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Book Review: “The Best American Science Writing 2012,” edited by Jesse Cohen and Michio Kaku

From cutting-edge medicine to disastrous climate change to quantum mechanics, the 2012 installment of The Best American Science Writing (http://www.amazon.com/dp/0062117912) offers some of the best science journalism and essays from the previous year.  The range of topics and quality of writing make this book a satisfying and accessible read for anyone interested in current science.

Readers of Bitesize Bio will likely enjoy this installment’s focus on translational research and molecular biology.  I particularly recommend Gretchen Vogel’s piece on tissue regeneration, “Mending the Youngest Hearts,” and Denise Grady’s exploration of reprogramming the immune system in cancer patients in “An Immune System Trained to Kill Cancer.”  While these essays are cautiously optimistic about cutting-edge developments, Rachel Aviv follows a different route in her poignant piece “God Knows Where I Am.”  By following the final days of an intelligent, mentally ill woman, Aviv reveals regulatory flaws in the mental health system which led to a clinic releasing a person with compromised judgment.   Aviv also explores if the mentally ill can refuse treatment—a decision that all other ill people can make.  One of this piece’s great strengths was that, while showing both the arguments for and against allowing the mentally ill to refuse treatment, Aviv leaves the reader to make their own conclusions.

The theme of poor regulation continues in Jeff Goodell’s “The Fire Next Time.”  Goodell highlights how cozy relations between American nuclear regulators and industry make a Fukushima-level disaster inevitable in the United States.  A second ethical quandary appears in Josh Fischman’s “Criminal Minds,” which describes research correlating brain pathology to children’s poor conduct, while exploring the ability to predict—and potentially prevent—adult psychopathy.

After such depressing and ethically complex pieces, Steven Weinberg’s “Symmetry: A ‘Key to Nature’s Secrets’” is a pleasant change of pace.  Although his essay is an excellent introduction to symmetry, I found it dry and more difficult to follow than the others.  The historian Charles Mann’s “The Birth of Religion” also sticks out, mostly because of its speculative tone:  Mann proposes that religion drove the development of civilization, citing the 11,600-year-old Göbekli Tepe monuments in Turkey (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/G%C3%B6bekli_Tepe) as supportive evidence.

While this collection has many other excellent pieces, I worry that readers might overlook them because of Jackson Lears’ politically charged “Same Old Atheism: On Sam Harris,” originally published in the leftist American magazine The Nation.  Harris, a neuroscientist and outspoken atheist, famously rejects religion and proposes science as the source of ethical systems.   As controversial as his claims are, Lears adds fuel to the fire by connecting Harris’ stance to the early 20th century movement of scientific “positivism,” and by extension eugenics and the Holocaust.  My knee-jerk reaction to Lears’ claims was that that he had fulfilled Godwin’s Law (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Godwin%27s_law) in print.  The editors likely predicted that this would be a common response; Lears’ piece is towards the end of the book, where it hopefully won’t distract from the earlier essays.

Ultimately, I enjoyed much of the 2012 edition.  I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys learning about science by reading intelligent, accessible work from some of the best science writers currently publishing in the United States.

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