This collection of "the best" science and nature writing of 2010 (collecting articles published in 2009), is certainly not just for scientists. In fact, scientists may find it frustrating, given that it's really comprised of articles that are geared towards the general public, most of which appeared originally in "general interest" publications: eight of the twenty-eight articles were first published in The New Yorker, seven in National Geographic, leaving thirteen which appeared in a variety of other periodicals such as GQ and The New York Review of Books. Not one of the articles chosen came from Scientific American or Science. There isn't a single article on Public Health or Mathematics, and the only Biology/Medical Science covered at all is Neurology, and all three articles in this section focus on behavioral issues (memory alteration, self-control, neurosis). The collection is more remarkable for what is missing than for what is included.
The articles are, of course, well-written and interesting, and favor "nature" writing over "science" writing, with three sections dedicated to the environment. One such section, "Natural Beauty," gives fifty pages to the singing of the Earth's praises for its stunning diversity and, well, natural beauty. These essays cover the status of Minnesota's goshawk, a "raptor of gentility," as it struggles in the face of logging interests in Gustave Axelson's "The Alpha Accipiter," and the elegantly written celebration of the New Zealand godwit, "Flight of the Kuaka," by Don Stap, as well as a brief piece by famed naturalist Jane Goodall on the mysterious survival of a phasmid thought to be extinct. Given the controversial stand of the editor, Freeman Dyson, on the subject of climate change, these essays smack just a little bit of "things aren't as bad as they seem here on planet Earth," and serve to challenge the importance of the collection as a whole. In the section titled: "The Environment: Doom and Gloom" Dyson cedes the floor to "climate-alarmist" Elizabeth Kolbert for two articles, "The Catastrophist," a profile of climatologist/activist James Hansen who is unrelenting in his efforts on behalf of educating politicians on the drastic state of the planet, and "The Sixth Extinction," which posits that if current trends are any indication, half of Earth's species will be gone within the next century. Jim Carrier tells us more than we want to know about where the shrimp in our cocktails is coming from in "All You Can Eat," a profile of shrimp-fishing trends and disasters, and Felix Salmon gives us the mathematics of bad money management (on a global scale) in "A Formula for Disaster." Then Dyson wraps the book up with an octet of "Small and Big Blessings" to reassure us.
In addition, the first section, "Visions of Space," sees Tom Wolfe passionately decrying the end of the Space Program and our failure to get to Mars, Andrew Corsello profiling South African genius Elon Musk and his extraordinary journey to riches, and Timothy Ferris rhapsodizing about telescopes. There's nothing wrong with any of these essays, or with the collection itself, but given the current state of things like Public Health, constantly evolving stem-cell research, genetic engineering, and of course, the ethics of all this evolution, it seems that a better title for this book would have been "Science & Nature Writing: The Best Light Reading of 2010."
This book was predictably good. It should be - after all, it contains a select group (26) out of the 122 articles that passed the scrutiny of the series editor. I look forward to this book every year as well as its competitor "Best American Science Writing 2010." This year the Introduction by Freeman Dyson is perhaps the best in all the years I've been reading this series. He explains why this series and the other are getting fluffier (my word), then says that science journalism in general is getting "briefer, sparser, and more superficial." He conveniently puts the table of contents into broad categories: Cosmology, Neurology replacing Molecular Biology, Natural Beauty, and three categories about the Environment. Then in describing the content in broad strokes and mentioning a few specific articles, he proceeds to write a summary essay with his own opinions about his chosen articles - creating a stand-alone essay of his own. However, his choices ARE light on hard science and for that I considered subtracting a point - upon further thought I did not - but I refuse to believe Dyson could not have found more scientific selections. The first three articles I review were found in both volumes - all three among my own favorites, as I have marked by asterisks:
* "The Missions of Astronomy" by Steven Weinberg - Weinberg is a Nobel Prize winner and particle physics expert (currently at UT Austin) who decided he was not current in the history of science - so he decided to teach a course in it. This article looks to be adapted from one of his lectures. He starts out explaining how the ancients used the gnomon - similar to but not the same as a sundial. A gnomon is a vertical pole on a flat, level patch of ground open to the sun's rays. Daily charting of its shadow by Greeks led to "a discovery around 430 BC that was to trouble astronomers for two thousand years: the four seasons, whose beginnings and endings are precisely marked by the solstices and equinoxes, have slightly different lengths. This ruled out the possibility that the sun travels around the earth (or the earth travels around the sun) with constant velocity in a circle." It was not until the 17th century that Kepler explained that the earth's orbit is not a circle but an ellipse. A scientific reading of "Odyssey" reveals that Homer could accurately navigate by reading the stars and Weinberg explains how he did it. On a ship in the Mediterranean a sea captain explained to Weinberg how ship navigators used celestial methods until only recently - now replaced by GPS. The captain lamented that the younger captains don't know how to use a sextant and a chronometer.
But astronomy also experienced an overestimation of its usefulness. Much of the royal support for compiling tables of astronomical data in the medieval and early modern periods was motivated by widespread reliance on astrology. Many scientists, including Ptolemy and Newton were heavily into astrology. Weinberg closes by taking a swipe at NASA's wasteful program of manned spaceflight - cherished by NASA's funding and PR department but terribly cost-inefficient compared to unmanned projects. "All the satellites like Hubble or COBE or WMAP or Planck that have made possible the recent progress in cosmology have been unmanned."
* "A Life of its Own" by Michael Specter - "Scientists have been manipulating genes for decades - inserting, deleting, changing them in various microbes has become a routine function in thousands of labs." Now they are attempting to manufacture drugs and chemicals from entirely synthetic genes, analogous to a software designer rearranging loops of code for a new purpose. Artemisinin is key in treating malaria but the herb that creates it is difficult to produce by cultivation. Jay Keasling et al inserted genes from 3 organisms into E. coli with the idea of making that bacteria produce artemisinin. Within a decade his company figured out how to make the bacteria increase its production by a factor of a million, bring a course of treatment from $10 to $1. The scientific response has been reverential but Keasling is baffled by opposition to what should soon become the world's most reliable source of cheap artemisinin. Opposition comes from farmers of the herb and from the same groups that call genetically engineered food "Frankenfood."
Specter discusses the ethics of the era of biological engineering - peppered with suggestions that the E coli that makes a malarial drug could also make biofuels or (substitute your favorite product). To be brought up to date on this subject, this fascinating article is hard to beat.
* "The Sixth Extinction" by Elizabeth Kolbert - Of the many species that have existed on earth over 99% have disappeared. There have been at least 20 mass extinctions on earth with 5 stand outs known as the "Big Five" - but extinction has been a contested concept. Until recently the view that "God created species fixed for all eternity" prevailed. Then in 1812 Frenchman Cuvier wrote an essay featuring the absence of mastodons, whose bones littered two continents, saying, "Life on this earth has often been disturbed by dreadful events....Innumerable living creatures have been victims of these catastrophes." The English edition included an introduction suggesting Cuvier's idea proved Noah's flood. Darwin embraced the idea of extinctions but didn't believe they were caused by catastrophes. Kolbert says, "Mass extinctions strike down the fit and the unfit at once....it takes millions of years for life to recover and when it does it generally has a new cast of characters....It is now generally agreed among biologists that another mass extinction is under way."
Extinctions of large mammals and birds have repeatedly happened shortly after the arrival of humans. This has happened in North America, South America, New Zealand, Australia, Madagascar, Hawaii, and many other locations. It happens as a result of hunting, burning, farming, logging, building, water diversion, atmospheric pollution - in general, habitat destruction. As Kolbert painstakingly demonstrates, it is now happening to frogs. They are dying of a fungus spread by doctors. A related fungus appears to be decimating the bat population.
Somewhere toward the end of the article, Kolbert tells the familiar story of the Yucatan peninsula meteor that killed off dinosaurs 65 million years ago. For this Sixth Extinction though, the perpetrator walks upright.
* "The Believer" by Andres Corsello - Memoir about Elon Musk, the genius who was reading 8-10 hours a day by the time he was 10 years old. He learned how to program software on his own and sold his first company, a media software company for $307 Million. Next he developed a company that morphed into Paypal that he sold to Ebay for $1.5 billion. He's the CEO of Tesla, maker of the first all-electric sports car. He's the chairman and controlling shareholder of SolarCity, turning the company into one of the nation's biggest installer of solar panels. He created the company SpaceX, whose short-term goal is to commercialize orbital rocketry but whose long-term goal is a mission to Mars and beyond. He is the vision guy, the money guy, the marketing guy, the engineering guy and the software guy all wrapped into one - not meaning he does all these things singlehandedly but he can talk shop with the hundreds of experts of all types he employs. The reason he is included by Dyson is probably this: They both believe humanity on earth will end - if not by our own self annihilation, by the explosion of a caldera or a direct hit by a huge meteor. He feels his life's work is extending the lifespan of human life itself.
"One Giant Leap to Nowhere" by Tom Wolfe - It is almost a concensus view among cosmologists that manned spaceflight is far too expensive and that unmanned robotic spaceflight is the way to go. Dyson disagrees as does this author, both of whom believe Congress lacks the proper vision necessary for what should be NASA's real purpose - manned spaceflight.
"Cosmic Vision" by Timothy Ferris - A fascinating survey of the telescopes around the world that have illuminated our understanding of the universe. The largest ones have mirrors up to 10 meters in diameter, but "tomorrow's enormous telescopes will do as much in one night as today's do in a year."
* "Seeking New Earths" by Timothy Ferris - Nowadays, new planets orbiting stars other than our own are found every week. The goal is to find one in the "goldilocks zone" - one just far enough from its sun to be the right temperature. Of course, it also has to have other characteristics that would make it habitable for life "as we know it." Ferris says this is like trying to find a "firefly in a fireworks display" or "listening for a cricket in a tornado," but as techniques and telescopes improve, there probably will be billions to choose from.
* "Don't!" by Jonah Lehrer - By testing 4 year olds' ability to delay gratification (postpone eating 1 marshmallow in order to get 2), psychologists can predict, with a high degree of certainty, that the kids who can hold out for the second marshmallow will do better in life. Furthermore, for those who can't delay their gratification - they can be trained. Turns out it's not just about marshmallows - it's also about saving for retirement. The author believes learning self-control is nothing if not early cognitive training. "We should give marshmallows to every kindergartner," he says. "We should say, `You see this marshmallow? You don't have to eat it. You can wait. Here's how'"
* "Out of the Past" by Kathlene McGowan - "Instead of being a perfect movie of the past...memory is more like a shifting collage, a narrative spun out of scraps and constructed anew whenever recollection takes place...reactivating a memory destabilizes it, putting it back into a flexible, vulnerable state." Called reconsolidation, "old memory is actually changed as it is recalled." Put another way, memory and imagination are not that different and even happen in the same circuits of the brain.
* "Brain Games" by John Colapinto - "In a specialty [behavioral neurology] that today relies chiefly on the power of multi-million dollar imaging machines to peer deep inside the brain, [Vilayanur] Ramachandran is known for his low-tech methods, which often involves little more than interviews with patients and a few hands-on tests - an approach that he traces to his medical education in India in the 70's when expensive diagnostic machines were scarce." His first paper was published in "Nature" when he was 20 and in medical school. With only his powers of observation and a simple test, using his fellow students as subjects, he discovered some previously unknown features about stereoscopic vision. With four aquariums, some coral reef flounders, and testing he devised, he "effectively ended the debate on flounder camouflage." His best known work involves his work with neuroplasticity and "mirror therapy" with phantom limb pain, which afflicts up to 90% of amputees. Ending with speculations about schizophrenia and autism, this is a captivating article.
"The Alpha Accipiter" by Gustave Axelson - Northern goshawks hunt by executing surgical strikes in thick woods - weaving among the trees, flying at speeds up to fifty-five miles an hour. They lose their acrobatic flight advantage beyond the forest edge.
"Flight of the Kuaka" by Don Stap - The bar-tailed godwit takes the longest nonstop migratory flight documented for any bird. "The flight is nonstop, no food, no water, no sleep as we know it, flying for eight days." In the days preceding this migration from Alaska to New Zealand, the bird gorges itself on marine invertebrates and doubles its weight. Its intestine and gizzard shrink, leaving more room to store fat. The scientists that implanted radio transmitters and followed the flights could barely believe it. They thought the birds did it following the coastline with frequent stops.
* "Modern Darwins" by Matt Ridley - Although Darwin had to guess on many of the particulars of evolution, he was remarkably accurate. Today's scientists don't have to guess - evidence of each living organism's pathway to its current state of being is scattered throughout its DNA - "They consult genetic scripture." The evolution of change turns out not to be due to gene changes but in the regulation of these genes - switches at either end of the genes that turn them on or off. The core genes that control basic metabolic processes are remarkably constant whether you're an earthworm or a Nobel Prize winner. This discovery "overturned a long-held notion that the acquisition of limbs required a radical evolutionary event....the genetic machinery necessary to make limbs was already present in fins....it involved the redeployment of old genetic recipes in new ways."
* "The Superior Civilization" by Tim Flannery - This is a book review on Edward O. Wilson's and Bert Holldobler's brilliant book about ants. An ant colony is a "superorganism" whose individual ants and groups of ants function somewhat like the cells and organs in our bodies to create a single functional unit. Coordination within the unit "occurs through ant communication systems that are extraordinarily sophisticated and are the equivalent of the human nervous system." Here's a unique bit of ant trivia: "....exploring ants count their steps to determine where they are in relation to home. This remarkable ability was discovered by researchers who lengthened the legs of ants by attaching stilts to them. The stilt-walking ants, they observed, became lost on their way home to the nest at a distance proportionate to the length of their stilts."
"Still Blue" by Kenneth Brower - A mature blue whale is the largest life entity that has ever existed on earth and weighs more than the entire NFL. It was almost hunted to extinction until it gained international protection in the 60's. Our author accompanies a group of scientists who tag and track the blue whales who spend their winter near Costa Rica.
"The Lazarus Effect" by Jane Goodall - The Lord Howe Island stick insect is about the size of a large cigar. It existed on only one island on earth until 1918 when a ship brought rats to the island. The rats thought they were delicious. Thought to be extinct since 1920, a group of rock climbers found some specimens that managed to escape to a single bush on a volcanic rock 14 miles from Howe's island. They painstakingly captured enough to replenish the species in several zoos around the world. In her second story an American woman discovered and rescued a very small and beautiful breed of horse from obscurity and extinction in Iran. After extensive testing these horses proved to be Caspian horses, the ancestors of the Arabian horse.
"Darwin's First Clues" by David Quammen - It is a widely accepted view that Darwin, after his voyage on the "Beagle," developed his theory of evolution over the next decade or so. Quammen makes the case that he formulated much of his theory during the voyage. In the process, we are treated to a view of his journey that concentrates less on the Galapagos and more on South America.
"All You Can Eat" by Jim Carrier - Shrimp are "a perfect protein delivery system." Fat and happy shrimpers made a killing until the 80's when catches flattened worldwide. Eventually, the supply was replenished but not from the sea. Shrimp farms took over but proved to be incredibly dirty and harmful to the environment. As a result, shrimp farms are banished to 3rd world countries whose inhabitants would get rid of them if they only could - meanwhile, their biggest client is Red Lobster restaurant.
"A Formula For Disaster" by Felix Salmon - In 2000, Wall Street "quant" (mathematical guru specializing in creating new financial products) David Li came up with a breakthrough formula that "made it possible for traders to sell vast quantities of new securities, expanding financial markets to unimaginable levels. Eventually his formula was instrumental in causing the unfathomable losses that brought the world financial system to its knees.
"Not So Silent Spring" by Dawn Stover - A blackbird was terrorizing the neighborhood, imitating ambulance sirens, car alarms, and sounds of the city. Beluga whales are changing their calls or switching them to new frequencies because underwater noise from ships have increased about tenfold. Some species that are unable to adapt are suffering precipitous declines in population.
* "The Catastrophist" by Elizabeth Kolbert - The author bolsters the case for human-induced climate change, featuring the work of James Hansen - sometimes called the "father of global warming." This article is perfect for a short primer on the problem and the difficult politics making solutions challenging. There is broad agreement among scientists that coal represents the most serious threat but there is no aspect the author leaves out. The United States stands alone in having a major political party that refuses to acknowledge that humans are the cause of this problem and must provide the solution if there is to be one.
"Scraping Bottom" by Robert Kunzig - The oil sands industry is transforming the economy and the ecology of Northeastern Alberta, Canada. Because of Alberta's tremendous oil reserves, the United States now gets more oil from Canada than from any other nation. Though it's destroying their environment, even the Indians have mixed feelings - it's making them employed and rich. I've been expecting a good article about this topic for years and this is it.
* "Purpose-Driven Life" by Brian Boyd - Early man was quite superstitious and many of the superstitions were retained as the major religions took form. In recent centuries, science found natural causes for earthly events and many of the gods retreated to gaps left unexplained, especially when Darwin's theory suggested that humans, too, could have emerged without supernatural help. Some have thought that the idea of evolution leaves mankind without meaning or purpose but our author disagrees. This is an excellent article, featuring the comment by Stephen J. Gould that if we could rewind and replay the tape of evolution, humans and human intelligence would not reappear.
"The Monkey and the Fish" by Phillip Gourevitch - When self-made American Millionaire Greg Carr was not yet forty he decided to devote the rest of his life to philanthropy - to causes he could pour himself into, body and soul. After a few fits and starts he settled on the preservation of what used to be one of the top safari parks in Africa: Gorongosa National Park at the southern tip of the Great Rift Valley in Mozambique. The title of this selections comes from a story (from the point of view of the indigenous villagers) that illustrates how difficult it is to salvage an ecostructure and still treat the indigenous peoples fairly: "A monkey was walking along a river and saw a fish in it. The monkey said, Look, that animal is under water, he'll drown, I'll save him. He snatched up the fish and in his hand the fish started to struggle. The monkey said, Look how happy he is. Of course, the fish died and the monkey said, Oh, what a pity. If I had only come sooner I would have saved this guy."
I have only a few more to comment on and will do so through edits shortly.
on November 4, 2013
Let someone else sift wheat from chaff and you garnish the benefits. What's fun about this book is that from many articles, the best are compiled for easy access. In this case, 28 are selected from 122 options. Years of research can be boiled down to a single stunning realization. What is well known in narrow fields of study are revealed here for the rest of us. And it's those little morsels we carry around, compared with what we know and/or informing us with possible explanations of things we discover along the way. Timothy Ferris (who can't seem - even once - to write a bad essay) reports about "Seeking New Earths" and the "red edge produced when chlorophyll-containing photosynthetic plants reflect red light" on distant worlds. Such a long range fingerprint would be one of the greatest discoveries in the record of our species. Kathleen McGowan tells how flimsy our memories are, because each time we access them, we also destabilize them, tweaking the memory each time. (Though memories of, say scientific theories or data, seem immutable, perhaps because nature is always there for correction.) With this in mind it answers the question how some people truly can believe the lies they tell. Over time and repetition they've reordered the synapses, such that the film they play in their head really is the lie they built. (All of us out there in failed relationships can relate to that, and remember this as a warning.) We learn about the record setting, 8-day, 200-hour, non-stop airborne flight of the bar-tailed godwit, whose population (as with other migratory birds) is collapsing because humans are draining their estuaries as coastal "improvements" round the globe. We learn about how modern genetics continues to verify Darwin's theory (fact) of evolution, as well as its frightening offspring of "synthetic biology" where humans build new life forms a molecule at a time; the superior civilization of ants and their amazing behavior completely ignored when squishing one of them on the countertop; the heroic efforts of NASA climatologist James Hansen and his efforts to communicate to politicians incapable of seeing past today's dollar. Perhaps the most amazing and insightful ideas comes from Brian Boyd in his "Purpose Driven Life" originally from The American Scholar.
The only drawback of this year's issue is the editor, Freeman J. Dyson. Sounding somewhat less adolescent than talk-radio, he welcomes the reader with a rant about what he calls the "orthodoxy" of "environmental alarmists". Startling, given Dyson is asserted to be one of the great minds of our time. One would have presumed he could read and study measured data - something talk-radio never heard of and wouldn't understand if they had.
on April 9, 2015
A good series to keep up with the latest scientific and nature developments. A good bunch of essays for exploration and inquiry. Its a reader's read, not straight up technical data, so that is a plus. I was surprised how much information I got out of it compared to time spent.
on March 18, 2011
Uplifting, well-written articles. Great for the layman and scientist who wants to catch up on things outside her own field. Lovely introduction by the editor, a well-known physicist/mathematician. I enjoyed this book so much that I sent it to my 20-year old daughter and my 87-year old father. I could go on, but I think that says it all.
on December 30, 2012
I got this one because Freeman Dyson (of the Dyson Sphere idea) is the editor. And honestly, he picked a great haul. It's mostly focused on astronomy (surprise!) and neuroscience - two fields that even the most scientifically apathetic people can appreciate. Very interesting, I loved it.
The first article in the entire collection, the one that kicks off the best American science and nature writing, is an article from GQ.
It is an article devoted entirely to the worship of Elon Musk.
I have no intention of offending anyone with this review, but potential readers of this volume should be aware of what they are getting. If this is the "best American science and nature writing," America is in trouble. However, I know for a fact it isn't the best writing of that type, because I read science articles frequently.
Since so many other reviewers have done an admirable job of providing a blow- by-blow description of every single article, I will just give a summary of my thoughts. Perhaps the best articles in the entire book are the ones pulled from National Geographic, The New Yorker, and The New York Review of Books, though it is best to be clear on the nature of most of this writing, all of which was written in 2009.
The writing of the various articles, as an art form, really is excellent for the most part. However, the nature of the writing is best viewed as stories, frequently biographical, with science or nature themes. This is not the type of science writing I am accustomed to, perhaps with the exception of a few National Geographic articles, but even the NG articles get on my nerves with all of the useless details given in order to tell a story. The other ones, even the ones from The New Yorker, are much more airy with ethereal details that have nothing to do with the science. I'm sure this appeals to many, but when I select a science article to read, my intention is not to read a novel or a short story -- I can do that at other times.
Allow me to give another example of the light nature of this book. In the back of the book is a list of the articles that were not selected for this collection. Any article from Scientific American was conspicuously avoided, as well as one from the premier journal, Science. Scientific American may not be what it used to be with regard to the level of science writing, but the long articles were still mostly by scientists in 2009, though that is changing in the end of 2010. There were not many articles selected for this collection that were written by scientists.
Dyson even alludes to the fluff nature of this writing in his introduction. Not only that, but for some reason, though he states that people tend to like nature writing more than science writing, and one can almost detect his disappointment, only about the first fourth is science, if one actually counts the GQ piece. Dyson, a climate-change skeptic, selected what he considered to be environmental pieces, including climate change subjects in the last 57% of the book. He divides those into "Doom and Gloom," "Small Blessings," and "Big Blessings." It almost appears he is trying to create skepticism of climate-change, as if that were the purpose of the book. While I agree with his assessment of Environmentalism as a new secular religion, I am left wondering why he would have made the majority of the book about exactly that. I have some ideas.
Personally, I think if someone is interested in science writing, it is better to start out with a science magazine, preferably above the level of Popular Science. Discover or Scientific American would be good starters, Discover for beginners and Scientific American once Discover is outgrown. Science News is good if you want to keep a light touch on many fields of science. For nature, science, and a smorgasbord of other topics, National Geographic and Smithsonian are great selections. American Scientist may be good once someone is ready to graduate out of Scientific American, normally only for someone with a science degree, or an actual scientist -- many consider it to be what Scientific American used to be many years ago.
A book like this may give the impression of selecting the best of what science writing has to offer, since it is selecting from many different sources and being narrowed down, but it is only the best of science light.
Science was one of my worst subjects in school. I just could not get the hang of it. As I grew older and left school behind (finally!), I found science to entertaining when it was being fed to me via documentaries and easily digestible books and essays. So yeah, I couldn't ever roll up my sleeves to get into it the hard way. I am all about being a layperson, and this collection of writing is just right.
The level of accessibility isn't consistent...then again, why would it be when there are over twenty authors to consider? Freeman Dyson's introduction gets things off to a good start as he describes his editorial process with Tim Folger. And you have to respect what they did; Folger whittled all of 2010's science writing to a hot-list of over 120. Dyson had to slim it down from there. That's really something. But one thing that had me a little bugged was his dismissive attitude towards climate change alarmists. Like everyone else out there, I worry. Lots.
Some high points for me included Tom Wolfe's essay about how our great space age stalled and now no one is excited about going beyond the moon anymore. All of the "Neurology Displacing Molecular Biology" was a treat to read, seeing that there are many advances currently happening in the field -- ones that will help mankind a great deal. I got bogged down in the biology section, "Natural Beauty", but that's because my mind goes only so far.
Go for it. If a particular essay feels like it's slow-going, just jump to the next one. There's plenty here to enjoy and one or two tough articles shouldn't keep you from staying current.
on November 6, 2010
If you're hoping to find some enthusiastic,insightful writing here, along the lines of Lewis Thomas, Stephen Jay Gould, Loren Eisely, Barry Lopez, or a host of other nature/science writers, go elsewhere. As I read the articles/essays in this collection, I had the sense they were all written by one person. They are descriptive and stick to the facts, with a few novel tidbits by some authors to make their subject matter seem a bit more interesting, for example, one researcher discussed in one essay likes Jimi Hendricks, another uses vernacular like "It sucks," etc. Does that impress or delight you? It sure doesn't do that for me. There are a few contributions on neurobiology (almost a requirement nowadays for such a collection I guess), but nothing noteworthy. The authors stick primarily to the facts. There's no attempt at addressing moral philosophy, personal viewpoints on the subject matter, quantum leaps of insight by the writers. It's all basically journalistic.
The typical essay starts with an anecdote, something like this: "Dr. Ralph Fenstermenster was crossing his college campus when he discovered a piece of chewing gum stuck to the sole of his shoe." Then we get some personal reminiscence like, "Fenstermenster recalled how when he was a kid, he would spit out his own chewed gum, gleefully thinking how someone would end up with it under HIS shoe." Then a little development: "Fenstermenster considered the cognitive and attitudinal changes he had experienced on his journey to adulthood, and wondered if there was a structural change in the brain that made these changes universal." Then we learn how he got funding from a skeptical committee, science foundation, university, etc., who thought he was a crackpot for wanting to find this structural change. Then he dissuades his detractors and proves he has found such a developmental mechanism. Then we learn he has a celebration party at his favorite Northern Italian restaurant, where his friends have ordered his favorite Pinot Grigio.
I may be a bit harsh here, and you might suspect I didn't actually read these essays. However, I did, but their quality got me depressed, so why re-visit them? Maybe I'll do some research on 'Factors in typographic information avoidance,' present it to my peers, and someone can write a science article about me.
This is not to blame the editors, including the impressive Freeman Dyson. But in the introduction even the series editor states that science writing is becoming rarer and rarer in the popular media (read: The New Yorker). It really is a shame. The New Yorker used to publish an issue that was an entire book-length essay (i.e., J. Schell's [sic?] 'The Fate of the Earth.' Now, you'd probably have to tweet it to get any recognition. For a terrific science writing anthology, get Richard Dawkins' edited book published by Oxford Univ. Press.
on September 24, 2012
As a general fan of nature and science, I thought this would be right up my alley. Unfortunately, about halfway through it I lost interest and just couldn't summon up the patience to keep reading. I read a lot of books and news stories in general, so it's not like I have anything against reading in particular, but these particular articles just didn't really do it.
I can't help but think that maybe the editor(s) and I just have very different tastes. I find that I get more interesting stories from social networking sites, or even crowdsourced ranking sites like Slashdot or Reddit -- a sign of the times, perhaps?