Celebrating scientists who ask big questions

Nancy ShuteHumans are problem solvers. All day, every day, we ask ourselves questions. Should I wear socks with these shoes? Bring a phone charger? Eat the whole sandwich? Finish that assignment or watch YouTube? And that’s just an average day. When we apply the tools of science to answering big questions, we can do amazing things.

In this double issue of Science News, we profile scientists who are asking big questions. That includes the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who asked: Can we produce food protein from insects as efficiently as we do from chickens? It turns out that insect ranching is a lot trickier than you’d think. Check out our story, “Can Silicon Valley entrepreneurs make crickets the next chicken?”, to see how the team is deploying start-up smarts in an attempt to make insect farming scalable.

Then there’s the challenge of training artificial intelligence to learn real-world skills. Algorithms can master games like chess and Go but struggle with the ambiguity and fast-paced interactions of much of human life. To help AI get ahead, scientists are challenging the systems to master popular video games, including Minecraft and StarCraft. It’s not just fun and games; the goal is to make AI more useful to us in complex tasks like simulating climate change or understanding conversations.

Another pressing problem is how to create batteries for electric cars, cell phones and laptops and for storing energy from solar and wind power. Growing demand is sparking a global hunt for lithium, an element key to making today’s lightweight batteries. And the hunt is posing big questions for geologists, who are seeking better ways of finding and extracting lithium, and for countries and communities that want to be sure this new gold rush won’t damage the environment.

Some questions asked by scientists are so big that they will never be solved in our lifetimes. But one of the great things about being science journalists is reporting on the questions that do get answered, or that get reframed in ways that make us change how we think about the world. That includes the startling experiment that turned up signs of life in a dead pig brain; the discovery of what looks to be an unusual ancient hominid species in the Philippines; and the study that compared the physiology and DNA of identical twin astronauts Mark and Scott Kelly, which found that life in space pushes the immune system into overdrive.

In this issue, we also report on a clever new way to multiply exceedingly large numbers, at least in theory, as well as the adventures of a physicist who created a science-based escape room. Oh, and cats really do know their names. So when they don’t respond, they’re probably just ignoring us.

Because this is a double issue, subscribers will get the next issue of the print magazine on or around June 8. But fear not; we’re reporting on the latest discoveries in science, technology and medicine every day at www.sciencenews.org. Join us there for more, including original videos. And keep asking questions!

Nancy Shute is editor in chief of Science News Media Group. Previously, she was an editor at NPR and US News & World Report, and a contributor to National Geographic and Scientific American. She is a past president of the National Association of Science Writers.

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