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Hot Science: October 2012

In 2012 we learned the value of a smartphone photo filter, went fishing in the desert, and survived the apocalypse several times over. Here are the highs (and a few lows) from the year in geek culture.

By Valerie Ross
Oct 31, 2012 5:00 AMApr 26, 2023 2:10 PM


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At its most exciting, science opens up worlds utterly different from our own and then gives us the tools to visualize them. The photographs and illustrations in three of this year’s best books offer the chance to get a good, close look at distant times, far-off places, and exotic modes of life.

Dinosaur Art edited by Steve White

Ten paleoartists revive the prehistoric past in these lushly imaginative—and, as far as paleontologists can verify, scientifically accurate—illustrations. Dinosaurs butt heads, thrash their tails, and spread their stunning plumage, while ancient mammals and marine organisms make colorful cameos.

Planetfall by Michael Benson

Spacecraft, rovers, and astronauts have sent back amazing raw images of our solar system. Here those snapshots are lovingly processed into intimately, detailed views of the swirling atmosphere of Jupiter, billowing dunes on Mars, and craggy lunar craters.

A World in One Cubic Foot by David Liittschwager

You don’t have to travel to outer space or back in time to find exotic worlds. These photographs feature the varied denizens of one cubic foot of soil, water, or air from six different locations on Earth. One good look at a pincushion sea star or a longhorn beetle grub and you will wonder if you aren’t on another planet after all.

Q&A: Candid Cameraman

Instagram, a photo-sharing app that was born just two years ago, is so ubiquitous that its name is poised to become a verb along the lines of “Google” or “Xerox.” When people Instagram, they snap a picture from their phone and choose a filter that alters the image’s color or creates a vintage appearance. Then the photo is uploaded to the Instagram server, where it can be shared with friends and synced with social networking sites.

The past year has been a huge one for the Instagram app, which now has more than 100 million users, up from 15 million in December 2011. Its members upload more than 5 million photos a day. And in April, Facebook bought the company for $1 billion. Kevin Systrom, its 28-year-old cofounder, spoke with DISCOVER as the last of his boxes were being packed up for the move to Facebook’s Menlo Park, California, campus. —Amy Barth

What was the first photo ever taken on Instagram?

I was in Mexico on vacation when we still just had a prototype of the app and it was still unnamed. One day on the beach I thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could build filters in?” because I loved doing that in other apps. On that vacation, I built one of the first filters that we came out with, called X-pro II. I used it to photograph a little dog at a taco stand.

When did you know Instagram was going be something big?

[Cofounder] Mike Krieger and I were working in a shared space that didn’t even have heat, on a pier over San Francisco Bay, surrounded by 15 or so other companies. On the day we finally launched, I knew Instagram was different. We got thousands of users in the first hour, 25,000 in the first day. I’ve worked on products where we couldn’t get 10,000 in an entire year.

Why do you think it took off?

Its simplicity—being able to take photos that would come out to be just normal, and creating something unique really quickly—is a magical experience. We focused on making the time between when you snap a photo and get it posted for your friends to see happen as fast as possible. We start uploading the photo in the background almost immediately before you’ve even clicked “done,” so it’s ready to go.

What are the most notable app trends you saw in 2012?

Utility apps became really big—like Uber, which lets you order a driver to pick you up. TaskRabbit finds personal assistants to do everything from picking up groceries to building IKEA furniture. WillCall is for buying last-minute tickets to shows. They’re like remote controls for life. It feels like you can plan daily life through the palm of your hand.


This year NASA launched Third Rock Radio, an Internet radio station that plays a mix of indie rock and the latest space news, with on-air appearances by astronauts, engineers, and other NASA personnel. (Free, NASA)

If watching House on TV has you itching to sort out symptoms for yourself, then Prognosis: Your Diagnosismay be the cure. Solve medical case studies based on actual patients, with a new case added every weekend. (Free, Medical Joyworks)

The newly updated National Parks app features sweeping photos, helpful guides, and sample itineraries for 20 of America’s designated national parks. Use it to plan your next vacation or just explore Yosemite from your armchair. (Free, National Geographic. Mac iOS only.)

Appease your inner mad scientist with Crazy Formula, a puzzle game with a laboratory motif. Fiddle with flasks, test tubes, and other scientific instruments to advance through 15 formula books’ worth of problems. ($0.99, AppGeneration)

With Geo Walk, an interactive encyclopedia, kids and adults can tap their finger on a spot on a virtual globe and learn all about that place’s culture, flora, fauna, and technological history. Test out your new knowledge in the app’s quiz mode. ($2.99, Vito Technology. Mac iOS only.) —Mary Beth Griggs


The end of the world has been an irresistible topic of fiction at least since Lord Byron fantasized about the death of the sun in his 1816 poem “Darkness.” But doomsday stories really took off this past year, inspired no doubt by conspiracy theories about an impending impact with the (nonexistent) planet Nibiru and by nutty misreadings of Mayan texts (see page 80). In 2012 fictional Earths met their ends by a creative variety of means: not only by impact, but by infection, epic power failure, and more.

DEATH FROM ABOVE An enormous asteroid trundles toward an inevitable smashup with Earth in Ben Winters’s darkly intriguing novel The Last Policeman. One detective investigates a suspicious death after most other cops have quit, disappeared, or simply stopped caring in anticipation of the planet’s demise.

The summer film Seeking a Friend for the End of the World depicts the same dire scenario with more whimsy—the asteroid is named Matilda, for one—as neighbors Dodge (Steve Carell) and Penny (Keira Knightley) embark on an adventure-filled last-days road trip. With that setup, cuteness, like death, is imminent—though a little too much of the one might make you impatient for the other.

GOING VIRAL? Chef Michael (Ewan McGregor) and scientist Susan (Eva Green) meet just as waves of the disease begin to rob humanity of its physical senses one by one in the indie movie Perfect Sense. Despite its medically and romantically improbable beginning, the film becomes surprisingly poignant as the relationship and the epidemic progress.

Journalist Peter Heller’s debut novel, The Dog Stars, follows Hig, a Cessna pilot who flies the lonely skies of the southwestern U.S. after a flu pandemic kills 99 percent of the world’s population. Heller’s poetic prose buoys readers across the bleak new landscape.

LIGHTS OUT It doesn’t always take an extinction event to end civilization as we know it. In the new TV series Revolution, from J. J. Abrams (Lost), electricity inexplicably stops working, reducing modern society to decaying cityscapes and roving militias. Early episodes reveal the first clues to how and why, as one character says, “physics went insane.”

The postapocalyptic world of Tom Hanks’s animated web series Electric City (electriccity.yahoo.com) does have power, but in the wake of an unspecified calamity that nearly destroyed civilization, it is strictly rationed. —Mara Grunbaum


Why Does the World Exist? by Jim Holt 

Exploring both physics and philosophy, the author ponders why there’s something rather than nothing.

The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking by Matthew Hutson

Journalist Hutson illuminates humanity’s hardwired tendency toward wildly irrational interpretations of reality.

Zoobiquity by Barbara Natterson-Horowitz and Kathryn Bowers

This animated account seeks to apply veterinary insights to human health care, plumbing the many maladies people share with other creatures.

The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver

Statistics guru Silver delves into why it is so hard to forecast the future and what makes a prediction stick.

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

Earth’s rotation suddenly slows in this elegant novel, upsetting climate, gravity, and the rhythms of daily life.

2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson

This haunting sci-fi epic expertly crafts a future in which humans have spread across the solar system. 

Albert of Adelaide by Howard L. Anderson 

A platypus escapes the zoo and ventures through Australia in this spirited novel.

Q&A: Test Tubes on TV

AMC’s hit drama Breaking Bad, in which high school chemistry teacher Walter White (Bryan Cranston, in the middle above) applies his know-how to cooking meth, wrapped up the first half of its fifth and last season in September; the final eight episodes air next summer. discover spoke with University of Oklahoma chemist Donna Nelson, the show’s science adviser, who makes sure White’s chemical reactions, if not the rest of him, stay honest.

How did you get involved with Breaking Bad?

When it first came out, there was an article about it in the American Chemical Society magazine. Vince Gilligan [the show’s creator] wanted to get his science right and said he’d appreciate comment on the science from informed sources. For scientists, when we see bad science in movies or on TV, it’s like fingernails on a blackboard. When we get this sort of an invitation, we need to step up and help out. So I contacted the magazine editor, and he passed my information on to Vince.

What are your responsibilities?

I help the writers fit things from my world into their world: how a scientist might phrase something, what a precursor is in a chemical reaction, how someone with a Ph.D. like Walt would teach high school chemistry.

Do you advise on the meth-making?

DEA agents have volunteered to help with meth lab scenes and illicit syntheses, because that’s not something I have experience with, and I never will [laughs]. But I do help with chemical calculations. There was one scene when Walt and Jesse [his partner-in-crime] were going to steal one gallon of methylamine but could only get a 30-gallon drum. The writers asked how much meth that could produce, so I did the calculation for them.

What has been your favorite moment in the series so far?

It was the first scene I worked on. They sent me a few pages of script where Walt was supposed to teach a high school class on alkene nomenclature, and it was so wrong. So I corrected it. When I sat and watched that scene where he was saying the words I had helped write, it was sort of like a fantasy to me. And it was great to think that any chemistry students—what they saw in their textbooks would match exactly with what they saw on TV.


Worlds Revisited

Prometheus: The ostensibly brilliant scientists in this Alien prequel explore the origins of life—until they are killed off by their own stupidity.

John Carter: This adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s A Princess of Mars bombed at the box office, but its rich depiction of the Red Planet makes up for a muddled narrative.

Total Recall: It mixes the gritty charm and unapologetic gore of the original for predictably over-the-top special effects and better-looking leads—making it, ironically, almost entirely unmemorable.

Geeky Indies

Robot & Frank: This bittersweet, cuttingly funny movie somehow succeeds at being a near-future sci-fi film, a domestic drama, and a heist flick, all while introducing the most likable robot since WALL-E.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen: Just as intriguingly quixotic as angling in the desert is this film (based on a novel) itself: a romance fueled by fisheries science.

Time-Travel Action

Men in Black 3: Returning to the days of the Apollo program, the galaxy defenders’ third tour of duty is better than their stultifying second—but only just. The droll young Agent K is one of its few successes.

Looper: Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis shine as a mob hit man and his future self as they dodge bullets and grapple with the grandfather paradox.


A Peek at 2013—and What You Missed in 2012

If you’ve already seen this year’s big movies and read the top-selling books, here’s a look at some of the best offerings outside your usual media diet.


In Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomy, an interactive book for the iPad, readers can learn about the artist’s medical explorations, pore over his lavish and precise anatomical sketches, and compare them with modern models of the body.

Part science lesson, part aerial tour, the iPad book Wonders of Geology soars above America’s mountain ranges as geologist Michael Collier (who shot the book’s photos from his Cessna) narrates how their rocky features were formed.

Web Series And Shorts

In H+: The Digital Series, nearly one-third of humanity falls victim to a fatal computer virus that attacks the implanted devices now connecting people’s nervous systems directly to the Internet. The 48-episode series debuted on YouTube in August.

Each week, ASAP Science posts a new stop-motion short, snappily explaining the science of music, napping, appetite, and other familiar phenomena.

A wordless but eerily expressive seven-minute film, Grounded explores the last moments of astronauts stranded on a distant planet.

Online Lolz

Web comic XKCD, the much-loved graphical guide to geekdom, added a weekly “What if?” feature this year, answering hypothetical questions (“What would happen if you tried to hit a baseball pitched at 90 percent the speed of light?”) with real principles of physics.


In Elysium, out in March, Matt Damon may be the man to unite the two worlds of 2159: a destitute Earth and the eponymous space station, the idyllic enclave of the superrich.

Colossal human-controlled robots square off against murderous creatures in Pacific Rim, from director Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth), out in July.

This June, Seth Rogan, Rihanna, and other A-listers are just kicking back at James Franco’s house—until they are interrupted by The End of the World.

Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card’s beloved sci-fi novel about a young boy trained to lead an army against an alien invasion, will hit the big screen next November.


The Museum of Mathematics will use interactive exhibits to introduce visitors to the elegance of numbers, patterns, and geometry. New York City. Opens December 15, 2012.

Travel 20,000 years back in time in Scenes from the Stone Age, an exact re-creation of a chamber from the famous painting-covered caves of Lascaux. The Field Museum, Chicago. Opens March 20, 2013.

The Exploratorium, San Francisco’s hands-on science museum, is moving to a larger space on the bay, with new exhibits on physics, human behavior, and more. Opens in April.

Keeping time and mapping space are closely linked. Time & Navigation tracks where and when technology, from 18th-century chronometers to GPS. Smithsonian Air & Space Museum, Washington, D.C. Opens in March.

BOOKS 2013

In The Physics of Wall Street, out in January, physicist James Owen Weatherall chronicles how sophisticated scientific models changed finance—and argues that those tools were misapplied by the reigning risk takers with disastrous results.

This March, biologist Marlene Zuk examines the modern trend of looking to our evolutionary ancestors for tips on how to eat, exercise, and live; she asks what is backed up by evidence and what is just Paleofantasy.

In Frankenstein’s Cat, on shelves in March, science writer Emily Anthes leads a safari through the strange but real territory roamed by biotech beasts: animals primed and programmed by genetic swaps, cloning technology, and electronic appendages.


December 1

You Won’t Believe Your Eyes:

Experience reality-warping optical illusions at the Evansville Museum. This exhibit includes paradox­ical 3-D images and ana­morphic distortions (check out those reflective cylinders revealing...you’ll have to see for yourself).

December 2 

Opposition of Jupiter:

Best night of the year to observe the solar system’s largest planet, which remains visible for nearly 15 hours in the Northern Hemisphere.

December 10 

Science on Tap:

Gather with other science enthusiasts at a monthly science café, hosted by Philadelphia’s top scholarly institutions. This month: the inside scoop on antidepressants.

December 12 

Birthday of Wireless:

On this day in 1901, Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi sent the first transatlantic radio signal across the 2,100 miles separating England and Newfoundland.

December 14 

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey: 

Peter Jackson pushed technology by filming J. R. R. Tolkien’s masterpiece at 48 frames per second, double the standard. Opens today, with the limited release of the high-frame-rate version.

December 17 

Wright Brothers Day

Celebrate the world’s first successful powered flight: In 1903, Flyer l flew 120 feet, staying aloft for 12 seconds.

December 20 

Plastics Unwrapped:

From bulletproof vests to global pollution, Seattle’s newest science exhibit reexamines our relationship with the defining material of the modern age.

December 21 

The Impossible:

Set amid one of the worst natural disasters in history, this film focuses on a family’s struggle to survive the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

December 28 

Family Friday Night

Take advantage of extended hours and reduced admission at the Center of Science and Industry’s 11 major exhibitions in Columbus, Ohio.

December 31 

The Science of Champagne:

From bubbles that reestablish equilibrium to the unique second fermentation inside the bottle, learn the chemistry behind New Year’s most popular drink.

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