Marcelo Gleiser

Two years ago yesterday, Dec. 12, nearly 200 countries came to a consensus that greenhouse emissions — mostly caused by the burning of fossil fuels — had to be drastically cut if we were to halt the planetary-changing consequences of a choking atmosphere.

Trial and error, experimentation, the understanding that some questions have complex answers or no answers at all, the notion that failure teaches, the acceptance that mistakes can actually guide you in the right direction, persistence in the face of difficulty: These are some of the everyday components of scientific research, accumulated wisdom that can serve us well in many walks of life — from how to face challenges as individuals to running corporations.

Last week, my 13.7 co-blogger Tania Lombrozo reported on a study she developed with graduate student Sara Gottlieb on whether science can explain the human mind.

As Tania wrote, this was a survey-based study asking the participants "whether they thought it was possible for science to one day fully explain various aspects of the human mind, from depth perception and memory loss to spirituality and romantic love."

For this post-Thanksgiving week, I'd like to suggest a remarkable video produced over two decades by NASA scientists.

Satellites monitored populations of plant life on land and oceans, mapping variations of green regions of vegetation and snow cover on the North and South Poles. As seasons pass, we witness a rhythmic dance between white and green, as if the planet itself were breathing.

Since my last post was on Earth's hosting of life, it's natural to follow with a discussion of life elsewhere.

From the outset, we must state two essential facts: first, that we have no concrete evidence that intelligent aliens have ever visited our planet; and, second, that we have no evidence that there is life outside Earth, intelligent or not.

Let's look into the alien visitation question first — and leave the question of life elsewhere for another time.

Living in cities or suburbs, amid the race of everyday routine, we have little time to care about what goes on at the planetary level — or about the uniqueness of our planet.

As Europe was being torn apart in the early 17th century by conflicts between Catholics and Protestants — that would lead to the devastating Thirty Years War in 1618 — the German astronomer Johannes Kepler wrote:

"When the storm rages and the shipwreck of the state threatens, we can do nothing more worthy than to sink the anchor of our peaceful studies into the ground of eternity."

Some 130 million years ago, when dinosaurs roamed Earth, two dead stars in a far-away galaxy collided violently, after spiraling around each other for millions of years.

The dead stars were neutron stars, exotic objects the size of Mount Everest and with the mass of the sun. Being this small and dense, the gravitational force is fierce. Someone once compared the pull of gravity near the surface of a neutron star to having all the population of Paris tied to your feet.

As a Brazilian-born scientist, it pains me to witness the devastating cuts — and proposal of future additional reductions — to the country's science funding.

The cut of 44 percent in March brought the 2017 budget for Brazil's Ministry of Science, Technology, Innovation and Communications the lowest level in 12 years. Additional cuts of about 16 percent have been proposed for the 2018 budget.

In 1915, Albert Einstein concluded his General Theory of Relativity, a theory that would revise our understanding of gravity in radical ways.

Before Einstein, the dominant description of gravitational phenomena was based on Isaac Newton's theory, proposed in 1687. According to Newton, every two objects with mass attract one another with a force proportional to their masses and inversely proportional to the square of their distance: double the distance, the attraction falls by a factor of four.

If it's true that a picture is worth a thousand words, what NASA's Cassini mission has left for us is indeed a treasure.

Launched in 1997, the mission terminated dramatically last week with the probe's final plunge into Saturn's upper atmosphere.

America seems to be a magnet for devastating hurricanes these days.

This year, Harvey came out strong with its horrific toll on parts of Texas and Louisiana. Now Irma, downgraded slightly Friday morning to a Category 4 storm from its most recent days as a Category 5, has left destruction in its wake as it plows through the Caribbean and Cuba — and is on path to hit Florida Sunday morning.

Hurricane Harvey is a devastating reminder of how helpless we are when facing nature's human-dwarfing powers.

We dig holes and barricades, build dams and create ingenious systems of canals and levees. We try to pull the brakes on natural forces, or at least tame them. These measures protect us, and we surely would be worse off without them. We have come a long way since our cave dwellings.

This has been quite a space week for Americans.

After Monday's stunning solar eclipse, Wednesday night PBS will air its two-hour documentary film about the two Voyager missions, launched 40 years ago. The Farthest: Voyager In Space, celebrates a technological and intellectual achievement rarely matched in history. Two small, nuclear-powered spacecraft have traveled farther than any other man-made machine and have forever changed our views of the solar system — and our place in it.

"Nature loves to hide."

This is how, more than 25 centuries back, the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus expressed the sense of mystery we all feel when we start pondering how the world works.

There seem to be hidden mechanisms, secret pacts between the things that make the world the world, from the smallest building blocks of matter to the neurons in our brains to the way the whole universe is stretching out in its inexorable expansion.

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