Friday Bookshelf: The Best American Science Writing 2007

What does it take to be included in The Best Science Writing 2007?

Well, it helps if you write for the New Yorker or the New York Times. Eleven of 20 contributions selected for this volume originally appeared in the New Yorker or the New York Times or New York Times Magazine. It also helps if you are writing about something to do with human beings (twelve articles), and especially if you can contrive to write about the human brain (seven of those twelve articles). We humans do like to read about our brains.

You will have just a slight edge if you are a man (thirteen contributions from men, seven from women). So, in order to get into future volumes of Best American Science Writing, I recommend being a man writing about the brain in the New Yorker or New York Times.

Okay, tongue out of cheek now, what about those twenty articles? There really is a lot of good science writing represented here, though whether it is the best of all science writing in the past year is a point up for debate. Editor Gina Kolata says she looked for two things in making her selections:

...writing that engaged me immediately, and ideas that might change the way we view the world...In the end, I chose articles that drew me in with startling notions or vivid images or that developed their stories with unusual skill. I looked for what advertising calls the grease spot - a place near the start of an article that made me just slide right in.

Apparently what she did not look for, at least in all cases, was scientific accuracy. How else to account for the inclusion of William J. Broad's misleading piece on global warming, "In Ancient Fossils, Seeds of a New Debate on Warming"? Broad misrepresents the state of debate in climate warming and implies that Al Gore deliberately suppressed data on climate warming from ancient times in his documentary An Inconvenient Truth.

You can read Broad's piece here. (Subscription required. But I believe it's available elsewhere on the web if you search on the title. You didn't hear that here.) And you can read this dissection of the article at Real Climate, which explains in detail just how wrong Mr. Broad gets it.

Tim Lambert at Deltoid takes on Broad in another of his articles on the same topic, and explains just how shoddy a piece of science reporting that is. You might want to end all this reading with an entry from Coby Beck's How To Talk To A Climate Skeptic: 'Geological history does not support CO2's importance'.

Beyond the distasteful inclusion of the Broad piece, BASW 2007 does provide an enjoyable read. Elizabeth Kolbert's "Butterfly Lessons" provides a nice antidote to Broad. Now there's a serious piece of journalism on climate warming. It was originally part of a three-part series in the New Yorker and it's a shame that something like Broad's piece took up space that could have been occupied by another of Kolbert's articles.

Oliver Sacks contributes an essay in his usual delightful prose, about a woman who lived most of her life without the ability to see in three dimensions, and how her life changed when she at last gained this new "sense". Jerome Groopman's "Being There" and Atul Gawande's "The Score" both make you want to read more from these authors. In the latter case, you can satisfy your desire with his latest book, Better.

But I think my favorite piece in this book was Patricia Gadsby's "Cooking for Eggheads", about the new science of "molecular gastronomy". Of course the French are involved. Who knew talking about the best way to cook an egg could be so interesting?

The standard way to hard-boil eggs in Europe and America - 10 minutes in boiling water - is not ideal, says [Herve] This [pronounced tiss]. The trouble, he notes clinically, is that 212 degrees Fahrenheit is far higher than the temperature at which the egg whites and the yolks coagulate. Egg whites are made up of protein and water (yolks contain fat as well). As eggs cook, their balled-up proteins uncoil into strands, and the strands bind together to form an intricate gel, a liquid dispersed in a solid. Boiling causes too many egg proteins to bind and form dense meshes, "so there is less sensation of water in the mouth," says This. Voila: rubbery egg whites and sandy, grayish yolks.

Years ago, I asked my little niece what she wanted for breakfast. After thinking, she replied, "I'll have an egg. A baked egg." It turns out she was prescient, as the baked egg is now all the rage in France. Baked at 65-degree-Celsius, to be precise, or about 149 Fahrenheit. Bake it for an hour, all night, it doesn't matter. Just keep it at 65 C until serving, and you will have

[an] egg unlike any I've eaten. The white is as delicately set and smooth as custard, and the yolk is still orange and soft.

Salmonella is killed by a few minutes at 60 C so your baked egg is perfectly safe.

Gadsby's article made me want to move to France and take up experimental cooking - excuse me, that's molecular gastronomy. Cooking is technology; gastronomy is science, This says. Well, any excuse to move to France and spend my life centered around food would be awesome.

I would be remiss if I did not note the inclusion of former Scienceblogger David Dobbs in BASW 2007, and not just because he's a former Scibling. Dobbs's article, "A Depression Switch?", discusses a fascinating experimental surgery that produced amazing results in a small group of severely depressed patients unresponsive to all forms of treatment. It was very much like flipping a switch, with near instantaneous results. Dobbs writes of the pain of depression:

This anguish [may be] the manifestation of a neural circuit run amok. For doctors, establishing this should focus research and care. For those of us who've never known depression, recognizing it may help us see depression not as a dead absence but as a live affliction. We might even stop indulging the romantic notion of depression as intrinsic to one's identity. For this notion, too, was tested by Mayberg's experiment. When a steady, 4-volt thrum calmed these patients' anguish, they did not lose their identities. They regained them, feeling again the engagements with the world that most define them: flowers for the gardener, lightness for the cyclist, and, for Deanna, a long-missed connection to others.

Dobbs writes with compassion and empathy, conveying the intensity of the experience for the patients as well as the fascinating details of the medical science.

For more good stuff from David Dobbs, visit his blog.

You can get BASW 2007 from amazon for about ten bucks. I'd say it's worth the price for the read. Just ignore that crap by Broad. Set your oven to 149 F, pop in an egg, and settle down with your book. By the time you've read a few articles, you'll be ready for a snack, and your egg will be ready for you. Voila!


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