Late last year, I spent an enlightening evening
with Neil deGrasse Tyson—astrophysicist, director of the Hayden Planetarium, and science explainer extraordinaire. We were on a panel discussion about science and storytelling, sponsored by the Sloan Foundation and the Ensemble Studio Theatre in Manhattan, and Neil unleashed a broadside about the way research results are covered in the popular press. Each news report has to be a “breakthrough” that “changes everything,” he complained—as if scientists spend most of their time twiddling their thumbs until every once in a while one of them stands up and shouts “eureka!”
The issue you hold in your hands (or are reading online) is my retort to Neil. The 100 stories here capture scientific curiosity in all its stages: provocative early results, long-sought confirmations, and many steps in the iterative process of testing theory against observation and vice versa. Our #1 story of the year exemplifies science in action. Physicists at CERN, the huge European research center, were studying ghostly particles called neutrinos for signs that they can “oscillate” from one type of particle into another as they move. Along the way, the investigators found another, even stranger kind of behavior. The particles seemed to move faster than light, something that would turn physics upside down if confirmed.
Elsewhere in these pages, skeptics challenge a NASA researcher’s celebrated claim to have found microbes whose biochemistry is so strange they practically qualify as alien life. Now one of the skeptics is stirring up her own controversy because of the public way she has attempted to debunk the finding. Wonder what ever happened to the stunning promise of stem cell therapy? The research goes on, following a tortuous path past ethical, legal, and scientific hurdles. And then there is the invisibility cloak, a technology whose geek-chic factor makes it irresistible—if only the engineers can figure out how to make it practical. Quietly and methodically, they are making impressive progress .
What these stories have in common is a lack of tidy conclusions. They are instead celebrations of the marvelous middle: the open-ended process by which scientists chip away at mysteries, refine their techniques, and make the world look a little different than it did the day before.