About 13.8 billion years ago, just 400,000 years or so after the big bang, the universe abruptly went dark,” writes science journalist Michael D. Lemonick in this issue's cover story, “The First Stars in the Universe.” So began the mysterious dark ages of the universe. What happened next has always intrigued me. How did that cosmic fog lift? How did the first stars flare and then coalesce into the galaxies we know today? Astronomers have been gathering clues by looking at some of the oldest objects in the universe.
On our own, watery planet, we have suffered from an inability to thoroughly penetrate a different kind of darkness: the world below the waves. It is often now said that we know the bottom of the ocean less well than we do the surfaces of the moon and Mars—which anybody can enjoy via Google maps.
Today technology and privately funded ventures are combining to engage in the first systematic exploration of the deepest ocean trenches. In April, as science writer Mark Schrope details in “Robots Explore the World’s Deepest Ocean Trenches,” a new submersible will descend to the bottom of the Kermadec Trench, at 10,000 meters, to collect video of the landscape and its strange creatures. It will sample the water and its sediments. Of course, robotic explorers are likely to play an even more prominent role, at least in the next few years. But one thing is clear: we will finally begin to get a truer picture of the dark depths of our own planet.
We're also shining a light on aspects of our own inner workings. RNA, less chemically stable than our DNA genetic-information repositories, was routinely overlooked as a mere cellular housekeeper, write staff editors Christine Gorman and Dina Fine Maron in “How RNA Discoveries Are Radically Changing Gene Therapy and Other Medical Treatments,” a special report. It turns out, however, that RNA has “an astonishing degree of control over the behavior of DNA and proteins,” as they describe—enough to spawn a multibillion-dollar therapeutics stampede in venture capital and research initiatives. As with most explorations by science that push the boundaries of human knowledge, we all stand to benefit.