Some of the universe’s biggest puzzlers — evolution, the formation of galaxies, the life cycle of stars — take place on a time scale that dwarfs a single human being’s life span. In this month’s issue, Scientific American asks researchers in a variety of fields which studies they would conduct if they had all the time in the world. Thorne Lay, a seismologist at the University of California at Santa Cruz, says he’d try to assess the risk of megaquakes — tremors of magnitude 8.5 or greater. “Modern seismographs have been around for only slightly more than a century, too short a time to give a clear idea of the largest quakes that might strike a certain area every few centuries or more,” he says in the article. “If we could let these instruments run for thousands of years, however, we could map seismic risk much more accurately — including specifying which regions are capable of magnitude 9.0.” Katerina Harvati, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Tubingen in Germany, wonders: “Will our use of C-sections, continued for thousands of years, lead us to evolve larger brains?” As they say, only time will tell.
In this month’s Discover, Tim Folger writes about the Dawn spacecraft’s sojourn to Vesta, one of the largest asteroids, which is floating in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Dawn reached its destination in July of 2011 and has since been mapping the 311 mile-wide space-rock’s surface. There are a few notable landscape features, including a crater with a 14-mile-high peak at its center, but why fly halfway across the solar system to survey a giant hunk of cosmic dust? Because Vesta is a relic of the early days of the solar system, when huge chunks of ice and rock were drifting around the sun’s orbit. Some of this debris eventually globbed together to form terrestrial worlds, but Vesta, which was too close to Jupiter’s immense gravity, stalled out and never made it to full planethood. By surveying Vesta, scientists hope to better understand the makeup of the early solar system and how our planet came to be. Its Vesta mission completed, Dawn has moved on toward its next destination, 38 million miles away: the dwarf planet Ceres.