We have perused science writing handbooks and anthologies before, and we’re at it again for the recently published anthology The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2013. It’s the time of year for “best of” lists, and this book is chockfull of great articles on a wide array of subject matter from the past year.
This year’s iteration is edited by Siddhartha Mukerjee, who is best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Emperor of All Maladies and is also a cancer physician and researcher. (Take a look at his appearance on The Colbert Report.) His introduction is itself a bonus contribution to the collection of essays.
In “Introduction: On Tenderness,” Mukherjee writes of his visit to the Augustinian monastery in Brno, Czech Republic, where Gregor Mendel performed “the laborious cross-pollination of seedlings, the meticulous tabulation of the colors of cotyledons and the markings of wrinkles on seeds” and, as a result, had “revolutionized biology.” Mukherjee extrapolates from this “tending” of the garden that Mendel did to the “tenderness” that he sees as the quintessential quality of the scientist and used as his selection criteria for this anthology. In this way, The Best American Science and Nature Writing represents the art of science and science writing as art.
While we had not yet made our way through every essay in the collection, several of the pieces we’ve read have us thinking about subjects and issues that are near and dear to the Lofty duo.
Because Anna’s mother died a year ago from pancreatic cancer, Anna turned first to “The Patient Scientist” by Katherine Harmon. This essay tells the story of Ralph M. Steinman, who died of pancreatic cancer a few days before he was announced as a Nobel Prize recipient for his discovery of dendritic cells and their ability to “snag interlopers with their arms, ingest them, and carry them back to other types of immune cells.” Readers may recall that this situation caused quite a tizzy for the folks in Stockholm because a Nobel Prizes are awarded to people who are still living.
The prize rules state that it cannot be given posthumously, but if a laureate dies between the October announcement and the award ceremony in December, he or she can remain on the list. This odd timing [that Steinman had died before the announcement, though the committee didn’t know it] threw the committee into a closely followed deliberation before it announced, late in the day, that he would remain a prize recipient.
The essay, however, focuses on Steinman’s cancer treatment, including his own expertise in the immune system, which allowed him to be an especially active participant in treatment decisions, have unprecedented access to individualized experimental treatment, and even spearhead IRB approval for his own participation in medical trials. He had the Whipple surgery and chemotherapy that is standard treatment, but Steinman was able to participate in several research trials that seem to have extended his life for several years and also provided research teams with additional data that may, in the long run, be difficult to sort out. In one treatment, an individualized vaccine was developed from the pancreatic tissue removed during surgery, and, in another treatment, a melanoma vaccine was repurposed for pancreatic cancer.
The essay poses this process of Steinman’s treatment as a community helping one of its own in a spirit of respect and generosity and as an individual further devoting himself to the scientific research he has practiced all of his adult life. Reading the essay, we could not help but think about who has access to what kind of treatment as well.
The Lofty duo are longtime fans of Alan Lightman, who is a novelist and physicist as well as an essayist, so we turned to “Our Place in the Universe.” Lightman frames this essay with his “most vivid encounter with the vastness of nature” on a sailing excursion with his wife on the Aegean Sea. The real subject of this piece, however, is the great distance of space and how we have come to measure it.
From the first relatively accurate measurement of Earth by the geographer Eratosthenes in the third century B.C to Newton’s estimates of the distance to Earth’s nearest stars to Henrietta Leavitt’s measurements that were used to pin down the size of the Milky Way, we must ponder what distance and numbers mean and how our ability to measure greater distances accurately changes our place in the universe. In the last few years, as a result of data from the Kepler spacecraft, scientists have been able to estimate the percentage of living matter—or the likelihood of it—in the universe.
If some cosmic intelligence created the universe, life would seem to have been only an afterthought. And if life emerges by random processes, vast amounts of lifeless material are needed for each particle of life. Such numbers cannot help but bear upon the question of our significance in the universe.
One of the great things about this annual anthology is that, while many pieces are from the usual big magazines like Scientific American, The New Yorker, and Orion, anyone can submit published work for consideration. Series Editor Tim Folger says in his introduction:
I hope too that readers, writers, and editors will nominate their favorite articles for next year’s anthology at http://timfolger.net/forums. The criteria for submissions and deadlines, and the address to which entries should be sent, can be found in the ‘news and announcements’ forum on my website. Once again this year I’m offering an incentive to enlist readers to scour the nation in search of good science and nature writing; send me an article that I haven’t found, and if the article makes it into the anthology, I’ll mail you a free copy of next year’s edition.