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The Best American Science and Nature Writing (Best American Science & Nature Writing)by Jonathan Weiner
My father was always drawing pictures of atoms on his paper napkins at dinner. He told my brother and me that the napkin, his pen, and his hand were all just atoms and empty space — more atoms than stars in the sky, but too small to see.
One summer evening after dinner, I fell out of the biggest maple tree in our back yard in Hillsdale, New Jersey, and clonked my head against the trunk. Then I sat under the tree with a feeling of destiny: I could see them. Someday, I decided woozily, Id make a trip to Columbia University, where my father lectured about engineering and atomic theory. Id stand at his blackboard (from which he used to bring us pieces of chalk), and Id tell the world what it feels like when you see atoms shoot through empty space right before your eyes.
That was my first moment as a science writer. It was also one of the first moments in science writing, because the ancient Roman poet Lucretius spent much of his epic poem The Way Things Are trying to help his friends, fellow Romans, and countrymen imagine what it might be like to see atoms, a job that he did at least as well as anyone has done since. Lucretius also wrote brilliantly about life and death, ecology and evolution, religion and rationality, human perception and optical illusions; but his favorite subject was atomic theory.
In one famous passage, the poet told his readers to sit in a dark room, let the sunlight stream in through the slats in the shutters, and watch the dust motes in the sunbeams. Every bit of matter is that turbulent, he said; even if it looks as solid as marble, or our own living flesh, its atoms are perpetually whirling like dust in a room or sparks above a bonfire. Sometimes the atoms crash into each other. Sometimes they stick together to form a strand — a strand that may grow many atoms long, but is still much too small for us to see. And each of those strands (which we would now call molecules) gets hit on all sides by hundreds of atoms pounding into it. Thats why the dust motes dance in the air, Lucretius wrote. They dance because so many invisibly small atoms and molecules are always pummeling each bit of dust, though our human eyes cannot see what urge compels the dancing.” Lucretius, the best science writer of all time, was born in the year 100 BCE, the same year as Julius Caesar. He wrote that passage about dust motes on papyrus around 45 BCE. Physicists no longer believe that atoms swoop around in a block of marble as freely as dust in a breeze. But they do believe that the atoms and molecules in the air or in a glass of water are perpetually crashing into each other. Albert Einstein proved the point in a paper that appeared one hundred years ago, in 1905, which the world remembers as Einsteins wonder year.” He calculated precisely how much a bit of grit would tend to wander and meander in a drop of water if the atomic hypothesis was correct. His calculations matched perfectly with a French experimentalists observations through a microscope. That paper of Einsteins finally convinced physicists that the atomic theory is a powerful way to look at the universe. (So did his formula E _ mc2.) And forty years later, of course, with Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the whole world understood the power of the atomic theory.
A surprising amount of Lucretius poem looks spectacularly right today, apocalyptically correct. But poor Lucretius might be better remembered if he had written his epic about heroes, gods, and goddesses instead of atoms. Science writing is usually seen as a world apart even though its subjects surround us, fascinate us, and terrify us, even though at their best all of the arts and sciences share the same subject, which is the way things are.
So we are fortunate that so many fine science writers are working today. I am honored to have been invited to introduce The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2005. In spite of its title, of course, this anthology is only a small sampling of the best that appeared last year in the United States. There were enough good articles to fill this book a few times over. Its been a pleasure to work with the series editor, Tim Folger, and Deanne Urmy at Houghton Mifflin, sifting through hundreds of articles that appeared on all facets of science and choosing twenty-five of the strongest.
We are learning so much now about the atoms and molecules in living flesh — the field of study known as molecular biology — that the life sciences are beginning to merge with the physical sciences, bringing prospects of new kinds of healing and new kinds of disaster. These discoveries and what we will do with them present some of the biggest themes for any writer in the first years of the third millennium. With this new science, a life science based on atoms, we can hope not only for new cures but also for new evolutionaryyyyy strides, new genetic enhancements. How do we balance our yearning for cures and enhancements with the chance that we may do ourselves and our species real harm?
In Getting in Natures Way,” the fine writer and surgeon Sherwin B. Nuland quotes Montaigne, who warned us that we should not meddle too much with nature, because she knows her business better than we do.” And Jenny Everett gives us a poignant case study of the enhancement question and the pain it can bring to patients and their families in her essay My Little Brother on Drugs.” Everetts kid brother, Alex, was nine when he got his first shot of a synthetic growth hormone called Humatrope. Alexs doctors estimate that he might have grown to five feet six without the drug. They cant say how much taller he will grow with it. So his big sister wonders whether it is worthwhile to submit Alex to the pain and discipline of the daily shots and the medicalizing of a short, healthy, happy kid. And besides giving Alex a chance to grow a few inches taller, what else will Humatrope do? The growth hormone is known to stimulate the body to make a protein called IGF-1. Some researchers think IGF-1 may turn out to be a central regulator of human aging. So while his doctors try to enhance Alexs height, they may also be helping to decide, in ways that nobody can predict today, how long or short a time he will have to live.
Nothing at the edge of science and medicine stirs more passion today than the debate over stem cells. James McManus gives us both a political and a personal view of the subject in his polemic Please Stand By While the Age of Miracles Is Briefly Suspended.” His daughter is diabetic, and he feels that President Bush is ruining medicines chances of saving her. And Connie Bruck gives us a valuable look at the politics of stem cells in Hollywood Science.” California has been a microcosm of the national debate over stem cell policy, and the debate will be analyzed for years, so Brucks report from the Western Front is likely to be read and reread by historians and politicians. The debate is so polarized that it is hard to see the way things are: how much Hollywood there is in stem cells and how much real promise. Bruck quotes one scientist who campaigned in favor of Californias stem cell initiative: Maybe every hundred years we have one major milestone in medical research”; and stem cells are it. Bruck also quotes a doctor on the other side, who argues that stem cell research will lead to the cloning of human beings. This is what we would call a clone-and- kill bill! It will make California the mecca of cloning and irresponsible medicine . . . and keep us in budgetary crisis for twenty-five years!” Well, the Age of Miracles is here now, at least in California, and it will be fascinating to watch how it plays out. The real test will come with the pressure to do something spectacular—a Hollywood spectacular — in the next few years. Watch the pages of the next Best American Science and Nature Writing.
Our attitude toward medicine has always been contradictory and passionate, and nowhere more so than in the realm of alternative medicines. In Miracle in a Bottle,” Michael Specter gives us a look at the old nostrum companies in their new bottles, an extremely irregular business,” as he writes, but an extremely ancient one too. The claims made by these companies are often implausible or impossible, but most consumers find it hard to sort fact from fiction. Pseudoscience surrounds us. The editors of Popular Science asked William Speed Weed to note down every so-called scientific claim he ran across in the course of an ordinary day. He tells us how the day went in his essay 106 Science Claims and a Truckful of Baloney.” In the science of psychology it is even harder to see the way things are. Ive included some contrarian and fascinating articles about a few of the central tenets or practices of psychology. In Out, Damned Blot,” Frederick Crews reviews a skeptical book about the Rorschach inkblot test. Crews argues that the test is as random and arbitrary as the blots themselves. In Personality Plus,” Malcolm Gladwell argues that the Myers- Briggs and the TAT personality tests are just as arbitrary. In The Grief Industry,” Jerome Groopman suggests that one of the most popular practices in current psychotherapy, crisis counseling, may be misguided or even counterproductive. (And see Malcolm Gladwells Getting Over It.”) Many psychologists are now turning to machines that can measure brain activity, and in the process they feel they are at last turning psychology into what we like to call a hard science — a science based on bedrock, ultimately on atoms. In his essay Whose Life Would You Save?” Carl Zimmer visits one of the leading laboratories of this kind, at Princeton, and watches as a philosopher tries to sort out the difference between one kind of morality and another, based on which parts of the brain light up.
This planet still has undiscovered places as little known as human nature. Robert Kunzig takes us to one of them in a Discover cover story, 20,000 Microbes Under the Sea.” Our interest in Earths sunlit surface is parochial. The bottom of the sea turns out to hold nearly a third of all the life on the planet. It may also have the power to transform life on Earth through greenhouse gases, a sort of planetary belch of methane, giving at least one scientist a nightmare vision of a postapocalyptic greenhouse.” And in an undersea explorers horror story, Jeffrey M. OBrien introduces us to Bill Stone, who invents sea-diving gear so novel and useful that NASA is one of his biggest customers. We watch the inventor dive into a cave 4,500 feet down beneath Oaxaca, Mexico, to recover the body of a friend who has died testing his invention.
In Stumbling into Space,” Timothy Ferris scathingly reviews the blunders that led to the Columbia disaster. Like the explosion of the Challenger, this was an accident, but it was also the product of bad judgment and a demoralized and confused bureaucracy. In The X Prize,” Ian Parker shows us the can-do spirit of pioneers outside the bureaucracy. And in a plain, blunt essay, A Two-Planet Species?” William Langewiesche reminds us of what is at stake here. Unless we learn to live on more than one world someday, we are unlikely to survive. Compared with the scale of such an ambition,” he writes, a pause of a few decades now to rethink and rebuild will seem like nothing at all.” Jared Diamond offers a cautionary tale in his essay Twilight at Easter,” which was a prelude to Collapse, his bestseller on the same subject. When the Easter Islanders cut down all their trees, every last species became extinct, and then the islanders died too. Polynesian Easter Island was as isolated in the Pacific Ocean as the Earth is today in space,” Diamond writes. When the Easter Islanders got into difficulties, there was nowhere to which they could flee or to which they could turn for help; nor shall we modern Earthlings have recourse elsewhere if our troubles increase.” In Crossing the Red Line,” Bill McKibben reviews the current state of our planet in one of its most vital indicators, its temperature. When he first began writing about global warming in The End of Nature, a writer could actually keep up with the literature on the subject. Today it is an explosion. McKibben agrees with James Speth, one of the authors whose books he is reviewing here, that our best hope lies in voluntary simplicity. McKibben writes, It is the true measure of our desperate position that the frail hopes expressed by Speth may turn out to suggest the most solid and practical advice anyone can give.” Strangely, as our impact on the planet grows bigger and bigger, some of our most interesting science grows smaller and smaller, descending into molecular biology and electronics. Two writers, Ellen Ullman and Jennifer Kahn, look at some of the ways the computer revolution is transforming our culture. Ullman, who used to write code for a living, worries that the robots are taking over — not the way science-fiction robots take over but through our involuntary and obsessive attempts to make our lives more and more like the ideal computer, compact, elegant, error-free.” While we keep trying to make our computers more like us at the interface, with avatars, we are meeting the computers more than halfway by trying to make ourselves more like them: Fast, efficient, untiring, correct, standardized, organized: the virtues we humans strive for but forever fail to achieve, the reasons we invented our helpmate, the machine.” Jennifer Kahn writes, in a profile in Wired, of a notorious hacker, Adrian Lamo, who is known as a grayhat” hacker, someone who probes security systems and then lets major corporations know that he has found a way in. Grayhats see themselves as Internet Zorros — high-minded vigilantes,” she writes. She finds herself drawn to the grunge glamour and mystique of the hackers world. But not every corporation sees them the way they wish to be seen. When Lamo hacks into the New York Times, the Gray Hat gets in trouble with the Gray Lady of journalism.
Cliff Stoll, who once played a role in catching a hacker, a story he told in his bestseller The Cuckoos Egg, feels nostalgic for one old culture that the computer has erased completely. In The Curious History of the First Pocket Calculator,” he tells the long-forgotten story of the Curta, a machine so beautifully made that it purrs as you calculate.” This extraordinary gadget saved the life of its inventor, who designed it when he was a prisoner of the Nazis in Buchenwald.
The year 2004, an election year, was consumed with talk of faith, and two well-known science writers weigh in to defend the countrys agnostics and atheists. Natalie Angier notes in her essay My God Problem — and Theirs” that many scientists she knows pretend to be more religious than they feel — just as many politicians do. They depend on taxpayers money and they dont want to be seen as irreligious, a prionic lifeform bent on destroying the most sacred heifer in America.” John Horgan writes in the same spirit in a New York Times op-ed, Keeping the Faith in My Doubt.” He notes that the number of people in this country with no religious affiliation at all is now approaching 40 million. That is twice the number of Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, and Episcopalians combined.” This puts them in the same camp or party with Lucretius, who argued passionately that science opens the world to us whereas religion closes it. The causes of things are hidden from our eye, Lucretius says, and that is why human beings believe in gods. But once we stop looking for reality there, we find an open Way / To Natures Secrets, and we walk in Day.” He writes, So, little by little, time brings out each thing into view, and reason raises it up into the shores of light.” Oliver Sacks shows us some of the best of this kind of thinking — bringing together the old and new — in his lovely essay In the River of Consciousness,” in which he reviews different kinds of evidence for what consciousness is — what quality it has. We experience it as a flow, and yet in special circumstances it is broken up into bits, like frames of a film slowed way, way down. Is perception always like that without our knowing it? Sacks concludes that consciousness is atomized into moments, but,” as he writes, moments of an essentially personal kind.” With so much opening up to our view, both good and bad, this is an extraordinary moment in science, and there is much to write about. Many of the new things we are seeing now will matter to readers a thousand years from now, if we can only see them clearly enough and record them with passion.
And that is what it is like to see atoms.
Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Introduction copyright © 2005 by Jonathan Weiner. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
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