A Geek's Look Back at 2009

Science is burrowing its way into ever further into popular culture. Here we chart the best sci/tech movies, books, gadgets, and cars of the year.

By Tom Dworetzky|Monday, December 07, 2009
transformer
transformer
2009 Dreamworks and Paramount Pictures

BEST MOVIES

Avatar
Director James “King of the World” Cameron may be the king of moviemaking technology this year with the release of his long-awaited science fiction epic, Avatar. To make the lavish movie he envisioned, Cameron helped invent a 3-D stereoscopic camera system called Fusion. Using two lenses placed close together to mimic the way the human eyes capture depth, the system created the stunning imagery of Avatar’s fictional moon, Pandora, where native humanoids called the Na’vi battle war-hungry Marines in the 22nd century. Cameron’s digital filmmaking process encompassed more than 1,600 live-action and photorealistic computer-generated images. Avatar also employed two other amazing bits of technology: Skullcaps worn by the actors had tiny cameras capturing their facial performances, which allowed for more detailed and realistic animation of their characters without the burden of dozens of miniature sensors placed on their faces. And the performance-capture stage was six times as big as those used before, which let Cameron direct scenes as he would on a real set.

District 9
This critically acclaimed drama from director Neill Blomkamp—which spun an alien action movie into a compelling analysis of species xenophobia—was based on his experience growing up in South Africa. Turning sci-fi conventions upside down, Blomkamp’s aliens arrive at Johannesburg and are forced to live in a slum called District 9. One highlight (spoiler alert) is when a splash of alien DNA that lands on a human’s face causes his body to morph, over time, into a human-alien hybrid. Of course there is no reason to think our DNA would be compatible with an alien’s, notes Michael Wach of Biotechnology Industry Organization, and genetic manipulation requires sophisticated lab procedures. That said, he still liked the movie.

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
Anyone addicted to logical thinking may have had trouble with this Michael Bay blockbuster—how do those giant robots reduce to the weight of a car when they fold up—but popcorn-film fans loved it. CGI buffs had much to savor too. The film’s digital master file is 160 terabytes, which is “160 billion things,” Bay joked to DISCOVER. “Effects of that high a resolution have never been done before.”

Surrogates
The plotting may be a bit awkward in this mashup of AI, sci-fi, and crime procedural (based on Robert Venditti’s comic of the same name), but the movie has an intriguing and timely premise. It extrapolates from today’s primitive virtual worlds, like Second Life, to look at a future society in which humans live vicariously through their robotic doppelgängers. How likely is that? We already know how to use brain signals to direct robots as they perform simple tasks, says University of California at Berkeley mechanical engineering professor Homayoon Kazerooni. But we are a long way from the movie’s version of comprehensive virtual living. (See Science Not Fiction's interview with Venditti.)

The Road
Cormac McCarthy’s 2007 postapocalyptic, Pulitzer-winning tale stripped humanity of its technology and its morality. Director John Hillcoat’s film adaptation is equally bleak, downplaying the science and personalizing the human struggle. Viggo Mortensen, star of The Road, insists its dystopian possibility is closer than we think: “Fly over this country or any other in the world, and you can become quite alarmed and sad at the sight of so much deforestation, scarring of the land, and toxic contamination.”

Watchmen
Director Zack Snyder’s epic drew mixed reviews from fans of the graphic novel. We also had reservations about its attitude toward science. Doctor Manhattan uses his atomic insights to clean up the world but loses his humanity; Watchmen’s brilliant researcher, Ozymandias, performs a dark utilitarian exercise, plotting to kill millions in the service of an alleged greater good.

COMING ATTRACTIONS: 2010
Oceans
(April 2010) A documentary-style film looks into the blue abyss.

Tron Legacy (Dec. 2010) The son of a computer whiz finds himself pulled into intense programs in the search for his father..
The Book of Eli (Jan. 2010) A postapocalyptic quest to protect a sacred tome.
Legion (Jan. 2010) The apocalypse has occurred, and a waitress is pregnant with the Messiah.
Iron Man 2 (May 2010) The genius industrialist-playboy is well suited for more adventure.
Alice in Wonderland (March 2010) Mathematician Lewis Carroll’s Alice, no longer a little girl, returns to the rabbit hole, unaware she has been there once before.

BEST REBOOT

The legendary sci-fi franchise that changed pop culture—and inspired two generations of scientists—was rusting in space dock. So Lost mastermind J.J. Abrams rebooted it with young actors, mind-melding action, and loyalist-approved continuity. The result recaptured much of the original show’s loopy sense of adventure. Coolest moment? Watching Kirk (Chris Pine) and Sulu (John Cho) execute an orbital dive to a drilling platform on planet Vulcan. It’s just fiction for now, but a company called Orbital Outfitters is working on the technology for a real space-dive suit.

Sure, Star Trek was also filled with some not-great science: an exploding supernova that wiped out planet Romulus (too far away), a floating mining drill boring into the planetary core of Vulcan (too hard or soft, depending on the mantle), and most egregiously, a “red matter” bomb that created a black hole that destroyed Vulcan altogether. Of red matter, Phil Plait complained in Bad Astronomy, “The red matter black hole would be incredibly small, probably smaller than an atom, and that would make it hard to gobble down enough mass to grow rapidly.”

But plenty of other Star Trek goofs (like the holodek, the phaser, and the transporter) have inspired real research. “[Star Trek creator] Gene Roddenberry was a good friend,” says celebrated MIT cognitive scientist Marvin Minsky. “In the end, no other person ever had such a positive pro-science influence on the TV audience.”

BEST TV

For All Mankind
Four decades after humans walked on the moon, Al Reinert’s mesmerizing documentary series on Apollo (first released in 1989) is finally available on Blu-ray/hi-def DVD. The disk includes a new documentary on how Reinert transformed miles of NASA footage and 80 hours of interviews into his definitive film. “I tried to get inside [the astronauts’] experience,” Reinert recently wrote, “so I could identify with it and finally make it real.”

The Big Bang Theory
Before this sitcom about two male Caltech prodigies, their brainy buddies, and their aspiring-actress neighbor, there wasn’t much room on prime-time TV for jokes about helium-neon lasers or Bose-Einstein condensates. Now the show is a hit—CBS said yes to two more seasons—but is it good for science? Henry Donahue, the CEO of DISCOVER, has sniffed that the show “reinforces the popular stereotype that scientists are social misfits (mostly male) who can’t get a date.” But MIT’s Marvin Minsky disagrees: “Shows like The Big Bang Theory, as well as House, CSI, and maybe the Stargate series, have delivered encouragement for at least some young people to delve into science.”

Eureka
The imaginary Pacific Northwest town of Eureka—set up by Harry Truman and Albert Einstein as a colony for geniuses—is the setting for classic sci-fi soap opera. A scientist vanishes from a biosphere; Sheriff Jack Carter gets trapped in a time loop, reliving his love interest’s wedding to another man over and over. Carter relies on ordinary common sense in a town full of extraordinary but not always sensible minds. In the latest plot twist, he may be departing Eureka, giving the show plenty of room to explore what happens when geniuses have to clean up their own messes.

bears
bears
A grizzly in Alaska's Katmai National Park
Craig Mellish

The National Parks: America's Best Idea
Director Ken Burns’s six-part, 12-hour series is rich with gorgeous cinematography that captures the wonders of the natural world, although he gives more weight to culture and history than to science. With a companion book and DVD, the series has spawned a dedicated PBS site (www.pbs.org/nationalparks) offering extensive additional resources.

Musical Minds
PBS’s brilliant and moving adaptation of the 2007 book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks examines why music moves us so—a challenge to scientists from ancient times to the present. “As a neurologist, the single most important thing I see is the remarkable therapeutic effect of music in a wide variety of neurological conditions,” Sacks says. “Music can animate people and often works where medications fail.” In one especially remarkable case highlighted in the film, a man named Tony Cicoria was not a particularly musical person until he was struck by lightning at the age of 42. Now he is a passionate classical pianist and composer. Sacks points out that studies of music and the brain are turning previously held beliefs about brain plasticity on their proverbial head. “It used to be thought that the aging brain was far less able to form new connections, and many people still believe that musical abilities can only be developed in early life,” he says. “But the human brain is capable of learning very complex and creative new tasks, even later in life.”

MOVING THROUGH TIME

The time-traveling adventures of the cast of Lost (and many other current TV shows, including the new FlashForward) show us how possible it would be for us to actually make the trip. Caltech physicist and DISCOVER blogger Sean Carroll addressed this very topic in May. If Newton had been right about space and time, there would be no going back. But Newton was wrong. With Einstein’s curved space-time, time travel is possible, but you have to follow some rules. Zooming into the future is easy, Carroll points out; you just did. Going backward is a lot harder but might not be impossible. “The large-scale curvature of space-time caused by gravity could, conceivably, cause timelike curves to loop back on themselves—that is to say, become closed, timelike curves—such that anyone traveling on such a path would meet themselves in the past,” Carroll says.

BEST MEME: LOVING THE UNDEAD

Sex, violence, and beauty: Vampires have it all, and this year they seem to be everywhere. Vampire tales have been around for centuries, but unlike medieval bloodsuckers, who symbolized disease and death, today’s undead are usually wealthy and devastatingly handsome. They typically swoop in and care for a swooning female. Which got us wondering, why this particular obsession, and why now?

Sociologists have claimed that vampires represent everything from antifeminism to homosexuality to just another excuse for a sex-charged romance. Vampire DiariesTwilight, and True Blood reveal mysterious and deceptive worlds where relationships, love, and sex are dangerous but still offer the best possibility of fulfillment,” says William Patrick Day, a professor of cinema at Oberlin University. Vampires stand apart from other icons of science fiction and fantasy. “They are the easiest to relate to of the paranormal,” says Jennifer Weis, editor of the vampire book series The House of Night. “They allow us to channel something we can’t control beyond ourselves, playing with power and immortality.” This year’s financial reckoning and health-care debates may have amped up the vampire theme. These creatures of the night send a dark but uplifting message: There is gratification in the struggle with self-restraint.  —Amy Barth

SCIENCE REALITY TV

MythBusters  Whoever told you that chocolate is toxic for your dog was right. But why?
HowStuffWorks  Your daily coffee, beer, and salt explained.
Storm Chasers  Kind of like Dorothy and Toto, but carrying scientific probes in armored SUVs.
Living With Ed  Wacky but lovable environmentalist Ed Begley Jr. tries to out-green his neighbor, Bill Nye the Science Guy.

BEST BOOKS

The End of Overeating By David Kessler
Fat, sugar, and salt have a distressing ability to short-circuit our sense of restraint—and the food industry knows it, says David Kessler, a former commissioner of the FDA. He explains how caving in to our urges resets the neural circuitry of appetite control, making it tough to take responsibility for what we eat.

The Pluto Files By Neil deGrasse Tyson
We loved Pluto, but now that crazy little ball of ice and rock at the edge of the solar system has lost its planetary status. Tyson, the outspoken director of New York City’s Hayden Planetarium, recounts the lives touched by Pluto and the wild correspondence it has inspired, from its discovery 79 years ago to its recent demotion to sub-planethood.

Nurtureshock By Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman
Does parenting come naturally? Not according to the scientific research reviewed here. In fact, many of our instincts about how to raise our kids may be flat-out wrong. For example, prying into teens’ lives is a no-no: Some things fall into the cate­gory of none of your business.

The Late Fauna of Early North America By Scott Musgrove
The crucial word in the title is late. This is a book not of natural history but of Darwinian what-ifs, a delightful imagining of the possible future. Its whimsical full-color reproductions include the Albino Walktopus and the Booted Glamour Cat, as well as many sculptures and pencil sketches from fantastical field studies.

leher
leher

How We Decide By Jonah Lehrer
The man who previously read Proust from a neuroscience perspective now explores decision making, from the 2002 Super Bowl–winning drive to the chemical workings of the brain. He finds that the secret to making good choices is knowing when to think rationally and when to follow your heart…and science can help.

In the Land of Invented Languages By Arika Okrent
Unlike natural languages, invented ones were born at specific times and for specific reasons, motivated by goals ranging from world peace to personal expression. Okrent investigates the colorful history behind Esperanto and Klingon, along with many other, more obscure examples of linguistic synthesis—including a language based on math.

Decoding the Heavens By Jo Marchant
In 1901 a group of divers discovered a 2,000-year-old metal wheel, the Antikythera Mechanism, off the coast of Greece. Marchant’s account of the deciphering of this startlingly advanced machine—the world’s first computer—paints a vivid portrait of both modern code breakers and the wildly creative thinkers of ancient Greece.

Born to Run By Christopher McDougall.
The reclusive Tarahumara Indians can run hundreds of miles without fatigue. The author’s search to understand how instigates a visit to a Harvard University lab, epic races in the Midwest, and a 50-mile marathon through Tarahumara country.

Why Does E = mc2 By Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw
Master Einstein’s famous equation in 266 easy pages: The authors answer their title question without using math more complicated than the Pythagorean theorem, providing a rich history of modern physics along the way.

Cold By Bill Streever
This tour of the most frigid places on earth will have you rubbing your hands together between pages. Its descriptions of bathing in the Arctic Ocean and wandering through Alaska at 20 below illustrate how cold has helped shape both our planet and ourselves.

dawkins
dawkins

The Greatest Show on Earth By Richard Dawkins
Overflowing with diagrams, graphs, and illustrations, this take-no-prisoners scientific showcase crams in 4 billion years of natural history. Dawkins—sometimes called “Darwin’s rottweiler”—dares anyone to read this book and still claim there is no evidence for evolution.

The Age of Wonder By Richard Holmes
Holmes depicts the Romantic age as a “relay race of scientific stories.” In richly evocative prose he explores how great moments of insight, such as the discovery of Uranus, transformed the heart as well as the mind.

Elements by Theodore Gray
An absorbing, photograph-driven compendium of what we know about the 118 elements in the periodic table. Filled with facts, stories, and beautiful images (such as the titanium jet engine disk at left), this oversize book is a great mix of science and art.

Must-Reads From Inside the DISCOVER Family

Cure Unknown, by senior editor Pamela Weintraub, won the 2009 American Medical Writers Association Book Award. This investigative work blends exhaustive research into the science and politics of Lyme disease with a dramatic narrative of Weintraub’s own long struggle with Lyme.
DISCOVER blogger and astronomer Phil Plait wants you to be afraid, very afraid, when you read Death from the Skies. He presents fearsome end-of-the-world scenarios and demystifies the science behind them with humor and an infectious love of the cosmos.
Sean Carroll’s forthcoming book uses the latest in theoretical physics to explain the flow of time. In From Eternity to Here the DISCOVER blogger and physicist paints a bizarre yet compelling picture of our existence within a multi­verse (universe of universes) in which time varies, depending on the point of view.
In The Tangled Bank Carl Zimmer, a DISCOVER blogger and leading science writer, has crafted an explanation of evolution for the everyday reader. His book covers scientific fundamentals but also up-to-the-minute reports on everything from antibiotic resistance to the human genome.

BEST GADGETS

Tony Hawk: Ride  Activision
Motion capture is this year’s theme. Activision’s skateboard-shaped controller has infrared sensors that detect motion and display it on-screen. All the moves you do in real life are reflected in the game.

Project Natal for the Xbox 360  MICROSOFT
Project Natal is a hands-free system for the Xbox 360 that lets you control the game using full-body movement, facial gestures, and voice inflections. A camera picks up your facial features, infrared sensors detect motion, and noise-canceling microphones make sure your commands do not get lost. The camera can also scan real objects into your game. Microsoft has not yet set a release date, but it is rumored to be happening in 2010.

Wii MotionPlus Add-on for the Wii  Nintendo
Another full-body device: The Wii MotionPlus, snapped onto the end of the Wii Remote, captures your body motions and renders them on the TV screen in real time. The add-on uses Micro-Electro-mechanical Systems (MEMS), a technology that tucks a miniature gyro-sensor into the remote control.

Motion Controllers for the PlayStation 3  SONY
This wandlike object works with the PlayStation Eye camera (which tracks its position) and uses inertial sensors to detect motion. The glowing sphere at the top of the controller contains LEDs in a full range of colors, allowing it to simulate effects such as the muzzle flash of a gun or the paint on a brush. The controller can even track your location in three dimensions. Due in spring 2010.

Your Shape Camera and Game  Ubisoft
The Ubisoft camera peripheral works with the Wii and a PC to project your likeness onto the screen, capturing your image as you move. Now the fitness game can determine if you are doing an exercise correctly and can personalize your workouts. You don’t even need a controller, and you can use your own fitness equipment while receiving training advice from a virtual Jenny McCarthy.

Force Trainer  Uncle milton
The Force Trainer lets you hone your Jedi powers in the comfort of your home. A rudimentary home version of EEG medical equipment, it works by letting your brain waves trigger a fan to shoot air that raises a ball in a clear 10-inch tower. It may be somewhat limited, but the Force Trainer costs less than $100—a sign that many more EEG-based toys will be showing up soon.

DIY Designs  Shapeways
This Netherlands-based company will take your three-dimensional design—a rendering made with the company’s creator tool or your own 3-D model made in programs like Maya—and turn it into a one-off object made of stainless steel or another material. Your project’s plans can then be stored on Shapeways’ site, so if you make them public they can be visible to other users who have the option to purchase your design.

THE FOODIE FRONTIER

Luke, I am your…toaster. Burn your morning slice with Darth Vader’s visage. At shop.Starwars.com, $54.99.
Sick of the toothpick in your bacon-wrapped scallops? Try Activa RM, a natural enzyme that binds proteins (like meat or fish). Atamazon.com, $88. 
Scan the bar code of any food item with your iPhone and DailyBurn’s FoodScanner will pull up its nutritional information. $3 atDailyBurn.com
The Electrolux Design Lab competition spots appliance trends. This year’s winner: a device that both “grows” meat from a cell culture and cooks it. See electroluxdesignlab.com/the competition

BEST ENERGY-SAVER: DIRT-CHEAP HEAT FOR THE HOME

For energy-savvy homeowners, this may be the year to pull the plug on fossil fuels and journey toward the center of the earth. Geothermal heat (also known as ground source heat, or GSH) is breaking into the consumer market, already heating and cooling an estimated 850,000 U.S. households. The Department of Energy estimates that another 50,000 geothermal systems are installed annually. The earth’s natural thermostat can be tapped from just about anywhere and offers energy savings of 30 to 35 percent relative to gas, oil, or electric heat, with similar reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions. If you need more motivation, the federal government is offering a 30 percent rebate on the purchase of geothermal heat pumps through 2016, with additional incentives available from states and utilities. 

The technology takes advantage of the fact that the ground just below the surface remains at a relatively constant 50 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the year. To exchange energy between your home and the planet, a fluid-filled pipe runs into the ground to a depth of about 250 feet. In the winter an aboveground heat pump extracts warm vapors (up to 115 degrees Fahrenheit) from the fluid by running it through a circuit of evaporation, compression, and condensation. In the summer the process is reversed to provide energy-efficient air-conditioning. A second heat pump can provide hot water. Sound too good to be true? “If you believe a refrigerator works, then believe that this works,” says Oklahoma State University engineer James Bose. 

If ductwork for heating and cooling is already in place, GSH installation in a 1,600-square-foot house might run around $13,000, though costs vary. To get started, a GSH engineer will survey your house and property to design a system appropriate for your residence. The nonprofit International Ground Source Heat Pump Association lists certified designers and installers on its Web site,www.igshpa.okstate.edu.  —Tina Wooden

BEST CARS
The Prius is so passé. The latest thing in automotive tech is hyper-economical plug-in hybrids or, at long last, fully electric vehicles that even non–tree huggers would crave.

Nissan LEAF
One of the first fully electric vehicles offered in the United States by a mainstream car company. It will handle and accelerate like a V-6 with a top speed of 90 mph, Nissan says. Pros: 100 percent electric; has range of about 100 miles; charges in 4 to 8 hours on a 220V home unit; will charge to 80 percent in 26 minutes at one of Nissan’s quick charge stations; uses recycled materials liberally in the interior. cons: Those quick-charge stations don’t exist yet; the battery’s life span is just five years; the home charge station must be installed by a professional electrician. Reportedly priced under $35,000, the Leaf will be available only in some states in 2010; mass production is not slated until 2012.

Tesla Model S Sedan 
Capable of going from 0 to 60 in 5.6 seconds and reaching 120 mph, this sleek sedan aims to go rim-to-rim with the BMW 5 series. Pros: Fully electric and twice as efficient as hybrids; up to 300 miles per charge, depending on battery option; seats five adults, along with two children in a small third row; can swap batteries in just five minutes; costs about $4 per charge. cons: Base price of $49,900 (after tax credits) is not cheap; reliability is a question mark; despite receiving a $465 million government loan, Tesla remains a new and unproven company.

Chevrolet Volt
This massively hyped four-passenger hatchback is a plug-in hybrid with a top speed of 100 mph, capable of going from 0 to 60 mph in 8.5 to 9 seconds. Pros: Fully charged, can run 40 miles on battery power alone; can travel more than 300 miles on a tank of gas; combined electric and extended-range use will provide an average of 230 mpg, Chevy claims; connected to a 240V outlet, the battery will charge in less than 3 hours; battery guaranteed for 10 years or 150,000 miles. cons: Real-world economy likely to be much lower on long trips; expensive compared with many other small cars—GM is hinting at a cost of $40,000; as with all these vehicles, expect a limited supply.

Fisker Karma 
This four-door plug-in hybrid has a top speed of 125 mph and goes from 0 to 60 mph in 5.8 seconds, according to the manufacturer. Pros: Fully charged, it burns no gas for the first 50 miles; total range of 300 miles; charges in as little as 3 hours; solar-paneled roof helps run accessories; eye-grabbing styling courtesy of the designer of the BMW Z8; “EcoChic” series is completely animal-free for ultimate green cred. cons: Price is a steep $88,000; like Tesla, Fisker received government loans but has no track record; likewise, reliability is unknown—keep your fingers crossed that this start-up does not go the way of Brickin and DeLorean.

BEST EXHIBITS

smithsonian
smithsonian
Velizar Simeonovski/Field Museum

Since Darwin: The Evolution of Evolution Smithsonian  National Museum of Natural History
Study Darwin and his theory of evolution, then find out how the thoughts and ideas of evolution have changed since his time. Through July 18, 2010. www.mnh.si.edu/exhibits/darwin

The Accidental Mummies of Guanajuato  Detroit Science Center
A collection of 36 century-old, naturally mummified Mexican bodies—“miners, fathers, soldiers, farmers, children”—each of which tells its own story. Through April 11, 2010. www.detroitsciencecenter.org

National Geographic Crittercam: The World Through Animal Eyes  Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, Chicago.
View the world as animals see it in an exhibit featuring seals, penguins, bears, lions, and more. Cameras worn safely by the animals are data-gathering tools that offer researchers unique insight into their behavior. Through April 11, 2010. www.naturemuseum.org

Dead Sea Scrolls  Science Museum of Minnesota, St. Paul
Encounter authentic fragments of the oldest biblical writings, and learn the science behind the 2,000-year-old scrolls. Opens March 12, 2010. www.smm.org/scrolls

Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs  De Young Museum, San Francisco
All about the age of King Tut and the pharaohs of Egypt, told through artifacts recovered from Tut’s tomb. Through March 2010. tutsanfrancisco.org

Visions of the Cosmos: From Milky Ocean to Black  Hole Rubin Museum OF ART, New York City
Eastern and Western views of cosmology meet in this exploration of traditions, science, and religion. Runs December 11, 2009, to May 10, 2010.  www.rmanyc.org

Mammoths and Mastadons: Titans of the Ice Age  Field Museum Chicago
Ever see a 40,000-year-old baby woolly mammoth? Also on display: mammoth and mastodon skeletons, tusks, and flesh. Runs March 5 to September 6, 2010. www.fieldmuseum.org

tmbg
tmbg
Illustration by Bryan Poole

BEST SCIENCE MUSIC

They Might Be Giants’ pop-savvy Here Comes Science CD/DVD set is likely to draw both kids and adults with its blend of hook-filled music and hard science. The 19 new songs and videos include “I Am a Paleontologist” and “How Many Planets?” The catchy “Put It to the Test” helpfully says that “a fact is just a fantasy unless it can be checked.” Taking their own advice, TMBG enlisted Eric Siegel, director of the New York Hall of Science, to check the science in their lyrics.

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