- Series: Best American Science Writing
- Paperback: 368 pages
- Publisher: Ecco; 2010 ed. edition (September 14, 2010)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0061852511
- ISBN-13: 978-0061852510
- Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.8 x 8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 7 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,513,667 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Best American Science Writing 2010 2010 ed. Edition
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This yearly best-of shares three articles with The Best American Science and Nature Writing: 2010 but saliently differs by including medical articles. Editor Groopman picked good ones about strange things, such as Larissa MacFarquhar’s New Yorker look at people who donate their kidneys to strangers, Benedict Carey’s New York Times report about the comeback of the lobotomy (euphemized as the “cingulotomy”), and Steve Silberman’s Wired piece about the effectiveness of placebos. For such news-you-can-use, the hardcore periodical Science is not normally renowned, yet Groopman has extracted one for anyone who’s committed a social gaffe, “How to Think, Say, or Do Precisely the Worst Thing for Any Occasion.” Newsworthy topics represented herein include a profile of the late green-revolution agronomist Norman Borlaug, a Wired riposte to the irrational antivaccine movement, and psychologist Steven Pinker’s essay about personal DNA testing. Alas, a serpent lies coiled in science’s garden, as a Nation alarm about the drastic reduction of the media’s science coverage discloses. Help allay that decline by expanding the audience for Groopman’s 22 sharp-minded contributors. --Gilbert Taylor
From the Back Cover
Edited by New York Times bestselling author Jerome Groopman, The Best American Science Writing 2010 collects in one volume the most crucial, thought-provoking, and engaging science writing of the year. Distinguished by new and impressive voices as well as some of the foremost names in science writing—David Dobbs, Elizabeth Kolbert, and Larissa MacFarquhar among them—this eleventh edition features outstanding journalism from a wide variety of publications, providing a comprehensive overview of the year’s most compelling, relevant, and exciting developments in the world of science. Provocative and engaging, The Best American Science Writing 2010 reveals just how far science has brought us—and where it is headed next.
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* "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 creator 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 it 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 (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 demonstrated, 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.
* "My Genome, My Self" by Steven Pinker - Pinker is the author of several well-known books including "Blank Slate," an investigation of the nature/nurture debate. He had the opportunity to have his genome sequenced as part of a research project and he presents his findings. "Apart from carrier screening, personal genomics will be more recreational than diagnostic for some time to come." This article contains a plethora of interesting facts about DNA, genetic testing, and how things work, and Pinker writes in a straightforward but entertaining style: "The reach of the gene gets stronger as we age, not weaker...we know what happens to people who get the worst news [on their genetic screens] - they handle it perfectly well...even in the simplest organisms, genes are not turned on and off like clockwork but are subject to a lot of random noise...the two traditional shapers of a person, nature and nurture, must be augmented by a third one, brute chance...for most traits, any influence of the genes will be probabilistic...It [personal genomics] opens up a niche for bottom-feeding companies to terrify hypochondriacs by turning dubious probabilities into Genes of Doom. Scientist have discovered a dozen genes which influence height but a person that has most of these genes can be only an inch taller than average. "Since height can be easily measured with a tape measure, what can we expect for more elusive traits like intelligence or personality."
Looking over what I have written looks negative about genomic testing - which I don't mean to be, nor does Pinker. Hopefully, I have included enough entertaining tidbits to perk your interest. This article is perfect for an up-to-date survey about nurture/nature, how genes work, and genetic testing - which should be refined exponentially in the coming decades.
* "The Deadly Choices At Memorial" by Sheri Fink - After Katrina, Memorial hospital was flooded, lost its power, then lost its emergency power. There were not enough helicopters to evacuate all the patients before they started dying - patients who already were deprived of necessary high tech support and the ability to deliver therapeutic drugs. Doctors and nurses began to label patients with 1, 2, or 3 pinned to their hospital gowns. The "1's" were transported first - they were the healthiest. The "3's" were not expected to get transport for various reasons - they were already DNR (do not resuscitate), they were to heavy to move down the stairwells from the 7th floor, or they were not expected to survive the move. Eventually, overworked and sleep-deprived caregivers decided to make some of them more comfortable with morphine and midazolam. As a result, doctors and nurses were accused of euthanasia and charged with murder. A sympathetic grand jury failed to indict them. This is a great story full of unresolved ethical disputes whose author won a Pulitzer prize for investigative reporting - not to be missed.
"Disaster Aversion" by Rivka Galchen" - About methods used, past and present to control the weather - hurricanes in particular. For someone who is very interested in getting to the science, this article distractingly went around the block several times, but it does cover the history and the science if you persevere.
* "The Kindest Cut" by Larrisa MacFarquhar - At a website called "MatchingDonors.com, you can find personal requests for a kidney donor from patients who are on dialysis and on the list. True to the old saying "no good deed goes unpunished" the author "explores the skepticism and suspicion - often from the medical establishment - that surrounds these seemingly altruistic donors." Either through MatchingDonors.com or through a hospital, about 600 have donated a kidney to a stranger. UNOS (United Network For Organ Sharing) is the organization usually responsible for organ allocation. They try to intimidate transplant centers into rejecting internet donors because MatchingDonor.com "exploits vulnerable populations and undermines public trust in the equitable allocation of organs." Some donors, to avoid the ambivalence on both sides that seems to accompany organ donation, choose to remain anonymous.
For issues you've probably never thought about, this article is hard to beat. One donor said, "If you're sitting around with a good kidney you're not using, why can't someone else have it? For a couple of days of discomfort, someone else is going to be freed from dialysis and be able to live a full life. Gosh, I've had flus that made me feel worse."
"The Placebo Problem" by Steve Silberman - It seems the beneficial effects of many lucrative pharmaceuticals used for depression don't perform any better than placebos. In 2000, "For the first time in medical history, more than 500 drug developers, doctors, academics, and trial designers put their heads together to examine the role of placebo effect in clinical trials and healing in general." Unfortunately, no one would pay for it and drug companies don't share data - they hoard it. But it did launch a new wave of placebo research. "By definition, inert pills have no effect, but under the right conditions they can act as a catalyst for...the body's endogenous healthcare system." This effect can be long-lasting, contrary to the widespread belief that beneficial effect are short-term - held in the pharmaceutical industry. "The placebo response doesn't care if the catalyst for healing is a triumph of pharmacology, a compassionate therapist, or a syringe of salt water. All it requires is a reasonable expectation of getting better...to really do the best for your patients, you want the best placebo response plus the best drug response."
* "An Epidemic of Fear" by Amy Wallace - Vaccines do not cause autism, autoimmune disease, or any of the other chronic illnesses attributed to them by hysterical activists. The movement against vaccination has caused epidemics of pertussis and is a perfect example of the anti-science dumbing down of America (and England). Wallace says, "Because a massive research has yet to reveal the precise cause of autism, pseudo-science has stepped aggressively into the void." Because the evidence against vaccines causing autism, most of the anti-vaccination crowd has shifted their focus to the sheer numbers of vaccination recommended. To put a face on the conflict, Paul Offit is author of the book "Autism's False Prophets" and has been under brutal attack, complete with death threats.
"Unpopular Science" by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum - The age of the internet has been very bad for newspapers and magazines and science journalists are quickly becoming a rare breed. "Just one minute out of every 300 on cable news is devoted to science or technology, or one-third of 1 percent...[on the web] accurate science and the most stunning misinformation thrive side by side." Then there's the propensity for "news" journalists to seek balance - to present "the other side" when mainstream science and the vast majority of legitimate scientist advocate, for example, global warming, or the causal relationship between HIV and AIDS. Science channels like Discover, National Geographic channel, and PBS's Nova stand out in a desert of shoddy information put out by a news media not trained in science and not hiring any professional science journalists. The authors provide a few fixes for us optimists.
"A Most Private Evolution" by Susan Milius - a survey of the more unpleasant aspects of sexual reproduction among species. Darwin recognized it and called it sexual selection. He was dumbfounded to figure out why evolution would create characteristics seemingly as nonproductive as the peacock's tail. "With medieval torture instruments, mazes and corkscrews, drugged sperm and arms races everywhere, reproduction looks more like war than love....one of the biggest developments in the theory of sexual selection has been the recognition that females in many species aren't monogamous."
* "Are We Still Evolving" by Kathleen McAuliffe - For decades, concensus among biologists has been that human evolution is over. New evidence from sequencing of DNA shows otherwise. Apparently, human evolution is accelerating. Some scientists are even advocating what are fighting words in the humanities - that human races are evolving away from each other - that we're getting less alike instead of merging into a single mixed humanity. McAuliffe adds the technical data from Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms (SNP's) from the Haplotide Map - 7% of genes fit into the category of recent adaptation. She follows up with verification using another method. The brain also appears to be evolving but many scientists don't want to hear it - the results of this type of study could be "so racially polarizing that we would be better off in the dark."
"Pesticides Indicted in Bee Deaths" - By Julia Scott - "Colony Collapse Disorder" - the unexplained decimation of bees in the US and around the world over the past four years has been blamed on many factors - parasitic mites, disease, malnutrition and environmental contaminants like pesticides, insecticides, and fungicides. Concensus of the evidence seems to be zeroing in on 2 pesticides that are sold in 120 countries at revenues in the billions - imidacloprid and clothianid. Beeowners say the lack of cross-pollenation by bees could eventually threaten the world's food supply, but the responsible agencies in the US need conclusive evidence to dampen such a vibrant industry as led by Bayer CropScience.
* "The Famine Fighter's Last Battle" - by Erik Stokstad - A memoir about Norman Borlaug, who revolutionized food production and continued to fight wheat rust until he died at the age of 95. In the fall of 1937, Iowan Borlaug heard a lecture by Elvin Stakman about stem rust - a disease that periodically decimated wheat production throughout the world. He changed his major and studied with Stakman until he got his PhD in 1942. He started his career in Mexico and insisted that farming be done using scientific methods rather than tradition - which is very hard to break. He insisted that scientist work alongside technicians in the fields and yields immediately improved. He had so much success in Mexico the Rockefeller foundation decided to help him take his methods global and he eventually won the Nobel Peace Prize. "The green revolution has been criticized for its reliance on synthetic fertilizers, irrigation that led to salinization of soils, and other problems; Borlaug acknowledges some of these shortcomings but says they pale in comparison to starvation and political unrest." Bringing researchers together to work on stem rust was a life calling for Borlaug. His story reminds me a little of the great Russian agricultural scientist who died in a Russian prison during the days of Stalin - Nikolai Vavilov.
"Test Subjects Who Call the Scientist Mom or Dad" by Pam Belluck - Jonas Salk injected his children with polio vaccine. Some of today's scientists have found that their own children make reliable participants in an era of scarce research funding. Others argue that neither science nor the children are being well-served. Dr. Camarata devised research around his kids. When his son Vincent had serious speech problems, he focused on language disorders. Vincent, now 19 and in college, said he "had a very good experience with my dad and his work. We'd go out and have lunch, go hiking, shoot skeet sometimes. It never felt like a drill, ever. It felt like fun."
"The Orchid Children" by David Dobbs - There are "dandelion" children - who will do pretty well no matter what environment you put them in; and there are "orchid" children - who will wilt if ignored or maltreated but will bloom spectacularly with greenhouse care. During the last 15 years, research has emphasized the downside of having certain genes - genes that predispose a person to having ADHD, for example. Nowadays, there's an alternate hypothesis - one that stresses the upside of having these genes. The focus on dysfunction has caused most researchers to overlook the potential advantages. We have survived, not despite these alleles, but because of them - and some of them are actively selected for. Like some of the other articles, this one uses data mined from recent DNA studies and the ongoing study of nature/nurture. Current opinion gives both their due. I would have included this among my favorites had it been more straightforward and half as long.
"Decoding An Ancient Computer" - by Tony Freeth - It never ceases to amaze what the Greeks did. A remarkable instrument was found at the bottom of the Mediterranean sea in 1900, possibly made by Archimedes or one of his colleagues. The author was a mathematician in his other life and spent part of the past ten years with a team of scientists and technical experts using sophisticated instruments to figure out how it worked. Freeth explains the mechanism with its elaborate gears, making this the most technical article in the book. This device "calculated the dates of lunar and solar eclipses, modeled the moon's subtle apparent motions through the sky to the best of available knowledge, and kept track of the dates of events of social significance, such as the Olympic games. Had this unique specimen not survived, historians would have thought that it could not have existed at that time." It had an adjustment for leap years, tracked the signs of the zodiac, and had epicyclic gearing, "More than two thousand years after the ancient Greeks, we are all following in their footsteps, lost in admiration for their genius."
* "So Much to Learn About the Ocean From Sand" by Cornelia Dean - Much remains unknown about what happens in the surf zone because the environment is so hard to measure. If the equipment is sturdy enough to withstand the waves it interferes with the process and the measurements. The author established a computerized photography system he uses for studying beaches in Oregon, which contain some of the most brutal surf in the US. His "Argus" has now been copied throughout the world.
He is also a sand sample collector. Sand is not the same. The current on the North Atlantic seaboard takes sand from North to south. The darker grains of sand in New Jersey are coarse. During the beating they take as they move to Florida they become finer, more circular, and lighter, with all the rough edges smoothed out and cleared of debris. The Banzai Pipeline surf of Oahu contains sand that hasn't been subjected to a thousand miles of beatings. It is all broken up shells with rounded edges. He has over a thousand specimens, catalogued by latitude and longitude, including joke specimens sent to him from curio shops containing beads and M&M's. He has taken sand to student exams with the question, "Tell me about this beach." This short article is easy to read and delightful.
Some of the essays can be considered as perhaps stretching the definition of "science", a notable example being one of my favorites, "The Deadly Choices at Memorial", set in New Orleans during and post-Katrina.
Tony Freeth gives a nice mixture of engineering and scientific analysis in the ancient Greek "computer" salvaged 100+ years ago from the sea and now subject to a fresh consideration thanks to modern technology. You'd almost think conspiracy theorists would come forward and claim alien visitors were needed to make such a fascinating, advanced device.
The opening essay on people who donate kidneys to strangers was light on serious science and more contemplative about why people do it, and why people are surprisingly (?) suspicious of the generosity.
Speaking of "why", a common topic was why we are what we are, using individuals (e.g., Steven Pinker on his own genome), "grit", doing the wrong thing, attempted explanations for bizarre animal evolution, and the best of that set, "Orchid Children" with insights from rhesus monkeys.
"The Sixth Extinction" is at least somewhat familiar in theme for readers who follow environmental controversies, although not often written with the passion of Elizabeth Kolbert.
"Disaster Aversion" didn't work for me. Too much about the author and her dad, when the topic could have been presented more crisply.
But I take issue with the editor's inclusion of an extremely controversial article on autism near the end of the book, A. Wallace's piece "An Epidemic of Fear," which is essentially a lay writer's interview of a scientist who is perhaps the nation's most vocal proponent of vaccines. Nowhere in this article was the opposite viewpoint explored or offered, and some misinformation was included. (The author said that there are no studies in existence refuting the pro-vaccine studies - simply untrue - you have to look outside the U.S. to find another voice, but the author should have known to do the looking before making such a volatile statement). I found the inclusion of this article a bit puzzling considering the quality of the rest of the book.
As a science junkie, I look forward to these anthologies each year. With this one noted exception, I highly recommend the 2010 edition.