Second in the series, again limited in scope.
The emphasis once more is on nature-writing, which guest editor Wilson praises as a distinctive American art form. For his part, Burkhard Bilger, the series editor, points out the rather wide range of pieces that description includes. One group examines predators, from an Australian zoologist’s account of being the victim of a crocodile attack to an American writer’s clear-eyed description of Yellowstone wolves preying on elk. Others remind us of the continuing impact of human activities on the natural world: attempts to preserve a wildlife sanctuary threatened by development, or the surprising appearance of a new ecology in a lake turned acidic by copper mining. On the other side of the balance, Jane Goodall describes how her work with chimpanzees has reinforced her conviction that the universe has a spiritual dimension ignored by most scientists. The second largest group, after the nature essays, discusses what might be called medical issues: how new findings in embryology affect the abortion debate, on both sides; the ethical issues of stem cell research; and how our ancestors’ exploitation of a niche as endurance hunters influenced our physiology. There are also essays on geology (a trip inside an active volcano), physics (the world’s most accurate clock), and cybernetics (the significance of algorithms). Perhaps the most penetrating piece here is Bill Joy’s serious argument that advances in robotics and nanotechnology could render the human species obsolete by the turn of the next century. It’s all well-written and of broad interest, but one wonders whether astronomy or particle physics—to name two sciences where new ideas are thick in the air—couldn’t be better represented.
An illuminating, if somewhat slanted, cross-section of current ideas in the sciences.