Biographer and science journalist Gleick (Faster, 1999, etc.) comes up with the equivalent of the best issue of Scientific American you’ve ever read—without the Volvo ads.
In his introduction to what he hopes will be an annual series, Gleick puns that, having had “a pretty good idea of what science writing is,” the editing of this greatest hits collection “has left me in a state of uncertainty.” Though most of the 19 entries here—all previously published in a range of literate, nontechnical cyber and print periodicals such as Salon, the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books and (Glieck’s alma mater) the New York Times—would be classed as science journalism, a few (such as biologist Deborah Gordon’s apologia for her fascination with ants and Doug Hofstadter’s brainy “Analogy as Core of Cognition”) are science populism: carefully nonpatronizing attempts on the part of professional scientists to tell the masses what they do between their summer vacations. The only disappointing entry is from Scientific American, in which Timothy Ferris offers a weak overview of scientific speculation about interstellar exploration (in the tradition of the late Isaac Asimov, who did this sort of thing far better). There’s a terrifying first-person essay from Floyd Skoot about living and writing under the influence of an insidious brain disease. Stephen Jay Gould is his cleverly contrarian self in one of his reprinted Natural History columns about the worthwhile contributions made by the otherwise accursed French geneticist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. Oliver Sacks offers a jolly memoir of an eccentric uncle who introduced him to chemistry, and an anonymous, pseudoscientific spoof from the Onion mocks the gee-whiz Science Digest–style prose as it examines a shoe insert that uses “the healing power of crystals to restimulate dead foot cells.”
Superb brain candy for those who aren’t afraid of a few esoteric diagrams (most of them unseen) and little math.