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A poison aficionado’s guide to 6 killer chemicals

Antifreeze is a favorite of today's poisoners, because of its sweet taste.
Steve and Sarah Emry
Antifreeze is a favorite of today's poisoners, because of its sweet taste.

This episode of Inquiring Mindsa podcast hosted by best-selling author Chris Mooney and neuroscientist and musician Indre Viskontas, also features an interview with Quartz meteorology writer Eric Holthaus about whether global warming may be producing more extreme cold weather in the mid-latitudes, just like what much of America experienced this week.

To catch future shows right when they are released, subscribe to Inquiring Minds via iTunes or RSS. You can also follow the show on Twitter at @inquiringshow and like us on Facebook. Inquiring Minds was also recently singled out as one of the "Best of 2013" shows on iTunes -- you can learn more here.

As a writer, Deborah Blum says she has a "love of evil chemistry." It seems that audiences do too: Her latest book, The Poisoner's HandbookMurder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York, was not only a bestseller, but was just turned into a film by PBS (you can watch it for free here).

The book tells the story of Charles Norris, New York City's first medical examiner, and Alexander Gettler, his toxicologist and forensic chemist. They were a scientific and medical duo who brought real evidence and reliable forensic techniques to the pressing task of apprehending poisoners, who were running rampant at the time because there was no science capable of catching them. "When Norris came to office in 1918, the same year, the city of New York actually published a report saying that poisoners could operate with impunity in New York City," explains Blum on the latest episode of the Inquiring Minds podcast [stream below].

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These movies changed your political views, according to science

people watching movie
Shutterstock

Rush Limbaugh was right all along.

Sort of.

According to a study recently published in Social Science Quarterly, Hollywood is making you more liberal. The study, titled "Moving Pictures? Experimental Evidence of Cinematic Influence on Political Attitudes," was coauthored by Todd Adkins and Jeremiah Castle of the University of Notre Dame. It found that viewers who watched a movie with a message on healthcare (either Francis Ford Coppola's fairly polemical The Rainmaker or James L. Brooks' more subtle As Good As It Gets) generally saw their support for the Affordable Care Act, or similar policies, increase.

"We find significant evidence that viewers of both As Good As it Gets and The Rainmaker became more liberal on healthcare-related policies as a result of watching the movies, with this change persisting two weeks after viewing the films," the authors wrote. "Such evidence strongly supports our contention that popular films possess the capability to change attitudes on political issues. We believe the potential for popular films to generate lasting attitudinal change presents an important area for future research."

Read more: Living, Politics

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Why the Arctic is drunk right now

gohomearcticyouredrunk__630
Greg Laden/ECMWF

Perhaps the best analogy yet for the insane cold weather now afflicting the U.S. came from science blogger Greg Laden, who created the viral image above. "Go home, Arctic," it reads. "You're drunk."

When it comes to the reason why the United States is currently experiencing life-threatening cold -- with temperatures in the negative-20s in the upper Midwest, and wind chills much lower than that -- that's actually not so far from the truth. "It's basically the jet stream on a drunken path going around the Northern Hemisphere," explains Rutgers University climate scientist Jennifer Francis. In other words, we're experiencing record-breaking cold temperatures because a wavy and elongated jet stream has allowed frigid Arctic air to travel much farther south than usual.

And according to Francis' research -- which has drawn increasing attention in the past few years -- we're seeing more of just this kind of jet stream behavior, thanks to the rapid warming of the Arctic.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Dear Donald Trump: Winter does not disprove global warming

New Yorkers trudge through snow as Winter Storm Hercules approaches.
Roman Kruglov
Winter Storm Hercules approaches New York.

An intense blizzard, appropriately named Hercules, is blanketing the Northeast. Antarctic ice locked in a Russian ship containing a team of scientists -- en route, no less, to do climate research. Record low temperatures have been seen in parts of the U.S., and in Winnipeg, temperatures on Dec. 31 were as cold as temperatures on ... Mars.

So as is their seasonal wont, here come the climate skeptics. Exhibit A:

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Mark Ruffalo wants you to imagine a 100 percent clean energy future

mark ruffalo fracking press conference
William Alatriste/New York City Council

This episode of Inquiring Minds, a podcast hosted by best-selling author Chris Mooney and neuroscientist and musician Indre Viskontas, also features a discussion of what the year 2013 meant for climate and energy. To catch future shows right when they are released, subscribe to Inquiring Minds via iTunes or RSS. You can also follow the show on Twitter at @inquiringshow and like us on Facebook. Inquiring Minds was also recently singled out as one of the "Best of 2013" shows on iTunes -- you can learn more here.

For Mark Ruffalo, environmental activism started out with something to oppose, to be against: fracking. It all began when the actor, perhaps best known for his role as Bruce Banner (The Hulk) in Marvel's The Avengers, was raising his three small children in the town of Callicoon, in upstate New York. At that time, the Marcellus Shale fracking boom was coming on strong and was poised to expand into New York, even as the area also saw a series of staggering floods, each one seemingly more unprecedented than the last.

"That was alarming," remembers Ruffalo on the latest episode of the Inquiring Minds podcast (stream below). "Not only alarming to me, but also alarming to all the farmers who used to make fun of me for talking about climate change and global warming."

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Are hurricanes getting stronger?

Click to embiggen.
Climate Desk
Click to embiggen.

For more than a decade, the question of how global warming is affecting the scariest storms on the planet -- hurricanes -- has been shot through with uncertainty. The chief reason is technological: In many parts of the world, storm strengths are estimated solely based on satellite images. Technologies and techniques for doing this have improved over time, meaning that there is always a problem with claiming that today's storms are stronger than yesterday's. After all, they might just be better observed.

That's why, despite expectations that global warming will make hurricanes stronger -- as well as massive societal consequences if more powerful storms are slamming coastlines -- scientific authorities like the United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have demurred on the hurricane/climate question. Most recently, the IPCC earlier this year said it had "low confidence" that global warming is worsening hurricanes.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Your genes tell you how to vote

dna politics
Mother Jones

Where did your political and religious opinions come from? How did you come by them? What made you who you are?

If you're like most people, you're probably inclined to answer this question by citing two main influences: your upbringing and your life experiences. But according to a growing body of science, such an account leaves out a major factor: your genes.

"The basic idea of a heritable component to political beliefs has been around for at least a quarter of a century," says University of Nebraska-Lincoln political scientist John Hibbing, coauthor of the new book Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives, and the Biology of Political Differences. "It's shown up too many times, in too many different places, with too many samples. So there's something there."

The science dates back at least to 1986. In that year, the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a paper using a classic "twin study" design to try to determine the heritability of a variety of political attitudes, such as views on the death penalty. The researchers concluded that genes could explain a substantial percentage of the variation in responses to an oft-used political questionnaire called the Wilson-Patterson conservatism scale.

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8 scary facts about antibiotic resistance

A drug resistant strain of Staphylococcus aureus bacteria (staph).
Centers for Disease Control
A drug resistant strain of Staphylococcus aureus bacteria (staph).

This episode of Inquiring Mindsa podcast hosted by best-selling author Chris Mooney and neuroscientist and musician Indre Viskontas, also features a discussion of the surprising reasons that U.S. students are so bad at math (just 26th in the world, in a recent study). Plus, Indre takes apart a highly controversial new study purporting to show that male-female gender stereotypes are rooted in different wiring of our brains.

To catch future shows right when they are released, subscribe to Inquiring Minds via iTunes or RSS. You can also follow the show on Twitter at @inquiringshow and like us on Facebook.

It's flu season. And we're all about to crisscross the country to exchange hugs, kisses, and germs. We're going to get sick. And when we do, many of us will run to our doctors and, hoping to get better, demand antibiotics.

And that's the problem: Antibiotics don't cure the flu (which is viral, not bacterial), but the overprescription of antibiotics imperils us all by driving antibiotic resistance. This threat is growing, so much so that in a recent widely read Medium articleWired science blogger and self-described "scary disease girl" Maryn McKenna painted a disturbingly plausible picture of a world in which antibiotics have become markedly less effective. That future is the focus of McKenna's interview this week on the Inquiring Minds podcast:

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living

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Which Hollywood-style climate disasters will strike in your lifetime?

In a just-released report, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) has taken an extensive look at the scary side, the dramatic side … let's face it, the Hollywood side of global warming. The new research falls under the heading of "abrupt climate change": The report examines the doomsday scenarios that have often been conjured in relation to global warming (frequently in exaggerated blockbuster films), and seeks to determine how likely they are to occur in the real world.

So here's a list of some of the most dreaded abrupt changes (where abrupt means occurring within a period of a few decades or even years), and the probability that they'll happen — even if nothing like the Hollywood version — before the year 2100:

Disruption of the ocean's "conveyor belt"

movies day after tomorrow 2
20th Century Fox/Wikimedia Commons

As seen in: The scientifically panned 2004 blockbuster The Day After Tomorrow.

What would happen: The great overturning circulation of the oceans, driven by the temperature and the salt content of waters at high latitudes, transports enormous amounts of heat around the planet. If it is disrupted or comes to a halt, there could be stark changes in global weather patterns.

Chances it will happen this century: Low. For future generations, however, The Day After Tomorrow might be slightly less laughable (if still wildly exaggerated). In the longer term, the NAS rates the probability of a disruption as "high."

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Why climate skeptics and evolution deniers joined forces

Are religion and end times thinking now wrapped up with the denial of global warming?
Shutterstock

All across the country — most recently, in the state of Texas — local battles over the teaching of evolution are taking on a new complexion. More and more, it isn't just evolution under attack, it's also the teaching of climate science. The National Center for Science Education, the leading group defending the teaching of evolution across the country, has even broadened its portfolio: Now, it protects climate education too.

How did these issues get wrapped up together? On its face, there isn't a clear reason — other than a marriage of convenience — why attacks on evolution and attacks on climate change ought to travel side by side. After all, we know why people deny evolution: Religion, especially the fundamentalist kind. And we know why people deny global warming: Free market ideology and libertarianism. These are not, last I checked, the same thing. (If anything, libertarians may be the most religiously skeptical group on the political right.)

And yet clearly there's a relationship between the two issue stances. If you're in doubt, watch this Climate Desk video of a number of members of Congress citing religion in the context of questioning global warming: