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August 5, 2005
Into a New World

Heard the one about the researchers riding in a train through the Scottish Highlands? Out the compartment window they see a black sheep grazing on the hillside. "Look," says the parapsychologist, "all the sheep in Scotland are black." The biologist says, "No, we can only say at least one of the sheep in Scotland is black." No, says the physicist, "the most we can say is that one of the sheep in Scotland is black on one side." But the mathematician has the last word: "One of the sheep in Scotland is black on one side — some of the time."

Researchers tend to get typecast. Pure mathematicians have a reputation for disdaining practical applications; supposedly physicists and chemists are the practical types. As a Berkeley Lab theoretician explained recently, "My first love was math, but I switched to physics because I wanted to understand the real world." His field is quantum cosmology.

In the end, science changes the "real" world whether it means to or not, whether it's classified as basic or applied, whether its event horizon is far off or near term. Science shapes the future even when it's dedicated to understanding the past.

This issue of Science@Berkeley Lab describes a diverse collection of programs, some aimed at the near future — materials scientists tackling the challenges of hydrogen as an alternative fuel — and some a more distant one. Mathematicians are shedding new light on storm turbulence, hastening hurricane prediction. Analytical chemists studying comets, meteorites, and interstellar dust may be able to tell us where we came from and what to expect when we set foot on distant worlds.

"In Series" describes breast cancer research at Berkeley Lab (part 2), dedicated to a future free of the disease, which can't arrive soon enough. This issue's ad hoc "supernova department" looks at an almost science-fictional universe of death stars — and the computer algorithms used to search for them.

Much of this research is basic; all of it will someday make a difference. If you have comments or questions about any of the stories in this issue, just drop us an email.

Paul Preuss, Editor, Science@Berkeley Lab