The Future of NASA
Michael Griffin is gearin...
More Features
Looking to apply for a Discover Credit Card? Members/Subscribers Log In      
Fuzzy Math
Mind & Brain
Meet My Personal Trainer, Mario
The Human Footprint: Live Webcast Tonight, 7pm
The Human Footprint—Has Civilization Gone Too Far?
Find Out If You're Tone Deaf
Don't Focus on Porn
PBS Goes Plebiscite
Science Poem of the Week (8)
Podcast Predicts Senatorial Sickness
Quantum Teleportation
Lisa Randall on Charlie Rose Show
[ Full Blog Archives ]
Mind & Brain
Ancient Life
All Newsletters
Discover Magazine  Blog

Meet My Personal Trainer, Mario
By Emily Saarman

Nintendo's new Wii game system—and particularly its "Wii-mote"—has drawn raves from video game junkies for being one of the rare visionary leaps forward in gaming. (The Wii-mote, for those not in the know, is the first major motion-sensing video game controller—you swing, stab, and whirl the thing around to control the action.) Now some fans are suggesting the device has another benefit: it might help today’s couch-potato kids get off their butts and actually move! Having played the Wii some myself, I can tell you it’s not exactly a trip to the gym, but even the lifelong video game-phobe in me grudgingly admits, there may be a wee bit of truth to the Wii praise.

I've played a fair amount Wii tennis with my teenage cousins, and I was surprised to find that it really is different than the conventional, thumb-twitcher video games. While smacking aces and winners with the Wii, I get many of the same pleasing, energized feeling I get from real sports, except I'm actually better in Nintendo tennis. Wii gaming may not reverse the obesity epidemic overnight (energy-saving flicks of the wrist too often earn better scores than full arm swings), but one dedicated gamer reports he lost 9 lbs in six weeks just by playing Wii sports "aggressively" for half an hour each day. And, as you might expect, it was more fun than your average run-and-eat-sprouts approach.

Once Nintendo fully capitalizes on the Wii’s potential to make exercise fun, I think we can expect to see more advanced motion sensing technology that encourages kids to throw themselves into the game and reap the emotional and health benefits of physical activity. For now, those looking for a video game to help them lose weight should probably put their money into Dance Dance Revolution, a game that forces you to move your feet and has been installed in hundreds of school gyms to get sedentary kids to bust a move.

The Human Footprint: Live Webcast Tonight, 7pm
By Amos Kenigsberg

Tonight is the night: DISCOVER executive editor Corey Powell will debate whether human civilization has gone too far at the NY Salon's Human Footprint event.

The event will be webcast live from 7pm-8:30pm.

The Human Footprint—Has Civilization Gone Too Far?
By Amos Kenigsberg

On Tuesday, February 13, the NY Salon will host a discussion, discourse, dialogue, and—okay, I'll say it—a debate called The Human Footprint—Has Civilization Gone Too Far? DISCOVER's fearless leader, Corey Powell, will take part in the debate, and judging by his position paper, he should have some good things to say. The event will be webcast from NY Salon's Web site.

As for the other participants, they include Ronald Bailey, the science correspondent for Reason, an outspoken and intelligent libertarian magazine. If you think Corey is fearless, check out Reason, and Bailey in particular—his views on environmentalism probably don't line up exactly with most DISCOVER readers (basically: it's a load of bull), but he makes some interesting, iconoclastic arguments.

Find Out If You're Tone Deaf
By Amos Kenigsberg

Chorus This is great: take this nifty series of listening tests and in 15 minutes you objectively find out how acute your sense of pitch is. The third test determines if you have a weak sense of rhythm, which is known to be linked with bad dancing. (No word on whether this is "objectively" connected with success in one's social life, or lack thereof. And when a computer starts criticizing your social life...)

I scored a 66.7 on the first test, the one on tone deafness, which was pretty much average. Then I got a 4.8 on the pitch accuracy test -- that means that at 500Hz (near the B below the C above middle C), I can discern two tones that are 4.8Hz apart. (Half tones are about 29Hz apart at that pitch, so this is a small but appreciable gap.) Interesting to see that the 6Hz tones sound very different to me, while the 3Hz tones sound almost exactly the same. That placed me at only the 13th percentile. I blame my poor relative performance on the probability that this online quiz is overrun with musical geniuses -- they wrecked the curve!

Having realized long ago that I didn't have a great ear (my high school chorus teacher can attest to this), I took this as no great surprise. That's fine, I thought -- I'll really shine in the rhythm section. But it was not to be. I scored a 68%, placing me at the 31st percentile.

Despite my vaguely depressing results, I really like these tests. It's fascinating that you can sit down and in 15 minutes find out something about how your ear and brain work. Also interesting to think that people can have such different experiences of similar stimuli. Auditory acuity is largely a natural, unchangeable characteristic of a person (at least an adult). Not to get too Brave New World, but I wonder if it could actually be helpful to test people's hearing to see how well they can, say, learn to play the violin. Maybe if my chorus teacher knew about my tin ear, she would have been a little more understanding of my flat singing -- or maybe she never would've let my hopeless self even in the doorway.

As fast and powerful as these listening tests are, they can't quite match color blindness tests. I remember sitting down for my first such test in elementary school, and about a minute in, the nurse pretty much knew: my red cones are a bit strange.

Don't Focus on Porn
By Amos Kenigsberg

Jessejane Last September, Douglas Rushkoff wrote in his Peer Review column that high definition interfered with his TV watching because the boob tube had suddenly become too realistic--once you can see  the very wrinkles in Tony Soprano's suit, "the screen wasn't a symbolic mirror to my own life; it was a detailed portrait of a violent world I didn't belong in and didn't want to." 

Now, further proof that HDTV is way TMI: Hi-def porn shows practically every flaw on every body part of every porn actor. Some porn stars are getting surgery to fix slight imperfections, and sometimes they have to switch positions (camera or otherwise) during a shoot to hide unfortunately placed pimples. "I’m having my breasts redone because of HD," confides Jesse Jane (emphasis added), who is apparently a major adult-film star (DiscoBlog wouldn't know).

Rushkoff cited renowned media theorist Marshall McLuhan's theory that the more information conveyed by a medium, the more "hot" it was--the more it provoked our passions. Perhaps watching porn in HD shows the upper limit of the hot/hi-def connection.

Bonus nugget: According to one xxx director, watching porn in HD can be quite a touching (ahem) experience: "People look to adult movies for personal contact, and yet they’re still not getting it. HD lets them see a little bit more of the girl," says Robbie D.

PBS Goes Plebiscite
By Dave Mosher

22ndIn the spirit of keeping public television public, PBS is putting its viewers in power by allowing them to pick the station's newest science show.

Whittled down from 19 solid submissions, PBS will air its three finalist pilots throughout January on Wednesdays at 8:00 p.m. ET. If all of you democratic Web denizens out there can't wait a month to give informed feedback, log on to to view streaming versions of each pilot (all of them are currently awaiting your opinions).

Now, announcing the three candidates:

  • Wired Science (airs January 3)—Essentially Wired Magazine repackaged for TV, the show will cover the latest developments in space exploration, biomedicine, robotics, military technology and more in a fast-and-furious hour of entertainment.
  • Science Investigators (airs January 10)—This investigative number delves into mysteries such as 30,000-year-old Neanderthal DNA and the physics of a knuckleball baseball pitch—but it also aims to keep viewers up-to-date with new technologies like electric NASCAR stock cars and bacteria-powered iPods.
  • 22nd Century (airs January 17)—The "what if" show for science television. A group of actors play out the possibilities to far-off scientific futures, starting with the new World Wide Web—not one of computers, but linked-up human brains.

While there is no "vote," per se, viewers can offer feedback that runs on the Web site for all to see. Using this digital deliberation collected by the end of the month, PBS will pick a winner to graduate into a 10-week series that debuts this fall. But what about the losers? The station offers no word on this touchy subject, but DiscoBlog predicts plenty of YouTube spoofs in the future.

Science Poem of the Week (8)
By Josie Glausiusz

When the British bumped Shepherd's Pie off the school dinner menu* a decade ago, it heralded a wave of terror over the mysterious rise of mad cow disease (aka bovine spongiform encephalopathy) a cattle ailment caused by rogue proteins called prions that ate holes in the cows' brains and later killed them. In March 1996, these fears proved justified when it was revealed that ten young people had been diagnosed with variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, (vCJD) a novel form of the sponge-brained disease likely transmitted to humans via infected beef. Since then, 158 people have died of vCJD in the United Kingdom, and a handful elsewhere. Four-and-a-half million cattle were slaughtered in Britain, 200,000 of which showed the typical tremors of the disease. But whoever heard their side of the story? In The Mad Cow Talks Back, poet Jo Shapcott gives the stolid, stoic beast a chance to state its case.

The Mad Cow Talks Back
By Jo Shapcott

I'm not mad. It just seems that way
because I stagger and get a bit irritable.
There are wonderful holes in my brain
through which ideas from outside can travel
at top speed and through which voices,
sometimes whole people, speak to me
about the universe. Most brains are too
compressed. You need this spongy
generosity to let the others in.

I love the staggers. Suddenly the surface
of the world is ice and I'm a magnificent
skater turning and spinning across whole hard
Pacifics and Atlantics. It's risky when
you're good, so of course the legs go before,
behind, and to the side of the body from time
to time, and then there's the general embarrassing
collapse, but when that happens it's glorious
because it's always when you're travelling
most furiously in your mind. My brain's like
the hive: constant little murmers from its cells
saying this is the way, this is the way to go.

Note: Jo Shapcott is a British poet who teaches Creative Writing at Royal Holloway College, London. Her books of poetry include Electroplating the Baby (1988) whose title poem explains the chemical process of embalming an infant, Phrase Book (1992) and My Life Asleep (1998). As Shapcott explains on her web site, the term "mad cow," signals an explicit feminist message, as the phrase is also a standard male chauvinist insult. The Mad Cow Talks Back appears in Shapcott's collection Her Book: Poems 1988-1998; it is reprinted here with kind permission of Faber & Faber.

*Personally, I can only say good riddance: I only have to smell this mashed-potato-and-minced-beef mess to be instantly transported back to the clatter of my primary school's dining hall, where it was served regularly and alternately with equally unappetizing platefuls of gloppy, gristle-filled goulash. Banish the memory! Now, try this recipe for vegan Shepherd's Pie.


Podcast Predicts Senatorial Sickness
By Amos Kenigsberg

Ipod Earlier this month, news was a-buzzing about South Dakota Senator Tim Johnson after he began slurring his speech and forgetting words in the middle of a conversation with reporters. He was first reported to have had a stroke, but doctors soon found out the senator was actually having a brain hemorrhage due to an arteriovenous malformation—a tangle of messed-up blood vessels—and they brought him in for emergency brain surgery. Not only was the senator's life at stake but also control of the Senate, as Johnson is a part of the Democrats' tiny 51-49 majority.

Arteriovenous malformations may have sounded familiar to Discover readers who read about the condition in the January 2006 Vital Signs column. Seeing as we just launched our Vital Signs podcast, we figured we'd podcast-ify that very topical column. So now, thanks to the power of the Internet, you can listen to the story unfold. (To listen to the podcast you can visit the Vital Signs page in iTunes or the podcast's Web page.)

If you like this episode you might consider subscribing—you'll get a new medical mystery delivered to your iPod every week (free of charge, of course).

Quantum Teleportation
By Dave Mosher

Anton Zeilinger of the University of Vienna recently used quantum teleportation to transfer information between two islands more than 87 miles apart, breaking the previous record of a just half a yard. But what exactly does this mean? And when will be able to teleport ourselves to tropical islands? Let us use a little story to illustrate the amazing—though sadly limited—power of entanglement-powered teleportation:

Thirsty for some electron lemonade, particle A heads to the town pub. There, particle A bumps into particle B, who is sitting at the bar. Soon they become attached at the hip—bound by the freaky laws of quantum physics, they share identical particle states (for example, the direction their electrons spin). But particle C jealously eyes particle B from a dark corner of the establishment. When particle A heads to the restroom, particle C jumps at its chance to steal particle B's attention.

At this point, the quantum love triangle starts getting weird: Everything particle C does to particle B particle A experiences at exactly the same time in the restroom—as if particle B were a voodoo doll. And that's what physicists call entanglement, which allows for "quantum teleportation": the near-instantaneous transfer of information across a considerable distance.

Though this may seem like a joke, the idea has captured the minds of physicists since Einstein first theorized about the "spooky" property in 1935. Theoretically, quantum computers could use entanglement to beef up computer security and store far more data than today's computers, but the technology is still far off.

Lisa Randall on Charlie Rose Show
By Amos Kenigsberg

Randall100 Harvard theoretical physicist Lisa Randall—best known, of course, for her online chat on—appeared on the Charlie Rose Show last Tuesday. It should be clear which one is her and which one is Kissinger.

Wishful Seeing
Shiny Happy People
20 Things You Didn't Know About... Sleep
Can New Neurons Teach an Old Mouse?
The Woman Who Never Forgets
Why We Get Diseases Other Primates Don't
Vital Signs: Trouble in the Nursery
Natural Selections: The Potential Pandemic You've Never Heard Of
20 Things You Didn't Know About... Death
Natural Selections: The Potential Pandemic You've Never Heard Of
Recently Covered in Discover: The Man Who Finds Planets
Sky Lights: The Dark Side of the Universe
20 Things You Didn't Know About... Meteors
Sky Lights: The Dark Side of the Universe
Islam Hits International Space Station
Neighborhood Watch Goes High Tech
Going Atomic... Again
Jaron's World: The Murder of Mystery
How to Make Anything Look Like a Toy, Round II
Raw Data: The Rigorous Study of the Ancient Mariners
Will We Ever Clone a Caveman?
This Month's Ask Discover
How Life Got a Leg Up
Mammals Stake Their Place in Jurassic Park
You Say "Ook Ook," I Say "Aak Aak"
Guilt-Free Gossip for Greens
A Greener Faith
Whatever Happened To... the Exxon Valdez?
Life After Oil
The Next Katrina
  Full access to all site content requires registration as a magazine subscriber.
© 2005 Discover Media LLC. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.
Privacy Policy / Your California Privacy Rights | Terms and Conditions | Educator's Guide | Subscribe Online Today | Online Media Kit
Customer Care | Contact Us