Forget the Anthropocene: we’ve entered the synthetic age

One fact about our time is becoming increasingly well-known. No matter how far you travel, no matter in which direction you point, there is nowhere on Earth that remains free from the traces of human activity. The chemical and biological signatures of our species are everywhere. Transported around the globe by fierce atmospheric winds, relentless […]

Why we can stop worrying and love the particle accelerator

What would happen if you stuck your body inside a particle accelerator? The scenario seems like the start of a bad Marvel comic, but it happens to shed light on our intuitions about radiation, the vulnerability of the human body, and the very nature of matter. Particle accelerators allow physicists to study subatomic particles by […]

Why synthetic chemicals seem more toxic than natural ones

Many people believe that chemicals, particularly the man-made ones, are highly dangerous. After all, more than 80,000 chemicals have been synthesised for commercial use in the United States, and many have been released into the environment without proper safety testing. Should we be afraid of the synthetic chemicals that permeate our world? 

In space, there really might be no place like home

Few topics in science command as much attention as the discovery of extrasolar planets – those as-yet-unseen worlds, light years beyond our own Sun. In the quest to learn whether we are alone in the cosmos, astronomers are teasing out subtle wobbles and periodic dimmings of distant stars: telltale signs that a planet, much too […]

What kills you when a volcano erupts? It’s not what you think

The blockbuster movie Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018) involves more than just dinosaurs wreaking havoc. Humans are sent in to rescue some prehistoric critters on the volcanic island of Isla Nublar, and chaos soon begins. The volcano erupts, and everyone runs away as a roiling cloud called a pyroclastic flow approaches. At one point the […]

Space exploration is still the brightest hope-bringer we have

Earle Kyle I am one of the few African-American aerospace engineers who helped design the Apollo spaceships that took men to the Moon. My great-grandfather was a slave in Claiborne, Alabama, who used primitive tools to work the land. My father was born in Alabama before the Wright brothers made mankind’s first flight. He lived […]

Did European Colonisation precipitate the Little Ice Age?

Many of us think that rapid environmental change is a quintessentially modern crisis. Today, temperatures are soaring, topsoil is washing away, phosphorous is being diluted, forests are retreating, pesticides are sterilising farmland, fertilisers are choking waterways, and biodiversity is plummeting under the onslaught of overpopulated, industrialised societies. Some of these changes are indeed truly new. […]

What high-speed astronomy can tell us about the galactic zoo

For most of human history, the distant ‘celestial sphere’ was regarded as perfect and unchanging. Stars remained in place, planets moved predictably, and the few rogue comets were viewed as atmospheric phenomena. This began to change with the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe’s observation of the supernova of 1572 – apparently, a new star – and […]

Is bigger always better, or will the tiny inherit the Earth?

As I scuba dive in Oslob Bay off Cebu Island in the Philippines, I see a tiny shadow dart over the surface of the spherical coral block – a minute fish, a goby of the genus Eviota, among the smallest vertebrates in existence, only about a centimetre long and less than 1/10th of a gramme […]

How seeing snakes in the grass helped primates to evolve

Evolution has favoured the modification and expansion of primate vision. Compared with other mammals, primates have, for example, greater depth perception from having forward-facing eyes with extensively overlapping visual fields, sharper visual acuity, more areas in the brain that are involved with vision, and, in some primates, trichromatic colour vision, which enables them to distinguish […]