[Review] American scientific essays

Master student Pooja Ramakrishnan reviews a series that selects and re-publishes American scientific essays from the last year.

Earlier this year, I was strongly advised to read Best American Science & Nature Writing, 2018 Edition, a series that selects and re-publishes the best scientific essays written in the previous year. I agreed, with no inkling of what to expect. Fortunately, I was immediately drawn in by the editor, Sam Kean’s delightful introduction. He begins by commenting on the intersection of science and politics on today’s global stage and reviews the grandiose as well as the quotidian or myopic views that scientists nurture. Kean is like many of us – a lover of science and good writing, who has found an avenue that gratifies both callings.

The book opens with Pleistocene Park, written by Ross Anderson, which raises the bar for scientific endeavour. It’s a nonchalant account of scientists trying to materialise a first world dream: bringing woolly mammoths back to life! The tone is casual, almost flippant, but for the readers, the urgency, the abnormality, and the conundrums that accompany such a project are brought to the foreground. Will this hold water in ethical, philosophical, and societal debates? This project, if successful, can tear through the very fabric of our world.

The essay that follows turns our gaze inwards. Jacqueline Detwiler pens a thoughtful seven-part write-up, interspersed with real world scenarios of people afflicted by cancer, allowing us to see a very personal angle to every impersonal categorisation of the disease’s many sub-afflictions. It is neither overtly optimistic nor underwhelming but faithfully believes that cancer patients may soon have less fatal futures. Siddhartha Mukherjee, author of The Emperor of All Maladies, also contributes to this compilation. He remains unparalleled in his ability to condense immensely scientific and convoluted theories and narrate them so colourfully. He wields a science journalist’s Occam’s razor with grace.

A silent but firm protest against You-Know-Who

With such powerful opening essays, the anthology makes a deep metaphorical dent on our reading shelves. But it also begets several questions. How can we take a step back and engineer light heartedness into some of our heaviest debates? What about women in science and their equally noble pursuits? Answers to these questions comes in the form of Sophie Brickman’s essay on the breast pump. It is a refreshingly open read about mothers-in-tech banding together in Silicon Valley to develop breast milk pumping devices.

The series also includes a promising scientific policy paper by Barack Obama (The Irreversible Momentum of Clean Energy). Like his political campaigns, the paper’s title is optimistic and hopeful. He proceeds to substantiate his stance with numbers. In some ways, the inclusion of this piece feels like a silent but firm protest against You-Know-Who.

I am saving the best for last, though. The essay that truly moved me was by J.B. Mackinnon. Entitled, Tragedy of the Common, the piece is threaded with vivid imagery. He takes us on a logical deconstruction of why the ordinary species are, in fact, the extraordinary ones. It was spellbinding and hurtful all at once. From the white vultures of India, to the rock pigeons in New York, he reminds us that these are the flora and fauna that are best known to us and consequently, are rooted in our identities.

I would love to elaborate on all the 25+ essays but in short: for those of us who love our science but do not have the time or capacity to deep dive into scientific research that pans across several disciplines, BASNW is our elixir. I thoroughly recommend it.

Pooja Ramakrishnan, Master of Environmental Engineering student, is a science student during the day and a poet by night. She balances the two with her curiosity and fascination for the world we live in.

Pooja Ramakrishnan / Freelance journalist

Editor Redactie

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