Hot Science: The Best New Science Culture

How NASA is like Richard Gere, differential equations model the spread of zombies, and more

By Valerie Ross, Emily Elert, Elise Morton, Andrew Morton|Friday, September 03, 2010
Karen Knayer/ Courtesy of NHM

MUSEUMS

Age of Mammals  Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County

Over the past 65 million years—as the earth froze, thawed, flooded, and dried—mammals spread to every continent and became big names on the stage of life. This new permanent exhibit tracks the furry group that led to us.

Fossils and full-size reconstructions of a pygmy mastodon, prehistoric horses, and ancient sea creatures populate the exhibit. You can even retrace the steps of the museum’s paleontologists who discovered a new species of paleoparadoxiid, an extinct relative of the manatee that lived off the California coast 10 million to 12 million years ago. Using simulations of the scientists’ tools, you can virtually uncover the fossil, examine its jumbled bones, and piece together the skeleton. Open now. 


BOOKS

Almost Chimpanzee  by Jon Cohen  (Times Books)
The sliver of DNA that separates humans from chimpanzees fools us into seeing similarity, journalist Cohen argues. He unpacks how chimps’ brains, communication, and sex lives are far removed from ours. But, he says, chimps deserve more respect—not because they are the same as us, but because of the divergences that show us who we are.

Packing for Mars  by Mary Roach  (W. W. Norton & Company)
The hilarious Roach takes on the human side of space exploration, with input from some remarkably frank veterans. She learns how zero-g sex works, about orange juice’s “coefficient of flatulence,” and how even astronauts have turned sensitive. “Today’s space agency doesn’t want guts and swagger,” Roach writes. “They want Richard Gere in Nights in Rodanthe.” 

The Fever  by Sonia Shah  (Sarah Crichton Books) 
We know exactly what causes malaria—and how to cure it. So why does the disease still claim a million lives every year? Science journalist Shah reaches beyond biology to examine how malaria has shaped human history and how cultural biases have impeded its eradication. The modern war on malaria doesn’t impress her, either: While we fight malaria “haphazardly,” she writes, “the parasite refines its plague upon us.” 

The Calculus Diaries  by Jennifer Ouellette  (Penguin Press)
This dash through a daunting discipline bursts with wry wit. Ouellette uses differential equations to model the spread of zombies, and derivatives to craft the perfect diet. Sassy throughout, she reserves special barbs for subprime mortgage holders: “Chances are, they weren’t doing the math.”


TV

Thomas Danielczik/Science Channel

Sci Fi Science: Physics of the Impossible
Michio Kaku grew up admiring two people: Flash Gordon and Albert Einstein. On his Science Channel television show, the theoretical physicist gets to play a little of both. In each episode of Sci Fi Science, he invites the world’s most interesting minds to demonstrate how science will realize the technologies of science fiction.

Season one showcased how we might build gadgets like light sabers and teleporters. But in the show’s second go-round, Kaku takes on the plotlines that dominate sci-fi visions of the future. He reveals how humans will colonize the galaxy with the help of self-replicating nanobots, fling an asteroid into Mars to unleash a planet-warming greenhouse effect, and fight off alien invaders by hacking their technology—though it won’t be like Independence Day. “Give me a break,” he says. “The aliens don’t use Windows.”

Kaku expresses unbridled optimism that we will reach the amazing tomorrows that science fiction has always promised. Despite the ugliness of our present, he says, those tomorrows are within reach. “Physics is the basis of the future,” he says, “just as it was the basis of the past.”


DVDS 

Wonders of the Solar System
Hosted by physicist Brian Cox, this BBC series whisks us around Earth and beyond to find astronomical awe. First the globe-trotting Cox shows us a breathtaking solar eclipse from the banks of the Ganges River in India. Then we leave our home planet to see more of the solar system’s wonders, taking in a Martian sunset and a simulation of Saturn’s dark side bathed in ring-shine. If all this travel sounds disorienting, don’t worry: Cox keeps viewers grounded in the science that binds these worlds together. Release date: September 7.

 

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