The Best American Science Writing 2002 is the third installment in what is now the consistently superb annual series from the HarperCollins imprint Ecco Press (and should not be confused with its Houghton-Mifflin cousin, The Best American Science and Nature Writing). Culling articles from the likes of Esquire, The New Yorker and Wired, as well as ostensibly stodgier journals such as Policy Review and Science, editor and Americanized Brit Matt Ridley (author of Genome) yanks us to the margins of scientific “ignorance and mystery”—and stirs up some fervid debates for good measure.
From twenty-one select writers considering medicine, evolutionary psychology, computer technology, theoretical physics and environmental science, here are contrarian views against entrenched doctrines or news of the hottest boons, which often outpace the ethical dilemmas they trigger. In medicine, specifically, witness the latest round of the interminable tug-of-war between what can be and what ought to be.
Most articles of the 2002 collection were originally published before September 11, 2001; nevertheless, several insinuate disaster. There are occasional, spooky references to bin Laden or even anthrax, and a prescient story on those top-knotted, clone-seeking Raëlians nearly two years before their dubious claim to a human duplicate. Of course, a tone of foreboding may just be part and parcel of the routine hope and horror found at the cusp of science.
Among the very best of the group is Lauren Slater’s lead-off article, “Dr. Daedalus.” Slater presents a conflicted indictment of an attention-loving plastic surgeon, whose reputation is a troubling union of academic stature and the lunatic desire to stitch wings on people. Advancing her profile to an analysis of the mind-body interchange, Slater finds that the cost of today’s physical plasticity may be a directionless spirit.
Reproductive technology often creates ethical tight spots, as in “The Made-to-Order Savior.” Lisa Belkin reports on the creation of a fetus who’s a perfect bone marrow donor for an older sibling with a fatal, hereditary anemia. In a process that smacks of out-and-out eugenics, desperate parents have their test-tube embryos screened for donor compatibility before uterine implantation.
Gary Taubes bucks longstanding medical policy in “The Soft Science of Dietary Fat.” Sifting through mounds of data, he finds the longevity benefits of a low-fat diet as insubstantial as a Twinkie. Oncologist Jerome Groopman thumbs his nose at the protracted government-sponsored fight against cancer in “The Thirty Years’ War. ” But Groopman’s denunciation is offset by Mary Rogan’s sensitive, intricate riff on immunologist Josef Penninger, “the greatest scientist of our time.” Notwithstanding Groopman’s general doubts, Rogan claims that Penninger will cure cancer. Evidently all of it
Editor Ridley juxtaposes the sublime and the ridiculous with Joseph D’Agnese’s “Brothers with Heart,” a profile of the organ-growing heroism of four physician brothers, and Christopher Dickey’s “I Love My Glow Bunny,” a wry inquiry into the absurd meeting of conceptual art and genetic technology in a funky-colored rabbit.
The furtive world of computer technology is mined by Julian Dibbell in “Pirate Utopia” and self-described hacker Carolyn Meinel in “Code Red for the Web.” Digital steganography—embedding covert messages in online images or recordings—was the rumored purview of bin Laden acolytes and “libertarian hackers.” But digital uses for buried communiqués are probably much more mundane, reveals Dibbell: copyright-holding corporations will use steganography as theft prevention to digitally brand their online property. Ho-hum; back to the clandestine. Code Red and other nefarious, Internet-disrupting worms (self-replicating, self-contained, infiltrating computer programs) are no longer just plied by rogue hackers, writes Meinel. Worm infestation is becoming a concerted side-show cyberwar during overt international tensions.
And just how endangered is the planet’s ecosystem? The answer is evidently up for grabs, as Ridley offers two conflicting stories. In “The Eco-Optimist,” Nicholas Wade profiles former Greenpeacer Bjorn Lomborg, who systematically debunks the standard doomsday rhetoric of major environmental groups. But in “George Divoky’s Planet,” Darcy Frey spends intense quality time with a dogged environmentalist who fears that the decades-long warming of the Artic bodes ill for its migratory birds and, consequently, the world.
Perhaps the resolution lies in Tim Folger’s “Quantum Shmantum,” a profile of theoretical physicist David Deutsch. Moving beyond the subatomic world, Deutsch applies quantum physics theory to “every level of reality” and can only deduce that each of us exists in multiple, parallel universes. If correct, then we’re simultaneously doomed and saved.