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The Best American Science Writing 2006 Paperback – September 5, 2006
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From Publishers Weekly
Surgeon and New Yorker contributor Gawande (Complications) says the "coolest" science writing isn't necessarily found in the science press. His collection of the year's best includes only one research paper—an American Scientist treatise on yawning. And though Jack Hitt's essay (from Harper's), on racist subtexts in the archeological study of who the first Americans were, has footnotes, they tend to contain side jokes, not science. Most of Gawande's selections come from mainstream publications like the New York Times and the Atlantic Monthly, and especially from fellow New Yorker writers like Elizabeth Kolbert (on avian flu), Jonathan Weiner (on a rare neurological disease) and Richard Preston (on redwoods). Still, there are plenty of opportunities for writers at other publications to shine. D.T. Max's piece from the New York TimesMagazine presents a lively inquiry into "literary Darwinism," speculating on the evolutionary function of storytelling. And in the anthology's most moving essay (from Wired), Michael Chorost recounts his efforts to find hearing aid technology that will help him to hear Ravel's Boléro with the same clarity it held before he went deaf. The diversity and readability of Gawande's selections are very cool indeed. (Sept. 5)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
This installment of a popular annual has a new selection criterion: if editor Gawande decides a piece is "cool," it gets in. Meeting this exacting if subjective standard are topics such as time travel--definitely cool; maverick scientists--always cool; and weird science--totally cool, dude. Gawande, a surgeon by occupation and an essayist by avocation, is slightly more serious than that, but he does pick popular--science articles with some bounce. Drawn from periodicals such as the New Yorker, Harper's, and Discover, Gawande's 21 choices all possess other aspects of coolness, such as topical controversy (the "epidemic" of obesity), eccentric characters (computer-chess programmers), or interesting oddity (the "science" of yawning). Writer David Quammen (Monster of God, 2003) writes about the strange reasons people go in for cloning their pets and exemplifies the coolest thing about all these essays: the writing is both lively and humorous. A browser's delight, to be paired with Houghton Mifflin's rival annual, The Best American Science and Nature Writing. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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H. Allen Orr - An unusually non-polemic critique of intelligent design. Orr's analyzes the arguments of ID's two main advocates - Behe and Dempsky. Both of them have grudgingly admitted that once the cell was in existence, evolution by random mutation and natural selection could have done the rest.
Richard Preston - The author joins Steve Sillett (botany professor and advanced tree climber) in exploring redwood canopies 300-375 feet above ground. To accomplish entry, they shoot an arrow from a powerful hunting bow over a low branch, perhaps 200 feet up. A fishing line is tied to the arrow, and is used to pull the 600 foot climbing rope back over that branch. That's the easy part.
Frans B. M. de Waal - The author always enjoyed being tuned to his environment, watching people in action - especially their body language. During thousands of hours as a graduate student in the 70's, de Waal watched chimps, and found that Machiavelli was a better guide than his texts. Chimpanzee politics was like human politics - a matter of individual strategies clashing to see who came out ahead - of course the chimps were much more transparent. The author began to see people around him in a different light.
Tom Mueller - Computers have triumphed at chess not by aping human thought, as most artificial intelligence experts had expected, but by playing like machines. Now they are playing subtler, more imaginative chess than the humans they've been designed to emulate. Programmers say, "This is an emergent phenomenon, not something I put into it." A growing number of cognitive scientists and philosophers see no fundamental distinction between computers and human brains.
Michael Chorost - This article is one of my favorites and is one of three that appeared in both books. The author was born almost deaf and didn't learn to talk until he got hearing aids at age three and a half. At age 15 he somehow got hooked on the "Bolero," a famous orchestral piece known for its dynamic crescendos. From that time on, he judged each new hearing aid by listening to his favorite rendition of "Bolero." Then for unexplained reasons he became completely deaf at age 38. The story of how a cochlear implant brought back his hearing ranges through engineering, computer science, physics, ear physiology, and the continued use of "Bolero."
Gardiner Harris and Anahad O'Conner - Analysis of the conspiracy theory that says the mercury preservative that used to be in vaccines has caused autism. Despite the opposition of overwhelming scientific consensus, Dr. Mark Geier and his son, David, lead the very successful movement. Mark has served as a witness in as many as ninety trials. Scientists say the Geiers' research is tainted by faulty methodology. Geier (and others) say Public Health officials are "just trying to cover it up."
Charles Mann - This great article also appeared in both books. Pills that increase longevity may be just around the corner, but the consequences may not all be good. The author discusses the intergenerational personal and political warfare that will most certain come to the table - should the elderly refuse to die.
D. T. Max - Horizons of Darwin's theory have broadened recently - from biology to psychology, and now to interpretation of great literature. For one example, from the very first page, "Pride and Prejudice" is chock full of life's-passage moments that resonate with meaning in the field of Evolutionary Psychology. E. O. Wilson might be the father of this movement and is thrilled to think that science and the humanities have united.
The rest of the essays are just as fascinating as the ones I've mentioned above. Readers will most likely come away with a deep appreciation of the work done by scientists and the journalists who write about them - and with a deeper appreciation of science itself.
The article, Climbing in the Redwoods by Richard Preston, introduces the reader to a sub-environment within our environment that only a handful of people could ever experience themselves. In The Coming Death Shortage, Charles Mann discusses the potential results of our ever-increasing lifespans. At the retail price of $14.95, this book is a bargain. You would pay much more if you were buying these articles individually in magazines.
I have gone back and ordered the older ones like 2006 and 2007, because the science hasn't really dated and I had finished the more recent ones. And they are very cheap.
I also recommend the "Best American Science & Nature Writing" series (although there is some overlap of articles). I was disappointed by Richard Dawkin's Oxford book of science writing as the extracts were really snippets rather than articles, too short to be useful.
I have read all or part of the entire series beginning in 2000, and while every collection has been interesting, even fascinating, this year's collection is particularly good. I say this because Gawande, in keeping close to his area of expertise, has chosen articles mainly in the fields of biology, medicine, computers and information theory, and evolution, and these happen to be fields that especially interest me. The emphasis in this volume then is on the so-called "soft" sciences rather than the "hard" ones, although not exclusively so. Moreover, Gawande has managed to find essays that are especially well-written. I was a bit dazzled at the wordsmithing ability of some of the writers to say nothing about the fascinating and informative content of their essays. In particular I want to point to Alan Weisman's "Earth Without People"; D. T. Max's "The Literary Darwinists"; Karen Wright's "The Day Everything Died"; Jack Hitt's "Mighty White of You"; and Paul Bloom's "Is God an Accident" as very impressive.
One of the reasons the essays are so good is that they first appeared in some of our best journals, including Harper's, The Atlantic Monthly, Discover, The New Yorker, et al. where they were scrupulously edited by some of the best editors working today. A good editor is a godsend for a writer, and a great editor can make the difference between a piece that is ordinary and one that is outstanding. Anyone wanting to improve their writing might read these essays for that reason alone.
Now just a few quick thoughts about some of the essays:
Alan Weisman achieves an eerie, sci fi mood in his "Earth without People" as he imagines how the planet might change if people suddenly disappeared. His insights come partly from recalling what the planet was like before humans came upon the scene, especially North America with its teeming mass of extinct large mammals.
Gardiner Harris and Anahad O'Connor point to the disconnect between scientific knowledge and the public's perception of what is likely true and what likely isn't in "On Autism's Cause, It's Parents vs. Research." It appears that there is almost no way that mercury in vaccines causes autism, yet there remains a hard core of parents of autistic children who believe otherwise. What I think this shows is that our personal experience--a sampling of one--is so persuasive that often we cannot put it aside regardless of the evidence.
H. Allen Orr demonstrates in his carefully composed essay "Devolution" that faith-based "intelligent design" might well be a sign of human devolution.
D. T. Max's "The Literary Darwinists" introduced me to a new slant on literary criticism, clearly a natural progression in postmodern thought: namely to subject literary works to examinations from Darwinian principles. Particularly delicious is evolutionary psychology as applied to Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, which begins with this irresistible first line, "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife."
What struck me as most instructive in Karen Wright's "The Day Everything Died," which is about the Permian extinction and the controversy surrounding it, is just how much more difficult it is to study something that happened a quarter of a billion years ago than it is to study something (the K-T extinction) that happened a mere 65 million years ago.
I absolutely loved Jack Hitt's, witty, satirical take on being Charlemagne's direct descendant (he is and so are you!), as he muses on Kennewick man and some not so subtle racism among those touting pre-Clovis humans in the Americas.
But my favorite piece in the book is Paul Bloom's "Is God an Accident." Having recently read Sam Harris' The End of Faith (2005) and other works, I somehow felt in total understanding about why humans believe impossible (or at least very unlikely) things. Clearly religion exists in all societies because it is adaptive and contributes to tribal cohesion which helps the tribe defeat other tribes in warfare, etc. However Bloom's essay broadened my understanding. His argument is that religion is essentially a kind of hardwired dualism in our brains that came about because we have two simultaneous ways of perceiving the world, one physical and the other social. Our social perceptions result in a belief system based on minds, that is what others may think and what may be possible in manipulating the content of minds vis-a-vis real world objects, e.g., coming up with unicorns and holy fathers with bad tempers. Consequently it feels right for us to believe in things unseen, unheard, undemonstrated.
I also liked the last essay in the book, Frans B. M. de Waal's short piece on why "We're All Machiavellians," a "truth" he learned from watching chimpanzees. His asks why don't we just admit to our lust to power? It is so obvious. Instead we and especially our politicians pretend we are "public servants" and it is other people who want power.
In short, this is the most readable collection of science essays that I have read in recent years.
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