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Alakazam! The Neuroscience of Magic

It’s not every day that you see a magician mentioned in the “Acknowledgements” section of a peer-reviewed scientific paper. But last month, when the open-access journal PeerJ launched, there it was: magical act Penn & Teller got a mention both in that section of the article AND in the title.

In the paper, Stephen L. Macknick of Barrow Neurological Institute and two other researchers explore why Penn & Teller’s classic “cups and balls” magic trick works so well … by using some tricks of the cognitive-neuroscience trade. They monitored the eye movements of study participants who were watching Teller perform to understand the finer points of the illusion.

Below, you’ll see an extended version of Penn & Teller performing the age-old trick, but you can also see the videos that accompanied the paper here.

As I mention in this week’s print Newscripts, Teller had assumed “cups and balls” fools the audience—even with transparent cups—because when he picks up a cup from the table, he tilts it and causes a ball sitting on top to fall. He thought audience members were distracted by the ball’s motion and therefore didn’t notice him sliding a new ball under the cup before placing it back on the table.

Macknick and his team disproved this notion by demonstrating that viewers’ eyes didn’t stray very much from Teller’s hands when he dumped the ball. Only when he held one of the balls up or placed it on the table did he misdirect a subject’s gaze significantly.

Some Newscripts readers might at this point be scratching their heads and asking why cognitive neuroscientists are helping magicians work on their acts. Continue reading →

Amusing News Aliquots

Silly samplings from this week’s science news, compiled by Bethany Halford and Lauren Wolf.

Ever wish you could tear a page out of C&EN and eat it because it’s so good? Well, it might happen in the future … Fanta creates an edible ad. [ShortList] But just to be clear, this is old news: Newscripts has written about edible ads (and greeting cards) before. [C&EN]

Scientists in California want to create laser beams to evaporate asteroids before they hit Earth. No word on using them to fill the dean’s house with popcorn or if they will be mounted on sharks. [LA Times]

Speaking of lasers, this one was meant for studying space, but it moonlights as a counterfeit honey detector. [Slate]

Who knew panda flirting was so complicated? The Edinburgh Zoo’s Yang Guang “has recently begun to execute handstands against trees, walls, and rocks, and to leave scent marks as high up as he can” in an attempt to get the attention of lady panda Tian Tian. [Guardian]

Jose Canseco, that lovable juiced-up ex-ball player, tweeted his theories on gravity and dinosaurs this week. Newscripts hasn’t been this confused since Keanu Reeves explained wave-particle duality. [iO9]

Checking up on HP’s Chubby Checker. Incidentally, if the Newscripts gang held stock in HP, we’d be wondering what the hell is going on at that place. [Slate]

This Side Up: The paint splatters on that canvas really do have a top and bottom. Study shows people can set an abstract painting in its “correct” orientation  more often than not. [Discoblog]

Amusing News Aliquots

Silly samplings from this week’s science news, compiled by Sophia Cai and Bethany Halford

Credit: Armed Forces Pest Management Board/Flickr

Credit: Armed Forces Pest Management Board/Flickr

Chemistry lab work can be tough. There are smelly solvents and reactions with the potential to explode. But at least you don’t have to worry about how you’ll feed the bedbugs. [PopSci]

Middle school science fair projects have gotten legit. Thirteen-year-old sends Hello Kitty to the stratosphere and back, with a video camera along for the ride. [Cosmic Log/NBC News]

Lusty male moth drives robot car towards the scent of his lady love, refuses to ask for directions. [Forbes]

The recently unearthed bones of Richard III beg the question: What’s the Shelf Life of DNA? [Slate]

Perhaps Ethan Hawke’s character from “Gattaca” isn’t the only one who should be paranoid — someone’s 3-D printing faces with your discarded DNA. [iO9]

Forget your umbrella? Spray your clothes with Ultra Ever Dry, a superhydrophobic and oleophobic nanotech coating (Um, actually, we’re not sure you should spray this on your clothes, but there’s a cool video). [NPR]

Fun With Science: Top 10 Videos Of The Year

Who says scientists are boring geeks who drone on about quantum efficiency and reaction yield? We here at the Newscripts blog LOVE science and think those geeks are rockstars. So we’ve selected an assortment of our favorite videos of the year depicting just how cool science can be. The clips were culled from 2012 blog posts as well as from the YouTube channel of Chemical & Engineering News.

So sit back, relax, warm yourself by the gentle glow of that Bunsen burner, and bask in the awesomeness of science.


In at number 10, Russell Hemley and researchers at the Carnegie Institution for Science have gotten so good at growing their own diamonds from methane, they can make gems as big as 10 carat! Too bad they’re using them in high-pressure experiments rather than sending the Newscripts gang free samples.


Number 9: Reality TV isn’t just for privileged housewives, the gym-tan-laundry crowd, or survivors who like to eat bugs anymore. This year, MIT released a reality Web series following undergrads trying to pass an introductory chemistry course. Oh, the intrigue! Crystallization contests, rotovap malfunctions … this is the trailer that got us pumped for the series. [Link to original post]


Number 8: Adorable pandas + poop = instant classic. It really doesn’t even matter what the rest of the video is about. Although we did slip in some biofuel science. So you’re learning something while overloading on cute.


Number 7: Although the Newscripts gang loves to yell out requests for “Free Bird” at concerts, we also think Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” is pretty clutch, too. It’s even better when played by Tesla coils. [Link to original post]


Number 6: This year, researchers at Harvard and Caltech made a polymer sheet swim like a jellyfish. Why? We’re not so sure it matters. All we know is, right now, we’re heading out to procure some rat heart cells, a silicone sheet, and a vial of fibronectin because, well, we want one.


Number 5: You didn’t think you’d make it through a 2012 countdown without a Gangnam parody, did you? Good. Because here’s biochemistry, taught Gangnam-style. [Link to original post] Continue reading →

Amusing News Aliquots

Silly samplings from this week’s science news, compiled by Bethany Halford and Lauren Wolf.

Catfish feasts on pigeon. This is in France, so they probably call it squab. [Not Exactly Rocket Science]

Liar, Liar, muscles-around-the-nose-and-eyes on fire! [Body Odd/NBCNews]

Brilliant! Physicists in Britain engage the public with beer mats. [Physics.org via The Guardian]

Apparently, being able to grow nerve cells from a person’s blood or skin cells wasn’t cutting-edge enough. Scientists are now making brain-cell precursors from cells in a person’s urine. [Nature]

White tigers are awesome, right? Um, actually, they’re mutant freaks bred for human entertainment. [Slate]

Researchers just HAD to watch all 22 James Bond movies (before “Skyfall”) to publish a report on whether films are getting more violent. It’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it. [iO9]

Chemistry, Gangnam Style

Can’t get the “Gangnam Style” song out of your head? Well, for some chemistry students at Shaker Heights High School, near Cleveland, Ohio, the song just might come in handy for their next chemistry exam.

Check out “Molecules Gone Wild (Bio Style),” chemistry teacher Mr. Hsu’s version of Korean pop sensation PSY’s viral hit. The link was sent to us by Alex Madonik of the American Chemical Society’s California Section, who is an alumni of Shaker Heights.

Happy Friday!

Visions of a fictional #foodchem future

As Thanksgiving approaches, I know I’m not alone in having an intensely nostalgic view of food. Certain foods will always be strongly associated with memories of my childhood and inextricably linked to my family as my children grow. Or rather, now that they are grown.

As I look fondly to the past, I also wonder what the future of food will look like. It is certain that chemistry will play some role here, because, food, like everything else, is made of chemicals.

When I was a young boy, all technology, including chemistry (!), was chic and modern, or, rather, mod. The food industry was creating product after product that, to me, seemed cool as cool could be, and I literally ate them up. My experience of this era mirrors that of Michael Pollan, writer of “books and articles about the places where nature and culture intersect: on our plates, in our farms and gardens, and in the built environment.”

In a 2003 New York Times Magazine article entitled “The Futures of Food,” he wrote:

“all signs pointed to a single outcome: the meal in a pill, washed down, perhaps, with next-generation Tang.

The general consensus seemed to be that “food”—a word that was already beginning to sound old-fashioned—was destined to break its surly bonds to Nature, float free of agriculture and hitch its future to Technology.”

Sadly, this love fest with technofood was short-lived:

“What none of us could have imagined back in 1965 was that within five short years, the synthetic food future would be overthrown in advance of its arrival. The counterculture seized upon processed food, of all things, as a symbol of everything wrong with industrial civilization.”

Over forty years later, although food technology has continued to proceeded, the concept of synthetic food has not regained any luster. The opinion that processed food is to be avoided has transcended the counterculture, and has been embraced by the popular culture and medical establishment. Whole, natural, fresh foods are the healthy dietary high road for you to travel.

There has been much controversy in particular regarding genetically-modified organisms (GMO) contained in our food products. Any discussion of the future of food would have to include this. But having just opened that particular can of worms, I’m going to attempt to reseal it and approach the subject of food’s future from another tack, taking a very sharp turn toward a lighter, fluffier view. Like a soufflé. Hopefully it won’t collapse.

We are now well into the 21st Century. So, how did those 1960s predictions of our Food Future turn out? I don’t know about you, but I certainly enjoy all my food in pill form. I find it’s a good idea to eat light before flying in my rocket car, at least until my personal robot gets its pilot’s license.

Since many of these predictions have turned out later to be more-or-less fantasy, perhaps more reliable visions of our future in food are to be found in the world of fiction. So, below, I’ve compiled a small list of film, television and book titles—some are SF, some not, but all have a vision of the future or parallel present, dystopian or otherwise. In all these works, there is at least a moment where food plays a part. Please join me and scan the following menu:

Continue reading →

Making Art With Numbers … And Molecular Formulas

Sienna Morris absorbs science and math the way some people suck down Red Bull energy drinks. Her craving is intense, and once she’s taken in some new tidbit of knowledge, it fuels her while she works.

A glow-in-the-dark version of Morris’ “Bioluminescence” piece with fireflies. Credit: Sienna Morris

Morris, a Portland, Ore.-based artist, has created a series of pieces that she describes as being “made with science.” This pronouncement, in fact, is what caught my attention while I was strolling through the Portland Saturday Market on a summer vacation to Oregon. Being the geek that I am, I couldn’t pass by a booth adorned with such an advertisement and not investigate.

What I found was some wonderfully inventive art done with a technique Morris calls numberism. When viewed from a distance, one of Morris’ pieces might look like a detailed drawing of a cat, but when you move closer, you discover, this is no ordinary cat. It’s Schrödinger’s Cat. And the lines of its fur are made of letters and numbers—the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle drawn over and over to meld together and form the larger piece.

Morris says she started out using numberism  in 2008 as a way to draw a four-dimensional moment. Her first piece that was constructed this way, called “Falling To Pieces,” depicts the faces of two lovers about to kiss. The faces are made by mashing together the numbers of the clock; the digits stream away from the edges of the faces and trail off in smoky wisps.

This was “a well-lived moment,” in her life, Morris says. She wanted to capture it in space as well as in time. “The numbers are coming in and going out to remind us that time’s constantly changing,” she says.

The science and math pieces started about two years after this initial foray into numberism. Morris had been inspired to learn more about the subjects by her husband, Tabulanis, who is a designer and physics enthusiast.

Now, a handful of her science art even contains chemistry. In one piece, a woman blows out the flame on a candle, which is constructed from an average molecular formula for paraffin wax (C25H52).

In another piece, a little girl examines a jar full of fireflies. The bellies of the insects are drawn with the formula for a luciferin, a compound involved in the bugs’ luminescence. The glow emitting from the fireflies in the artwork is composed of the digits in the speed of light. Continue reading →