Editorial: It’s quite a time to be alive

  • In this undated photo, the first baby born as a result of a womb transplant in the United States lies in the neonatal unit at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas. AP

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

What a wonderful world. Dark clouds over Washington, sexual abuse everywhere. War and famine, crime and poverty. Terror and fear, death and taxes. And did you hear about the scallop eyes?

The night has a thousand eyes, or so says crime novelist Cornell Woolrich. Evening in the noir universe may have the scallop beat, but not by much. If we’re being honest – and we honestly try to be – we could count on one hand (one finger?) the number of news stories we’ve read about scallops. But when news fatigue sets in, a headline like “The scallop sees with space-age eyes – hundreds of them” feels like shelter from the storm. The story, written by Carl Zimmer of the New York Times, is wonderful. And we use that adjective not in the sense it is most often used, as in “terrific,” but rather as a way to describe something that “excites wonder.”

Scallop eyes have been something of a scientific unsolved mystery for a long time. Each eye is about the size of a poppy seed and extremely delicate, so a deep dive on scallop peepers has been impossible. But a powerful new microscope finally has allowed scientists to see how the scallop sees, and they’re really, really impressed. If you’re now imagining a bunch of biologists geeking out over bivalve eyes in hotel bar, you’ve got it all wrong. This new understanding is going to lead to new technology; it’s going to change the world, or at least the way the world is observed. The study of lobster eyes, for example, helped NASA develop X-ray detectors to study black holes. The hundreds of scallop eyes (each with two retinas!), Zimmer writes, “all deliver signals to a single cluster of neurons, which may combine that information to create a rich picture of the outside world.” Nobody knows why scallops need science-fiction technology to see, but scientists aim to find out.

We have also learned quite a bit recently about pterosaurs, which roamed the planet more than a hundred million years ago. Most of you are probably well-versed in the history of preserved flying reptile embryos, but let’s review for those who may have been distracted by other matters. Michael Greshko of National Geographic writes that scientists have been studying pterosaurs, which had a 10-foot wingspan and feasted mainly on fish, for more than 200 years. The first pterosaur egg was found in the early 2000s, and less than a dozen have turned up in the years since that discovery. Until now, that is. A Chinese paleontologist named Xiaolin Wang and his team have uncovered “at least 215 – and perhaps as many as 300 – stunningly preserved pterosaur eggs” in northwestern China, including 16 embryos within eggs. While we don’t expect NASA or Google to translate the pterosaur fossil haul into some sort of Star Trek device, the discovery is another box to check off as humankind tries to understand the planet’s remarkable history.

And then, to close out the week, a woman who had a uterus transplant gave birth to a healthy baby boy in Dallas on Friday.

There are stories like this every day – in genetics, medicine, space exploration, artificial intelligence, paleontology, biology, chemistry, mathematics and on and on. Sometimes we get so caught up in the back-and-forth of the political world that we fail to see what’s happening all around us. The world of science is headed – has always been headed – in one direction and one direction only: boldly, rapidly, beautifully onward.

What a wonderful world indeed.