A Review of The Best American Science Writing 2007
John R. Guthrie
With appreciation to first publisher The California Literary Review
They were the fictional scientists who were the heroes and antiheroes of childhood and youth: Professor Lidenbrock from Jules Vernes’s Journey to the Center of the Earth or Dr. Clayton Forrester in The War of the Worlds. Many readers may rediscover the thrill of such matinées and pulp fictions from earlier years in The Best American Science Writing 2007. In this annual compilation one encounters men and women possessed of such remarkable talent, creativity and dedication that they are far more interesting than their fictional counterparts. They come from across the United States, Russia, Argentina, China, the UK, Iran and elsewhere.
Jonathon Keats’s article from Popular Science recounts the work of the guru of artificial intelligence, John Koza, an adjunct professor at Stanford University. He developed a system of linked computers that he calls an “invention machine.” The machine has been awarded a United States Patent (!), the “first intellectual property protections ever granted to a nonhuman designer.” The machine was so honored for developing a process to increase factory efficiency. The methodology is intriguing:
(It is) Darwinian evolution, the process of natural selection. Over and over, bits of computer code are essentially procreating. Over the course of hundreds of thousands of generations, the code evolves into off-spring so well-adapted for its designated job that it is demonstrably superior to anything we can imagine. The age of creative machines has arrived. And its prophet is John Koza.
Sylvia Nasar and David Gruber succeed in making math at stratospheric levels fascinating for the non-mathematician. In their article “Manifold Destiny,” they tell the story of reclusive Russian mathematician Grigory Perelman of St. Petersburg. Perelman solved a century old mathematical mystery that had stumped the world’s leading mathematicians for more than a century, the Poincaré Conjecture. This conundrum is related to the topographical characteristics of spheres. It ultimately relates to the structure not only of sub-atomic particles but of the universe in its entirety. After solving the problem, instead of publishing his work in a prominent international journal, Perelman posted it on the internet in three parts as if it were nothing more than a blog concerning the quotidian matters of his life. Even so, his work was eventually recognized internationally. He was nominated for the highest international award for mathematicians, the Fields Medal. With an asceticism worthy of an early saint and as nonchalantly as if he had been approached by a St. Petersburg street vendor, he refused. He wanted to get on with his math.
Shang-Tung Yau, a Chinese mathematician and a 1982 Fields Medal recipient, is shown to be as self-aggrandizing as Perelman was humble. He is felt by many to have attempted to unjustly transfer credit for the Poincaré Conjecture from the monastic Perelman to two of his own graduate students, thus to shine in their reflected glory.
Nima Arkani-Hamed was born in 1972 in the U.S., the child of two Iranian physicists. He became a Canadian citizen and is now a Harvard professor, one revered by his students as an exceptionally capable and concerned teacher as well as a star quality researcher. Taylor Cabot’s accessible and finely written article from Esquire illuminates Nima Arkani-Hamed’s innovative work with the Hadron Super Collider in Geneva; “the greatest, the most anticipated, the most expensive experiment in the history of mankind.” The Hadron Super Collider is the result of a team effort by 20 nations. It consists of a 17 mile donut of tunnels with a diameter that could readily accommodate an 18 wheeler. Its associated electronic wizardry slams protons into each other at a speed that approximates that of light. With this device, Nima Arkani-Hamed seeks to understand basic laws governing the universe at every level, from subatomic particles to the cosmos in its entirety.
None other than Charles Darwin’s great-great grandson, Matthew Chapman, wrote the article from Harpers covering the Dover, Pennsylvania Intelligent Design trial. Chapman is a writer/film director now living in New York. His characterizations of the principals in the Dover trial are telling and incisive: United States District Judge John E. Jones III, a Bush appointee, is characterized as “everything he appeared in court—civilized, thoughtful and funny…a gentleman, a man who seemed to treat every one around him with equal respect.”
One Intelligent Design crusader and the chair of the Dover school District curriculum committee, former prison guard Bill Buckingham, is described as a “pugnacious, self-confessed Oxycontin-addicted crusader ... (who) …testified in a low, mildly surly voice, a whine of self-pity always underneath.” Chapman writes, tongue only partly in cheek, that, “Dover lies only thirty miles from the Three Mile Island nuclear plant, and the meltdown of its core and subsequent leak in the Seventies is responsible (due to fear of things modern) for the weird behavior now seen in the locals.”
This compendium of 20 articles from 11 magazines is somewhat weighted toward biomedical sciences. Surgeon Atul Gawande, for instance, provides an artfully written history of Dr. Virginia Apgar’s scoring system to rate the viability of newborns as well as other advances that dramatically decrease the risk of childbirth to mother and child. Dr. Gawande’s book Complications was a National Book Award finalist.
New York City neurologist Oliver Sacks contributed “Stereo Sue,” which originally appeared in The New Yorker. Sacks is acclaimed for his books The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Awakenings, and most recently Musicophilia. Born in the U.K., Dr. Sacks addresses stereoscopic vision and the lack thereof in certain persons. It is provided by having eyes that both look forward and are separated so that they perceive two slightly different images. This binocular vision provides depth perception. Sacks suggests that this provided a competitive edge for man as predator.
Another highlight of this book is provided by New York Times Science and Medicine reporter Chris Grady. In “With Lasers and Daring, Doctors Race to Save a Young Man’s Brain,” she tells the story of Chris Ratuszny, a 26-year-old Lexus Mechanic from Lindenhurst, N.J. Ratuszny began having headaches of dreadful intensity. At first they were thought to be migraines, but when treatment proved to be ineffective, a neurological workup to include an MRI found the true villain; a bulge or aneurysm larger than a golf ball located at a critical juncture in the internal carotid, a major artery serving the left side of the brain. In such a situation the neurosurgeon is faced with daunting choices. He or she can not intervene, leaving a 50 % chances the patient will be dead within five years. Or there is a risky microsurgery developed by a neurosurgeon in the Netherlands. It uses a special laser knife to aid in grafting a bypass around the aneurysm, which then withers away. But with surgery so intricate, there is the chance the patient will die on the table or shortly thereafter. Or he may be left blind, mentally impaired, or with a paralysis of one side of the body. The story of what did evolve with Chris Ratuszny is as dramatic as the car chase in Dirty Harry, and a lot less noisy.
The Best of Science Writing 2007 is an enjoyable and thought-provoking read. I find myself wishing there was a comprehensive index for this volume, but such is rare in this type of anthology. It is well written enough to serve as a textbook for effective science writing. This book is likely to be appreciated by many readers in the community at large as well as in the scientific community. The Best of Science Writing 2007 says a great deal about who we are as a people, where we have been and where we are going.
Kolata, Gina, Ed. and Jesse Cohen, Series Ed.
The Best American Science Writing 2007.
New York: Harper Perennial, 2007.
Softcover, 333 pages.
ISBN 978 0 06 134577 7
John R. Guthrie is a former Marine infantry rifleman. He then garnered a formal education to include medical school and became the commanding officer of a U.S. Navy Reserve Shock Surgical Group before going into private practice in the Smoky Mountain foothills of Appalachia. He is the editor and publisher of the monthly webzine The Chickasaw Plum: Politics and the Arts Online. (Link)
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