Scientific American’s top feature stories of 2018

It’s never felt more true that wherever
there is an unresolved question, a desperate need or a global phenomenon,
science is there, and the news headlines from 2018 are no exception. We watched
the dazzling eruption of the Kilauea volcano in Hawaii and we received
concerning climate reports from government bodies. We grappled with
disturbing data breaches and a volatile Bitcoin market and saw the
unfortunate health effects of gun violence and addiction in this country.
And we mourned the passing of legendary physicist Stephen Hawking and many other
prominent scientists. The editors of Scientific American combed through all
the top headlines from this year and have put them together in one collection,
this special edition which is on newsstands now. I sat down with my
colleagues so we could dive into these stories on topics from human health to
space exploration, earth science and technology. Managing editor Curtis
Brainard sits down with me to talk about melting glaciers in the Arctic. Why was
it so important for us to include this story, “Meltdown” by Jennifer Francis? We
see retreats in Arctic sea ice in the summer time, we see retreats in
wintertime sea ice, we see air that’s getting wetter and warme,r we see the
amplification of certain geophysical feedback loops that exacerbate climate
change and warming, we see disruptions to ecosystems. I think really what’s changed
this year, at least in the last couple years, is the sort of growing realization
that everywhere we look, this all adds up. Records are being broken left
and right. I mean, it’s cumulatively, the Arctic appears to be kind of
spinning out of control. Unfortunately I think a lot of people
have a mistaken impression that the Arctic doesn’t matter, that it’s it’s a
faraway location that has little to do with certain backyard issues, as we
call them, in the places we live. But in fact, there are a lot of reasons to worry
about what’s happening in the Arctic and the trends there. Most importantly,
perhaps, sea level rise. I think that this is a foremost concern of researchers and
policy makers who are really aware of this issue. If we see the same kind of
melt continue that we’ve already seen in the Greenland ice cap,
and for that matter, you know, the Antarctic ice cap, you know, we could see
inundation of coastal cities worldwide, across the Americas, Asia Pacific and so
on. Next senior editor Jen Schwartz and I sit down to chat about disturbing new
video technology. So “Clicks, Lies and Videotape” by Brooke Borel. You were the
editor for this piece, tell us a little bit about why it’s so important and why
it was worth us covering this year. We’ve all really heard about disinformation
campaigns, information that’s put out there to intentionally mislead us, so we
wanted to take a deep dive into the technology that drives it and makes it
possible but also some of the social factors that allow it to spread and
allow us to be pretty susceptible to fake video. And some research shows that even if you see false information once it sets you up to be more likely to
believe it the next time you see it and so it’s particularly scary
nowadays when we have sort of influences from outside our system with elections
and that sort of thing. What is the science behind that? When you read
something, you know, is it a little more distant than when you’re seeing it in
video, where it might feel like, you know, a realistic scene, for example, feels
a little more present or more threatening perhaps to you, and so when
you’re seeing these things over and over again it seems that it primes the brain
to be more susceptible to believing something if you see it again. So even if
it’s fake or it’s it’s not the truth, if it reflects, perhaps, your values or if it
scares you, if it feels like a risk, those are the kind of things that tend to
really go viral and spread. And so it has a more profound effect on how we
interpret that information. Chief features editor Seth Fletcher
joins me to talk about a disturbing trend in human health
This article, “American Epidemic” by Melinda Wenner Moyer, is one of our
longest, meatiest pieces in the magazine from this year. Why is it such an
important topic and deserve so much space? So every year we do this series of
articles, collection of articles, called the future of medicine. And most years it
is kind of this, it’s cutting-edge stuff— future of cancer treatments,
individualized medicine, personalized medicine, genomics. And when we were
thinking about how to do it this year, we noticed some trends that
were kind of retrograde, retrograde, shouldn’t be happening in America really,
and that is the emergence or re-emergence of diseases that we thought
we had under control or should definitely have under control in the
richest country in the world, like hepatitis A and Legionnaire’s disease. And
so there have been outbreaks in cities like Detroit, there was a Legionnaire’s
disease outbreak in the Bronx. The causes are all social and economic, and so this
is a really concrete example of what happens when economic inequality just
gets extreme and keeps growing. So these diseases have been reemerging in very
poor populations, where people are under a lot of stress. They might not, you know,
they might be in a food desert, they might be homeless, there might be a lot
of substance abuse. And it’s just this perfect situation, a breeding ground for these
diseases that spread among the among that population and hit those people
particularly hard and and then spread beyond that population. There were
really exciting developments on Mars this year, so space and physics editor
Lee Billings is here to explain it all. Lee, thanks for being here. So very
exciting news from Mars this summer. You’re our space editor, why don’t you
tell us about it. So guys, maybe you haven’t heard, but we
found a lake on Mars. Not just a frozen dead, desiccated lake. A real live lake of
liquid water. A lake on Mars! That’s really, really cool because we haven’t
ever found water there before, or we found just little wisps of it on the
sides of craters, or you know coagulating, condensing on a lander leg, things
like that. We’ve never actually found a stable, sizeable source of water and this
thing is probably about the size of Manhattan. As to how deep it is, we don’t
really know in terms of depth. How did they detect it?
Well, they detected it through radar sounding. So they’re essentially
sending radar beams into the surface and it bounces back off of highly reflective
materials like water or like ice. The reason why we think this isn’t ice is
because it’s in kind of this bowl-like topological depression, which is exactly
what you’d expect for water underneath the surface and if you look
at it, a lot of theoretical calculations suggest that the overlying
pressure of the the crust combined with a little trickle of geothermal heat from
underneath could combine to make this a liquid water layer within the planet. And
we could find out actually a little more about that soon from NASA’s InSight
Lander, which recently landed on the Red Planet and is going to be measuring
that heat flux coming from within the planet. So once we get that number down
we could have an even better idea of whether or not there’s really liquid
water there. Stephen Hawking once said that scientists have become the bearers
of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge. Here’s to a Happy New Year
and a 2019 full of exciting science. For Scientific American, I’m Andrea Gawrylewski.

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