01 November 2009

The Best Science Writing 2009 - Times 2!

One of my more recent goals is to read more science writing (when I start eyeballing my old physics textbook I know it's been a while since I did any serious science reading).  Conveniently, the "best" collections were published recently and I picked up two of them: The Best American Science Writing 2009 edited by Natalie Angier and The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2009 (from the "Best American Series") edited by Elizabeth Kolbert.  Definitely a good place to start.

There is an overlap of three essays between the two volumes, which isn't too bad considering the two series have different editors and publishers: Atul Gawande "The Itch," J. Madeline Nash "Back to the Future," and David Quammen "Contagious Cancer."  Another overlap occured in two articles on verbal language in animals where Alex, the chatty African Gray parrot owned by Irene Pepperberg, took center stage and in two articles on recycling human waste.  Oliver Sachs and Gary Wolf each had different articles in the two volumes (does that make sense?).

Of the two volumes, the Kolbert-helmed book has the better breadth of topics in my opinion ranging from biomedical questions to psychology to economics (an odd choice, but appropriate for a science volume) to paleontology to theoretical physics.  Even the physics articles were well-chosen because they were well-written and easy to understand.  Nicholas Carr's reflective piece "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" was a very thought-provoking essay, as well as Benjamin Phelan's thoughts on human evolution, and Michelle Nijuis's essay "Taking Wildness in Hand" about deliberate relocation of species to avoid extinction.

I also didn't understand the arrangement of articles in the Angier volume.  Kolbert went for a straightforward alphabetical-by-author arrangement but I couldn't tell if Angier had arranged the articles to flow from one discipline to the next or had put her favorite article first (the Gawande) because the arrangement just didn't make any sense.  It didn't lend to easy reading because I assumed there was a flow to the Angier....and there was none. With the Kolbert I knew there was no superimposed order beyond the alphabet so I felt I could pick and choose my way through the book until I read all the articles.

Angier included two articles in her volume that I didn't quite see as necessary to the best science writing of the year: Theresa Brown's article about learning to enjoy life through caring for a dying woman (didn't quite find the point) and Dennis Overbye's piece about theoretical cosmology which was actually pretty hard to read (meaning I thought it could be done better).  Angier did include a wonderful piece about cataloging the evidence of physical torture, Jina Moore's "Reading the Body" which was beautifully written and highlights the problem of "proof" for torture victims.

The best essay overall was Atul Gawande's "The Itch" - included in both volumes for good reason.  He has a great writing style and covers a particular conundrum in cognition - how the brain interprets itch signals - beginning with the case-study of a woman who had unrelenting scalp itch causing her to scratch through her skull into her brain.  Freaky, right?  Go read the article to find out how her condition is treated.

I think I should go back and get the other Science and Nature volumes of the Best American Series - I really enjoyed Kolbert's work (she's featured in earlier volumes as a contributor) and Mobute recommended the article "Ask the Bird People" from the 2004 collection.  They're all still available, too.

Clear Off Your Shelves Challenge Count: 9/12

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