Blinding Me With Science

The Best American Science & Nature Writing 2003
Richard Dawkins, Guest Editor, Tim Folger, Series Editor

For some inexplicable reason, 2018 has been the summer of nerds. And by that I do not mean a sudden influx of pale males sporting pocket protectors and high waters.

No, this is the summer Mrs. AHC decided to take note of my tendency to set up data collection exercises and social psychology experiments.  When she wasn’t issuing cease and desist orders on the latter she was trying the shame route on the former. The term nerd, offered as a disqualification, figured prominently in that process.

Maybe selecting this volume as my pool and beach book had something to do with it. I come by my nerd credentials honestly, though. I took all four NYS Regents science courses and I’m duty bound to stay up-to-date.

Besides, in many ways, these annuals are the perfect choice for such venues.  As collections, there’s no obligation to keep story lines, characters or agonizingly teased-out ideas straight. You read a piece and move on to the next. It’s no way to earn a PhD in a hard science, but that’s not my beat.

Ice in its many forms actually lends itself to quite a bit of science.

Plus, it keeps me honest. I spot flaws in methodology like hawks do field mice and maintaining that skill requires ongoing exposure to the rigors of the hard sciences.

Still, I know it’s not for everyone. Which is a shame because there are some very fine writers focusing on the sciences and some incredible stories.

This edition sports contributions from Oliver Sacks, Steven Pinker and Edward O. Wilson  to name just a few.  And while the first three of them have published plenty of academic papers, that’s not what they deliver here.

Here they join Bill McKibbenhardly a scary scientist–who explains why it’s almost too easy to attain the trappings of sustainability (a word barely in use when he published in 2002) while avoiding the hard choices that making an impact will entail.  And you have Charles Hirshberg‘s reminiscence of his mother, Joan–a pioneering woman scientist who literally helped write the book on solar wind and who is the younger sister of the Nobel physicist, Richard Feynman.

Hard science used to be done by diligent amateurs. In astronomy, Stephen J. O’Meara still does.

Sometimes the hand of the guest editor is more apparent than others and Richard Dawkins‘ touch shows, I think, in two ways. I’ll start with the least controversial: continuity. Too often in these books I find myself wanting to know more as I’m hurried along to the next topic.

Transitions in this volume are less abrupt, slowed by the presence of related selections. So Oliver Sacks, writing about the possibility of life existing beyond earth, is followed by Steve Silberman‘s fascinating profile of Sacks and how his work returned narrative  to the academic  study of neurology.

We not only visit icebergs off Newfoundland with Ian Frazier, we visit a study site inside a glacier in northern Greenland with Elizabeth Kolbert. It made me miss my subscription to The New Yorker.

The celestial crowd is here, too. Dennis Overbye explains the anthropic principle pervading deep space research. William Speed Weed profiles the ultimate telescope–an instrument so sensitive the light must be slowed down from some of its receptors for the imagery to be useful. And Timothy Ferris profiles an amateur on a ladder making contributions as real as Hubble‘s.

An illustration of solar wind. Its effects on earth’s magnetosphere were figured out by a scientist who was also a wife and mother.

The spectre of the September 11 attacks, which occurred in the year before most of these pieces were written, is also present. There are pieces on the futility of missile defense; the unintended, paradoxical, consequences of increasing homeland security; and a profile of the world’s most famous cryptographer who’s given up because he believes his work has made things less secure.

Those last three offer a nice way to note what is arguably the most controversial selection, a skeptical look at the September 11 attacks themselves. This isn’t tin hat conspiracy theorizing. It’s a stepwise, methodical breakdown of the narrative we all know.

And including it is pure Dawkins.

For a nerd like me, Dawkins is a known entity. I remember a friend pressing The Selfish Gene on me, although it remains unread.

Since then, Dawkins has built a reputation as an enfant terrible dedicated to proselytizing the most ascetic approach to science. Dawkins’ is a world built entirely on the proposition that if an idea can’t stand up to the rigorous scrutiny of the scientific method it ought to be abandoned because it isn’t serving us well.

Survey says grandmothers matter. It’s nice when science catches up to common sense.

I realize that much nuance is missing from that abbreviated summary. Here’s why I’m comfortable with it: when the pool manager, a teacher in a nearby high school, saw me reading this book he said, “Dawkins, eh? Isn’t he the “There is no God be an atheist guy?”

I don’t know if Dawkins would appreciate that yet I think he’s probably earned it. If Neil de Grasse Tyson is the friendly ambassador of science, Dawkins acts more its Torquemada. I certainly can’t imagine Dawkins stating, as I recently heard Tyson do, that many working scientists attend sabbath services but keep religion out of the lab.

In a way, that makes one selection almost ironic. Natalie Angier‘s piece on the anthropology of grandmothers is a wonderful glimpse at some fun social science. That religion occupies a similar space–as any social scientist would admit, however grudgingly– seems to not bother Dawkins.

There’s much more, all of it entertaining and informative.  The math of common ancestors. The potential loss of priceless antiquities as Iraq builds a new dam. How politics overwhelms science in the debates about what to do with the Maine coyote.

E.O. Wilson
a scientist who’s retained the enthusiasm of a boy naturalist.

The best pair of pieces are about and by Edwin O. Wilson. In a deftly crafted profile we travel with Dr. Wilson to Walden pond where he displays, on his hands and knees, what I recall from boyhood as the enthusiastic mucking about of the naturalist.

In the final piece, Dr. Wilson himself explains why all the tools and rationalizations of economists and business folk are not up to the task of keeping the planet’s environment free from destruction by its most invasive species.

I suppose Dawkins’ point may be a bit like Pogo‘s: we have met the enemy.

And he is indeed, us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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