I thought about writing a post today suggesting 10 great science stories to discuss during Thanksgiving dinner instead of talking about politics. It has been a bitter and exhausting year, and few of us have energy left for another fight.
But that idea felt wrong. I can’t tell you not to discuss politics with your family tomorrow. Too many of us have spent the past year — indeed, the past several years — not discussing politics with people who disagree with us. When discourse is absent from politics, misunderstanding and fear inevitably fill the void. Now hate crimes have spiked. Fake news is rampant. These things matter, and they should be discussed, even if it’s painful.
Yet, bruising though this year has been, it was also full of amazing science. Researchers detected gravitational waves, validating a theory first put forward by Albert Einstein nearly a century ago. NASA sent a probe to Jupiter and launched a mission to scoop up a piece of asteroid and return it to Earth. Scientists created a synthetic cell with the minimum number of genes needed for life. Intrepid rescuers evacuated sick workers from the South Pole during the darkest and most dangerous time of year.
Last week, while working on a story about a crowdfunding campaign to raise money for a telescope that will seek out “Earth 2.0,” I found myself rereading one of my favorite essays by scientist Carl Sagan. It was inspired by the “pale blue dot” photo, a famous image of Earth taken from a distance of 4 billion miles by the spacecraft Voyager 1.
“Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us,” Sagan wrote. “On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. . . . It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.”
Sagan was a brilliant scientist and a beautiful writer, but he was wrong about one thing: Science does not erase our differences. Seeing that Earth is nothing more than a pixel of pale blue in a sea of endless black when viewed from the edge of the solar system does not invalidate the fears of those who live here on the ground. The fact that this election was just a blip in the history of humanity, that we ourselves represent a fraction of a fraction of the history of this planet, does not mitigate justified concerns about our country’s future. And if the 26 years since the world first saw that pale blue dot are any kind of indicator, knowing we all must share this dot is no guarantee we’ll learn to get along.
But science does hold us to account. It reminds us that there is no such thing as a “post-fact” world. The fundamental truths of the universe will persist in being true, regardless of what pundits and politicians may say. We ignore those truths at our own peril.
And science inspires us. It attests to the vast scale and scope of the universe. It demonstrates the beauty of curiosity, the necessity of skepticism and the power of rigorous inquiry. Just look at the Hubble image of the “pillars of creation,” or watch the motor protein kinesin walk along a microtubule inside a cell, or build a circuit at your kitchen table and witness a light turn on. What could be more profound?
Our world is a rare and precious place, and our ability to comprehend it is equally extraordinary. It’s true that science can be as dogmatic and fractional as any other human endeavor. But at its best, it is a model of what can be achieved through discipline, collaboration and a tremendous desire to know the truth. We need that model now more than ever.
I’m sure I’ll be talking politics at dinner tonight (knowing my family, it will be impossible not to). But I'll also make sure to bring up some of my favorite science stories from this year. Some are funny, some are profound, all are thought-provoking in some way.
So here they are — 10 great science stories to talk about at Thanksgiving in addition to arguing about politics. If you enjoy these pieces as much as I did, I hope you’ll talk about them, too.
Cosmic breakthrough: Physicists detect gravitational waves from violent black-hole merger. For an easy-to-understand guide to what this discovery means, here is everything you need to know about gravitational waves (in GIFs). And to understand how long it took for this discovery to come to fruition, read about gravitational waves' 100-year history.
A ghost story with a scientific solution: These “impossible” albino redwoods might actually be martyrs for the good of the forest.
The U.S. government is conducting peanut butter drone strikes to save endangered ferrets — and you can watch.
Legends say China began in a great flood. Scientists just found evidence that the flood was real.
There might be a ninth planet lurking at the edge of our solar system. (Spoiler alert: It's not Pluto.)
This Smithsonian scientist’s death was a mystery. 150 years later, his skeleton helped solve it.
These 3.7-billion-year-old fossils may be the oldest signs of life on Earth.
Lucy, our hominid cousin, may have died in a tragic fall from a tree.