The Greatest Hits of Science

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The American Association for the Advancement of Science hosted its annual festival in San Diego this past weekend. It's a serious scientific meeting complete with plenary sessions, lots of PowerPoint presentations and rows of posters, but it's also a big party for people who care about the big picture of science. Unlike most conferences, which are focused on a specific field, this one brings together scientists from all fields of research as well as people involved in policy, ethics, international diplomacy and, at least when the meeting is held in Southern California, the entertainment industry.

The movie people came to the meeting to endorse a new collaboration between the University of Southern California's film school and the National Science Foundation. Details on the collaboration were sparse. Ron Howard stopped by, though, to say that he gained a new appreciation for the story-telling importance of science when he was directing Apollo 13. When he tested various cuts of the movie before focus groups, he found that audiences were "hungry for the details" about the space program. (He also said that, on the television show Happy Days, "Fonzie would tap on the jukebox and make it go, but we didn't delve into the physics of that.")

The liveliest sessions were about geoengineering, strategies to manipulate the oceans or atmosphere to try to compensate for some of the effects of climate change. More on that tomorrow.

Today, here are some highlights from the meeting: In keeping with the Hollywood theme, a session on the science of superheroes suggested that any given superhero should have only one superpower. Other teams are working on batteries made out of paper, finding that sleep deprivation is contagious, or uncovering the "biology of misfortune" by which early childhood poverty can have health effects that last a lifetime. Researchers say we can learn about diabetes by studying dolphins and a philosopher thinks dolphins are so intelligent that we should think of them as non-human persons.

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