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Hot Science: The Best New Science Culture for July 2012

Fooling the mind: illusion & magic, memory & fantasy.

By Mary Beth Griggs, Valerie Ross, Eric A Powell, Veronique Greenwood, and Sarah Zhang
Jul 1, 2012 5:00 AMMay 6, 2023 2:14 PM


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Total Re-Recall

Topping off a summer of reboots, remakes, and reunions is Total Recall, a reimagining of the 1990 sci-fi thriller—itself loosely based on a short story by science fiction legend Philip K. Dick. The earlier film starred Arnold Schwarzenegger as Douglas Quaid, an unsatisfied, late 21st-century construction worker in search of adventure. He gets a memory implant of a vacation to Mars—only to accidentally uncover his true past as a rebel-hunter on the Red Planet. The powers that be, whom he double-crossed, pursue him throughout this fast-moving, casually violent film (punctuated by Ahnold’s trademark Austrian-accented one-liners). In the new film, Quaid (played by Colin Farrell) goes into the memory clinic for a dose of excitement and comes out realizing he’s really a superspy. This time, Quaid is caught not between two planets but between Earth’s future superpowers, Euromerica and New Shanghai, and their agents: his once-devoted wife (Kate Beckinsale) and a rebel fighter (Jessica Biel). Rather than emulate the original’s campy tone, Total Recall redux aims for sleek action sequences and stunning dystopian scenery. In theaters August 3.—Valerie Ross

Sci-fi’s #1 Muse Philip K. Dick’s reality-warped stories have inspired a dozen films. As with Dick’s writing, though, the quality varies widely.


Minority Report

Guided by psychics, a police unit stops murders before they happen—but then the force’s captain (Tom Cruise) is fingered as a future killer. This dark film splices big-budget action with meditations on free will.

Blade Runner

Harrison Ford stars as a bounty hunter charged with disposing of fugitive androids. The film is often credited as the first sci-fi neo-noir, where latter-day Sam Spades pilot flying cars.


We just can’t get behind the screamers, the automated angels of death that drive the plot of this low-budget flick. When they drill through the ground toward their targets, they come across not so much as fearsome killing machines, but as peskily persistent moles.



An engineer (Ben Affleck) has his memory wiped after spending three years on a top-secret project. The movie’s endless chase scenes blur together as the feds and his former employer pursue him on trumped-up charges. Viewers risk losing two hours from their own memories.

—V. R.



By Bill Wasik and Monica Murphy

Rabies has felled humans and animals alike for millennia, and its hallmark symptoms—foaming mouth and fear of water—perplexed physicians from ancient Babylon to Revolutionary America. In their always engrossing, often grotesque account, journalist Bill Wasik and veterinarian Monica Murphy trace the illness’s history, detailing the many futile methods of combating the disease (including the original “hair of the dog:” binding into a patient’s wound a hair from the animal that infected him) before Louis Pasteur’s rabies vaccine became the first effective treatment in 1885. They dig up the disease’s deep cultural roots, as well, exploring how it influenced the modern myth of the vampire and shaped our relationship with dogs, frequent vectors of the rabies virus.
—Valerie Ross

Fooling Houdini By Alex Stone

When former Discover editor Alex Stone turns his magic hobby into a full-time obsession, he finds himself plunging down a rabbit hole of illusion, crime, and science. Starting with an explanation of the mathematics of card shuffling, he is soon exploring the neuroscience that makes a blind man the best card cheat of all time. Stone also hammers home how little we notice the world around us by stealing the watch of an eminent psychologist during an interview. Part insider’s look at the high-stakes world of casinos and cardsharps, part scientific examination of deception, this page-turner gives an intriguing peek behind the magician’s curtain.
—Veronique Greenwood

The Violinist’s Thumb By Sam Kean

Among the historical figures bound by the thematic thread of dna in journalist Sam Kean’s new book are Charles Hapsburg, whose weak chin was the result of royal inbreeding, and a group of Arctic explorers who were poisoned by the Vitamin A in polar bear liver, which threw off their gene expression. The dna molecule, Kean asserts, is the “grand narrative of human existence”—and he boldly sets out to tell the tale, not only explaining genetics and its scientific history but linking Mendel’s pea shoots to the evolution of early humans. He also explores individual destinies like that of Paganini, the titular violinist with the genetic gift of an especially flexible thumb. Kean’s connections can be tenuous and somewhat reductive—Paganini’s thumb alone does not explain his mastery of the violin—but he’s crafted a lively read packed with unforgettable details. —Sarah Zhang


X-Events: The Collapse of Everything

By John Casti

In this unnerving exercise in futurism, systems theorist and complexity expert John Casti lays out a series of scenarios that could bring the modern world to its knees. Some are more likely than others: A robot rebellion isn’t imminent, but the odds of a nuclear winter snuffing out life as we know it are still depressingly good, as is the likelihood of an electromagnetic pulse frying all the electronics in the country. The book explores ways to prepare for these catastrophes, but it will still appeal to anyone with a morbid streak. According to Casti, it’s a mathematical certainty that the end is nigh.—Eric A. Powell

Madagascar Journey South Carolina Aquarium, Charleston, SC

Madagascar is home to thousands of species that exist nowhere else in the world, living only on that 225,000-square-mile island off the southeast coast of Africa. More than 300 of these unique animals are now on an extended visit to the South Carolina Aquarium, part of a new exhibit showcasing the isolated nation’s endemic, and often endangered, biodiversity. Lemurs—small, bushy-tailed primates—populate a large habitat at the center of the exhibit. Visitors who want to see them up close can crawl into a pop-up dome in the middle of the enclosure, where they might catch a glimpse of the animals playing with complex boxes with treats inside, brainteasers that keep them entertained. Among the other animal ambassadors are day geckos like the one at left (whose digitized doppelgänger hawks insurance in TV ads); the brilliantly colored panther chameleon; and the easily startled balloon fish. Open now.—Mary Beth Griggs

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