I picked up this book at ScienceOnline ’09 in North Carolina back in January. I read some of it there, some on the plane and have plugged through the remainder over the last few months. There is something wonderful about a collection of essays (or short stories) that means you can read one in entirety at a time and place of your chosing. I struggle with popular science books, particularly the genre of creative science writing, mainly because I’m too scienced-out by the end of a day to think of reading more. Science books are generally banned on holidays now (holidays? what are holidays?).
I’d disagree with the title of this book – it isn’t the Best American Science Writing. At best, it is the Best American Medical Writing with a token nod towards Science at the end. At worst it is an expression of our obsession with genetics and mortality, not to mention the pharmaceuticals industry. I’m not trying to do any of the writers a disservice with this description, I was just disappointed by the lack of science stories. I appreciate that medical writing is more tangible – there is always a human interest angle to pursue, but doesn’t this just get to the heart of what is wrong with science communication? We’re not communicating the difficult, abstract and complex material, we’re sticking to the simple and immediately relevant material. I also intend no offence to medical scientists who’s many long hours of work and inspiration goes into the discoveries and advances described by these essays. These issues are important, but so is some coverage of the rest of ‘science’. Perhaps my criticism is better leveled at those who compiled this anthology – they were, afterall, the ones who selected these essays. But perhaps they were selecting from a limited pool of options, and as a consequence had to stack things heavily towards the medical writers.
In the introduction, Sylvia Nassar writes:
“I gravitated to stories that people talked about, that stuck in my mind long after I read them, or that gave the received wisdom a jolt big enough to shift public opinion on some important issue”.
As I am neither American nor a follower of public opinion, I can’t comment on whether pubic opinion was shifted by these issues. I would agree, however, that some of these stories do stick your mind after you read them. There is something haunting about a couple of the medical stories. I found ‘When Is A Pain Doctor A Drug Pusher’ by Tina Rosenberg fascinating and troubling in equal measure. That description fits ‘Facing Life with a Lethal Gene’ by Amy Harmon quite accurately as well.
In general, I would recommend this book for anyone looking for an anthology of good medical and science writing. I’ll still dispute the title though…