In her book Canon: The Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science, Natalie Angier tells how many people say they do not like science but are actually fascinated by many things scientific. When the elements of classrooms instruction and dry factual texts are removed, people enjoy learning about their world, their bodies, technology, and the unknown. Just do not call it "science" and people will respond. In this light, it seems it would have been better to call Best American Science Writing 2008 something like Best American Investigative Reporting Concerning Things Natural and Technological. No one really needs to know that in this book there are science stories. Their topics should interest many people, who want to know about the diseases that catch, the drugs they take, the water they drink, and the decisions that we as a society have to make. Best American Science Writing 2008 is really about ethics, politics, and the quality of life.
"Facing Life with a Lethal Gene" by Amy Harmon, the initial story, sets the tone for the entire collection. Harmon tells about a young woman who wants to know whether she carries the gene for Huntington's disease, an almost certain indication that she will develop the debilitating condition. Knowing that she has the gene makes her face many choices, including whether to marry, have children, and tell her family. Telling her family is particularly difficult because her news will inform her mother that the latter also has the disease, something the mother has said repeatedly that she does not want to know. Handling the news proves much harder than the young woman ever imagined.
Several articles discuss the treatment of childhood mental diseases with drugs. "Psychiatrists, Children, and Drug Industry's Role" from a trio of New York Times writers describes how many children were mistakenly diagnosed with bipolar disease and treated with drugs that many of the doctors were being paid to talk about at conferences. Two articles follow that go into more depth about the payoffs some doctors get when they cooperate with pharmaceutical firms.
Editor Sylvia Nasar says in her introduction that each volume of the series seems to feature a theme, and genetics and medical practice is the 2008 focus. Only toward the end of the book does the subject turn from the selling of kidneys, the use of narcotics for pain, and the genetics of cancer to environmental topics. In "Beneath Booming Cities, China's Future is Drying Up," Jim Hartley tells how China has a severe shortage of clean water that is never considered when forecasters discuss the country's economic future. John Seabrook's "Sowing for Apocalypse," an article about the importance of seed banks in a world that in which agricultural corporations are creating monocultures and many crop species are being lost, completes the book.
None of this is dry science. None of it requires the understanding much physics, chemistry, or math. Politics, human emotions, and greed are central in many of these stories. This book and its series should be in many public libraries.
Best American Science Stories 2008. Harper Perennial, 2008. ISBN 9780061340413