Pere Estupinyà  




I remember sitting on the shore in a hidden place near Giron Beach on the Zapata Peninsula. Antonio had driven us there after promising to show us one of the most alluring coastal areas in Cuba.

He was not exaggerating. The natural setting was amazing. It was steeped in complete tranquility. The ocean appeared solemn. “It couldn’t get any better,” I thought to myself. Then Antonio offered me some swimming goggles. “Thank you, Antonio, but I don’t really want to swim right now. I’m not very coordinated in the water, and I just don’t feel like it. Besides, the landscape is perfect.” Antonio insisted, and he finally convinced me. I put on the goggles and began to walk along the beach without any great expectations, except finding a small distraction for a while. I didn’t have any idea what was out there, waiting for me. As soon as I put my head under the water, my eyes opened wide in utter astonishment. The rock on which I had been sitting was bursting with precious coral. All kinds of colorful fishes swam around me. When I turned my head, I spotted a turtle slowly gliding away, less than 25 yards from me. I don’t recall how long I spent observing this unexpected vista, but I’ll never forget my reaction as I left the water: how could this marvel of nature have been so close while I was completely unaware of it? How could I have come so close to missing it? I don’t know how many times I thanked Antonio for insisting that I take the goggles, and for showing me a world that I never knew existed. When I turned again to gaze at the ocean, it still seemed amazing, but I was no longer satisfied with just observing its surface.

This experience reflects the same enthusiasm I feel for science. For me, science is the goggles that allow us to investigate inside the Universe’s structure, discover the microscopic world, explore within the human brain, understand our behavior, and enjoy all of the complexity and splendor that nature holds. Without science, we wouldn’t even be aware of the existence of these treasures.

Intellectually, we are living in an astounding time in history. Scientists are finding answers to a myriad of profound questions. However, above all, they are finding new and troubling mysteries to spark our restless curiosity. And, believe me, it would be a shame to miss out on them. A life without science is comparable to a life without music. It might also be wonderful, but there’s no doubt you’d be missing the opportunity to receive one of life’s greatest gifts. In order to enjoy science you don’t need sophisticated language or in-depth prior knowledge, only a receptive mind. That’s why I would like to imitate Antonio and propose that we put on our science goggles, and that you join me on an expedition to the frontiers of the latest scientific thinking. Not knowing how to snorkel or scuba dive is no excuse; rather, it’s extra motivation.

Let’s not waste more time away from the explosion of knowledge that awaits us. Throw yourself head first into exploring this fascinating sea of science!

I wrote this text in August 2007, during one of the most exciting times of my life. The scientific immersion that I was about to experience was really unique. I had just been selected as one of ten science journalists who would spend one year in Boston on a Knight Fellowship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), with the only objective being to fill our brains with as much science as possible. We were going to attend private seminars with the top researchers at MIT and Harvard. We could audit any class that interested us, interview scientists, dive into their laboratories, and attend as many lectures and events as we wanted. We were given total freedom. The purpose was to update our scientific knowledge and to convey to the world what fascinated us about these issues in a more efficient way. It was a treat. I had to find a way to be organized in this endeavor, because an inefficient brain would not be able to store so much specific information; disorganization would result in missing or distorting these lessons. I had to store the information in a safe place and share it with the largest number of minds possible. A vague idea transformed into a challenging mission: to collect all the insights and lessons accumulated during my previous years as a science journalist, add to them the invaluable information that I was about to receive in the next nine months, and compile it into a book about the fabulous world of science. The excitement I felt was overwhelming. I embarked on this challenge with great enthusiasm. However, after a few weeks, I came to realize that the plan was not working. I spent too much time at home, missing extraordinary scientific lectures. Then someone gave me some clever advice: “write a blog.” A blog would allow me to share the information in a fast, fresh, direct, and widespread manner; to expand on the themes that most interested me; and also to receive readers’ immediate feedback. Writing “Scientific Notes from MIT” for elpais.com was wholly fulfilling, and it still is today. The first and very heartfelt acknowledgement goes to all the readers, whose names, pseudonyms, links to personal websites, messages, or anonymous writings from around the world have accompanied me and encouraged me to keep pouring out ownerless ideas in search of other minds. Unlike food, sharing information doesn’t mean dividing it, but rather multiplying it.

During my scientific adventure at Cambridge, the blog was an invaluable companion, an added motivation not to skip any lectures, and the best reason to follow another great piece of advice given to me during the MIT fellowship. “Scratch where it doesn’t itch” would become the leitmotif of the second half of this book, a motto meaning that you should allow yourself to be seduced by new interests, maintain a constant atmosphere of investigating the unknown, and let curiosity guide your learning. This was the real reason behind “Scientific Notes from MIT.” However, at times I felt frustrated by the amount of intellectual stimulation being thrown my way. On the one hand, I didn’t have time to put all the ideas I was coming across in the blog, and, on the other, there were issues that could not be properly tackled in a mere 1000-word entry. I believe my subconscious was saying: “The right time will arrive…” That time clearly materialized in the autumn of 2008 when, with a certain nostalgia, I began to review my notebooks from classes, seminars, and interviews. When I saw how many letter “B”s I had noted down as possible new ideas for blog entries, I was confident that this was the right moment to write a book. Finally, I could tackle those insights with the depth that they deserved and look for a coherent way to present them. To this end, I focused on three of my greatest obsessions. The first was to contextualize the information, show any precedents that frame a given scientific study, and look at the stories that converge there. I wanted to know what made this particular information special. The second obsession I cultivated at MIT was acting as a promiscuous and shameless brain snatcher, seizing all the knowledge that some exceptional minds had taken years to accumulate. When I interviewed a scientist I always insisted: “Don’t just give me information that I can find on the Internet. Tell me about what you’re working on now, even if it’s not yet published. Divulge what most intrigues you in your field, what will be news in one, five, ten years, and share your ideas on this front.” However, my third obsession is probably the most important one. In order to share my treasure, I needed to translate it into the most colloquial and natural writing possible. If not, my efforts would be in vain.

For this reason, I have attempted to make the texts in this book simple, fresh, and somewhat informal, avoiding too much detail when that could lead to a reader disengaging. I’m aware that in some parts of the book you may want to know more, and you might wish I had pursued the scientific thread of the story even further. If you have this impression, I see that more as a success than a failure. I don’t want your appetite to be sated with just one dish, regardless of how delicious it may be; there is a very wide buffet to sample, and I hope this book has the wicked effect of leaving you hungrier for more science. If reading these pages sparks your interest in a topic and you are driven to search for more information on your own, then I count this as a great success. It is also possible that you will not find some basic definitions of scientific concepts, due to my fear of becoming too wordy. Not to upset the purists out there, but these definitions are not as essential as you might think, and the book works perfectly well without them. If, before entering a contemporary art exhibit, you were forced to read wise accounts on how to better appreciate the works being displayed, you might turn around and walk out. Enjoy the view, and if you don’t know for certain what a gene or a nucleotide is, you can try to imagine it on your own. I’m convinced you’ll figure it out from the context, you’ll make it fit the story, and you’ll make it your own concept. Don’t fear or have undue respect for science; make it your own.

I have to admit that it’s difficult to go out for a drink with me without me talking about some scientific anecdote that I’m thinking about on that particular day. I tend to do this so often that I’ve deduced a few things: all people with a minimum amount of curiosity take great interest in science. With the exception of those who work eleven hours a day in the field, there are very few people who, after mentioning the word “neuron” or “quark,” don’t want to hear more about them. However, the attention span for these subjects has a limit. In a face-to-face conversation, it’s easy to perceive when it’s time to change the subject or change its focus. In a book, this is much more difficult to gauge. For this reason, if you find that, despite my best intentions, one part is becoming too tedious… Skip it! Be intellectually promiscuous. You might come back to it, but don’t let anyone bore you, not even me.

Returning to the art museum comparison: no one is inter

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