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Sidney Perkowitz is a physics professor at Emory University, and the author of several books that blend science and pop culture, including Hollywood Science: Movies, Science, and the End of the World. Seth Shostak is a senior astronomer at the SETI Institute and a science advisor to multiple films, including Contact and the 2008 re-make of The Day the Earth Stood Still.
Together, they fight crime.
Okay, that last part isn't technically true. But it does make for a good story, and, in that, it actually does a really good job of showing you what these two men actually do. Both Perkowitz and Shostak work to bridge the gap between the people who do science and the people who make science fiction. They're involved in the Science and Entertainment Exchange — a National Academies of Sciences effort to bring scientists together with directors, producers, and writers. The goals: Help scientists do better public communication and make sci-fi more awesome. But there's a catch here, because "awesome" and "totally 100% accurate" are seldom the same thing.
This week, I spoke to Perkowitz and Shostak about what happens when science and entertainment cross streams, how you illustrate things nobody has ever seen, and why — even when the science in the movies is bad — science still wins.
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At Neatorama, librarian John Farrier helpfully points out some places where fictional pony librarian Twilight Sparkle could stand to improve her professional practice. It is simultaneously a dedicated bit of pony fandom and an interesting overview of the many responsibilities of a real-world librarian.
Conducting a reference interview is the act of translating a patron’s request into terms that are congruent with the library’s resources. It may surprise non-librarians to learn this, but yes: reference interviewing is a skill. And it is one that Twilight should develop.
A good reference interview begins with the librarian conducting him/herself in a manner that is welcoming. Helping the patron is the first priority of a librarian working the reference desk. The patron is not a distraction or an annoyance. In the first reference interview in the series, Twilight interacts with her patron, Rainbow Dash. “Can I help you?” is a good beginning. But her tone and body language suggests that she would rather not.
... Twilight has some good reference interviewing sense. One pitfall that rookie librarians fall into is to give professional advice instead of information—especially medical and legal advice. In “Cutie Pox,” Applejack and Applebloom visit the library and asking for medical advice. Twilight, aware that doing so could expose the library and herself to liability, deftly avoids doing so and refers Applejack and Applebloom to Zecora, a qualified medical professional.
The key difference, writes blogger Jason Bittel, is in the biting. Venomous animals internally create a toxin and then inject it into prey or foes. Poisonous animals usually secrete their toxins on the outside.
So here's a rule of thumb: If you are dying because an animal has bitten you, chances are, it was a venomous animal. If you're dying because you touched an animal or (foolishly) put it in your mouth, that's poisonous.
And then, of course, there's the slow loris:
Because the loris manufactures toxin from specialized glands on its elbows, then transfers that liquid to small, curved teeth for injection, the loris is venomous. Alternately, mother lorises cover their offspring’s fur in the same potion, rendering them poisonous.
Read more about various poisonous and venomous animals at Jason Bittel's blog, Bittel Me This.
A work of fiction doesn't have to be scientifically accurate. It just has to make sense. All it has to do is maintain an internal logic and consistency strong enough that you, the reader, aren't inadvertently thrown out of the world. If you're frequently frustrated by detail accuracy in fiction, that's likely your problem, not fiction's. Chill out. Breath deep. Smell the flowers. Experience some imagination and wonder.
I fully endorse all the sentiments outlined above. And yet. And yet. There are some fictional details that drive me crazy. Like the seasonal shifts in George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, where winter and summer last for years—sometimes decades—and nobody knows exactly when the seasons will change. It's not that I feel a burning need to prove to Martin that this can't work. Instead, it makes me ravenously curious. I keep wondering whether, given what we know about astronomy, there's any way that this could actually work somewhere, in a galaxy far, far away.
A couple of weeks ago, io9's George Dvorsky put together a little round-up of five possible scientific explanations that would make Westeros' magical reality make more sense. I chatted about Dvorsky's list with Attila Kovacs, an actual astronomer who has a postdoc position at the California Institute of Technology. They've got differing perspectives on how unpredictable and ridiculously long seasons might work. Thanks to both these sources, I feel like I better understand our universe, and can read Martin more comfortably.
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Events like this make an excellent case study for palaeozoologist Darren Naish's argument that we need to find a new nickname for dromaeosaurids—one that is not already being used by a significantly less terrifying class of animals. "Hey everybody, let's go to the Spring Raptor Release!" is kind of the "Let's eat, Grandma!" of species classification.
Earlier this week at The Conference on World Affairs, I watched a panel about science in the movies. During the panel, physicist and science writer Sidney Perkowitz said that, out of all the people writing about science and medicine in Hollywood, the writers of House are some of the people who care the most about accuracy.
After I tweeted that, reader Jay Rishel pointed me toward Polite Dissent, a blog written by a doctor that periodically reviews the medical science presented on episodes of House.
It's a nice reminder that even the writers who care the most about getting science right, don't always succeed. That said, I am pretty impressed that, for the most part, the complaints the doctor-blogger has are usually closer to the nit-pick end of the spectrum. For a show that is so densely packed with medical information, that's pretty good. Some of the complaints about Season 2, Episode 1:
I’m surprised the inmate didn’t have a severely elevated blood pressure with the pheochromocytoma, and I’m equally surprised that his abdominal surgery went so well since pressure on the abdomen is enough to cause the tumor to release a large amount of adrenalin. This sends the blood pressure rocketing dangerously high.
The patient got over his respiratory depression remarkably quickly — one minute he’s sick enough to require intubation, and the rest of the time he’s fine. (And why wasn’t the endotracheal tube taped in place?)
It takes a great deal more alcohol than a few shots to clear that much methanol from the body, and that’s why IV ethanol is generally used.
Via Jay Rishel
What are the odds that you, as an individual, exist? Pretty good, you'd guess, since you're sitting right here reading this. But, in an abstract sense, the chances that you exist are really rather slim. In fact, once you see the full infographic, put together by futurist and designer Sofya Yampolsky of Visual.ly, I'm sure you'll be much more skeptical of your existence.
The infographic is based on this post by Dr. Ali Binazir.
A few years ago, artist Maki Naro drew a comic explaining why the Moon appears larger on the horizon than it does way up in the sky.
Recently, he got a helpful email from astronomy blogger Phil Plait. Turns out, the original comic was just a bit wrong and Phil Plait had a much more thorough explanation. So, like any good evidence-based comic artist, Naro drew a new version of the comic, featuring a only-sorta-creepy Phil Plait jumping out of the bushes to accost people with accurate astronomical information.
Check out this post on Phil Plait's Bad Astronomy blog, upon which the comic is based.
There is now an entire blog dedicated to looking at what is written on the blackboard in the background of naughty schoolgirl porn films, and evaluating it for accuracy and grade level of information. God, I love the Internet.
Here's what Blackboards in Porn had to say about the photo above.
1 + 1 = 2
Mathematics - university/nursery school level.
This is clearly an extremely advanced level mathematical course, focusing on the Peano axioms for the natural numbers which formalised mathematics in the late 19th century. This course would culminate with Gödel's second incompleteness theorem which shows that the consitency of the Peano axioms cannot be formalised within Peano arithmetic itself.
Alternatively, it could be that the pupil, even at her advanced age, hasn't grasped that 1 + 1 = 2, and that all the after school one-to-one lessons in the world aren't going to work. Indeed, she probably won't even understand what 'one-to-one' means.
8/10 - loses two marks for 'math'.
Disclaimer: The blog is safe for work, in so much as there is no nudity. However, it is somewhat astounding how easy it is to look at a photo of a room full of fully clothed people and know, immediately, that said photo is a still from a porn. Make of that what you will.
Via Wired. Thanks to Joel!