One of my greatest joys in life is one of the simplest: looking at the world around me. I often walk along the C&O Canal, a vanished marvel of 19th-century transportation engineering that reaches west from Washington, DC As I walk, I look. And although I have walked the towpath so many times before, I always see something new.
Last Saturday, I saw a native persimmon tree with fruit the size of ping-pong balls beginning to change color. I spotted two beaver dams stretching across the canal, marvels of rodent engineering. And I watched the September sunlight soften in the fall, giving everything a glow an impressionist painter might envy.
Much of science consists of looking and seeing. On September 1, the astronomy world went wild when news broke that the James Webb Space Telescope had taken its first direct image of a planet outside our solar system. The scientists’ Twitter feeds erupted with exclamation points and comments like “excited” and “incredible.” Taking pictures of very distant planets is extremely difficult, but the new mega telescope, which released its first images in Julyhas made seeing better than any other telescope look easy (SN: 8/13/22, pg. 30). Or as Associate News Editor Christopher Crockett wryly commented on one of our internal Slack channels: “OK JWST, now you’re just showing off.”
The telescope also captured the light spectrum of a likely brown dwarf and confirmed the existence of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of another exoplanet, as astronomy writer Lisa Grossman explains. This raises hopes that the telescope may one day detect Earth-like planets capable of supporting life. That hope may never be fulfilled, but it’s clear that if the telescope continues to perform at this level, many extraordinary sights lie ahead.
Coincidentally, this issue of the magazine chronicles another scientific achievement in looking and seeing, use artificial intelligence systems to visualize the three-dimensional structures of proteins. These molecules are the building blocks of biological life, and their shapes define their purpose. But proteins twist and fold into complex tangles, and scientists’ work to unravel them using electron microscopes and other technologies has been painfully slow.
Enter an artificial intelligence system called AlphaFold that evaluates already mapped proteins and uses that information to predict the structures of others. As molecular biology senior writer Tina Hesman Saey reports, this should accelerate efforts to study life on Earth, whether to develop new medical treatments or learn more about human evolution. Some of AlphaFold’s predictions are less precise than others, as Saey points out, and the AI system so far can’t cope with the challenges of figuring out how protein structures interact with each other and with other molecules. That’s where a deeper understanding of protein structures will really pay off, the scientists say. But even without that capability, the system is helping scientists skip much of the work and move forward to address big questions in the life sciences.
These new technologies and the scientists who created and use them allow me to see things I never imagined possible. And like those happy astronomers, I am excited and amazed.