With Shark Week, the Discovery Channel’s annual paean to the ocean’s apex predators, in full swing, many of us have sharks on the brain. At Smithsonian, Megan Gambino interviewed ichthyologist George Burgess—curator of the International Shark Attack File, an archive of thousands of attacks spanning the last five centuries—about an unusual chapter of the animals’ past: Over the course of two weeks in July 1916, a great white shark attacked five people along the Jersey Shore, killing all but one. The bizarre string of attacks inspired the book, and later the film, Jaws.
Initially, however, as Burgess recounted in the interview, people didn’t even believe a shark was to blame:
The thinking was it couldn’t be a shark, because we don’t have sharks here. It must be a sea turtle. Someone suggested it was a school of turtles that was coming in and biting things. Of course, turtles don’t school, and they don’t bite human beings, but it sounded good. A killer whale was suggested as well. The theories abounded and were allowed to get out unchecked into the media simply because there was not a forceful scientific authority that really knew what was going on to step right in and try to level the conversation.
The 1970s: a time for Reggie Jackson, the first go-round of John Travolta, and adopting a chimpanzee to settle a scientific dispute.
The new film Project Nim by director James Marsh, the documentarian behind the acclaimed Man On Wire, debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah this week. Marsh tells the tale of a chimp that was taken from its mother and raised in a human family just like a human baby; the experimenters were attempting to show that language is not unique to our species.
In Project Nim [Marsh] looks at a project dreamed up by Columbia University psychologist Herbert Terrace and carried out on Nim Chimpsky, a chimp named for famed linguist Noam Chomsky, who has argued language is uniquely human. Alternating between previously unpublished footage and interviews with participants in the experiment, the film shows how Nim initially connects with his family before his animal nature gradually takes over. [AFP]
Where a previous study had taught a chimp named Washoe symbols in American Sign Language, Terrace sought to go further with Nim. The chimp lived with the LaFarge family of New York, and for four years Terrace’s team tried to teach Nim to respond using a series of signs to make a sentence. (Nim’s Wikipedia article lists all the “phrases” he put together.)
When Don Draper takes a long, cool drag of his cigarette on screen and fills his “Mad Men” office with smoke, does it subtly nudge you toward lighting up yourself? If you’re already a smoker, there’s a good chance. A new study forthcoming in the Journal of Neuroscience suggests that watching on-screen smoking subtly effects the brains of people who already smoke, as if it were prepping them to light up.
They chose this movie because it features lots of smoking without alcohol use, sex or violence, which could have skewed the results. The volunteers did not know the experiment was about smoking. [LiveScience]
Dylan Wagner’s team peered into the brains of 17 smokers and 17 non-smokers who watched Matchstick Men while inside an fMRI scanner.
The film is titled Cool It and was based on a book of the same name by Danish writer Bjørn Lomborg, a contrarian who delights in questioning the gravity of our planet’s environmental problems. The movie was directed by Ondi Timoner, an award-winning documentarian.
Lomborg has raised the hackles of environmental activists since he published The Skeptical Environmentalist a decade ago. Since then he has drawn closer to environmentalists on some issues–for example, he now maintains that global warming should be one of the world’s “chief concerns.” But in the new documentary, Lomborg still argues that money spent on trying to limit carbon output would be better spent on investment in green technologies and geoengineering. The film is currently enjoying a limited release across the United States.
Does the film succeed? “Cool It” is eminently watchable — which is no surprise given Timoner’s involvement. Lomborg, as always, is charming and persuasive, frequently shown riding his bicycle through Copenhagen’s busy streets — in what has to be seen as a dig at Gore, who in his film is often seen racing through airports.
But it suffers from the same simplification syndrome that weakened “An Inconvenient Truth.”… In “Cool It,” Lomborg breezily ticks down a laundry list of high-tech ways to engineer the atmosphere, for example, but punts on the tougher questions related to such planet-scale enterprises — such as the inevitable diplomatic dispute over who sets the planetary thermostat and how blocking the sun does nothing to stem the buildup of carbon dioxide, much of which will stay in the atmosphere for many centuries. [The New York Times]
In the opinion of Wired’s Hugh Hart, Lomborg is a “charismatic tour guide” who ultimately fails to convince.
The Social Network arrives in theaters around America today. Written by Aaron Sorkin (creator of the TV shows The West Wing and Sports Night), the film purports to tell the tale of Mark Zuckerberg’s creation of Facebook at Harvard, and drips with backstabbing high drama. The early reviews are in, and the forming consensus is: It’s a fabulous film, but don’t go to the cinema expecting the truth.
The Facebook company itself has called the film a fiction. But that’s partly because Zuckerberg has shown no inclination to discuss his history—at least not with the creators of this film.
What makes The Social Network more intriguing than a standard biopic is that it was made without the co-operation of its principal subject — whose own mission in life seems to be to let us all make unauthorised biographies of each other. Personality and motivation inferred from a smattering of potentially misleading facts: isn’t that precisely the kind of thing that worries people about Facebook? [New Scientist]
It’s big, it’s loud, it’s Iron Man 2, and it opens today.
Like a lot of summer blockbusters, this sequel stretches the laws of physics and the capabilities of modern technology. But, admirably, a lot of the tech in Iron Man 2 is grounded in fact.
Spoiler Alert! Read on at your own risk.
Palladium and particle colliders
Being Iron Man is killing Tony Stark. As this sequel begins, the palladium core that powers the suit and keeps Stark alive is raising toxicity levels in his bloodstream to alarming highs. It’s not hard to see why Iron Man would try palladium—the now-infamous cold fusion experiments that created a storm of hype in 1989 relied on the metal. And it’s true that palladium does have some toxicity, though it’s been used in alloys for dentistry and jewelry-making.
Having exhausted the known elements in the search for a better power source, Stark, ever the DIY enthusiast, builds a particle collider in his workshop. This is actually not crazy: Physicist Todd Satogata of Brookhaven National Lab says you can build tiny particle colliders; even whiz-kid teenagers do it.
Powering the accelerator, however, might be an issue. 2.5 miles long, Brookhaven’s superconducting collider needs 10 to 15 megawatts of power—enough for 10,000 or 15,000 homes. “For Stark to run his accelerator, he’s gotta make a deal with his power company or he’s gotta have some sort of serious power plant in his backyard,” Satogata says [Popular Mechanics].
In addition, Stark doesn’t appear to have the magnets needed to focus a beam as tightly as he does in the film, where it shreds his shop before he gets it focused in the right place. And, as we covered with the recent discovery of element 117, the ultra-heavy lab-created elements that Stark could have created in his accelerator don’t last long. However, back in 1994 when only 106 elements dotted the periodic table, DISCOVER discussed the idea some physicists have of an “island of stability” where elements we’ve yet to discover/create might be able to exist in a stable way. Perhaps Tony found it.
The guts of the suit
After a long quest, the U.S. military gets its hands on Stark’s most magnificent piece of technology, the Iron Man suit. What they saw when they looked inside was the work of special effect wiz Clark Schaffer.
The silvery suit, originally seen in the first “Iron Man,” is shown again in the new movie in an “autopsy” scene in which the government begins tearing it apart to see how it works. “[The filmmakers] wanted it to look like what you see under the skin of a jet,” said Schaffer, who, along with friend and modeler Randy Cooper, worked on the suit in Los Angeles for six weeks. “There’s an aesthetic to it. I try to make it look as functional and practical as possible but also something that has beauty to it. That was my baby” [Salt Lake Tribune].
But how might the Iron Man suit be able to stand up to the punishment Stark continually receives? Tech News Daily proposes that he took advantage of something scientists are developing now: carbon nanotube foam with great cushioning power.
Iron Man’s nemesis in this second installment is Ivan Vanko, played by the villainous and murky Mickey Rourke, who you might have seen in previews stalking around a racetrack with seemingly electrified prostheses attached to his arms. The explanation in the film is hand-waved a bit, but it seems Vanko’s weapons rely on plasma.
Scientists actually are developing weapons based on plasma, such as the StunStrike, which essentially fires a bolt of lightning, creating an electrical charge through a stream of plasma. Researchers have recently even created what appears to be ball lightning in microwave ovens, which Iron Man’s “repulsor blasts” resemble [Tech News Daily].
Drones and hacking
Vanko isn’t happy with just amazing plasma tentacles, though. Working for Stark’s rival military-industrialist Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), he develops a horde of ghastly humanoid drones for each branch of the military. That, of course, is straight out of science fact—our military relies increasing on robots, be they unmanned aerial vehicles, bots on the ground that investigate roadside bombs, or even unmanned subs currently under development.
He’s a hacker, too, seizing control of an Iron Man suit worn by Don Cheadle as Stark sidekick James Rhodes. As DISCOVER covered in December, that’s a real-life worry, too. Hackers figured out how to steal the video feeds from our Predator drones because of an encryption lapse at one step in the process.
DISCOVER: 10 Obscure Elements That Are Most Important Than You’d Think (gallery)
DISCOVER: An Island of Stability
DISCOVER: Attaining Superhero Strength in Real Life, and 2 more amazing science projects
DISCOVER: The Science and the Fiction presents the best and worst use of science in sci-fi films
80beats: A Hack of the Drones: Insurgents Spy on Spy Planes with $26 Software
Bad Astronomy: Iron Man = Win
After entertaining the entire planet with the movie Avatar, director James Cameron is now taking his expertise to space–specifically to Mars. He’s helping NASA build a 3D camera for its next rover, Curiosity.
The space agency announced that Cameron is working with Malin Space Science Systems Inc. of San Diego to develop the camera, which will be the rover’s “science-imaging workhorse.” The rover, which was previously known as the Mars Science Laboratory, is scheduled for launch in 2011.
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory had recently scaled back plans to mount a 3D camera on the rover, as the project was consistently over-budget and behind schedule. But Cameron lobbied NASA administrator Charles Bolden for inclusion of the 3-D camera during a January meeting, saying a rover with a better set of eyes will help the public connect with the mission [Associated Press]. Cameron, whose 3D spectacle Avatar earned more than $2 billion at box offices worldwide, had developed a special 3D digital camera system for the film, and felt the space agency could benefit from his expertise.
Launch up from your couch and voyage to the final frontier this weekend with Hubble 3D, a hi-tech piece of visual wizardry from Warner Bros, IMAX, and NASA. The movie tracks the efforts of the astronauts on board mission STS-125, who blasted off aboard space shuttle Atlantis last May to fix the Hubble Space Telescope. For this mission, as DISCOVER explained in a review of the movie, Atlantis carried not only its regular payload of new gear for the telescope, but also a 600-pound IMAX camera to record the orbital repair job in breathtaking detail.
Apart from replacing worn out equipment and upgrading the world’s largest telescope so that it could continue to send home breathtaking images of the universe, the astronauts also functioned as cinematographers, using only eight minutes of film to shoot the repair work. The film also takes viewers on a tour of the telescope’s most famous observations, and explains what the ‘scope has revealed about such wonders as the stellar nurseries of the Orion nebula and our closest galactic neighbor, Andromeda. Director Toni Meyers, whose credits include a 3-D documentary about the international space station, says: “I think there is a kind of innate curiosity in all of us and a thirst to travel to places that either we can’t go to or it’s extremely difficult to do so” [CNN].
Picture the classic shoot-out in a Western movie: The good guy and the bad guy face each other, their hands quivering over their gun holsters. The bad guy reaches for his weapon, causing the good guy to react–he whips out his pistol and BAM! The hero triumphs. Physicist Niels Bohr once had a theory on why the good guy always won shoot-outs in Hollywood westerns. It was simple: the bad guy always drew first. That left the good guy to react unthinkingly – and therefore faster. When Bohr tested his hypothesis with toy pistols and colleagues who drew first, he always won [New Scientist].
But new research suggests that Bohr didn’t have it exactly right. In a study published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, scientists suggest that people do move faster when they are reacting to what is happening around them–but not fast enough for a heroic gunslinger to save his own life.
Friday saw the release of two science-centered films: the medical drama “Extraordinary Measures” opened around the country, while the British-made Charles Darwin biopic “Creation” finally found a U.S. distributor and began limited showings on this side of the pond.
Starring Brendan Fraser and Harrison Ford, “Extraordinary Measures” tells the Hollywood-ized true story of researchers racing to find a cure for Pompe disease, a genetic affliction affecting fewer than 10,000 people in the world. Two of those people, however, are the children of John Crowley, Fraser’s character. “The movie is a great exposure for a rare genetic disease,” said Duke University School of Medicine’s Priya Kishnani, who studies Pompe and participated in much of the research that led to the first and only approved treatment for the disease…. “I would have never thought in my lifetime, a disease that I’m so passionate about would make it into mainstream Hollywood cinema” [The Scientist].