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Editor's Note

Dive deep to discover unexpected connections

By
12:45pm, July 6, 2017
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Readers often praise Science News for its brevity. It’s undoubtedly one of our defining features, and one of our core values. To deliver the latest news from a wide breadth of scientific subfields, our writing must be clear and concise. Our news gets to the point, with all the fascinating detail but none of the flab. Packing content in has long been the tradition at Science News — no surprise given our news service origins.

But — and I hope this doesn’t sound like heresy — some ideas need more space. In this double issue, Tina Hesman Saey offers a long-form look at what scientists know, and don’t, about how humans domesticated plants and animals. It’s a big story with many moving pieces and a lot of mystery. Giving the squeeze to such a rich topic would be a shame, especially since Saey has been thinking about the idea for years. Then, Emily Conover investigates the latest progress in the race toward “quantum supremacy,” the point, coming soon, when quantum computers will surpass conventional computers for solving certain types of problems. Conover explores not just the top contenders, but also alternative approaches, and the challenges of each. An accompanying essay by Tom Siegfried offers a historical take on quantum computing’s essential unit, the qubit. Yes, we give you 10 pages of quantum coolness.

Diving deep has a lot of benefits. You get more context, more nuance, more facts to explore. You also start to uncover connections that at first weren’t apparent. When we scheduled articles on domestication and quantum computing to appear in the same issue, I thought they fit well together because of their differences: a nice mix of biology and physics, of looking back at human history and forward to future technology. But reading the final in-depth stories, I see so much that unites them.

For one, both are technology stories. Both are about humans’ efforts to control nature. Domestication yielded workhorses and war-horses, efficient silk producers, animal companions and plants that “stand in soldier-straight rows,” as Saey puts it. Though the benefits of quantum computers are yet to be realized, they promise to transform how people do research, conduct business and handle data. To achieve these ends, physicists including Chris Monroe of the University of Maryland are also manipulating nature, arranging their qubits, ions in Monroe’s case, in neat little lines.

Another similarity: Both domestication and quantum computation start with small, simple steps that, through repetition, add up to a complex phenomenon. The first step in domestication might have been as simple as a person offering a wolf a bone. Now, there are Pinterest boards devoted to dogs obedient enough to travel in their owners’ handbags. For quantum computing, like classical computing, seemingly basic operations (if this, then that) can be combined to tackle the complexity of, as just one example, how nitrogen-fixing bacteria enrich the soil. That knowledge could be used to reduce the energy drain of fertilizer production.

What do these connections tell us about the world? About science? About ourselves? Those deep ideas will require another editor’s note. For now, I’m out of space.

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