A case in point in this year's compendium is a story by Gardiner Harris and Anahad O'Connor about the parents of children with autism being at odds with a growing body of research that finds no correlation between vaccinations and the disease.
"The thing that struck me about that article is that so many of the people who become scientists are not temperamentally prepared to understand the degree to which people in the situations of these parents can have their emotions overwhelm them. I can't think of anything more anguishing to a parent than this kind of diagnosis, and it obviously sets in place all these strong, primal emotions to protect their child and to find out what's going on. I think the scientists haven't done as good a job as they should of understanding that side of it. I think they look at the facts, and the facts are telling them something and they communicate what they find, and feel that should be enough. What they're forgetting is that they're dealing with people who want something more than cold reason.
"This vaccination issue has become almost folkloric. I have small children, and I know people who won't have their kids inoculated and vaccinated. It's interesting. I have my concerns, too, but we went ahead with it. I know all these studies, and they are pretty convincing. At the same time, I also know people whose children have been diagnosed with autistic-like symptoms, and it's very hard to deal with."
I tell Mr. Cohen that Gibbs's article on obesity was, for me, the most surprising in the book. It turns out that there is little scientific evidence to support the claim that excess fat, by itself, is a serious health risk.
"That's a classic case of a lot of good intentions building something into something it's not. Everybody wants Americans to be more fit, but, as is pointed out in that article, the numbers just don't make the case.
"It's very interesting, because a few years back we ran an amazing article by Greg Christer on obesity and how doctors were so concerned at seeing certain symptoms, like juvenile diabetes, increasing. That was a very different take.
"Because we don't have a point of view, we can put forth these robust arguments and very strong stories -- it's akin to the scientific approach, in some ways -- allowing the storytelling and the facts to make the case."
I ask Mr. Cohen if there is a piece in the series that is particularly intriguing to him.
"They're all intriguing for me, because the process of doing this is that I cull them from a much larger set. Then I submit 50 or so to our guest editor, and he whittles it down further. So, these are among my favorites for the year.
"One thing that happens a lot is that I will find, in the months after the book comes out, stories in the newspaper that speak to a story or theme or issue that was in the anthology. In New York right now everybody's talking about this rather bizarre story about Brooke Astor, the millionaire socialite who is 104 years old, and her 80-year-old son. There has been a huge dispute as to whether he is or isn't providing appropriate care for her, whether he's bilking her out of money and so on. This speaks very strongly to Charles C. Mann's article, "The Coming Death Shortage."
"He used the example of Anna Nicole Smith and that whole fight, but you just get the feeling that if he had written the article one year later, he'd be seizing on this Astor stuff. It's a complete demonstration of the kind of generational warfare that Mann is predicting."
The demotion of Pluto from planet status and the identification of a California redwood as the world's tallest tree are also news stories from the past month that are presaged in
The Best American Science Writing 2006.
I share with Mr. Cohen that an article from a previous issue, two or three years ago, has haunted me. "It was a story about genetically altered goats that secreted spider web material along with their milk."
"It's amazing what scientists are thinking of and doing. What's going on in genetics has been a theme in all of our volumes. David Quammen's article this year, called "Clone Your Troubles Away" has just the right tone. He's so good at explaining this stuff without sounding ponderous. The article is basically about trying to clone your pet, and he tells us it's never going to be the answer. The last image he leaves is so powerful. The cat that's the clone of a beloved pet is a tabby, but the cat it was cloned from was a calico, so it doesn't even look like the original cat. That's because there are things that happen epigenetically that affect the color of the cat's coat. The article is a real plunge into the obscurities and ambiguities of genetics."
"Walk me through your year. There must be a cycle, at this point, in putting together the anthology."
"There's definitely a cycle. Throughout the year I collect and clip articles from various magazines. Around summertime I put together a group of articles that I think deserve the guest editor's attention and send it to him or her. The first few batches of articles I send and get feedback on are very important because then I have a better sense in what to look for. Each guest editor wants to promote or highlight a certain kind of article. Tim Ferris (2001) wanted to make sure that there was a good sampling of astrophysics and astronomy articles, because that's his particular bent. Oliver Sacks (2003) made sure that we had a good array of articles from scientists he liked.
"There's always a bit of a scramble at the end of the year. The guest editor makes the final selections and writes an introduction. Then, I have the happy duty of telling all the contributors they're in. I gather from them a short statement about the article and their bio. By early in the year everything is in to Harper Collins and gets put together for the fall."
Hoping for hints about the 2007 edition, I ask, "So, what's the pile of articles for next year looking like?"
Mr. Cohen laughs deeply. "My pile for next year is looking good. There have already been quite a few really interesting articles, but I don't want to give anything away."