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The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2011

Monday, November 26, 2012

The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2011 (2011) edited by Mary Roach and Tim Folger

Best American Science and Nature Writing 2011I’ll admit I bought this because 1) it was on sale and 2) because it was edited by Mary Roach. I have no idea is Mary Roach is a good editor or not on her own, but I love her writing, so I figured, why not?

This is a collection what was decided to be some of the best science writing of the previous year.

This must be an extremely difficult anthology to put together, since science writing covers so much ground, from organ sales to fracking to neurology to epidemiology.

Here are some of the passages that amused me.

From “Nature’s Spoils” by Burkhard Bilger,

Strictly speaking, all fermentation is anaerobic (it doesn’t consume oxygen); most rot is anaerobic. But the two are separated less by process than by product. One makes food healthy and delicious; the other not so much.

By 1800 B.C. the Sumerians were worshiping Ninkasi, the goddess of beer.

(who doesn’t need to know the name of the Sumerian goddess of beer?

From “The Brain That Changed Everything” by Luke Dittrich,

Brain surgery, whatever the era, always requires at least two frightening qualities in its practitioners: the will to make forcible entry into another skull and the hubris to believe you can fix the problems inside.

From “Letting Go” by Atul Gawande,

People die only once. They have no experience to draw upon.

This is probably one of the best summations of the importance of end-of-life care I have ever read. And I have read a lot of books and articles on end-of-life care.

From “Sign Here If You Exist” by Jill Quinn,

Darwin, on the other hand, swayed no doubt by the rather macabre details of the parasitic insect (ichneumon wasp)’s life, writes, “I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars”

According to Alan F. Segal, in Life After Death, my position is not unique: more Americans believe in an afterlife than in God himself. Furthermore, the General Social Survey he cites…Jewish believe in an afterlife has jumped from 17 percent (as recorded by those born between 1900 and 1910) to 74 percent (as recorded by those born after 1970).

I find that absolutely stunning.

From “The New King of the Sea” by Abigail Tucker,

The descendants of those ancient jellies haven’t changed much. They are boneless and bloodless. In their domelike bells, guts are squished beside gonads. The mouth doubles as an anus. (Jellies are also brainless, “so they don’t have to contemplate that,” on jelly specialist says.)

As much as I love watching jellies, I don’t like them taking over areas they weren’t before, and killing off other oceanic species.

A couple of the essays were–unsurprisingly–sad and depressing, but all of them were thought provoking and interesting. But I do wish the collection had ended on a less depressing note.
Rating: 9/10

Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

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