Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Best American Science Writing 2007

As most of you know, I enjoy reading articles and books on scientific topics (you can read some of my related posts here). So, at the start of a trip last week, I was excited to pick up The Best American Science Writing 2007 at an airport bookstore. And what a treat it was!

The book is the eighth in the series (the first was in 2000). This version was edited by Gina Kolata, science writer for the New York Times. It's a collection of first-class science essays appearing in a variety of different publications including The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, Esquire, Harper's, Discover, and so forth. Here's a brief summary of some of the most compelling stories.

Tyler Cabot writes about the quest for The Theory of Everything, including theories like string theory, M-theory, loop quantum gravity, the holographic universe. He touches upon a schism in physics today between string theorists and non-string theorists aired publicly by Lee Smolin, a string theorist turned non-string theorist, in the book The Trouble with Physics. The schism revolves around the fear that string theory is much too theoretical and will never be backed by experiment. Which makes the upcoming experiments with the Large Hadron Collider so important: could help prove that the laws that govern the universe at every scale ... are one and the same. Or else, of course, it could prove that Arkani-Hamed is full of shit.

Sylvia Nasar, author of A Beautiful Mind, and David Gruber write Manifold Destiny, the saga of the recent award of the Fields Medal to Russian mathematician Grigory Perelman. Perelman was awarded the Fields Medal for solving the Poincare conjecture. The story of the hunt for the solution is exciting enough. But the human story of the major characters is even more compelling. There's Perelman himself, who refused to accept the Fields Medal saying:

"It was completely irrelevent for me, ... Everybody understood that if the proof is correct then no other recognition is needed."

And then there's Shing-Tung Yau, himself a past Fields Medal winner, who turns out to be a master politician working hard to get credit for Perelman's work. As one mathematician put it:

He won every prize to be won. I find it a little mean of him to seem to be trying to get a share of this as well.

It is a reminder that even among these incredibly talented and brilliant people, basic human foibles run strong.

Patricia Gadsby writes a great essay on Cooking for Eggheads. It's an essay on molecular gastronomy---the science of food. Not recipes---which are the technology of food---but the science of food. It is:

... a discipline that would meld physics and chemistry of food and cookery with the physiology of eating and especially the glorious sensual world of taste.

There's a great discussion of cooking eggs. Rather than the standard 10-minute boiled egg cooked at 100 celsius, there's a discussion of what happens if it's cooked at 65 celsius, 67 celsius, 70 celsius, and so forth. The differences stem from the different temperatures at which different egg proteins uncoil and form strands that bind together into a mesh that traps water. As to whether any of these eggs taste better than the standard 10-minute egg, the answer is:

...if your grandmother cooked eggs that way for you, and you adored her and her cooking, there'll be no persuading you of a better way. ... The most important ingredient in cooking is love.

Matthew Chapman, Charles Darwin's great-great-grandson, covers Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District in God or Gorilla. In this case, eleven parents from the Dover School District sued to remove the teaching of intelligent design from the school curriculum. Chapman starts by saying:

That's the basic story, but if you think you knkow everything there is to know about this you are wrong. Only I know the truth.

He then describes the proceedings in a most hilarious and entertaining manner!

There are lots more great articles, touching on topics ranging from global warming (Butterfly Lessons, In Ancient Fossils, Seeds of a New Debate on Warming) to medicine (The Man on the Table Devised the Surgery, Being There) to many more topics. It's a wonderful collection of articles. I highly recommend the book.


Ashish said...

Thanks for pointing this one out - on my Amazon wish list.

I recall reading the original Sylvia Nasar story and enjoying it immensely (may have gmailed it to you). If the other stories are close to the excitement generated by Perelman, this should be a great read!


Pandu Nayak said...

You'll definitely enjoy these essays! Feel free to borrow it from me on your next visit---you can read it on the flight back.

Rajesh said...

Try the Best American Travel Writing series as well. Always edited by a great travel writer.

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