THE BEST AMERICAN SCIENCE AND NATURE WRITING 2008. Edited by Jerome Groopman. Series editor, Tim Folger. xx + 330 pp. Houghton Mifflin, 2008. $14 paper.
THE BEST AMERICAN SCIENCE WRITING 2008. Edited by Sylvia Nasar. Series editor, Jesse Cohen. xvi + 316 pp. Harper Perennial, 2008. $14.95 paper.
THE OXFORD BOOK OF MODERN SCIENCE WRITING. Edited by Richard Dawkins. xviii + 419 pp. Oxford University Press, 2008. $34.95.
People unlucky enough to have been born with the rare genetic disorder Lesch-Nyhan syndrome (nearly all are male) live in fear of attacking themselves uncontrollably with their own hands and teeth. Gifted science journalist Richard Preston gives voice to their otherwise silent suffering in “An Error in the Code,” an article from The New Yorker that is included in The Best American Science Writing 2008. Preston introduces us to two Lesch-Nyhan patients he has befriended who have bitten off their lips, chewed their fingers to the bone and attempted to rip off their noses. I was so riveted by the details of their stories that I was barely aware that I was learning science as I read.
I was less enthralled by the rest of this anthology. Its editor, Sylvia Nasar (the author of A Beautiful Mind), teaches journalism at Columbia and was once an economics correspondent for the New York Times. So it should perhaps come as no surprise that in this collection of articles from 2007 she focuses on “what was in the news and on people’s minds” that year (health and the environment, she says, not math and physics). Many of the articles concern medicine, health policy and the shenanigans of the pharmaceutical industry. The reporting is first-rate and powerfully documented. But by and large, storytelling like Preston’s is difficult to find in these pages.
Not so for The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2008, edited by Jerome Groopman. Groopman’s collection is more eclectic than Nasar’s and is a far better book. The topics covered range from nanotechnology and cosmology to evolution, neuroscience and infectious disease, and the contributors include such virtuosos as Freeman Dyson, Olivia Judson and David Quammen.
In the introduction, which could serve as a primer for any scientist who wants to reach a wider audience, Groopman lays out a few delightfully concise lessons on the craft of science writing. By midlife, he says, he had mastered the formula for getting published in Journal of Biological Chemistry and other scientific periodicals. Missing from that literature, however, were the sick and dying patients who looked to him for answers, “remarkable people who faced difficult and uncertain circumstances.” So he began spending time after work at his kitchen table, pounding a laptop. His colleagues characterized the manuscripts he produced as “brilliant” and “deeply engaging,” but his wife pointed out that they were “convoluted and filled with jargon” and noted that the people who had praised his writing all worked for him. Thus, lesson No. 1: Find honest readers to critique your work. Groopman also passes along advice he received early in his career from an editor at The New Yorker, who told him that the three “pillars” needed to support an essay are argument, protagonists and cinema—“using words to paint pictures in the mind of the reader.”
An excellent example of science writing as cinema is John Colapinto’s tale about a linguist-adventurer named Dan Everett and the Amazon tribe he studies. Everett’s subjects, the Pirahã, are hunter-gatherers who exist in a permanent state of now. They live so simply that they
have no numbers, no fixed color terms, no perfect tense, no deep memory, no tradition of art or drawing, and no words for “all,” “each,” “every,” “most,” or “few”—terms of quantification believed by some linguists to be among the common building blocks of human cognition.
In 2005, Everett published an article in which he claimed, with explosive effect on language and cognition studies, that the language of the Pirahã displays no recursion. Recursion, Colapinto explains, is
a linguistic operation that consists of inserting one phrase inside another of the same type, as when a speaker combines discrete thoughts (“the man is walking down the street,” “the man is wearing a top hat”) into a single sentence (“The man who is wearing a top hat is walking down the street”).
At that time, Noam Chomsky, whom Everett knew and had once revered, had recently revised his theory of universal grammar, maintaining that recursion is “the cornerstone of all languages . . . possible because of a uniquely human cognitive ability.” Colapinto deftly interweaves an artful account of the intellectual combat that ensued with the story of Everett’s life and some firsthand description of the tribe, which he visited in the company of Everett and evolutionary biologist Tecumseh Fitch.
Walter Kirn’s essay “The Autumn of the Multitaskers” thoughtfully critiques our need to be in touch with everything and everyone all at once. He describes driving over an embankment and colliding with a fence after glancing at his cell phone when it made “its chirpy you-have-a-picture noise.” His prediction is that the “next inevitable contraction” (after those in the housing market and the overall economy) will be in the “unsustainable investment of our limited human energies in the dream of infinite connectivity.” Scientists, he notes, have discovered that
Multitasking messes with the brain in several ways. At the most basic level, the mental balancing acts that it requires—the constant switching and pivoting—energize regions of the brain that specialize in visual processing and physical coordination and simultaneously appear to shortchange some of the higher areas related to memory and learning.
I am guessing that the articles in Groopman’s collection will have more staying power than those in Nasar’s. But Richard Dawkins’s useful and entertaining anthology, The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing, contains essays that have already stood the test of time. It consists largely of excerpts from classic books by a who’s who of 20th-century scientists such as John Maynard Smith, Fred Hoyle, Steven Pinker, Robert Trivers, Rachel Carson, Edward O. Wilson, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Steven Jay Gould, Albert Einstein, Alan Turing, Brian Greene, Steven Weinberg, Roger Penrose and Douglas Hofstadter. The essays are grouped into sections: “What Scientists Study,” “Who Scientists Are,” “What Scientists Think,” and “What Scientists Delight In.” Each piece has a preamble of one or two paragraphs in which Dawkins explains why he chose it. His reasoning is impeccable, and these introductions leave the reader eager to devour what follows. I found the book hard to put down.
The passage Dawkins has selected from Carl Sagan’s 1995 book The Demon-Haunted World is beautifully written, devastating and prescient:
I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s and grandchildren’s time—when the United States is an information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues . . .
This state of affairs hasn’t entirely come to pass; these anthologies are evidence that gifted scientists, writers and reporters do still grasp the issues and are looking out for any member of the public interested in reading about them. But with memory-challenged multitaskers at the gate, print media disappearing and the advertising that pays for long, penetrating articles drying up, Sagan may yet be proved right.
William Cannon is creative director for science media at the Krell Institute and founding editor of the online science-community-news site Science in the Triangle (http://scienceinthetriangle.org).