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The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2009

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Elizabeth Kolbert, one of today's leading environmental journalists, edits this year's volume of the finest science and nature writing. Bringing together promising new voices and prize-winning favorites, this collection is "a delight for any fan of popular science" ( Publishers Weekly ).

352 pages, Paperback

First published October 8, 2009

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About the author

Tim Folger

25 books14 followers
TIM FOLGER is a contributing editor at Discover and writes about science for several magazines.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 32 reviews
Profile Image for Annie.
72 reviews24 followers
January 16, 2010
I know 'green' is the new hot thing, but this collection seriously suffered from a huge overemphasis on articles about the environment. I'm happy to read them, but I also want to read about physics and neurology and mathematics and biochemistry and other fields I don't even know about! The articles in the book were quality, as usual, but I sorely missed the variety of previous years in this series. If this pattern is going to continue, they might want to consider spinning off a new "Best American Environmental Writing" or something so that we general-science nerds can still get our fix too.
Profile Image for Art.
551 reviews15 followers
March 20, 2015
This annual included a couple dozen examples of the best science and nature writing published in 2008. Arthur C Clarke (2001: A Space Odyssey) died that year. The foreword to this volume remembered Clarke, who regarded science as a discipline that requires the questioning of received wisdom.

The science in this book goes back just seven years. But since then, scientists learned that Sapiens who migrated out of Africa thousands of years ago carry about three percent of Neanderthal DNA, thanks to what researchers call intermingling. And that comes as an update to the interesting article here, The Last of the Neanderthals.

Is Google Making Us Stupid? Nicholas Carr's now-famous essay first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly of July 2008. The editors of this collection chose the piece as one of the best of the year. Three years later, that article grew into his most famous book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, a general nonfiction finalist for a Pulitzer Prize. Carr's column in this anthology, meanwhile, turned me onto an intriguing book, Technics and Civilization.

"We await the longterm neurological and psychological experiments that will reveal how Internet use affects cognition," wrote Carr in 2008. This status check pairs well with the thoughts of Maryanne Wolf in Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain.

Elizabeth Kolbert, a staff writer at The New Yorker, edited this edition, and her name drew me to it. Her terrific book, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, published last year. The paperback edition released this year.

In her introduction to this collection, Kolbert mentions the effort to rename our current epoch the Anthropocene, a term used by a Dutch chemist who received a Nobel prize for his work on ozone depletion. Kolbert's new book expands on the Anthropocene and why it should replace the current term, Holocene. Anthropocene would rename the era of the past twelve thousand years to reflect the impact of human activity. Scientists will vote next year on the name change.
Profile Image for Andres.
279 reviews29 followers
January 23, 2010
Another interesting collection! This edition contains 26 articles from 15 different publications. The top contributors are a tie at three each from Harper's Magazine, National Geographic and The New Yorker. Here I'll just point out the articles that piqued my interest.

Is Google Making Us Stupid? by Nicholas Carr
A look at how the internet may be literally reprogramming our brains. (Though the author's fear that his internet use has caused him to lose his ability to concentrate on reading long passages is a bit too alarmist---he could just be getting older...) [This article has become a book.]

Intel Inside by Andrew Curry
The incredible work being done to reconstruct the shredded files of the East German stasi.

The Itch Atul Gawande
A woman's itch is bad enough that she ends up scratching into her brain.

The Mushroom Cloud's Silver Lining by David Grimm
How above ground nuclear testing pumped lots of carbon-14 into the atmosphere, and how science is finding this quite useful.

Last of the Neanderthals by Stephen S. Hall
Explores the mystery of Neanderthal's fate.

Chain Reaction by Walter Isaacson
The story behind the letter Albert Einstein sent FDR that started work on the atomic bomb---and why Einstein himself never worked on the project.

Wasteland by Frederick Kaufman
What happens to what we flush, and how it might be worth more than we think.

Darwin and the Meaning of Flowers by Oliver Sacks
Darwin is of course famous for one particular book, but learn here how much of a botanist he was and how he figured out that plants rely on insects for pollination---a fact not known before he proved it.

Animalcules and Other Little Subjects by Mark A. Smith
I liked this one because it reminded me of a high school science project I enjoyed: keeping alive and observing a fishbowl of pond-water creatures.

Big Foot by Michael Specter
How carbon footprints can be amazingly difficult to figure out, and how putting a monetary value to carbon output helped (or rather, encouraged) companies to reduce their own outputs.

This edition includes two articles that were also included in this anthology:
Virtual Iraq by Sue Halpern
Contagious Cancer by David Quammen
Profile Image for Billie Pritchett.
1,099 reviews90 followers
June 29, 2016
This 2009 volume, edited by Elizabeth Kolbert, of The Best American Science and Nature Writing contains several essays worth reading. I'll detail all of them if I can.

Wendell Berry's "Faustian Economics" (pp. 1-10) argues that in addition to being immoral, the pursuit to exhaust natural resources and the avoidance of environmental protection is not economical in the broad sense of the term. That is, to treat natural resources as being limitless is to make a false assumption and does not allow for a realistic allocation of such resources.

John Broome's "Ethics of Climate Change" (pp. 11-18) analyzes various ethical debates surrounding climate change, including whether or not the costs of controlling climate change are more beneficial than not controlling it, whether the poor or rich (present or future) should bear most of the costs, and whether the generations that seek to benefit should play a factor in the decision, and how these ethical considerations will affect economic decisions regarding climate change.

Nicholas Carr's "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" (pp. 19-29) poses the question and provides an affirmative answer related to the issue of whether the ability to Google information and have complex interactions with technology will negatively affect human knowledge.

Chris Carroll's "High-Tech Trash" (pp. 30-38) is about American exportation of technology trash (for example, old TVs and computers) to African countries and China so that American companies and independent deals can get cash and so that African and Chinese people can salvage this technology for resources (for example, copper). This trash is burned, sometimes by children, producing damaging toxins into the air, which also adversely affect the people that burn it. And, moreover, this harvesting of technology for resources allows other countries to place the resources such as copper into American-imported products, like copper jewelry for example, but which often is harmful to one's body.

You know, actually I wanted to review the rest of the articles, but now I just feel tired and lazy, so I'm going to stop here. You should read this volume.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Myra Scholze.
247 reviews5 followers
November 28, 2018
I read half of this one and then had to leave it behind on my travels. I didn't love it nearly as much as the 2016 edition. The essays selected are more complex and less accessible. Still a great compilation, but definitely takes more brain power to digest.
442 reviews7 followers
July 18, 2021
As I've noted about other such anthologies, I find it a bit more interesting to read these collections about 10 years after they are written. Naturally there are numerous predictions and speculations about the future in these stories and it is interesting to compare then with now. As someone with a background in atmospheric science, the articles on the ethics of climate change and one on the PETM climate maximum were perhaps the most interesting. Since 2009 the Mauna Loa CO2 level has risen from about 390 to 420 ppm. That trend is certainly unabated. The increasing ecological disruptions occurring as a result not just of climate change but human behavior in general was also the subject of several interesting and ultimately sad pieces. 'Is Google Making Us Stupid?'. Yes that trend is on track. The most disturbing, by far was the last article about Ray Kurzweil and his quest for human immortality. I can think of nothing less ethical and more dangerous to the future of earth than this quest. Sounds really cool and neat for the lucky (very rich) few at first (talk about increasing 'inequality!') but were that to expand in any substantial way it is hard to imagine the problems that would ensue. I guess if we all become machines no one will care about the lack of beachfront property.
Profile Image for Numidica.
386 reviews8 followers
August 7, 2018
I love Elizabeth Kolbert, so I couldn't resist. There are always some essays in a collection like this that are keepers.
66 reviews
April 14, 2014
This is another strong entry in a winning series. The guest editor for this volume has written extensively about global warming. This subject comes up in a few of the entries selected. One such article, "Big Foot" by Michael Spector describes how corporations are taking the idea of their own carbon footprint seriously and trying to minimize it.

A couple of noted authors are included. Atul Gawande goes to great lengths to describe what happens when we scratch an itch in his entry "The Itch". Oliver Sacks examines Charles Darwin's fascination with flowers in "Darwin and the Meaning of Flowers". And Gary Wolf offers an update on the career of noted proponent of the singularity, Ray Kurzweil in "Stayin' Alive".

There is also an intriguing article about how we read and what the information onslaught is doing to the process of reading called "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" by Nicholas Carr. Other favorites include "Virtual Iraq" by Sue Halpern which describes efforts to treat Post Traumatic Stress Disorder by immersing the patient in a virtual reality simulator. Animals have long been a favorite subject for me and David Quammen does not disappoint as he follows researchers who are trying to save the Tasmanian devil from a cancer epidemic in "Contagious Cancer". Mark A. Smith takes a jarful of pond water and puts it under the microscope to reveal wonderment in "Animalcules and other Little Subjects".

As is the case with this series, not all entries are easy to understand. But I plow through them anyway in the hope of gaining some new insight. This series is great for allowing the reader to dip a toe into the sea of science and nature writing and come away with a better understanding of the questions we don't know the answers to yet.
Profile Image for Dan.
224 reviews8 followers
July 14, 2012
Collections like this are hard to review, because I typically read them in bits and pieces -- a story here, a story there -- in between other books. (Case in point, it took me around 15 months to read this book.) I've been a fan of the Best American series for a while, and buy a few of them every year. The Best American Science and Nature Writing is reliably fascinating, and the 2009 volume is no exception. There are bound to be a few duds in any book like this, but on the whole the articles chosen were well written and interesting. A couple of them I even went back and reread.

As I recall, the first few stories in the book were hit and miss, and the book also disappointingly ends on a story about Ray Kurzweil, which is something I just find tiring at this point. But the bulk of the book is fascinating, and you're unlikely to come across more than one or two stories in a row that aren't enjoyable.
Profile Image for Therese Broderick.
139 reviews8 followers
July 2, 2010
Twenty-six engrossing essays on fascinating topics related to human beings, animals, plants, Earth, the universe, and inventions. As a lay science fan, I appreciate the clear, precise prose which explains complex ideas and systems. Some essays are spirited and even funny; others are grim, not for the faint-hearted (ex., "Contagious Cancer"). An excellent collection full of surprises, whether woeful or wondrous.
Profile Image for Richard Williams.
86 reviews12 followers
July 6, 2010
i don't read many anthologies, i find them uninteresting and usually pretty basic, this is different. different enough that i gathered the rest of the series to read.

variety, with a common theme, good science, well written, interesting, for the common reader, nice idea, broadens my reading, perfect for short periods of time or when you dont want to be carrying around a big book.. . thanks.

read the itch first. ugh.
Profile Image for Ron.
386 reviews3 followers
July 9, 2010
Once again another fantastic book from the "Best American" series. A must read for anyone interested in science/nature or anyone who just enjoys learning new things. The only bad thing I have to say about the book is that it shares several of the same stories with the Best American Science Writing of 2009 book. Other than that it was a great read.
Profile Image for Rift Vegan.
329 reviews61 followers
February 5, 2011
This is the first book I've read in this series and I very much enjoyed most of the essays! The ones that really made an impression:
-- "Did Life Begin in Ice?" by Douglas Fox
-- "Contagious Cancer" by David Quammen (about the mouth tumors in Tasmanian Devils)
(oh and "The Itch" by Atul Gawande, made an impression, but I do wish I could get that image out of my head!) ;)
49 reviews1 follower
January 1, 2017
I really enjoyed the articles discussing the Big Bang, the Day Before Genesis, Singularities, Neanderthals, Evolution and Darwin (especially the essay by Oliver Sachs about Darwin's obsession with plants). Though this book is 5 years old, I feel as though it prepares me to have a deeper understanding of today's issues.
36 reviews
January 6, 2010
Can't get enough of this series (along with the Essays series). Most pieces in here are excellent, with only a few dull moments. I told everyone I know about "The Itch," which is just a great piece of writing: informative, imaginative, and insightful.
Profile Image for Kerry.
835 reviews102 followers
January 12, 2010
so much great information and writing in one place--I don't usually like non-fiction and won't read short stories but I find myself just loving in this book--if you are interesting in all the exciting new stuff that science is finding out, you need to pick up this book.
24 reviews3 followers
January 17, 2010
I love this series and look forward to it every year. However, this is the first one of the series that I can't give 5 stars. Somehow the articles included just don't grab me the way the ones in the previous editions have. Still very good, though, with lots to think about.
Profile Image for Taffnerd.
167 reviews4 followers
January 13, 2010
So far it's not as amazing as the 2008 collection but there is someting for everyone here: evolution, outer space, compulsive itching and pahntom limbs. Science is awesome!!!
Profile Image for Judd.
43 reviews1 follower
January 16, 2010
Damn fine collection of thought-provoking science essays that challenge and inform, and not a one inspired boredom.
Profile Image for Erin.
9 reviews
April 2, 2014
Some pieces were more interesting than others, but I definitely learned some new things.
Profile Image for Annie.
292 reviews
Shelved as 'started-but-put-down'
May 18, 2010
this book is going to be something i dip into from time to time. love what i've read so far!
20 reviews
April 12, 2010
I look forward to this series for past 8 yrs .Enjoy the different authours
Profile Image for Meghan.
59 reviews82 followers
September 16, 2020
The Wendell Berry "Faustian Economics" essay is excellent.
Profile Image for Alice.
381 reviews
June 1, 2010
I recommend the story: minds of their own. about the intelligence of animals.
Profile Image for Cole.
425 reviews14 followers
June 16, 2010
There's an article about a woman who SCRATCHED THROUGH HER SKULL.
62 reviews2 followers
July 11, 2010
Much better than the 2008 edition. The editor did a good job of pulling in interesting articles from many sources.
Profile Image for Melissa.
796 reviews15 followers
March 2, 2011
I <3 science. If I had it to do over again, I'd at least minor in biology.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 32 reviews

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