The Best American Science Writing 2005

The Best American Science Writing 2005

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by Alan Lightman, Jesse Cohen

Together these twenty-seven articles on a wide range of today's most current topics in science, from Oliver Sacks, James Gleick, Atul Gawande, and Natalie Angier, among others, represent the full spectrum of scientific writing, proving once again that "good science writing is evidently plentiful" (Scientific American).


Together these twenty-seven articles on a wide range of today's most current topics in science, from Oliver Sacks, James Gleick, Atul Gawande, and Natalie Angier, among others, represent the full spectrum of scientific writing, proving once again that "good science writing is evidently plentiful" (Scientific American).

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HarperCollins Publishers
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Best American Science Writing Series
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Older Edition
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5.30(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)

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The Best American Science Writing 2005

By Alan Lightman

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2006 Alan Lightman
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0060726423

Oliver Stacks

Greetings from the Island of Stability

From the New York Times

As the neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks revealed in his charming memoir Uncle Tungsten, his first love was chemistry, especially the elements that make up the periodic table. The announcement of the discovery of two new elements allows Sacks to revive his childlike enthusiasm and astonishment for the wonders of chemistry.

On February 2, 2004, the discovery of two new elements -- 113 and 115 -- was announced by a team of Russian and American scientists. There is something about such announcements that raises the spirits, thrills one, evokes thoughts of new lands being sighted, of new areas of nature revealed.

It was only at the end of the eighteenth century that the modern idea of an "element" was clearly defined, as a substance that could not be decomposed by any chemical means. In the first decades of the nineteenth century, Humphry Davy, the chemical equivalent of a big-game hunter, thrilled scientists and public alike by bagging potassium, sodium, calcium, strontium, barium, and a few other elements. Discoveries rolled on throughout the next one hundred years, often exciting the publicimagination, and when, in the 1890s, five new elements were discovered in the atmosphere, these quickly found their way into H. G. Wells's novels -- argon was used by the Martians in The War of the Worlds; and helium to make the antigravity material that transported Wells's heroes in The First Men in the Moon.

The last naturally occurring element, rhenium, was discovered in 1925. But then, in 1937, there came something no less thrilling: the announcement that a new element had been created -- an element that seemingly did not exist in nature. The element was named "technetium' to emphasize that it was a product of human technology.

It had been thought that there were just ninety-two elements, ending with uranium, whose massive atomic nucleus contained no less than ninety-two protons, along with a considerably larger number of neutral particles (neutrons). But why should this be the end of the line? Could one create elements beyond uranium, even if they did not exist in nature? When Glenn T. Seaborg and his colleagues at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California were able to make a new element in 1940 with ninety-four protons in its huge nucleus, they could not at first imagine that anything more massive would ever be obtained, and so they called their new element "ultimium" (later it would be renamed plutonium).

If such elements with enormous atomic nuclei did not exist in nature, this was, presumably, because they were too unstable: with more and more protons in the nucleus repelling each other, the nucleus would tend toward spontaneous fission. Indeed, as Seaborg and his colleagues strove to make heavier and heavier elements (they created nine new ones over the next twenty years, and Element io6 is now named seaborgium in his honor), they found that these were increasingly unstable, some of them breaking up within microseconds of being made. There seemed good grounds for supposing that one might never get beyond Element 108 -- that this would be the absolute "ultimium."

Then, in the late 1960s, a radical new concept of the nucleus emerged -- the notion that its protons and neutrons were arranged in "shells" (like the "shells" of electrons that whirled around the nucleus). The stability of the nucleus of an atom, it was theorized, depended on whether these nuclear shells were filled, just as the chemical stability of atoms depended on the filling of their electron shells. It was calculated that the ideal (or "magic") number of protons required to fill such a nuclear shell would be 114, and the ideal number of neutrons would be 184. A nucleus with both these numbers, a "doubly magic" nucleus, might be, despite its enormous size, remarkably stable.

This idea was startling, paradoxical -- as strange and exciting as that of black holes or dark energy. It moved even sober scientists like Seaborg to allegorical language. He thus spoke of a sea of instability -- the increasingly and sometimes fantastically unstable elements from 101 to 111 -- that one would somehow have to leap over if one was ever to reach what he called the island of stability (an elongated island stretching from Elements 112 to 118, but having in its center the "doubly magic" isotope of 114). The term "magic" was continually used -- Seaborg and others spoke of a magic ridge, a magic mountain and a magic island of elements.

This vision came to haunt the imagination of physicists the world over. Whether or not it was scientifically important, it became psychologically imperative to reach, or at least to sight, this magic territory. There were undertones of other allegories as well -- the island of stability could be seen as a topsy-turvy, Alice-in-Wonderland realm where bizarre and gigantic atoms lived their strange lives. Or, more wistfully, the island of stability could be imagined as a sort of Ithaca, where the atomic wanderer, after decades of struggle in the sea of instability, might reach a final haven.

No effort or expense was spared in this enterprise. The vast atom-smashers, the particle colliders of Berkeley, Dubna, and Darmstadt were all enlisted in the quest, and scores of brilliant workers devoted their lives to it. Finally, in 1998, after more than thirty years, the work paid off. Scientists reached the outlying shores of the magic island: they were able to create an isotope of 114, albeit nine neutrons short of the magic number. (When I met Glenn Seaborg in December 1997, he said that one of his longest-lasting and most cherished dreams was to see one of these magic elements -- but, sadly, when the creation of 114 was announced in 1999, Seaborg had been disabled by a stroke, and may never have known that his dream had been realized.)


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Meet the Author

Alan Lightman is a novelist, essayist, physicist, and educator. He is adjunct professor of humanities at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). His essays, short fiction, and reviews have appeared in several magazines. His research articles have appeared in many journals of physics and astrophysics. His novels include Einstein's Dreams, which has been translated into more than thirty languages, and The Diagnosis, which was a National Book Award finalist in Fiction in 2000.

Jesse Cohen is a writer and freelance editor. He lives in New York City.

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Best American Science Writing 2005 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
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There are twenty- six essays in the anthology. Oliver Sachs in his essay ⿿Greetings from the Island of Stability⿿ writes of the discovery of two new elements, and in doing so considers the work of Glenn T. Seaborg and his colleagues at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in the making of new elements beyond element ninety- two. In the course of this Sachs reawakens his own childhood interest in chemistry. James Gleick in his essay considers the other non- scientific side of Newton, his mystical religious researches and how they mark the great pioneering figure of the New Age as somehow belonging also to the pre-scientific world before. Frank Wilicek speaks of his own difficulty in understanding a certain area of fundamental physics, and this leads him into a deeper exploration of the meaning of Newton⿿s second law of motion. Peter Gallison turns to a small bypath in Einstein⿿s career the time when he used the compass( which had first drawn his scientific interest) to explore certain qualities of magnetism. William J. Broad writes about the perhaps impending reversal of the Earth⿿s magnetic field , and some of the great disturbances that might result. K.C. Cole considers the various possibilities for forms of life which do not have water as prime component. Dennis Overbye considers the recent discovery of a larger number of planets which might be suitable for life. He concludes with his own optimistic observation that he expects Earth- like planets will be found in his own lifetime. Jim Holt in a sense goes in the opposite direction and explores scenarios as to how the universe will end. He speaks with some of the most well- known cosmologists( Freeman Dyson, Ed Witten, Frank Tipler) theoretical physicist Michio Kaku, astrophysicist Richard Gott, Nobel Laureate in Physics Steven Weinberg and most pessimistic of all Lawrence Krauss( who speaks about this being the worst of all possible universes) . His tone is often humorous and he concludes with the sobering observation of the philosopher Thomas Nagel, ⿿ It does not matter now that in a trillion trillion years nothing we do now will matter.⿝ And nonetheless Krause⿿s observation that it is encouraging ⿿ that sitting in a place on the edge of nowhere in a not especially time in the history of the universe, we can , on the basis of simple laws of physics , draw conclusions about the future of the life and the cosmos⿿ . The problem however as the article clearly shows is that those conclusions are ⿿theoretical speculations at their most speculative⿿. Apparently, we will have to wait and see how the Universe will end. Natalie Angier speaks with Jacqueline Barton on what it means to be an outstanding woman scientist, role model , and chemist. Jennifer Couzin examines the conflict between two prominent researches studying the genetic causes of aging. Robin Marantz Henig shows how the question of the genetic investigation as to whether there are differences in race beyond superficial features has again become significant. Mark Dowie studies how a biologist Dr.Stuart Newman is trying to find against the possibility that ⿿genetic engineering⿿ will bring into being ⿿chimeras⿿ strange frightening hybrid creatures. Gina Kolata looks at ⿿ stem cell science⿿ its ethical implications and its viability. Philip Alcabes suggests that our obsession with bioterrorism may be leading us to ignore more real, if more mundane medical threats. Laurie Garret looks at what she sees as an impending AIDS epidemic in Vietnam, and whether there will be a global effort to prevent it. Atul Gawande goes with a World Health Organization team to a remote area of India where they work to limit the damage from the few remaining cases of polio in the world. Jerome Groopman investigates how researchers investigating the body- mind reveal how hope ⿿can overcome pain, and has observable physiological effects on respiration, mot