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Hot Science: October 2011

Modern techno-art, the last uncontacted tribes, and our ubiquitous self-delusion

By Valerie Ross, Gilliian Conahan, Veronique Greenwald, Katie Palmer, and Eric Powell
Oct 21, 2011 5:00 AMApr 26, 2023 1:44 PM


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Courtesy John Weinstein/The Field Museum | NULL

Restoring Earth

The Field Museum, Chicago
This new permanent exhibit highlights the adventurous side of environmental science as documented in field notebooks; preserved specimens of far-flung species, such as a green birdwing butterfly, right; and firsthand accounts from the museum’s conservation researchers. Elaborate multimedia compositions let visitors fly alongside the researchers deep into the Andean wilderness, braving storms, swarms of insects, and tropical diseases to create inventories of the undocumented and undiscovered species there: new frogs, ferns, and orchids. Closer to home, an awe-inspiring video of a controlled prairie fire illustrates how scientists are working to restore the Midwest’s natural rhythms, and one moving display shows eggshells from the collection used to help prove the harmful effects of DDT. —Gillian Conahan

Talk to Me

The Museum of Modern Art, New York CityInanimate objects have minds of their own in Talk to Me, a new exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art. In a Wi-Fi–
enabled exhibit hall with Twitter hashtags on every placard, dozens of information-age artworks express the ways technology can shift our perspective and change how we interact. An aluminum backpack senses skin responses, emitting puffs of smoke that alert bystanders to the wearer’s mood. In a video, animated streaks of light leapfrog across maps of the world, tracking the migration and resting places of discarded batteries, cell phones, and other technological detritus. And a friendly-faced cardboard robot makes his way from the lobby to the exhibit hall, depending on the kindness of strangers to point him toward his destination. Open now.—G. C.


The Folly of Fools

By Robert TriversOur lives are rife with self-delusion. We overestimate our strengths and downplay our weaknesses; our malleable memories cherry-pick the past; even infants as young as 8 months conceal their misbehavior from others. Weaving together examples from biology, psychology, history, and immunology, evolutionary theorist Robert Trivers argues that we deceive ourselves in order to better deceive others, and do so in order to survive, procreate, and generally get ahead. Although Trivers at times draws too heavily on his own impressions and experiences—his political opinions and romantic history come up more often than one might expect—the book is a thoroughly researched, thought-provoking read.—V. R.

A Strange Wilderness

By Amir D. AczelAs a line of work, attempting to comprehend the mathematical underpinnings of reality has attracted a bizarre menagerie of eccentrics. Its practitioners have conspired with revolutionaries, flirted with madness, gone to prison, and met with violent ends. From Évariste Galois, the genius who laid the foundations for modern group theory before dying at 20 in a mysterious duel, to René Descartes, who wrote “I think, therefore I am” after a career as a mercenary, the personalities chronicled here expose a side of mathematics far removed from its usual staid reputation.—Veronique Greenwood

Great Discoveries in Medicine

By William and Helen Bynum The long, winding path of medical progress—from the temples of ancient Egypt to the halls of hospitals today—gets an authoritative treatment in this lavish book. Each chapter details one scientific discovery, clinical advance, dreaded illness, or conceptual shift that altered the way people thought of the body or treated disease. The detailed text is balanced with 382 striking images, including an 18th-
century anatomical illustration, above, showcasing knowledge gleaned from the newly common practice of dissection.—Valerie Ross

Powering the Future

By Robert B. LaughlinEven the most unreconstructed fossil fuel apologists will admit that in 200 years, oil and coal will probably be found mainly in museum exhibits. How those museums will keep the lights on is still anyone’s guess, but physicist Robert B. Laughlin is optimistic that humanity will have plenty of options by the time the last drop of petroleum is gone. In this sardonic and vivid exercise in futurology, Laughlin explores a world in which nuclear power, algae biofuels, and gas made from animal waste help keep civilization running. In his vision, billions of robots on the ocean floor tend tanks of compressed air that power turbines, the Southwest is known affectionately as algae country, and energy traders make their fortunes speculating on the price of chicken-manure gas.—Eric Powell

The Unconquered

By Scott WallaceDuring a perilous expedition to spy on the last uncontacted tribes of the Amazon, National Geographic journalist Scott Wallace finds himself under the sway of charismatic activist Sydney Possuelo—in his brighter moments, a powerful advocate of tribal rights, and in his darker ones, a modern Colonel Kurtz. Wallace’s suspenseful account transports the reader deep into the voracious, roiling forest and explores Possuelo’s controversial vision: leaving the natives in their remote hideaways, uncontacted and unmolested.—V. G.


The Thing

Universal StudiosJohn Carpenter’s 1982 cult thriller The Thing tells the story of an American research outpost terrorized by an elusive shape-shifting creature. This prequel follows the neighboring Norwegian scientists who first loosed the being on the world. While working in Antarctica, the team unwittingly thaws the creature’s icy bed, waking it from a 100,000-year sleep. Once released, the Thing becomes the ultimate parasite. It does not merely infect its victims—it engulfs everything, from their cells to their mannerisms, seeming fully human while remaining utterly alien. The gory special effects are less campy than the original’s, but the hook is the same: How do you fight an adversary that looks exactly like you? Now playing.—Katie Palmer

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