books

Dan Ariely

Books

The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2012 (2012)

 

The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2012 (2012) edited by Dan Ariely and Tim Folger

Best-American-Science-Nature-Writing-2012I’ve mentioned before that I read non-fiction before bed. I like it, it’s interesting, but it doesn’t keep me awake, wanting to know what happens next.

I’m especially fond of science writing, because I like science. So the Best American series is wonderful, since it puts all the good stuff together. I know I’m missing stuff, but I can only read so much, so I’m okay with that.

Table of Contents
The Teeming Metropolis of You: from California Magazine by Brendan Buhler
Our Body the Ecosystem: from Popular Science by Virginia Hughes
The Peanut Puzzle: from The New Yorker by Jerome Groopman
The Long, Curious, Extravagant Evolution of Feathers: from National Geographic by Carl Zimmer
How to Hatch a Dinosaur: from Wired by Thomas Hayden
Faster. Higher. Squeakier.: from Outside by Michael Behar
Trivedi. The Wipeout Gene: from Scientific American by Bijal P
Deep Intellect: from Orion by SY Montgomery
Moffett. Ants & the Art of War: from Scientific American by Mark W
The Scent of Your Thoughts: from Scientific American by Deborah Blum
Sleeping with the Enemy: from The New Yorker by Elizabeth Kolbert
The Touchy-Feely (but Totally Scientific!) Methods of Wallace J. Nichols: from Outside by Michael Roberts
The Feedback Loop: from Wired by Thomas Goetz
What You Don’t Know Can Kill You: from Discover by Jason Daley
Beautiful Brains: from National Geographic by David Dobbs
The Brain on Trial: from The Atlantic by David Eagleman
Crush Point: from The New Yorker by John Seabrook
Ill Wind: from Discover by David Kirby
The City Solution: from National Geographic by Robert Kunzig
Test-Tube Burgers: from The New Yorker by Michael Specter
Mad Science: from Wired by Mark McClusky
Dream Machine: from The New Yorker by Rivka Galchen
The Crypto-Currency: from The New Yorker by Joshua Davis
Mind vs. Machine: from The Atlantic by Brian Christian

The Teeming Metropolis of You: from California Magazine by Brendan Buhler takes a look at the bacteria that co-exist with us and allow us to live, and starts out wonderfully.

YOU ARE MOSTLY not you. That is to say, 90 percent of the cells residing in your body are not human cells; they are microbes. Viewed from the perspective of most of its inhabitants, your body is not so much the temple and vessel of the human soul as it is a complex ambulatory feeding mechanism for a methane reactor in your small intestine.

With the advent of anti-bacterial everything, we are seemingly trying to wipe out bacteria everywhere. The problem with that, of course, is that bacteria are terribly important to us, and we need them to survive. This is a good article to give that relative who douses herself in hand-sanitizer.

Our Body the Ecosystem: from Popular Science by Virginia Hughes is a different look at our bacteria, and what happens when that the balance between us and our bacteria is off, and the research into how bacteria might be used to treat immunological disorders, including possible allergies and eczema.

The Peanut Puzzle: from The New Yorker by Jerome Groopman is an article on the frightening rise of allergies.

Sampson estimates that three to five percent of the population is allergic to milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, or seafood. In the past decade , allergies to peanuts have doubled. Other researchers have found the same phenomenon in Great Britain. “This increase in the incidence of food allergy is real,”

It also had this bit I didn’t know, about why certain foods trigger allergic reactions.

The proteins in eggs, milk, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, wheat, and soy that trigger allergic reactions don’t readily decompose when exposed to heat in certain types of cooking or to the acid in our stomachs. Within the gastrointestinal tract, the immune system battles pathogens while it ignores harmless food proteins and allows nonthreatening bacteria to reproduce. Proteins that are easily broken down by heat or digestion, such as many of those found in fruits, generally pass by. Proteins that resist breakdown are more likely to stimulate an allergic reaction.

That single sentence clarified for my why certain foods trigger allergic reactions and others don’t.

The Long, Curious, Extravagant Evolution of Feathers: from National Geographic by Carl Zimmer is a look at the development of modern dinosaurs: birds.

How to Hatch a Dinosaur: from Wired by Thomas Hayden is another dinosaur story, and one that, upon reading the title, I was prepared to strenuously disagree with. Instead, I found myself nodding in agreement with the well-considered ideas.

“That is one good reason to do this in a chicken instead of an ostrich,” says Horner, whose deadpan humor comes in a slow, easy-to-miss burn. “You want something small enough to catch.”

he intends only to manipulate developmental signals, without altering any DNA, any offspring of a chickenosaurus would be a normal-looking chicken. So what could possibly go wrong?

Well, yes, things could still go wrong, but even if it bred true, a T-Rex the size of a chicken would be a much smaller threat than a normal sized T-Rex.

Faster. Higher. Squeakier.: from Outside by Michael Behar was somewhat disturbing to me. Mouse studies are looking how to make super-athletes.

we wanted to find a drug that could activate the PPAR-delta switch by injection or pill,” he says, “because genetic engineering is impractical.”

“Type ‘purchase AICAR’ into a search engine,” Evans suggests. I quickly find some, though it’s not cheap: a thousand bucks for ten grams, about twenty times the street price of cocaine.

The idea of being able to create super humans with a pill is a distressing one, because it has the potential to create an even greater gap between the haves and the have-nots.

The Wipeout Gene: from Scientific American by Bijal P Trivedi wrote a fascinating article that should make even nay-sayers appreciate the potential of genetic engineering: is it possible to wipe out disease carrying mosquitoes through genetic engineering?

Mosquitoes are the primary vector (carrier) for “dengue hemorrhagic fever, which induces vomiting, severe abdominal cramps, and internal hemorrhaging. Blood streams from the eyes, nose, mouth, and vagina.” Mosquitoes are also vectors for other diseases, which, like dengue, affect predominately poor areas.

If genetic engineering could wipe out these disease carrying mosquitoes–at least long enough for the amount of disease in the population to be wiped out–is this not, in fact, the perfect use for genetic engineering? To alleviate the disease burden in an area where treatment is often expensive and beyond much of the population.

Deep Intellect: from Orion by SY Montgomery is about the intelligence of octopi. Which are pretty fascinating creatures (and ones that I won’t eat, for whatever that’s worth.)

Ants & the Art of War: from Scientific American by Mark W Moffett was something that ended up being fascinating beyond my expectations.

that the organized violence practiced by army ants and marauders is consistent with Lanchester’s square law, one of the equations developed in World War I by the engineer Frederick Lanchester to understand potential strategies and tactics of opposing forces. His math showed that when many fights occur simultaneously within an arena, greater numbers trump individual fighting power.

another Lanchester strategy that at times applies also for humans. This so-called linear law holds that when battles are waged as one-on-one engagements —which is what the propaganda substance allows— victory is assured for the superior fighters even when they are outnumbered.

The Scent of Your Thoughts: from Scientific American by Deborah Blum writes about how humans can–like many animals–be affected by the chemicals and odors we emit, from the synchronization of women’s menstrual cycles to a drop in testosterone in men who have smelled women’s tears.

Sleeping with the Enemy: from The New Yorker by Elizabeth Kolbert is an article on getting ancient DNA from old samples, and what that teaches us about modern humans.

Europeans and Asians shared more DNA with Neanderthals than did Africans.

all non-Africans, from the New Guineans to the French to the Han Chinese, carry somewhere between 1 and 4 percent Neanderthal DNA.

Considering what was thought a about Neandertals when I was first leaning about them (big, dumb, stupid) that was pretty amazing.

The Touchy-Feely (but Totally Scientific!) Methods of Wallace J. Nichols: from Outside by Michael Roberts. As much as I love water and aquariums, I just wasn’t that into this articles.

The Feedback Loop: from Wired by Thomas Goetz is an article about feedback loops and how they affect human behavior.

(S)elf-directed smoking-cessation programs typically work for perhaps 5 percent of participants, and weight-loss programs are considered effective if people lose as little as 5 percent of their body weight.

I remember a discussion about food and dieting from years ago. A friend commented that unlike alcohol, someone who has issues with food can’t just avoid food. We have to eat to live.

What You Don’t Know Can Kill You: from Discover by Jason Daley was a fascinating article on how we tend to freak out about things that are not truly dangerous, while ignoring things that are deadly. For instance,

News coverage of a shark attack can clear beaches all over the country, even though sharks kill a grand total of about one American annually, on average. That is less than the death count from cattle, which gore or stomp 20 Americans per year.

20 people a year are killed by cows? My friend Gina will read this and immediately say, “I KNEW IT.”

If you’re a West Virginian who has paid any attention to state news, this will come as no surprise.

The Office of National Drug Control Policy reports that prescription drug overdoses have killed more people than crack and heroin combined did in the 1970s and 1980s.

Beautiful Brains: from National Geographic by David Dobbs is an article about something I’ve been saying for years–teens’ brains really aren’t fully developed. It’s hard to hold teenagers responsible for their actions, when their brains do not, in fact, work the same way as adult brains.

The Brain on Trial: from The Atlantic by David Eagleman is another fascinating article about responsibility and culpability. If a mass-murderer is found to have a tumor in his brain, pressing against the amygdala, is he truly responsible for his actions? Is a man who develops a sudden predilection for child pornography, that disappears when a tumor on his orbitofrontal cortex is removed, truly responsible for his actions?

An incredible thought-provoking article.

Crush Point: from The New Yorker by John Seabrook is another depressing article about mass hysteria and what leads to mobs that crush individuals (and the physics of how this happens). Taken one way, it’s a condemnation of both corporate greed and individual greed.

Ill Wind: from Discover by David Kirby is another depressing article (I kinda wish they hadn’t put all the really horrible and depressing articles towards the end of the book) about how we’re destroying the planet.

The City Solution: from National Geographic by Robert Kunzig is very thought-provoking for me, seeings as how I do not like cities. Strange as it may seem initially, cities are actually more ecologically and environmentally sound than rural areas.

If what you value most is nature, cities look like concentrated piles of damage—until you consider the alternative, which is spreading the damage. From an ecological standpoint, says Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog and now a champion of urbanization, a back-to-the-land ethic would be disastrous. (Thoreau, Glaeser points out gleefully, once accidentally burned down three hundred acres of forest.) Cities allow half of humanity to live on around 4 percent of the arable land, leaving more space for open country.

Test-Tube Burgers: from The New Yorker by Michael Specter is another article on the same lines as the previous–would test-tube meat actually be environmentally more sound than traditional beef?

Can something be called chicken or pork if it was born in a flask and produced in a vat? Questions like that have rarely been asked and have never been answered.

And it also points out something else important:

Such successes have helped spark interest in the meat project, because the skills required to fashion an organ from stem cells are similar to those needed to make minced meat or sausage in a petri dish.

Mad Science: from Wired by Mark McClusky is very much about Nathan Myhrvold, a former head of Microsoft, who is a scientific dilettante, and has written a huge tome on food science that is pretty much not useful to the home cook.

Dream Machine: from The New Yorker by Rivka Galchen is about quantum computers. Prepare to feel confused and stupid.

The Crypto-Currency: from The New Yorker by Joshua Davis is an article about bit-coin, which has been in the news recently. I actually already knew a surprising amount about bit-coin, but this filled in some of the bits I was missing. Not that I can say I really understand it, but it’s still fascinating.

Mind vs. Machine: from The Atlantic by Brian Christian is an article about the Turing-Test and the the Loebner Prize. Artificial intelligence is a fascinating concept, and one that I think will come to pass sooner, rather than later.
Rating: 9/10

Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt