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'Why Files' revealed

UW-Madison
Terry Devitt and David J. Tenenbaum, two of the brains behind "The Why Files,"
hang out in the Zoology Museum at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Can poker make you sick? How can a few herbs make your Memorial Day barbecue a little healthier? Why has the world community failed to stop genocide? "The Why Files" takes on scientific questions great and small, on the Web and in a new book. (Answers below.)

"The Why Files" has been serving up weekly samplings of science on the Internet for 13 years, which is about as long as msnbc.com has been in existence. "When the Internet was a vast wasteland, we were lucky to get out in front," said one of the site's creators, Terry Devitt, director of research communications at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

The idea was to explore "the science behind the news" on the Web, even if that meant UW-Madison didn't get mentioned. "It's small potatoes in the big scheme of things, but we are a scientific institution, and it's important that people understand how science works and why it matters," Devitt told me.

The voice of "The Why Files" is David J. Tenenbaum, a veteran science writer who has been turning science into sprightly prose since the Web site was born. "I think of us as just a magazine that happens to appear on the Web," Tenenbaum said.

But this is not your science teacher's magazine: Each installment is enhanced by graphics, interactives and a literary style that always goes down easy, even when the subject is hard. One of the pieces on Tenenbaum's list of greatest hits is an explanation of what climate change is doing to the world's glaciers, titled "No Snows of Kilimanjaro," which is written in the style of Ernest Hemingway.

The concept still draws a chuckle from Devitt. "Not to take anything away from Dave," he said, "but I like the real Hemingway myself."

Penguin Books
"The Why Files" is an ink-
on-paper spin-off of the
award-winning Web site.


The faux Hemingway appears along with other greatest hits from the Web site (such as the tale of a dog's vocabulary, told from the dog's point of view) in the book version of "The Why Files," published just this month. The re-edited Web dispatches constitute only about 20 percent of the book, however. "Most of the book is new," Tenenbaum said.

Putting together the book was a task added to the "day jobs" that typically occupy Tenenbaum and Devitt's time at the university. "Doing this was a bit of a challenge," Devitt said. "But one of the positive things about doing this project [for the book publisher] is that revenues from the book feed back into the project [for the Web]. Dave and I don't make a nickel off this."

The book is ideal for setting out on the bedstand, the coffee table, the study desk or, yes, the bathroom reading rack. Each entry is one to three pages in length, packing a lot of science into small, easy-to-digest bites. But this isn't junk-food science (though you will find an item about the science of junk food). In the book and on the Web site, the "Why Files" team doesn't shy away from serious subjects.

"A couple of months ago we did 'How Come We Have Mass Murderers?'" Tenenbaum noted. In the book, Tenenbaum touches upon the roots of genocide and religious extremism, the effects of torture and, of course, the impact of global climate change.

"I'm really tired of global warming, but only because I wish someone would show that it's going to be slower than expected rather than faster. ... I continue to write the stories because it matters so much. It's the science story of the century, as far as I'm concerned," he said.

The authors hope "The Why Files" will also get across some serious messages about the way science is done. "Science is just a totally fascinating way of seeing the world," Tenenbaum said. "It takes perspectives and conjectures and facts and stereotypes, but it has really strong ground rules that matter - and work."

He said it takes "a certain level of hypocrisy" to enjoy the fruits of science - ranging from medical advances to Hubble pictures - while devaluing the scientific process itself.

"Just being proud that 'I'm afraid of the science' ... that's a real no-no," he said.

There are a few things, however, that inspire fear in Tenenbaum, a veteran of newspaper and magazine journalism. "I fear a world of blogs and Twitter - is that over my 140 characters?" he joked. "I think it's really dangerous. They're all going to quote each other, and there'll be no basis for what they say."

I just might have to quote Tenenbaum about that on Twitter when it comes time to send a link to this latest blog entry. But before I start tweeting, here are the answers to the questions we started out with, gleaned from "The Why Files" book:

  • I'll raise you a rhinovirus: J. Owen Hendley of the University of Virginia Health System reported that cold viruses could survive on a wide variety of surfaces in a hotel room. Years earlier, UW-Madison medical researcher Elliot Dick found that poker players could transmit cold viruses to each other in the course of a card game, but he concluded the transmission was through the air rather via contaminated surfaces (such as cards or chips).
  • Cancer-fighting marinade: Kansas State University's J. Scott Smith found that off-the-shelf supermarket marinades containing herbs from the mint family (including mint as well as basil, savory, oregano, sage, rosemary and thyme) reduced the levels of cancer-causing agents called heterocyclic amines in grilled beef. The herbs' antioxidants may be a factor.
  • Never say 'never again'? One study, conducted by the University of Oregon's Paul Slovic, looked at why reports of genocide don't generate as strong a response as tales of an individual's woe. His experiment found that our sense of compassion tends to blur with larger numbers, even when the focus shifts from one person's tragedy to two people's tragedy. "The Why Files" cites a number of other studies on the response to genocide - but you'll just have to get the book to read the details.

Don't be afraid: Join the Cosmic Log corps by signing up as my Facebook friend or hooking up on Twitter. If you really want to be friendly, ask me about my upcoming book, "The Case for Pluto." But don't expect an instant response. I'll be away from the blog factory during the long Memorial Day weekend. Take some time to honor the fallen as you enjoy your holiday getaway.