An Unscientific Sample of 2012 Science Books
January 6, 2013By Faye Flam
Disclaimer: I wrote this without being sure which of my two blogs I was aiming for. I put it up on the Knight Science Journalism Tracker last night. Please feel free to let me know about books I might have missed.
Why Does the World Exist? by Jim Holt
I've been raving about this book since I read it last summer. Why Does the World Exist isn't the kind of book that chronicles a scientist's quest for something, and that's fine since there are already plenty of those. This is a book that uses science to help answer a very human question.
Jim Holt, whose byline often appears in the New Yorker, seeks out philosophers and scientists to help us understand why the world exists. The scientists include physicists David Deutch and Steven Weinberg, and Holt's conversations with these two are sophisticated and detailed without lapsing into jargon or concepts that aren't widely understood. The science chapters show that it's indeed possible to be accessible without the dreaded "dumbing down" of anything, even the origin of the universe. Holt also consulted a variety of philosophers and made those interviews equally enlightening.
Why Does the World Exist is a case study in the merits of books by journalists. It's heavy on legwork and efforts to understand and communicate the thoughts of other people. It connects abstract ideas to the basic questions most curious folks ponder on occasion. Any one of the experts he interviewed might have written a book on the same topic and it wouldn't have been as interesting. Holt takes us on intellectual adventure. It works.
Spillover by David Quammen
Author David Quammen says he does not think the human race will go extinct in the next couple of decades when the next big pandemic rips through the population. There will be more emerging diseases, to be sure, but as in the past some people will survive. His book is less a forecast of bad things to come than a set of tales of emerging diseases past - SARS, bird flu, AIDS - and the ingenuity that led to their identification. There's a 100-page chapter on AIDS that was the most complete and concise summary I've ever seen of the discovery of HIV-1 and HIV-2.
Like Holt, Quammen doesn't start out trying to prove some shocking or counterintuitive idea. He goes out and investigates the most serious recent emerging diseases and reports what he finds. The result is sometimes scary but never scare-mongering.
Regenesis, by Ed Regis and George Church
This book was supposed to be about the promise and perils of synthetic biology, but for me it was a cautionary tale about the perils of collaborating with a scientist on a book.
Here, journalist Ed Regis mingles prose with Harvard Medical School prof George Church. I've been a fan of Ed Regis for 20 years, having first discovered him through his 1991 book, The Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition. I was so enchanted with his style that I ran out to buy his previous book, Who got Einstein's Office. Regis is not just a great writer, he's a charming and funny writer.
George Church is a different animal altogether. Regensis uses first person as if there's a single narrative voice behind it. It read like a book by Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Jekyll gets the book off to a promising start but soon the narrator undergoes a radical and confusing change of personality.
Regenesis is structured so each chapter coincides with a geologic era for no apparent purpose other than to give Mr. Hyde an excuse to spout factoids about big bang nucleosynthesis, Neanderthal burials, climate change, the invention of agriculture and more. Mr. Hyde has a lot he wants to tell you but it's never clear why. Dr. Jekyll occasionally pops back and starts a compelling story about the race to save a teenager from rabies or an intriguing student biotechnology competition, only to disappear too soon as the book lapses into technical details and tedious, unnecessary background. The lesson: Unreadable + Readable = Unreadable.
I hope Ed Regis uses what he gathered on this project to start a sequel to the Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition. By himself.