The Sciences

Hot Science: Math Collides With Biology

Indiana Jones and Avatar head to the museum, math collides with biology, and the hippies save physics.


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Museums For June 2011

Indiana Jones and the Adventure of Archaeology
 (Montreal Science Center)

When Harrison Ford swung onto the screen as the swashbuckling archaeologist Indiana Jones, he sparked fresh interest in the study of our distant past. Thirty years after the release of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indy gets the full science-museum treatment. Revisit the movie magic via props on loan from Lucasfilm, including the crystal skull, the golden idol, and the lost ark. And examine real treasures lent by the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology—cuneiform tablets, Nasca vases from Peru, a golden vessel from Mesopotamia, and more. For deeper insight, a handheld “video companion” with commentary from filmmakers and scientists guides you through the show. Open now. —Shannon Palus

Avatar: The Exhibition
 (Seattle Science Fiction Museum Avatar)

James Cameron’s wildly popular science-fantasy film, transported international audiences to the exotic world of Pandora, where plants glow and mountains float. At this new exhibition, you are invited to step into Cameron’s role as director and film scenes in 3-D with a camera just like the ones used in the making of the movie. Or you can become an actor by donning a performance-capture suit, creating your own avatar and inserting yourself in scenes taken from the film. You can also learn about the real-world plant and animal life that inspired Avatar’s fictional flora and fauna, peer inside the Armored Mobility Platform suit that was used in combat scenes, and examine the filmmakers’ models of Na’vi characters and their costumes. The show will begin a national tour after its run in Seattle ends in late 2012. Open now. —Caroline Spivack

 For June 2011

Out of Character
 by David DeSteno, Piercarlo Valdesolo (Crown Archetype)

Psychology meets morality in this exploration of human character. The authors describe experiments that shed light on hypocrisy, love, pride, and compassion. They explore the warring dualities in all of us (long-term well-being versus immediate gratification, impulse versus rationality). And they conclude that no action is purely good or bad—that speaking of one’s true nature misses the point. Character is “a fluctuating state,” they argue, “constantly oscillating to adjust to our needs.” This moral relativism may make some readers queasy. Still, as a look at how psychologists plumb the workings of the mind, Out of Character is an entertaining and enlightening read.

The Mathematics of Life by Ian Stewart (Basic Books)

It is difficult to find many biologists who enjoy math, or vice versa, but British number cruncher Ian Stewart successfully crosses over. Here he argues that solving some of the biggest scientific mysteries, including life’s origins and prevalence in the universe, hinges on a union of these fields. He skillfully recasts the history of biology within a mathematical context (Mendel’s study of inherited traits in pea plants, for example, depended on uncovering simple mathematical patterns), then applies his left-brained perspective to the hot new field of astrobiology. Bio majors: Try the book, then bite the bullet and enroll in Math 101.

Feathers by Thor Hanson (Basic Books)

Few of us would connect the extravagant costumes of Las Vegas showgirls to avian mating rituals, but that’s what biologist Thor Hanson does in this natural and cultural history of the feather. He gives unexpected substance to his nearly weightless subject, traveling from Chinese fossil beds—which provide a fascinating look at the relationship between plumed dinosaurs and modern birds—to a Seattle factory where duck and goose down becomes insulation. He also shares delightful facts, such as why vultures have featherless heads. You’ll want to pass these tidbits on.

How the Hippies Saved Physics by David Kaiser (W. W. Norton)

During the cold war, physics funding favored gadgetry that could be used against our enemies, and researchers largely worked under a directive to “shut up and calculate.” The Berkeley, California–based Fundamental Fysiks Group, a fringe band of yoga-practicing, LSD-dabbling scholars, went decidedly against the grain. Through the 1970s they philosophized about the Schrödinger equation, produced theories on psychokinesis, and laid the groundwork for quantum mechanics. MIT professor Kaiser illuminates the complex ways in which information travels between entangled electrons and between entangled people. The concepts may be mind-bending, but the lesson is simple: Enjoy the quest.

—Sarah Stanley, Elise J. Marton, Andrew Grant, Shannon Palus

 For June 2011


National Public RadioIf you haven’t been listening to Radiolab, start now. On the hour-long broadcast, hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich explore both the cutting-edge and the curious in science. They cover the standard beats—physicist Brian Greene and neurologist Oliver Sacks are frequent guests—but also give airtime to less-reported delights. Recent shows have featured two 10-year-olds, both named Laura, who meet because of a note carried across the United Kingdom by balloon; theories surrounding contagious laughter; and a parrot who helps a man manage anger problems. Radiolab airs on more than 300 public radio stations; check listings for times in your area. You can also download all nine seasons’ worth of shows at and catch up in time for the new season, which hits the airwaves in September. —S.P.

Film for June 2011

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Sundance SelectsVeteran German director Werner Herzog still has the chops to wow us. In his last documentary, Encounters at the End of the World, he showed us the barren beauty of Antarctica and got an Oscar nomination for his efforts. In his latest he explores another otherworldly place: southern France’s Chauvet cave, home to the world’s most ancient paintings. On the walls of these giant caverns are bison, bears, horses, and rhinos, drawn in ocher and charcoal 30,000 years ago; they predate the celebrated Lascaux cave paintings by some 10,000 years.

Since its discovery in late 1994, Chauvet has been off-limits to almost everyone, even researchers, in order to preserve the extremely delicate artwork. But the persistent Herzog was granted access, one hour at a time. His custom-built 3-D cameras capture the caverns’ glittering and undulating rock formations, the handprints of humans and claw marks of bears—and of course the pristine drawings, whose sophistication has forced anthropologists to rethink their understanding of Paleolithic cave art and the people who created it. In theaters now.—E.J.M.

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