So much of science is looking and seeing

One of my great joys in life is one of the simplest: looking at the world around me. I often walk along the C&O Canal, a defunct marvel of 19th century transportation engineering that reaches west from Washington, D.C. As I walk, I look. And even though I have strolled the towpath so many times before, I always see something new.

Last Saturday, I saw a native persimmon tree with fruit the size of Ping-Pong balls just starting to turn color. I spied two beaver dams spanning the canal, marvels of rodent engineering. And I saw how the September sunlight was softening into fall, giving everything a glow that an Impressionist painter might envy.

So much of science is looking and seeing. On September 1, the astronomy world went bonkers when news broke that the James Webb Space Telescope had taken its first direct image of a planet outside our solar system. Scientists’ Twitter feeds erupted in exclamation points and comments like “thrilled” and “amazing.” Taking pictures of very distant planets is exceedingly difficult, but the new megatelescope, which released its first images in July, has made seeing better than any other telescope look easy-peasy (SN: 8/13/22, p. 30). Or as associate news editor Christopher Crockett commented wryly in one of our internal Slack channels: “OK JWST, now you’re just showing off.”

The telescope has also captured the light spectrum of a probable brown dwarf and confirmed the existence of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of another exoplanet, as astronomy writer Lisa Grossman explains. This raises hopes that the telescope might someday spot Earthlike planets capable of sustaining life. That hope may never be fulfilled, but it’s clear that if the telescope keeps performing at this level, many extraordinary sights are headed our way.

Serendipitously, this issue of the magazine chronicles another scientific achievement in looking and seeing, using artificial intelligence systems to visualize the 3-D structures of proteins. These molecules are the building blocks of biological life, and their shapes define their purpose. But proteins twist and fold themselves into complex tangles, and scientists’ labors to decipher them using electron microscopes and other technologies have been painfully slow.

Enter an AI system called AlphaFold that evaluates already-mapped proteins and uses that information to predict the structures of others. As molecular biology senior writer Tina Hesman Saey reports on, this should speed up 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, as Saey points out, and the AI system so far can’t cope with the challenges of decoding how protein structures interact with each other, and with other molecules. That’s where a deeper understanding of protein structures will really pay off, scientists say. But even without that capacity, the system is helping scientists skip much of the scut work and move forward to tackling big questions across the life sciences.

These new technologies and the scientists who created and use them let me see things I never imagined possible. And like those happy astronomers, I am thrilled and amazed.

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.