From our brains to gravity, how science surprises us

In this era of precision medical imaging, it’s not uncommon to get a CT scan or MRI for one thing and have the radiologist find something altogether different. These incidental findings usually don’t reveal anything major. But what if the doctor said, “Hey, did you know you’re missing a big chunk of your brain?”

That surreal experience is recounted in the story of Elyse G. She is one of a number of people recently discovered to be missing significant chunks of brain, with no apparent health impact, staff writer Meghan Rosen reports. Elyse is lacking most of her left temporal lobe, which is generally believed to be essential for language. But her interview with Rosen makes clear that Elyse has no difficulty expressing her thoughts. “I could have probably taken over the world if I had my entire brain,” Elyse jokes.

Researchers at MIT are now studying Elyse and other people with “interesting” brains. Those tested have all scored at or above average on language and thinking tests. Researchers speculate that these people might have suffered a stroke or other brain injury while in utero or in infancy. Other parts of the brain then took on the roles of the missing chunks. Gaining a better understanding of how Elyse and others thrive could lead to better treatments for people suffering debilitating brain injuries.

The researchers’ excitement at exploring this mystery is palpable, as is that of scientists trying to solve an enduring puzzle of physics: exactly how strong gravity is. Freelance writer James R. Riordon explains how physicists around the world are trying to make exceedingly precise measurements of Newton’s gravitational constant, also known as big G. The goal: to resolve discrepancies in measurements from around the world. If the discrepancies are real, rather than experimental flukes, they could point to physics that we don’t yet understand. But the tests are exceedingly difficult.

Riordon visits a researcher at the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology who changes into a dedicated pair of shoes before stepping into his subterranean laboratory. He knows that random specks of dust could be enough to skew the experiment’s results.

Precise measurements can also be vital when unraveling the past, as news about the Vikings demonstrates. Rather than getting their start as boorish pillagers, the intrepid voyagers may have focused instead on establishing trade routes — an eighth century version of Amazon.

Researchers found this out by tracing patterns of trade to and from a medieval town in Denmark. Interpreting patterns at this site required dating archaeological layers with a greater precision than radiocarbon dating, archaeology’s go-to method, allows. Data on an ancient solar flare helped researchers overcome this limitation, freelance writer Martin J. Kernan reports.

This is our summer double issue; each year we seek out stories that make for a great vacation read. We hope you’ll put up your feet and enjoy these articles, wherever you happen to be. The next issue of the magazine will be in your mailbox in August.

Nancy Shute is editor in chief of Foogue Media Group. Previously, she was an editor at NPR and US News & World Report, and a contributor to National Geographic and Scientific American. She is a past president of the National Association of Science Writers.