Superbug Summer Books: The Best Science Writing Online 2012

I’m cheating a bit here, since summer ended before dawn yesterday. But for the last entry in Superbug Summer Books, I wanted to leave you with something recent, and something rich, and today’s pick qualifies twice over: It was released just last week, and it is full — stuffed — with excellent science writing, more than enough to keep you reading until I pick up this intermittent book feature, in adapted form, later this fall.

The Best Science Writing Online 2012” (Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux) is the latest in a series begun in 2006 by Bora Zivkovic, now the editor of Scientific American‘s blog platform, and a series of guest editors. The series was originally dubbed “The Open Laboratory” and published independently. This year’s iteration has been brought forward by a major publisher, the new Scientific American imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, with all the extra market legitimacy that suggests.

The collection serves several purposes. It elevates the best science blogging — which is in many cases the best science writing being done today — to the attention of new audiences, and it confers some permanence on a writing form that risks evanescence. As Bora writes in the preface, inclusion in the annual collection also has become a genre-crossing distinction:

Bloggers with entries included in the collections proudly sport the buttons on the sidebars of their blogs. Those science bloggers who are also professional researchers list their inclusion in the anthology as a publication on their resumes. Bloggers who are also active researchers list it in the “outreach” section of their CVs…It is seen as a bridge between the online and offline worlds.

This year’s guest editor is Jennifer Ouellette, author of the blog Cocktail Party Physics and of several books, most recently “The Calculus Diaries: How Math Can Help You Lose Weight, Win in Vegas, and Survive a Zombie Apocalypse” (Penguin). In her introduction, she says,

I am struck anew by the sheer diversity in voice, style, subject matter, and creativity that one finds across the blogosphere, and the science blogosphere in particular. There is poetry. Savvy reportage and critical analysis of new scientific papers. In-depth profiles. Personal reflections. Humor. Thoughtful commentary on science and social issues. Careful explication of complex scientific concepts written in accessible language. And yes, there are long-form features and investigative journalism. Above all, there are stories — drawn from history, popular culture, the laboratory, and personal experiences.

The writes represented in the anthology include some of the stars of science writing today, including Maggie Koerth-Baker of BoingBoing and Ed Yong and Carl Zimmer from the Discover network, along with my Wired colleagues Deborah Blum, on the poisonous possibilities of carbon dioxide; David Dobbs, on how much of science is lost forever behind the paywalls of journals; and Brian Switek, on the dodo. (Disclosure: As you’ll see if you study the cover image above, I am in the anthology also, for this post on polio eradication.)

But the real pleasure of this anthology — and why I hope you’ll read it — is the chance to discover writers whom you may not have heard of, because they do not benefit from the enormous readership of networks such as ours here. There are more than 50 writers in the collection, so I cannot call them all out, though they all deserve it. But I urge you not to miss:

  • T. DeLene Beeland’s elegy for the “church forests” of Ethiopia
  • Aatish Bhatia’s straight-faced exploration of the fluid dynamics of sperm (with sketches!)
  • Krystal D’Costa’s analysis of the brand supremacy of pirates
  • Kimberly Gerson’s sympathetic but clear-eyed explanation of how humans failed Romeo, a wolf who sought his pack among dogs
  • Matthew Hartings on the molecular chemistry of gin and tonics
  • Karen James’ breathtaking reportage from the last launch of the space shuttle Atlantis
  • David Manly on the science, and the experience, of being an identical twin
  • Puff the Mutant Dragon’s chilling unfolding of the effects of organophosphate pesticides
  • Cassie Rodenberg on how narcopelsy is like addiction
  • Richard F. Wintle’s parsing of genome sequencing, and Shakespeare.

There’s also poetry, penises, staircases, airplanes and a fairy tale. Buy it. It is worth your time.

This is the last entry in an intermittent series I ran during summer 2012 about books I liked and thought readers should take a look at. In coming months, I’ll continue this book feature about twice per month. You can find past and future books at #SBSBooks on Twitter.



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