For the past 13 years, the folks at The Why Files, an online magazine based here in Madison, have been answering questions about science in a way that regular folks can understand and even enjoy. On April 28, The Why Files makes the leap to the printed page with a new book from Penguin. In a recent chat with David J. Tenenbaum, who with Terry Devitt wrote the book, I got the chance to ask some questions of my own. Namely, why the heck would a writer from an award-winning science website (everybody who might be interested in the quirky stuff that The Why Files explains.
The Why Files book is a paperback collection of over 100 short pieces that tackle questions like "How was writing invented?" and "Does God make people kill non-believers?" Most articles are confined to a single page, and there are images throughout, lending a newspaper-like feel. The chapters are even grouped like the sections of a paper: Sports, Style, Opinion, etc. The presentation is fun and down-to-earth, making science approachable for people of all ages. Oh, and most of the stuff in the book is new - you won't be able to find it on The Why Files website (which was founded at UW-Madison by the National Institute for Science Education).
One of Tenenbaum's favorite articles in the book explains why rotten food smells so icky. The story starts with an ecologist in Costa Rica who cuts into a rotten avocado. He hypothesizes that spoiled food stinks for a good reason - fungi and bacteria don't want to share the food with anyone else. Thirty years later, his idea was finally put to the test.
"It was beautiful to me because on the one hand, nobody thinks, 'Why does rotten food stink?'" Tenenbaum mused. "Thirty years later some marine biologist starts wondering about this and he finds out this guy is right. It's not an earth-shattering revelation, but it does help explain the world."