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The Best Science Writing Online 2012

The Best Science Writing Online 2012

by Bora Zivkovic

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Showcasing more than fifty of the most provocative, original, and significant online essays from 2011, The Best Science Writing Online 2012 will change the way we think about science— from fluids to fungi, poisons to pirates. Featuring noted authors and journalists as well as the brightest up-and-comers writing today, this collection provides a


Showcasing more than fifty of the most provocative, original, and significant online essays from 2011, The Best Science Writing Online 2012 will change the way we think about science— from fluids to fungi, poisons to pirates. Featuring noted authors and journalists as well as the brightest up-and-comers writing today, this collection provides a comprehensive look at the fascinating, innovative, and trailblazing scientific achievements and breakthroughs of 2011, along with elegant and thoughtprovoking new takes on favorite topics. This is the sixth anthology of online essays edited by Bora Zivkovic, the blogs editor at Scientific American, and with each new edition, Zivkovic expands his fan base and creates a surge of excitement about upcoming compilations. Now everyone's favorite collection will reach new horizons and even more readers. Guest-edited and with an introduction by the renowned science author and blogger Jennifer Ouellette, The Best Science Writing Online 2012 marries cutting-edge science with dynamic writing that will inspire us all.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The 51 pieces collected here are wide-ranging in both form and subject: there’s poetry, short reflections, and in-depth scientific investigations; human and physical sciences, including anthropology, cognition, ecology, epidemiology, neuroscience, physics, and much more. The contributors, too, are a mix, from relatively new voices to veteran writers. Equally variable is the quality. The good are very good. Carl Zimmer, for example, in one of the book’s longer pieces, takes an ecological approach to the microbiota present in humans and argues that such an analysis could dramatically help in treating a host of diseases. Andrea Kuszewski explores how the new sport of chess-boxing, where contestants alternate between playing chess and boxing, might help us understand how to control aggression and thus limit bullying. Maryn McKenn investigates reports that the CIA used a fake flu vaccination program to collect DNA in hopes of finding Osama bin Laden. The semiotics of pirate flags, the evolutionary reasons for menstruation, the surprising discovery by a 13-year-old Tanzanian student that hot water freezes faster than cold water, and possible ways to manipulate the environment to halt hurricanes are among the gems culled by Scientific American blogger Zivkovic from Web sites Boing Boing, Empirical Zeal, the Guardian Science Blog, and dozens of others. (Sept.)
From the Publisher

“[The Best Science Writing Online 2012] is full--stuffed--with excellent science writing, more than enough to keep you reading . . . Buy it. It is worth your time.” —Wired Science Blogs

“A collection of fun and interesting science, from online writers around the world.” —The Guardian (blog)

“[A] potent mix of critical analyses, witty personal reflections, absorbing feature profiles, illuminating commentary on the intersection of science and social policy, and even long-form investigative journalism, covering everything from the last space shuttle launch to fluid dynamics to gender politics.” —Brain Pickings

“A collection of solid science writing celebrating a diversity of topics, writer credentials and styles. Proof that science writing online is healthy and growing. For naive surfers, an anthology like this will help separate the wheat from the chaff.” —Kirkus

“[C]onsistently picks the best of the best blogs. Read it.” —Ivan Oransky, MD, Executive Editor, Reuters Health and Blogger, Embargo Watch and Retraction Watch on Previous Edition

“This is the best of the science blogosphere 2010, selected by experts, and features something for anyone and everyone curious about the natural world.” —Sheril Kirshenbaum, author of The Science of Kissing and Discover's The Intersection blog on The Best Science Writing Online 2010

“Some of the smartest, best informed, and--yes--most entertaining writing about science today can be found in the vibrant community of science bloggers. Each year [the] series performs an invaluable service by pulling together some of the highlights--proof that the best blog posts can and should be savored long after they've scrolled off the bottom of the screen.” —Scott Rosenberg, author of Say Everything and Dreaming in Code, and co-founder of Salon.com on Previous Editon

“In each post I found honesty, passion, imagination, curiosity and creativity shining through in a way that the disinterested ‘article mill' of traditional journalism is rarely able to match.” —Al Dove, scientist and blogger on Previous Editon

“If you are overwhelmed by the surge in science-related blogging and don't know where to start, then this compilation may help you steer a course through the sea of perspectives on offer--or inspire you to start a blog yourself.” —Nature on Previous editon

“A fun, enlightening read that's bound to have a little something for everybody who loves science.” —Maggie Koerth-Baker, BoingBoing.net on Previous edition

Kirkus Reviews
A collection of solid science writing celebrating a diversity of topics, writer credentials and styles. Among other topics, readers will discover that the Dutch East India Company colonized South Africa with farmers to supply their ships with scurvy-preventing produce on their way to Asia. Editor Ouellette (The Calculus Diaries: How Math Can Help You Lose Weight, Win in Vegas, and Survive a Zombie Apocalypse, 2010, etc.) also includes entries on ecology (including gems by Deborah Blum and Carl Zimmer); genetics (e.g., a wonderful essay explaining gene sequencing by molecular biologist Richard Winkle); Ethiopian "church forests," virtual Edens that surround churches in an otherwise bleak landscape; how sperm corkscrew their way to their targets; how to finance star travel; and an essay on what constitutes a scientist's "greatness." The editor draws many of the pieces from the blogging network of the Scientific American, and often the contributor's background and academic and/or publishing history provide assurance of factual accuracy--but not always peerless editing. With the independence and free spirit that characterizes blogging, the role of the editor may be lost, and some of the pieces are overwritten. In a provocative piece, journalist David Dobbs argues for an end to the delays of peer review, as well as the exclusivity and costs of publishing papers in revered science journals. He opts instead for open access online, and he blames researchers for hewing to the outdated print journal model. Proof that science writing online is healthy and growing. For naive surfers, an anthology like this will help separate the wheat from the chaff.

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The Best Science Writing Online 2012

By Bora Zivkovic, Jennifer Ouellette

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2012 Bora Zivkovic
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-70985-3




    I was born a body of worlds
    a carnal web of cosmic pearl
    billions of stars that hold me to my bones,
    and when one day their cores collapse
    I will shed my skin in ash
    and sleep among the mosses and the stone.

    I'll grow into the vine that licks the ruin
    writhe beneath the savage moon
    my scattered cinders eaten at the roots,
    and when the ravaged willow moans again
    she will take me in her veins
    and shake me from her hair an astral fruit.

    For we forgot a fact that we once knew,
    the only ancient truth,
    the knowledge of our primal origin:
    That from the feral night we came as dust
    born from stellar wanderlust
    and unto the stars we will return again.

AUBREY SANDERS will graduate from the George Washington University in May 2012 with a B.A. in English and creative writing. She currently interns at the Grosvenor Literary Agency in Bethesda, Maryland, and is working on her first novel. She believes in the poetry of the cosmos and will be an astronomer in her next life.




"Does the Flap of a Butterfly's Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?"

—Edward Lorenz

This is a story about a tiny molecular shift affecting war, politics, disease, agriculture, and international corporations. Like all good stories, it also contains a healthy dose of biochemistry and genetics, some pirates, and a few rodents of unusual size. The very start—the event that set everything in motion—is a genetic mutation that happened millions of years ago, but we'll get to that. First, let's meet the pirates.

The pirates in this story are Dutch, and they were active near the end of the sixteenth century. During this time, the Netherlands were occupied by Spain, and after a period of repression, the northern (Protestant) provinces started to fight off the Spanish. They were most successful on water. From 1568 onward, several ships received government permission to attack and plunder Spanish ships. These Watergeuzen dominated at sea, but in 1572 they captured the city of Brielle, marking a turning point in the Eighty Years' War.

Meanwhile, a large part of the income for the Spanish side of the war came from trade with the East Indies. The European supply of pepper was provided solely by Portuguese fleets, and the trading post in Lisbon was no longer easily accessible to the Dutch while they were at war with Spain. Pepper was extremely valuable in those days, and the Portuguese kept their routes secret to make sure nobody else would cash in on the spice. But eventually, Dutch ships found a route to the East Indies. They sailed south, all the way around Africa, and returned with enough spices to finally make some money.

Finding a trade route to the East Indies led to the formation of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) in 1602—the first multinational corporation, and the first company to sell stock. The company did more than buy and sell spices. For several years, it had a monopoly on colonial activities in Asia, and it had the power to take prisoners and establish colonies. During its existence, the VOC boosted the economy of the Netherlands to the top of the world. This period of economic growth is referred to as the "Golden Age" in Dutch history.

Money may not buy happiness, but the sudden wealth of the country certainly formed the perfect environment to nurture artistic endeavors and encourage major scientific progress. These were the century and country in which Rembrandt painted The Night Watch and Antonie van Leeuwenhoek developed the microscopes with which he first observed single-celled organisms. The effects of the VOC trade have shaped entire fields of art and science, all because a few ships found a route to the East Indies in a time of economic need.

There was just one problem with the VOC trade route to the East Indies: It was quite long.

Scientific progress notwithstanding, there was no suitable way to keep the crew's food, especially fresh fruit and vegetables, from going bad before they were even halfway there. This was a problem, because without fresh fruit, the crew was prone to scurvy. Scurvy had been the scourge of sea travelers since the fifteenth century, when ships started to sail across oceans and stayed away from home—and fruit—for too long. Starting with some spots on the skin, scurvy progressed to bleeding from mucous membranes, ulcers, seeping wounds, loss of teeth, and eventually death. Fifteenth-century explorers could lose up to 80 percent of their crew to scurvy. The solution was known and simple: eat lots of fresh fruit.

Scurvy is caused by a lack of ascorbic acid, better known as vitamin C. Our bodies use this vitamin for many metabolic processes, such as producing collagen and repairing tissue damage. Without vitamin C, we essentially slowly start to fall apart: skin breaks open, wounds won't heal, teeth fall out.

But we humans are one of the few animals that need to eat fruit and vegetables to keep our vitamin C levels up. Most animals are quite capable of synthesizing their own vitamin C. Most, but not all. We share our need for fruit and veggies with other primates, including closely related apes as well as monkeys and tarsiers.

Our inability to synthesize vitamin C is the result of a mutation that occurred more than 40 million years ago in our shared primate ancestor, affecting the gene that encodes the L-gulonolactone oxidase (GULO) enzyme. Normally, this enzyme catalyzes a crucial step in the formation of vitamin C. But in humans and related primates the genetic mutation produces a broken enzyme. It doesn't work, and we can't make our own vitamin C anymore. Luckily, it's quite easy to compensate for the lack of GULO by simply taking in vitamin C via our diets, but this also means that there was no selective pressure for a functional GULO, and we primates have been living with a broken version ever since.

The relative ease with which animals can compensate for no longer producing their own vitamin C is illustrated by the fact that the mutation that disabled our GULO enzyme millions of years ago was not the only mutation in the animal kingdom to shut down vitamin C biosynthesis. It happened at least three other times: bats, guinea pigs, and sparrows also have defective GULO enzymes and get vitamin C via their diets.

The mutation in the guinea pig's ancestor happened more recently than ours—possibly "only" about 20 million years ago—but that is still far enough back to also have affected another member of the Caviidae family. The capybara also needs a steady diet of vitamin C to keep a hold on its title of largest living rodent on Earth. Especially in captivity these R.O.U.S. (rodents of unusual size) are, like the sailors and pirates of yore, at risk of scurvy unless they eat enough fresh vegetables.

Speaking of fresh vegetables, how were the VOC crew going to manage the journey to the East Indies, which took longer than the expiration date on their perishables? The ideal solution was to restock along the way, but the continent of Africa was not exactly a farmers' market where you could just get some more fruit and veg when you needed it. Well then, they would just have to make a farmers' market. The VOC took several Dutch farmers and settled them in South Africa to grow more food for the ships passing by along their trade route. The restocked ships could then sail on with a scurvy-free crew.

If the VOC crew had been able to make their own vitamin C, like most animals do, they wouldn't have had to bring farmers to South Africa. That move, guided by a mutation that happened millions of years ago, entirely shaped the more recent history of South Africa. How? Here's a hint: the Dutch word for farmer is "boer."

The Boer population of South Africa were the direct descendants of the farmers relocated there to supply the VOC ships with the fruit and vegetables for their voyage to and from the East Indies. After the VOC was disbanded and British colonials settled in South Africa, the Boer population moved away from the Cape. Conflicts between the Boers and the British Empire, most notably the Second Anglo-Boer War at the end of the nineteenth century, directly led to the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910, which was the predecessor of the current-day Republic of South Africa.

So there you have it. In a scene set by pirates, and with R.O.U.S. lurking in the background, an entire country, with all its political and cultural complications, was formed as a result of a method to distribute fruit and vegetables to the crew of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century trade ships to compensate for a genetic mutation that makes humans incapable of synthesizing their own vitamin C.

Our broken GULO enzyme may not have been able to make vitamin C for millions of years, but it's made history just fine.

EVA AMSEN is a former biochemist who left the lab for the laptop and now spends most of her time communicating with researchers, reading about science and publishing, interviewing scientists about their hobbies, and maintaining far too many blogs. Most of Eva's online presences can be found at http://easternblot.net.




Historically, fundamentalist Christians believed mankind had a God-given right to use Earth and all its resources to meet humanity's needs. After all, Genesis gave man dominion over Earth. In modern times, green messages of sustainability are permeating some Christian groups, yet on the whole sustainability remains more of a commitment on paper than in practice. But across the Atlantic, a much different attitude prevails. Ethiopia has the longest continuous tradition of Christianity of any African country, and followers of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church believe they should maintain a home for all of God's creatures around their places of worship. The result? Forests ringing churches.

There are some 35,000 church forests in Ethiopia, ranging in size from a few acres to more than 700 acres. Some churches and their forests may date back to the fourth century, and all are remnants of Ethiopia's historic Afromontane forests. To their followers, they are a sacred symbol of the garden of Eden—to be loved and cared for, but not worshipped.

Most church forests are concentrated in the northern reaches of the country, especially in the Lake Tana area. Here, most of the Afromontane forests have been cut down to make clearings for agriculture, pastures for livestock, and settlements. It is said that if a traveler to the area spies a forest, it surely has a church in the middle. Many also have freshwater springs.

These spiritually protected woods, also known as Coptic forests, comprise a decent chunk of the 5 percent of Ethiopia's historical forests that are still standing. Massive deforestation has rendered these church forests true islands—green oases peppering a land laid bare.

"Connecting them to other forests is a luxury we can't even consider," says international tropical ecologist and researcher Margaret Lowman, because the lands between them are predominantly crop fields today. Fondly known to her colleagues as Canopy Meg, Lowman is a canopy researcher who has studied forests on five continents.

What remains is fragile and isolated by habitat fragmentation. Conservationists have made these church forests a centerpiece of the country's fight to retain its biodiversity. These beacon-like green swaths have become refuges for all kinds of species—but no one really knows what is at stake because they are extremely poorly studied.

Awakening Awareness

Alemayehu Wassie Eshete is an Ethiopian forest researcher who did his Ph.D. work on his country's Coptic forests. His dissertation and a few related papers may form the entirety of the published scientific literature on Ethiopia's church forests, according to Lowman.

She met Wassie at a scientific meeting a few years ago. When she asked him what he was going to do next on Coptic forests, he wept in frustration. With very limited economic means and few international connections, Wassie felt he needed help with visibility and expertise to study—and conserve—his country's forests. Lowman began helping him, and in 2009 he invited her to visit the forests in person. She went.

With Wassie's help, Lowman gave a PowerPoint presentation to about 100 men, mostly priests. Some had traveled for days to attend the meeting. She showed them images of their church forests.

Though some had never seen a computer, they recognized their forests, and she says they gasped audibly at the pictures showing the woods shrinking inward over time. Lowman says they intuitively grasped the value of ecosystem services because, for them, it fell under the purview of their spiritual duties to protect the biodiversity around their places of worship.

Findings from Terhi Evinen's master's research in forest sciences at the University of Helsinki revealed in detail how the priests conceive of their spiritual forests. "What [matters to them] religiously is the number of trees, not the ecological health of the forests," Evinen wrote to me. "The trees are said to be the jewelry of the church and the more trees a church has the more appreciated it is since the tree canopy prevents the prayers from being lost to the sky."

Despite this, Evinen and Lowman agree the biggest threats to these forests are not external factors such as industrial loggers or agribusiness. Rather, the biggest threat lies inside: the church members and clergy who use the forests for firewood and rely on them for livelihoods.


Excerpted from The Best Science Writing Online 2012 by Bora Zivkovic, Jennifer Ouellette. Copyright © 2012 Bora Zivkovic. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Bora Zivkovic is the editor of the blog network at Scientific American and organizes the globally renowned Science-Online events. He lives in Pittsboro, North Carolina. Jennifer Ouellette is the author of The Calculus Diaries and other titles, and maintains the Cocktail Party Physics blog. She lives in Los Angeles, California.

Bora Zivkovic is the editor of the blog network at Scientific American and organizes the globally renowned Science-Online events. He lives in Pittsboro, North Carolina. 
Jennifer Ouellette is the author of The Calculus Diaries and other titles, and maintains the Cocktail Party Physics blog. She lives in Los Angeles, California.

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