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Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Best Science and Nature Writing 2015

I must say that this year's The Best American Science and Nature Writing wasn't nearly as frightening as past volumes--there were only a couple of stories about exotic diseases and few dire warnings about global warming or unavoidable earthquakes. Instead, this volume, edited by Rebecca Skloot, looked toward more of the fun or fascinating in science. There was even an article that made me think of Seinfeld.

But there were articles that were steeped in sadness, such as Barry Yeoman's "From Billions to None," which was about the extinction of the once plentiful passenger pigeon. And in "The Aftershocks" by David Wolman, there is discussion of earthquakes in Italy, and the admonition, "As scientists and engineers repeat almost like a rosary: earthquakes don’t kill people; buildings kill people."

Matthew Power, whose article on the poaching of sea turtle eggs in Costa Rica, "Blood in the Sand," has since died, and his participation in this article shows he lived a dangerous life. (He died of heatstroke in Uganda). Seth Mnookin in "One of a Kind" writes about a rare genetic disorder, and how parents of children who suffered from it came to find each other on social media. And Sheri Fink writes of "Life, Death, and Grim Routine Fill the Day at a Liberian Ebola Clinic." Rough stuff.

I found the stories about what we don't know fascinating. There are two articles about the human brain that are interesting. One is about memory: Michael Specter's "Partial Recall." I found it interesting that different memories are housed in different parts of the brain, and it is not really possible to erase bad memories. "These days we tend to think of memory as a camera or a video recorder, filming, storing, and recycling the vast troves of data we accumulate throughout our lives. In practise, though, every memory we retain depends upon a chain of chemical interactions that connect millions of neurons to one another. Those neurons never touch; instead, they communicate through tiny gaps, or synapses, that surround each of them."

Another is about curiosity, in the appropriately titled "Curious" by Kim Todd. What drives curiosity? "One of the things that makes us most curious is the suggestion that the world isn’t how we think it is, that our categories are the wrong ones, and the promise is that the answer to our questions will give us a different, fuller, better view."

There are several articles about animals: Sheila Webster Boneham;s "A Question of Corvids," concerning the increasing belief that crows are more intelligent than thought. "Crows. If gulls are the berserkers of birdkind, swooping and screaming and plundering, then corvids, including crows, are the strategists. They watch." "Spotted Hyena," by Alison Hawthorne Deming, is about the feared, vilified, and fascinating scavengers, while Elizabeth Kolbert's "The Big Kill" is about New Zealand's attempt to rid itself of feral mammals--they are not indigenous and cause havoc to bird life. Sarah Schweitzer's "Chasing Bayla" is a sad story about a whale that gets entangles in a fishing line, which happens all too frequently, and usually leads to the whale's death.

Two stories really stood out for me. One is Sam Kean's "Phineas Gage, Neuroscience's Most Famous Patient," which is about a man who, in 1848, had a steel rod go through his head. He lived, miraculously, but exhibited personality changes. "Most of us first encountered Gage in a neuroscience or psychology course, and the lesson of his story was both straightforward and stark: the frontal lobes house our highest faculties; they’re the essence of our humanity, the physical incarnation of our highest cognitive powers."

The other is the one that reminded me of Seinfeld. There was an episode in which Kramer and his friend Mickey work as actors for medical students. They act out symptoms and such. I never knew this was real until I read "The Empathy Exams," by Lisa Jamison, in which she recounts her time as a "Medical Actor," She intercuts her experiences as "Stephanie Phillips," who is suffering mysterious seizures, with her own experience of having an abortion. It's a powerful essay.

There are also articles about living with no light, living with too much light, exploring the sea floor, and our approach toward death. All in all, a fairly engaging volume this year.

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