Best-selling author and irrationality advocate Dan Ariely selects the year's best science and nature writing.
Publishers WeeklyGuest editor Ariely's selections the latest series installment intrigue and electrify, and the collection, arranged in six parts—Bacteria and Microorganisms, Animals, Humans (good and bad), Society and Environment, and Technology—intermixes contemporary concerns with futuristic possibilities. Essays such as Jerome Groopman's "The Peanut Puzzle," Sy Montgomery's "Deep intellect," and Michael Behar's "Faster. Higher. Squeakier." explore topics present in the national discourse, like the cause of allergies and their remediation, the extent of animal intelligence, and the role of performance enhancing drugs. Alongside these timely essays sit prescient pieces about cryptography and virtual-but-veritable currencies, the reach of artificial intelligence, and the underexplored microbial world. Collectively, this year's selections present existential questions and ethical dilemmas without moralizing or answering the queries: Are we smarter than machines? What is unique about human intelligence? Can we feed burgeoning populations with lab-grown meat? Unfortunately, Ariely selected writing by three times as many men as women, which calls into question not the quality and quantity of science and nature writing by women today, but the objectivity of those in power in the field to publish and commend the best of it. Nevertheless, this strong collection invites awe, begets wonder, and stimulates contemplation. (Oct.)
Kirkus ReviewsAriely (Psychology and Behavioral Economics/Duke Univ.; The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone--Especially Ourselves, 2012, etc.) presents a smorgasbord of top-notch science writing covering everything from the 1,000 species in the human gut to efforts to reverse-evolve a chicken into a dinosaur. The two dozen pieces reflect the conclusion that "we are extraordinary yet flawed and predictably irrational creatures." This is certainly the case in John Seabrook's account of crowd disasters, including the 2008 "Black Friday" crush at a Wal-Mart in Valley Stream, Long Island, and in Jason Daley's exploration of our human tendency in gauging risk to "focus on the one-in-a-million bogeyman while virtually ignoring the true risks that inhabit our world." The many other topics include allergies, marauder ants, lab-grown meat, airborne contaminants, the adolescent brain, the intelligence of octopuses and the sequencing of the Neanderthal genome. Most of the essays combine lucid summaries of current research with vivid descriptions of the lives and goals of scientists from molecular biologists to paleontologists. The fact that many pieces come from nonspecialist magazines underscores the extent to which science now informs all aspects of modern life. Especially intriguing: Michael Roberts' report from Outside on a young biologist's efforts to spur increased conservation efforts by building on the calming effects many people feel in the presence of the ocean and Brian Christian's revealing Atlantic account of the Turing Test and an annual event at which humans compete with artificial intelligence programs. Other contributors include Jerome Groopman, Rivka Galchen and Elizabeth Kolbert. A showcase for clean, plain-English science and nature writing and a treat for readers.
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