Marcelo Gleiser

Is humanity doomed? Are we one of the last generations of homo sapiens — soon to be supplanted by engineered cyberbeings, with a distant semblance to their creators (us)?

If Victorians were offended by Charles Darwin's claim that we descended from monkeys, imagine their surprise if they heard that our first ancestor was much more primitive than that, a mere single-celled creature, our microbial Eve.

To close the door on 2017, the strangest year I can remember, there's nothing more appropriate than the revelation in December from the U.S. government that it, indeed, had an office dedicated to the investigation of UFO-related phenomena.

It's enough to make X-Files and conspiracy-theory fans rejoice.

As Europe was being torn apart in the early 17th century by conflicts between Catholics and Protestants — that would lead to the devastating Thirty Years War in 1618 — the German astronomer Johannes Kepler wrote:

"When the storm rages and the shipwreck of the state threatens, we can do nothing more worthy than to sink the anchor of our peaceful studies into the ground of eternity."

Some 130 million years ago, when dinosaurs roamed Earth, two dead stars in a far-away galaxy collided violently, after spiraling around each other for millions of years.

The dead stars were neutron stars, exotic objects the size of Mount Everest and with the mass of the sun. Being this small and dense, the gravitational force is fierce. Someone once compared the pull of gravity near the surface of a neutron star to having all the population of Paris tied to your feet.

In 1915, Albert Einstein concluded his General Theory of Relativity, a theory that would revise our understanding of gravity in radical ways.

Before Einstein, the dominant description of gravitational phenomena was based on Isaac Newton's theory, proposed in 1687. According to Newton, every two objects with mass attract one another with a force proportional to their masses and inversely proportional to the square of their distance: double the distance, the attraction falls by a factor of four.

If it's true that a picture is worth a thousand words, what NASA's Cassini mission has left for us is indeed a treasure.

Launched in 1997, the mission terminated dramatically last week with the probe's final plunge into Saturn's upper atmosphere.

This has been quite a space week for Americans.

After Monday's stunning solar eclipse, Wednesday night PBS will air its two-hour documentary film about the two Voyager missions, launched 40 years ago. The Farthest: Voyager In Space, celebrates a technological and intellectual achievement rarely matched in history. Two small, nuclear-powered spacecraft have traveled farther than any other man-made machine and have forever changed our views of the solar system — and our place in it.

On Aug. 21, a narrow, 70-mile wide swath of the United States from Oregon to South Carolina will be the stage for one of the most (if not the most) spectacular celestial events, a total eclipse of the sun.

Space.com has put together a nice informational guide, including a video and a map explaining where to go, what to expect, and how to watch it safely. This is the first total solar eclipse in America in almost 40 years. The next one in the U.S. will be on April 8, 2024.

The history of science — in particular the physical sciences, like physics and astronomy — can be told as the incremental realization that there is large-scale coherence in the universe.

By large-scale coherence, I mean that some of the same physical laws hold at scales as diverse as the atom and the galaxy, and even the universe as a whole. In a sense, the universe speaks one language and scientists act as the interpreters, translating this language in terms that humans can understand and relate to.

When it comes to particle physics — the branch of physics that tries to find nature's fundamental building blocks of matter — it's all about energy and momentum. Moving (or kinetic) energy, to be precise.

The higher the speeds of the particles, the more violent their collisions.

Why all the violence?

Well, we are trying to "see" things that are millions of times smaller than atomic nuclei. And we can't just keep cutting matter down to find its smallest pieces.

(Spoiler Alert: If you haven't watched the movie Logan and are planning to, you may want to read this essay only after you do.)

In generic heroic sagas, the hero leaves home to face numerous tribulations in a pilgrimage of the self.

The obstacles along the way are tests of the hero's strength, molding his/her character through pain and suffering. Glory, when achieved, is bittersweet, as it comes heavy with loss, usually of loved ones, family or companions. In tragic sagas, the hero pays with his/her life in the end so that others may be free.

In these closing days of the year, a year where so much controversy and distrust bubbled up in the U.S. and abroad, it is a relief — and I'd say even therapeutic — to look at the reliability of science as a harbor, a place to anchor our expectations for the future.

Around this time of year, we often pause and take stock of where we are on many levels: emotionally, financially, professionally, politically and, at least here at 13.7, cosmically.

Where do things stand these days, when it comes to the universe?

Judging from the deluge of recent movies featuring aliens of all sorts — Dr. Strange, Arrival, the upcoming Star Wars movie Rogue One — we can't help but be fascinated with these imaginary creatures.

They live deep in our collective unconscious, mirroring the good and evil we are capable of. In a real sense, the aliens are us. They reflect what we know of the world and ourselves, our expectations and fears, our hopes and despair.

"I believe the intellectual life of the whole of Western society is increasingly being split into two polar groups ..."

So wrote the British physicist and novelist C. P. Snow in his famous "The Two Cultures" Rede Lecture delivered at Cambridge University in 1959.

On Aug. 15, the news broke that a Russian radio telescope detected strong signals from outer space.

Sometimes things seem to happen for a reason. Some people call these events happy coincidences, others call them the work of God, or of many gods, while yet others see them as manifestations of one's karma.

You read it everywhere, you watch it on TV and in sci-fi movies: Science is dangerous, it can create terrible weapons, it can control our lives, it can create new diseases, machines that will take over the world, that will wipe out the human race and redefine life as we know it.

Many of my non-believer colleagues would think it foolish to step onto a stage with a high-ranking Vatican cardinal to discuss science and religion.

Being in Kaikoura, New Zealand, for what is allegedly the first astrobiology workshop here, it's a good time to go back to the basics and reflect on what we know of the complicated question of the origin of life on Earth — and the possibility of life elsewhere.

I will do this, here at 13.7, in installments during the next few weeks.

Who doesn't want to play God — to have the feeling of creating new worlds with the push of a button? (Although gods presumably don't need buttons to create worlds.)

We learned Tuesday that Takaaki Kajita, from the Super-Kamiokande Collaboration in Japan, and Arthur McDonald, from the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory Collaboration in Canada (SNO), won the 2015 Nobel Prize in physics for helping to solve a long-standing mystery in physics: the disappearing neutrinos.

This is Mars week.

First, we had the mindboggling announcement that there is strong evidence of liquid water flowing on the Martian surface. And, also this week, on Oct. 2, the much-awaited Riddley Scott movie, The Martian -- based on Andy Weir's novel and starring Matt Damon as an astronaut stranded on Mars — opens nationwide. It seems that the red planet won't play second fiddle to the moon, especially a blood red one.

It is fitting that Pope Francis I, who chose his name from St. Francis of Assissi, the patron saint of animals and the environment, is preparing to publish an encyclical this summer on the effects of climate change on the poor, and the need to protect Earth and its environment.

Get ready to look at the universe through a new window.

Last week, our own Tania Lombrozo ignited an intense discussion of the differences between factual and religious belief. I want to take off from there and examine a no less controversial issue, one that has been in the limelight of cutting-edge physics for the past few years: Do some scientists hold on to a belief longer than they should? Or, more provocatively phrased, when does a scientific belief become an article of faith?

The other day, I was giving a public lecture when someone asked me a question that I wish people would ask me more often: "Professor: Why are you a scientist?"

I answered that I couldn't do anything else, that I considered it a privilege to dedicate my life to teaching and research. But what's really special in this profession, to me at least, is that it allows us the space to create something new, something that will make us matter. It gives us an opportunity to engage with the "mystery," as Albert Einstein called our attraction to the unknown:

A recent article in The New York Times explores the explosive wave of smartphone recordings of events, from the most meaningful to the most trivial.

Pages