August 28, 2014 6:16 AM EDT

It’s an Irony of the second age of Reason, Michael Grunwald argues in his cover essay, that the abundance of data, the effervescence of sources and ease of delivery, makes so many more questions answerable while at the same time making it very easy to get lost.

So we’ve dedicated this issue to exploration, to a broad, deep, cross-platform look at the fruits of Big Data. Editor Matt Vella and his team, including Kelly Conniff, Emily Barone and Jack Linshi, created the analytical framework that lets us tell the backstory of class in America while also identifying the most dangerous U.S. intersection, the safest places to live and the secret capitals of line dancing, snowshoeing, beer drinking and brunch. They dug into data on everything from political loyalty to favorite sandwich ingredients to adoption trends, all of which designer April Bell turned into the provocative pages here.

Meanwhile, Chris Wilson’s interactive team was writing more than 5,000 lines of code in half a dozen programming languages to reimagine many of the same features and stories on TIME.com. (A window in his office is covered in triangles and trig equations used to calculate the arc of a baseball hit from home plate into the stands; another tots up the odds of intelligent life in the universe.)

We are mindful of the risks that come with all this information: the loss of privacy, of serendipity, of serenity. But, as Grunwald points out, “what’s most exciting about our age of answers is its potential to change the quality of our lives.”

Nancy Gibbs, MANAGING EDITOR

THE ANSWERS ISSUE | TIME.COM

As a companion to our look at “How We Fight” (page 75), TIME worked with documentary filmmakers who traveled to an aircraft carrier at an undisclosed location in the Atlantic Ocean to shoot footage of a U.S. Navy drone being tested. But the 60-ft.-wide, 10-ft.-tall X-47B–part of a $1.4 billion military program–is no ordinary drone: the Navy hopes to integrate it into its fleets of manned planes. To see the full clip, in which the X-47B takes off and lands, visit time.com/answersdrone.

INTERACTIVE

In 2040, we will be much more likely to have discovered alien life–or so suggest the numbers on page 85. The estimate was based on how many stars we’ll have searched for alien signals by then: roughly 10 million (up from a few thousand today). To chart the progress yourself, visit time.com/answersalienlife.

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This appears in the September 08, 2014 issue of TIME.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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