Annual selection of some of the country’s most illuminating recent popular-science articles.
This volume, edited by science author Ridley (The Cooperative Gene, 2001, etc.), is an ideal roundup of wide-ranging, high-quality journalism: in this case, 21 examples of the best of the best, culled from the pages of the New York Times, Discover, the New Yorker, Wired, and elsewhere. While the entries are uniformly superb, there are a few stand-outs: Lauren Slater’s colorful profile of a most unusual New England plastic surgeon and his curious theories about the potential of the human body; Gary Taubes’s assault on common myths about dietary fat; Sally Satel’s caution about our eagerness to ignore race as a factor in understanding health differences between people; Natalie Angier’s compelling history, written in the immediate aftermath of 9-11, of the human “trait” of altruism. The subjects of global terrorism and the Internet converge eloquently in Julian Dibbell’s reflections on “steganography,” the ancient art of hiding messages that, today, has gone fully digital. Ridley, who clearly delights in speculative pieces that grope a bit in the dark, juxtaposes two of last year’s most provocative articles concerning climate change: Nicholas Wade’s account of Danish eco-optimist Bjorn Lomberg, who raised the hackles of environmentalists by offering well-researched conclusions showing that, in many areas, the state of the world’s ecology is not as gloomy as often believed; and Darcy Frey’s profile of scientist George Divoky, who has observed bird life at the top of the world for a quarter-century and sees plenty to be concerned about. Ridley, who cites in his prologue the importance to scientific inquiry of the expression “I don’t know,” ends with Divoky’s saga as a kind of tribute to the timeless ideal of the scientist’s resolve and human questing in general.
Year to year, this science series has become something of a treasured literary institution, and Ridley gives us yet another jewel.