edited by Gina Kolata
(a book review by Mark R. Leeper)

There are a lot of science and mathematics books published these days about the cutting edge thinking in particle physics, in mathematics, in biology, etc. Many of these books I find have four or five really engaging ideas that you can mull over if you want to invest the time to read an entire book. The problem is finding the time to read whole books. I am a 21st century guy with the 21st century fault that I have a hard time committing. I am not talking about my personal relationships. I am lucky enough there. But I have a hard time committing to time a book. I start an order of magnitude more books than I read cover to cover.

For my science appetite I just prefer to read short articles than whole books. There are lots of good sources for short science articles on the Internet. An article will generally have one idea while a whole book on a subject will typically have four. Reading short articles gives you more new ideas per reading hour. One exception is the annual collection THE BEST AMERICAN SCIENCE WRITING, a book that is packed with ideas. You can pick up this book just about anywhere and find ideas very quickly without having to commit to reading a whole book. The book is published annually. Each year the book has a different editor. Starting in the year 2000 the editors have been James Gleik, Timothy Ferris, Matt Ridley, Oliver Sacks, Dava Sobel, Alan Lightman, and Atul Gawande. These are mostly very familiar names in the area of science writing. This 2007 edition is edited by Gina Kolata. That is another very familiar name. I read her science writing in the New York Times.

So what does this year's edition of BEST AMERICAN have to offer? In no particular order, but the order I picked articles, first there is "Manifold Destiny," the account form The New Yorker of Grigory Perelman and his proof of the longstanding challenge of the Poincare Conjecture. He proved one of the great formerly unsolved problems and then apparently quit mathematics disenchanted over the surprisingly complex issue of who really gets credit and should get credit for mathematical proof. A mathematical proof is itself objective and mathematicians can determine if it is right. The question of who should get the credit for proving an assertion is highly subjective. All mathematicians use results from other mathematicians, some working on the same problem. What is the difference between plugging a hole in a proof and in being the person who proved the assertion?

I was attracted by Oliver Sacks's account of "Stereo Sue" whose neurological dysfunction robbed her of depth perception. But he also brings in the field of stereo photography and several other issues of interest. Sacks himself has been a longtime hobbyist in stereoscopic photography. But as a case history this goes well with the case histories that are covered in his fascination book THE MAN WHO MISTOOK HIS WIFE FOR A HAT.

On a similar neurological theme is Joshua Davis's piece from Wired about people with a neurological disorder that makes it impossible to remember faces and associate them with who it is who has that face. "Face Blind" is the nickname given to the disorder. The article looks at diverse aspects of the disorder. It can be particularly embarrassing in the dating scene.

Gregory Mone tells us about the pleasant occupation of John Underkoffler, "Hollywood's Science Guru". For films like THE HULK, MINORITY REPORT, and AEON FLUX he looks at the science in the scripts and tries to make reasonable explanations that can be used in the film. We find out how he got the job and how he goes about the job of turning absurdities into semi-absurdities.

Collections of articles, like the collection of short stories tend to put their most enticing entries in the first and last position. The Hollywood story is the last in the book. The first is Tyler Cabot's article "The Theory of Everything". For two decades the theory that will unify all physics has seemed to be String Theory. It describes everything and removes inconsistencies. It would be every physicists darling but for one problem. So far it makes no testable predictions. You might as well say it is angels moving particles around as say that particles are manifestations of hyper-dimensional strings without any way to test. The Large Hadron Collider to be completed and turned on in months will hopefully give some answers.

Perhaps the most exciting piece is "John Koza Has Built An Invention Machine" by Jonathon Keats. Koza is using Darwinian approaches in something that goes beyond Computer Aided Design to letting the computer itself try hundreds of approaches, evaluating the results, and taking the aspects of the most successful and recombining aspects of them to make to create new approaches. In other words he is using Darwinian principles for the design of non-living devices like antennae. The machine makes designs that a human would not have thought of.

These are articles that are not written for technical journals. They are written for general readers in such non-scientific journals as "Esquire Magazine", "The New Yorker", "Popular Science". There is not one mathematical formula in the whole book, I think. These are articles that can be read by just about anybody.


Click here for link
Paperback: 352 pages
Publisher: Harper Perennial (September 18, 2007)
ISBN-10: 0-061-34577-6
ISBN-13: 978-0-061-34577-7

					Mark R. Leeper
					Copyright 2007 Mark R. Leeper