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Special Package: The Invisible World Around Us

By Corey S Powell
Aug 15, 2009 5:00 AMNov 12, 2019 5:52 AM
Global model of Earth's interior based on how earthquake waves move through deep rock. | Image courtesy of Unavco


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I recall, with memory seemingly undimmed by the years, the first time I peered through a microscope and entered the rabbit-hole world of cell biology. The microscope in question was a miserable elementary-school device, barely illuminated with an old table lamp, and the cells in question were just onion skin and blobby scrapings from my cheek, but the effect was electrifying. There before me was proof that the world is not what it seems. What looked to be one thing was in fact many things, and what appeared to be simple was mind-bogglingly complex.

Working on this issue has recapitulated that experience over and over. In one feature, oceanographer Edie Widder finds that the dark abyss of the ocean actually crackles with enigmatic flashes from light-emitting creatures. In another, physics legend Stephen Hawking shares his latest conception of the universe—a theory in which all possible cosmic histories exist at the same time. At the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in France, paleontologist Paul Tafforeau bends time in a different way: He uses powerful X-ray beams to penetrate mundane-looking lumps of amber and reveal the delicate fossils hidden inside. And at a clinic in Lubbock, Texas, physician Randall Wolcott battles deadly bacteria that communicate and conspire with each other, displaying a complexity in the microbial world that my 11-year-old self never imagined.

Then again, those childhood recollections may not be quite what they seem, either. Brain researcher Karim Nader has shown that memory is remarkably malleable; every time we call up a past event we recreate it and, potentially, change it as well. That finding neatly encapsulates one of the most wondrous aspects of science: Even as it destroys old certainties, it opens our eyes to amazing new possibilities awaiting in the world all around us. This special issue of DISCOVER is dedicated entirely to that transformative power—turn the page and explore for yourself.

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