The Sciences

Hot Science: The Most Human Ape

Summer movie mayhem, the most human ape, and Spielberg returns to the small screen


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Summer Movie Preview for July 2011

Grab your Milk Duds and unplug your critical faculties: Summer is here, and with it another crop of splashy Holly­wood mash-ups of science and fiction. Here is a look at what’s heading to a theater near you.

Cowboys & Aliens Universal/Dreamworks/Paramount

The most self-explanatory movie title since Snakes on a Plane. Harrison Ford swaps Indy’s fedora for a ten-gallon hat as he and Daniel Craig save an Old West town from—what else?—annihilation by malevolent extraterrestrials. Opens July 29.

The Green Lantern Warner Bros.

Ryan Reynolds is the first human recruit into the Green Lantern Corps, a brotherhood of intergalactic peacekeepers. Can he defeat evil while clad in a supertight neon-green bodysuit? Now playing.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes 20th Century Fox

Whoops: A genetic engineer (James Franco) trying to cure Alzheimer’s inadvertently sows the seeds of humanity’s downfall. No actors in rubber monkey costumes this time around. The superintelligent primates were generated by Weta Digital, hailed for its special-effects work on Avatar. Opens August 5.

Weird events unfold in a small Ohio town. Could they have something to do with the bizarre creature that escaped after a train crash? From über-producer Steven Spielberg and director J. J. Abrams, paying homage to their own E.T. and Lost. Now playing.

Super 8

Captain America:
The First Avenger Paramount/Marvel

More games with biology: “Super Soldier Serum” and “Vita-Rays” transform a sickly army reject into a crime fighter with superior human (though not superhuman) powers. Opens July 22.

The fifth installment of the mutant-human franchise brings us the telepathic Professor X and Magneto (left), master of magnetism, as young men. Not only is it a prequel to the first three X-Men movies, but its makers envision it as Part One of a new trilogy. Got that? Now playing.

X-Men: First Class 20th Century Fox/

Food for Thought

Harry Benson | NULL

It is not all fluff at the multiplex this summer. Several serious documentaries will also be competing for moviegoers’ attention.

Nim Chimpsky became a science celebrity in the 1970s as the focus of linguistic research by behavioral psychologist Herbert Terrace at Columbia University. A chimp raised in a chaotic human household in New York, Nim (right) is now the centerpiece of a stirring documentary by James Marsh, the Oscar-
winning director of 2008’s Man on Wire. Using archival footage, the film traces Nim’s life with his human mentors as they teach him sign language and explore the limits of his ability to speak. We see a cute pet—at one point madly wheeled about in a stroller by his human toddler “brother”—grow into a strong, willful creature whose desires do not always coincide with those of his grad-student handlers. Nim does learn to sign and develops an impressive vocabulary. But when the project concludes in 1979 and he is essentially discarded, the film turns to darker issues: What is a scientist’s ethical obligation to experimental animals? How much can we understand “the other” in nature? Is it scientifically valid to try to re-create other animals in our own image? As Marsh confronts these questions, what starts off as an entertaining romp ends in desolation. Opens July 8.

Project Nim

HBO/Roadside Attractions

Early in this quietly angry film, aerial images of the verdant hills and hollows of Appalachia are shattered by violent explosions as chunks of mountain are blasted to bits to expose the coal deposits beneath. Massey Energy, the primary operator in the area—and a major employer—is cast as the villain in this plea for an end to mountaintop-removal mining. The victims are the folks living near West Virginia’s Coal River Mountain, who endure floods, fouled water and air, and spikes in disease. We hear from many of them and also from activists, scientists, and environmental lawyer Robert Kennedy Jr. “If people could see it, there’d be a revolution,” Kennedy says of the devastation. There has been no revolution yet. But as long as dirty mining practices go on, we will need documentaries like this one. Now playing. —Elise J. Marton

 for July 2011

The Sun’s Heartbeat By Bob Berman (Little, Brown)

Often nature’s greatest marvels are sitting right in front of you—or right overhead. Science writer (and Astronomy magazine columnist) Bob Berman directs your attention to our neighborhood ball of nuclear fire, telling its story with charm and wit. He explains how German physicist Gustav Kirchhoff decoded what the sun is made of nearly two centuries ago, breaks down the dangers of uv rays, and highlights efforts to monitor solar radiation storms. Berman makes a compelling case for putting on a wide-brimmed hat, stepping outside, and giving a second thought to the star that illuminates and powers our planet. —Shannon Palus

Epigenetics: The Ultimate Mystery of Inheritance By Richard C. Francis (W. W. Norton)

Researchers once considered DNA to be the exclusive carrier of heredity, but recently they have discovered that certain life experiences—smoking before puberty, say, or a high-stress pregnancy—can trigger cellular changes that get passed along to future generations. Through colorful anecdotes and common­sense explanations, author Richard C. Francis, who holds a Ph.D. in biology, delivers an engaging tour of the new science of epigenetics, the study of environmental influences on gene expression. In his hands, baseball slugger José Canseco’s steroid misadventures turn into a lesson about the consequences of messing with testosterone. In the end, Epigenetics delivers a powerful message: Our lifestyle choices matter more than we think, both to us and to our children. Not that Canseco is listening.  —Natasha Fryer

Rat Island By William Stolzenburg (Bloomsbury)

In this modern-day Pied Piper tale, scientists, trappers, and ex-poachers descend on rat-infested islands from New Zealand to the Bering Sea, laying down poison-laced bait in a desperate bid to kill one animal so that another might live. Stolzenburg’s lively account traces how early European explorers unintentionally all but wiped out island birds—including puffins, gulls, and cormorants—by introducing invasive rats and other predatory stowaways on their ships. The author clearly aligns himself with the kill-to-save conservationists, but he also gives voice to those who would prefer more humane methods of killing or, better yet, none at all. —Patrick Morgan

Unnatural Selection By Mara Hvistendahl (Public Affairs)

In Asia, mainly China and India, some 160 million women are missing, culled from the population before birth. The oversupply of men in these countries, primarily through the selective abortion of female fetuses, has been attributed to cultural bias. But journalist Mara Hvistendahl says that in the 1960s and 1970s, some Western scientists actually supported selective abortion as a way to slow population growth. The author outlines the consequences of a society with significantly more men than women—bride buying, sex trafficking, psychological disturbance, violence—and leaves us with a scary fact: Sex selection is now spreading to Eastern Europe and to fertility clinics here in the United States. —Sarah Stanley

Museums for July 2011

New Dinosaur Hall in L.A.

Just in time for summer vacationers comes this new, state-of-the-art Dinosaur Hall at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. At 14,000 square feet, the hall is twice the size of the museum’s former dinosaur galleries and houses more than 300 fossils, 20 refurbished skeletons, and an array of manual and digital interactive displays. Innovative viewing platforms allow visitors to get close to the giant relics, often without any glass barriers in between. The exhibit includes a never-before-mounted triceratops and a 68-foot, long-necked Mamenchisaurus. Most impressive of all is a T. rex growth series, the world’s only array of dinosaur specimens showing the same species at different stages of life; it includes the youngest T. rex ever found, a rare juvenile, and a subadult named Thomas. The Dinosaur Hall is part of a seven-year, $135 million remodeling plan to transform the Los Angeles museum into a modern scientific utopia. Opens July 16. —Caroline Spivack

TV for July 2011

Falling Skies

Touted as The Walking Dead meets Aliens, this 10-part series from executive pro­ducer Steven Spielberg (again) twists the familiar alien-invasion narrative (again!) by starting six months after the attack. With the look of a big-budget movie, Falling Skies offers up-close views of CGI extraterrestrials who are kidnapping human children for reasons unknown—but presumably nefarious. Noah Wyle stars as Tom Mason, a former history professor who uses his knowledge to help lead a resistance movement, dodging aliens in a postapocalyptic landscape as he tries to rescue his own captive son. Sundays, 10 p.m. EDT TNT.

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