Hot Science: The Best Science Culture March 2012

Discover reviews the hottest science book, movies and more for March 2012.

By Mary Beth Griggs, Valerie Ross, Eric Powell, and Veronique Greenwood
Mar 2, 2012 6:00 AMMay 6, 2023 2:14 PM


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Rio Tinto Center Natural History Museum of Utah

After spending decades stuffed into a Depression-era library, the Natural History Museum of Utah has a new home: an expansive, copper-clad building in Salt Lake City designed to evoke the many layers of the state’s famously complex rock formations:

Overlooking the Salt Lake Valley, the museum incorporates the landscape of the surrounding Wasatch Mountains into its exhibits. Great Salt Lake, a gallery focused on local ecosystems and geology, features a glorious panoramic view of the lake itself.

In a series of interactive exhibits, visitors can explore the area’s history by manipulating the natural forces that shape the local topography, gleaning clues to early human cultures from a re-created archaeological dig, and learning words from the languages of Utah’s five native tribes. Open now.—Mary Beth Griggs


That’s Disgusting

by Rachel HerzPsychologist Rachel Herz’s charmingly revolting new book examines repugnance in all its iterations: why bad table manners make us shudder, why gross-out movies make us laugh, even why most people will refuse to eat a snack that looks like dog feces—no matter how sure they are that it’s really chocolate fudge. Through a series of warmly written, grimace-inducing case studies, research findings, and hypothetical scenarios, Herz argues that disgust not only keeps us alive by steering us away from toxins and disease but shapes how we make decisions, treat other people, and distinguish right from wrong.—
Valerie Ross

World in the Balance

by Robert P. CreaseAsk the French revolutionaries, who instituted an unpopular 10-hour day, or the engineers whose failure to convert between feet and meters cost NASA a $327 million Mars probe: measurements matter. Throughout humanity’s long history of sizing up the world, measures were often embodied in physical objects; the meter, for many years, was defined by a metal rod stored in a French basement. But in the last half century, a movement to define units in terms of universal absolutes, derivable by anyone with the technology to measure the speed of light or the charge on an electron, has been closing in on its goal. In carefully calibrated detail, philosopher and writer Robert P. Crease tells the engrossing tale of the modern revolution to liberate measurement from human artifacts.
—Veronique Greenwood


by Ben HellwarthIn the 1960s, as the underwater exploits of Jacques Cousteau dazzled the world, U.S. Navy aquanauts lived for weeks in pressurized capsules hundreds of feet under the sea—test runs, Navy researchers hoped, for long-term human habitats on the ocean floor. Spending unprecedented stretches of time in deep water took expertise, careful planning, and a lot of guesswork. Journalist Ben Hellwarth clearly lays out the program’s technical setbacks and breakthroughs. But it’s Hellwarth’s eye for anecdote—pranks the aquanauts played on their commanding officers, the sparkling wine they drank at 200 feet below sea level even though the high pressure forced out the fizz—that brings this long-shuttered program back to life.—V. R.


The Life of Super-Earthsby Dimitar Sasselov
Of the 700 planets astronomers have found so far in distant solar systems, most are places that are extremely hostile to life as we know it: searing-hot gas giants where iron could fall as rain and winds might blow in excess of 1,000 miles per hour. But planet hunting is in its infancy, and astronomer Dimitar Sasselov estimates that our galaxy harbors some 100 million “super-Earths,” large rocky planets whose stable atmospheres and complex chemistry actually make them mathematically better candidates for the emergence of life than our own small world. In this slim but absorbing introduction to the epic search for life on extrasolar planets, Sasselov explores how astronomy, geology, and biology are conspiring to give us a radical new vision of a universe in which our living Earth is “just another planet.”—Eric Powell

Perfect SenseOne of the first victims is a truck driver in Glasgow. After recovering from a fit of grief, he finds his sense of smell has vanished. Soon a pandemic explodes across the globe, chipping away at people’s emotions and obliterating their senses. Part sci-fi thriller, part love story, Perfect Sense follows an improbable couple—a cocksure chef (played by Ewan McGregor) and a prickly epidemiologist (Eva Green)—who fall for each other just as the disease strikes. As scientists race to find a cure, the pair struggle to stay together in a world where all emotions have gone haywire. Beyond the trappings of plague and romance—the familiar hazmat suits and longing glances—the film explores an intriguing question: How do we make sense of the world when our senses slip away? Showing now in limited release..—V.R.


Finding Life Beyond Earth
 PBSAs manned space programs face an uncertain future, powerful telescopes are uncovering a wealth of new planets across the galaxy—some of which could harbor life. In this two-hour PBS special (a fine companion to The Life of Super-Earths), NOVA combines cutting-edge planetary science with the thrill of human exploration, putting astronomers and astrobiologists “on location” across the solar system as they explain the scientific search for life on other worlds.

As the program shows, that quest is essentially a hunt for traces of life’s basic ingredients: liquids, organic molecules, and energy. With the help of computer-
generated scenery, scientists act as tour guides through exotic spacescapes—
clambering around the surface of a comet, for instance, while describing the supersonic jets of ice that erupt from its surface. Through footage from NASA missions, viewers also visit those places in our solar system most likely to harbor elusive life-forms, including Mars and the moons Titan, Io, Europa, and Enceladus, and explore analogous habitats found right here on Earth. Available now..—M. B. G.

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