An anthology of some of the finest writing (if not the best) on science, nature and mathematics from American publications in 2012, selected and edited by Pulitzer Prize–winning author Mukherjee (The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, 2010).
Are these essays really “the best?” The evident narrowness of the criteria for selection would seem to argue against it. Nearly all of the entries are from a limited circle of print magazines, with Scientific American and the New Yorker leading the pack. Four pieces are by previous guest editors of the series. In a sense, then, this book celebrates the already celebrated and might, therefore, seem to present nothing new or all that different on first view. But the proof of this pudding is in the reading. Mukherjee’s introduction (“On Tenderness”) provides a hint of the diverse excellence to come. Some subjects—interspecies communication, the (possibly digital) nature of physical reality, the use of immunology to battle cancer, the deadliest viruses—warrant two or more essays. Other singular highlights include J.B. MacKinnon’s critique of naïve views of nature as a peaceable kingdom; Oliver Sacks’ account of his personal experimentation with psychotropic substances; Elizabeth Kolbert’s visit to a “rewilding” project aimed at populating a reclaimed wilderness in the Netherlands with species resembling its original Pleistocene denizens; Keith Gessen’s adventure on an iron-ore freighter plying the newly de-iced (thanks to climate change) Northeast Passage between Murmansk, Russia, and the Bering Sea; and Mark Bowden’s profile of computer scientist Larry Smarr and his visionary program to attain total information awareness of his body and its bacterial ecosystem, a program Smarr believes is the prototype of the health care system of the future. Other contributors include Rick Bass, Alan Lightman and Nathaniel Rich.
A stimulating compendium.