Review: Best American Science and Nature Writing 2011, edited by Mary Roach

To be clear — because I got confused about this — this is not Best American Science Writing 2011, which is a whole other thing. It also does not feature the best of American science and nature writing published in 2011. The book is from 2011, the writing is all from 2010. I think that could be made clearer, but whatever, I am not the boss of this series. I got this because, please don’t judge me, I did a search on OverDrive for “science” and this is one of the things that came up. I just felt like some science! Sometimes a girl feels like some science!

I thought Mary Roach did a smashing job of curating these essays, and I’m not just saying that because I have always thought I would like her but I’ve never read one of her books and I feel a bit guilty about that. Repeatedly over the course of reading these essays, I found myself thinking, Damn! This really is very good science and nature writing indeed! Allowing for my individual areas of interest/disinterest, I have to say I don’t think there was a loser in the bunch. Except that Malcolm Gladwell had an essay in here. I cannot even deal with Malcolm Gladwell. Malcolm Gladwell is on my shit list forever.

If you don’t feel like going through and reading my remarks about all the essays in this book, I will just recommend a few of my favorites, and you can scroll down and click the links to read them. This pretty clearly reflects my own personal interests, but that was always going to happen. I reiterate that all the essays were quite good. I’m just highlighting the ones that made me go OH DAMN when I was reading them. “The Brain that Changed Everything” and “Lies, Damn Lies, and Medical Science” were very good. “Letting Go” if you can handle the sadness. “Could Time End?” made me think many thoughts and feel anxious that I wasn’t understanding what was happening. And “Face-Blind” was, of course, very very good. I need to get off my ass and read some Oliver Sacks!

Here’s a list of the best thing I learned from each of the essays:

The Organ Dealer,” Yudhijit Bhattacharjee – Hm, nothing big, I guess. That’s not a reflection on this essay about the illegal organ trade in India. I just already knew illegal organ trade was a thing. I was thinking, while I was reading this, about how your real-life morality can go by the wayside in a hot second when somebody you love hangs in the balance. I wouldn’t get an illegal kidney for anybody in my family! Of course! It’s just interesting how you can contemplate much more horrific moral acts for someone else, than you would ever contemplate to benefit your own self.

Nature’s Spoils,” Burkhard Bilger – I find “opportunivores” extremely irritating. That’s not an uplifting thing to learn from an essay but there it is. I know we as a society throw away much more food than we should, and I try really hard not to do this myself.

The Chemist’s War,” Deborah Blum – Oh yeah, because the American government poisoned people during Prohibition. That is a thing that happened. I already knew this, and I think in fact I already read this essay. I read Slate.

Fertility Rites,” Jon Cohen – Chimps hardly ever lose an embryo/fetus, and humans very frequently do. This is an essay about trying to figure out why that should be. They do this by getting a lot of sperm samples from chimps. That would be a strange job to talk about at a dinner party.

The Brain that Changed Everything,” Luke Dittrich – Like everyone (right?) I am fascinated by brains. Luke Dittrich’s grandfather was a neurosurgeon who performed some irresponsible brain surgeries in the days before we really knew how to do responsible brain surgeries. One of these was on a guy called Henry, who became unable to form new memories, and was hence the subject of a living shit-ton of brain research, all the days of his life. Except, twist, “became unable to form new memories” doesn’t tell the whole story. When he tried the same task repeatedly, a complicated task, he got better and better at it each successive day, even though he did not remember ever having attempted it before. So that brain function, skill acquisition, must reside somewhere at least somewhat different from memory forming. BRAINS ARE FASCINATING.

Emptying the Skies,” Jonathan Franzen – I cannot be bothered with Jonathan Franzen. And his bird essays. This is a baseless prejudice. I have never read anything by Jonathan Franzen. I also, as I think I’ve said before, conflate him in my head with a bunch of other authors whose names begin with “J”. If one of them does a wicked deed, all of them get blamed for it in my head.

Fish out of Water,” Ian Frazier – There is an invasive species of carp that leaps up out of the water when it gets scared. This sounds charming but is actually super gross for fisherman, because the carp smack into them, and they get all covered in fish slime, fish blood, and fish poop. These carp are also ruining everything for all the other fish, and drastic action is required.

(Sidebar: Do y’all know about nutria? I have discovered that a lot of people don’t, and I want to spread the word. Nutria are an invasive species introduced by fur trappers. They are like gross, obnoxious, verminous capybaras. They have nasty fur. They do not taste good. They will eat your house and your car tires. If you kill one in Louisiana and bring its tail to the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, they will give you five dollars.)

Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science,” David H. Freedman – Reeeeeally good essay about how scientific studies have very flawed methodology. The current system of research funding incentivizes shocking findings and de-incentivizes replication of earlier studies, with the result that a lot of studies come out crap. (And don’t even get David Freedman started on economists’ studies, because those guys are m.f. ridiculous). Even the shiniest of all the types of studies, the randomized enormous studies, are garbage 10% of the time. This was maybe my favorite of the essays? I am very interested in research methodology.

Letting Go,” Atul Gawande – Spending thirty minutes having a serious discussion with a doctor about your end-of-life wishes cuts your end-of-life medical costs, like, a lot. It is also, and this part I already knew, just a good idea all around. Talk to your family about what kind of projected quality of life would make it worth it to keep you around. Have this talk early and often. This essay was incredibly sad. God damn it was sad. Do not read it if you have recently lost someone to illness, because it was crazy sad.

“The Treatment,” Malcolm Gladwell – Please. I don’t trust anything Malcolm Gladwell says. I skipped this essay and snarled at it.

The (Elusive) Theory of Everything,” Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow – Stephen Hawking is not just coasting on his reputation. The dude is interesting and smart. Highly highly recommended. I can’t talk about this one without repeating everything in it, but basically, there is no “theory of everything” that works in all circumstances. You have to accept that you’re going to need different theories of everything for different circumstances. Sometimes you’ll need Einstein and sometimes you’ll need string theory. DEAL WITH IT (says Stephen Hawking).

Spectral Light,” Amy Irvine – Animal attacks are on the rise. Apparently human interference in animal habitats are forcing them to evolve three hundred times faster than they ordinarily would. So, like, watch out for bears. Those dudes are stone killers.

The Spill Seekers,” Rowan Jacobsen – I skipped this. I get sad and anxious when I read about environmental disaster in my home state. I’m not an ostrich. I know it’s happening. I know our coast is eroding. I don’t need to read about it all the time to know that is going on.

New Dog in Town,” Christopher Ketcham – Nothing much learned, but this was still very interesting. Urban coyotes are a thing you should know about. They are in the cities eatin ur cats. One time when I was driving from my university to my parents’ house, I saw a coyote. Right in the street.

(Sidebar: One time we had this orange cat called Lara, but we already had a cat and Daddy didn’t want another cat, so we sent her to live on a farm where she’d be happier. That’s not a euphemism. We actually sent her to an actual farm. But once she was there she got eaten by a coyote.)

Taking a Fall,” Dan Koeppel – A rather charming guide on what to do if you fall out of an airplane and you don’t have a parachute.

The First Church of Robotics,” Jaron Lanier – If I were going to write a jokey romance novel pitch, I would call the hero “Jaron”. It just seems like that kind of name. But I am not ultimately that interested in AI.

The Love that Dare not Squawk Its Name,” Jon Mooallem – I have lingering annoyance with Jonathan Franzen’s bird essay that makes me not want to read this essay about birds either. I was reading it during dinner the other night and I went “GOD! Why are there so many essays about birds in this book?” and my roommate wanted to know what I had against birds. Nothing! I like birds. I don’t know, y’all.

Could Time End?“, George Musser – I’m still fascinated by the end of the world. I love reading and thinking about the end of the world. Except you can’t really say that in polite company without sounding like a douchebag. I know because I said it out loud to my roommates, and I immediately noticed that it sounded douchey. However, it is interesting! All of everything could turn into basically a massive black hole, and then it would be curtains for you, as my father used to say. And in this case “curtains” means “existential apocalypse”.

Sign Here if You Exist,” Jill Sisson Quinn – Hm, I don’t know. This was a very well-written, well-structured essay, but the content didn’t wow me. It’s about the afterlife. And God and evolution and whatnot.

Face-Blind,” Oliver Sacks – I already knew most of this, because my mother and sister are interested in face-blindness. Mumsy posits that she, Daddy, and indeed all the sisters, might be mildly face-blind. I do have a hard time recognizing people on second through, say, tenth meetings. And encountering someone out of context throws me for a total loop, especially if they have added or subtracted anything from their face (earrings, hairdos, facial hair, etc.). Before reading this essay, I was wondering if it would be fair for me to claim mild prosopagnosia when meeting people; while reading it, I was perpetually shrieking “YES THAT IS ME!”; and after reading it, I feel that claiming mild prosopagnosia is completely fair.

Apparently, people who are face-blind are also really terrible at identifying places, even places they’ve been before, even places they’ve been to a lot. I get very lost when coming out of a store in the mall, because everything is all turned around. I go to the same coffee shop every weekend morning, and every time I feel a little anxious and unsure as I’m getting close to it, like I might miss it. Face-blind people are also bad at cars. I was so excited when I read that. I love having things named and settled. I am awful at cars. In 2010 I got picked up in the same car every weekday for a month and a half, and numerous times since for visits, and I still couldn’t pick that car out of a lineup.

Waste MGMT,” Evan I. Schwartz – There is too much stuff in the space near the earth. Unless we do something to take care of it, like throw enormous nets around it and drag it into the earth’s atmosphere to let it change into ash, all the satellites and things will start (they have already started!) bashing into each other and breaking apart. And that will just create more space junk. And eventually there will be just a layer of orbiting space junk. Did you know about this? A little debris halo! Gross! Come on, humanity!

The Whole Fracking Enchilada,” Sandra Steingraber – Hydrofracking is awful for the environment. Natural gas only seems like an awesome energy source because we aren’t taking into account the total biological cost of acquiring it. Noted.

The New King of the Sea,” Abigail Tucker – This essay was so alarming to me that I started an entire new blog feature to process my feelings about it. I led off with the thing about quinoa, but the real reason I established Stuff to Worry About was this jellyfish thing. Stand by for horrifying details.

The Killer in the Pool,” Tim Zimmermann – The whale that killed that woman a couple of years ago? Remember when that happened? That whale had previously killed two other people. I don’t know why I’m so shocked about this. I know that orcas should not be pool pets. I know they only kill people in captivity. I know Sea World isn’t that great at observing best safety practices. But still, I was shocked. Zimmermann points out, which I thought was interesting, that although it’s clearly bad to have orcas in captivity, we have been able learn and observe a lot of things about them that we hadn’t been able to learn by observing them in the wild.

Also, I like this song by Neko Case (not sure what’s going on with the video). I listened to an interview with Neko Case where she said people are constantly asking her what this song is about, and she’s like, “It’s about killer animals,” and they’re like, “No but what’s it about?” and she’s like, “No seriously. It’s about killer animals. And how you shouldn’t fuck with them because they’ll kill you.” Heeheehee.

PHEW. That was a lot of essays to get through. I highly, highly recommend this collection. I wish my digital library had more essay collections like this! They were the perfect thing to have on my Nook for short subway rides or like, while I was brushing my teeth or waiting in line at the post office. And, just, they were so interesting and good! MOAR PLEASE.


26 thoughts on “Review: Best American Science and Nature Writing 2011, edited by Mary Roach

  1. You can make reading almost anything sound like fun.
    I am increasingly put out with Franzen for starting a ruckus about birds at the expense of cats. I like both, but if I have to take a side it is totally going to be the cats’. Because, for one thing, that’s the winning side. Also, cat lovers like their evil little ways.

    • No no. This isn’t just me. It’s properly fun. You don’t need me to make it sound fun, it’s fun all on its own.

      Did Franzen start that? The whole thing about cats being an invasive species? Because I have found it rather persuasive. I like cats! But invasive species are gravely gravely problematic, as I have good cause to know (kudzu and nutria are both such a bane), and I don’t like cats more than I like the survival of other species.

  2. Oliver Sacks is so, so interesting – he writes about such fascinating things. I really enjoyed his book ‘Musicophilia’. But those others also sound good.

  3. I read two of Mary Roach’s books and they were fantastic, particularly Packing for Mars. I’d recommend that one if you’re interested in reading one.

    Several of these essays sounds fascinating. I’ll look around and see if I can find it at the library. While I have an interest in almost anything science related, I tend to enjoy it more in small doses like this. Thanks for breaking is all down.

      • I have many things against Gladwell. The main thing is that his arguments often hang together rather poorly as arguments, but you don’t notice because he’s quite a good storyteller. He is persuasive because humans like stories, not because he has strong cases to make. Also he’s apparently in the pocket of a lot of Evil Industries. Also he wrote an essay belittling Atticus Finch which like…no.

  4. I love the sound of this book, especially of your favourite essay – which is currently open on another tab and which I’m going to read as soon as I finish this comment 😀 I find the topic of research methodology fascinating too. I’ve probably said this a million times before, but you should read Ben Goldacre! He writes brilliantly about it.

    • I want to I do I want to read Ben Goldacre! He has that new book about Big Pharma that sounds really wonderful too. I got Bad Science out of the library a while ago, but I also checked out a lot of other books and I read some of them first and then Bad Science was due — look, I have no good excuse. I know I would like Ben Goldacre and I am going to get on that.

  5. So. Despite your warnings that the Atul Gwande essay is sad, I read it anyway. And now I’m crying, because it is sad. Terribly sad. But also terribly important. Thanks for making me read it.

      • Kim — He is wonderful! I haven’t ever tried the Best American Essays collection, but I’m going to start paying more attention to them now.

    • You’re welcome. I’m glad you liked it. And it is so important. My family has had some rough experiences with hospitals and relatives, so we’ve had a dozen versions of the end-of-life-wishes talk. But I think it is smart to have that be an open conversation.

    • Yes! I did and I liked it! It made me quite sad as well, though. When the guy cried and said he wouldn’t recognize his girlfriend — am I remembering that right? It was very sad.

  6. I am all over this one, and planning to go and buy it now. I didn’t read all your points, because I love science and nature writing, and want to go in fairly blind, knowing that you loved it. Except for Gladwell. I am so glad to see this review because I know I am going to love this book. When I get done, I will be back to see what stood out to you.

  7. I’ll have to come back to this and read the whole thing but had to come here and leave a big SHOUT OUT of joy in agreement that “Yes, sometimes a girl just wants some science.” You’re the coolest.

  8. I ended up teaching a whole bunch of essays from this book last semester, and my students just loved it. I had reservations about using an anthology, and they disappeared when I saw how good the selections were.

    I liked the opportunivore one in part because it starts in Asheville, NC, and a few years ago I visited some friends there; they were quite poor and one of them was going to school full time, but they ate very well because they dumpster dived behind the Amazing Savings, just like the people in the essay. Before that I thought of dumpster diving as kind of a hipster affectation, but it really saved them a lot of money and probably kept them much healthier than they would have been otherwise.

  9. >> (And don’t even get David Freedman started on economists’ studies, because those guys are m.f. ridiculous)

    HAHAHAHA Having just finished a book by a m.f. ridiculous economist (Winner Take All HMPH), I immediately ran off to see if Freedman has written any books. And now I totally have Wrong, his book debunking experts, on hold. Of the many, many things in this world that infuriate me, neoliberal economists and the jacked up shit they’ve managed to pass as US and world economic policy is very close to the top of my list. It’s enough to turn anyone Marxist.

  10. I love reviews of the essay anthologies that go into each one of the essays. I love all your comments on them. I read most of the essay about jellyfish via your link. Some of the anecdotes are terrifying, partly b/c I have found jellyfish terrifying since I was a kid and saw a bunch of them in Boston harbor.

    Also, that is great that the Neko Case song is really about killer animals. I have wondered if it had another meaning and now I know.

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