Big Questions about Space, Time, Neandertals, Psychedelics and Reality

What are space and time? Where do they come from? Physicists have treated them as fundamental properties of the universe, but scientists are finding intriguing evidence that they could just be expressions of something even more fundamental. Author Adam Becker, in our cover story takes us on a romp through this mind-bending research that could potentially lead to a theory of everything.

There are a lot of weird vertebrates in the world—zippy hummingbirds, absurdly long-necked giraffes, bipedal apes—but some of the strangest are salamanders. They can regenerate limbs and even brains, and some species stay in their larval form and never grow up. But one of the strangest things about salamanders is their genomes, which are enormous, so big that salamander cells become swollen just to contain all the DNA. Now, as journalist Douglas Fox writes, scientists have figured out that salamanders’ oversized genomes seem to account for many of the other amazing features of their lifestyles.

Kids are vulnerable to misinformation and conspiracy theories, and teaching them how to sort truth from fiction is an increasingly urgent educational need. Author Melinda Wenner Moyer explores how education experts are struggling to design and evaluate the best techniques for teaching students this defense against the dark arts.

Bringing any new drug to market is an arduous process, and it is especially so for agents that are classified as dangerous addictive substances. Neurology professor Jennifer M. Mitchell shares how scientists, regulators, physicians and patient volunteers have demonstrated that MDMA, also known as Ecstasy, can be used safely to treat mental health problems.

Real Neandertals were a lot more sophisticated than pop culture Neandertals. Anthropologist David W. Frayer and museum curator Davorka Radovčić detail how Neandertal artifacts and sites show evidence of symbolic thinking and sophisticated behaviors that developed independently of modern humans.

One of the many reasons it’s so important for as many people as possible to get vaccinated is that by slowing the circulation of infectious disease, vaccines protect people with compromised immune systems. Many people who have immune system diseases or organ transplants or who are in treatment for cancer have not responded robustly to COVID vaccines, as health and medicine senior editor Tanya Lewis explains. Fortunately, boosters and new approaches may help them.

People who jump to conclusions, as researchers Carmen Sanchez and David Dunning discuss, are also likely to make bad bets, endorse conspiracy theories and be overconfident (and misguided) in their judgments.

We’re proud to share that Scientific American won two big journalism awards from the American Geophysical Union, the largest organization of Earth and space scientists in the world. Freelancer Jonathan O’Callaghan won the Excellence in Science Journalism—Features award for his “The Curious Science of Chondrules,” in the March 2021 issue, about dust from asteroid Ryugu brought back to Earth by Japan’s Hayabusa2 mission. Senior sustainability editor Mark Fischetti, who has been with Scientific American for more than 15 years, won the most prestigious award, for Sustained Achievement in Science Journalism. The awards committee observed that Mark has a “sixth ‘science sense’ that appears to lead him to important scientific work well ahead of other journalists.”

We’re honored to publish Mark and Jonny in our pages, along with other excellent journalists who devote their careers to finding urgent, insightful, fascinating stories to share with us all.