Thursday, March 01, 2007

Gawande, Atul, editor & Jesse Cohen, series editor. The best American science writing 2006. New York: Harper Perennial, 2006. 362pp.

Greene, Brian, editor & Tim Folger, series editor. The best American science and nature writing 2006. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. 290pp.

Zivkovic, Bora, editor. The open laboratory: The best writing on science blogs 2006. Chapel Hill, NC:, 2007. 315pp.

First of all, these three books are all self-recommending. If you care about science, if you love good writing and especially if you can't get enough good writing about science then you have to buy and read these books. In the end, you won't be sorry with any or all of these books.

Two of them are from established series, Brian Greene's Best American Science & Nature Writing 2006 and Atul Gawande's Best American Science Writing 2006; as such, we really know what to expect from these books: high quality popular science journalism from the print media. And basically they both come through with representative volumes in their series. I'll talk about them in some detail, but not too much as, like I said, the series are known quantities. The third, Bora Zivkovic's Open Laboratory: The Best Writing on Science Blogs 2006 is a totally new beast. The first in what will hopefully be a series collecting the best in recent science writing on science-related weblogs. This is a wild card; going in we really don't have too much of an idea of what to expect in terms of quality of writing or variety of coverage or even basic interest level of most of the pieces. To make matters even more uncertain, it's self-published using the print-on-demand service rather than a traditional publisher, so potentially quality control for both the physical and intellectual components could be an issue. As a result, I'll discuss this book in quite a bit more detail.

I'll discuss them in the order I read them.

First of all, Brian Greene's Best American Science and Nature Writing 2006 (BASNW). Really solid, most of the articles were professional and interesting. Having read every book in the series since 2000, I can say that this volume does not shame the series at all. I especially like the way Greene uses the introduction to encourage us to see good science writing as a way to bridge C.P. Snow's famous Two Cultures, bringing together humanists and scientists around the warm glow of the scientific world view. A couple of the really notable stories this time around are John Hockenberry's "The Blogs of War" about soldiers blogging from Iraq and the free speech/military discipline issues around that. Another is Kevin Krajick's "The Mummy Doctor" about a man who's devoted his live to studying mummified human remains. Finally, I'd like to mention Charles C. Mann's "The Coming Death Shortage" about the oncoming population bulge in retired people and how it will effect western society, a fine article, one of the most thought provoking I've read in quite some time.

Now for the bad news. I always have a few quibbles with these books, and this one is no exception. One of the unfortunate things is that the quibbles always seem to be similar. First of all, 25 stories, only 2 women. Ok, Natalie Angier is pretty well the best science writer out there and she's one of the two. But you have to think that 2 out of 25 is pretty pathetic. Secondly, of 25 stories, 7 were from The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, The New York Review of Books or The New Yorker. Either Greene or (more likely) the series editor really need to get out more. As well, 6 were from Scientific American, another huge problem. SciAm tends a bit towards a kind of homogenized earnest dullness in thier articles, which while perfect for what they're trying to accomplish, tends to wear on you after a while. Greene should have made an effort to include a bit more diversity in his selections. Another quibble was that there was basically no nature writing, maybe 1.5 articles out of the total.

Next comes Atul Gawande's The Best American Science Writing 2006 (BASW). This is a particularly terrific example of a science essay collection. I think Gawande has done an exemplary job putting this book together. I've read a few of his essays in previous volumes of the various series and they were all excellent; I will try to track down his recent book, Complications: A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science.

He sets the tone for BASW right up front in the introduction:
So then what would the definition of the best science writing be? The clearest, most completely objective answer is: the best science writing is science writing that is cool. Even better, this particular year the best science writing is science writing that I think is cool...

I like science writing to be clear and to be interesting to scientists and nonscientists alike. I like it to be smart. I like it, every once in a while, to be funny. I like science writing to have a beginning, middle, and end -- to tell a story whenever possible.

Now that's a manifesto I can live with! And it seems that Gawande and I have very similar tastes in science writing, because I thought an awful lot of the stories he chose were really cool. In particular I'd like to mention Tom Mueller's "Your Move" about the developers of the super chess computer Hydra, Alan Weisman's "Earth without People" which describes how long it would take the planet to revert to its natural state if suddenly all humans were just to disappear. It a great article, very thought provoking and very moving, in a strange way. I also really enjoyed Neil Swidey's "What Makes People Gay" about the genetic and/or developmental origins of homosexuality. A good article is often one that leaves you with more questions, more uncertainty, than when you started. Finally, one of the truly finest stories I've read in any of the volumes of these stories is Richard Preston's "Climbing the Redwoods" about the great redwood forests in the north west -- climbing, exploring the treetops and canopy and hanging out with the dedicated researchers trying to save the redwoods.

A couple of small quibbles with Gawande's book are, of course, inevitable. Again, only two women out of 21 contributors is a little small. With fully six items from The New Yorker and four from The New York Times, and a bunch from the other slick magazines, Gawande suffers a bit from the lack of diversity of sources I noted with the Greene book altough not to the same extent and not as damaging to the quality of the book. For this particular kind of book, choose The New Yorker over Scientific American any day.

Finally, we come to Bora Zivkovic's The Open Laboratory: The Best Writing on Science Blogs 2006 (OLBWSB). There's an interesting story behind this one: scientist Bora Zivkovic and some of his colleagues in North Carolina decided to organize a one-day science blogger conference for January 21, 2007, hoping to attract a bunch of bloggers to come and talk about what they do and get to know each other face to face. To commemorate that project, he came up with the idea to edit an anthology of the best recent science blog postings. Unfortunately, by that time it was December 2006 so there was very little time to solicit, compile, edit and publish the book. Well, using the power of the blogosphere and the print-on-demand powers of, he pulled it off (you can read more about the genesis of the book and conference here and here and order the book here).

Needless to say, this was a labour of love that certainly didn't take the full 9 months to be born. The important question is, how does it shape up to the other two? At first glance it seems that Zivkovic set himself an impossible task trying to pull something decent together, both in terms of the presentation and the quality of the content, in such a short period of time. We can probably only expect something shoddy and half-assed -- right? Well, I'm happy to say that all fears of disaster were certainly not justified -- anyone that pays attention to Zivkovic's blog knows that he's smart, capable, dedicated and without a doubt energetic and that he wouldn't let something unworthy out the door. Being a long-term fan of his blog (A Blog Around the Clock, part of the important ScienceBlogs stable), I was pretty sure I would be happy with the book and was looking forward to reading it as soon as he announced the project on his blog. And I wasn't disappointed. The book is very good indeed, better than even I expected. Zivkovic and the mighty forces of the science blogosphere that he drew upon have not let us down.

First, the good news. There's quite good variety in the posts, some longer and most quite short and to the point. That's something I appreciated about this book, the authors get right down to business with no wasted space, reflecting the more hit and run nature of blogs. Also, I appreciated the nice mix of tone, some serious, almost Scientific American-y, some very technical descriptions of some scientific principle, some very sophisticated literature review articles. On the other hand, there were also some pieces with more light-hearted intent, some personal essays and slice of life stories. Evolution vs. intelligent design, global warming deniers and other hot topics were also well covered. I would also like to note a much better percentage of women contributors than the others as well as several non-American voices excluded by definition from the other two. (10 11 women and at least 8 13 non-US out of 50 -- many authors are pseudonymous or don't give easily found location information so these numbers are approximate). The average quality of the writing might be a touch lower than the other two books, but only a little and, to my mind, understandable and almost inevitable in a collection that privileges non-professional writers; the flip-side is that we're getting so much of the information directly from the professional scientists so a few infelicities of style are more than compensated for. There are lots of great bloggers represented in this book, a few I'm certainly adding to my blogroll.

Now for a few individual highlights, although choosing three or four out of 50 is a tough task. The first article that really stood out for me was Zivkovic's own "Everything you ever Wanted to Know about Sleep (but Were Afraid to Ask)" where is gives a lot of information about sleep patterns and habits in a highly digestible and enjoyable fashion. Afarensis' "Lessons from Kennewick" was also very interesting and enjoyable. He talks about some of the important issues surrounding studying ancient human remains while still being respectful of what those remains represent to people today. Skeptico's "What the (Bleep) Were they Thinking" is a great demolition of the film What the (Bleep) Do We Know, which purported to be about how quantum theory supports various new age-y ideas but was really a load of crap. Finally, I'd also like to mention the post from John Hawks's Weblog "Selection, Nuclear Genetic Variation, and mtDNA" which was a bit too technical for me, but was a great example of the kind of review-type essay that's so valuable on the web. You can read the original posts for all the entries in the book here. And before I forget, does a great job on the physical book; it's comparable in quality to the best of trade paperbacks.

There always room for some constructive criticism; most of the quibbles I'm going to mention are obviously a result of the book being put together so quickly. Nevertheless, some issues need to be raised. First of all, there were a few cases where the short author bios at the beginning of each article needed to be expanded a bit. There were a couple of posts from group blogs where the actual author (which Munger from Cognitive Daily) wasn't mentioned or where an author's name is known but it wasn't mentioned in the bio (Ed Brayton at Dispatches from the Culture Wars). A few other hings of that nature, too.

I also found that the subject areas of the blogs were a little more restricted than I would like. The concentration of the life sciences posts, for example, was a bit high, but that reflects the focus of ScienceBlogs platform and of Zivkovic's blog where most of the post recruiting was done. I would have liked to see more on computing and engineering, for example. But again, the short time frame meant that people not plugged into the ScienceBlogs universe would unlikely have found out in time. The fact that Zivkovic also used a panel of volunteers to vote on submitted posts also may have lead to a bit less diversity of subjects -- first-past-the-post systems always reduce diversity at the margins. As an example, I was quite surprised not to see any posts on women in science. I hope Zivkovic uses a stronger editorial hand next time giving the book an even better balance and a stronger personality. But to reiterate, I loved this book so these criticisms are only meant in the most constructive way.

So, after a look at the individual trees, can we take a look at the forest as well? In other words, can I see any major differences in the kind of material in the various books? First of all, BASNW and BASW are composed of professionally written pieces, done for money by professional journalists. The stories are, on average, longer and more structured. They'll take an in-depth topic and explain from start to finish. Often it'll be obvious that no expense was spared in researching the article. The journalists get to travel around, interviewing scientists, visiting their labs or accompanying them on their field work. This leads to really interesting, human stories about the women and men doing the science. On the other hand, the blog postings are a little more all over map. Ranging from screeds against religious zealots and climate change deniers to short essays explicating a very particular scientific or philosophical concept to heartfelt personal essays, they reflect an amazing diversity of thought and opinion. I look forward to reviewing the next iteration of all three of these books this time next year. My final verdict? If I had to rank them, I'd put BASW in first a little; it's definitely the most purely entertaining of the three. A little behind BASW is OLBWSB, which is also a little ahead of BASNW. But, I'm really glad I have all three of these books and would unhesitatingly suggest them to anyone interested in science. I would recommend them to any academic or public library. High school and middle school kids would also really enjoy them. I know my 14 year old is next in line to read them around here!

Update 2007.03.02: Updated numbers of women and non-US contrbutors based on comment by Bora Zivkovic (coturnix) on the other blog.

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