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 economy...one 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.