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The Best American Science Writing 2003

The Best American Science Writing 2003

by Oliver Sacks, Jesse Cohen (Editor), Jesse Cohen (Editor)

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In his introduction to The Best American Science Writing 2003, Dr. Oliver Sacks, whom the New York Times has called "the poet laureate of medicine," writes that "the best science writing ... cannot be completely 'objective' -- how can it be when science itself is so human an activity? -- but it is never self-induglently subjective either. It is, at best, a wonderful


In his introduction to The Best American Science Writing 2003, Dr. Oliver Sacks, whom the New York Times has called "the poet laureate of medicine," writes that "the best science writing ... cannot be completely 'objective' -- how can it be when science itself is so human an activity? -- but it is never self-induglently subjective either. It is, at best, a wonderful fusion, as factual as a news report, as imaginative as a novel." It is with this definition of "good" science writing in mind that Dr. Sacks has selected the twenty-five extraordinary pieces that make up the latest installment of this acclaimed annual.

This year, Peter Canby travels into the heart of remote Africa to track a remarkable population of elephants; Atul Gawande shows us the way doctors learn their skills by performing supposedly routine procedures on unsuspecting patients. With candor and tenderness, Floyd Skloot observes the toll Alzheimer's disease is taking on his ninety-one-year-old mother, and is fascinated by the memories she retains. Marcelo Gleiser asks: If we are the universe's sole intelligent species, then what must we do to be good citizens of the cosmos? Natalie Angier writes about the challenge of traveling to distant stars. Gunjan Sinha explores the mating behavior of the common prairie vole and what it reveals about the human pattern of monogamy. Michael Klesius attempts to solve what Darwin called "an abominable mystery": How did flowers originate? Lawrence Osborne tours a farm where a genetically modified goat produces the silk of spiders in its milk. Joseph D'Agnese visits a home for retired medical research chimps. And in the collection's final piece, Richard C. Lewontin and Richard Levins reflect on how the work of Stephen Jay Gould demonstrated the value of taking a radical approach to science.

As this series firmly attests, science writing has achieved a central place in our culture, and one can posit that the reason why has to do with the special thrill of discovery that a cogent piece of science writing can elicit. As Dr. Sacks writes of Stephen Jay Gould -- to whose memory this year's anthology is dedicated -- an article of his "was never predictable, never dry, could not be imitated or mistaken for anybody else's." The same can be said of all of the writing contained in contributions to this diverse collection "that can be enjoyed by laymen, scientists, and writers alike" (NATURE).

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Award winning author and neurobiologist Sacks (Uncle Tungsten, etc.) has done a fabulous job of selecting 25 diverse pieces for this thoroughly enjoyable collection. Sacks's choices represent most of the sciences, from botany to physics, cognition to evolutionary biology, and originally appeared in large-circulation outlets (Harper's, Atlantic Monthly, New York Times Magazine) and small ones (Southwest Review, Wings, Monthly Review). What they all have in common is their uncanny ability to engage the reader from the very first sentence and present complex material in an accessible form. Sacks claims that the best science writing "has a swiftness and naturalness, a transparency and clarity, not clogged with pretentiousness or literary artifice." All of his selections meet this high standard. In the book's longest essay, Peter Canby writes of joining an English zoologist on his trek across the Congo studying elephants, and the reader is there with them for every step. Brendan Koerner discusses how drug companies market new diseases-like compulsive shopping-as a way of creating niches for their older drugs. And Lawrence Osborne describes a start-up biotech company's desire to create silk by inserting the silk-producing gene from a golden orb-weaving spider into a goat and harvesting the silk from the milk produced. Additional highlights include reports on fraud in physics, the problems associated with chimpanzees "retired" from serving as medical research subjects, and the possibility and problems of long-term space travel. The book is perfect for browsing and is almost impossible to put down. (Sept. 5) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Fourth in this invaluable series, edited by the well-known neurologist (Uncle Tungsten, 2001, etc.) and dedicated to the memory of Stephen Jay Gould. Sacks's introduction cites Gould as the master of making an esoteric subject seem the most interesting thing in the world, and the present volume illustrates that point in disciplines ranging from astronomy to zoology. In "The Forest Primeval," Peter Canby visits a nature preserve in the Congo, looking at animals that may be even now on the verge of extinction. Charles C. Mann's "1491" examines the size of the Americas' pre-Columbian population, which may have been far larger than traditional accounts suggest. Physician Atul Gawande writes about learning surgery by practicing on patients unaware that their doctor is a complete novice at the procedure they're undergoing. Floyd Skloot describes how Alzheimer's patients remember music long after their other memories are gone, using his own mother as example. Trevor Corson looks at the current state of American lobster fisheries, which many scientists feel are on the verge of collapse. Michael Klesius recapitulates the emergence of flowering plants as the dominant flora of our world. Dennis Overbye salutes Stephen Hawking's groundbreaking analysis of the physics of black holes. Richard C. Lewontin and Richard Levins bring the collection full circle with a tribute to Gould's scientific radicalism. Articles on medicine and the biological sciences make up the bulk of the contents, but this year's edition contains expanded coverage of the physical sciences, from a good-humored discussion of crackpot theories in physics to a meditation on how the mathematical relationships of quantum theory mayembody the ancient notion of the "music of the spheres." The perfect gift for fans of science and science writing.

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Best American Science Writing Series
Edition description:
Older Edition
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Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.72(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Best American Science Writing 2003

By Oliver Sacks

Harper Collins Publishers

Copyright © 2003 Oliver Sacks All right reserved. ISBN: 0060936517

Chapter One

The Forest Primeval

by Peter Canby

From Harper's Magazine

Nouabalé-Ndoki is one of the most remote places on Earth - seventeen hundred square miles of nature preserve in a hard-to-reach region of the Republic of Congo. Stephen Blake, an English zoologist for whom the word "intrepid" seems an understatement, has made several monthlong journeys, on foot, through Nouabalé-Ndoki—undeterred by lack of modern amenities, the threat of disease, and the presence of poisonous snakes - to track its remarkable population of elephants. The writer Peter Canby accompanies Blake on what is to be his last trip and observes a scientist at home at the edge of the world.

I've just reached Makao, the most remote village in the Republic of Congo. I'm traveling with Stephen Blake, a British wildlife biologist, in a thirty-foot, outboard motor-powered pirogue - a dugout canoe - following the muddy, weed-clotted Motaba River north from its confluence with the Uban-gui River. At first, after leaving the Ubangui, we passed small villages hacked out of the forest, but for a long time we've seen swamp interrupted only by the odd fishing camp: small bird nest-like huts and topless Pygmy women in grass skirts wavingtheir catch forlornly as we motor by.

But now we've arrived at Makao, the end of the line, the last town along the Motaba. Ahead is pure, howling wilderness. Makao has a population of perhaps 500, half Bantu and half Bayaka - among the most traditional Pygmy tribes in Africa. The village long had a reputation as a poaching town, one of the centers of the extensive and illegal African "bushmeat" trade, which, in the Congo basin alone, still accounts, annually, for a million metric tons of meat from animals that have been illegally killed. But since 1993 the poaching in Makao has all but ceased, and the village has taken on another significance: it is the back door to the Nouabalé-Ndoki forest. Nouabalé-Ndoki is named for two rivers, only one of which actually exists. The name of the existing river - Ndoki - means "sorcerer" in Lingala, the lingua franca of much of the two Congos. Nouabalé doesn't mean a thing. It's a misnomer for another river, the Mabale, inaccurately represented on a geographer's map in the faraway Congolese capital, Brazzaville.

Nouabalé-Ndoki is now a 1,700-square-mile national park known chiefly for having the least disturbed population of forest life in Central Africa. No one lives in the park, or anywhere nearby. Nouabalé-Ndoki has neither roads nor footpaths. It contains forest elephants, western lowland gorillas, leopards, chimpanzees, forest and red river hogs, dwarf and slender-snouted crocodiles, innumerable kinds of monkeys, and nine species of forest antelope, including the reclusive sitatunga and the supremely beautiful bongo. The southwest corner of the park is home to the famous "naive chimps" that sit for hours and stare at human intruders. Until biologists arrived just over ten years ago, few of these animals, including the chimps, had ever encountered humans.

Blake studies elephants. A self-proclaimed "working-class lad" from Dartford, England, Blake read zoology at the University of London; he is now working on a doctoral thesis about the migratory patterns of Nouabalé-Ndoki forest elephants at the University of Edinburgh. Thirty-six, fit, and lean, Blake is known as a scientist who likes the bush and is not afraid to go where wild animals live. But he's also considered audacious, a biologist who thinks nothing of crossing wild forests clad in sandals and a pair of shorts. Richard Ruggiero, who runs the elephant fund for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and worked with Blake just after the park was established, compares him to nineteenth-century explorers: "He's someone who could walk across Africa, turn around, and then be ready to go back again." Another colleague described encountering him as he emerged from a long stint in the bush. "He was wearing torn shorts and a tattered T-shirt. He had a staph infection but seemed completely happy."

As part of his research, Blake has taken a series of what he calls "long walks" - foot surveys that start in Makao and follow a web of elephant trails up the Motaba and Mokala rivers to the park's northern border, cross the park from north to south, and then emerge from the headwater swamps of the Likouala aux Herbes River below the park's southern border. (The gorillas of the Likouala aux Herbes were the subject of Blake's master's thesis at Edinburgh.) Each of these treks - and Blake has made eight - covers about 150 miles and takes about a month. When I joined him, Blake was preparing to embark on his ninth and final trip along his survey route. I had heard of Blake's work from Amy Vedder, a program director at the Wildlife Conservation Society, which, along with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Columbus (Ohio) Zoo, funds his research. Vedder and I had been discussing the toll that the region's wars have taken on its wildlife when she told me about Blake's long walks. I signed on to accompany him on his last one. At the time, it seemed a rare opportunity to see the Earth as it was thousands of years ago, at the moment when humans lived side by side with the great apes from which they evolved.

But now that I've reached Makao, I'm wondering why I made no special preparations for this trip. All the perils, which seemed theoretical before I left, have become disturbingly real. Not only don't we have phones or any means of communication; we also face threats of dengue fever, deadly malaria, the newly resurgent sleeping sickness, and even AIDS and Ebola, which are believed to have emerged from the forests of this region. I'm also afraid of army ants, ticks (eventually one crawls up my nose and inflates just at the top of my nasal passage), swarms of flies, and, above all, snakes ...


Excerpted from The Best American Science Writing 2003 by Oliver Sacks
Copyright © 2003 by Oliver Sacks
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Meet the Author

Oliver Sacks is the author of nine books, including the acclaimed bestsellers The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat, An Anthropolgist on Mars, and Awakenings, which inspired the Oscar-winning movie of the same name. He is clinical professor of neurology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, as well as a regular contributor to The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, and numerous medical and scientific journals.

Brief Biography

New York, New York
Date of Birth:
Place of Birth:
London, England
B.M., B.Ch., Queen's College, Oxford, 1958

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