Monday, August 25, 2003

Quammen, David, ed. The Best American Science and Nature Writing: 2000. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000. 256pp.
Gleick, James, ed. The Best American Science Writing: 2000. New York: HarperCollins, 2000. 258pp.

Houghton Mifflin’s The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2000 is the first volume in a great series. The idea was to gather together the best popular writing on science and nature from a given year. Since the operative word is popular, most of the essays come from venues such as The New Yorker or Atlantic Monthly. Both those magazines publish a lot of fine science writing that is both accurate and engaging, that stimulate and inform while entertaining. The best example is Oliver Sacks’s piece from the New Yorker, “Brilliant Light,” about his boyhood obsession with chemisty and how he was able to use science as a way of coping with many difficult and challenging family and personal problems. Sacks expanded this essay into his brilliant memoir Uncle Tungsten. A particularly topical essay on the smallpox virus talks very seriously about how unprepared we are for a major outbreak of a serious infectious disease and how shortsighted we’ve been in dealing with smallpox in particular. The other highlight has to be "Men, Women, Sex and Darwin" by Natalie Angier. It's her very interesting take on evolutionary psychology, which was included in her book Women: An Intimate Geography, a book I also highly recommend. The main tenet of evolutionary psychology is that men are by nature promiscuous and want to spread their seed and that women are by nature monogomous and want to trap men into taking care of them and their children. Well, Angier turns this upside down and asks, maybe it isn’t nature as much as we think, maybe a lot of it’s culture that we’ve just taken for granted for so long that we think it’s nature. And maybe things would be very different if the power relationships between men and women were different. Not too revolutionary an idea for us sf types, but an interesting presentation as science rather than fiction. Also of interest are a few fascinating essays on camel racing and African wild dogs, but really there is nothing weak here at all. Similar in both quality and content to Quammen’s book is HarperCollins’s The Best American Science Writing 2000. The book starts very strong with Atul Gawande’s “When Doctor’s Make Mistakes.” It is very simply about how doctors make lots of mistakes treating us every day and how we like to pretend that it shouldn’t happen, as if doctor’s weren’t just as fallible as the rest of us. Ending the book on a similar high note is a plea by Nobel laureate in physics Steven Weinberg to cast off our superstitions and adopt a rational view of the universe – a science fictional topic if there ever was one. These series are currently up to the 2002 editions and I look forward to reading the 2003 editions when they come out. I also find it interesting that there exists two nearly identicle books featuring this kind of writing, both excellent, both aimed at the same audience, and yet they both only feature American writing. Surely one of these publishers could have broadened their scope to include essays published in Canada or the UK or Australia. Does the book have to say “American” to sell?



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