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Inquiring minds, and hearts

The Best American Science Writing 2007
Edited by Gina Kolata and Jesse Cohen (series editor)
Harper Perennial, 333 pp., paperback, $14.95

Everyone knows fossils are made of minerals. Take some soft tissues - skin cells, say, or red blood cells - put them on a shelf, and in a week bacterial enzymes will have reduced them to nothing. A tougher tissue like bone matrix could possibly last a thousand years, but soft tissues are supposed to degrade quickly and completely.

So what did the scientific community think when a devoutly Christian paleontologist cracked open the femur of a 68-million-year-old Tyrannosaurus rex and claimed she had found soft, stretchy tissues inside?

It thought she was crazy. It wanted to know if she had sequenced the building blocks of the proteins in the tissues to make sure they weren't contamination from some much more recent animal. Meanwhile, another community perked up: creationists. If a scientist had found traces of dinosaur collagen, and organic tissue was not supposed to last for anything close to 68 million years, then maybe the Earth was only a thousand years old after all.

Since her discovery, the scientist, Mary Higby Schweitzer, an unassuming, introspective mother of three, has found herself at the white-hot intersection of molecular biology, paleontology, scientific dogma, media, and biblical literalism. Schweitzer was profiled recently in a terrific article by journalist Barry Yeoman.

His piece, "Schweitzer's Dangerous Discovery," is reprinted in "The Best American Science Writing 2007," edited this year by Gina Kolata, the well-regarded New York Times science reporter. Like many of the other essays in this anthology, Yeoman's is engrossing because it puts a human face on intricate, pivotal issues.

Despite the claim that this is the "best" American science writing, the collection does not include a single research paper. Indeed, the scientific press is barely represented. Yeoman's piece originally appeared in Discover magazine. Six of the 20 articles Kolata chose to include appeared in The New Yorker. Others come from The New York Times Magazine, Wired, and even Esquire.

For the most part, these are not scientists writing about science, but journalists writing about scientists, and the anthology includes several of the skilled essayists you might expect to see: Robin Marantz Henig, Jerome Groopman, Atul Gawande. Other contributions are from writers you may not have heard of, and that's one of the chief pleasures of year-end anthologies such as this.

A quarter of the pieces deal explicitly with the human brain. In the essay "Stereo Sue," Oliver Sacks ruminates on stereopsis, the brain's ability to synthesize visual stimuli from both eyes to create a sensation of depth. Joshua Davis, a contributing editor at Wired, writes a fascinating article about prosopagnosia, the mysterious inability to recognize faces, even those of close family members. Decoding this condition, Davis writes, could rewrite our current models for understanding the brain. New Yorker writer John Cassidy looks at how the brain functions as it makes economic decisions and even suggests a future in which imaging technology has become so sophisticated that investors' brains could be monitored while they trade stocks.

"A Depression Switch?" is a fascinating essay by David Dobbs about a procedure called deep brain stimulation, which, in his words, "involves planting electrodes in a region near the center of the brain called Area 25 and sending in a steady stream of low voltage from a pacemaker in the chest." In a few, immovably depressed patients, the treatment has produced startling results. The instant current is sent to the implanted electrodes, patients feel sudden outpourings of mood and sensation for things they've been numb to for years. Turn off the current, and their worlds go dark again.

Speaking of numbness and darkness, the collection also includes an outrageously entertaining essay titled "God or Gorilla," about the 2005 intelligent-design trial in Dover, Pa. The piece is written by filmmaker Matthew Chapman, a sarcastic but graceful writer, who also happens to be a great-great-grandson of Charles Darwin. Here's a typical sentence: "So this was the genesis of the whole thing: an auto repairman appointed an OxyContin-addicted biblical literalist without a shred of knowledge to decide which books the kids should learn from, and a woman who had no curiosity about anything, even her own most deeply held beliefs, seconded the whole idea."

Does "The Best American Science Writing 2007" really represent the best science writing done in the United States last year?

Who cares? "Best" is a term for marketing departments and publicists. "Best" is ridiculous. These articles are of varying depth, tone, length, and quality, but all of them are interesting. If you take this book on your next airplane flight, you won't be disappointed.

What's more compelling about a collection like this is how it emphasizes that even the most quiet, lonesome scientific work is irreducibly human. The plodding, often-frustrating pace of discovery; the temptation to falsify data; the question of whether to let relatives be present during emergency-room resuscitations - these are elements of human stories, and it is the emotion implicit in them that sustains a reader's attention.

Browsing this book, I began to realize how many more, equally interesting stories must be out there, waiting to be told, and how the work of scientific discovery proliferates ceaselessly, in ways we are only now starting to imagine.

Anthony Doerr is the author of "The Shell Collector," "About Grace," and "Four Seasons in Rome."

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