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National Geographic Magazine

National Geographic Magazine August 2017

The latest news in science, exploration, and culture will open your eyes to the world’s many wonders. Get a National Geographic digital magazine subscription today and experience the same high-quality articles and breathtaking photography contained in the print edit.

United States
National Geographic Society
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talking toilets with matt damon

Susan Goldberg: So let’s have a conversation about poop. Matt Damon: Great. With the group’s name being Water.org, if we ever solve the access-to-clean-water side of water and sanitation, I wonder if the name would become [deleted].org … SG: I can’t print that! That’s pretty funny though. Seriously: In trying to report and photograph the story on sanitation that is in this issue [see page 94], it became clear that this is a hard thing to talk about for a lot of people. MD: Yes. If you talk about something like cancer or AIDS, even if you’re talking about the developing world, people in the developed world totally relate. We all have people who’ve battled one of those diseases, and it’s instantly relatable. But something like this just isn’t. Maybe we’ll have stories of grandparents…

array of light

Even on the starriest of nights, the human eye sees just a tiny fraction of the cosmos. So if the curve of the Big Dipper or the four points of the Southern Cross appear magnificent, consider how many more phenomena must exist out of view. That prospect is what led astronomer Natasha Hurley-Walker to a radio telescope deep in the outback of Western Australia. The telescope, called the Murchison Widefield Array, is made up of thousands of antennas that see through celestial dust and detect “radio light”—revealing colors and objects in a spectrum not visible to humans, even with the aid of optical telescopes like Hubble. Stretched across nearly four square miles of desert, the antennas— cheaper to produce and maintain than typical dishes—look like “an army of mechanical spiders,” she…

where stardust hides on earth

HOW SMALL? Each particle is about 300 microns wide, roughly the width of a human hair. To capture tiny details, Larsen and colleague Jan Kihle shoot with varied focal lengths, taking one photo per micron. Software combines the images. A Norwegian jazz musician and citizen scientist, Jon Larsen has figured out how to do something the experts thought was impossible—find specks of cosmic dust, called micrometeorites, amid the detritus of human habitation. Scientists look for these particles, which rain down constantly on Earth, in Antarctica and other pristine locations, but Larsen thought there should be a way to collect them in more populated places. Some micrometeorites are real stardust—flecks from exploded stars. Others are likely created when asteroids collide and comets vaporize. Larsen learned to identify the unique features that take shape as…

name that star

They may sound like characters from the pages of Harry Potter, but Alfirk and Grumium are actually the names of two stars in the universe. Along with 225 other unusual-sounding monikers, they’re part of a new registry of official star names. The list was created by the International Astronomical Union, the group that authorizes the naming of celestial objects. For millennia humans have relied on the stars to navigate seas and cultivate crops, says astronomer Eric Mamajek. Over time a single star could rack up dozens of names with various spellings and translations, many rooted in ancient Greek and Arabic. Astronomers assign alphanumeric designations to heavenly bodies, says Mamajek, but people like to use names for places: “You don’t refer to your hometown by its zip code.” Mamajek hopes the new list…

well suited for space work

On Earth, clothes make the man—and woman. In space, they’re the key to survival. Whether helping astronauts enter Earth orbit, walk on the moon, pilot a space shuttle, or travel to Mars, space suits must serve several vital functions: provide oxygen, control temperature, permit movement, power communications, and protect against solar radiation. But fashion is fickle, and technology grows apace. Space historian Roger Launius says the first suits were based on what jet pilots wore. Over time they’ve evolved into autonomous modules that help astronauts negotiate the inky expanse, gather samples, and work on the International Space Station. Yet in some ways they’ve hardly changed. Now as then, a space suit is essentially a gas-filled, human-shaped covering. (Exceptions include the form-fitting suits Dava Newman is developing at MIT and the high-mobility models…

carl sagan imagines mars

GO FURTHER Read Carl Sagan’s “Mars: A New World to Explore” in the December 1967 issue of National Geographic by visiting archive.national geographic.com. ‘ LET’ S HAVE [THE MARTIAN] FIND HIS WAY IN THE DAYTIME BY HIS LITTLE RED TENDRILS AND AT NIGHT HE WILL DIG A HOLE.’ CARL SAGAN IN A LETTER TO HIS EDITOR, 1967 Carl Sagan spent his childhood immersed in Mars. The future scientist, an avid reader of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s science fiction, would pass evenings lying in vacant lots, looking up at the sky and “thinking myself to that twinkling red place.” He fantasized about Martians, their bodies a kaleidoscope of color— Burroughs’s Mars had two more primary colors than Earth—with removable heads but decidedly human forms. “I didn’t realize then the chauvinism of making people on another…