The Best American Science Writing 2006. Editor: Atul Gawande. Series Editor: Jesse Cohen. Harper Collins Publishers, 2006, $13.95, 384 pages.
ABOUT THE BOOK:
Carrying the imprimatur of bestselling author Atul Gawande, a rock-and-roll-loving surgeon and one of our foremost writers on medicine, The Best American Science Writing 2006 explores the full range of scientific inquiry -- from biochemistry, physics, and astronomy to genetics, evolutionary theory, and cognition. Culled from a wide variety of publications, the pieces provide a comprehensive overview of the year's most thought-provoking and exciting scientific developments.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
Publishers Weekly: Surgeon and New Yorker contributor Gawande ( Complications ) says the "coolest" science writing isn't necessarily found in the science press. His collection of the year's best includes only one research paper -- an American Scientist treatise on yawning. And though Jack Hitt's essay (from Harper's ) on racist subtexts in the archeological study of who the first Americans were has footnotes, they tend to contain side jokes, not science. Most of Gawande's selections come from mainstream publications like the New York Times and the Atlantic Monthly , and especially from fellow New Yorker writers like Elizabeth Kolbert (on avian flu), Jonathan Weiner (on a rare neurological disease), and Richard Preston (on redwoods). Still, there are plenty of opportunities for writers at other publications to shine. D.T. Max's piece from the New York Times Magazine presents a lively inquiry into "literary Darwinism," speculating on the evolutionary function of storytelling. And in the anthology's most moving essay (from Wired), Michael Chorost recounts his efforts to find hearing aid technology that will help him to hear Ravel's Boléro with the same clarity it held before he went deaf. The diversity and readability of Gawande's selections are very cool indeed.
ABOUT THE SERIES EDITOR:
Jesse Cohen has been a senior editor at Lipper Publications, co-publishers of the distinguished Penguin Lives series, where he developed a series of short-format books about science. He is a senior editor at Atlas Books, a division of W.W. Norton. He lives in New York City.
A CONVERSATION WITH THE SERIES EDITOR:
Jesse Cohen was finishing his work week on a damp end-of-summer Friday afternoon in New York when I phoned. Here on the West Coast, the clouds, coolness, and quality of light also hinted at fall's arrival. He began by giving some background on how this series came to be. "It got started because Dan Halpern at Ecco wanted to have an anthology of the year's best science writing. It was really his brainchild. He contacted James Gleick, who wrote Chaos and Genius, among other things, and asked him to be the first guest editor. "At that time, I was in the process of doing a proposal for a series of short books on science called Great Discoveries. This was for a company that later became Atlas Books. Dan knew I was working on this series and thought that I might be the right person, given my background, to be the series editor, and it's worked out very well. I had a great experience working with Jim Gleick on that first volume in 2000."
"What is your background in science?"
"My background in science is that I have no background in science. I was an English major in college and went into book publishing and did literary fiction and serious nonfiction at Doubleday. As a result of the research I did to prepare for the Great Discoveries series, I became conversant with a lot of what was happening in science writing. Although I'm not a scientist, I feel in some ways that's to the good. I come to this as our idealized reader would: not an expert, but somebody who is interested in the subject and wants to be told what's going on in a way that isn't dumbed down, but isn't so technical that it can't be understood."
"Do you see a significant difference between the way Americans write about science and the way writers from other nations approach the topic?"
"I haven't read that much of foreign science writing. The great thing about the anthology, though, is that we are open to anything that is by scientists, science writers and journalists and all sorts of other people. Sometimes we even include a poem. It's pretty eclectic in terms of the writing. The 'American' side of it is a little bit loose. Sometimes a British writer or a Canadian writer will find their way in."
"How do you decide who will be the guest editor for a particular year?"
"Dan Halpern and I brainstorm. We try to think of science writers or scientists who people know because they've written best-selling books or who are on the radar somehow. This year Atul Gawande is our editor, and he's a remarkable guy. He wrote a wonderful book called Complications a few years ago. He writes regularly for The New Yorker , in addition to being a surgeon and a professor at Harvard. He's a brilliant mind and a brilliant man and a great guy. We were thrilled that he was willing to do it. I don't know where he finds the time. He must never sleep."
In the introduction to The Best American Science Writing 2006. Gawande explains that, to him, science writing is "...writing about the scientific investigation of the world, about the knowledge acquired, or about what happens when that knowledge is thrown back into the world." I ask Mr. Cohen if he concurs with this definition.
"I've been thinking about this a lot, because I've been doing this for a long time. I agree with Gawande in general. But, I would add that good science writing is good writing, and good writing is good storytelling. We want to be told a story, and that helps us understand the world we live in. It can be a story about a scientist who has a brilliant idea, or the story of a discovery, or the story of our origins. In this volume, and others, we do have a few meditative essays, but for the most part everything has a very strong narrative. That really gets you caught up in whatever topic is being written about."