The Best American Science Writing 2002 / Matt Ridley ed.

Matt Ridley notes in his introduction that he has a soft spot for contrarians. He picked a fair number of articles for their contrarian scientific views. But the problem with that approach is that the writing then tends to focus on the controversy and the personalities rather than the science. While I love me some good drama, I really like science. In a few cases, I felt pretty short-shrifted by how shallow the actual science coverage was in the article. You can sort of see that by the number of articles that come from culture magazines such as The New Yorker or Esquire as compared to science magazines like Science or Scientific American. The lack of science is hardly the fault of the individual writers. Generally, they were writing what their editors needed to fill the magazines. Ridley could have used different selection criteria, and so the responsibility must lie with him.

Cover of The Best American Science Writing 2002

Overall, I don’t really feel like I got my money’s worth from this collection. There’s some good science writing here, but not really a lot of it, despite the title for the book.

Interesting item I found when searching out Matt Ridley, the editor. Turns out he’s also the chairman of Northern Rock plc (or was until earlier this year). He’s basically the person responsible for getting this bank into the sub-prime securities business, which caused the bank to fail several months ago. It has nothing to do with his science writing so far as I can tell, but I do wonder if his predilection for science kooks is part of his economic background.

Dr. Daedalus (slightly different version), Lauren Slater from Harper’s
In this essay from Harper’s Magazine, Lauren Slater writes about Dr. Joe Rosen, a plastic surgeon who advocates radical alteration of the human body. For instance, Rosen asks why not add wings to a person who wants them? Slater works through the psychological ramifications of such surgery, though mostly from a personal perspective. And she works through some of the ethical objections. Though strangely, the ethical considerations are ones she puts up herself, rather than ones attributed to ethicists. I’m not personally so inclined to agree with ethicists on their pronouncements, but they do spend a lot of time thinking about these things and at least should have a pretty good set of questions to ask. After reading Slater’s essay, I don’t come away with much enlightenment on how I would feel about radical cosmetic surgery, because it doesn’t really give me any information, or even walk me through the ethics in any semi-rigorous fashion.
Crimson Tide, Atul Gawande from The New Yorker
In the second article in a row on rarely performed medical procedures, Gawande reports on Christine Drury, a news anchor who underwent radical surgery to cure severe and chronic blushing. The surgery (endoscopic thoracic sympathectomy, or E.T.S.) involves clipping nerves that carry signals to sweat glands in the upper body, as well as whatever part of the body causes blushing. Gawande examines the phenomenon of blushing and embarrassment, noting particularly that medicine doesn’t actually know much about the mechanism for blushing beyond that something opens up the blood vessels near the skin. Why we feel it, and what triggers it psychologically, as well as the evolutionary reasons for it, are all unknown. Gawande also examines Drury’s crises of conscience about undergoing the surgery. I think it’s grand that Drury found a solution for her problem. I don’t have any ethical problem with taking the easy way out of her problem. Hell, there might not even be another way.
The Made-To-Order Savior, Lisa Belkin from The New York Times Magazine
And a third article on rare medical procedures! This one has Lisa Belkin profiling several families who have children with Fanconi anemia. Belkin notes the national registry of sufferers has about 800 names listed, making this a fairly rare condition, but ones that is very dire. Sufferers develop cancers at young ages. The first to appear usually is a form of leukemia, which requires a bone marrow transplant from a compatible donor. The families profiled used in vitro fertilization combined with genetic selection to select the blastocysts to implant. The ethical dilemma posed is whether or not it is right to use the procedure not for the benefit of the child created, but for his or her sibling with Fanconi anemia. With a compatible sibling donor, the chances of survival are about 85% (according to the article) but around 50% without, though this only gets the child through the leukemia. The second child isn’t harmed, but it’s not like they have a choice in the matter. Again, I don’t see what the fuss is. Belkin does a pretty good job of laying out the ethical objections though.
A Desire to Duplicate, Margaret Talbot from The New York Times Magazine
Talbot profiles the Raëlians and human cloning. The Raëlians are a sect that believes aliens from another planet engineered life on earth ages ago. They also are fanatical about science, particularly cloning. One member, Dr. Brigitte Boisselier ran Clonaid, a company that announced it planned to clone a human being shortly. Though since that time there has been little in the way of news about their efforts. Whether that is because they do not want public exposure for their attempts, or because they haven’t succeeded in them, we do not know. Talbot also does a pretty good job of layout out the ethical dilemmas surrounding the practice of human cloning, but I think misses the biggest one. One of the things that propels evolution is the random combination of genes that occurs during sexual reproduction. However, if that process is short-circuited, I think the result could be much like that which happens in government intervention in a capitalist free market, unintended consequences. If cloning happens on a small scale, I don’t see a problem with it (provided some of the safety and medical issues are resolved). But if large scale cloning becomes common, we lose genetic diversity as well as natural selection, and have much the same problems we would with genetic engineering. Talbot doesn’t cover this aspect at all, and I think it’s key to the ethics of cloning.
Medicine’s Race Problem, Sally Satel from Policy Review
A critique of the idea that medicine should be color blind. Satel definitely is not neutral on the idea. She thinks that even slight genetic differences correlated with race may have significant impact on health outcomes, and doesn’t want to see medicine become color-blind. At least, not without figuring out what the underlying genetic differences are. Satel quickly dismisses the risk of social ostracization of minorities due to any correlated genetic differences. While there is definitely a benefit to using race in a manner she advocates (I think her argument is pretty persuasive on that point), without knowing the costs of this outlook, it’s hard to say that it’s a good thing all things considered.
The Thirty Years’ War, Jerome Groopman from The New Yorker
Groopman presents a history of the war on cancer since the early 1970s and it’s a pretty dismal portrait. I think I would have liked the piece better if he would have supplied an accurate portrait of recent positive developments if there are any. But the piece mostly focuses on past missteps.
The Soft Science of Dietary Fat, Gary Taubes from Science
Taubes gives a history of the U.S.D.A.’s diet recommendations. It’s a pretty critical look, with the underlying premise being that there isn’t actually a whole lot of evidence that people should eat low-fat diets. What he details is that the various links in the chain are known, but no one has been able to show that the entire chain works. So while we know that eating less fat can reduce serum cholesterol, and we know that lower cholesterol to an extent is correlated with a lower risk of heart attack, we do not have definitive evidence that eating less fat lowers the risk of heart attack. Unfortunately, I don’t have the background to know the truth is, and Taubes writes a pretty one-sided article. A quick Google® search shows that he’s written a number of articles pushing the same thesis, so he’s got something invested in the polemic.
Brothers with Heart, Joseph D’Agnese from Discover
D’Agnese profiles the Vacantis, four brothers who are working together to create replacement organs. Their primary breakthrough has been in figuring out how to create scaffolding that animal cells can grow on into the shape of the proper organ. Basically, something needs to direct the cells into creating the proper shape, or they just grow in a lump. The trick, along with getting the cells to stick to the framework, is to remove the framework from the organ after it’s grown. The key is some sort of biodegradable or dissolving material. I didn’t quite understand how it works from the article. I’m noticing a fair number of articles that are framed as profiles. I kind of wish this one was more about the science and less about the Vacantis.
I Love My Glow Bunny, Christopher Dickey from Wired
Dickey profiles Eduardo Kac, a digital performance artist who claims to have created a glow-in-the-dark bunny as a piece of art. Dickey’s investigation takes him into the research of genetically engineered organisms as I.N.R.A. in France, where the rabbit was bred. The article makes pretty clear that Dickey really has very little to do with the rabbit, and actually paints somewhat of a sad portrait of the artist.
Rethinking the Brain, Michael Specter from The New Yorker
Specter profiles the scientists who thought that brain cells just might not be as static as previously thought, the opposition from other scientists, and the lengths the upstarts went to prove their point. There’s actually not a whole lot of the science covered except for a bit about inserting markers into cells and then later seeing if other cells have those markers. If they did, they’d be new cells. If not, no new cells.
Penninger, Mary Rogan in Esquire
A fawning profile of Josef Penninger, a research biologist. Let’s just say I’m not too fond of the article. More science, less profile please.
Mothers and Others, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy from Natural History
This is an awesome science article! No profile included! Sarah Blaffer Hrdy is an evolutionary anthropologist. In the article, she examines allomothers in our species and elsewhere in the animal kingdom. Allomothers is the term given to those who participate in cooperative rearing. It includes fathers, but also grandmothers, aunts, uncles, and even possible fathers. Hrdy examines a tradition in some South American tribes where as soon as a female suspects she is pregnant, she will mate with additional males. All the men believe they are contributing to the offspring genetically (or as close as their understanding of genetics allows them) and so after the birth, they will contribute to the care and feeding as well. Hrdy examines allomothering in other species, as well as modern equivalents such as day care, where she touches on research that explains when it works and when it might not.
Of Altruism, Heroism and Nature’s Gifts in the Face of Terror, Natalie Angier from The New York Times
A quick overview of some of the possible biological reasons for altruism. It focusing on a theoretical desire to perpetrate ones genes, explaining why we might have more altruism toward family and clan than we do toward far away people.
Pirate Utopia, Julian Dibbell from Feed
This is a piece that ostensibly covers steganography, the art of embedding hidden messages in innocuous places, particularly images. However, there’s really nothing here that actually says how steganography works. So basically the article says that there could be hidden messages all around us, slightly alarmist in tone. Whoop de doo!
Code Red for the Web, Carolyn Meinel from Scientific American
This mish-mash of an article really isn’t about science, and only a bit about technology. Meinel gives a quick overview of the Code Red attack in 2001. Incidentally, that worm actually infected my work computer at Expedia. We all ran our own web servers to test code, and our I.T. department didn’t really keep things patched up all that well. They got a lot better though. Anyway, Meinel jumps from that into speculation about a Chinese/American cyberwar. If it happened, affected hardly anyone, but Meinel doesn’t tell you that. What’s weird is that Meinel wrote another article a few years later that expounded on how cyberwarfare was an overblown threat. Color me confused.
What Brings a World into Being, David Berlinski from Commentary
I’m not sure what the point of this article was. Some folks put forth the theory that biology could be considered information processing. In other words, D.N.A. is essentially a coded message from one piece of an organism to another. David Berlinski poo-poos the idea. I don’t know enough about the theory to know whether or not Berlinski is correct or not. However, I tend to discount arguments made by proponents of intelligent design. If one is dishonest in one area of science, one is likely to be dishonest in other areas.
Quantum Shmantum, Tim Folger from Discover
A profile of David Deutsch, a leading proponent of the idea of the multiverse. You know, the idea that every time there is a choice, in one universe one of the choices happens. At the same time, another universe splits off and the other branch is taken. Folger curiously didn’t question Deutsch’s reluctance to leave his house. Here’s the reasoning given: if Deutsch leaves his house, he might choose to drive down one street. But in another universe he chooses to go down another street and hits a girl crossing the road. That makes no sense whatsoever according to his own theory. For by choosing not to leave the house, another universe has spawned wherein Deutsch does leave the house. I also don’t think Folger does a very good idea of explaining that every branch in the world, whether chosen by free will or just by random decay of a radioactive atom, spawns another universe. Under the theory, it’s not just that everything can happen. Everything must happen. Again, focus less on the profile please and more on the science.
Shadow Science, Oliver Morton from Wired
I generally liked this article. I got enough science out of it to feel satisfied. The science is a N.A.S.A. project called Kepler, which (if greenlighted) will look for planets on other solar systems. Not the way we’ve detected gas giants up until now. That way looked for a wobble made by a huge gas planet exerting its gravity on a star. Kepler instead will look for periodic dimming of a star’s light. It has to be very sensitive for this, and it has to watch a lot of stars for a long time. But the bonus from this is that it could detect habitable planets, not just gas giants. Such M-class planets (to use the Star Trek term) can’t be detected by the effect of their gravity, because they aren’t big enough.
Can Science Explain Everything? Anything? (gated version), Steven Weinberg in The New York Review of Books
A nice article on the philosophy of science, in which Weinberg (a Nobel prize winner) gets into a semantic debate over describe versus explain. The proposition to him was that science could describe things but not explain them. And in one respect at least, Weinberg concedes the point. Science cannot really determine morals. Nothing particular earth-shattering here, but it’s well written and covers the argument better than I could.
The Eco-Optimist, Nicholas Wade from The New York Times
This article is almost all profile. The subject is Bjørn Lomborg, a political scientist with an expertise in statistics who questions global warming. He nit-picked some of the statistics put out by various folks on climate studies and other things that impact the human footprint on the planet, finding some mistakes. Finding some mistakes doesn’t mean one is qualified as a climatologist, but Lomborg has found a media following by being the skeptic of climate change.
George Divoky’s Planet, Darcy Frey from The New York Times Magazine
Map - Cooper Island, Alaska Another profile… This is probably the best profile in the collection, but man is it annoying. Writing about science, not writing about people! Thank you very much. Anyway, George Divoky is an ornithologist who spent summers 27 years in a row (as of the time of the article) on a barren island in the Arctic Ocean north of Barrow, Alaska. That’s a pretty remote area. Divoky stumbled on a dumb of barrels and other debris left by the military decades ago. But a group of black guillemots had used the debris as nesting grounds. Normally these birds nest in craggy rocks, like cliff faces. Divoky returned again and again to chronicle and study the birds when they nested there every year. The reason why he’s profiled though is that he also stumbled on evidence for global warming. Slowly over the years the birds were arriving earlier and earlier, because the area was warmer. But also, Divoky found that the birds did less well later on. Cooper Island was at an intersection where the ice ended and the birds could feed within range of their nests. As the ice retreated northward, the safe places for them to feed also move northward. And so they didn’t do as well later on.

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