Marcelo Gleiser

We may believe that we know what's going on around us. After all, we can see, hear, touch, smell and taste what's around.

Our senses are like antennas, grabbing information about our surroundings and bringing this information into our brains. The brain is this amazing organ capable of synthesizing this information and giving us a sense of the real.

Earlier this week, I visited a fourth-grade class at the public school where I live. I try to go every year to different classes, from grade school to high school, to tell students about the universe.

The class had been studying the solar system, in particular the planets and their properties. The teacher gave me carte blanche to do whatever I wanted. I felt that contextualizing planets would be a good idea, telling their story from birth to death, their relation to their parent star, in our case, to the sun.

This is a very exciting year for books bringing science to the general public.

From timely topics like how science may illuminate our search for meaning to the search (and now discovery!) of gravitational waves, there is much to look forward to on the printed page. As books are published, we at 13.7 will write reviews of some — and we are likely to invite a few authors to write as our guests.

It is a sad curiosity that the word "disaster" comes from star (aster), as in "an ill-starred event," owing its etymological roots to astrology.

For the past two weeks we've been exploring some of the questions related to life's origin on Earth and possibly elsewhere.

Last week, we wrote about the fundamental three questions concerning the origin of life on Earth: When? Where? How? Although they are interrelated, each has a specific set of sub-questions that keep researchers very busy.

Being in Kaikoura, New Zealand, for what is allegedly the first astrobiology workshop here, it's a good time to go back to the basics and reflect on what we know of the complicated question of the origin of life on Earth — and the possibility of life elsewhere.

I will do this, here at 13.7, in installments during the next few weeks.

The singer David Bowie, one of the most creative performers in rock 'n' roll history, died of cancer at age 69 on Sunday — two days after releasing a new album.

The battle goes on. In a galaxy far, far away, forces of good clash with forces of evil.

It was a busy year for science, with remarkable discoveries on all fronts. I have compiled a brief and incomplete list, biased toward space science and physics, with links to more details. Here it goes:

"History will remember this day," U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Saturday, after almost 200 countries adopted the first global treaty to curb man-made global warming. "The Paris agreement on climate change is a monumental success for the planet and its people."

President Obama agreed: "[The climate agreement] offers the best chance to save the one planet we have."

Who doesn't want to play God — to have the feeling of creating new worlds with the push of a button? (Although gods presumably don't need buttons to create worlds.)

Looking at how science has affected humanity, one of the strongest indicators is the dramatic increase in average life expectancy.

During the Late Middle Ages, the average life expectancy in Western Europe was 38 years; in Victorian England, 40. By the early 1900s, with improvements in sanitation, vaccines and treatment of various infectious diseases, the average life expectancy jumped to 70 in men and 75 in women. Today, in Canada, it is at 82 for men and 85 for women, respectively.

On this very day 100 years ago, while Europe was buried deep in the darkness of the Great War, Albert Einstein wrote down the equation that changed forever the way we understand space, time and matter.

I spent last week at CERN, the high-energy physics laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland, where the Higgs boson particle was discovered in July 2012.

For those who are not yet familiar, CERN houses a giant particle accelerator — the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) — a machine designed to find the smallest constituents of matter.

When discussing the relationship between science and religion, people often take a polarized position: It's either "I believe" or "I don't believe."

Much grief comes from the insistence from either side that the opposite is wrong or meaningless. (Here is an example, as secularist Sam Harris criticizes National Institutes of Health director and believer Francis Collins.)

One of the indisputable advantages of the Internet is accessibility of information, in particular for educational purposes, inside and outside schools.

Vast collections of what we photograph, study and catalogue are available by typing a few words and clicking on a few tabs. For someone who grew up scavenging local libraries to retrieve what little information was available, this accessibility is nothing short of a revolution — and an amazing one.

The notion that mechanization and technology will bring us free time, so we can "enjoy" life, is as old as technology itself.

The use of farming animals to cut through fields spared humans much hard work. Romans used watermills to grind grain and lift water for irrigation. As we advance through history, the list goes on and on. The expectation has always been that as technology and the mechanization of labor grew in sophistication, humans would have more free time and, thus, more opportunities for leisure.

On Sunday, a seven-part documentary series titled Belief begins airing on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN). For a week, viewers will travel around the world as the series explores the many facets of belief across cultures, from the orthodox to the secular, from the material to the spiritual.

The origin of the universe is one of the most difficult realities we ponder.

It bends our logic, straining the words we have to describe it. If one is to say the universe started at the Big Bang some 13.8 billion years ago, the immediate reaction is: "But what came before that? What caused the Big Bang?"

This is the issue of the "first cause" — the cause at the beginning of the causal chain that caused all else but was itself not caused — that has plagued and inspired philosophers for millennia.

We learned Tuesday that Takaaki Kajita, from the Super-Kamiokande Collaboration in Japan, and Arthur McDonald, from the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory Collaboration in Canada (SNO), won the 2015 Nobel Prize in physics for helping to solve a long-standing mystery in physics: the disappearing neutrinos.

This is Mars week.

First, we had the mindboggling announcement that there is strong evidence of liquid water flowing on the Martian surface. And, also this week, on Oct. 2, the much-awaited Riddley Scott movie, The Martian -- based on Andy Weir's novel and starring Matt Damon as an astronaut stranded on Mars — opens nationwide. It seems that the red planet won't play second fiddle to the moon, especially a blood red one.

On Thursday, the Boston Museum of Science will premiere The Hidden Code at the Charles Hayden Planetarium, a multimedia piece by Paul Miller (aka D J Spooky). The piece combines music, stunning visual effects and live readings to bring science to the general public in ways that only a few years ago would be unthinkable.

Last Saturday, two-time Pulitzer prize winner Amy Harmon published a fascinating article in The New York Times about a young dying woman who chose to have her brain preserved in case neuroscience could one day restore her mind back to life.

Few questions of our time are more perplexing than the transition from non-living to living matter.

How did a sample of inorganic chemicals self-organize to become a living creature, capable of absorbing energy from the environment and reproducing? Although the question remains open, there are a few things that we can say based on present-day knowledge.

Last week, New York Times science writer George Johnson wrote a very disturbing piece concerning the apparent loss of credibility science is now facing with the public at large.

Scanning YouTube for popular science videos, I found a jewel — clocking over 10 million views — titled "Five Experiments That Could Have Destroyed The World."

The fact that we are here means these experiments did not succeed on this front. The message, however, is quite clear: We toy dangerously with things we barely understand — and the consequences could be cataclysmic. It's the fear that humans are not prepared for certain kinds of knowledge as they explore forces beyond their control.

Growing up in Brazil, I always looked up to America and Europe as standards for how to keep cities clean.

Walking along in New York or Paris, I was struck by how the streets and walkways were garbage-free — at least compared to the streets of Rio and São Paulo. I wondered what it took to do this, to convince the population that the streets and parks of a city are a space we share with others and that it is in our own self-interest — and sense of civic pride — to keep them clean.

A couple weeks ago, I wrote a 13.7 post about the documentary Unity, written and directed by Shaun Monson, which opened Wednesday for a one-day screening in more than 1,000 theaters around the world.

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