Natalie Angier is the guest editor this year for "Best American Science Writing 2009." In her words, "whatever the slumps and surges of the economy, whatever the upheavals and subductions in the media, science marches on. " For those who want to keep up with advances in science, reading this book is not a bad place to start. Algier has chosen 24 articles as her favorites, taken from 17 different magazines - the best represented magazines being The New Yorker and New York Times Magazine with 5 each.
Those of us who love science get to double down because there are two yearly books - this excellent publication and "Best of Science and Nature Writing 2009." Three articles were chosen by both guest editors this year:
"The Itch" by Atul Gawande from "The New Yorker:" Only 20% of the images we perceive come from the retina. The remaining 80% come from other parts of the brain controlling things like memory. In other words, what we see is a virtual reality - as given to us by our brains. Our sensations of pain, itch, nausea, and fatigue are usually protective but sometimes go awry. Millions of people have chronic pain of all sorts, phantom limb syndrome, reflex sympathetic dystrophy, tinnitus, pathological itching, or fibromyalgia - in which treatments of surgery and medication are notoriously marginal. Mirror image therapy has helped phantom limb pain. Perhaps this whole group of patients can benefit from mirror image or other virtual reality therapies - to treat problems made worse by glitches in our neurocircuitry.
"Back to the Future" by J. Madeline Nash from "High Country News:" A big red band snakes through the rocks in Wyoming for 25 miles. The Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum - paleontologists call it the PETM - happened 55 million years ago and the resulting climate change accelerated evolution. Above it there are horses; below it there aren't. Scientists believe that then, as now, the earth warmed in response to a precipitous release of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases. Kick up your feet and learn how geologists read the evidence left in rocks as though they were doing forensic science at a crime scene. The author closes with a quote from Mark Twain: "History does not repeat itself but it sure does rhyme."
"Contagious Cancer" by David Quammen from "Harper's:" Cancer is not an infectious disease - or is it? Cancers can apparently evolve much like species. A certain cancer of the Tasmanian devil has evolved a way to be spread through bites from one devil to another, and threatens this species' very existence. This beautifully written story pauses throughout with excerpts that revisit evolutionary concepts you may recall if you had a good college biology class - and introduces more recent developments in evolution you didn't learn about.
Other outstanding articles in this year's book include:
"A Journey Inside the Brain" by Oliver Sacks from "The New York Review of Books:" Remarkable true story about a renown author who underwent brain surgery under local anesthesia in the 30's. After his recovery, he wrote a memoir on the course of his disease and surgery. Dr. Sacks read the memoir when he was a 13 year old boy age and resurrects it for us in this beautifully written piece.
"The Truth About Autism" by David Wolman from "Wired:" People with autism spectrum disorder tend to have certain strengths: "higher prevalence of perfect pitch, enhanced ability with 3-D drawing and pattern recognition, more accurate graphic recall, and various superior memory skills." Unfortunately, they are so hard to deal with....and to test....that they are frequently considered mentally deficient. It may be that the autistic brain is not defective but simply different....computerized tools are becoming available that may make for better testing and better communication between us and them....remarkable essay.
"Blocking the Transmission of Violence" by Alex Kotlowitz from "The New York Times Magazine:" Early selective intervention is a proven way to halt the spread of a viral outbreak. Can the same approach work to stop violence? An epidemiologist who used to fight epidemics in Africa hires ex-cons to act as "interrupters" when violence threatens the streets of Chicago.
My Favorite: "Want to Remember Everything You'll ever Learn? Surrender to This Algorithm" by Gary Wolf from "Wired:" I read a lot and it bugs me that I can't reproduce what I've "learned." Isolated studies have been done (starting as far back as 1880), nailing down methods that improve recall - with surprisingly consistent findings. Why have these methods not caught on? Why do universities and cognition science departments ignore the findings? Because the methodology is not socially user-friendly. A few snippets of the findings: Long-term memory can be divided into 2 segments - retrieval strength and storage strength - and the two are strengthened by different maneuvers....the best time to re-study something is at the very moment you are about to forget it - a hard to identify point in time....it's possible to dramatically improve learning by custom-spaced practice sessions. A portion of the way Piotr Wozniak applies his proven technique is embodied in his software program called SuperMemo, which has enthusiastic users around the world. Wozniak is conducting a long-running experiment on himself, exploring what it's like to live in strict obedience to his computer and its learning algorithm.
Overall, Algiers selections are a little fluffy - I prefer my science a little harder. For that reason I downgraded this year's issue to a 4 - but that's just my bias. Her remaining articles include 3 that evaluate mans' and other hominids' tendencies to war and aggression - can we figure out how to control it?....a memoir about nitrous oxide at the dentist's office....whether fetuses feel pain....evaluating the physical scars of torture victims....a 9/11 cop dies from granulomatous disease in his lungs. Was it caused by breathing in debris associated with that disaster or was the material embedded in his lungs pharmaceutical junk produced by injecting solutions of crushed prescription pills? The 2 pathologists' opinions differ...is genetically modified rice that could save millions of childrens' lives dead because of opposition from Greenpeace?....we will soon be drinking recycled sewage - the stumbling block is psychological, not real....an endangered giraffe species in Nigeria....cognitive abilities in non-human life - starring, among others, Alex, the grey parrot....talking computers - will they ever pass the Turing test....today, corporations, governments, or hackers can peer at will into your life. The author tries to live a week without leaving a trace....NASA should give up landing on Mars and concentrate on thwarting that meteor that could destroy humanity....multiverses and free-floating brains that occur when cosmologists discuss the untestable theories spawned by string theory....the private renovation of the McDonald Observatory telescope....a newly-graduated nurse chronicles the CPR and eventual death of a patient....and finally, "The Onion" puts the creationist/intelligent design versus Darwin's evolution debate in perspective.
I suggest you don't let this reading feast get away.