The Sciences

Hot Science: The Risk of Cyber Attacks

The huge decrease in human violence, the great risk of cyber attacks, and the paralyzing fear of pandemic disease.


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Museums for October 2011

The Open Sea Monterey Bay Aquarium

Most of us have a hugely distorted view of the seas: We look mostly at the shore while the real action happens far out beyond the horizon, where hardy animals built for speed and endurance traverse the open waters. Three beautifully remodeled galleries here give landlubbers a rare glimpse of this sprawling oceanic wilderness, the world’s largest habitat. Ten thousand sardines form an undulating river in the aquarium’s million-gallon centerpiece tank, as tuna and barracuda zip past sharks, stingrays, and sea turtles. Clever design creates the illusion of endless depths, giving visitors a hint of the true vastness of the sea. Open now.—Gillian Conahan

Books for October 2011

A More Perfect Heaven
 by Dava Sobel

Nicolaus Copernicus turned the universe inside out, theorizing that the sun, and not Earth, was the fixed point around which heavenly bodies moved. With her customary flair for charting the history of the heavens through a human lens, Sobel chronicles Copernicus’s life, from his celestial observations to his domestic disputes, and explores how his ideas shaped the subsequent astronomical breakthroughs of Tycho Brahe, Johannes Kepler, and Galileo. The book’s surprise centerpiece is a play in which Sobel imagines a pivotal story largely lost to history: how a visiting scholar convinced Copernicus, who had kept his sun-centered model secret for decades, to reveal it to the world. —Valerie Ross

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined
 by Steven Pinker

At a time when shooting sprees play out in near-real time on the Internet, it often seems as if the world is becoming ever more violent. But experimental psychologist Steven Pinker has news for you: We are actually living in an era of unprecedented peace. Archaeological and historical data show violence was a miserable fact of daily life until the Middle Ages. To understand the dramatic decrease in bloody acts since then, Pinker explores the social and neurological roots of aggressive behavior, from the grotesque murders described in the Bible to the brain’s “rage circuit.” Although there’s no smoking gun, Pinker posits that a rise in IQs over the last century might be part of the explanation: A smarter world could be a less violent one.—Eric Powell

The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World
 by David Deutsch

Through the eyes of theoretical physicist David Deutsch, humanity’s gravest problems become grist for the mill. People survive and thrive by solving problems, he argues, and good solutions demand good explanations. New explanations, in turn, create new problems, and so the wheel of progress spins indefinitely. Deutsch applies this ultra-rational analysis to evolution, artificial intelligence, and many other fields. The result is a brilliant, brash, but strangely dehumanized manifesto for modern science. “A sick person is a physical object, and the task of transforming this object into the same person in good health is one that no law of physics rules out,” the author writes. Then again, cheery bedside manner will never cure cancer.—Nicole Dyer

America the Vulnerable
 by Joel Brenner

A public service announcement of the most urgent sort, this engrossing book reveals how our lack of cyber savvy, both as individuals and as a nation, is exposing us to extraordinary risks, including viruses that could destroy the power grid, simple hacks that have harvested millions of credit card numbers from retailers, and security breaches that are hemorrhaging classified intelligence through the Net. It is thought-provoking reading from an expert witness: Brenner is the former inspector general of the National Security Agency.—Veronique Greenwood

 by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick

This writing and illustrating team offers a fresh look at the life of famed physicist Richard Feynman, framing his world within brightly colored panels and impressionistic lines. Their comic book–style biography follows its hero from his early job on the Manhattan Project through his role investigating the Challenger disaster. Much like Feynman himself, the book succeeds in making complicated science clear—and gladly takes detours from the cerebral side of physics to travel the globe, tell some jokes, and meet a few girls. In this excerpt, Feynman attempts to decode his Nobel Prize–winning work on quantum electrodynamics.—V. R.

DVDs for October 2011

The Wonders of the Universe

Physicist Brian Cox returns as host for this follow-up to the interplanetary investigations of BBC’s Wonders of the Solar System, this time guiding viewers on a whirlwind tour of the whole cosmos. The four-part series starts close to home with a visit to Chankillo, Peru, site of one of the world’s first solar calendars, but soon ventures out to deep space, tracing Mercury’s unusual orbit, witnessing galactic collisions, and chasing the very first light back in time to the dawn of the universe. If all this exotic travel sounds a bit overwhelming, don’t worry. Cox keeps things grounded with commonsense commentary that connects the dots. Available now.—Caroline Spivack

Contagion (Warner Bros.)

A lethal new virus rampages across the globe, sending health officials and ordinary citizens scrambling to deal with both the deadly pandemic and the panic burgeoning in its wake. The high-profile cast includes Matt Damon and Kate Winslet, but Contagion isn’t just another disaster thriller. It’s an all-too-realistic glimpse at the kind of outbreak that could happen tomorrow.

According to the movie’s science adviser, Columbia microbiologist Ian Lipkin, the film’s pandemic scenario is spot-on, from the disease’s sudden emergence to the struggles of developing a vaccine. The scenes of mass panic ring true as well, says Lipkin, who was in Beijing during the 2003 SARS outbreak: “I’ve seen this fear firsthand.” In theaters now.—Gillian Conahan

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