The Great Antidote

The Best American Science Writing 2004
Dava Sobel, Editor; Jesse Cohen, Series Editor

In high school I was a certified nerd: slide rule, binder, TI some-number-or-other in hand, 90+ on all four science Regents. Science remains a fascination and the rigor I learned is important as I read the social science and business literature where it often goes wanting. So it’s a little troubling that there’s so little of it in these virtual pages.

Part of the problem is that I am, by nature, a generalist. The history of science is populated with generalists and motivated amateurs but as disciplines have splintered even the entry-level knowledge to read deeply requires more knowledge than I can bring to the party. That’ s the beauty of these annuals– it’s somebody else’ s job to provide the context in a way that makes the subject matter accessible.

Dava Sobel, the editor of this volume in the series, has done an estimable job in culling the available selections to the just-shy-of-two-dozen pieces presented here. There’s a tendency for non-fiction writers to specialize–probably for the same reason noted above–so there’s always a risk that the editor’s comfort zone will overwhelm the selection process. That isn’t the case with Sobel although the two pieces that stuck with me are related to space and astronomy.

(Sobel, if you didn’t know, came to attention in the early 1990s with the publication of Longitude, the tale of the contest to solve the biggest problem in navigation. She went on to pen Galileo’s Daughter and a number of other titles related to astronomy and the cosmos. You see, specialization.)

And what were those two pieces? The first was Tom Bissel’s explication of the risks facing planet earth as it hurtles through the cosmic junkyard. Bissel paints a fascinating picture of what a major asteroid impact could mean (here’s a pretty bad outcome: the moon is believed to be the result of a collision between earth and  a comet or large asteroid). He introduces us to the astronomers who track near-earth-objects and the more or less daily task of monitoring and modeling and trying to get someone interested. Disinterest is understandable when the scales are so large and the possible outcomes so horrific so Bissel’s subjects are  sometimes a lonely bunch.

The other standout contribution was William Langewiesche’s long piece, originally published in The Atlantic, about the break-up of the Space Shuttle Columbia. Langewiesche is a pilot (his 1993 piece on banked turns as the key to powered flight, The Turn, is worth reading) and while he says early on that he did not want to do another piece on flight I can’t think of anyone who could do a better job. Like the Andrea Gail, one can’t be sure what actually happened in Columbia’s cabin. Piecing together the transcripts, eyewitness accounts and official reports with his knowledge of flight, Langwiesche manages to create the tension of a horror story when the outcome is all too well-known.

There are other things worth reading here. Sherwin Nuland, always insightful on medical topics, writes on growing old. Jennifer Khan describes the mechanics of organ donation. There’s even what is probably one of John Updike’s last published poems. The best part is that the writing is of such high caliber and the subject matter so approachable that reading it seven years after publication is still worthwhile.

And clearly, I’m still a nerd.


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