One of the greatest joys of my life is one of the simplest things: looking at the world around me. I often walk along the C&O Canal, a deserted marvel of 19th century transportation engineering that reaches west from Washington, DC. And even though I’ve wandered down the aisle many times before, I always see something new.
Last Saturday, I saw a genuine persimmon tree with fruit the size of pingpong balls just starting to turn color. I spied two beaver dams spanning the canal, a marvel of rodent engineering. And I saw how the September sunlight receded in autumn, giving everything a glow that an impressionist painter would envy.
Lots of science looks and sees. On September 1, an astronomer went crazy when news broke that he had been taken over by the James Webb Space Telescope. The first direct image of a planet outside our solar system. The scientists’ Twitter feeds erupted in exclamations and comments like “cheerful” and “amazing.” Taking pictures of distant planets is very difficult, but the new huge telescope She released her first photos in Julymade the view better than any other telescope seem so easySN: 8/13/22, p. 30). Or as Assistant News Editor Christopher Crockett sarcastically commented on one of our internal channels on Slack: “OK JWST, now you’re just showing off.”
The telescope also captured the light spectrum of a possible brown dwarf and confirmed its existence Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of another exoplanetAs astronomy writer Lisa Grossman explains. This raises hopes that the telescope may one day discover Earth-like planets capable of sustaining life. This hope may never come true, but it is clear that if the telescope continues to perform at this level, many unusual sights are heading towards us.
Coincidentally, this issue of the magazine chronicles another scientific achievement in sight and vision, Using AI systems to visualize the 3D structures of proteins. These molecules are the building blocks of biological life, and their shapes determine their purpose. But the proteins twist and fold themselves into intricate tangles, and scientists’ efforts to decode them using electron microscopes and other techniques have been painfully slow.
Enter an AI system called AlphaFold that evaluates already assigned proteins and uses this information to predict the structures of others. According to a report by Tina Heisman Say, senior author on Molecular Biology, this should accelerate efforts to study life on Earth, whether to develop new medical treatments or learn more about human evolution. Some of AlphaFold’s predictions are less accurate than others, Sai points out, and the AI system can’t yet handle the challenges of deciphering how protein structures interact with each other and with other molecules. Scientists say this is where a deeper understanding of protein structures will really pay off. But even without that capacity, the system helps scientists skip a lot of exploratory work and move forward in tackling the big questions across the life sciences.
These new technologies and the scientists who created and used them have allowed me to see things that I never imagined possible. And like such happy astronomers, I am happy and amazed.