Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Lightman, Alan, ed. The best American science writing 2005. New York: Harper Perennial, 2005. 300pp.
Weiner, Jonathan, ed. The best American science and nature writing 2005. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005. 304pp.

These two book series are definately self-recommending. If you like science, if you like good writing, if you have long boring commutes on busses or trains, you owe it to yourself to buy and read these books. Or, buy/suggest these books for your library and read them. Both these books have basically the same aim: to collect popular science and nature writing and present them to an interested public, hopefully from a wide and varied selection of sources. Also, they can easily function as a current awareness tool in the sciences -- you can use the books to spot trends, to keep abreast of recent developments in important areas, to monitor public reaction scientific controversies, disputes or cutting edge advances. So, good books for scitech librarians.

Do these particular editions of their respective series meet these high expectations? Mostly, yes, with a few reservations.

The Lightman books has a good selection of stories from a good selection of disciplines: physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy, genetics, information technology, medicine, some nature writing, a couple of profiles or memoir-type pieces. The particular hightlights for me are Oliver Sacks' "Greetings from the Island of Stability" on discovering new elements and David Quammen's "Darwin or Not" which looks carefully at the arguments in favour of evolution and darwinism and definately comes out on the side of reason and science. A significant lowlight in this collection? I can't for the life of me figure out what possesed Lightman to inlude the essay "On the Origins of the Mind" by David Berlinski. For those not in the know, Berlinski is a member of the Discovery Institute and therefore a card-carrying creationist. Coming right after the Quammen article in the table of contents, the Berlinski article completely undermines Quammen (and in a sense, the whole book). Where Quammen gives a rational, fact-based account of reality, Berlinski, when faced with unanswered questions about the origin and nature of human consciousness, says, "The rest is darkness, mystery and magic." It doesn't take too much intelligence to figure out that these are code-words for god -- if we don't know the answer, then there is no answer we can know, only supernatural intervention. Alan Lightman, what were you thinking?

On average, the Weiner book is a bit better, with no articles I was really disappointed in. A good selection of topics (anthropology, aerospace, psychology, engineering and technology), if maybe a little heavy on medical reporting and book reviews. Real highlights for me are easy to spot: Natalie Angier's "My God Problem -- and Theirs" on the place of religion in public debate in science, Jared Diamond's "Twilight at Easter" on what we can learn from Easter Island and Jerome Groopman's "The Grief Industry" about how maybe people are a lot more resilient in the face of hardship than we give them credit for. This might be the one must-read from this book. Quibbles -- and really, my problems with this book really are just quibbles. First of all, there really isn't any nature writing, despite the presence of word in the title of the book. The Easter Island story is the closest. The second is that the editor needs to get out more. Of the 25 articles in the book, 13 were from The New Yorker, The New York Times or The New York Review of Books. Not to mention, one more has The New York Times in it's title ("The Homeless Hacker vs. The New York Times") and another has The New York Review of Books in the first sentence ("The Man or the Moment"). Not that it would be easy to choose which articles to leave out, but the narrowness of sources and points of view is a bit problematic for me.

One more thing. Natalie Angier has an article in each of these collections and both are excellent. (From the Lightman book, I didn't mention "Scientist at Work: Jacqueline Barton," a terrific portrait of a female scientist.) To all you giants of the publishing industry out there in blogland, why doesn't this woman have at least a couple of essay collections already? She has to be one of the best science writers working today, probably the best without a published collection. What's taking so long?

(Also in the Other Blog)



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