It’s perhaps not surprising that science fiction often compares the exploration of outer space to seafaring. Both space and the oceans are deep, vast domains impenetrable to the naked eye and hostile to human survival—dark, frigid expanses of seemingly limitless scope. But their very foreignness is likely what still drives us to try to explore and explain them.
Several features in this issue touch on the theme of trekking into the unknown, especially through the use of technological envoys that can withstand conditions that humans cannot. In “The Robot Ocean Network,” oceanographer Oscar Schofield and his colleagues describe how they have been using underwater autonomous vehicles to have a permanent presence in the world’s ocean waters, no matter what the temperature or the weather. Schofield describes how little is really known about the ocean, despite centuries of exploration, and how these robotic devices are starting to fill in some of the crucial gaps.
Looking up instead of down, astrophysicist Julie Hlavacek-Larrondo takes a deep look at black holes in “On the Trail of Monster Black Holes” with some remarkable technology, such as the Chandra X-ray Observatory in space and the Earth-based Event Horizon Telescope. Although black holes would be deadly not only to humans but also to our entire planet, we can still “go there” through the images taken by the devices that we have created, and begin to form an understanding of these powerful features in outer space.
On the completely opposite end of the size spectrum, the internal workings of the human body provide another whole universe of exploration and discovery. Nissa Mollema and Harry Orr take a look at one particular disease, hereditary ataxia, in “One Family’s Search to Explain a Fatal Neurological Disorder.” This neurodegenerative disease gradually decreases muscle control, until patients can no longer breathe on their own. Exploration of this disease was nearly impossible until the advent of gene sequencing. Once again, methods such as high-throughput screening arrays are now opening human access to the inner workings of a mysterious domain.
Throughout all realms of science, there remain unknown frontiers to be crossed. This fact is perhaps the main reason that scientists do what they do. We hope that, by joining us in reading about some of these adventures, you’ll be inspired to explore the mysteries around you. —Fenella Saunders