How metabolism, heavy elements, and quantum entanglement really work
Gravitational waves, the evolution of human metabolism, diversity and quantum entanglement in this month’s Scientific American
Photo Credit: Scientific American, January 2023 Advertisement
Many people have made a lot of money spreading myths and misinformation about metabolism. Ads for supplements, diet books, and pseudoscientific health websites claim they can help boost your metabolism. Sometimes this involves metabolism, which is the way your body uses energy, slows down as you get older, or women have slower metabolisms than men. The myths persist in part because the diet and supplement industry is so profitable and so poorly regulated. But misinformation also creeps in because metabolism is really hard to study. Well, as evolutionary anthropologist Herman Pontzer writes in our cover story, scientists have found that much of what people think they know about metabolism isn’t true. It doesn’t slow down in middle age, for starters, and there are no sex differences. He and his colleagues have also traced the evolution of human metabolism—we use far more energy than other great apes—and provide even more evidence that what makes humans human is cooperation.
Astronomers have recently observed the synthesis of heavy elements for the first time. It all started when a distant star exploded, turning its core into a dense neutron star. Then its partner in a binary star system did the same. The two neutron stars whirled into each other in a ripping crash that spilled neutrons into atoms of iron or other lighter elements. The spectacular collision unleashed gravitational waves that traveled 130 million light-years to Earth, accompanied by light with a spectrum showing the presence of the heavy element strontium, the first direct observation of a forged heavy element. Nuclear astrophysicist Sanjana Curtis explains how the heaviest elements are made and why it’s no exaggeration to say we’re made of stardust.
One of our features in this issue is about death and grief and the dying out of languages and cultural traditions…but trust me, it’s a pleasure to read. Anthropologist Piers Vitebsky shares his life’s work with the Sora Indians who live in the highlands of eastern India. He began documenting their language and religious practices in the 1970s and witnessed massive cultural shifts as young Sora converted to more dominant religions. The traditional mourning rituals he describes are among the most elaborate and psychologically sophisticated rites that any religion has produced. He uses the term “diversity” to describe what is lost when people abandon long-held beliefs about the origins of the world and the nature of life and death.
The 2022 Nobel Prize in Physics went to three scientists who helped prove that the universe is not locally real. For real. Your work in quantum physics advanced quantum computing and expanded human knowledge, and it’s undoubtedly very important, but it’s also kind of unnerving. Things are not “real” unless someone is watching them. “Local” refers to the idea that things can only be influenced by their surroundings, but it turns out they can be influenced in bizarre and extremely distant ways. Science journalist Daniel Garristo chronicles how quantum physics went from weird to hot field and explains why quantum entanglement could be both mind-boggling and useful. We hope you enjoy what he calls “one of the more disturbing discoveries of the last half century.”
This article was originally published under the title “Burning Energy” in Scientific American 328, 1, 4 (January 2023).
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