Recommended Reading: Excellence in Science Writing
Over the next month, PEN will be highlighting titles that have been selected for the 2014 PEN Literary Awards as a guide for your summer reading. Check back for new picks and insights every Monday and Thursday through June, when we’ll announce the awards shortlists.
Why are we giving mice cancer? Are paleo diets healthy? What really happened at Memorial Hospital? Our judges Akiko Busch, Rivka Galchen, and Eileen Pollack have chosen these ten titles for their longlist for the PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award which help us answer these very questions. They are exceptional books of literary nonfiction on the subject of the physical or biological sciences. Below you’ll find exerpts, interviews and reviews to find your perfect summer reading match.
Frankenstein’s Cat (Scientific American / Farrar, Straus & Giroux), Emily Anthes
Anthes speaks of her fascinating research on genetically modified animals, current tests with them, and the ethics at play. “There’s an area of research called ‘pharming’… that is a discipline that involves reengineering dairy animals. Goats or cows are the main animals used, and scientists can actually put genes into these animals that allow them to make human medicine in their milk. So you then take milk of, say, a genetically modified goat, and you process the milk and suddenly you get some valuable human protein that can be used to treat all sorts of diseases.” More available at FRESH AIR.
The End of Night (Little, Brown and Company), Paul Bogard
“The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light is an attempt to show readers why darkness is important, how it’s being lost, and where to find it. Amateur astronomer John Bortle created a scale to rate levels of darkness, with 9 being the brightest (Las Vegas) to 1 being the darkest (some national parks). Bogard uses the Bortle scale to frame his book, with his chapters running backward from 9 to 1 as he seeks out sky that exemplifies each category and teaches us about light pollution in the process.” Astronomy Today reviews Bogard’s illuminatingbook here.
Five Days at Memorial (Crown), Sheri Fink
At a reading with Poetry and Prose, Fink discusses her riveting book on the hospital that became a shelter for many during Hurricane Katrina: “They taped pieces of paper onto patients’ gowns and they wrote numbers on them. One was relatively healthy. Two was a little bit sicker. Three were the very very sick patients and patients that had ‘do not resuscitate’ orders. They decided that the Threes, the ‘do not recucitate patients,’ would go last… In the end at least 20 patients were injected with morphine and a powerful sedative, Versed, and died.” Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Sheri Fink speaks here.
High Price (Harper), Carl Hart
Huffington Post talks to neuroscientist Carl Hart about his compelling new work, explaining, “Everything we’ve been told about drugs is wrong, Hart says. The vast majority of drug users never become addicted. Cops, politicians and the media have consistently told us scare stories overstating the effects of drugs, misinterpreting the science around them in the process.” Read their discussion here.
Surfaces and Essences (Basic Books), Douglas Hofstadter & Emmanuel Sander
Hofstadter and Sander illuminate the psycology and subtleties of language, “The authors write that ‘each concept in our mind owes its existence to a long succession of analogies made unconsciously over many years, initially giving birth to the concept and continuing to enrich it over the course of our lifetime.'” Read more at Kirkus Review.
Wild Ones (Penguin Press), Jon Mooallem
99% Invisible lets us listen in on Mooallem’s lively performance of his book. “What you need to know about Wild Ones is that it’s not a book about nature. It’s a book about how we value nature and try fit it into our modern lives. Wild Ones is about the cutesy stuffed animals, the eco-tours, and the byzantine methods of conservation that evolve when our experience with wild life goes from something natural to something designed. Human-animal interaction has become a designed experience and the story of that transition, as the title of the book suggests, is sometimes dismaying and weirdly reassuring.” Hear the reading/concert here.
Gulp (W.W. Norton & Company), Mary Roach
Chicago Tribune reviews Roach’s latest: “Roach is a gift to all those unsung researchers with weird curiosities, the people who tell us things we hadn’t thought to ask: The teams who reveal that we like crunchy foods that snap at speeds of 300 meters per second and produce a crunch that reaches 90 to 100 decibels; the anthropologist who swallowed a shrew whole (with a little tomato sauce) to demonstrate what remains after digestion; the scientists who put windows into cows to see into their rumen; the researchers who study spit; investigators who sniff icky things; and specialists who examine poop.” Read more on the hilarious and educational book here.
Weird Life (W.W. Norton & Company), David Toomey
Caspar Henderson writes about the enlightening research of Weird Life: “David Toomey’s book is a fluent, bold and informative tour d’horizon of the latest thinking on these and other questions. It explores the frontiers of possibility, where ‘weird’ means anything that has an origin independent of the Last Universal Common Ancestor (LUCA) of all the earthlings we think we know. No such form has been discovered yet, but the literature of scientifically informed speculation is something rich and strange in its own right, and Toomey does it full justice.” His full review is available here.
What the Dog Knows (Touchstone), Cat Warren
“Dogs and people figured out pretty early on in history that they were meant for each other. What is very cool is that a new study shows that dogs may have branched off from wolves about 32,000 years ago. The more scientists look, the earlier they see evidence of the creation of the dog-and-human partnership. The term ‘co-evolution’ always seems a bit removed from that paw-in-hand relationship we have with dogs, but when you look more closely at what that actually means, it makes perfect sense. Evolution wasn’t a one-way street. We changed wolves into dogs, but they also changed us along the way.” Steph the Bookworm interviews Cat Warren on the wonder of working dogs here.
Paleofantasy (W.W. Norton & Company), Marlene Zuk
Zuk discusses her eye-opening research of diseases and paleo diets: “These [paleo diets] are predicated on the idea that there was a certain way humans ate 100,000 or 15,000 years ago—the era people want to hark back to varies. I think everybody agrees that we evolved eating certain things and we’re going to be very unhealthy if we subsist on Diet Coke and Cheetos. But it gets more complicated when you look at the details. Should we eat a lot of meat, less meat? Should we eat dairy?” More on how humans have evolved on Slate.