This is a LONG overdue review for the formerly indie anthology known as The Best Science Writing Online 2012. It was released a few months ago and is a collection of science blog posts selected as the cream of the crop from the online world out of some seven hundred or more submissions. While this series used to be self-published on Lulu.com, it was picked up last year by Scientific American/Farrar Straus and Giroux. The 2012 edition includes fifty blog posts and one poem. The editors did their best to make sure that little was lost in the translation from pixels to paper, and they spent a good deal of effort making sure that graphics associated with the original online posts made their way into the final printed and e-book formats. These were my favorite posts (listed in no particular order):
David Winter’s “The Origin and Extinction of Species.” This is a tidy little synopsis of the study of speciation, variation and diversity with a modern twist regarding the (too common) negative effect of invasive species upon native populations. Winter turns an example of land snails found on Pacific Islands into a wildly interesting case study of speciation and extinction.
Steve Silberman’s “Woof! living Boldly as a ‘Free Rage Aspergian.’ “ Silberman is working on a book about autism, and I’m not sure if this post was an outgrowth of his research, but I suspect that it was. It’s an insightful profile of a man named John Elder Robison who was not diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome until mid-life. Silberman has a deft way of revealing how a person on the Autism spectrum perceives the world, and his narrative style is instantly engrossing.
Deborah Blum’s “A View to a Kill in the Morning.” This post dissects carbon dioxide as both a common element and an uncommon killer. Blum writes of the perfect murder using dry ice (which is carbon dioxide in its solid state) to asphyxiate a victim, but she also dials out beyond this gas’s immediate effect upon humans to its effect upon the larger environment as a greenhouse gas contributing to global warming.
Rob Dunn’s “Man Discovers a New Life-Form at a South African Truck Stop.” This piece is a wonderful little vignette that recounts how a German biologist, Oliver Zompro, discovered an entirely new genera of insect that turned out to be fairly common–common enough to be found in back yards and truck stops–but undescribed. I enjoyed this one for its implicit message that we can all be discoverers and pioneers of the natural world, if we’re so inclined.
Greg Gbur’s “Mpemba’s Baffling Discovery.” Gbur recounts a wonderful little story of an African student named Erasto Mpemba who dared to ask a simple question, why does boiling water freeze faster than room-temperature tap water? The student had observed this phenomena with both water and milk, and it seemed to violate basic physics. What I like about this piece is the way Gbur places the anecdote in a very human context, exploring how Mpemba made his observations while making ice cream, and pointing out examples of good and bad science educators in Mpemba’s life. In this case, the story isn’t just about how a student from Tanzania challenged establishment scientists, it’s also about how to foster scientific inquiry and critical thinking.
Miriam Goldstein’s “Don’t Panic: Sustainable Seafood and the American Outlaw.” I love the hook in this piece, because Goldstein’s dialogue with herself about whether or not to eat a shrimp burrito is pretty much a mirror of what I go through twice a month at the seafood counter of my grocery store. Anyone who enjoys eating seafood, but who is concerned about buying from sustainable sources, will appreciate this post.
Rebecca Kreston’s “This Ain’t Yo Momma’s Muktuk.” This quirky piece about botulism explores the role of culture in traditional food preparation in Alaska, despite the high risk of contracting botulism. It’s an insightful post into the history of fermented meat, the role of culture in traditional foods, and how the loss of traditional knowledge in some people groups is affecting not only the preservation of their culture but the proper preservation of their meat.
You can order your copy of The Best Science Writing Online 2012 here. (Full disclosure, one of my blog pieces was published in this edition; however, contributors are not financially compensated for their work so I have no financial conflict of interest in promoting this book.)