Hot Science: The Best and Worst Geek Culture of 2011

This year, we were bested by a trivia-hungry 
supercomputer, mesmerized by a zombie apocalypse, and defended by a veritable army of superheroes. Here’s a look back at the best and worst of 2011, and 
a sneak peek (we used a time machine!) at what’s to come in 2012.


By Mary Beth Griggs, Valerie Ross, Gillian Conahan|Tuesday, December 13, 2011

TOP GEEK CULTURE MOMENTS OF THE YEAR

jeopardy
jeopardy
Courtesy IBM

Watson Wins at Jeopardy

In February IBM’s artificially intelligent supercomputer, Watson, won more than three times as much money on Jeopardy! as either of the competing human trivia champs. Despite a few bugs in its language processing, the computer’s performance was an impressive demonstration of the increasing speed and power of ai. (And if you ask us, Watson’s mistrust of puns made it seem all the more human.)

Angry Birds Bring Physics to Phones Everywhere

This beloved mobile game has given millions of users an addictive crash course in trajectory, gravity, and mass as they topple towers armed with a slingshot and brightly colored birds. The app debuted in 2009 but scored big this year, winning Webby and Appy awards for best game, surpassing 350 million downloads, and even inspiring an amusement park in China.

Scientists Descend on Comedy Central

Comedians-slash-news anchors Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have hosted an impressive roster 
of science notables this year, including astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, neuroscientist David Eagleman, and string 
theorist Brian Greene, who called Colbert “a bag of particles governed by the laws of physics.”

Bjork Gets Biophilic

The Icelandic singer-songwriter’s latest project, called Biophilia, is one big love letter to science. Her tour, which kicked off this June in the U.K., is complete with Tesla coils, sound bites of David Attenborough, and pendulum harps that use gravity to make music.

We Lose a Tech Icon

When rumors circulated about a possible iPhone 5 release on October 14, Steve Jobs fans seized the date and declared it Steve Jobs Day, inviting people worldwide to honor the beloved CEO by wearing his trademark outfit: jeans, a black turtleneck, and tennis shoes. Jobs, who resigned as Apple CEO in August and passed away in October, revolutionized the personal computer, phone, and music industries.


MUST-SEE MOVIES

Contagion  Steven Soderbergh skillfully deploys an all-star cast in this taut pandemic thriller—made extra-terrifying by a global outbreak scenario too plausible for comfort.

Source Code  It’s got a smart, suspenseful plot played out in Groundhog Day-like time loops. And it’s the first good Jake Gyllenhaal movie in longer than we can remember.

Super 8  Director J. J. Abrams’s collaboration with producer Steven Spielberg occasionally falters under its self-consciousness, but at heart it’s a nostalgic, darker version of E.T.

X-Men: First Class  Set early in the Cold War, this origin story rejuvenates the mutants’ flagging franchise with a likable cast, snappy effects, and sly nods to the future for fans who know how the story ends.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes  The spookily believable CGI apes made this a compelling watch—even if the brain science bits were beyond shaky.

Overhyped


Transformers: Dark of the Moon  It took in more than $1 billion at the box office, but let’s be real: This film was more of a mess than it made of downtown Chicago.

Cowboys & Aliens  The guns vs. rayguns premise had potential, but the real showdown here was between sci-fi and western clichés. And a movie named Cowboys & Aliens shouldn’t take itself so seriously.

Green Lantern  Even Green Lantern’s light couldn’t fend off an abysmal script and stilted acting.

The Adjustment Bureau  
It had the makings of an Inception-style blockbuster, with great star chemistry and fast-paced action. But the film is a metaphysical muddle: We couldn’t shake the feeling we had just seen a very high-budget philosophy lecture.



MUST-READS

incognito
incognito

Incognito
by David Eagleman

Neuroscientist Eagleman plumbs the surprising power of the unconscious brain.


unnatural
unnatural

Unnatural Selection
by Mara Hvistendahl

This stirring book investigates the world’s growing gender gap, where boys are increasingly outnumbering girls.


1493
1493

1493
by Charles C. Mann

From Columbus’s coming ashore to today, Mann tracks the global exchange of plants, animals, diseases, and ideas.


moonwalking
moonwalking

Moonwalking With Einstein
by Joshua Foer

Journalist Foer masters the tricks to an extraordinary memory, then tests them out at the U.S. Memory Championships.


questcover
questcover

The Quest
by Daniel Yergin

The Pulitzer Prize winner delivers a sharp, thoughtful account of how energy choices will shape our future.


OVERLOOKED GEMS

debt
debt

Debt
by David Graeber

Graeber, an anthropologist, chronicles the history of debt, revealing how ancient concepts of money have influenced our basic ideas of right and wrong.


physics
physics

Physics on the Fringe
by Margaret Wertheim

Tales of “outsider physicists” challenging our understanding of the universe.


seasontaste
seasontaste

Season to Taste
by Molly Birnbaum

After losing her sense of smell, an aspiring chef explores the art and science of olfaction.


MUST-SEE NEW SHOWS

Walking Dead, AMC
  Never before has a zombie apocalypse been so chillingly fun to watch. Reports of staff turmoil in the off-season 
paled in comparison with the on-screen battles against undead hordes.

Alphas, SYFY
  These ordinary-folks-turned-superheroes made a splash in the summer. Think Heroes meets X-men, without the melodrama or weird uniforms.

Returning
 Favorites

Fringe, FOX  Complete with alternate universes, time travel, and telekinesis, the otherworldly investigations of the FBI’s Fringe Division really clicked in Season 3, and Season 4 is off to a strong start.

Doctor Who, BBC
  Who could resist an alien able to travel anywhere in time or space—and survive 32 seasons on TV. This was among the show’s strongest years yet.

Good Riddance

V, ABC
  This alien invasion reboot, based on a 1980s miniseries, axed all its scientist characters—ironically, exactly what the original evil aliens wanted.

The Event, NBC 
 Mea culpa on this one. After receiving the DISCOVER seal of approval, the initially sharp conspiracy/alien invasion series turned to mush.

—M.B.G.


NATURE BOOKS WE LOVE


sea
sea

Sea 
by Mark Laita

Come face-to-face with ocean life through these vibrant, ethereal portraits of deadly puffer fish, stingrays, angelfish, and other exotic marine life.

 

100places
100places

100 Places to Go Before They Disappear 
by co+life

This astonishing catalog of the earth’s threatened wonders—from the low-lying islands of Tuvalu to Bolivia’s snow-covered Chacaltaya mountain—will have you reaching for your passport.

 

deceptivebeauties
deceptivebeauties

Deceptive Beauties 
by Christian Ziegler

The sneaky, sordid, and seductive survival strategies of orchids are on display in this richly photographed book, with an introduction by Michael Pollan.

 

atlas
atlas

Atlas of Astronomical Discoveries 
by Govert Schilling

A must-have for stargazers, this book explains and illustrates astronomy’s biggest milestones through breathtaking telescope and satellite photos.
—Valerie Ross


bbt
bbt
Courtesy Robert Voets/Warner Bros.

A PHYSICIST IN PRIME TIME

CBS’s hit sitcom The Big Bang Theory, about a group of intellectually sharp, albeit socially awkward, scientists at the California Institute of Technology, returned for its fifth season in September. We spoke with the show’s science consultant, David Saltzberg, a particle physicist at UCLA, who makes sure every bit of physics is spot-on.

What does your role as science consultant entail?
I get a script early in the process. Sometimes the writers have put the science in themselves and I will fact-check it. Other times the script will come out saying “Science to come,” and so I fill it in.

How do you decide on the science?
The characters have their own specialties: Sheldon’s a theoretical physicist working on string theory, and Leonard’s an experimentalist. The writers do the character development, and I help come up with science that fits. The formulas on the whiteboards often relate to the script. For example, when astrophysicist and Nobel laureate George Smoot was a guest star, the whiteboards had diagrams of the apparatus that helped him make discoveries about the Big Bang. He liked that when he saw it.

Have any inaccuracies found their way onscreen?
There’s a particle called a cascade, which is made of three quarks. We put the formula on the whiteboard, but I had it wrong. I got an email about that from a fellow physicist whose expertise is in the cascade particle. So in a later episode, when we used the formula again, I was sure I got it right.

Does the show influence your work as a researcher?
No one person could already know all the physics discussed on the show, so I wind up learning a lot. For instance, I read about these new materials called topological insulators, which are the hottest thing since sliced bread in condensed-matter physics. In my real life, when I happened to meet some people who worked on topological insulators, I was actually able to hold a somewhat intelligent discussion on the topic because I had looked it up for the show.

How do you reconcile comedy and science?
At first I would try to suggest jokes, but I learned that comedy is a science in its own right. Newtonian physics is only about 400 years old. But comedy dates back to the ancient Greeks. And comedy is not only older than physics but also an empirical science. There are clear results: Either people laugh or they don’t.


BARD OF THE FLIES

zuk
zuk
Marlene Zuk
Courtesy Will Prouty

Biologist Marlene Zuk would rather study insects than squash them. Zuk’s third book, Sex on Six Legs: Lessons on Life, Love & Language From the Insect World, published in July, is a sweeping compendium of bizarre insects—overprotective earwig parents, sperm-scooping dragonflies, risk-averse wasps—whose complex behavior often bears an uncanny resemblance to our own.

When did your fascination with insects start?
I grew up in Los Angeles, which obviously doesn’t have a lot of wildlife, and I liked animals, so I paid attention to the bugs in my yard. I had an illustrated book about insects, and I started raising butterflies. Since the type of butterfly I was raising wasn’t pictured in the book, I was convinced it must be new to science—when really it just wasn’t pictured in the book.

Usually we look to apes, or at least mammals, to understand complex behaviors. How much do we have in common with insects, really?
We look at animals and see ourselves mirrored in what they do. With insects, we have a really hard time doing that. They’re tiny, they look weird, some of them live for barely a day—they have all these basic differences from humans. But at the same time they have societies, divisions of labor, males with elaborate mating displays that females choose among. They seem utterly unlike us and yet really similar.

Were any of the similarities unexpected?
Some spiders have what’s called a copulatory dialogue before sex, where the females make a sound like squeaking leather. I read about it and thought, “If there’s spider porn, this is it.” People just don’t know about all the kinky things insects do.

What can insects teach us about ourselves?
People tend to think all insects are male. With social insects like ants and bees, it’s particularly funny, because most people have never seen a male. All the ants raiding your sugar bowl are female. And yet my students always find this puzzling, especially when you talk about army ants being vicious fighters. People want to see their own ideas played out in insects, and insects cheerfully shatter our preconceptions about gender roles just 
as they do for many 
other things.

sexonsixcover
sexonsixcover

How do we stack up?
Humans are boring; we’ve only tried out a limited set of things, evolutionarily speaking. There’s almost nothing that you can think of that some kind of insect somewhere hasn’t done.

If you had to be an insect for a day, which one would it be?
A social insect like an ant or bee, as long as I could be a queen. But there would be all that egg-laying, oh dear. Or maybe a singing insect, like a tree cricket. There’s always the risk of getting eaten, but I think they’re glamorous.

 

SNEAK PREVIEW: THE BEST OF 2012

TELEVISION

It's a Jungle Out There  After a wildlife expert goes missing in the depths of the Amazon, his boat is discovered abandoned and welded shut. What did he find, and will his would-be rescuers escape the jungle alive? Watch The River to find out, starting midseason on ABC.

Extreme Chemistry  Tech writer and PBS personality David Pogue goes Hunting for the Elements this winter in a new nova series, tracking down the periodic table’s weirdest, rarest, and deadliest elements.

Double Life  A police detective wakes up after a car accident to discover that his wife has been killed. Or was it his son? In Awake, coming midseason on NBC, each time the detective falls asleep, he wakes into one of two parallel lives. Which is real? He’s not sure he wants to know.

Back at Last  The science-
saturated town of Eureka is back for a final season, and Warehouse 13 will have new adventures from the government’s stash of the strange and supernatural, both on Syfy. Next summer on TNT, Falling Skies revisits life after an alien invasion.
—Gillian Conahan



MUSEUMS

lunarart
lunarart
An artist's rendering of our lunar future.
Courtesy AMNH/Mark Garlick

Up, Up, and Away 
Beyond Planet Earth: The Future of Space Exploration showcases high-tech concepts for forging into the final frontier, from a space elevator to a robot reconnaissance team. American Museum of Natural History, New York City. Open now.

Mummies, Tombs and Immortality  Eternal Life in Ancient Egypt explores Egypt’s burial rituals and beliefs about the afterlife through a vast collection of mummies and artifacts. National Museum of Natural History, Washington, D.C. Open now.

Busted  
Science and urban legend face off in Mythbusters: The Explosive Exhibition, a new traveling exhibit based on the Discovery Channel’s hit TV show. Curious visitors can even test a few myths for themselves. First stop: Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago. Opens March 12, 2012.

All Shook Up 
 In a museum near the San Andreas Fault, Earthquake delves deep into the science and history of seismic upheavals, and gives museumgoers a jolt in its quake simulator. California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco. Opens May 26, 2012.

The Truth About 2012  Maya 2012: Lords of Time challenges common misconceptions about the complex Mayan calendar. University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Philadelphia. Opens May 5, 2012.


MOVIES

Crimefighting Cabal  The superhero mash-up finally reaches the big screen next May. Look for Iron Man, the Hulk, Thor, and Captain America to join forces in Avengers.

totalrecall
totalrecall
Colin Farrell fills Schwartzenegger's shoes in Total Recall.
Courtesy Columbia Tristar Marketing Group

Remember That?  Colin Farrell stars in a remake of the 1990 Schwarzenegger sci-fi espionage blockbuster Total Recall, out in August. The new film’s action stays earthbound instead of flying off to Mars.

Supernatural Showdown  Werewolves and vampires go to battle in Underworld: Awakening, the series’ fourth installment, out in January.

Back in Black  This May, Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith return in Men in Black III after a decadelong break from fending off the scum of the universe.

Still Trekking  Script delays have pushed back the release of the Star Trek sequel to as late as summer 2013. Till then, live long and prosper.

—M.B.G.


BOOKS

The Musical Mind  
Psychology professor Gary Markus tours the science of music and learning on his quest to master the guitar as a self-professed rhythm-impaired adult. GUITAR ZERO, out in January, will bring hope to the off-key everywhere.

Dawn of the Digital Age  
Alan Turing created the blueprint for modern computation. In TURING’S CATHEDRAL, available in March, renowned science historian George Dyson follows the eccentric, brilliant engineers and computer coders who made Turing’s design a reality—and in the process paved the way for the hydrogen bomb.

Last Hominid Standing  
In Ian Tattersall’s MASTERS OF THE PLANET and Chris Stringer’s LONE SURVIVORS, both out in March, two leading researchers of human evolution and anthropology offer different perspectives on how Homo sapiens outlasted his hominid cousins to rule the earth.
— G.C.

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