual photo or illustration
appearing next to your words, or a fully designed three-dimensional
body moving around the space, this is how the digital world sees you.
The only problem is that the rest of the actual world doesn’t see you
as your bitmoji. To get to that point, the majority of our interactions
must be digital. And right now, the real world is still just too convenient a
meeting space.
But it’s possible we’re heading in that direction. Second Life — a “virtual
world” that exists as a fully functional alternative place to create, entertain
and do business with others — peaked at over a million monthly visitors
and $3.2 billion in total transactions after its first 10 years. Other online
universes like the communal video game World of Warcraft boast even
higher user numbers. So the dream is already real for an awful lot of
people, and if our growing time online is any indication, a digital lifestyle
may be in all our futures.
We’ve Come a Long Way
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Sometimes the transition from science fiction gadget to
everyday tool goes smoothly. Here are some now-mundane
technologies our ancestors once only dreamed of.
Personal computers From the storytelling engine
in Gulliver’s Travels to Isaac Asimov’s Multivac supercomputer,
computational devices are common throughout literature.
And thanks to technological advances of the past decades,
they’re now as ubiquitous as McDonald’s, with over a billion
PCs currently in use.
Television What could be more futuristic than the
idea of capturing a moment’s sights and sounds, seeing
and hearing a story or news report a world away? And yet,
since the first models appeared almost a century ago, we’ve
become bored with the devices. High-fidelity sound, perfect
— even 3-D — pictures and still, nothing worth watching.
Cellphones Star Trek may have had some
questionable technology, but
the communicators of the
original series are nothing but
classic Motorola RAZRs. We’ve
actually improved: More than
three-quarters of Americans
own smartphones (enabling
the sci-fi dream of video calls in
the process), most of which are
hundreds of thousands times
more powerful than NASA’s early
spaceships. To boldly go indeed.
Space travel Once we
figured out flying, it took only
a few decades to get to the
moon. A successful mission to the
International Space Station doesn’t even
warrant news coverage these days.
Robot vacuums It’s not all
society-altering stuff. Sometimes the
cool little things work out, too. Take the
idea of robot vacuums, as seen in The
Jetsons and other comic sci-fi settings,
made into reality by Roomba (among
others) over 15 years ago. We really are
living in the future. D
From top: Jane Jetson relaxes
with Rosie while a prescient
robot vacuum cleans the floor.
Capt. Kirk (William Shatner)
chats with the Enterprise. The
International Space Station
keeps quietly ticking along.
Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster
and its “Starman” gained fame
earlier this year. Forget flying
cars — this one’s in space.
Bill Andrews, senior associate
editor of Discover, remembers
looking forward to the future.
He’s still waiting.
June 2018 DISCOVER
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BEYOND TIME
THE MORE WE TRY TO GRASP IT, THE MORE IT SLIPS AWAY.
LEFT: AGSANDREW/SHUTTERSTOCK. RIGHT: JURIK PETER/SHUTTERSTOCK
BY CARLO ROVELLI
We conventionally think of time as
something simple and fundamental.
It flows uniformly, independent
of everything else, from the past
to the future, measured by clocks
and watches. In the course of time,
the events of the universe succeed
each other in an orderly way: pasts,
presents, futures. The past is fixed,
the future open . . . and yet all of
this has turned out to be false.
One after another, the characteristic features of time have proved
to be approximations, mistakes
determined by our perspective,
just like the flatness of Earth or the
revolving of the sun. The growth
of our knowledge has led to a slow
disintegration of our notion of time.
What we call “time” is a complex
collection of structures, of layers.
Under increasing scrutiny, in evergreater depth, time has lost layers
one after another, piece by piece.
June 2018 DISCOVER
57
had circumnavigated the Earth. At the beginning of the
modern era, the Polish mathematician and astronomer
Copernicus understood the Earth turns long before
astronauts had seen it do so from the moon.
In the course of making such strides, we learn the
things that seemed self-evident to us were really no more
than prejudices. It seemed obvious the sky was above us
and not below; otherwise, the Earth would fall down. It
seemed self-evident the Earth did not move; otherwise, it
would cause everything to crash. That time passed at the
same speed everywhere seemed equally obvious to us. But
just as children grow up and discover the world is not
as it seemed from within the four walls of their homes,
humankind as a whole does the same.
FALLING OBJECTS
Einstein asked himself a question that has perhaps
puzzled many of us when studying the force of gravity:
How can the sun and Earth “attract” each other without
touching and without utilizing anything between them?
He looked for a plausible explanation and found one
by imagining the sun and the Earth do not attract each
other directly. Instead, each of the two gradually acts on
that which is between them — space and time — modifying them just as someone immersed in water displaces
the liquid around them. This modiication of the structure of time inluences the movement of bodies, causing
them to “fall” or gravitate toward each other.
What does it mean, this “modiication of the structure
of time”? Precisely the slowing of time described above.
A mass slows down time around itself. The Earth is a
CREDIT
THE ELASTICITY OF TIME
Let’s begin with a simple fact: Time passes faster in the
mountains than it does at sea level.
The difference is small, but it can be measured with
precision timepieces that you can buy on the internet for
a few thousand dollars. With practice, anyone can witness the slowing down of time. With the timepieces of
specialized laboratories, researchers can detect this slowing down of time between levels just a few centimeters
apart: A clock on the loor runs a little more slowly than
one on a table.
It is not just the clocks that slow down: Lower down,
all processes are slower. Two friends separate, with one
of them living in the plains and the other going to live in
the mountains. They meet up again years later. The one
who has stayed down has lived less, aged less, the mechanism of his cuckoo clock has oscillated fewer times. He
has had less time to do things, his plants have grown less,
his thoughts have had less time to unfold. Lower down,
there is simply less time than at an altitude.
Is this surprising? Perhaps it is. But this is how the
world works. Time passes more slowly in some places,
more rapidly in others.
The surprising thing, perhaps, is that someone understood this slowing down of time a century before we
had clocks precise enough to measure it. His name, of
course, was Albert Einstein.
The ability to understand something before it’s
observed is at the heart of scientiic thinking. In antiquity, the Greek philosopher Anaximander understood
that the sky continues beneath our feet long before ships
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SPEED AND TIME
Ten years before understanding that time is slowed down
by mass, Einstein realized that it was slowed down by
speed. The consequence of this discovery for our basic
perception of time is the most devastating of all.
The fact itself is quite simple. Instead of sending the
two friends to the mountains and the plains, respectively,
let’s ask one to stay still and the other to walk around.
As before, the two friends experience different durations. The one who moves ages less quickly, his watch
marks less time passing, he has less time in which to think,
the plant he is carrying takes longer to germinate, and so
on. For everything that moves, time passes more slowly.
But one must move very quickly for this effect to
become perceptible. It was irst measured in the 1970s,
using precision watches on airplanes. The watches
aboard planes display a time behind that displayed by
the ones on the ground. Today, the slowing of time can
be observed in many physics experiments.
Even before this 1970s demonstration, Einstein had
already igured out that time slows down — when he was
just 25 years old and studying electromagnetism.
It turned out to be a not particularly complex deduction. Electricity and magnetism are well described by
the equations of James Clerk Maxwell, a Scottish mathematical physicist. These equations contain the usual
time variable t but have a curious property. If you travel
at a certain velocity, then for you Maxwell’s equations
are no longer true (that is, they don’t describe what you
measure) unless you call time a different variable: t´.
Mathematicians had become aware of this odd feature
of Maxwell’s equations, but no one had been able to
understand what it meant.
Einstein, though, grasped its signiicance. t is the time
that passes if I stay still; t´ is “your time.” That is, t is the
time my watch measures when it’s stationary, and t´ is
the time your watch measures when it’s moving. Nobody
had imagined previously that time could be different for
a stationary watch and one in motion.
CREDIT
BACKGROUND: BRUCE ROLFF/SHUTTERSTOCK. EINSTEIN: ERNST HAAS/GETTY IMAGES
large mass and slows down time in its vicinity. It does so
more in the plains and less in the mountains, because the
plains are closer to it. This is why the friend who stays at
sea level ages more slowly.
Therefore, if things fall, it is due to this slowing of
time. Where time passes uniformly, in interplanetary
space, things don’t fall — they loat. Here on the surface
of our planet, on the other hand, things fall downward
because, down there, time is slowed by the Earth.
Hence, even though we cannot easily observe it, the
slowing of time nevertheless has crucial effects: Things
fall because of it, and it allows us to keep our feet irmly
on the ground. If our feet adhere to the pavement, it is
because our whole body inclines naturally to where time
runs more slowly — and time passes more slowly for
your feet than it does for your head.
Does this seem strange? It’s like when watching the
sun set, disappearing slowly behind distant clouds, we
suddenly remember that it’s not the sun that’s moving
but the Earth that’s spinning. And we envision our entire
planet — and ourselves with it — rotating backward,
away from the sun.
June 2018 DISCOVER
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NOW MEANS NOTHING
What is happening now in a distant place? Imagine,
for example, your sister has gone to Proxima b, the
recently discovered planet that orbits a star approximately 4 light-years away from us. What is your sister
doing now on Proxima b?
The only correct answer is that the question makes no
sense. It’s like asking, “What is here, in Peking?” when
we are in Venice. It makes no sense, because if I use the
word “here” in Venice, I am referring to a place in Venice, not in Peking.
If you ask what your sister, who is in the room with
you, is doing now, the answer is usually an easy one: You
look at her, and you can tell. If she’s far away, you phone
her and ask what she’s doing. But take care: If you look
at your sister, you’re receiving light that travels from her
to your eyes. That light takes time to reach you — let’s
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say a few nanoseconds, a tiny fraction of a second.
Therefore, you’re not quite seeing what she’s doing now
but what she was doing a few nanoseconds ago. If she’s
in New York and you phone her from Liverpool, her
voice takes a few milliseconds to reach you, so the most
you can claim to know is what your sister was up to a few
milliseconds ago. Not a signiicant difference, perhaps.
But, if your sister is on Proxima b, light takes four
years to reach you from there. Hence, if you look at her
through a telescope, or receive a radio communication
from her, you know what she was doing four years ago
rather than what she is doing now. Now on Proxima b
is deinitely not what you see through the telescope, or
what you can hear from her voice over the radio.
So perhaps you can say that what your sister is
doing now is what she will be doing four years after the
moment that you see her through the telescope? But no,
this does not work. After you have seen her through the
telescope, four years ago in her time, she might already
have returned to Earth and could be (Yes! This is really
possible!) 10 terrestrial years in the future. But now cannot be in the future …
Perhaps we can do this. If, 10 years ago, your sister left
for Proxima b, taking with her a calendar to keep track
of time, can we think that now for her is when she has
recorded that 10 years have passed? No, this does not
work, either: She might have returned here after 10 of
her years, arriving back where, in the meantime, 20 years
have elapsed. So when the hell is now on Proxima b?
The truth of the matter is that we need to give up
asking the question.
BACKGROUND: BRUCE ROLFF/SHUTTERSTOCK. EARTH AND SUN: NASA
A moving object therefore experiences a shorter duration than one that’s stationary: A watch marks fewer
seconds, a plant grows more slowly, a young man dreams
less. For a moving object, time contracts. Not only is
there no single time for different places — there isn’t
even a single time for any particular place. A duration
can be associated only with the movement of something,
with a given trajectory.
“Proper time” depends not only on where you are and
your degree of proximity to masses; it depends also on
the speed at which you move. It’s a strange enough fact
in itself, but its consequences are extraordinary. Hold on
tight, because we are about to take off.
There is no special moment on Proxima b that corresponds to what constitutes the present here and now.
Dear reader, pause for a moment to let this conclusion
sink in. In my opinion, it is the most astounding conclusion arrived at in the whole of contemporary physics.
It simply makes no sense to ask which moment in the
life of your sister on Proxima b corresponds to now.
It is like asking which football team has won a basketball championship, how much money a swallow
has earned or how much a musical note weighs. They
are nonsensical questions because football teams play
football, not basketball; swallows do not busy themselves earning money; and sounds cannot be weighed.
“Basketball champions” refers to a team of basketball
players, not to footballers. Monetary proit refers to
human society, not to swallows. The notion of “the
present” refers to things that are close to us, not to
anything that is far away.
Our present does not extend throughout the universe.
It is like a bubble around us.
How far does this bubble extend? It depends on the
precision with which we determine time. If by nanoseconds, the present is deined only over a few meters; if
by milliseconds, it is deined over thousands of kilometers. As humans, we distinguish tenths of a second only
with great dificulty; we can easily consider our entire
planet to be like a single bubble where we can speak of
the present as if it were an instant shared by us all. This
is as far as we can go.
There is our past: all the events that happened before
what we can witness now. There is our future: the events
that will happen after the moment from which we can
see the here and now. Between this past and this future,
there is an interval that is neither past nor future and
still has a duration: 15 minutes on Mars, eight years on
Proxima b, millions of years in the Andromeda galaxy.
It is the expanded present. It is perhaps the greatest and
strangest of Einstein’s discoveries.
A WORLD’S ESSENCE
The growth of our knowledge has led to a slow disintegration of our notion of time. What we have been left
with is an empty, windswept landscape almost devoid of
all trace of temporality. A strange, alien world that is
nevertheless still the one to which we belong. It is like
arriving in the high mountains, where there is nothing
but snow, rocks and sky. A world stripped to its essence,
glittering with an arid and troubling beauty. The physics
on which I work — quantum gravity — is an attempt to
understand and lend coherent meaning to this extreme
and beautiful landscape. To the world without time. D
From the book THE ORDER OF TIME
by Carlo Rovelli. Translated by Erica Segre
and Simon Carnell. Copyright © 2017
by Carlo Rovelli. Translation copyright
© 2018 by Erica Segre and Simon Carnell.
Published by Riverhead Books, an imprint
of Penguin Publishing Group, a division
of Penguin Random House, LLC.
June 2018 DISCOVER
61
Prognosis
In the
Blood
Researchers work to fine-tune
a test that could better
detect lingering disease
in cancer patients.
BY DELIA O’HARA
A diagnosis of cancer is scary
enough on its own. But cancer
cells’ ability to hide out in the body
after an initial round of treatment
is especially insidious. And it isn’t
possible yet to tell which patients still
have any residual disease.
Even a few surviving cancer cells can
multiply over time, moving out of the
original site — the breast or colon, for
example — to form a tumor in another
part of the body. By the time that
new tumor has grown large enough to
show up on a CT scan, the cancer is
likely incurable.
When cancer patients seek treatment,
scars from initial therapies like radiation
can make detecting new and old tumors
dificult. And a traditional biopsy, a
tissue sample a pathologist scrutinizes
under a microscope for telltale signs of
cancer, can be hard to obtain from an
internal organ like the lung.
For all these reasons, doctors have
high hopes for a technology still in
its infancy called liquid biopsy, which
looks for cancer in bodily luids. It
may identify cancer patients whose
disease has persisted past the primary
treatment, and help home in on effective
therapies for them.
HUNTING CANCER
Liquid biopsy is the result of decades
of gene research, which has led to a
solid understanding of cancer DNA.
Doctors know now that a tumor has
its own molecular pattern. “It’s like a
62
DISCOVERMAGAZINE.COM
DNA ingerprint,” says Scott Kopetz,
a specialist in gastrointestinal cancer at
the University of Texas MD Anderson
Cancer Center in Houston.
Liquid biopsy can detect the
distinctive DNA from cells a tumor
sheds into bodily luids, and it does so
quickly. It’s also often more perceptive
than a CT scan. Blood is the preferred
medium for liquid biopsy for now,
Liquid biopsy is
the result of decades
of gene research,
which has led to a
solid understanding
of cancer DNA.
though eventually, other luids like
urine and saliva may come into play
for some cancers. But virtually any
clinic can do a blood draw, and cancer
DNA reliably migrates into the blood,
sometimes as fragments, which can be
enough for many liquid biopsy tests to
read.
Geoffrey Oxnard, an oncologist
specializing in lung cancer at the
Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in
Boston, works with liquid biopsy in his
practice. “We can see evidence of the
cancer genome within the patient’s free-
loating DNA, and we have increasingly
sensitive ways of looking for low levels
of that cancer DNA,” Oxnard says.
A major challenge with the
technology is developing tests that are
sensitive enough to detect even very low
concentrations of cancer DNA loating
among millions of blood cells.
“Even with a patient with stage IV
cancer, the tests still can’t see the cancer
20 to 30 percent of the time,” Oxnard
says. So if a liquid biopsy test comes
back negative, physicians must continue
to fall back on standard biopsies for
their patients.
But liquid biopsy is even now
pointing the way toward more tolerable
treatment for some patients with
advanced lung cancer. “If patients
with stage IV non-small-cell lung
cancer have speciic alterations in [a
speciic] gene, they can get a highly
effective oral targeted therapy with
few side effects and a dramatic
response,” Oxnard says. The alternative
is chemotherapy, which may be less
effective and have more side effects.
In a clinical setting, liquid biopsy
tests designed to detect one or two
genes might now cost hundreds of
dollars; larger panels, with more genes,
can cost several thousand dollars.
DETECTING DISEASE
The next frontier in liquid biopsy will
be putting the technology to work
ANUCHA PALAMA/SHUTTERSTOCK
→
ALISON MACKEY/DISCOVER; DESIGNUA/SHUTTERSTOCK
identifying patients who have had
treatment for some types of early
cancer, and who seem, based on CT
scans, to be cured, but actually still
have residual disease.
A different type of therapy might
give those patients a second chance,
says Ben Ho Park, a researcher
and clinician at the Sidney Kimmel
Comprehensive Cancer Center at the
Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in
Baltimore. Because there’s no reliable
way to tell who still has microscopic
cancer cells in their bodies and who
doesn’t, standard care now often
involves simply treating almost
everyone with the follow-up therapy.
Researchers hope that eventually
liquid biopsy tests will identify people
with residual cancer, sparing those
who have no signs of the disease from
unnecessary treatment and leading
to more effective treatment for those
who need it.
Liquid biopsy tests must prove their
worth in clinical trials before they can
be used as standard care, and those
trials can take years. Park is halfway
into enrolling 229 patients in a multiinstitutional study of women who have
“triple-negative” and “HER2-positive”
cancers, two types in which he can
expect at least 20 percent of patients
to be cancer-free after a irst round of
treatment with chemotherapy.
Then, a liquid biopsy test will
check for cancer. All patients in
the trial will go on to surgery
to remove the tissue where
the tumor was originally
detected. The goal is to
prove that liquid biopsy can
accurately lag the women
who still have cancer — that the
disease will then be found in
those women, and only those
women, during subsequent
surgeries.
Kopetz, of MD Anderson,
says he, too, is gearing up to
enroll over 1,000 people in
a study that will use liquid
biopsy to look for residual cancer in
patients who have had surgery for
early stage colorectal cancer, but have
displayed no evidence of residual
disease on CT scans. He anticipates
liquid biopsy will detect cancer cells in
about 10 percent of patients, who will
then be offered chemotherapy.
Another possible future use of
liquid biopsy is monitoring ongoing
treatment in advanced cancer —
alerting physicians to drug resistances
developing within patients and steering
them away from therapies that aren’t
working. Currently, oncologists might
treat a tumor for two to three months,
and then do another CT scan. “If
you’ve guessed wrong,” says Park,
“you just spent two or three months on
worthless therapy.”
Park also hopes to see liquid biopsy
Liquid Biopsy
Cancer can migrate into
the bloodstream, as single
cells or free-floating bits of
DNA. In the future, liquid
biopsy could offer a way
to detect residual signs of
cancer without invasive
surgery. Information from
the biopsy could also be
used to create targeted
treatments for individuals
who need it, in addition
to monitoring ongoing
treatments.
Cancer cell
Cancer DNA
ORIGINAL TUMOR
NEW TUMOR
Blood cells
eventually serve as a screening tool to
spot early cancer in individuals who
don’t have a diagnosis, but may have a
high risk for developing cancer, such as
women with BRCA gene mutations for
breast cancer.
INCREASED SENSITIVITY
In addition to attempting to prove
liquid biopsy’s worth in clinical
trials like those Park and Kopetz are
conducting, researchers continue to
reine their tests to eliminate false
negatives, as well as false positives
that arise from sequencing errors or
other factors.
One promising liquid biopsy test is
the CAncer Personalized Proiling by
deep Sequencing, or CAPP-Seq. In a
2014 study, it identiied 100 percent of
patients with advanced lung cancer,
with few false positives. Max Diehn,
a radiation oncologist specializing in
thoracic cancer at Stanford University,
developed CAPP-Seq with colleagues.
Diehn believes liquid biopsy’s
potential extends well beyond cancer to
such possible applications as detecting
infections, Alzheimer’s,
autoimmune diseases and
the early signs of rejection of
transplanted organs.
For now, liquid biopsy isn’t
likely to replace tissue biopsy.
“There’s still a lot of information
that comes from looking at a
cancer cell under the microscope,”
says Kopetz.
But it does show great promise
as a diagnostic and prognostic
tool, and researchers are excited.
“The idea of molecularly
investigating a patient’s disease
status through the blood, I think,
will affect many other parts of
medicine in the future,” Diehn
says. “These tests open possibilities
for new, personalized treatment
strategies.” D
Delia O’Hara is a freelance writer based
in Chicago.
June 2018 DISCOVER
63
Origin
Story
Handedness is an ancient trait, but researchers are rethinking
its roots. BY GEMMA TARLACH
→
Much of what deines us as
a species is all in our heads.
First and foremost, we’ve got
these big, powerful brains, and small
faces tucked underneath a skull
that expanded to house our most
precious organ.
There’s another trait that
researchers once assumed was a
Homo sapiens hallmark, based in the
brain but most obvious in the upper
limbs: Nine out of 10 humans are
considered right-handed.
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DISCOVERMAGAZINE.COM
Recent research
has shown that
handedness and
language do not, er,
go hand in hand,
at least in the way
we once thought.
“It doesn’t matter where you
ind them, humans have that ratio,”
says retired University of Kansas
anthropologist David Frayer. Across
history and geography, our species has
shown remarkable consistency. And
no other species appeared so strongly
biased toward right-handedness.
The trait’s emergence in our species
alone, the thinking went, was yet
another indication of our superiority,
a preference controlled by the brain
and directly linked to our capacity for
language and tool-making.
Um, no.
As researchers have reined
methods and unearthed new
evidence, it seems much of what we
thought we knew about handedness
was anything but right.
Fossils reveal that right-handedness
goes much further back in our
evolutionary story than once believed.
Recent research has shown that
handedness and language do not,
er, go hand in hand, at least in the
way we once thought. And in 2017,
neuroscientists suggested that the origin
of handedness is not even in the brain.
OLD HANDS
The fossil record of hominins —
humans, our ancestors and closest
evolutionary kin going back to the
split from other primates about
7 million years ago — is mostly
fragmentary, making it impossible to
determine handedness by studying
limb bones.
In the 1980s, researchers analyzed
stone tools, trying to gauge hand
dominance from the direction the
material was laked, or chipped.
While initially promising, the idea
proved unreliable.
Then, Frayer began to look at
striations on Neanderthal teeth.
These furrows appeared only on
the outer faces of mostly the upper
teeth, at the front of the mouth. One
direction of diagonal marks, either
MARIANOCECOWSKI VIA WIKIMEDIA
Was Science Wrong
About Being Right?
Origin
Story
TWO SIDES TO EVERY TASK
You know where you can ind a pile
of left-handers? Certain species
of kangaroo. Recent research on a
number of animals nixed the earlier
notion that only humans have a
species-wide bias toward handedness.
Among chimps and other apes,
however, handedness appears to vary
based on the method of evaluation.
Comparing humans and other species
can be especially problematic: While
66
DISCOVERMAGAZINE.COM
Researchers can
determine handedness
in hominins by the
dominant direction
of teeth striations
from individual fossil
remains going back
as far as Homo habilis,
the first member
of our genus.
researchers typically determine
handedness in humans through selfreported surveys (“which hand do you
write with,” for example), they often
use observation of general behavior
for other species.
“When we ask humans about hand
dominance, we ask about tool use
rather than, say, hugging or picking
your nose,” says Gillian Forrester.
As a comparative psychologist at
Birkbeck, University of London, she
studies both the evolutionary and
developmental pathways to behaviors
such as handedness. Forrester believes
that the differences between testing
methods across species may make
humans appear more biased toward
general right-handedness, beyond tool
use, than we actually are.
“Humans have more objects and
are doing more object-driven things,”
Forrester says. “If we narrow down
hand dominance in apes to tool use . . .
we ind apes are certainly signiicantly
right-handed for tool use.”
In fact, animals as different as
chickens and ish show preferences,
if not for handedness per se, then for
favoring the use of a particular side of
the body for a particular task.
“Motor biases are seen throughout
the animal world, all the way back
to 500 million years ago and the
emergence of vertebrates, and possibly
even older than that,” says Forrester.
Favoring one side of a
symmetrical body over the other
for a particular task is linked to
cerebral lateralization: Essentially,
DRAWING: JAY SMITH. PHOTOS: DAVID FRAYER AND LUCA BONDIOLI
from upper right to lower left or upper
left to lower right, would dominate.
Individuals working with tough,
ibrous material, Frayer reasoned,
could have held it between their teeth
and one hand, then used an edged
stone tool to saw off a small piece
with the other hand. Every now and
then, the tool edge would hit (ouch)
the outer face of the upper teeth.
The angle of tool-on-tooth contact
could tell researchers whether the
individual was holding the tool in
the right or left hand. And “one of
the nice things about looking at the
scratches,” says Frayer, “is that you
just have to have a single tooth.”
Frayer and his colleagues have
been able to analyze samples
from across our genus. The oldest
specimen, 1.8 million years old from
Tanzania, belonged to H. habilis: the
earliest member of the genus Homo
and at least four times older than our
own species.
In December, Frayer’s team
published a study in Evolutionary
Anthropology that conirmed inding
the same 9-1 ratio of handedness
across the hominin fossil record as
in modern human populations. It
destroyed the idea that H. sapiens is
uniquely right-handed.
“We have 50 right-handers and
four left-handers at last count,”
Frayer says of the ancient hominins
studied. “You’d have to ind a pile
of left-handers at this point to make
it 50-50.”
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Origin
Story
NOT IN YOUR RIGHT MIND
Southpaws, if you’re wondering
how you and other lefties it
into this evolutionary picture, so
are researchers.
Once thought to be an aberration
potentially caused by brain damage
at birth, left-handedness may be
more benign. Says Frayer: “I don’t
think it’s a pathology. It’s part of a
normal variation.”
And what does it mean to your
brain to be left-handed? Maybe not as
much as researchers once thought.
You’ve probably heard the saying,
“Since the right side of the brain
controls the left side of the body, only
lefties are in their right mind.” Nope.
We now know that handedness is not
so closely correlated with how the
brain’s hemispheres divide tasks.
“A lot of people think, ‘If I’m
left-handed, my brain is reversed,’ ”
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DISCOVERMAGAZINE.COM
altering the DNA sequence itself. The
research is preliminary, however, and
scientists have not identiied what
causes these epigenetic changes.
Early signs of
handedness appear to
be linked to lopsided
epigenetic activity:
chemical changes
that effectively turn
certain genes on or off
without altering the
DNA sequence itself.
says Forrester. “But 70 percent
of left-handers are identical in
organization to right-handers.”
And although “there’s an
evolutionary-genetic component to
it,” Stout says, “even the people who
study the genetic basis of handedness
don’t really know how it happens.”
Forget headlines about inding
“the left-handed gene.” Science has
not reached a consensus about the
role DNA plays in handedness — or
even that it originates in the brain.
Last year, one team concluded that
handedness actually arises in the
spinal cord.
Previous research has shown
that human embryos demonstrate
a preference for moving the left
or right hand as early as 8 weeks.
Writing in the journal eLife in
2017, neuroscientists found that
this preference appears to be seated
in the spinal cord, which, at that
developmental stage, is not even
connected to the motor cortex, the
brain’s movement control center.
The team found that these early
signs of handedness appear to be
linked to lopsided epigenetic activity:
chemical changes that effectively
turn certain genes on or off without
THE SINISTER SIDE
Regardless of how 10 percent of us
become left-handers, that minority
has historically faced a range of
superstitions and worse. Lefthandedness has been falsely linked to
evil, perversion and criminality.
“People see this difference and think
it must mean something. We’re always
trying to understand, and to suppress,
difference,” says Howard Kushner, a
historian of science and medicine.
Kushner’s 2017 book, On the Other
Hand: Left Hand, Right Brain, Mental
Disorder, and History, explores how
studies associating left-handedness
with a variety of mental conditions
often fall apart under closer scrutiny.
But as the scientiic view of lefthandedness as a pathology has lost
momentum, so too have claims that
left-handers are, on average, more
creative or more intelligent.
That said, says Kushner, “I hang
around a lot of smart people, and the
number of left-handers is always more
than one would assume. It may have
to do with resilience.”
A lifetime of being seen as different
— and dealing with such indignities
as right-handed scissors — may make
southpaws more adaptive, though we
have yet to turn up hard evidence.
Frayer notes that even with
nearly 2 million years of hominin
handedness in the fossil record,
uncertainty about its causes and
consequences remains: “The key thing
is that we know right-handedness is
commonly found in all populations
[of our species] and that it differs from
what we ind in chimps. To go any
further is risky.” D
Senior Editor Gemma Tarlach writes, fences
and shoots left, but runs with scissors in her
right hand.
MARIANOCECOWSKI VIA WIKIMEDIA
the left and right hemispheres of the
brain divvy up processes for greater
eficiency. Most researchers believe
that lateralization explains how
handedness arises, including our
consistent 9-1 right-handedness ratio.
“Lateralization is not unique to
us, but there are characteristics of
lateralization in humans that are
unique,” says Emory University
archaeologist Dietrich Stout.
“Lateralization is ancient, but we take
it to the extreme.”
Stout, who studies the evolution of
cognition and tool-making, cautions
that terms such as “right-handed” may
oversimplify the complex processes
made possible through lateralization.
“It’s not like the right hand does
everything and the left hand does
nothing,” Stout says. “It’s not so much
that we’re right-handed as that we
have a characteristic division of labor
between the hands.”
The right hand may do much of the
more noticeable work, such as writing
or cutting up food, but the left hand is
just as busy, often providing stability.
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Out
here
As the Mighty
Quasars Flow
Are billions of black holes behind some of the universe’s
mysterious energy signals?
BY STEVE NADIS
Gaze up at the sky on a clear
night, far from the city lights,
and you might see the moon and some
stars, a few planets and maybe even
the fuzzy glow of the Milky Way. “In
between, there seems to be nothing but
emptiness and darkness,” says Xiawei
Wang, an astronomy graduate student
at Harvard University. “At least that
was our view of the cosmos until 50
or so years ago when astronomers
realized that space
was not as empty as
we once thought.”
In 1964, astronomers
were surprised to discover
a uniform sea of radiation
coming from all directions,
all the time. Later dubbed
the cosmic microwave
background (CMB), this
low-energy light turned
out to be the residual
radiation from the Big
Bang itself, cooled during
its journey over the past 13.8 billion
years. Studying the CMB has led to
tremendous insights about the structure
and composition of our universe, its
exact age and even its shape.
In the decades since, astronomers
have learned there’s much more
to the unseen universe, inding
background radiation at practically
every wavelength observed. The
highest frequency and most energetic
background signals
they’ve found are made
up of a form of light
called gamma rays, plus
exotic particles called
neutrinos and cosmic
rays. And, unlike the
CMB, the source of
these emissions is still
enigmatic. No one knows
where they come from.
In three recent papers,
Wang and her adviser,
Harvard astronomer
Avi Loeb, advanced a
new idea that suggests
not one source for this
high-energy background,
Unlike the
CMB, the
source of these
emissions is
still enigmatic.
No one knows
where they
come from.
Initially discovered as unexplained signals picked
up by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson at Bell
Laboratories (above), the cosmic microwave
background (right) — the universe’s oldest light
— is now mapped with incredible accuracy.
70
DISCOVERMAGAZINE.COM
Black holes, such as the
one in galaxy NGC 3783
illustrated above, are
some of nature’s most
prodigious spewers of
energy. Could that energy
be enough to account for
a long-standing mystery?
but literally billions.
It all comes down to a phenomenon
called quasar outlows.
A CHORUS OF QUASARS
Quasars are among the most luminous
objects in the universe. Each one
greatly outshines the combined output
FROM LEFT: NASA; NASA/WMAP SCIENCE TEAM; ESO/M. KORNMESSER
→
eat, or shoot away in jets, it lings off
at relatively moderate speeds — a few
thousand miles per second, or about
1 percent the speed of light. After
interacting with the local gas, these
outlows can ultimately produce small
amounts of all three components of the
high-energy background: gamma rays,
neutrinos and cosmic rays.
Individual outlows don’t release
enough energy for us to notice, which
is why no one really considered them
before — but a big enough number of
them would add up. And in Wang and
Loeb’s scenario, the process is taking
place at every quasar in the universe.
A little energy times a lot of sources
could, in theory, produce all that
mysterious energy.
of all the stars in their host galaxies.
(For instance, in 2015 astronomers
announced they’d found a quasar that
shines some 400 trillion times brighter
than our sun.)
All large galaxies have giant black
holes at their centers, and a quasar
forms when one actively starts feeding,
pulling in matter like gas and dust. But
this stuff doesn’t fall directly into the
black hole — it circles around the abyss
at ever-increasing speeds while spiraling
inward. Eventually, the cosmic food
becomes so hot (from friction) that it
pours out light before some of it makes
its way into the black hole. The object
that generates this prodigious amount
of light — the black hole and cloud of
debris swirling around it — is a quasar.
But a black hole doesn’t eat
everything in sight; its mouth is
simply not big enough. Some of the
surrounding material gets ejected in
different ways. Ten percent of known
quasars shoot out matter — at more
than 99 percent of the speed of light —
through a pair of spectacular jets.
Astronomers seeking a source for
that exotic, high-energy radiation took
a close look at these powerful jets.
But observations showed they weren’t
enough: All the universe’s quasar jets
could account for only about half the
gamma rays, and none of the neutrinos
and cosmic rays.
The unexplained emissions,
according to Wang and Loeb, may
stem from a more subtle feature of
every quasar: their milder but steadier
outlows. What a black hole doesn’t
RUNNING THE NUMBERS
Wang and Loeb set out to see if the
numbers backed up their premise.
In 2015, they started by focusing on
gamma rays. Step one was trying to
determine the tiny amount coming
from each source. It wasn’t easy.
They had to approach the problem
theoretically because the emissions
from an individual quasar are actually
too weak for direct measurements.
Drawing upon emissions in other
wavelengths that they could observe for
guidance, Wang and Loeb eventually
came up with an estimate.
The next step was to factor in
contributions from the billions of
quasars in our universe to igure out
the total gamma-ray signal from all
quasar outlows. This calculation was
also complex, incorporating estimates
of the total number of quasars, their
general distribution in the sky and the
range in observed brightness. (Brighter
quasars emit more gamma rays.) In the
end, the total value Wang and Loeb
arrived at, miraculously, was about half
the gamma-ray background signal —
perhaps comprising the “missing” half
quasar jets could not explain.
Encouraged, they repeated this
exercise in late 2016 and early 2017
June 2018 DISCOVER
71
Out
here
for neutrinos, and then
cosmic rays. In both cases,
their tallied sums closely
matched experimentally
obtained values for the
neutrino and cosmicray backgrounds. The
numbers could work,
suggesting they might have
found the answer to the
high-energy background
problem.
THE FULL SCORE
Unfortunately, the idea
remains hypothetical
until astronomers can get direct
measurements of all three forms of
radiation coming from a single quasar
outlow. Luckily, more sensitive
instruments for detecting gamma rays,
72
DISCOVERMAGAZINE.COM
neutrinos and cosmic rays
are in the works.
If their quasar outlow
idea is ultimately conirmed,
it would do more than just
clarify a long-standing
astronomical puzzle. “It
would be another step
toward answering the
question of what’s out there
in the universe and where
it comes from,” says Wang.
“Sometimes, the answers
to the biggest questions
in science lie in small and
subtle things. These less
visible entities are often neglected, but
in the aggregate, they can be brighter
and more powerful.”
She compares the situation to
a piano concerto. The piano is
“Sometimes,
the answers
to the
biggest
questions
in science
lie in
small and
subtle things.”
loud enough to drown out any of
the dozens of individual string
instruments in a full orchestra. But
when you put all the strings together,
their contribution is substantial. In
the same way, the cumulative output
of quasar outlows could make a
difference on a cosmic scale.
So the next time you look at the
night sky, “remember that what we
see with the naked eye is a tiny, tiny
fraction of the things happening in the
cosmos,” says Wang. Appreciating the
piano concerto of the universe involves
learning to hear all the instruments, no
matter how faint and unimportant they
might seem. D
Steve Nadis, a contributing editor to Discover
and Astronomy, plays handball in Cambridge,
Massachusetts, where he also lives.
ESO/WFI/MPIFR/APEX/A.WEISS ET AL./NASA/CXC/CFA/R. KRAFT ET AL.
An active black hole
lies at the center of
galaxy Centaurus A.
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20 Things You Didn’t Know About …
Kangaroo
Island, Australia
Lake Kariba,
Zimbabwe
Apo Island,
Philippines
Long Island,
New York
Beach sand
varies widely in
composition (above).
Sand mining to
create man-made
islands (below),
causes environmental
damage.
Sand
BY SYLVIA MORROW
1 Got sand? You probably do, in your kitchen pantry. Sand is deined as any material made up of
grains within a speciic size range. Sugar and salt
typically qualify. 2 Much less common, however,
is gypsum sand, which gives White Sands
National Monument in New Mexico its name. The
site’s unusually high concentration of the rare variety
started out as a shallow seabed about 280 million
years ago. 3 The material most commonly thought
of as sand is silica, made of quartz crystals that have
broken down about as far as they will naturally, to
about a millimeter in diameter. 4 At the beach, silica
sand mixes with fragments of coral, shell and other
material of biological origin. 5 While sand of all
sorts is usually made by material breaking down into
smaller pieces, in water with high concentrations of
calcium carbonate or certain other minerals, the
opposite can happen. A tiny particle gets coated
over time by the minerals, resulting in a special
type of sand grain called an oolith. 6 Members
of Palythoa, a genus of coral, can be up to
65 percent sand by weight; they use the material
to build their frame, making them more resistant
to climate change effects such as ocean acidiication.
7 Humans also use sand as a construction material,
mining huge quantities of it to make concrete.
8 There’s such high demand that an illegal worldwide
sand market has exploded in recent years. A 2013
estimate valued the shady business at about $16 million a month. 9 India’s sand maia (yes, it’s a thing)
is notorious for using violence, bribery and
coercion in the course of illegally collecting
and selling the material. 10 More than
legitimate business is at risk: Sand
is a inite natural resource which,
like fossil fuels, takes centuries to
form — and which humans are
using at accelerating rates. In
2014, the U.N. Environmental
Program declared that sand mining was causing “unequivocal”
environmental problems. 11 A
2017 study linked the mining to
increased coastal erosion, especially
Tunga penetrans, better
known as the sand flea.
devastating in regions prone to tsunamis. Without
sandy buffers, the deadly waves are even more
destructive, and a retreating tsunami drags sand into
the ocean, aggravating the problem. 12 The process
of digging up sand can also contaminate groundwater or drive it deeper underground. As a direct result
of the practice, farmers in Sri Lanka have dificulty
inding clean water to grow crops. 13 When sandy
habitats are mined, plant and animal life can get carried away with the haul and invade new areas, crowding out native wildlife. 14 Some nasty species live in
sand, too, such as parasitic insects called sand leas.
These tiny monsters burrow into a person’s skin and
stay there for up to two weeks, eventually spewing
hundreds of eggs. 15 Look closer, and you’ll see
even more life: In 2017, researchers at the Max
Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology found
whole communities of assorted microbes living on
the surface of single grains of sand. 16 Another
reason to look at the stuff close up: Sand forensics
experts can sometimes tell from the minerals present
in a sample, as well as features like grain size, where
the sand originated. 17 The investigative subield
is far from perfect, however. A 2016 study found
that sand samples collected from rubber-soled shoes
revealed only the most recent material the individual
walked through. 18 That same year, another team
analyzed samples from a scenic spot on the Turkish
coast called Cleopatra’s Beach. Legend has it Mark
Antony shipped barges of sand across the Mediterranean to create it for his queenly consort. The
research results? Likely just a legend. 19 In modern
times, large quantities of sand do get shipped across
seas on a regular basis. Small coastal countries such
as Singapore and the United Arab Emirates have
imported vast quantities of sand to extend their land
out in the ocean via man-made islands. 20 Builder
of countries and coral, highly sought and the stuff
of legends, sand is out of this world. Really. In 2016,
researchers relied on measurements of sand dunes
past and present on Mars to better understand the
Red Planet’s ancient environment. D
Sylvia Morrow is a physicist at Vanderbilt University.
DISCOVER (ISSN 0274-7529, USPS# 555-190) is published monthly, except for combined issues in January/February and July/August. Vol. 39, no. 5. Published by Kalmbach Publishing Co., 21027
Crossroads Circle, P.O. Box 1612, Waukesha, WI 53187-1612. Periodical postage paid at Waukesha, WI, and at additional mailing offices. POSTMASTER: Send address changes to DISCOVER, P.O. Box
62320, Tampa, FL 33662-2320. Canada Publication Agreement # 40010760. Back issues available. All rights reserved. Nothing herein contained may be reproduced without written permission of Kalmbach
Publishing Co., 21027 Crossroads Circle, P.O. Box 1612, Waukesha, WI 53187-1612. Printed in the U.S.A.
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