Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The Best American Science Writing 2005The Best American Science Writing 2005 by Alan Lightman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Given that nearly half of Americans disavow evolution..."
(A really scary statistic from the preface to Darwin or Not by David Quammen.)

A disappointment! I expected much more from The Best American Science Writing 2005, the first volume of this apparently long-running series that I have read. I had an appetite for a good number of brilliant, thought-provoking, awe-inspiring essays on modern science, but among the 26 pieces in this set I found just one great essay, and only four or five strong ones, including a fascinating and quite curious non-science item. In my arrogance I think that several essays included here do not even deserve to be in a collection that has "best science writing" in its title.

To me Frank Wilczek's essay Whence the Force of F = ma from Physics Today clearly stands out. The Nobel Prize-winning quantum theorist uses short sentences, simple language, and refers to knowledge many of us get in a high-school physics course (F = ma) to discuss - on just five pages - the vagueness of the concept of force, apparently fundamental in physics. There is depth and grace in this piece and a tremendous pun on physics in its last sentence:
"A big part of the explanation for its [force's] continuous use is no doubt (intellectual) inertia."
On the opposite end of the spectrum I find the essay by David Berlinski, a famed philosopher, mathematician, and science writer. His overlong essay On the Origins of the Mind uses florid language that obscures the points I believe the author is trying to make, and lacking any depth attempts to dazzle with terminology instead. It also contains an astounding statement that "differential equations" "govern a flow of time." Huh?

Small Silences by Edward Hoagland, an incongruous piece in this collection of science writings, is a lyrical yet rich and earthy ode to the beauty of nature. The essay is even more fascinating because of its strangely sexual undertones - I am too obtuse to figure the point of these but even so I loved the non-scientific prose.

To briefly mention few other worthwhile pieces: Atul Gawande writes about the last cases of polio in a poor region in India and raises a momentous issue: eradicating polio may be a great human achievement yet poverty, hunger, lack of sanitation continue to kill many times more people. I have read the essay The Genome in Black and White (and Gray) with deep sadness about how the currently prevailing PC ideology prevents furthering research that could help people of all colors. The Biology of Hope cogently discusses the so-called placebo effect. Aging Research's Family Feud reads almost like a mystery: the dispute between two scientists is recounted in a captivating yet rather non-scientific way.

Many "meh" pieces or obligatory contributions towards ideology trends round up the collection. The Wilczek's essay and the Hoagland's prose will stay with me for a long time. I lost interest in reading any more writings of Dr. Berlinski. But the most important benefit that I have derived from reading the set is my awoken interest in checking whether the points the authors made 12 or 13 years ago are still valid. I will attempt to read current writings on several of these topics. The potential for stimulating the readers' interest is the only reason I marginally recommend the collection.

Two and three quarter stars.

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