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4.0 out of 5 stars The State of (Some) Things: Space, The Mind, The Earth, November 4, 2010
This review is from: The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2010 (Paperback)
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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."
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Nov 16, 2010, 8:29:30 AM PST
[Deleted by the author on Dec 29, 2010, 8:11:17 PM PST]

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 29, 2010, 4:06:00 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Dec 29, 2010, 4:23:56 PM PST
Tracy Hodson says:
Thanks for your comment (somehow I missed it when you posted it). I didn't read the introduction until after I read the rest of the book, as I tend to find that I don't really want a commentary about the rest until I've formed my own opinion, so I didn't drink from the "poisoned well" you mention. But I grew up on my Dad's Scientific American and lots of Natural History and Biology writing (he was a chemist, specializing in Industrial Health & Safety) and I nearly became a virologist after working in a immuno-pathology lab at Yale Medical School during the first Ebola outbreak, and I read everything I could get my hands on, so my standards for scientific writing are pretty high. I found the writing in this collection to be too general public-oriented, and the collection itself to be too narrow in scope. I don't think I was biased against the collection because of Dyson. I think I wanted to be more challenged, and not to feel as though it were an extra issue of Nat'l Geographic. If that's what the collection is meant to feel like, then maybe the problem is in the marketing or titling of the book?
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