The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2012
Dan Ariely, Guest Editor; Tim Folger, Series Editor
Human beings love patterns. We seek them even when they don’t exist. So I’m not in alien territory when I wonder whether the pattern I’m stuck in with these science annuals is reading them at 12- to 18-month intervals or picking volumes from years divisible by two.
More likely there’s no pattern at all although I do have a common reaction which is that I cheat myself by not reading more about science. This time was no different.
This volume is divided into six sections ranging from bacteria to humans (good and bad) to technology. Our guest editor is a psychologist studying behavioral economics which allows for more of the softer sciences to edge in.
The hard stuff, though, is equally fascinating. And since we start out with microorganisms the harder stuff is there from the beginning. Germophobes will probably want to avoid the intital two articles, the first on the fauna of our alimentary canals and the second on skin microbes, if they want to be able to sleep. The rest of us will learn a lot about how our health is in large part a symbiotic relationship with creatures we cannot see. Things take a lighter term when a past guest editor, Jerome Groopman, delves into peanut allergies.
Environmentalists have a great term for the animals which capture the popular imagination–charismatic megafauna–and I think the term ought to apply to dinosaurs, ever popular especially among children. In a fascinating pair of articles you’ll learn about the evolution of feathers (birds, after all, are living dinosaurs) and the degree-free genius behind the myth of Jurassic Park, Jack Horner. If Horner has his way–and he’s a very persistent guy behind some very important work–he’ll be breeding dinosaurs from chicken eggs. The ethical questions raised in the film, by the way, remain unaddressed.
In a volume of pieces that fascinated me I was particularly taken with Mark W. Moffet’s “Ants & the Art of War.” His focus is on ant swarms and how they communicate within themselves . Actually I don’t think I have that right. If I understood him correctly they have, from a human perspective, an almost preternatural means of sharing and reacting to information as a whole. Imagine a successful military campaign with no need for generals, let alone any other level of officer, and you’ll begin to get the picture.
The human sections–there are two, labelled the good nad the bad–cover a raft of interesting subjects. There are pheremones. And the Neanderthal genome. And risk and brains.
I think one of the reasons I enjoy these annuals so is that the need for interpretation and reflection is reduced. Like probably everyone else, I have a circuit in my brain that says “science equals fact.” and that allows me to enjoy the writing and the discovery.
But science is a human endeavor and so the same pettiness apply to these big brains and what they discover. Facts can always be interpreted in unintended ways. Here’s a tidbit to illustrate what I mean.
Work to date on the Neanderthal genome suggests that homo sapiens and Neanderthals interbred. Yet traces of the Neanderthal genome are only found in the current genomes of European and Asian humans. There appears to be no Neanderthal genetic material in humans of African descent. To me that’s fascinating but I can see far too easily where it’s possible to go with that.
The final two sections of the book deal with larger scale human activity. I think Ariely may have struggled with his section headings at this point because while the last is straightforwardly labelled Technology, the next-to-last is Society and Environment, note the missing customary article.
That combo-section leads off with a story that I recall–the 2008 Black Friday disaster at a Wal-Mart in Valley Stream, NY. People died as they pressed into a narrow entry way in search of Christmas bargains. Actually they had massed, in the cold for hours, and almost rioted to get at the limited number of deeply discounted items. The story of what happens in crowds leads to the infamous 1979 Cincinnati incident and the mosh pit. making this on of John Seabrook‘s more interesting stories.
In the technology realm I got to revisit the story of one man’s search for the programming genius behind Bitcoin, the cyber-currency. Whatever you think of such a notion, as technology it’s a wild story.
Whoever created Bitcoin had knowledge of economics, a political position (because to stand in opposition to fractional reserve banking and fiat currencies is, economically speaking, to be an adherent of the flat earth theory), knowledge of cryptography and mad programming skills.
Maybe the best things about science is this: there’s always something new so we always have another volume like this one to look forward to.