The Why Files: The Science Behind The News

Paperback | April 28, 2009

byDavid J. Tenenbaum, Terry Devitt

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Science magazine meets The Onion, Mental Floss, and Mad magazine in this ingenious guide to the science behind the news

For more than a decade , the intrepid folks at #1 science destination on the web-have been exploring the science behind newsworthy events. Now condensed into a book written with the site's characteristic wit, The Why Files features scores of articles organized into sections that mirror any city's daily newspaper: World News, Metro, Business Life, Sports, Arts & Leisure, Travel, Style, Opinion Page, and more. Who knew that science can explain why extremists say "God Told Us to Kill," how poker can make you sick, why great racehorses have big butts, and if electrocution is the best way to zap a bug? For those who love accurate science served up with humor in a one-of-a-kind newscast, this decidedly non-geeky guide is a must.

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Science magazine meets The Onion, Mental Floss, and Mad magazine in this ingenious guide to the science behind the newsFor more than a decade , the intrepid folks at #1 science destination on the web-have been exploring the science behind newsworthy events. Now condensed into a book written with the site's characterist...

DAVID TENENBAUM has written about science, health, and the environment for publications including the Los Angeles Times, Technology Review and the Milwaukee Journal. TERRY DEVITT is director of research communications for the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Format:PaperbackDimensions:208 pages, 9.24 × 7.36 × 0.58 inPublished:April 28, 2009Publisher:Penguin Publishing GroupLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0143114670

ISBN - 13:9780143114673


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Table of Contents PENGUIN BOOKSTitle PageCopyright PageDedicationIntroduction HEADLINE NEWSMETROBUSINESS LIFESPORTSARTS & LEISUREFOODSTYLEHEALTHSCIENCE & TECHNOLOGYTRAVELWEATHERHOME & GARDENAUTO NEWSLIFE & LOVEOPINION PAGES AcknowledgementsArt CreditsPENGUIN BOOKSTHE WHY FILESDecades ago, after “careers” in farming, barn recycling, leather-bag design, and sauerkraut pitching, David J. Tenenbaum reinvented himself as a science writer. Obsessed with understanding how things work, why they don’t, and how come we should care anyway, he’s written about science, health, and the environment for local, regional, and national publications, including the Los Angeles Times, Technology Review,, and the Milwaukee Journal. When asked to apply for a position at The Why Files, he responded, “Doesn’t that sound like a JOB?” but then applied anyway, and helped concoct the Files’ humorous but slightly offbeat approach to science news. His work at The Why Files has received awards from the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Association for Science Writers. Tenenbaum is also coauthor of a recent college textbook on human biology and is author of several “how-to” books, written for either professional builders or rank amateurs.Terry Devitt is a cofounder and editor of The Why Files. By day, he is director of research communications for the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Why Files headquarters. He writes about all areas of science, and his work has garnered recognition from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which elected him to the status of fellow in late 2007; the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education; and the Society of Professional Journalists. His freelance credits include Astronomy magazine, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Bulletin, Orion, the Los Angeles Times syndicate, and the children’s science magazine Muse.PENGUIN BOOKS Published by the Penguin Group Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, U.S.A. Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4P 2Y3 (a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.) Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England Penguin Ireland, 25 St Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2, Ireland (a division of Penguin Books Ltd) Penguin Group (Australia), 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell, Victoria 3124, Australia (a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty Ltd) Penguin Books India Pvt Ltd, 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi - 110 017, India Penguin Group (NZ), 67 Apollo Drive, Rosedale, North Shore 0632, New Zealand (a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd) Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty) Ltd, 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England First published in Penguin Books 2009  Copyright © The Stonesong Press, LLC and the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System, 2009All rights reserved A Stonesong Press Book Portions of this book first appeared on-line on Illustration credits appear on page 190.  LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING IN PUBLICATION DATA Tenenbaum, David. The why files : the science behind the news / David Tenenbaum ; with Terry Devitt. p. cm.eISBN : 978-1-101-02924-41. Science—Miscellanea. I. Title. Q173.T284 2009 500—dc22 2008029566   The scanning, uploading and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.To the taxpayers of the United States and the rest of the planet, who fund the best science around. And to the late Denice Denton, without whom there would be no Why Files.IntroductionFor most of us, science is a distant and mysterious process. Practiced by detached geniuses, conducted in forbidding settings, and deliberately shrouded in language and symbology that few laypeople can comprehend, modern scientific research seems inaccessible, even a bit frightening. And scientists themselves, and the organizations that employ them, have helped spread this sterile view of the remoteness of the scientific enterprise, despite many sincere efforts to the contrary.This is troubling because we live in a scientific world. In the United States and the rest of the developed world, there isn’t much in our daily lives that is untouched by science and its technological offspring. Take music, for instance. A hundred and some years ago, if you wanted to hear music you needed to find a musician or orchestra or, if you were capable, you made your own. Today, through a progression of scientific and technological achievements in physics, chemistry, and engineering, the world’s best musicians can perform on demand in our living rooms and we can carry and play more music than can be heard in a week, right from our pocket. This reality was impossible even for the Thomas Edisons of the world to forecast.We live longer, healthier lives because of science. We are more mobile and have more information at our fingertips, literally, than is squeezed into the 530 miles of bookshelves in the Library of Congress. We can look at our planet through the eye of a satellite 23,000 miles above Earth to assess tomorrow’s weather. We can peer to the edge of the cosmos using any of a battery of monstrous telescopes situated on remote mountaintops or floating in Earth’s orbit. And we can communicate in a heartbeat with any of the estimated 665 million people—fully one-tenth of the world’s population—who are linked by the Internet.Science is also intimately connected to many of the problems of the world, as knowledge can have a high price. Turning science to practical ends, what we call technology, has spawned grave issues such as climate change, environmental degradation of all kinds, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and the depletion of the world’s resources. Many of our diciest biomedical controversies (think stem cells, cloning, and the wrenching dilemma of Terri Schiavo and other “pull the plug” cases) can be attributed to scientific knowledge and our newfound abilities to manipulate the levers of life.Science, of course, may also help us extricate ourselves from these dilemmas. Our best bet for confronting diseases such as diabetes, asthma, AIDS, malaria, bird flu, and other horrible afflictions, in all likelihood, will be found in the laboratory, since the drugs that help us lead longer, healthier lives can only be developed by scientists through complicated and expensive programs of drug discovery.It is possible that science and technology will help resolve some of our serious environmental problems as well. If we are to avoid future energy crises as the world’s supplies of oil and natural gas diminish, it is likely that scientists will be riding to our rescue. If we are to continue to feed and clothe the world’s 6.8 billion people, we will depend on the proven methods of science to ensure enough food and fiber.For all of these reasons and more, some of us feel compelled to chip away at the idea that modern science is impenetrable or worse, dull. That leads us to The Why Files, a project set in motion more than a decade ago at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The Why Files ( was among the World Wide Web’s first domains created exclusively for popularizing science. Established in 1996 as part of a National Science Foundation-supported institute for science education, it remains a leading independent popular science destination on the Web. Its mission: make science accessible, understandable, and less forbidding. Make it interesting and show science for what it really is, a process conducted by people who schlep around the same human baggage as the rest of us. And, oh yes, if the subject matter isn’t too tragic, let’s have some fun with it.Access to such a perspective is essential, in our view, as most people—once they have dispensed with formal education—are exposed to science only through the prism of popular media. And science and its implications are way too important to be served up as processed, results-driven summaries in the daily news.Nearly every week for more than a decade, a small, dedicated team—a writer, a designer/ illustrator, a Web guy, and a trusty graduate student (the driving force of all modern science) —has produced an illustrated feature on some aspect of science, math, or technology. Using events in the news as an excuse to pry open the lab door, The Why Files has covered the scientific waterfront. Before there was CSI: Miami, there was The Why Files and its un-squeamish exploration of what flesh-eating bugs can tell us about the dead. If you wonder whether being brainy will make you wealthy, we have grim news. We’ve also looked at wildfire, the scourge of the American Southwest, in terms of the human penchant for building in the path of natural disaster. The global tragedy of emerging diseases like AIDS is depicted, as is one way to quickly make vaccines against the fearful threat of bird flu. And it all is delivered in clear, if slightly panic-stricken, English.Given enough rope to hang itself, The Why Files has jumped into the culture wars. Intelligent design, global-warming naysayers, and those who would foist fake science upon us on behalf of industries that exploit our natural heritage get the skewering they deserve.And then there is the fun stuff. Who knew that a good racehorse requires a big butt, or that there is a scientific use for pee beyond drug testing? Can herbs buffer us from the cancer-causing compounds in that grilled burger? Could we live without the leap second? And what’s up with dog-paddling dinosaurs or that dog that knows 260 words?

Editorial Reviews

"Clear, fun explanations of the science behind the headlines."
-U.S. News & World Report

" Provides a good mix of information and interactivity that takes the chore out of learning. In fact, you might even have a good time."
-The Washington Post