American Scientist Update, Vol. 11 No. 4

See below for exciting content in the July–August 2014 issue of American Scientist.

Have an iPad? Get American Scientist on our iPad app!

In this issue of American Scientist Update:

• Can Skinny Fat Fight Obesity?
• Engines Powered by the Forces Between Atoms
• Why Some Animals Forgo Reproduction in Complex Societies
• The Deadly Dynamics of Landslides

Can Skinny Fat Fight Obesity?
Newly discovered in adult mammals, beige fat cells can switch between accumulating fat and burning it, depending on metabolic needs.
There’s more to body fat than meets the eye. The two scientifically familiar types are white fat (an excess of adipose tissue) and brown fat (the essence of plumpness in a healthy baby). But there is also a newly discovered third type of fat—beige fat cells—that can switch its function from accumulating fat to burning it off for energy. Biologist Philip A. Rea and his colleagues Peter Yin and Ryan Zahalka, both rising seniors in biology, explain what scientists are just beginning to understand about this new type of fat cells’ amazing versatility.

Engines Powered by the Forces Between Atoms
By manipulating the weak attraction between atoms, it may be possible to create novel types of friction-free micromachine, propulsive systems, and energy storage devices.
Typically van der Waals forces—the weak electrical attractions between atoms—are assumed to be constant, but by modulating dispersion forces with light, physicists can manipulate those forces to actuate nanodevices and store energy. This process also makes it possible to move objects without touching them and without the need for electrostatic charges. Physicist Fabrizio Pinto discusses the cutting-edge use of van der Waals forces in nano- and micro-technology.

Why Some Animals Forgo Reproduction in Complex Societies
Behaviors of coral reef fishes provide strong support for some major new ideas about the evolution of cooperation.
Two evolutionary biologists, Peter Buston and Marian Wong, discuss why some animals do not breed and instead help others of their species raise young in complex societies. After two decades of research on the social behavior of coral reef fish, the researchers have discovered that such behavior can unfold in a way not previously described. Their work has intriguing implications for understanding the evolution of cooperative behavior, kin selection, and altruism.

The Deadly Dynamics of Landslides
Major earth-moving events take on a stunning variety of forms. Understanding their diversity is crucial for anticipating disaster and saving lives.
Landslides occur from a simple mix of gravity, friction, and momentum, yet they take on a stunning variety of forms, with equally diverse human consequences. Geologist Susan W. Kieffer uncovers the natural laws that connect and underpin disasters and describes how the most obvious process in a disaster is not always the one that causes the most devastation.


In our Spotlight section, American Scientist senior editor Sandra J. Ackerman explains how a new way of analyzing genomic data from tumors may allow clinicians to treat an individual’s cancer as its own unique disease. Also, acting editor-in-chief Corey S. Powell interviews planetary scientist Dante Lauretta about the challenges and potential payoffs that may result from NASA’s upcoming OSIRIS-REx mission to a near-Earth asteroid.

In our Perspective column, Roald Hoffmann emphasizes the importance of integrating the art of storytelling and science together to create more of an emotional narrative. Looking at the scientific method as a type of story arc helps connect human involvement to scientific results.

In our Technologue column, Scott Aaronson discusses whether predeterminism exists in quantum mechanics, and how it can be used to produce numbers that truly have no pattern—a key component for encryption and other computing technologies.

This issue’s Sightings column displays stunning images of the Sun and illustrates their connection to powerful space storms. Catherine Clabby decodes the various types of solar events recorded in amazing visuals by the latest space observatories.

In our Engineering column, Henry Petroski describes his latest book, The House with Sixteen Handmade Doors, and its surprising connection to another book, written in the 19th century, about the era when civil engineering and architecture began to merge into the modern method of building a home.

In our Computing Science column, Brian Hayes writes about an emerging discipline, digital humanities, that applies mathematical and computational tools to literature. He also tracks its roots back to a very early form of data mining invented more than a century ago.

In our Arts Lab column, Robert Louis Chianese argues for a fresh approach to studying living systems by conveying the interdependence of all its agents. Some of the best inspiration for this approach comes not from scientific journals but from poetry.

In our Scientists’ Nightstand section, our reviewers provide a critical commentary on Nicholas Wade’s controversial claim that racial variations account for differing behavior and social norms; examine how wartime research aimed at harnessing the forces of nature fueled the modern environmental movement; and showcase historical photographs that document the life and demise of now-extinct animals.

Sign up for the Scientists’ Nightstand eNewsletter to receive emails that list noteworthy reviews of books about science and mathematics, as well as other news from the world of science books.

American Scientist is the award-winning flagship publication of Sigma Xi.

In 1886, Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society was founded to honor excellence in scientific investigation, and encourage companionship and cooperation among researchers in all fields of science and engineering. As an honor society for scientists and engineers, Sigma Xi has become the global interdisciplinary society with sustaining members in 100 countries. For more information about Sigma Xi, or to inquire about membership, please visit our website.

American Scientist Update alerts you to new content and other news from American Scientist, an illustrated bi-monthly magazine of science and technology published by Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society.

Complimentary copies of the magazine and electronic copies of articles are available to journalists upon request.

Media contact: Jennifer Dorff,

Subscribe, unsubscribe or change your email address: American Scientist Online.

Problems? Comments? Write to us:

If you do not wish to receive any further e-mails, please click here to manage your subscriptions.