Seeing is believing

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Science  20 Dec 2019:
Vol. 366, Issue 6472, pp. 1423
DOI: 10.1126/science.aba5359

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Scientists can often make indirect measurements that tell us about things we can't actually see. For scientists who work on molecules, such as myself, this is especially true: Many of the small and large molecules that dance in my head are objects that I've never actually looked at. But for many outside of science, seeing is believing.

In my first administrative job at the University of North Carolina, I learned about this while running the campus planetarium. On clear nights, we would set up telescopes for public viewings. It was common for people to see Saturn through the telescope for the first time and then frantically look to see whether we had taped a cartoon of the ringed planet to the end of the telescope. They had assumed that Saturn didn't really look like the pictures in their grade-school classrooms.

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While I was in that job almost 20 years ago, I was fortunate enough to convince the authors Will and Mary Pope Osborne to work with the university on a planetarium show based on their blockbuster children's book series Magic Tree House. At the most suspenseful part of the show, the protagonists Jack and Annie end up dangerously close to the event horizon of a black hole—the point beyond which not even light can escape. That meant we had to project a convincing and exciting image of a black hole onto the planetarium dome.

Most of today's planetariums project a continuous digital image. Back then, planetarium operators had to be wizards of improvisation with baby food jars, filmstrip projectors, and various kinds of motors. Our projector genius, Richard McColman, created an ominous black hole by using a simulated image of what was then the most current idea of an accretion disk orbiting an event horizon; he printed the image on transparent film and rotated it on top of a projector bulb that moved closer and closer to the image. Combined with dramatic music, it was enough to create substantial suspense, including for my 5-year-old daughter, who is still scared to talk about it today. (Spoiler alert: Jack and Annie are rescued from spaghettification at the event horizon by Mary Pope Osborne herself.)

If we made the show today, we wouldn't have to guess at what the black hole looks like. The image of the event horizon of the supermassive black hole in the nearby galaxy Messier 87 was a magnificent technical achievement and a worthy Breakthrough of the Year. But it is more than that. For a skeptical public that often rolls their eyes when they hear scientists say that they know things exist even though they cannot be seen, this is one more important object that we can see. Given the influence of black holes on the evolution of galaxies, this is a remarkable milestone in every respect.

There were also some extraordinary runners-up this year. When I was at Washington University in St. Louis, I had the privilege of watching research progress on restoring the gut microbiome in malnourished children. It's intensely encouraging to know that there is a way to do this, and the companion papers that show how the microorganisms develop make it great science, as well. This has implications for public health in the developed world, too: Children need to start with excellent nutrition, and when they don't, it isn't enough just to get food to them—it has to be the right food.

A series of papers that reveal details of how the Chicxulub asteroid impact wiped out the dinosaurs and how mammals reemerged afterward provide very important pieces of science about the history of life on Earth. Like the black hole image, seeing is believing. The mammal fossils recovered in Colorado tell a story that needs to be shared widely as scientists make the case for preserving life on Earth. Objective science such as these discoveries creates a powerful narrative that can compel society to consider the trajectory of Earth in the aftermath of tremendous ecological upheavals—those of the past as well as those that may yet come.

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