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AN ANTHOLOGY OF THE BEST SCIENCE WRITING IS ENGAGING AND INFORMATIVE

Ringel, Steven P. MD

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Dr. Ringel, Associate Editor-in-Chief of Neurology Today, is Professor and Director of the Neuromuscular Division of the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver.

THE BEST AMERICAN SCIENCE WRITING 2001 EDITED BY TIMOTHY FERRIS 352 PAGES • HARPER COLLINS 2001

Many of the articles in Neurology Today are written by professional journalists who have sufficient medical knowledge to ask the right questions and the uncanny ability to communicate the information in a way that engages our readers. But after you read their articles, do you remember their names or only what they wrote about?

In The Best Science Writing 2001, Timothy Ferris, an award-winning author of nine books, has compiled “with paternalistic pride” an anthology of 23 selections that are powerfully written and provide a wonderful glimpse of current thinking in a variety of scientific fields.

A few of the contributions are by well-known thinkers and writers, such as the recently deceased Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, best known for his modifications of Darwinian evolutionary theory. In this collection, Mr. Gould writes about syphilis, the proper name of a fictional shepherd in a 1530 poem by the physician Girolamo Fracastoro.

The book opens with a poem by the celebrated fiction writer John Updike, and there are contributions by Ernst Mayr, an eminent evolutionary thinker, and by John Wheeler, a leading physicist and philosopher who explains: “What is this thing, the quantum?”

For the most part, however, the writers' names fade quickly from our memory while what they teach us persists. As Mr. Ferris points out, his fellow science writers are overworked and under-appreciated for their masterly writing, since the discoveries they vividly elucidate capture our attention.

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A DIVERSE ANTHOLOGY

No matter what your scientific interest, there's something you will enjoy reading in this diverse anthology that spans astronomy, quantum physics, the genome and evolutionary biology, conservation, a variety of interesting medical topics, and two thoughtful reflections on careers in science.

Consider, for example, the essay, “More Than Meets the Eye.” Did you know that our 100 billion galaxies and 1022 stars make up only 5 percent of matter, so that most of the cosmos exists in exotic forms called dark matter and dark energy? If you prefer dealing with more concrete and less cosmic space issues, read the essay “The Small Planets,” which expounds on the odd shapes and irregular gravitational effects of small planets and asteroids that create problems for our spacecrafts.

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UFOS

Figure. The Best Ame...
Figure. The Best Ame...
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Have you wondered what scientists think about the possibility of life beyond Earth and if there is any validity to UFO sightings? Two essays, “Life Beyond Earth” and “Welcome to Planet Earth,” dispel myths and pseudo-science and still leave open the possibility of alien beings. Joel Achenbach reminds us that even the famed physicist Enrico Fermi puzzled over why aliens have not yet come to Earth. In what has been dubbed the “Fermi paradox,” he reasoned that there must be civilizations far older than ours, and since we already are able to explore our galaxy, these older societies should have the same potential.

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EVOLUTIONARY BIOLOGY

Several articles offer a fascinating glimpse into evolutionary biology. “In the Company of Humans” points out numerous examples of how one species helps the survival of a second species. For instance, there's a beater syndrome, where a species unintentionally makes food available to another; but did you know that in rare circumstances, wild animals may choose to associate with humans for similar survival reasons?

A second essay, “Death of an Altruist,” describes the remarkable contributions of George Price, who died penniless in 1975 in London aiding homeless alcoholics, and who was belatedly recognized for his key role in shaping evolutionary psychology by the leading evolutionary thinker William D. Hamilton. Mr. Hamilton used trickery to get the journal Nature to reverse its rejection of the Price manuscript that points out why the interests of a group often prevail over the interests of an individual. It seems ironic that Mr. Hamilton, the individual, prevailed in his effort to promote Mr. Price's group selection theory when it was rejected by a group of his peers.

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MEDICAL SCIENCE

The articles on medical science vividly capture the competing interests that can impede acceptance of new ideas, the far-reaching significance of scientific discoveries and their sometimes unintended consequences, as well as the humanity that benefits from new knowledge.

Fast-breaking discoveries in stem cell biology and the Human Genome Project are carefully described, as are the personalities behind these breakthroughs. We learn about the “public relations fiasco” surrounding human embryo cloning and about the hostility that Craig Venter engendered by creating a for-profit company that raced against the National Institutes of Health to decipher the complete sequences of nucleotides in human DNA.

We also read about John Rock, one of the inventors of the birth-control pill, and his long battle with the Catholic Church. Perhaps most depressing, we are told that President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa believes that AIDS is not caused by HIV. He asserts that scientists who work in this area are part of a vast pharmaceutical industry conspiracy developed to market anti-AIDS drugs to over four million South African citizens who carry the HIV virus.

Who might have imagined 50 years ago – when we first learned about the DNA double helix – that DNA fingerprinting would be used by forensic scientists to exonerate people wrongly convicted of crimes?

If you were one of the 98 million Americans who received the polio virus vaccine between 1955 and 1963, do you realize that you might get a rare cancer because the cancer-causing SV40 virus was present in the monkey cells used to culture the poliovirus vaccine you received? Not everyone accepts this theory as readily as its leading proponent Michelle Carbone, an Italian pathologist at Loyola University, but an article vividly illustrates the strife that can occur when laboratories reach different conclusions and personal agendas interfere with the open exchange of information.

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HUMANITY OF SUBJECTS

Two stories do a wonderful job in capturing the humanity of the person as well as the subject that interests them. Tracy Kidder describes the life of a “modern day Schweitzer” – Paul Farmer, a Harvard physician who is trying to bring Boston medicine to one of the poorest regions of Haiti. Andrew Sullivan, an HIV-positive writer, provides us a personal account of the biological and psychosocial effects of injecting himself every two weeks with testosterone. His experience and review about what has been written about this hormone are eye opening.

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THOUGHTFUL COMMENTARY

The concluding essays provide thoughtful commentary about scientists and their discoveries. Alan Lightman, a theoretical physicist who is also an accomplished essayist and novelist, describes the rewarding life of a career in science. He reflects on what he misses when he gave up a career in physics, most notably the purity of science without the vagaries of human emotion and the youthful belief that everything was possible.

Freeman Dyson, an equally distinguished physicist and mathematician, reminds us that “neither technology alone nor religion alone is powerful enough to bring social justice to human societies.” To make things happen, we need political consensus and careful ethical guidance to appropriately harness the benefits of scientific discovery. After reading this book, you will feel the youthful optimism of Mr. Lightman and understand the complexity of Mr. Dyson's prescription.

©2002 American Academy of Neurology

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