This year's Best American Science and Nature Writing is another "ecclectic, provocative collection" (Entertainment Weekly), full of writing that makes us feel, as Natalie Angier says, that we "have learned something and fallen in love all at once." Read on for the year's best writing on nature and science, work that originally appeared in Scientific American and Outside, The New Yorker and Harper's Magazine, Smithsonian and the New York Times, and many others. Here is Malcolm Gladwell on the subversive nonscience involved in standardized testing, Gordon Grice on the recent incursion of mountain lions into our suburbs, and Blaine Harden on how a gritty, superheavy mud from the Congo called coltan helps power the new economy. Barbara Ehrenreich gives a stinging indictment of the cancer establishment's endorsement of pink ribbons over the medical realities of being a cancer patient, and Gary Greenberg teases out the confounding -- and ethically and emotionally fraught -- science behind what we call brain death. Burkhard Bilger wonders why westerners happily eat catfish and frog's legs but continue to balk at braised possum and fried mink, and Eric Schlosser uncovers the dark side of the science involved in making McDonald's French fries taste so good. In two especially timely pieces, Dennis Overbye explores the rise and fall of Islamic science, and Anne Matthews, in an essay on the ecology of Manhattan, paints a haunting picture of still-warm bodies of songbirds littering the streets of Wall Street before dawn. These writers and many more give us the very best, very newest science and nature writing. As Natalie Angier writes, "The universe is expanding. May our minds follow suit."
"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.
NATALIE ANGIER writes about biology for the New York Times, where
she has won a Pulitzer Prize, the American Association for the Advancement of Science journalism award, and other honors. She is the author of The Beauty of the Beastly, Natural Obsessions, and Woman, named one of the best books of the year by the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, People, National Public Radio, Village Voice, and Publishers Weekly, among others.
A New York Times bestseller and National Book Award finalist, Woman is "a text so necessary and abundant and true that all efforts of its kind, for decades before and after it, will be measured by it" (Los Angeles Times Book Review). Angier lives with her husband and daughter outside of Washington, D.C.
Tim Folger is a contributing editor at Discover and writes about science for several magazines.
Every profession has its rite of passage, a crucible guaranteed to roil doubts
and second thoughts about career choices. Pilots have their solo flights,
surgeons their operations. For science journalists, it's that first crucial
interview when they realize, with mounting unease, that they don't
understand a single word of what some scientist is telling them. It happened
to me several years ago. I had just started working as a reporter for Discover
magazine and managed to convince my editor that I was ready to write a
feature. One of the people I needed to interview for the story was an eminent
physicist, a Nobel laureate. He graciously set aside two hours of his time
one wintry afternoon in Princeton to talk to me about a perplexing problem in
his field, a problem that was to be the subject of my article.
I turned on my tape recorder and asked my first question. In reply
the physicist said something about an "antisymmetric total eigenfunction." It
wasn't the sort of answer I was looking for. Worse, it wasn't the sort of
answer I could understand. From there the gap between what the physicist
said and what I followed could have been measured in megaparsecs. For the
next 7,200 seconds I had almost no idea what this kindly, renowned,
thoughtful gentleman was talking about. Sure, I could recognize the odd
phrase here and there, but entire sentences might as well have been
transmitted in a frequency range audible only to canines for all they meant to
me. Somehow the few questions I sputtered during the remainder of the
interview didn't betray my utter befuddlement and growing panic. For the
most part I sat silently perspiring, nodding or grunting now and then to foster
the illusion of comprehension.
When the interview finally ended I walked from the snow-covered
campus to the train that would take me back to Manhattan, wondering how I
would ever wring a story from such impenetrable raw material before my
deadline. Over the next few weeks, after many more hours of interviews and
phone conversations with perhaps a dozen physicists, I finished the
assignment. The work was grueling, but satisfying.
That first interview turned out to be similar to many others in the
years ahead. Although the panicky fear of failing to deliver a story eventually
faded, the hard labor of translating the work of scientists into something that
people will pay to read hasn't changed at all. Good writing is never easy, but
writing about science is extraordinarily challenging. Most journalists, whether
they're covering crime, politics, or business, can at least assume a common
vocabulary, a certain degree of shared knowledge, on the part of their
readers, not to mention their interview subjects. Science writers don't have
that luxury. First they need to understand enough of the subject at hand to
ask relevant questions. Then they must mold their interview notes and
background reading of sundry science journals into a narrative that a reader
will not just understand but enjoy. Not an easy profession.
Fortunately for us, there are many people who do it extremely
well. The stories they tell are compelling, perhaps the most important of our
time. J. Robert Oppenheimer, the controversial physicist who headed the
Manhattan Project during World War II, once said, "Taken as a story of
human achievement, and human blindness, the discoveries in the sciences
are among the great epics."
The stories science tells us are not always comforting. Steven
Weinberg, a Nobel laureate physicist (not the one who so confounded me
years ago), has said that the more physicists study the universe, the more
pointless it all seems. Scientists have not found any evidence of a special
role for humanity in the scheme of things. Instead, human life looks like a
very marginal phenomenon. Knowing that countless other species have
arisen and disappeared on earth over the past 3 billion years, the existence
of Homo sapiens seems less and less divinely ordained and ever more
contingent. When asked about Weinberg's bleak view, Jim Peebles, a
Princeton astrophysicist, said, "I'm willing to believe that we are flotsam and
But maybe those cold truths from the unflinching, vast perspective
of science are what we need to hear. Genetic evidence suggests that every
person now alive descends from the members of a small group of humans
who lived in Africa between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago. Maybe the
knowledge of our tentative, fragile place in the cosmos, and of our relatively
recent common origin, marks the beginning of our maturity as a species.
Maybe it's time to set aside the myths and legends that still sustain — and
divide — so many of us.
Of course, such knowledge isn't welcome everywhere. As
Frederick Crews writes in "Saving Us from Darwin," creationists still refuse to
accept the full implications of The Origin of Species 143 years after its
publication. They prefer to cling, using the most tortured reasoning, to a god
who is "a glutton for praise," Crews writes. Their efforts to distort and
suppress the teaching of science might seem ludicrous were they supported
by only a few in our society. Unfortunately that's not the case, which makes
Dennis Overbye's "How Islam Won, and Lost, the Lead in Science"
disturbingly relevant. Science — and the liberal culture of tolerance and
dispassionate inquiry that makes possible its pursuit — has many enemies.
Perhaps the articles collected here will help win it a few more friends.
Working with Natalie Angier has been a particular pleasure for me — she
was once my professor at New York University's graduate program in
science writing. The only disadvantage of having Natalie as the guest editor is
that none of her own writing could be included. Her reflections on the
extraordinary sacrifices of New York's firemen, policemen, and other ordinary
people on September 11 would have been one of my top picks for this
volume. Search a library or the Internet for her story — "Altruism, Heroism,
and Nature's Gifts in the Face of Terror," published in the September 18
edition of the New York Times. I am very grateful to Deanne Urmy and Laura
van Dam, my editors at Houghton Mifflin, for their good humor, guidance, and
suggestions. Peter Brown, the former editor of The Sciences, put me in touch
with Laura and Deanne. I keenly regret the demise of The Sciences, one of
the country's best magazines, which ceased publishing last year. Had it
survived, I'm sure that it would have been represented in these pages.
Burkhard Bilger, the editor of this series for the past two years and a
contributor this year, offered much valuable advice. Finally, I can't adequately
express my gratitude and love to Anne Nolan, who gave up Manhattan — and
Brooklyn — to join me in Gallup, New Mexico.
In the immediate aftermath of September 11, when all light and sense,
inflection and comprehension, seemed to vanish overmorning right along with
those gorgeous, goofy, minimalist-maximalist twin towers, I was wracked
with apocalyptic visions of a desolate world to come. The ancient curse of
millennial psychosis had struck at last, I thought, and now my daughter
would grow up in a time of brutal piousness, intolerance, and de-
encephalization, as brigades of Truth Police roamed the streets, snarling
Presa Canario dogs in tow.
So I wept and whined and flailed, and wrote violent little fantasy
vignettes about mothers and daughters who figure out how to kill Osama bin
Laden; and like so many people I couldn't sleep, night after night, and I
exercised fiendishly, and drank a lot of white russians, and might really have
fallen into a persistent state of vegetative gloom had I not started reading a
book by Steven Weinberg, the Nobel laureate physicist and atheistic
belletrist, called Facing Up: Science and Its Cultural Adversaries. I pounced
on the chapter entitled "Before the Big Bang," in which Weinberg discusses
various theories about the origins, or pre-origins, of the universe. To
hypothesize about anything prior to the Big Bang, which brought time and
physical laws as we know them into existence about 14 billion years ago,
had long been taboo among astrophysicists: scientists don't like asking
questions that they feel are impossible to answer, and this question seemed
like the dooziest unsolvable problem of them all.
Happily, new theories such as superstrings and the inflationary
model of the universe allow researchers to begin grappling with how the Bang
came to be — or rather, the bang we know best. One version of inflation
theory, called chaotic inflation, suggests an image of a nicely simmering pot
of stew, with different bubbles of "scalar energy" popping up here and there,
each a universe of its own. Very far away from our corner of the cosmos,
Weinberg writes, "there may have been other big bangs before our own, and
there may be others yet to come. Meanwhile the whole universe goes on
expanding, so there is always plenty of room for more big bangs." He
continued, "Thus although our own Big Bang had a definite beginning about
10 to 15 billion years ago, the bubbling up of new big bangs may have been
going on forever in a universe that is infinitely old."
Certainly, this business of pre-bang astrophysics is very much a
baby bubble of its own, and it may burst into nothingness, but Weinberg
argues that the problem of origins is not beyond the reach of science. "We
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