Review: The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2014, edited by Deborah Blum

Note: I received an advance ebook copy from the publisher for review consideration, through Netgalley.

I’ve read this collection for the past three years now, and every time, the editor has been careful to include science writing on a range of topics. If Deborah Blum’s collection is perhaps a trifle heavy on What Our Hubris Hath Wrought on the planet and its occupants (and a trifle light on SPACE and the things that happen IN SPACE), it’s very little surprise. At this point, the consensus is that global warming is at this point irreversible or close to it and we have all been remiss in not doing more to stop it, so we will really deserve it when we all drown in the rising oceans.

Given my druthers, I’d choose all science writing and no nature writing–sorry nature!–so I skimmed through a few of the essays that seemed inclined to wax lyrical about the sun shining down upon beaver dams and things. It’s not animals I object to, but long descriptive passages of things I can’t–having a very poor visual imagination–picture in my own head. Since my bias is against nature writing, I won’t complain about individual essays here; that feels churlish. Instead I want to highlight a few that I loved.

My favorite of all was Elizabeth Kolbert’s wonderful “The Lost World,” which taught me that humans did not always have a concept of extinction. As she points out, the idea of extinction of species only seems intuitive if you’ve grown up with it. In the olden days, when people in Europe had not even seen giraffes, they tended to think that strange animal bones meant strange animals out there somewhere in the world still. When a scientist called Georges Cuvier came along and said that he had found some bones of animals that no longer existed on the earth, it was a watershed in the way we comprehended the history of Earth’s fauna. But he doesn’t get the credit he deserves for that, and we have all forgotten who he is. (Lame.)

(Relatedly, I think we all owe Lamarck an apology for making fun of him all these years. In fact I think we should call epigenetics neo-Lamarckianism. That is what I’m going to call it from now on.)

For scariness and most convincing argument to turn vegetarian, the prize goes to Maryn McKenna’s “Imagining the Post-Antibiotic Future”. In it, she describes the way modern medicine will fall apart as more and more bacteria become resistant to our standard courses of antibiotics. I can’t do this one justice, so I’ll just quote from it:

Doctors routinely perform procedures that carry an extraordinary infection risk unless antibiotics are used. . . [Lack of working antibiotics] rules out intensive-care medicine, with its ventilators, catheters, and ports–but also something as prosaic as kidney dialysis, which mechanically filters the blood. Next to go: surgery, especially on sites that harbor large populations of bacteria such as the intestines and the urinary tract. . . And then implantable devices, because bacteria can form sticky films of infection on the devices’ surfaces that can be broken down only by antibiotics. . . . Without antibiotics, one out of every six recipients of new hip joints would die.

McKenna goes on to note that 80 percent of antibiotics used in the antibiotic-happy US are used in agriculture. Cut out our dependence on huge quantities of cheap meat, and the problem decreases dramatically. (Luckily, I am too broke to buy much meat, except when I’m eating out. Hooray, you’re welcome, America!)

The prize for insanest way the world might end has to belong to Corey S. Powell for “The Madness of the Planets,” which explores the instability of our solar system. For us to achieve the current state of equilibrium, Jupiter had to come swooping close to the sun, get pulled over to where it currently is by Saturn, and messed up poor old Mars for good. (Earth didn’t exist back then, but if it had, it would probably have been destroyed as Jupiter bashed about trying to get settled in.) Some scientist theorize that there used to be another enormous planet in our solar system, but that it got bumped out of orbit and went spinning madly away into outer darkness.

Nor is all of this limited to the distant past. If Mercury, always on the edge of instability, starts intruding on Venus’s orbit, Venus could collide with Earth and send us spinning off into a brand new (doomy for us) orbit. The odds of this are 1 percent over the next couple billion years.

I question Morbidelli to make sure I’m understanding him correctly. A 1 percent chance of disaster is surprisingly high odds in the cosmic-doomsday business. He sets down the phone for a moment and I hear him in the distance, double-checking with someone else in his office (“Do you know the probability that Mercury gets crazy?”). Then he’s back on the line: “Yes, 1 percent.” And he warns that the subtle divergences that would set the whole cataclysm in motion are like the weather, chaotic and impossible to forecast far in advance. They could be building up right now.

And last but not least, an essay on fire ants. As a southerner, I feel equal parts pity and schadenfreude for northern tourists discovering fire ants for the first time. Yes, the ants bite. Yes, for real. Justin Nobel’s “Ants Go Marching” was inspired by an ill-fated picnic in New Orleans’s City Park, in which he and his girlfriend sat in a big pile of fire ants. He set out to discover why these bastards are so tough and how people kill them.

How people kill them: Insane ways that involve fire and chemicals, apparently. Justin Nobel reports that only one person told him to use boiling water to get rid of them. What? Everyone I know uses boiling water! Or grits. Boiling water or grits (I’m suspicious of grits), and those are the only two ways I’ve ever seen anyone try to get rid of fire ants in their yard. Justin Nobel must have interviewed only lunatics for this piece.

Why they’re so tough: Hell if we know. The bad news is that they’re spreading north, and as they interbreed with this other type of ant, the hybrids thereby produced can withstand much higher temperatures. Watch out, other half of the country; fire ants are coming. And here’s the (to me) truly horrific news. Fire ants can build rafts. You can google it if you don’t believe me. They can build rafts made out of layers of their own larvae and float upon them for several days in case of flood. My skin is crawling to contemplate this. Let’s not think about it, actually.

The four essays I’ve highlighted are just a few of the many superb pieces of writing in this volume. Nicholas Carr talks about what our dependence on computers is doing to our brains; Virginia Hughes explores tragic personal ramifications of the service offered by 23 and Me; Fred Pearce considers the impact of TV soap operas on pregnancy rates; and Carl Zimmer gets into the wild and wacky world of animal cloning (and whether it’s worth trying to bring extinct species back to life when we can’t even take care of the species we have now). It’s a terrific, if sometimes rather depressing, collection of writing.

  • I sometimes find that the longer the passage is, the less I can picture it. Too much to keep adding and I think boredom comes into it, too.

    I guess it’s inevitable but it’s still worrying that those ants are evolving.

    • Gin Jenny

      Hahahaha, I know! I don’t want them to! I hate them!

  • Sounds like good eclectic reading! I think I’ll worry more about fire ants making their way to Minnesota than about Mercury going wonky. I only have so much worry to go around!

    • Gin Jenny

      You should, because fire ants are jerks. They’ll just bite you to be jerks.

  • I’m opposite of you- I’d probably dive into the nature writing and skim over the science parts. Although what you’ve shared looks very intriguing (and frightful) so maybe I’ll read all of it (when I find the book that is)

    • Gin Jenny

      Do! It’s good!

  • You have made me really want to read this book but I feel like it deserves to be counted as one of my RIPIX reads. Why do I need to worry about ghosts when we have a 1% chance of spinning off into space?

    • Gin Jenny

      Hahahahaha, it should definitely count for RIP!

  • And after joint replacement, it’s still recommended to take antibiotics anytime you get your teeth cleaned.

    • Gin Jenny

      REALLY? Like just in case you get a knick on your gums?

      • Really. Infection travels from the mouth very easily, often to the heart valve. Since my most vulnerable place is my knee, I once had an oral infection travel there, and that was before the joint replacement.
        As a younger joint replacement person, I was annoyed that every six months my birth control was ineffective for a couple of days.

  • I don’t know why I’ve never picked up this collection. It sounds like I would enjoy it. Too many books!

    • Gin Jenny

      It’s a reliably great collection. I’m always excited when the time of year comes around for its release.

  • This sounds like another form of dystopian reading to me. I don’t suppose anybody thought the world might have some advantages in the future – or some small thing might get better? I mean I agree completely that we should have done more to stop global warming (I recycle with all my might and haven’t been on an airplane in years and years) but I was ALWAYS for that, you know? I feel I deserve some good news along with the bad….

    • Gin Jenny

      Yeah, I feel you. It’s awful, but it seems miles more likely that someone will invent a Brilliant Science Plan to save us from global warming than that humanity will actually change its behavior.

  • Indie Sister

    Can I borrow this? Paul uses lighter fluid, by the way. I thought he was going to set it on fire, but he just pours it on top.

  • Pingback: The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2014 | Science Book a Day()