Top banner


Compiling On

William Cannon

The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2000. David Quammen, editor; Burkhard Bilger, series editor. xxii + 265 pp. Houghton Mifflin, 2000. $27.50, cloth; $13, paper.

The Best American Science Writing 2000. James Gleick, editor; Jesse Cohen, series editor. xii + 258 pp. Ecco/HarperCollins, 2000. $27.50.

In these dueling anthologies, editors David "Song of the Dodo" Quammen and James "Chaos" Gleick have assembled an admittedly arbitrary best of show from a typical year for science and nature writing. Gleick, who describes his selection rationale as the "big tent" approach, includes a dizzying array of subjects and styles—as does Quammen. In the Gleick collection we find, for example, Denis G. Pelli's fascinating original research on Chuck Close's paintings and perception, from Science; Natalie Angier's New York Times report on prehistoric fashion trends; and Floyd Skloot's excruciating first-person story of the horrors of a brain-virus attack, from Creative Nonfiction. Quammen's book includes Hampton Sides's engrossing tale of Mormon pseudoarchaeology, which originally appeared in DoubleTake magazine, and Anne Fadiman's account of a river-rafting tragedy of three decades ago, from The New Yorker.

Each collection contains 19 pieces, so it's not surprising to find some author overlap. Angier, a science reporter's reporter, appears in both books, as do Oliver Sacks and Atul Gawande, a doctor-in-training who writes "George Plimpton meets E.R." pieces for The New Yorker.

Most of the other authors would feel just as at home in one volume as the other, since so much of the work originally appeared in The New Yorker or The Sciences (which is itself a sort of New Yorker for, well, the sciences). There are differences between the two collections, though, however subtle.

Quammen's volume, like the writer/editor himself, is the more literary of the two. Unlike Gleick, he gives his introduction a title. In it he writes that as science grows ever larger, nature "is getting smaller, piece by piece, like a pizza on a platter between teenage boys." Among his contributors, journalist-essayist types outnumber scientist-authors by nearly 3 to 1. One of his stated purposes is to imbue magazine articles from 1999 (both these books came out in late 2000) with a permanence that would otherwise elude them.

Quammen does a fine job of dropping the names of Writers with a capital W—dead guys like Edward Abbey, patron saint of those who write about dirt, rocks, mud, reptiles or cacti. He also mentions his buddy Barry Lopez, explaining that the only reason none of Lopez's stuff graces this volume is that he didn't write any short science or nature pieces in 1999. But Quammen does deliver Wendell Berry, Peter Matthiessen and Richard Preston. He also includes writers such as Brian Hayes, a longtime contributor to American Scientist, whose "Clock of Ages" from The Sciences won a National Magazine Award in 2000 and deserves the broader audience its inclusion here will bring.

Gleick has included journalists and scientists in more or less equal balance. Among them are such magisterial usual-suspects as Timothy Ferris, Stephen Jay Gould, Steven Weinberg, Jonathan Weiner and Douglas R. Hofstadter. Gleick could have easily replaced the "American" in his title with "New York" without having to cut much copy. That's a problem—readers who are interested enough to buy the book are likely to have had easy access to most of the source material. That said, one of the better pieces comes from the Times man in New Mexico, George Johnson, reporting on a new Santa Fe Institute–led approach to the scaling problem (why, pound for pound, ants are stronger than we are).

Gleick also gets points for including the Pelli article on artist Close. Pelli figured out how Close's paintings belie the old saw in visual theory that size shouldn't affect perception of shape and hence our recognition of the same object at different sizes. Unfortunately, sentences like the following made it tough to appreciate just what Pelli discovered: "The retinal illuminances are equated by adding a 25% transmission neutral density filter to the 2-mm pupil." I kept wishing for George Johnson to step in and rescue the story.

Gleick deserves extra credit for expanding his big tent to include satire, in the form of "Revolutionary New Insoles Combine Five Forms of Pseudoscience" from The Onion. Asked one happy customer, "Why should I pay thousands of dollars to have my spine realigned with physical therapy when I can pay $20 for insoles clearly endorsed by an intelligent-looking man in a white lab coat?"

Define "science writing" how you will. Like the best science, the best writing is fundamental and its value self-evident, even if it's not always embraced right away. Collections like these work best, I think, when they introduce readers sympathetic to the subject matter to publications off the beaten track and to writers whose names aren't yet franchises.—William Cannon, Hillsborough, North Carolina

comments powered by Disqus


Bottom Banner