The Sciences

Hot Science: Sea Dragons

Sea dragons, brainy hallucinations and magnetic time capsules.


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

TV for October 2012

Image: WGBH Educational Foundation | NULL

NOVA scienceNOW By David Pogue


Tech writer Pogue takes over as the host of NOVA scienceNOW in its new season, tackling some of the thorniest questions in science. To investigate the neural underpinnings of extreme intelligence, he compares a scan of his own brain to Einstein’s brain, which has long intrigued scientists with its anatomical anomalies. In another episode, Pogue directly experiences the effects of cutting-edge cybercrime when computer scientists hijack his car’s controls from afar, bringing him to a screeching halt and demonstrating how easily criminals can hack into more than just laptops or smartphones. Premieres Wednesdays at 10 p.m. EDT. —Fangfei Shen

Books for October 2012

Mirror Earth 
By Michael D. Lemonick

Twenty years ago no one knew if planets existed beyond our solar system. In this lively book, journalist Michael D. Lemonick profiles the select group of scientists who managed to find the distant worlds that we now know must number in the hundreds of billions. Among them was Bill Borucki, a space scientist who persuaded nasa to launch a telescope that looks for a 0.01 percent dip in brightness from faraway stars when planets pass in front of them. His Kepler mission has now identified more than 2,300 likely exoplanets. It can be hard to follow exactly who discovered what planet when in Lemonick’s account, but readers will be rewarded with insight into how these scientists dreamed up ambitious ways to search the heavens trillions of miles away, then pulled strings and twisted arms to execute those ideas.—Andrew Grant

 By Oliver Sacks

In his younger days, famed neurologist Oliver Sacks experimented with drugs that gave him vivid hallucinations. Some were pleasant (a philosophical conversation with a spider), others less so (that time when all the passengers on a bus transformed into bug-eyed monsters). But all belonged to what Sacks calls “an essential part of the human condition.” In this detailed look at the rich variety of hallucinations, he makes the case that these experiences aren’t just the tortured byproducts of madness or drug use but are clues to understanding our brains and a vital influence on our culture. They have inspired countless writers and artists, and even scientists such as English naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace, who first conceived of natural selection during a malarial fever dream.
—Eric A. Powell

Instant By Christopher Bonanos

Today Polaroid cameras are objects of nostalgia. But Polaroid was the Apple of its era, relentlessly improving a groundbreaking product under the direction of a charismatic CEO. It’s heartbreaking to read, in New York editor Chris Bonanos’s account, how the technology company that fit the workings of an entire darkroom inside a pouch of film fell to pieces with the rise of digital cameras. Polaroid has been reduced to a set of patents and a name licensed out to boost sales of electronics in Asia. That is the fate of even the best of companies, the book seems to suggest—which makes one wonder what is in store for today’s giants.
—Veronique Greenwood

All (Too) Natural

Two new books detail the benefits of exploring the natural world—and the dangers of getting too close.

In An Ecology of Happiness, geographer Eric Lambin argues that experiencing nature is a necessary part of everyday life. Research has shown the outdoors boosts physical and mental health. Just looking at a garden from the hospital window shortens post-op recovery times.

But journalist Jim Sterba, in his book Nature Wars, highlights nature’s perils. Efforts to protect wildlife, for instance, have brought animal populations perilously near to human settlements: Beaver dams cause floods, deer carry tick infestations, geese get sucked into plane turbines. Both books ultimately agree on the inherent value of the natural world, but while Lambin sees our salvation in it, Sterba says nature has never been as idyllic as we think. —Emma Bryce

Museum for October 2012

Alberta’s Last Sea Dragon 
Royal Tyrrell Museum, Alberta, Canada

When an inland sea covered much of North America 75 million years ago, a 39-foot-long, six-ton reptile known as an elasmosaur swam through the waters above what is now the Canadian province of Alberta. The fossilized remains of the creature—the only example of its kind ever discovered, dubbed Albertonectes vanderveldei—came to light in a gemstone mine in 2007. In the Royal Tyrrell Museum’s newest exhibit, interactive displays invite visitors to puzzle out clues to the reptile’s past just as the museum’s paleontologists did, piecing together the jumbled skeleton, determining the age of the ancient bones, and testing how Albertonectes’s 76-vertebra neck—the longest of any known animal—probably moved. Situated in the Alberta badlands, long a fertile ground for fossil hunters, the museum has amassed a 130,000-specimen collection. In its other exhibition halls, each of which focuses on a different period of the past, visitors can view a mighty tyrannosaur, minuscule trilobites, and all manner of now-extinct life in between. Open now. —Chanel Martin

Destinations for October 2012

For science-savvy hikers, the rugged canyons of Hawaii’s oldest island offer a glimpse into the mysterious behavior of Earth’s magnetic field.

Kauai is often called Hawaii’s Garden Isle because of its lush tropical forests: Unlike the two active volcanoes on the Big Island, the volcano that birthed Kauai sputtered out 2 million years ago, letting the trees grow unmolested. For Occidental College geologist Scott Bogue, that long-dead volcano is Kauai’s biggest draw. The island is one of the best places to peer into the history of Earth’s magnetic field because its fluctuations are recorded in the ancient volcanic rock. Measure that field, Bogue knows, and you can deduce the inner workings of our planet, more than 1,800 miles below.

Some 4 to 5 million years ago, when Kauai was active, recurring eruptions coated the island in lava. While the lava was still hot, Earth’s ambient field magnetized the minerals inside it. As the molten rock solidified, the minerals preserved a record of Earth’s polarity, the direction its north and south magnetic poles pointed at the time.

Over millennia, rivers and streams cut into the island, Bogue says, and exposed “tremendous stacks of lava flows that are just inviting someone to come study them.” In the summer of 1977, as a 25-year-old graduate student at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Bogue did just that, heading to the sweeping cliffs of Nu’alolo Valley with his adviser, Robert Coe.

Scientists had recently discovered that every 200,000 years, on average, churning in the hot liquid metal of Earth’s outer core causes the planet’s whole magnetic field to flip. Bogue and Coe wanted to learn how the field behaves during the change, and so were looking for a geologic record of the exact time when the planet’s poles had switched places.

The bottom of the Nu’alolo lava stack formed when Earth’s field was upside down, with the north magnetic pole in Antarctica. The top of the stack formed when conditions were as they are today. Somewhere in between, there must have been a transition, and Bogue and Coe set out to find it.

The geologists clambered up the valley walls, stopping every few dozen feet to measure the rocks’ polarity with a handheld magnetometer. As the day wore on, the slopes became steeper and more slippery. “It was pretty scary,” Bogue recalls. “You went around a corner and there was nothing below you except a thousand feet.”

More casual visitors can look down over the lush Nu’alolo Valley and the coast beyond it from the terminus of a steep, three-mile hiking trail in surrounding Koke’e State Park. Other trails take you to scenic ridges, through forests of twisting koa trees, and up to one of Bogue’s favorite spots: the Alakai Swamp, where rare native birds like the scythe-beaked Hawaiian honeycreeper flit around above shallow bogs. “It’s a very exotic environment up there,” Bogue says.

Bogue and coe didn’t uncover a field reversal in Nu’alolo, but a few days later they did find one nearby in the yawning chasm of Waimea Canyon. The mile-wide canyon splits the island for 14 miles, offering spectacular panoramas of starkly layered rock. The Kukui hiking trail runs from the rim to the bottom of the canyon, so the scientists could reach every geologic layer by foot—no rock climbing necessary. You can trek into the canyon the same way or, for a more leisurely view, try the lookout points that fork off the main highway above.

As you hike in, “you’re descending through hundreds of lava flows as you go down the trail,” Bogue explains. Many of the ancient flows are just a few feet thick. You can identify volcanic basalt from its tiny pockmarks, formed by bubbles of escaping gas that froze in place when hot magma hit the cool air. “The bubbly layer is probably the top of a lava flow, and if it’s more solid, that is the interior,” he says. Sweep a compass along the rock face and you may pick up the minute perturbations that mark a changing magnetic field. If your compass needle goes bonkers, you’ve found a rock that’s been hit by lightning and intensely remagnetized. Bogue found records of two polarity reversals in these flows, giving him his first glimpse into the magnetic field’s complex contortions during its flips, which he is still studying today.

Kauai’s ancient rocks can reveal other pieces of planetary history, as well. Many geologists now believe that the giant oceanside cliff faces on the north shore, long assumed to be the result of gradual wave erosion alone, are actually scars from a catastrophic landslide. “You’ll see lots of horizontal lines on the faces of the cliffs,” Bogue says. “I see lava flow after lava flow after lava flow. It’s just paradise.”

THE TOUR GUIDE Occidental College geologist Scott Bogue has spent more than 30 years studying magnetic field reversals—periods when Earth’s north and south poles trade places—in Hawaii, Nevada, and Washington.

Neighboring Science Hot Spots

Within a 90-minute drive from Koke’e State Park are ample opportunities to explore the unique geology, wildlife, and scenic beaches of Hawaii’s northernmost major island.

Poipu Beach, on Kauai’s southern shore, has been called the best beach in America because of its soft white sands, turquoise waters, and rocky coral reefs. Monk seals sunbathe on the shore, humpback whales breach off the coast, and snorkelers there may spot the Hawaiian state fish, the humuhumunukunukuapua’a.

The Kauai Museum in Lihue, built out of lava rocks, has exhibits on the geology of the Hawaiian Islands, the life of early natives, and the adventures of Captain James Cook, who first landed on Kauai in 1778.

Wailua River wends for 20 miles along the east side of the island, accessible by kayak, canoe, or tour boat. It passes waterfalls, a lava cave, and Nounou Mountain, nicknamed the Sleeping Giant, which looks like a reclining human figure from afar. —M. G.

Calendar for November 2012

Courtesy Bay Area Science Festival | NULL

Science for Citizens Visit to find hundreds of at-home science projects, from measuring light pollution to studying the impact of winter weather on turkey populations.


Bay Area Science Festival

More than 60 ongoing events, including hikes along earthquake faults and a session at the California Academy of Sciences on the neuroscience of zombies. 


National Science Teachers Association

Educators meet in Atlanta to explore new approaches in science instruction— including the No Child Left Inside movement, which aims to improve teaching of environmental science.


Men around the world will grow mustaches this month to raise awareness of prostate cancer.


Check out 100 films screening across New York City, and explore cutting-edge research into consciousness and imagination.

Imagine Science Film Festival


American Heart Association Scientific Sessions 2012 Cardiovascular experts from across the planet gather in Los Angeles to learn about the latest advances in heart science.


Yellowstone National Park

This weekend, admission to Yellowstone and all the other national parks is free. If you’ve never seen Old Faithful, this could be your moment.


Total Solar Eclipse Casting a shadow for almost 2 hours, this eclipse will be visible from most of the South Pacific.


Steamboat Willie

Whistle alongside Mickey Mouse to celebrate the original release date of this 1928 Disney classic, among the first cartoons to feature synchronized sound.


The Dust Bowl

Ken Burns’s new series chronicles how dust storms in the 1930s transformed the Great Plains into a wasteland.


Thanksgiving Chemistry
 Learn about techniques to thicken gravy, the myths of turkey-induced sleepiness, and the cancer-fighting power of cranberry sauce, courtesy of the American Chemical Society.

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!


Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 40% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2023 Kalmbach Media Co.