Once a year, courtesy of Houghton Mifflin, we get to be wowed, disgusted, depressed, amazed, revolted, terrified, and sometimes even amused with the publication of The Best American Science and Nature Writing. This is not a book geared for science nerds, this is reading for anyone interested in life. I wish there was a different name to use other than “science,” so that the word would not conjure up the dry horrors of high school chemistry and biology, so boring, so gross, so uncool. We are now paying the price of having not paid enough attention all along, but it is not too late to become science literate.
In this anthology, whose series editor is Tim Folger, and whose 2014 edition guest editor is Deborah Blum, you will start seeing the world and the universe from new perspectives. Many of the articles are from magazines I would not be reading otherwise, such as Matter, Pacific Standard, and Nautilus. And of the ones I do read, like Orion, Harpers’s and the New York Times, it was nice to reread or discover articles I have missed. My favorite writers are included, including Rebecca Solnit, who has a piece from Harper’s on leprosy, a Biblical disease that still lives among us. Elizabeth Kolbert is here with an excerpt from The Sixth Extinction (reviewed on this site by Midge Raymond in January, 2015) originally published in two parts in the New Yorker. I had read it before, but I had forgotten so much that needs remembering, such as the fact that fertilizer factories (read: humans) produce more nitrogen than is fixed naturally by all terrestrial ecosystems.
An article I had read before in horror, and gladly reread here, was “Awakening” by Joshua Lang in The Atlantic. Lang writes that we don’t know much about anesthesia, and that it sometimes doesn’t work in the worst possible way, when the patient is in a paralyzed state and can’t tell anyone about the pain as they are being cut apart. But this is not just about gore in the operating room, it is about the very meaning of consciousness. If you want to read more about surgery, read “Imagining the Post-Antibiotics Future” by Maryn McKenna. Without antibiotics – a strong possibility in the not-so-distant future – one out of every six recipients of new hip joints would die. Time to pray to St. Joseph, the patron saint of the good death.
Many of the writers in the anthology were a joy to discover for the first time, such as Barbara King who wrote “When Animals Mourn,” where she asks the big question of why grief evolved. Grieving costs species, such as our own, a great deal in emotional suffering. It is a time-consuming sentiment that detracts from food-gathering and child-raising. King suggests that grief may be epiphenomenal to the strong emotional bond that many species form. In other words, grief is the price we pay for love. And love has such strong benefits, such as enhanced cooperation in nurturing or resource-acquisition tasks, that nature considers it worth the trade-off. King’s article was from Scientific American, and I thank the editors for bringing it to the attention of a broader audience.
In “23 and You,” Virginia Hughes explores the privacy issues surrounding DNA home testing. As in, do you want to know that Grandma was no paragon of virtue? She certainly didn’t. Does your birth mother or sperm donor father really want to hear from you? They might, but it’s probably not what they signed up for. Another article on DNA was “The Social Life of Genes,” by David Dobbs, where he ponders the relationship between genes and gene expression. Our DNA is hardly destiny. It’s not nature or nurture, but nature and nurture.
Sarah Stewart Johnson’s “O-Rings” is a report from Antarctica, with katabatic winds included, (I had to look them up: winds that rush down a mountain). Johnson was there to study how bacterial cells eke out a living under extreme conditions, but she began contemplating the last two minutes and forty-five seconds of the Challenger crew. It’s a smooth segueway, and is as much a demonstration of the brain’s capacity to make connections as it is a moment of somber reflection. “Danger! This Mission to Mars Could Bore You to Death!” by Maggie Koerth-Baker, is a related article, not connected so much by space missions, but in the way they both consider the consequences of isolation and chronic boredom.
I promise, you won’t be bored reading this book. And if you read it as an e-book, be sure not to miss Ferris Jabr’s article on “Why the Brain Prefers Paper.”