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Scientific American, November 19, 2009
Scientific American December 2009: On Newsstands Now

Cover Story:
Innovation: World Changing Ideas, p50

A vision so simple, yet so ambitious that its full impact is impossible to predict. This is the promise of a world changing idea and this month’s Scientific American highlights 20 such projects that could build a cleaner, healthier, smarter world.

Trapping lightning to zap garbage and generate electricity or a lab on a stamp to monitor liver damage using a single drop of blood; the ideas highlight the power of science and technology to improve the world.  Another project in the pipeline plans tiny sensors to allow us to index the physical world the way the Web maps cyberspace. The Central Nervous System for the Earth (CeNSE) has multiple applications from reduction of energy use, to rehabilitation of stroke patients. The simpler idea of marine zoning features too, with just such wide reaching implications for our sick seas. A related Perspectives column in the issue also argues that the time when we could do anything we want with the oceans is over.

The five categories: energy, transportation, environment, electronics and robotics, and health and medicine, each contain a key idea along with ‘ones to watch’, and All projects were chosen by Scientific American's board of editors in consultation with its advisory board. All show that innovation is the most promising elixir for what ails us.

Medicine: The Double Life of ATP p84
A few decades after ATP was identified as a universal energy currency inside cells, another controversial discovery was made about the small molecule – its role in signalling between cells. This month in Scientific American, Baljit S. Khakh and Geoffrey Burnstock chronicle the tumultuous journey taken to better understand the dual role of ATP.  Burnstock – a pioneer of the field – began studying ATP’s signalling role early in his career.  The legacy of his work continues through Khakh and other scientists who build on this to better understand human diseases and new therapeutic options.

Fifty years ago, scientists observed a role for ATP outside of cells and soon thereafter Burnstock and colleagues observed that motor nerves and muscle cells use ATP to communicate with each other.  However, the idea of ATP as a neurotransmitter was controversial and not accepted by the scientific community until the 1990s.  Since then, researchers have identified two types of ATP receptors, which can lead to either short term changes – such as muscle contraction – or long term effects – such as gene activation within cells.  Khakh and colleagues have advanced the understanding of how these different receptors work and how they can be utilized for new types of drugs.

Because ATP is ubiquitous, the molecule’s influences can vary from tissue to tissue, offering new insights into a wide range of disorders and diverse ways to treat them. The authors conclude: “It is gratifying for us to see how the role of ATP as a signaling molecule has gone from an idea that was widely deemed dubious 50 years ago to a large and vibrant field of inquiry today of interest to the entire biology community and of great potential import to medicine.”

Commentary: War is Peace p40
24-hour news channels and the limitless expanse of the Internet have provided us with a staggering amount of information, as well as an onslaught of disinformation, as stated in a commentary in this month’s issue of Scientific American.  Lawrence M. Krauss further argues that in this cacophony, there is a critical role for science: to utilize empirical testing to discern which claims have merit and which should be tossed aside.

The health care debate in the United States sparked various claims and propaganda which rapidly spread.  Krauss argues, “fair and balanced” reporting does not mean that all information, regardless of how outrageous, should receive equal coverage.

It is up to science and scientific methodology to help guide the way in discerning between various claims.  So far it has failed in this task, prompting Krauss to ask why: “Is it because we do such a miserable job in schools teaching what science is all about – that it is not a collection of facts or stories but a process for weeding out nonsense to get closer to the underlying beautiful reality of nature?”

Microscopy Images: Illuminating the Lilliputian p94
A gallery of images captured by light microscopy reveals the high art of the natural world in this month’s Scientific American.

Optical microscopy provides dazzling proof that beyond the resolution of the human eye resides a sweepingly large world of small things, both around and within us. The images are selected from the 2009 Olympus BioScapes Digital Imaging Competition and provide a magnifying glass look into a usually unseen world. An online slideshow including a range of images and videos can be found at

Other stories in this issue include:

  • Astronomy: Portrait of a Black Hole
  • Origin of Life: Expanding the Limits of Life
  • Environment: Methane: A Menace Surface
  • Archaeology: Decoding an Ancient Computer

About Scientific American

Founded in 1845, Scientific American is the oldest continuously published magazine in the US and the leading authoritative publication for science and technology in the general media. Together with and 14 local language editions around the world it reaches more than nine million readers. Other titles include Scientific American Mind and Spektrum der Wissenschaft in Germany. Scientific American is published by Springer Nature, a leading global research, educational and professional publisher, home to an array of respected and trusted brands providing quality content through a range of innovative products and services. Springer Nature was formed in 2015 through the merger of Nature Publishing Group, Palgrave Macmillan, Macmillan Education and Springer Science+Business Media.

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