The Sciences

Hot Science: May 2012

Lincoln vs aliens, sci-fi optimism vs sci-fi pessimism, Mythbusters vs myths


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May 2012 Summer Movie Preview

Courtesy Columbia Pictures Industries | NULL

Men in Black 3

A decade after their last mission, the alien-wrangling secret agent duo comes back to the big screen. When Agent J (Will Smith) finds that the past has been mysteriously altered and that Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) has been dead for decades, he travels back in time to rescue his partner and restore history to its proper order. The movie sends J to the summer of 1969, but its by-now familiar buddy-cop dynamic and Will Smith’s dated catchphrases have us longing for 1997, when the Men in Black first battled the scum of the universe. Open now. —Sophia Li


The U.S. Navy defends the planet against a fleet of marauding aliens in this sci-fi action flick, which features scenes of nonstop nautical mayhem inspired by the eponymous board game. Open now. Also see SETI senior astronomer and Battleship

consultant Seth Shostak's thoughts on what aliens would want from us.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Your chance to see the 16th president reconceived as an ax-swinging action hero who battles the bloodthirsty hordes that murdered his mother. Opens June 22.—S. L.

Interview With Damon Lindelof

Courtesy Kerry Brown/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation | NULL

Damon Lindelof, writer and executive producer of Prometheus

Prometheus, director Ridley Scott’s long-awaited prequel to the Alien franchise, hits theaters June 8. DISCOVER editor in chief Corey S. Powell spoke with Lindelof (Star Trek, Lost) about the film, its science-tinged sensibility, and what our own future might look like.

How was making Prometheus different from working on more unbounded sci-fi, like Star Trek?

The Alien universe is a projected scientific view of the future. If you want to go traveling way off into the galaxy, you have to put yourself in cryosleep because a ship can move only so fast. In the world of Star Trek, you have sci-fi fantasy rules: There is time travel, warp drive, the ability to beam oneself around.

Prometheus, like Alien and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, has strong dystopian elements. Why is so much science fiction pessimistic? 

Because the apocalyptic version seems much more probable. The 1960s hung on the promise of the space program. We believed the future was something we could make. But in the 1980s, when I was growing up, that transformed into the idea that the future is something we have no control over. Thirty years from now, nuclear holocaust and artificial intelligence takeover feel much more viable to me than a federation that seeks out new civilizations.

You interviewed futurist Ray Kurzweil about the possible merger between humans and computers. Does that idea resonate with you?
It does. My wife and I have had a number of impassioned debates about what I believe is not a hypothetical question: Would you download your consciousness into a box if it meant you could continue going on? That sounds appealing to me. But the question becomes, what’s inside the box? Is it a virtual reality of your own choosing? It gets very daunting very fast.

Despite all its science fiction elements, Prometheus seems like a very human, philosophical story. Is that what you’re aiming for?

The jumping-off point for Prometheus for me is this: If somebody believed in God and you presented scientific evidence that directly contradicted that belief, what would he do? I find that question tremendously compelling.

Books For May 2012

Tubes By Andrew Blum

After a squirrel in his yard gnawed through a vital Internet cable, journalist Andrew Blum set out to track down the structures underlying the Internet’s virtual world. He visited vast underground chambers housing network cables and shadowed the network engineers whose job it is to link these parts of the Internet together. Although Blum finds the physical Internet, engineering grandeur aside, often underwhelming, the journey itself and the characters he meets propel the story forward.—Veronique Greenwood

DNA USA By Bryan Sykes

Geneticist Bryan Sykes has made a career of illuminating Old World migrations and matings, tracing such subjects as the bloodlines of Scottish clans and the ancestry of Ötzi the Iceman. In his new book, he sets his sights across the Atlantic and embarks on a genetic tour of the United States. Since the topic is so wide-ranging, the book jumps frequently across centuries and continents, between personal anecdotes (and Sykes, who does much of his own testing, has many) and scientific analyses. But Sykes’s vast knowledge and the bemused enthusiasm of an outsider he brings to the project make him an insightful guide to America’s distant, and at times surprising, past. 
—Valerie Ross

The Day the World Discovered the Sun By Mark Anderson

Venus’s transit across the sun in 1769 gave astronomers their first chance to fix the dimensions of the solar system, a key to mastering global navigation. In this intense account of efforts to measure the rare celestial event, journalist Mark Ander­son follows three scientific expeditions to Tahiti, Baja California, and the Arctic. These pioneers sometimes had to abandon science to focus on survival, but at a time when humans couldn’t get more than a few feet off the ground, the data they obtained accurately reckoned the distance to the sun at 93 million miles.—Eric A. Powell

Roadside Picnic By Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

When the Russian Strugatsky brothers published the initial version of their dark novel Roadside Picnic in 1972, they marked the vanguard of a new approach to science fiction. Their grim narrative lacked faith in technological progress and celebrated hardened fatalists rather than forward-looking scientists; it also served as the basis for Andrei Tarkovsky’s similarly dystopian 1979 film, Stalker. Such cynicism is now common in sci-fi, a mainstay of writers like William Gibson (Neuromancer) and Orson Scott Card (Ender’s Game), but the Stru­gatskys’ worldview remains both uniquely cutting and replete with humanity. Back in print in the United States for the first time in 30 years, Roadside Picnic takes place in one of six zones on Earth where aliens once landed and left behind deadly gravitational pits, toxic slime, and technology that researchers risk their lives to obtain and study. The book’s main character is a black marketeer who breaks into the zone and pilfers alien objects such as a metal ring that defies the laws of physics and batteries that provide seemingly endless energy. He thinks there is little meaning to be found in the zones, and even the book’s scientists have bleak outlooks. One espouses the theory that the visitation was merely one stop on a journey—a roadside picnic—after which the aliens left a mess without taking notice of their surroundings. The characters’ conflicted views of their troubled world make for a read that still feels fresh today. It’s also a book that’s bound to make you feel a little less sure of humanity’s place in the universe. Available now.—Tyghe Trimble

Museums For May 2012

MythBusters: The Explosive ExhibitionMuseum of Science and Industry, Chicago

MythBusters, the Discovery Channel series that uses scientific method to deconstruct and debunk urban legends, is giving museumgoers the chance to join the program’s hyper­kinetic quest for truth. At a new traveling exhibit based on the show, visitors can conduct hands-on investigations of nearly a dozen myths. To determine whether running in the rain really keeps you drier than walking, visitors sprint or stroll through a 20-foot-long shed that rains down water droplets; results from thousands of soggy visitors will be combined to find the drier method. Or to test whether Clark Kent could really change into Superman so quickly, don a cape and boots in a phone booth–size enclosure (left).—S. L.

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