“Chained like a dog.” He gestured at the block letters he had scrawled on a yellow legal pad and then at the ventilator connection on his throat. Gregarious and charming, my father had prized autonomy above all else. A self-made man, as he called himself, he ran his own business; enjoyed “playing” with his “machines” (motorcycle, motorboat, sports car, minivan), which he fixed himself; and raised three daughters alone after our mother died when I was 12. He taught my two younger sisters and me to “learn something new every day” and advised us to get university degrees: “You can do anything you want, but you must do something so you can be independent.” At the end, Dad was robbed of his rich voice and his freedom, confined to the ventilator that forced air into his lungs. Francis P. DiChristina died in 1991, after three long years with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. He was 57.
Research has advanced in the past couple of decades since then, and recent findings are providing renewed hope today for patients with Lou Gehrig's disease, as it is commonly known, and for their families. In “Unlocking the Mystery of ALS,” Leonard Petrucelli of the Mayo Clinic and Aaron D. Gitler of the Stanford University School of Medicine describe newly discovered genetic mutations that play key roles in a person's susceptibility to ALS. More exciting yet, it is possible that a technique called “gene silencing” could lead to promising therapeutics.
My father instilled in me admiration for the process of science as a means to increase knowledge. In addition to developments in medical and other applied fields, he revered its ability to demonstrate, for instance, that the stars were not “reflections from the ocean,” as he had once been told by a nun, but fiery powerhouses in a vast cosmos. I like to think he would have enjoyed the new insights offered in this issue's cover story, “The Quantum Multiverse,” by Yasunori Nomura of the University of California, Berkeley. Nomura discusses the fantastic-sounding but now widely accepted view that our universe “may actually be only a tiny part of a much larger structure called the multiverse.” As Nomura explains, some problems with the multiverse idea, which grew out of the theory of cosmic inflation, may be resolved by seeing it as equivalent to a notion from quantum mechanics called the many-worlds interpretation.
Science may not answer our every question, of course, but it remains humanity's best tool yet for pursuing our greatest challenges. With basic research, we lay down the foundations of understanding. And in doing so, we have the means to continue to build on that underpinning, further lifting our awareness of how the world works. If he were here now, Dad would add emphasis with another of his favorites: “Don't forget,” he would say with a knowing smile and a wink, “your father is always right.”