Saturday, May 12, 2007

Scientists that can write?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, science, collections

The book is The Best American Science Writing 2006, edited by Atul Gawande; series editor Jesse Cohen. I had hopes of finding, among the 21 chapters, at least ten or so scientists who write well. What did I find?

  • Four scientists, one Biologist and three Psychologists
  • Three professors of writing or journalism
  • Eight journalists and "correspondents" to a single outlet
  • Six free-lance writers and "correspondents" to numerous outlets
Details follow.

Chapter, Author (Bio): Subject

"Your Move", Tom Mueller (Free-lance Writer): Chess-playing Computers, as they gain more heuristic abilities, are making plays that the grandmasters learn from.

"My Bionic Quest for Boléro, Michael Chorost (Lecturer in Composition, Univ of SF): Most of the power of a cochlear implant is unused; the author gets upgrades until he can enjoy music.

"Earth Without People", Alan Weisman (Professor of Journalism, Univ of AZ): We can easily find the remnants of some past civilizations (Egypt, Babylon), but others are vanishing into the landscape (Maya, Zimbabwe); remove humans, and the biosphere will fill in pretty quickly.

"The Curse of Akkad", Elizabeth Kolbert (Writer, The New Yorker): Following the above, where did those civilizations go—and why? Nature is quite capable of driving us off the planet.

"Remembrance of Things Future: The Mystery of Time", Dennis Overbye (Correspondent, New York Times): Does the General Theory of Relativity really allow for time travel, at least into the past? [my answer: One-way only; if there isn't a way for the past to access the future, there won't be one if you go then, either. You can't take it with either direction!]

"Obesity: An Overblown Epidemic?", W. Wayt Gibbs (Writer & Editor, Scientific American): Good news, fatties! There's a lot of new fat around, but it isn't shortening your life as much as some folks are saying. Dieting stress is a greater risk than is overweight, for most.

"Nature's Bioterrorist", Michael Specter (Writer, The New Yorker): Bird flu is simply the most visible (to some) Damoclean Sword; more evidence that the biosphere doesn't care about us.

"On Autism's Cause, It's Parents vs. Research", Gardiner Harris (Journalist, New York Times) and Anahad O'Connor (Journalist, New York Times): Mercury in vaccines, how much of a danger? What a hot potato! A tuna sandwich contains a little Methyl-Mercury, and one dose of a vaccine contains a very similar amount, but of Ethyl-Mercury, which is supposedly safer. [However, you don't inject a tuna sandwich! I suspect the stomach and ileum do something to the Me-Hg that doesn't happen with injected Et-Hg.]

"What Makes People Gay?", Neil Swidey (Writer, Boston Globe Magazine): It seems the nature-nurture debate is over on this one. Genes play some part, but intra-uterine experiences must play a bigger part, because quite a number of identical twins have opposite sexual orientation. [I wonder if it could have anything to do with the mirror-image character of embryonic self-cloning? Further, regardless of sexual orientation, all people are capable of heterosex; those who truly don't enjoy it are a very tiny few. There are other alternate sexual orientations, which the people who experience them claim are just as innate: preference for many partners, or for the very young, for example. Some would say, 'you allow me to be a bigamist, and I'll allow gays to marry.']

"The Tangle", Jonathan Weiner (Professor of Journalism, Columbia U): A 3-generation detective story, that just may lead to a preventative, if not a cure, for ALS and Alzheimer's. [Who'd a thunk some of the oldest bacteria around (cyanobacteria) are making slow-acting neurotoxins (e.g. BMAA)? Then again, why not? We know so little about almost everything besides a few warm and fuzzy or feathery critters (and little enough about them).]

"Clone Your Troubles Away", David Quammen (Free-lance Writer): The operative image is the clone of a calico cat, a curious, friendly animal, but not calico. Clones are not copies [My post "Why identical twins aren't" addresses this]. So why clone?

"The Coming Death Shortage", Charles C. Mann (Correspondent, various): The approximate doubling of average life span since the 1880s might be the greatest single driver of 20th century economic change. What if it were to double again? The terms "generation gap" and "generation war" will take on new meaning [Shakespeare's tragedies and many "fairy tales" are based on troubles that arise when oldsters don't die on cue].

"Devolution", H. Allen Orr (Professor of Biology, Univ of Rochester): The key quote is, "intelligent design looks less and less like the science it claimed to be and more and more like an extended exercise in polemics." [Actually, to me, ID, Creationism, and similar public wrangling smack of "tearing up the tares". Faith cannot change the world; its mission is to help people escape the world.]

"The Literary Darwinists", D. T. Max (Journalist, various): The term refers to a recent trend in literary criticism [It seems to me a back-to-front approach. Evolution even explains the way we think. So of course it explains the way we write, which is thinking out loud...even the way we edit our writing reveals the way we think].

"The Day Everything Died", Karen Wright (Free-lance Writer): The Permian extinction event [see my post "Nature's whack at the Dinosaurs' grandparents] is gradually being seen as a true event, a short-term affair. A generation or two ago, it was "common knowledge" that it took a few million years to transpire. Of course, you can't attack life so slowly and expect it to roll over and die. A few million years, or even one million, is enough for evolution to adapt species to any new conditions short of removal of the biosphere wholesale (and maybe even that!).

"Mighty White of You", Jack Hitt (Contributing Writer, various): A broader perspective of the debate over "Kennewick Man", who seemed to be more "caucasoid" than expected. "Race" is bound to be with us for a long while yet. The skeletal variations found within each "race" are broad enough to encompass every race. In other words, take off the skin, and you can't unambiguously sort a random collection of skeletons as to race. But some whites can't stand being scooped by Asian proto-Americans.

"Is God an Accident?", Paul Bloom (Professor of Psychology, Yale): The desire to worship something appears to be an unexpected side effect of other evolutionary trends in human development [Maybe so. Religion is rule-based, and most of us are more comfortable when we have rules to follow that mostly work, even if our explanation for the rules is mythological. Faith is person-based, so it relies on experience rather than evolution, and falls below the author's radar].

"Yawning", Robert Provine (Professor of Psychology, Univ of MD): Don't read this chapter! By the end you'll have aching jaws. [Yawning is so contagious I yawned several times just getting this much written. Did you yawn just now? Gotcha!]

"Ten Planets? Why Not Eleven?", Kenneth Chang (Journalist, New York Times): The discoveries by astronomer Michael Brown of several large "plutinos" including Sedna (larger than Ceres, the largest asteroid) and Eris (larger than Pluto). [Since this essay appeared in the New York Times, astronomers have mostly agreed to demote Pluto rather than open the door to perhaps dozens or hundreds of new planets that are expected to be lurking in the Kuiper belt.]

"Climbing the Redwoods", Richard Preston (Free-lance Writer): The author must have plenty of time to learn new things. Learning to climb trees which don't begin to branch below 200-250 feet...oh, man, I'd die! A 350-foot tree is an ecosystem unto itself, in which it is possible to get quite lost (as one climber has done, as reported here).

"We're All Machiavellians", Frans B. M. de Waal (Professor of Psychology, Emory U): What's the difference between you or me and the average Chimpanzee? Mainly, the chimp is less of a hypocrite. He or she is unabashedly interested in food, power, status and sex. We are abashed, but no less interested...nor any less determined!

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