The best science writing is written by a scientist in a distinguished science journal like Nature or Science. But Scienceand Nature aren’t really accessible to most of us. Serious science demands precision best expressed mathematically and with a specialized vocabulary. No matter how well written, a lot of science’s real literature is simply beyond most everyone but specialists.
Those few scientists, historians and journalists with the ability to turn science’s rarefied literature into captivating prose an average, well educated person can understand are useful folks deserving our thanks. It doesn’t really take a specialist to comment on political events, explain the vagaries of the stock market, or babble about murder and mayhem down the block. Any ninth grader should be able to do that. But to fiddle confidently in the field of general relativity or to wander among the molecules busily making protein and then to write about it for mass consumption takes talent and courage.
Some years ago, Jesse Cohen began a series intended to honor the science writer, by collecting and re-publishing each year’s best essays in a single volume. Dava Sobel edits this, the fifth collection, which was issued in 2004 but covers 2003. In the introduction, Dava tells us how she selected the entries. Compelling word selection and rhythm of phrasing is her first criteria. Then the science must be of intrinsic interest and general appeal. This is a little odd given that Dava reflects on what makes science so wonderful: its attention to things arcane and unpopular. In the end, we just have to accept Dava’s judgment, which I’m willing to do since Dava has done some pretty exciting science writing herself. Dava also tries to explain her order of presentation, but having imposed one, she encourages the reader to ignore it and wander at will in the collection.
I took her at her word and turned first to a poem by John Updike. He reflects that Mars hasn’t been this close in the last sixty thousand years and when it comes around again all our atoms will be rearranged. Cute. But there’s better graffiti on any latrine wall at Georgia Tech. Another poem is the doggerel that introduces Neil Tyson’s article on Einstein’s big mistake, negative gravity. Now here’s an article, reproduced from Natural History, that you can sink your teeth into. Neil Tyson, in case you’ve missed him, is to astrophysics what Stephen J. Gould was to evolution. His essay makes quite clear the standard that Dava was looking for. It is swift, lucid and delightful. And, yes, it turns out that Albert wasn’t really wrong. His negative gravity, dark energy, is the stuff of the universe, and it will eventually all but turn the lights off.
I’ve not got room to examine the 21 other essays in such detail. But these are indeed some of the best-written stories to come out of science in 2003. They come from fairly disparate sources, too. Some, like Natural History and Discover are predictable. One might anticipate entries from the New York Times, but one each from the San Francisco Chronicle and the Dallas Morning News is a bit surprising. There is one essay, footnotes and all, from Science while Mother Jones has two, one of them concerned with the Slow Food movement. It aims at conserving endangered domestic plants and animals by eating them. The longest essay concerns the Columbia disaster and comes from the Atlantic Monthly. Dava clipped four stories from the New Yorker. Its editors have eclectic tastes and exceptional standards but that it applies those standards to so much science writing is unexpected.
Two New Yorker essays deal with medicine. In fact, Dava seems to have overdone it with medicine. Its status in the sciences is a little questionable. Certainly, medical education requires a bushel of science courses, and medicine is certainly high tech, but science courses and high tech don’t make a science. If they did, archaeology should be crowding this collection. There is also extraordinary emphasis on cosmology and space exploration. Well, medicine and space do have intrinsic interest and general appeal.
What is conspicuous by its absence might be of some concern. Several of the essays deal with general biological subjects but none approach general ecology or earth science. How do biological communities work, and how can we conserve and/or restore them? Are we in the process of turning the thermostat too high? These are among the most compelling scientific problems of our time.
Then there is the matter of genetic engineering and nano-technologies. Advances in these controversial fields are breathtakingly swift, and depending on whom you talk to, they will either deliver us to a new utopia or make us obsolete as a species.
One phrase is used far too often in these essays and that is: terminated because of budget cuts. A lot of technology and some science can be done in the much-heralded private sector, but most science is a public enterprise. And rest assured science will be done by someone. As one reads this collection, one can almost hear the chuckling of Chinese, Indian, European and Russian scientists. What they are chuckling about is the scientific giant who willfully relegated itself to the status of a scientific has been through its self-imposed penny-pinching. While I’m a little disappointed by some of the disciplines not covered in this collection, I have to remind myself that Dava sat out to produce a collection of the best American science writing. Not the most representative. If your favorite discipline isn’t in the collection, maybe it’s because popular writing in that field isn’t up to snuff. Or maybe 2003 was just a bad year. Or maybe Dava just doesn’t groove on that subject. Anyway, Dava’s got the right to make the call.
And, despite my complaint, she’s called it pretty well. This is an exciting collection, exciting enough to make me run off to the library to peruse the four previous collections.