Hot Science: A Geek's Look Back at 2010

The return of Tron caps off a year filled with unobtanium, planetary rock and roll, and the continued nerd-culture takeover of your TV. We bring you the best, worst, and geekiest of 2010, plus what to expect in 2011.

By Andrew Moseman|Wednesday, December 29, 2010
inception
inception
Stephen Vaughn/Warner Bros.

GOOD & BAD MOVIES IN 2010

Overachievers

Inception  Film of the year, hands down, and a reliable conversation starter even if you didn’t like it. Whatever missteps director Christopher Nolan made with his long-awaited masterpiece, Inception is an original idea that rises far above a sea of sequels and remakes.

Iron Man 2  Tony Stark’s return suffers from superhero sequel syndrome, with too many plot lines stuffed into its running time. Imper­fections aside, though, Mickey Rourke’s accented villainy and Robert Downey Jr.’s swagger provided some much-needed fun last summer.

Predators  Yet another Predator film, this time starring Topher Grace and Adrien Brody. Unlike recent franchise misfires, the result is an enjoyable experience. Credit the magic touch of producer Robert Rodriguez.

127 Hours  Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) turns the tale of Aron Ralston—a hiker who had to amputate his own arm to escape death—into a lively psychological thriller. But be warned, the self-surgery scenes are not for the squeamish.

Underachievers

Creation  Fortunately, this British biopic of Charles Darwin found its way to the States. Unfortunately, the film hinders its star, Paul Bettany, by keeping him sickly and homebound, mired in melodramatic worry over the religious implications of his great notion: evolution.

The Book of Eli  It’s not that this is a bad film. The Book of Eli just never creates enough character depth or dark ambience to sustain its sparse, postapocalyptic world.

Clash of the Titans  Think 300, but made and adapted for 3-D in a rush. Then let us not think of it again.

Repo Men  An interesting premise (you lose your artificial organs if you don’t make your payments) becomes a dull rehash of the Minority Report enforcer-turned-prey story line.


MOVIES ON DECK FOR 2011

Sequels, superheroes, and thrillers hit theaters in force next year.

Going green  An emerald superhero doubleheader begins with Seth Rogen in The Green Hornet in January, followed in June by the Ryan Reynolds–led Green Lantern. The comic cascade continues (less colorfully) with X-Men: First Class, a June prequel to the 2000s’ trilogy.

They’re watching you  The Adjustment Bureau, a paranoid thriller based on yet another Philip K. Dick story, is slated for March.

Tripping through time  Director Duncan Jones follows up his ingenious debut feature, Moon, with Source Code, an April release that promises to tease the mind with time loops.

Primate redux  With James Franco in the lead and a political undercurrent about animal testing, Rise of the Apes reboots the reboot of the Planet of the Apes franchise in June.

Loud things come in threes  Transformers 3, this time with no Megan Fox, arrives in July.

You’ll have to wait for 2012  The untitled Star Trek sequel, Chris Nolan’s follow-up to The Dark Knight, the (why do we need this already?) Spider-Man reboot, The Avengers, and—for old time’s sake—Men in Black III.


Five Geektastic Moments From a Year in Television

Futurama  Professor Farnsworth invents a mind-switching machine, but no two bodies can switch minds twice, leaving the Planet Express crew all mixed up. The professor declares that there’s only one way out of the predicament: “I’m afraid we need to use…math!” Fortunately, the Harlem Globe­trotters—who are genius mathematicians in this version of the future—show up and prove that with two extra people, everybody’s mind can return to the right body.

The Colbert Report  In March, physicist/author/discover blogger Sean Carroll tried to explain to Colbert that it is still an open question in physics why the future is different from the past, and why people don’t remember the future.

The Big Bang Theory  We could pick a dozen moments from television’s stereotypically geeky juggernaut, but let’s take the season finale, in which the boys try to shoot a laser from their rooftop that bounces off the moon and returns to Earth. This is possible because both the United States and the Soviet Union left reflectors on the lunar surface.

Jimmy Kimmel Live  Justin Long, of “I’m a Mac” fame, explains the bewildering world of text message spelling, showing the TV audience a lengthy exchange with someone who mistakenly believes he’s her friend Eduardo. After Long butchers the English language into text spellings for days on end, she finally calls him out for misspelling the name of tween heartthrob Justin Bieber. That’s B-I-E-B-E-R.

Breaking Bad  Chemistry teacher-turned-methamphetamine maker Walter freaks out when the input/output yields in his illicit operation don’t add up, leaving him and his assistant racing through the possible reasons for this experimental error: Evaporation? Condensation? Spillage? It’s a chemist’s nightmare.

Next page: Interviews with James Cameron and Joseph Kosinski (director of Tron: Legacy)

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tron2
Garrett Hedlund (right) plays Sam Flynn, in search of his lost father, Kevin (played by Jeff Bridges), in Tron: Legacy
Disney Enterprises

TRON: LEGACY

Twenty-eight years after Jeff Bridges fell into the world of Tron, that digital universe returns this December. We talk with the sequel’s director, Joseph Kosinski.

Why return to Tron?
The original Tron was conceptually so far ahead of its time with this notion of a digital version of yourself in cyberspace. I think people had a hard time relating to it in the early 1980s. We’ve caught up to that idea. Today it’s second nature.

What did you keep from the original?
Kevin Flynn, played by Jeff Bridges, bridges the gap between the original and ours. We brought back Clu, Jeff’s avatar. Kevin is now 60 years old, where Clu is frozen at 35 years old. To expand on that, we’ve introduced Sam Flynn, Kevin Flynn’s son. We follow his journey as he goes back into the computer to look for his father, who disappeared 20 years earlier.

With the advances in computing and filmmaking since 1982, you could do just about anything with Tron: Legacy. How did you keep it grounded?
I didn’t want to make a movie about the Internet. It can make your movie feel dated the weekend after it comes out. I really liked the idea that this was a closed-off system like the Galapagos Islands, where the simulation has been constantly evolving and growing on some server locked away.

Today you read about these kinds of life simulations, where you program digital organisms that grow and mutate. We’re saying Kevin Flynn was such a brilliant, far-ahead-thinking guy that he was experimenting in these new types of code.

Was there anything the original directors wanted to do, but couldn’t with 1982 technology, that you now had the ability to include?
One thing that’s special in our film is the illuminated suits. All our suits are self-powered. The characters can illuminate one another’s faces and reflect in the floor and the walls around them, or light up a room when you turn the lights out.

Or take the lightcycle game: The original is a 2-D board where you try to cut off the guy in front of you with right-angle turns. We’ve taken the 90-degree restrictions away so they move like real racing bikes with big, sweeping turns. And we’ve taken away the two-dimensionality. Now it’s a multilevel game board. We invented some new games, but I’m going to keep those to myself for now.

What did Tron get right about the future?
I think both films touch on the importance of maintaining human connection in an increasingly digital world. That’s a strong element in our film—the connection between father and son. It’s something that we all deal with every day: being able to unplug ourselves and focus on the people around us.

For more insider info about Tron, read the extended version of this interview on Discover's Science Not Fiction blog.


AVATAR

Avatar opened at the end of 2009, but James Cameron’s opus dominated the talk about films and filmmaking long into this year. DISCOVER editor Corey S. Powell spoke with the renowned director.

In Avatar you pay extraordinary attention to what physics and biology can actually do. Why was that so important to you?
We try to be as plausible as possible about the astrophysics and creating a solar system with a system of moons, and then the atmospheric conditions, even the magnetic fields of the Flux Vortex. But ultimately, we’re reverse-engineering a fantasy, and the fantasy image takes precedence for me in that story. If I want floating mountains, we’re gonna have floating mountains.

How much does science fiction need to be derived from the real world in order to ring true?
If you’re outlandish all the time, you’ve got no place to hang your hat. People have to feel connections to things that they recognize, even down to the design of the Naví. There’s no plausible justification—unless you go to some really arcane explanation—for the Naví to look that human. It’s just that science fiction is not made for a galactic audience. It’s made by human beings for human beings.

When you see a movie that’s fully realized, you forget that you’re in the movie theater. And when you see a movie that’s not, you have the uncomfortable sensation of just sitting in your seat. What makes the difference?
The audience is not only willing to be transported but ready to be transported. The objective with Avatar was trying to induce in the audience a waking dreamlike state. I think the 3-D adds to that. The verisimilitude in the CG [computer generated] effects and the attention to little things—like the way the rotor from the vehicle moves the grass as it comes in for a landing—are constantly bombarding you with subliminal stimuli that are telling you that what you’re seeing is real, even though you know you’re sitting in a movie theater. You suspend that sense of your actual corporeal existence, and you go through the screen. Your consciousness starts to frolic around in that world. Whatever happens after that in the story has more impact as a result.

If you’re still working 30 years from now, what do you hope moviemaking will be like?
The more it changes in technology, the more it’s going to stay the same in storytelling. It’s about people, emotions, human interaction, hopes and fears. Visually, I think we’re starting to approach a point—if we haven’t already—where we’re limited only by the imagination of the filmmaker and the designers. In terms of the technology, home displays will get bigger, more immersive. If you want to take it to an extreme, we might have goggles that we put on with laser systems that write directly onto the retina and fill the entire field of view with a narrative image, kind of like Omnimax. Ultimately, though, I think you’ll still have big, dark rooms with a lot of people in them.

Next page: Hiphop that's truly brainy; Martian logistics; our hot, awful future

MUSIC

Planets by One Ring Zero  The great kerfuffle over Pluto’s demotion from planet status inspired dismay, confusion, and finally, music.

The Brooklyn band One Ring Zero transformed astronomical controversy into song with the album Planets (a nod to the nearly century-old Gustav Holst suite), which arrived in stores in September. The band’s reputation for stylistic eclecticism is well displayed here. “Mercury” jumps abruptly from a quiet, folky tune to a trumpet-led composition that owes something to Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass. “Venus” opens with a Turkish tinge and segues into a sing-along. “Mars: Part II” is a waltz. All the planets—and dwarf planet Pluto, too—get a nod, as do Jupiter’s myriad moons and the exoplanets. Even without subject matter so close to DISCOVER’s heart, Planets would still be a plain old good listen.

Brush up on Holst’s original by listening to a great performance like the one delivered by Charles Dutoit and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. Then keep your eyes open for another imagining of The Planets: Hip-hop legend Dr. Dre promises a forthcoming record about the worlds of the solar system.

"The Brain" by Prince Ea  This prince may be the king of brainy hip-hop. The unsigned young rapper won a Vibe magazine contest for young stars in 2008 and this year independently released “The Brain,” which you can buy on iTunes or watch on YouTube. Prince Ea’s verses document the evolutionary history and the parts of our cranial organ through unexpectedly serious rhymes like “The carnivore threat had us stressed/Til the neurons started to fire like a Corvette.”

Listen and get schooled.


BOOKS

roach
roach
Packing for Mars author Mary Roach.
David Paul Morris

Packing for Mars

Having tackled ghosts, sex, and the sordid science of cadavers in previous books, Mary Roach went to space in 2010—in subject matter, at least—in Packing for Mars. The book details the surprising difficulties of everyday life in zero-g, including going to the bathroom, getting sick, and having sex (although NASA shies away from sending up married couples). Her research also took Roach to eye-opening, and sometimes nauseating, places.

What adventures did you undertake while writing the book?
Packing for Mars
had moments of extreme, unbeatable fun, like the zero-gravity flight in an airplane nicknamed the “vomit comet” [which nosedives for 20 to 25 seconds at a time to produce weightlessness inside]. I was also up on Devon Island, in northern Canada, when they were doing a very early simulated lunar expedition. Parts of Devon Island really do look like the moon. So you can geek out, like, “Oooh, I’m on the moon.”

What surprised you most about life in space?
The extent of difficulties with the toilet was unbelievable. Not just for the person using it in space, but also in testing the toilet on Earth. That means taking the whole thing up on the vomit comet and having some poor guy go on demand. That doesn’t work. Who can do that? So these folks at NASA came up with a fecal simulant—this high-fidelity simulated stuff you could use to make sure it was going to be pulled away by the airflow.

There’s layer upon layer of difficulty. Every part of the body is affected: your stomach, your bladder. You’re two to three inches taller. There’s a whole debate over whether or not men have noticeably more erections in space. Name a body part and it seems like there’s something wonky going on with it.

Has all this knowledge heightened or lessened your desire to go into space?
If it’s a two-week jaunt to the moon? Yes, please, sign me up. It’d be incredible. But Mars? Two or three years? No. I’m the wrong personality. They’d have to just drug me and tie me up somewhere.

Your book came out right in the middle of the political debate over NASA’s future. Why should we still send people to Mars?
The International Space Station has been a 10-year exercise in global space cooperation. The whole idea was getting ready for Mars.

I would love to see an international Mars mission, where you split the cost. Do it that way, rather than saying, “I want to get there and plant the flag first.” Everyone would be watching.


2010 MUST-READS

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks  by Rebecca Skloot Skloot gained unprecedented access to the family and life story of Lacks, whose namesake HeLa cells became a standard tool of biomedical research.

The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow  Hawking’s own arguments about the multiverse and whether God was needed to kick-start the Big Bang are more interesting than the sensationalist press reports about the book.

Solar by Ian Mcewan The novel’s over-the-hill Nobel laureate protagonist, Michael Beard, uproariously attempts to cling to relevance.

Overlooked Gems Drawing the Map of Life by Victor Mcelheny  A stirring explanation of why the Human Genome Project—which mapped our DNA—matters.

Present at the Creation by Amir Aczel  Aczel skillfully weaves two histories: that of the science leading to the Large Hadron Collider, and that of the collider itself.

The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum  How forensic medicine was born in the seedy underbelly of 1920s New York City?

Hubble: A Journey Through Space and Time by Edward Weiler  The story of the telescope, and the universe it brought into view, right on your coffee table.


Visions of a Globally Warmed Future

It wasn’t so long ago that the world’s nations looked like they were teed up to take drastic action to address climate change. A major effort could yet emerge, but the zeitgeist has turned, according to 2010’s books. If we stay the course, they see a hot, awful future in store for us. See this gallery for a summary of the books' different takes on the future of the planet and its people.


Next page: Games, tech, museums

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warzone
Get that lightbar ready: "Star Wars: The Old Republic" takes you to a galaxy far, far away in 2011.
Lucasarts

GAMES & TECH

Star Trek Online & Star Wars: The Old Republic
Star Wars or Star Trek: whichever universe you prefer, you can lose yourself in it online. The two iconic sci-fi franchises are making a big splash with massively multiplayer online (MMO) games that thousands of people around the world can participate in simultaneously. “Star Trek Online” debuted in February. Players take command of their own ships in the midst of a war set 30 years after the events in the film Star Trek: Nemesis (not the recent Star Trek reboot).

Star Wars themes have been an MMO mainstay since the launch of “Galaxies” in 2003. The franchise gets a major upgrade with the long-awaited “The Old Republic,” set for release in early 2011. The game takes place during a struggle between Republic and Sith more than 3,500 years before the events in the Star Wars films.

 

Powering Up  Your smart phone does more jobs than ever. it also asks for more juice than ever.

Wireless charging stations are this year’s gift of choice for extreme wireless users. A charger made by the energy start-up Powermat lets you place your smart phone or other device on a smooth black pad, where it charges through magnetic induction. Energizer and Duracell also have recently rolled out wireless charging platforms.

 

We Also Like...

TiVo Premiere  With Netflix, Rhapsody, and your personal music library connected through the TiVo box, you are one step closer to grand unification.

Ford Applink  An upgrade to the Sync voice recognition system, debuting in the automaker’s Fiesta, lets drivers control Twitter and music playlists hands-free, through their smart phones.


MUSEUMS

The best exhibits to hit in 2011

Brain: The Inside Story  Walk through an immersive light show representing billions of perpetually crackling neurons, and see how playing music and speaking foreign languages stimulate different parts of your gray matter. American Museum of Natural History, New York City.

All That Glitters  The shifting and grinding below Earth’s surface that creates diamonds and emeralds will be on display here. There will be glitter, too, with a Mexican fire opal and a 240-piece diamond butterfly. San Diego Natural History Museum.

Leonardo da Vinci’s Workshop  See a re-creation of the place where the famed polymath imagined and sketched his wonders. Don’t miss the world’s first working model of one clever Leonardo creation: the Self-Propelled Cart. Franklin Institute, Philadelphia.

Expedition Health  Visitors can go to extremes in this sprawling exhibit, which shows how the human body adapts to altitude by taking you through a virtual expedition to a Colorado mountain summit. Museum of Nature and Science, Denver.

Journey to the Stars  The Western Hemisphere’s oldest planetarium hosts this acclaimed tour of the stars, narrated by Whoopi Goldberg. Adler Planetarium, Chicago.  —Will Hunt

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