Category Archives: science

A Neurobiologist Thinks Big — and Small

Ed Boyden has grand dreams. The aims of this neuroscientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology include decoding all of biology and achieving human enlightenment. But he also has his eye on the path that will get him to each goal. As he dives into an explanation of a world-changing idea, he frequently declares, “Step one!”

Seeing the micro and macro at the same time is what Boyden’s latest invention, expansion microscopy, is all about. Researchers start by embedding a piece of brain or other tissue in an expanding polymer, similar to the absorbent stuff inside disposable diapers. The polymer forms a dense web; its threads, only a nanometer or two apart, are anchored to points within the sample. Then the scientists add water. The … Read the rest

Antonio Damasio Tells Us Why Pain Is Necessary – Issue 56: Perspective

Following Oliver Sacks, Antonio Damasio may be the neuroscientist whose popular books have done the most to inform readers about the biological machinery in our heads, how it generates thoughts and emotions, creates a self to cling to, and a sense of transcendence to escape by. But since he published Descartes’ Error in 1994, Damasio has been concerned that a central thesis in his books, that brains don’t define us, has been muted by research that states how much they do. To Damasio’s dismay, the view of the human brain as a computer, the command center of the body, has become lodged in popular culture.

In his new book, The Strange Order of Things, Damasio, a professor of neuroscience and the director of the Brain … Read the rest

What Makes the Hardest Equations in Physics So Difficult?

Physics contains equations that describe everything from the stretching of space-time to the flitter of photons. Yet only one set of equations is considered so mathematically challenging that it’s been chosen as one of seven “Millennium Prize Problems” endowed by the Clay Mathematics Institute with a $1 million reward: the Navier-Stokes equations, which describe how fluids flow.

Last month I wrote a story about an important new result related to those equations. If anything, the new work suggests that progress on the Millennium Prize will be even harder than expected. Why are these equations, which describe familiar phenomena such as water flowing through a hose, so much harder to understand mathematically than, say, Einstein’s field equations, which involve stupefying objects like black holes?

The … Read the rest

A New Clue to the Mystery Disease That Once Killed Most of Mexico

In the decades after Hernán Cortés invaded Mexico, one of the worst epidemics in human history swept through the new Spanish colony. A mysterious disease called “cocolitzli” appeared first in 1545 and then again in 1576, each time killing millions of the native population. “From morning to sunset,” wrote a Franciscan friar who witness the epidemic, “the priests did nothing else but carry the dead bodies and throw them into the ditches.”

In less than a century, the number of people living in Mexico fell from an estimated 20 million to 2 million. “It’s a massive population loss. Really, it’s impressive,” says Rodolfo Acuña-Soto, an epidemiologist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. What can even kill so many people so quickly?

The Spanish, infamously, … Read the rest

Why Hasn’t the World Been Destroyed in a Nuclear War Yet? – Facts So Romantic

In broadest terms, the danger facing the world is that the superpowers have institutionalized a major nuclear showdown.Photograph by U.S. Army Photographic Signal Corps / Wikipedia

When opposing nations gained access to nuclear weapons, it fundamentally changed the logic of war. You might say that it made questions about war more cleanly logical—with nuclear-armed belligerents, there are fewer classic military analyses about morale, materiel, and maneuverings. Hundreds of small-scale tactical decisions dissolve into a few hugely important large-scale strategic ones, like, What happens if one side drops a nuclear bomb on its nuclear-armed opponent?

Using a dangerous weapon like a nuclear bomb can of course provoke dangerous responses. If one country crosses the nuclear line, what will its opponent do? What will its allies, or … Read the rest