The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2002


Since its inception in 1915, the Best American series has become the premier annual showcase for the country's finest short fiction and nonfiction. For each volume, a series editor reads pieces from hundreds of periodicals, then selects between fifty and a hundred outstanding works. That selection is pared down to the twenty or so very best pieces by a guest editor who is widely recognized as a leading writer in his or her field. This unique system has helped make the Best ...

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Since its inception in 1915, the Best American series has become the premier annual showcase for the country's finest short fiction and nonfiction. For each volume, a series editor reads pieces from hundreds of periodicals, then selects between fifty and a hundred outstanding works. That selection is pared down to the twenty or so very best pieces by a guest editor who is widely recognized as a leading writer in his or her field. This unique system has helped make the Best American series the most respected—and most popular—of its kind.

The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2002, edited by Natalie Angier, is another "eclectic, provocative collection" (Entertainment Weekly). Malcolm Gladwell, Joy Williams, Barbara Ehrenreich, Burkhard Bilger, Dennis Overbye, and many more of the best and brightest writers on science and nature explore such topics as the rise and fall of Islamic science, disappearing cancers, and the meaning of mountain lions in the back yard.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Eloquent, accessible and often illuminating anthology" Publishers Weekly

"An elite grouping of very readable and informative articles on some of today's most challenging and colorful scientific issues." Kirkus Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Science writers weigh in on a number of hot-button issues in this eloquent, accessible and often illuminating anthology. Culled from periodicals like the New Yorker, Discover, Harper's, Scientific American and the Atlantic Monthly, these 27 articles tackle everything from conservation and cancer to artificial intelligence and the origins of life. "Welcome to Cancerland," Barbara Ehrenreich's blistering review of our commercial breast cancer culture-which, she argues, celebrates "survivorhood by downplaying mortality" and infantilizes the afflicted in order to promote obedience-is the boldest and most controversial of these offerings. A close second is Frederick C. Crews's "Saving Us from Darwin," a lengthy but erudite consideration of the evolution vs. creationism debate. Several of the remaining entries offer eye-opening perspectives on humankind's impact on wildlife and the environment. In "Wall Street Losses, Wall Street Gains," Anne Matthews describes how songbirds, fixated and confused by the twinkling lights atop New York's tallest skyscrapers, circle the buildings until they fall to their death from exhaustion; H. Bruce Franklin ("The Most Important Fish in the Sea") focuses on the familiar topic of overfishing, which has led to an increased number of "dead zones" in the Atlantic; and Gordon Grice's "Is That a Mountain Lion in Your Backyard?" ponders the return of displaced mountain lions in the Western states. In her introduction to this collection, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Angier writes, "[S]cience writing has matured and is seated comfortably at the literary dining table." These fine works more than prove her point. (Oct. 15) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Splendid anthology of the year’s finest science and nature articles, curated and introduced by the New York Times Pulitzer Prize–winning science writer.

Although varied in theme and subject, the pieces work well as a set, offering many innovative ideas, theories, critiques, and observations to pay overall tribute to human curiosity. These 27 articles display creativity and even playfulness as the authors break down complex scientific subjects for the average reader. Roy F. Baumeister takes a fresh look at some old myths about human aggression; Frederick J. Crews explores the strange world of the anti-Darwinists and the battle over Creationism; Joy Williams submits a memoir of her life as the land-owning neighbor of a lagoon; and Gordon Grice shares a close encounter with the re-emergent mountain lion, an inspiring but deadly creature whose numbers are now increasing where agriculture and residential sprawl meet former wilderness. Barbara Ehrenreich contributes a thoughtful essay about her breast cancer diagnosis and arrival at the gates of the sometimes tacky subculture she calls "Cancerland" (also included in Gould’s The Best American Essays 2002, see below); Malcolm Gladwell grades the life and work of SAT-buster Stanley H. Kaplan; and Gary Greenberg, following the saga of a terminally ill little boy whose role as an organ donor gives his short life meaning, examines prevalent legal, social, and medical notions about "brain death." Two timely favorites here will be "Why McDonald’s Fries Taste So Good," by Eric Schlosser (from his bestselling book, Fast Food Nation), and Dennis Overbye’s "How Islam Won, and Lost, the Lead in Science," a historical overview that will fascinate readersnewly curious about the Arab world. Controversial topics include the rights of the dying, the singular gift (or burden) of motherhood, and the grim reality of shock therapy, explored with often provocative results. But the collection’s real noteworthiness comes from its authors’ consistently bright insights and buoyant prose.

An elite grouping of very readable and informative articles on some of today’s most challenging and colorful scientific issues.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780618134786
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 10/28/2002
  • Series: Best American Science and Nature Writing Series
  • Edition description: None
  • Pages: 338
  • Sales rank: 1,424,175
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.76 (d)

Meet the Author

NATALIE ANGIER is a Pulitzer-Prize winning science columnist for the New York Times. She is the author of The Canon, The Beauty of the Beastly, and Natural Obsessions. She lives outside Washington, D.C.

TIM FOLGER is a contributing editor at Discover and writes about science for several magazines.

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Read an Excerpt


Every profession has its rite of passage, a crucible guaranteed to roil doubts and second thoughts about career choices. Pilots have their solo flights, surgeons their operations. For science journalists, it’s that first crucial interview when they realize, with mounting unease, that they don’t understand a single word of what some scientist is telling them. It happened to me several years ago. I had just started working as a reporter for Discover magazine and managed to convince my editor that I was ready to write a feature. One of the people I needed to interview for the story was an eminent physicist, a Nobel laureate. He graciously set aside two hours of his time one wintry afternoon in Princeton to talk to me about a perplexing problem in his field, a problem that was to be the subject of my article.
I turned on my tape recorder and asked my first question. In reply the physicist said something about an “antisymmetric total eigenfunction.” It wasn’t the sort of answer I was looking for. Worse, it wasn’t the sort of answer I could understand. From there the gap between what the physicist said and what I followed could have been measured in megaparsecs. For the next 7,200 seconds I had almost no idea what this kindly, renowned, thoughtful gentleman was talking about. Sure, I could recognize the odd phrase here and there, but entire sentences might as well have been transmitted in a frequency range audible only to canines for all they meant to me. Somehow the few questions I sputtered during the remainder of the interview didn’t betray my utter befuddlement and growing panic. For the most part I sat silently perspiring, nodding or grunting now and then to foster the illusion of comprehension.
When the interview finally ended I walked from the snow-covered campus to the train that would take me back to Manhattan, wondering how I would ever wring a story from such impenetrable raw material before my deadline. Over the next few weeks, after many more hours of interviews and phone conversations with perhaps a dozen physicists, I finished the assignment. The work was grueling, but satisfying.
That first interview turned out to be similar to many others in the years ahead. Although the panicky fear of failing to deliver a story eventually faded, the hard labor of translating the work of scientists into something that people will pay to read hasn’t changed at all. Good writing is never easy, but writing about science is extraordinarily challenging. Most journalists, whether they’re covering crime, politics, or business, can at least assume a common vocabulary, a certain degree of shared knowledge, on the part of their readers, not to mention their interview subjects. Science writers don’t have that luxury. First they need to understand enough of the subject at hand to ask relevant questions. Then they must mold their interview notes and background reading of sundry science journals into a narrative that a reader will not just understand but enjoy. Not an easy profession.
Fortunately for us, there are many people who do it extremely well. The stories they tell are compelling, perhaps the most important of our time. J. Robert Oppenheimer, the controversial physicist who headed the Manhattan Project during World War II, once said, “Taken as a story of human achievement, and human blindness, the discoveries in the sciences are among the great epics.” The stories science tells us are not always comforting. Steven Weinberg, a Nobel laureate physicist (not the one who so confounded me years ago), has said that the more physicists study the universe, the more pointless it all seems. Scientists have not found any evidence of a special role for humanity in the scheme of things. Instead, human life looks like a very marginal phenomenon. Knowing that countless other species have arisen and disappeared on earth over the past 3 billion years, the existence of Homo sapiens seems less and less divinely ordained and ever more contingent. When asked about Weinberg’s bleak view, Jim Peebles, a Princeton astrophysicist, said, “I’m willing to believe that we are flotsam and jetsam.” But maybe those cold truths from the unflinching, vast perspective of science are what we need to hear. Genetic evidence suggests that every person now alive descends from the members of a small group of humans who lived in Africa between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago. Maybe the knowledge of our tentative, fragile place in the cosmos, and of our relatively recent common origin, marks the beginning of our maturity as a species. Maybe it’s time to set aside the myths and legends that still sustain—and divide—so many of us..
Of course, such knowledge isn’t welcome everywhere. As Frederick Crews writes in “Saving Us from Darwin,” creationists still refuse to accept the full implllllications of The Origin of Species 143 years after its publication. They prefer to cling, using the most tortured reasoning, to a god who is “a glutton for praise,” Crews writes. Their efforts to distort and suppress the teaching of science might seem ludicrous were they supported by only a few in our society. Unfortunately that’s not the case, which makes Dennis Overbye’s “How Islam Won, and Lost, the Lead in Science” disturbingly relevant. Science—and the liberal culture of tolerance and dispassionate inquiry that makes possible its pursuit—has many enemies. Perhaps the articles collected here will help win it a few more friends.

Working with Natalie Angier has been a particular pleasure for me—she was once my professor at New York University’s graduate program in science writing. The only disadvantage of having Natalie as the guest editor is that none of her own writing could be included. Her reflections on the extraordinary sacrifices of New York’s firemen, policemen, and other ordinary people on September 11 would have been one of my top picks for this volume. Search a library or the Internet for her story—“Altruism, Heroism, and Nature’s Gifts in the Face of Terror,” published in the September 18 edition of the New York Times. I am very grateful to Deanne Urmy and Laura van Dam, my editors at Houghton Mifflin, for their good humor, guidance, and suggestions. Peter Brown, the former editor of The Sciences, put me in touch with Laura and Deanne. I keenly regret the demise of The Sciences, one of the country’s best magazines, which ceased publishing last year. Had it survived, I’m sure that it would have been represented in these pages. Burkhard Bilger, the editor of this series for the past two years and a contributor this year, offered much valuable advice. Finally, I can’t adequately express my gratitude and love to Anne Nolan, who gave up Manhattan—and Brooklyn—to join me in Gallup, New Mexico.

Tim Folger

Introduction In the immediate aftermath of September 11, when all light and sense, inflection and comprehension, seemed to vanish overmorning right along with those gorgeous, goofy, minimalist-maximalist twin towers, I was wracked with apocalyptic visions of a desolate world to come. The ancient curse of millennial psychosis had struck at last, I thought, and now my daughter would grow up in a time of brutal piousness, intolerance, and de- encephalization, as brigades of Truth Police roamed the streets, snarling Presa Canario dogs in tow.
So I wept and whined and flailed, and wrote violent little fantasy vignettes about mothers and daughters who figure out how to kill Osama bin Laden; and like so many people I couldn’t sleep, night after night, and I exercised fiendishly, and drank a lot of white russians, and might really have fallen into a persistent state of vegetative gloom had I not started reading a book by Steven Weinberg, the Nobel laureate physicist and atheistic belletrist, called Facing Up: Science and Its Cultural Adversaries. I pounced on the chapter entitled “Before the Big Bang,” in which Weinberg discusses various theories about the origins, or pre-origins, of the universe. To hypothesize about anything prior to the Big Bang, which brought time and physical laws as we know them into existence about 14 billion years ago, had long been taboo among astrophysicists: scientists don’t like asking questions that they feel are impossible to answer, and this question seemed like the dooziest unsolvable problem of them all.
Happily, new theories such as superstrings and the inflationary model of the universe allow researchers to begin grappling with how the Bang came to be—or rather, the bang we know best. One version of inflation theory, called chaotic inflation, suggests an image of a nicely simmering pot of stew, with different bubbles of “scalar energy” popping up here and there, each a universe of its own. Very far away from our corner of the cosmos, Weinberg writes, “there may have been other big bangs before our own, and there may be others yet to come. Meanwhile the whole universe goes on expanding, so there is always plenty of room for more big bangs.” He continued, “Thus although our own Big Bang had a definite beginning about 10 to 15 billion years ago, the bubbling up of new big bangs may have been going on forever in a universe that is infinitely old.” Certainly, this business of pre-bang astrophysics is very much a baby bubble of its own, and it may burst into nothingness, but Weinberg argues that the problem of origins is not beyond the reach of science. “We don’t know if the universe is infinitely old or if there is a first moment,” he concludes, “but neither view is absurd, and the choice between them will not be made by intuition, or by philosophy or theology, but by the ordinary methods of science.” Oh, how I loved that line and its almost coy blandness, and in that line I found my hope for the future in those moments when a new Age of Endarkenment leered large. I thought about the ferociously smart Weinberg, and his ambitious, hard-driving students, and the thousands of researchers and theoreticians like them at universities here and abroad, hammering away at “ordinary” science, which means solving equations of the sort of florid density so easily parodied in a New Yorker cartoon; and fighting for time at the Fermilab particle accelerator or on the Hubble space telescope; and crunching numbers and data on a mainframe for days or weeks at a time; and emerging at last with a reasonable portrait of places and spaces so unreasonably far and wide it makes my prolapsed mitral valve flutter just to think about them.
Equally astounding is what geologists have discovered about the history of our earth just by going to places such as the Grand Canyon and doing something more than complain about the tourists; or what paleontologists have learned about bestiaries gone by; or, more recently, what biologists have learned about the human genome—that it rambles, and repeats itself, and appears to be a La Brea tar pit for every drunken virus ever to stumble into an ancestor’s cells.
In sum, when I felt really terrible, stuck in the deepest of tar-black funks, I thought about science and what it has wrought, and I knew that they will never win—they being the incuriosities of the world, whatever the particulars of their theology or ideology. They can never muzzle the mind, the many minds of science, the need to know. Science has been such a spectacular success—how could we ever give it up? It’s like indoor plumbing: once you’ve tried it, the outhouse will never feel quite the same.
Beyond its extraordinary explanatory powers, science has another trait in its favor: its worldliness. If music is the universal language of the soul, science has become the lingua franca of the intellect. The greatest laboratories in this country are remarkably multicultural, the sort of places where you keep expecting Kofi Annan to walk in the door. Young researchers come to the United States from Europe, Asia, Africa, the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East, South America, Alpha Centauri, the Delta quadrant, even Canada. Once here (and please forgive this jingoistic spasm) in the world’s greatest scientific candy store, they work together with the same goals and values: to do clever experiments well and elegantly, with the right controls, yielding results that any scientist, of any melanic, political, theistic, or zodiacal subtype, can recapitulate in the privacy of his or her own petri dish. In science, as in weapons negotiations, the code of conduct is “Trust, and verify.” How nice it is not to have to take people at their dogma, but to be able to ask, in that snarly, whiny, chummy way that scientists do, what exactly the evidence is.
Yes, I love science, and I can’t think of anything that is more worth writing about, or in greater need of good explanatory writing. For all their passion and productivity, scientists labor in profound anonymity. Last night, for example, while I was going over a list of some two dozen finalists for a big award given each year to a prominent woman in science, a friend stopped by to chat. I was curious to see whether any of the names on the list—many of them quite famous in their fields—would ring a bell with somebody who was neither a scientist nor a science journalist. As I ticked the names off one by one, my friend’s head never stopped shaking.
“Nope. Never heard of her. Nope, that one doesn’t ring a bell either. Sorry, no.” “Okay, how about male scientists?” I asked. “Can you think of the name of any male scientist?” “Louis Pasteur?” she offered.
“Well, it’s a good thing scientists are such a cliquish lot,” I said. “It’s a good thing that most of them only care about winning the respect of their peers, because they sure aren’t getting it from anybody else.” “What can you expect?” she said. “Most people don’t understand the first thing about science, so they don’t follow it. They don’t have a clue.” This of course is an old refrain, one that I’ve had to cope with for the twenty-three years or so that I’ve been in the science writing business. People don’t understand science. They’re afraid of science. They’re in awe of science. They’re bored by science. They flunked high school chemistry. They’re Barbie, they’re Ken: “Math is hard!” And there’s no denying it. Math is hard, science is hard, and it doesn’t help that many high school chemistry teachers, if you threw them in the bay, would scare the sharks away.
But still. Is science really any harder than, say, Middle East politics? Or the fashion industry, for that matter? Look at a fashion magazine and explain to me who exactly wears those clothes, and what the obscure semiotics of the business are supposed to mean. My point being, science is a human endeavor like any other, and sure, it has its insiders who are possessive of their trade and expertise and use jargon like porcupines use their quills, smugly and defensively. Yet with a little effort, just about anybody can become reasonably literate in science, and it’s well worth doing, and I’ll even argue that it’s natural to try. Think about it. Children love science and natural history museums, and they’re often bored at art museums. Why should the opposite apply once a person becomes an adult? Why, for that matter, are science museums considered kiddie museums, when science is supposed to be so hard? Is it because we can see that children naturally want to understand how their world works, are insatiably, sometimes annoyingly curious? So what happens to drum that out of most people? Our highly imperfect educational system? Sure. But also, I believe, habit. It’s become a bad, pervasive habit to think of science as a thing apart, an intellectual ghetto, so most people let their knees jerk autonomically. Science? Nope, never hear about it. I flunked high school chemistry, remember?
That’s no excuse! I flunked my high school sewing class, but I still have a weakness for finely tailored clothes. Following science doesn’t mean being able to practice science, any more than listening to music requires that you play an instrument or loving food requires you to study at the Culinary Institute of America. Science belongs to all of us, both metaphorically, because it’s one of the great human enterprises, and literally, because we support it with our tax dollars. Perhaps if more people realized the degree to which we are the rightful owners of science, they would start feeling that highly effective emotion, a sense of entitlement, and would surmount their insecurities and replace them with that ultimate good, greed—the greedy, grasping need to know.
So where to go to know? Obviously there are hundreds, thousands of popular science books published every year, a significant fraction of them written by scientists. And though the platitude has it that most scientists are terrible writers, unable to hoist themselves out of obscurantism, pedantry, and the passive voice, in fact many are quite wonderful, and this has been true for a long time. Until a century or so ago, the line between science and literature was slim and porous. As Oliver Sacks points out in his memoirs, the great nineteenth-century chemist Humphry Davy published poetry as well as scientific papers: “his notebooks mix details of chemical experiments, poems, and philosophical reflections all together; and these did not seem to exist in separate compartments in his mind.” Anton Chekhov, William Carlos Williams, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle—all practiced medicine, and it shows in their work. Albert Einstein wrote one of the best popular books about relativity theory, and Charles Darwin remains the finest explicator of Darwinism. One of my all-time favorite books, and the reason that I chose science writing as a career, was written by the physicist George Gamow in the 1940s. It is called Mr. Tompkins in Wonderland, and I urge you to read it; then you will understand as you never have before quantum physics, the curvature of space and time, the uncertainty principle, and why the best thing you can do in class is fall asleep.
More recently, scientist-authors have proliferated with yeastian speed, and again, many are wonderful and sometimes even best-selling authors: Weinberg, Sacks, Richard Dawkins, Lewis Thomas, Edward O. Wilson, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, Alison Jolly, Frans de Waal, to name but a few. Yet, just as it doesn’t take a doctorate in science or even a decent high school transcript to appreciate the beauty of science, so it is not the scientist alone who can write forcefully and accurately about science. Granted, I have no choice but to argue as much. I may have taken many science and math courses in college and afterward, and I’ve spent so much time in labs that I feel like a postdoc by proxy, but I don’t have a science degree, and I wrote my senior thesis at Barnard College on William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!
However, I’m not merely being defensive here in saying that we benefit from the labors of good nonpedigreed science writers as much as we do from scientist-writers. For one thing, the list of blue-ribbon practitioners without portfolio is long, and includes Timothy Ferris, James Gleick, K. C. Cole, Elaine Morgan, John McPhee, Berton Roueché. In this volume, you’ll find a piece by Frederick Crews that is the best critique I have ever read of the latest recrudescence of “creation science” known as intelligent design and of the larger, misbegotten movement to reconcile what is ultimately immiscible—science and religion. On the surface, “ID” theory is a bit more sophisticated than creationism. It doesn’t try to find scientific evidence in support of a literal interpretation of the Bible; it accepts that the universe and the earth are billions rather than thousands of years old and that some evolution does occur. However, the specter of supernatural intervention remains; IDers have simply micrometized it, arguing that the cell is too complex and its parts too interdependent to have arisen by the mechanism of natural selection alone. And where a Darwinian watchmaker can’t be found, they insist, a divine one must reside. In taking on this bafflingly popular movement, Crews presents the strengths of evolutionary theory with such sweeping meticulousness and confidence you’d think he’d been hammering natural selection theory or population genetics into students’ heads for a generation. But no: he’s an emeritus professor of English at the University of California.
Which brings me to the comparative advantages that nonscientist science writers occasionally may claim. Many biologists, when confronted with the fatuousness of creationism and its refurbished spores, refuse to engage in argument. Not only are they too busy doing legitimate research, they feel it is beneath them to take this stuff any more seriously than they would the astrology column of the local newspaper. Unfortunately, many Americans do not share scientists’ curt dismissal of the antievolutionary line, and by resisting the call to debate, scientists have left the Darwin-knockers with all too much unopposed influence on school boards, among politicians, and in the writing of biology textbooks. Crews has nothing to lose by stepping in where evolutionary biologists sneer to tread, and in doing so he comes off heroically. I only hope his argument has impact where it counts: in every American classroom.
There’s another thing that science writers will deign to do that many scientist-writers will not, one of particular relevance to this collection. They’ll write articles for general-interest magazines and newspapers. Most scientists prefer to stick to books, perhaps because they don’t want to waste time working on something that has such a short shelf life; writing for newspapers is particularly humbling, as one who has seen her articles being crumpled into fireplace fodder can attest. Moreover, general-interest articles are expected to incorporate viewpoints other than the scientist’s own, and scientists may feel silly calling a rival for a quote. Yet articles obviously fill an essential niche. They’re newsier than books, they’re less opinionated, and they require far less commitment from the reader, if not always from the writer (meaty articles can take a year or longer to produce). And when an article is good, it is as sumptuous as any book and deserving of bookish preservation, which obviously is what we have in mind here.
In selecting articles, I had several criteria. I believe above all in clarity. If I reread a piece of mine some time after it was published and think, Well, this part here is a little flaccid, or That line falls flat, I may be disappointed; but if I come across something that is unclear, where even I, the writer, have no idea what the writer could have meant, I am mortified, furious with myself. Clarity is the foundation on which all else is built. As I used to tell students when I taught feature writing, you can disagree with my suggestions on how to fix a murky passage, but you can’t talk me out of being confused; the passage simply isn’t well enough to leave alone. Clarity of expression is particularly important when describing a tough bit of science. I’m grateful to Karen Wright for helping me to imagine a nearly unfathomable form of energy—the “dark energy” that seems to push things apart and may explain why the rate of expansion of our universe keeps getting faster and faster. Likewise, Robert M. Hazen’s description of the role of minerals in the origins of life is stylistically as well as substantively crystalline. I am also indebted to Gary Greenberg for laying out with such eloquence a technically, politically, and emotionally demanding issue like what it means to say that a patient who breathes and whose heart still beats is nonetheless “brain dead” and thus is ripe for organ picking.
Good writing is clear, and it is interesting to read. That may sound obvious, but I have yet to figure out what exactly makes a piece interesting. You need cadence, agile verbs, exacting yet surprising metaphors, yes yes yes. But more than that, I think, good writing, like good gnosis, is the product of greed, of writers who greedily claim their subjects for themselves and absorb every detail, until the story is part of the latticework of their cells. Then and only then can they write with the passion of converts, of those who believe that this story is the most interesting story they have ever heard.
It helps when the person has lived the story in question. Barbara Ehrenreich is free to express her aversion to the pink-ribboned Breast Cancer Awareness movement because she has had breast cancer, and she doesn’t want anybody to try smothering her outrage by plying her with Wish Upon a Star teddy bears, boxes of crayons, and invitations to industry-sponsored 6K races or gushing about how breast cancer makes one a “better person” who appreciates the really “important” things in life and who, in the wake of chemotherapy, may even have smoother skin and chirpier hair! Joy Williams makes the case for Nature Unplugged by telling the story of her one acre in Florida and how she let it grow as weedily wild as it pleased, whether it pleased her neighbors or no.
Other stories, while less immediately first-person, nonetheless retain the urgency of the personal. In Anne Matthews’s gorgeous story about the ecology and biogeography of Manhattan, you can almost feel the still- warm bodies of songbirds that litter the streets of Wall Street before dawn, having been mesmerized by the lights of the skyscrapers into flying round and round in circles and finally falling, exhausted, to their death. In a poignant touch, much of the story’s action takes place at the base of the then-lofty World Trade Center. As I read Gordon Grice’s story about the recent incursion of mountain lions into the suburbs of western states, I had a powerful upwelling of contradictory emotions. Hats off to the cats that came back! squealed my eco-conscience, my conviction that all creatures have a right to persist, German cockroaches excepted. But oh, lord, what a horror it was for Barbara Schoener, a long-distance runner, who in 1994 was attacked by a mountain lion on a trail in El Dorado County. The evidence from the torn- up embankment suggested that Schoener put up a good fight, but the cougar killed her in the end. Just how much nature are any of us willing to nurture when our own necks, or the necks of our children, are at stake?
Another approach to telling a great story is to take chances and to be willing to risk looking foolish. I admire Peter Stark for having taken just that gamble in “The Sting of the Assassin,” in which he uses a fictional device—the story of a couple on a less than starry-eyed honeymoon—to describe in exquisite detail how venom affects the human body. The style is arch, almost campy, but it works much better than I might have predicted, and it makes me grumpy that I didn’t think of the technique myself.
As it happens, a number of the pieces are about food or the food chain: why McDonald’s french fries taste so good; why French cheese won’t taste good if you start with pasteurized milk; why Westerners happily eat catfish, crawfish, snails, and frog legs but continue to balk at braised possum, armadillo cheeks, and fried mink; and why the most important food fish in the sea is a fish we don’t eat, the oily, foul, kipper-like fish called menhaden. And then there is a story about the ones who feed us first and best: mothers.
In the last quarter century, science writing has changed substantially. It is less gee-whizzy and gullible than it used to be, more surefooted. The article about Steven Rosenberg, a renowned tumor biologist, exemplifies this trend. He is not hyped and lionized as the man with the next big answer to cancer, as he might have been in the past. Instead, he is presented as somebody thrashing about in the trenches, trying whatever he can to help patients who are almost beyond salvation, exulting over the occasional victory, admitting to the far more frequent failures. Rosenberg’s story is the story of contemporary cancer research: enormous progress on the basic research front and very little in applying that knowledge to the bedside.
Perhaps the clearest sign that science writing has matured and is seated comfortably at the literary dining table is the impressive array of science essayists out there, writers who can convey complex ideas in a few deft, plangent paragraphs. The best essayists appeal simultaneously to the cognitive and emotional domains of the brain, the Apollo and Dionysus within, so that you feel you have learned something and fallen in love all at once.
Read, think, and be merry. The universe is expanding. May our minds follow suit.

Natalie Angier

Copyright © 2002 by Houghton Mifflin Company Introduction copyright © 2002 by Natalie Angier Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

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Table of Contents

Contents Foreword xi Introduction by Natalie Angier xv Roy F. Baumeister. Violent Pride 1 from Scientific American

Burkhard Bilger. Braised Shank of Free-Range Possum? 10 from Outside

K. C. Cole. Mind Over Matter 21 from The Los Angeles Times

Richard Conniff and Harry Marshall. In the Realm of Virtual Reality 24 from Smithsonian

Frederick C. Crews. Saving Us from Darwin 34 from The New York Review of Books

Barbara Ehrenreich. Welcome to Cancerland 58 from Harper’s Magazine

H. Bruce Franklin. The Most Important Fish in the Sea 80 from Discover

Malcolm Gladwell. Examined Life 89 from The New Yorker

Gary Greenberg. As Good as Dead 101 from The New Yorker

Gordon Grice. Is That a Mountain Lion in Your Backyard? 114 from Discover

Blaine Harden. The Dirt in the New Machine 124 from The New York Times Magazine

Robert M. Hazen. Life’s Rocky Start 137 from Scientific American

Sarah Blaffer Hrdy. Mothers and Others 148 from Natural History

Garret Keizer. Sound and Fury 161 from Harper’s Magazine

Verlyn Klinkenborg. The Pursuit of Innocence in the Golden State 179 from The New York Times

Robert Kunzig. Ripe for Controversy 181 from Discover

Anne Matthews. Wall Street Losses, Wall Street Gains 185 from Orion

Steve Mirsky. Dumb, Dumb, Duh Dumb 196 from Scientific American

Judith Newman. “I Have Seen Cancers Disappear” 198 from Discover

Dennis Overbye. How Islam Won, and Lost, the Lead in Science 210 from The New York Times

Chet Raymo. A Little Reminder of Reality’s Scale 218 from The Boston Globe

Eric Schlosser. Why McDonald’s Fries Taste So Good 221 from The Atlantic Monthly

Daniel Smith. Shock and Disbelief 234 from The Atlantic Monthly

Peter Stark. The Sting of the Assassin 255 from Outside

Clive Thompson. The Know-It-All Machine 266 from Lingua Franca

Joy Williams. One Acre 281 from Harper’s Magazine

Karen Wright. Very Dark Energy 292 from Discover

Contributors’ Notes 301 Other Notable Science and Nature Writing of 2001 306

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