Hot Science: The Best New Science Culture

How primates learn, how America works, and how animals make light



Games Primates Play

By Dario Maestripieri

You’d be surprised how much two strangers in an elevator act like two macaques in a cage. Both humans and monkeys, trapped with someone they do not know, are essentially playing a version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, a classic game theory situation in which players can choose whether or not to cooperate. The two elevator riders must decide whether to remain aloof, figuring they’ll never see each other again, or attempt to make nice, in case they do. Behavioral biologist Dario Maestripieri launches from this example into a spirited, insightful narrative that explores the ways our interpersonal relationships resemble those of our primate cousins, suggesting evolutionary roots for a range of social behaviors including nepotism, cultivating friends, and climbing the corporate ladder.

—Veronique Greenwood

The Story of Earth
By Robert M. Hazen

We tend to think of the evolution of life and the formation of our planet as two separate stories. But the development of Earth and of the organisms that call it home are so inescapably intertwined, contends Earth scientist Robert Hazen, that you can’t understand one without the other. With infectious enthusiasm for his subject, Hazen introduces readers to Earth’s defining moments, such as the condensation of its first oceans and the Big Thwack that formed the moon. In the end, he argues that understanding the interplay between Earth’s geological and biological pasts can help us predict and prepare for the future of life on our planet.

—Saron Yitbarek

The Taste of Tomorrow 

By Josh Schonwald

When journalist Josh Schonwald first heard of cobia, a steaklike fish that some in the seafood industry say will soon become 
a culinary staple, it got him wondering: What will the cuisine of the future taste like? To find out, Schonwald ventures across the country, from famed chef Alice Waters’s California farm to a Pentagon lab developing food substitutes, in search of a gastronomic game changer. As his investigations progress, Schonwald realizes that any vision of the future of food must balance ethical and environmental concerns with culinary ones. While he optimistically champions biotechnology’s potential to make the future more sustainable, most of the possibilities that he explores—such as lab-grown meat, a food pill, and saltwater fish raised indoors—are still a long way from reaching our plates.
—Sophia Li


Learning from the Octopus
By Rafe Sagarin

The riotously biodiverse tide pools of California’s central coast do not bear much resemblance to the risk-averse halls of Washington, D.C., but marine ecologist Rafe Sagarin, who has made a close study of both, hopes to change that. As a congressional science fellow in the years after September 11, Sagarin observed that top-down management and bureaucratic inertia stymied government efforts to adapt to constantly evolving security threats. In this open challenge to the status quo, he promotes an alternative strategy he calls “natural security”: the idea that we can model our own strategies on the survival techniques of highly successful organisms. It’s a humbling thought, but Homeland Security may have a lot to gain from studying octopuses, whose skin cells can adapt to threats without reporting to or taking orders from a central brain.
Eric A. Powell



America Revealed

The American Society of Civil Engineers gives our country’s infrastructure a D. Faulty bridges, congested roads, and crumbling public buildings all helped account for that barely passing grade. But for all we bemoan these systems’ failings, our infrastructure still manages to keep America’s food, energy, transportation, and manufacturing sectors moving. This four-part documentary series glosses over our industrial woes, but through a combination of aerial footage, striking data visualizations, and interviews with power grid technicians, air traffic controllers, and others who work behind the scenes, it provides an intimate look at the hidden systems that we rely on every day. Host Yul Kwon, a former telecommunications attorney and winner of the Survivor 2006 season, guides viewers on a sweeping tour of the nation that has them flying over California’s largest reservoir (at left), descending into a coal mine in Wyoming, and perching atop a wind turbine in Washington State. Wednesday, 10pm ET / 9pm CT.
—S. L.


Creatures of Light
American Museum of Natural History, 
New York City

In the world’s dark caves and dim ocean depths, a wide variety of resourceful creatures generate light to scare off predators, entice curious prey, and woo potential partners. This new exhibit showcases these rarely seen glowing critters and their habitats. Visitors can venture through a recreated New Zealand cave where gnat larvae string glowing lines to ensnare the insects they eat, and can explore the underwater world of a jellyfish that absorbs blue light and, for reasons unknown, radiates flashes of green. Live light-emitting creatures populate the exhibit too, including a tank of flashlight fish, who lure the shrimp and plankton they eat with a blue-green glow, produced by bacteria living in translucent sacks under their eyes. Open now. (See images from the exhibit on the DISCOVER Blog Visual Science.)


The Island President

With 80 percent of its territory rising three feet or less above the surface of the Indian Ocean, the Maldive Islands form the world’s lowest-lying nation. When Mohamed Nasheed became the country’s first democratically elected president in 2008, he tackled an existential threat to its future: the advancing sea. Climate scientists predict the oceans could rise three feet by 2100, submerging Maldivian fishing villages and luxury resorts alike. This documentary captures the crusading president’s first year in office, following him as he struggled to win cooperation from the world’s biggest carbon polluters at the Copenhagen Climate Summit. Nor did Nasheed, who was ousted in February, limit his concerns to his own country. As he told director Jon Shenk: “If you can’t defend the Maldives today, you can’t defend England tomorrow.” Out now in limited release.


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