I <3 Science

Sometimes I want something that’s truly interesting to read, but that doesn’t require a multi-day or multi-week commitment. When that urge hits, few titles work as well as books from the “The Best American” series. No doubt you’ve seen them; they pop up in bookstores every October and cover almost every topic imaginable—from infographics to comics to travel writing.

My personal favorite is The Best American Science and Nature Writing. For one thing, the publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, always lands the best editors. I sometimes wonder what might be on the reading list of some of my favorite authors. Well, this series answers that question. The 2000 collection was selected by David Quammen, author of The Song of the Dodo (on biodiversity and extinction, among other topics) and of Spillover (on the spread of animal diseases to humans). Other editors of past volumes have included Brian Greene, Natalie Angier, and Freeman Dyson.

This 2013 editor is Siddhartha Mukherjee, author of the 2010 best-seller The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. What a great group of pieces he’s gathered. Authors in the collection include David Owen, Alan Lightman, Oliver Sacks, and Elizabeth Kolbert. Topics range from microbiology to cosmology. And, yes, I’m pretty convinced these pieces are “The Best.” Let me tell you a bit about three of my favorites just to illustrate.

Sylvia A. Earle‘s “The Sweet Spot in Time” is a call for us to recognize our historical moment as crucial to the survival of healthy oceans. Her data-rich essay offers fact after fact about what we’re failing to do (and about some of the things we’re doing right) to protect the 2/3 of our planet covered by water. One of the topics she raises is EEZs (Exclusive Economic Zones), the offshore territory that a nation claims as its own. How many here in the U.S. knew that “[t]he landmass of the United States covers more than 3.5 million square miles, but the EEZ embraces more than 7 million, the largest square mileage of any nation, essentially double the size of our country”? Those 7 million square miles represent both great wealth and great responsibility. Along the way, she also discusses her role as a ground-breaking female scientist and traces historical perspectives on the nature of the oceans. If you went to grade school in the late 60s as I did, you probably remember the the-oceans-are-so-big-they’ll-feed-all-of-us-forever zeitgeist of that era. Well, no. Earle shows us why that’s not true and illustrates the swiftening pace of our losses.

Michelle Nijhuis also focuses on threats of extinction in “Which Species Will Live?” Yes, the title means what it implies. Right now different constituencies—scientists, governments, environmentalists—are deciding which species we can/should save and which to abandon. Do we save the attention-getting, “sexy” species? The rarest? Those that underpin entire ecosystems? Those who come out on top triage-style as least likely to be doomed? Further complicating this already heart-breaking and obscene decision-making process are complications we’ve created. Nijhuis tells us: “Protected areas and parks, however, can be difficult to establish and police, and because climate change is already shifting species ranges, static boundaries may not offer the best protection for some species.”

One last piece worth specific mention is Gareth Cook‘s “Autism, Inc.” Before I began reading, I expected some sort of exposé on quack cures for autism or the ways big business is profiting from rising autism rates. Well, the second guess was somewhat close, but not at all in the way I’d expected. Cook profiles a Danish company, Specialisterne (trans: the specialists), that hires autistic individuals with certain profiles to do intellectually repetitive, but challenging work requiring a level of focus most of us are incapable of. Thorkil Sonne, founder of the business and father of an autistic son has received international awards for entrepreneurship and is opening up new company offices in a number of countries, including the U.S. The kind of work Specialisterne focuses on can only be done by a small proportion of autistic individuals—but for those individuals, this work offers high pay, respect, and stability.

So, if this cluster of previews has whet your appetite, pick up a copy and read more. Even if you never knew you liked science writing, I feel comfortable promising that The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2013 will contain pieces you’ll find deeply engaging.