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4.0 out of 5 stars
The Best American Science & Nature Writing 2005 (Best American)
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VINE VOICEon March 21, 2006
I look forward every year to the annual edition of this series and its competitor, Best American Science Writing. Since there are way too many good magazines published I gave up long ago trying to keep up with them, and this book/series serves two useful functions. First, it provides a delightful sampler of science-related writing of the past year, and, second, it often introduces me to some new writers. It is the kind of book that has repercussions: I have never failed to follow up by buying additional books, either books by the authors represented or books referred to in the selections (WARNING: This book could be dangerous to your budget!)

The series editor provides a certain stability and may ensure some breadth to the selections, but each volume bears the stamp of the interests of the guest editor. This year there were an unusual number of writers that I do not normally associate with science, such as Malcolm Gladwell, but the ideas were still stimulating. Dining with Robots was so much fun that I e-mailed a number of people the reference and provoked quite a discussion. That is the kind of writing I enjoy!

This was probably not the best of the series, but it nonetheless was not one I would want to miss.
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on July 23, 2008
I'm writing this review in July 2008, about an anthology of magazine articles published in 2004 - I probably would have given it 4.5 or 5 stars when it first came out, but 4 years on makes a difference. Many of the pieces - as chosen by guest editor Jonathan Weiner (The Beak of the Finch) - are about current events, in particular Bush (anti) science policies which have since played out in new directions. As a Guest Editor, there is a pull between choosing pieces with lasting value, and those that are flashy period pieces soon forgotten. Weiner seemed to focus on pieces with an ideological bent, or more accurately, pieces that attacked ideologies, either way politics of 2004 was a central theme.

My favorite articles include: Jared Diamond, "Twilight at Easter", a classic re-telling of the Easter Island parable of planet earth. I read this same account in his long book Collapse but I think in this shorter form it is more powerful and concise. Malcolm Gladwell's "Getting Over It" suggests that most of us get over traumatic experiences fairly well and don't need to dwell on it. Reinforcing this is Jerome Groopman's "The Grief Industry" which shoots giant holes in the whole PTSD theory and the industry it has spawned. Sherwin Nuland's "The Man or the Moment?" is a historiography piece about approaches to history, in particular the social historian who looks at the "zeitgeist" as the main driver, and the "great man" historians who focus on individual actions. Although the Great Man theory has largely gone out of favor, he makes some surprising observations how individual personalities do in fact drive history at a certain level. Michael Specter in "Miracle in a Bottle" takes on the vitamin industry which is mostly unregulated and makes claims with little scientific basis. This is an important piece because it clarifies how free market capitalism without government controls can cause problems. I used to be big into supplements but have since focused on eating a balanced healthy diet. A similar article by William Weed "106 Science Claims and a Truckful of Baloney" underscores the barrage of scientific-sounding stuff we are exposed to every day and how 90% of is just plain, well, baloney.

Two other pieces are memorable for good stories - "The Curious History of the First Pocket Calculator" which was designed by a Jewish concentration camp inmate in Germany during WWII - and "To Hell and Back", the story of Bill Stone a cave explorer and all around polymath, who may someday end up on the moon.
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VINE VOICEon January 27, 2006
Each year I am thrilled when this book comes out, along with its equally good competitor of the same format (Best of American Science Writing - 2005). This Christmas, my kids gave me one of each, this one having 25 essays coming from 12 different magazines. Without further ado, I will briefly summarize or provide a provocative quote from each essay for you. If at any time you feel inspired to quit reading this review in favor of the real thing, you will not be disappointed.

Introduction, by this year's editor, Jonathon Weiner, who made the final selections: "Science writing is usually seen as a world apart even though its subjects surround us, fascinate us, and terrify us, even though at their best all of the arts and sciences share the same subject, which is the way things are."

Natalie Angier: Scientists are a far less religious group than are average Americans, yet only a flaskful of the nonbelievers amongst them have publicly criticized religion. The author reveals the number one thing scientists wish people understood: "Would you please tell the public...that evolution is for real...that the evidence for it is overwhelming, and that an appreciation of evolution serves as the bedrock of our understanding of all life on this planet."

Connie Bruck: Story of the politics and campaign to pass Proposition 71 in California, funding stem cell research. "One thing I know about biomedical science - once you're onto something, once you get the best and brightest funded to work on it, things move very, very fast."

Frederick Crews: Since the Rorschach's invention as an offshoot of psychoanalysis in 1921, it has survived near abandonment several times, only to be rescued by a new charismatic leader. What has been true all along is now overwhelmingly apparent: the Rorschach reveals more about the examiners' preconceptions than it reveals about the patients.

Jared Diamond: Easter Island used to be a tropical paradise. Over about 500 years, eleven chieftains and their tribes competed for status by building the biggest statues, felling huge palms for use in moving the statues to their villages. The result was an eroded desert with little left to eat but rats and each other. Many people see a parallel between Easter Island's fate and today's misuse of the environment - one of the best essays.

Jenny Everett: The author agonizes over the growth hormone therapy her little brother is receiving for a few possible extra inches of height.

Timothy Ferris: Big hits from NASA - "Some of the shuttle astronauts' finest hours have been spent repairing and refurbishing Hubble, which ranks among the most productive and popular scientific instruments ever constructed" - and lots of misses, in a discussion of the nuts, bolts, and politics of NASA.

Malcolm Gladwell: The author contrasts "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit" with a current novel, also involving mental trauma from war. Expectations today from experts and laymen alike involve lifelong residual effects from such trauma, yet the 1955 attitude saw humans as more resilient. Gladwell presents a meta-analysis from 1998 suggesting that the vast majority of people get over traumatic events remarkably well.

Malcolm Gladwell (again): A critique of the $400-million-a-year personality testing industry, such as MMPI, MBTI (I believe NLP is an offshoot from this), Rorschach, TAT, and others. Despite their prevalence - and the importance of the matters they are called upon to decide - they have received little professional scrutiny, and this author questions their value.

Jerome Groopman: A critique over certain aspects of the "grief industry," particularly the fairly recent method of intervention called "critical incident stress debriefing."

John Horgan: "I often envy religious friends, because I see how their faith comforts them. Sometimes I think of my skepticism as a disorder, like being colorblind or tone-deaf. But skepticism has its pleasures; I like the feeling of traveling lightly through life unencumbered by beliefs."

Jennifer Kahn: The story of a young "adventurer" who traveled around the country without resources, stopping frequently at Kinko's along the way to hack into major corporations' sensitive files.

Robert Kunzig: Far below the ocean, in sediments all over the world, microbes live in abundance, eating methane. The methane is produced by cousin microbes living even further down. Methane bursts from this very old system may have been associated with global warmings in the earth's past history.

William Langewiesche: "The issue at stake is not space exploration in itself but the necessity of launching manned (versus robotic) vehicles...the United States has for thirty years followed human space flight policies that are directionless and deeply flawed...those policies now must be radically changed, with whatever regret about the historic cost."

Bill McKibben: An update on the energy crisis and global warming - "Bush has evaded energy and climate issues, but Clinton and Gore weren't conspicuously better. That's because dealing with global warming is not a matter of simply paying a relatively small price to clean the air or water. It will demand nothing less than the overhaul of the entire global of the greatest sins of the Bush administration is that it squandered the best opportunity for that leadership we've ever had. In one speech the president could have made the SUV an indulgence to be avoided and the solar panel an almost mandatory accessory for every good patriot."

James McManus: The author's 29 year old daughter has had diabetes from a young age, and he has always assured her that within a few years, research will find a cure. He grows testy as he exposes the needless obstructive tactics of the Bush administration concerning stem cell research. He closes with an excerpt from Lincoln: "I am approached with the most opposite opinions and advice, and that by religious men who are equally certain that they represent the divine will...I hope it will not be irreverent for me to say that if it is probable that God would reveal his will to others, on a point so connected with my duty, it might be supposed that he would reveal it directly to me...These are not, however, the days of miracles, and I suppose it will be granted that I am not to expect a direct revelation. I must study the plain physical facts of the case, ascertain what is possible, and learn what appears to be wise and right."

Sherwin Nuland: Suction lipectomy has seven times the mortality rate as an adult hernia repair. Should the decisions to enhance humanity's genome be left up to scientific practitioners? This author says they should have liberal input from a committee of bioethicists, philosophers, and yes, even lawyers.

Sherwin Nuland: Sometimes a scientific breakthrough is due to individual genius. Sometimes culture is ready and the discovery is eminent. The result of devaluing the significance of any of the factors (social, cultural, technological, personal) leading to a given scientific advance is the writing of bad history.

Jeffrey O'Brien: Underwater cave exploration, one of the most dangerous of all endeavors, uses breakthrough rebreathing systems and at times, robotics. The same robotics being tested in caves are being watched closely by NASA for use in exploring an ocean on Jupiter.

Ellen Ullman: The author caricaturizes the difficulties researchers have in creating artificial intelligence (AI) by pointing out the problems a robot would have in enjoying fine cuisine. In a moment of introspection - while in the supermarket check-out lines with its conveyor belts, credit card machines, and bar-codes - it occurred to her that we should perhaps worry more about humanity becoming more robotic. This is the only article that was chosen for both books.

William Weed: This author counted the number of "scientific" claims he encountered in one day - from radio, TV, Internet, product packaging, billboards, and a light read of the newspaper. He decides on thirteen of them to share with us, then debunks them all as pseudoscience due to misinformation, incomplete information, or outright lies.

Michael Specter: In 1994, Congress passed a law deregulating the dietary supplement industry. Since then, companies have been able to claim nearly anything they want about the health benefits of their product. There are virtually no standards for their manufacture nor scrutiny once they're made - consumers never really know what they're getting. A new bill is up this year to police these snake-oil salesmen. It's being attacked as an assault on motherhood and the First Amendment. Every congressman has been beseiged - we'll see what happens.

Cliff Stoll: Captivating story of the man who invented the hand-held mechanical calculator - plans completed in 1937, he was ready to build a prototype. Then came WWII and he was sent to a concentration camp. He survived because of his manufacturing skills, eventually being allowed to work on his invention. He ended up with a patent after the war and the last one of about 150,000 was produced in the early 70's. His same algorith technique is used in the electronic computers of today.

Carl Zimmer: The tester asks easy questions, then questions creating moral dilemmas, to people whose brains are under MRI scan - then observes what areas light up. Personal moral decisions lit up different parts of the brain than nonmoral answers. As his database grows he can see clearly see how the brain's intuitive and reasoning networks are activated. In most cases, one dominates the other. Some think his results are disturbing. If right and wrong are nothing more than the instinctive firing of neurons, why bother to be good?

A treat to read and a very definite 5 stars.
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This collection of essays shifts from the usual scattered melange of topics in this series. Weiner has opted to focus rather more closely on selected areas. In this volume health and medicine gained much of the ink. Given the sources and market, the decision has merit. Certainly the issues discussed are worthy of close attention. The narrower topic approach hasn't allowed any slipshod writer to sneak in. All the articles command your attention - and are worthy of it. Well-written, informative and current, the selection is a treasure of quality.

Weiner opens the collection recalling his childhood fascination with atoms. He actually thought he saw some in a moment of dizziness. This "insight" leads him to note how physics and biology are gently merging through the growing field of molecular biology. Understanding genes means understanding molecular activities. More importantly, there are medical implications that we are only now beginning to understand. At the very root of our existence, organic molecules exist as both contributers and threats to life. Robert Kunzig's essay on deep sea sediments and other holdings of microscopic life show these places are also storehouses for methane. Once likely the dominant gas in our atmosphere, global warming may release floods of it again, compounding the "greenhouse effect". In a step up on the molecular complexity ladder, Sherwin Nuland discusses innovative "enhancement" technologies to improve appearance and prolong life. Various hormone "therapies" are already in use with more to come. Jenny Everett's essay on prompting children's growth using manufactured growth hormone struck a nerve with this reviewer. My son endured the daily injection programme for many years. And essays on stem cell research show how the research has become more political than scientific in the US.

In the US, space research is an on-going topic, but the loss of the Columbia during its return from orbit re-ignited the debate over manned versus robotic missions. In an unusually [for him] ascerbic essay, Timothy Ferris declares the use of astronauts costs far more than multiple robot spacecraft missions, and adds that threats to human life aren't worth the risk. The issue of "private enterprise" in space is examined, while the true aim of space exploration, providing an alternative home for our species is also discussed. One of the significant prompts for our emigration, climate change, is the topic of a book review essay by Bill McKibben.

There are pieces dealing with lighter issues, perhaps the most entertaining being the account of "The Homeless Hacker". Adrian Lamo made sport of the security walls of corporations, the military and the mighty New York Times - the Grey Hat invaded the Grey Lady. Lamo faced a prison sentence when the essay went to press. Clifford Stoll of "The Cuckoo's Egg", tracked down the history of the first "pocket calculator". Stoll's account seems almost humorous, until you discover how the calculator was designed. Finally, as nearly always appears in one of these collections, Natalie Angier lays down a challenge. Are scientists remaining unwarrantedly mute as religion challenges their foundations? It's a question fraught with wide-spread implications - from funding to whether schools will be able to continue producing highly qualified researchers. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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on November 25, 2008
I agree with other 3 star reviews, the selections are becoming dated but some like the Easter Island story,remain important. Popular science articles fail to use any of the techniques in the science literature. There are no abstracts,no defined conclusions, no graphs,tables or illustrations and no editing for brevity.
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on February 23, 2006
I've been reading these collections for the past few years. I felt that this collection concentrated too much on the political issues surrounding science for my tastes. I preferred earlier collections with more detail and content on both current science discoveries and historical context. While I do not disagree with the points of the essays, I didn't feel they added much to the debates at hand.
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on March 16, 2006
A mixed bag is good -- there's something for everyone. But I felt that there were too many "essays" and too many book reviews that I didn't think strictly belonged. Other pieces, though, were stellar.
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on October 16, 2007
Another great year of science writing. There is a lot of great stuff in this collection. I read these books every year and this one never disappoints.
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on February 17, 2007
this book has alot of heavy science talk, but the lamen issues are easy to follow. the articles are most interesting, and after i read them i felt smart.
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