It must have been a capricious sprite that convinced Series Editor Tim Folger to select Steven Pinker to choose the essays in this collection. In any collection of science and nature writings there will be some of wide, even intense interest, while others may appeal to a limited few with special interests. This anthology is no exception. While the majority of them are good [best!] articles over a range of topics, Pinker added a few "ringers". These latter certainly lighten the mood of the set even while imparting compelling information on their own. Perhaps surprisingly, some of these deal with the vague field of "demographics".
"Hard" science in this collection is covered by an article on diabetes, one on "the stuff of genes" and an introduction to octopus life. Another element of life is the role of parasites on behaviour. Carl Zimmer's "Parasite Rex", an excellent introduction to this topic, is furthered here by neurologist Robert Sapolsky. Cosmology isn't ignored, with Max Tegmark suggesting you glance over your shoulder to learn whether a duplicate of you isn't reading the same article in a parallel universe. Public health may not be a hard science, but it must firmly rest on top research to be effective. Atal Gawande's brief history of the career of Dr Francis Moore is enlightening and provocative - as was Moore.
How the public views research and its implications is a topic of increasing importance. Daniel C. Dennett's explanation of why the notion of "genetic determinism" must be shelved is essential reading. Gregg Easterbrook's "We're All Gonna Die!" deals with perceived threats to society and life. Unsuccessfully challenged by a recent book, Easterbrook's article lists scenarios that could lead to disastrous consequences if not approached wisely. Will an asteroid do for us as it did to the dinosaurs? What if a particle accelerator created a "strangelet" that might gobble the planet - or the entire universe? The Earth's magnetic field has reversed itself many times over the past many millions of years. What will be the result on human society when it flips again - beyond making all our compasses point the "wrong way"? And what can, or should, we do about it?
While you're worrying about these threats, take a moment to consider Peggy Orenstein's plight. Like any expectant mother, she's pondering a name for her new baby. Delving into the [USA's] Social Security Administration's database, she's spent hours tracking the history of names. "Melanies" have come and gone in popularity, as have "Aidans" and "Hannahs". "Michael" remains a standby for boys, but Peggy's expecting a girl and the subject lapses. If you would rather go outdoors than spend time searching names, take note of your avian neighbours. Mike O'Connor does. He has to, he runs a birdseed store and a Web site answering questions about human-bird relationships. Should you throw rice at weddings? Perhaps not, if the birds eat it and swell up. Is a hair-dryer the chosen method for freezing a heron caught in a pond's early-winter ice? How does the chickadee stand in popularity? O'Connor handles these questions with hilarious finesse.
It seems no North American science writing can reach the public without dealing with the Christian movement to invade the public schools. This book opens with that essential topic. Folger addresses the growing threat to both education and support for science in his Forward. Clearly this insidious movement impacts how science is viewed and Folger hopes volumes such as this one will help bastion education and interest in science among the young. Give this book to a child to read and treasure. After you've read it yourself. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]