Critical views of science in the news

Cool Sh*t I’ve Read Lately


I get tired, now and then, of being such a sourpuss--a Debbie Downer, as my girlfriend calls me, always complaining about something. The wrongness of drone strikes and neuro-weapons research, the downside of psychiatric drugs and tests for cancer, hype about optogenetics and deep brain stimulation and theories of cosmic creation.

Praising The New Yorker is like cheering the Yankees, but the magazine consistently produces excellent long-form science journalism.

I want to be positive! And I find lots of stuff to be positive about, in particular well-written articles about compelling topics. I often clip or print out these articles, intending to write about them, but I seldom do, because I don't know what to say beyond, "I really like this. Check it out."

That's why, starting now, I'm going to write a monthly post called "Cool Sh*t I've Read Lately." It's a totally idiosyncratic, arbitrary list, biased toward publications to which I subscribe, stuff people send me, links that catch my eye on Twitter or Facebook. I'm excluding material that's behind a pay wall or from Scientific American. I have a big backlog, so this month's list includes articles published more than a month ago. From now on I'll (try to) stick to things published within the previous month. Here goes:

"The Case for Blunders," by Freeman Dyson, New York Review of Books, March 6, 2014. The eminent physicist Dyson, who is incapable of being less than fascinating, reviews Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein. Dyson notes that one measure of scientists' greatness is whether they are "good losers" when they err. By this criterion, Einstein and Darwin were great, Linus Pauling, Lord Kelvin and Fred Hoyle less so. Dyson also discloses his own "brilliant blunder," which involved a "new law of nature" that turned out not to exist.

"Space Ripples Reveal Big Bang's Smoking Gun," by Dennis Overbye, New York Times, March 17, 2014. Even when I don't agree with him—in this case, on whether recent cosmic-microwave observations provide "smoking gun" evidence of inflation—I love reading Overbye, whose exalted poetry makes me remember why I fell in love with cosmology and particle physics decades ago.

"Why Can't We All Just Get Along?" by Robert Wright, The Atlantic, November 2013. Wright, an old friend, plunges into research on the biology of morality, ponders whether science can help us derive a "single planetary moral philosophy" and proposes that "mindfulness meditation" can help make the world a better place. Wright is a brilliant, insanely ambitious thinker, and I always have to think long and hard to figure out why he is wrong.

"The War on Reason," by Paul Bloom, The Atlantic, March 2014. Calmly, clearly, Yale psychologist Bloom rescues free will—and the concept of moral progress--from the rising tide of determinism that has infected modern science.

"Catching the Stars," by Lee Billings, Aeon Magazine, September 2013. Billings transforms an in-depth portrait of extraordinary telescope-maker Roger Angel into a moving reflection on our tragically flawed species.

"A Star in a Bottle," by Raffi Khatchadourian, New Yorker, March 3, 2014. What starts out as a sympathetic, upbeat, gee-whiz report on the prospects for harnessing nuclear fusion ends up becoming something more like an obituary for a troubled research program.

"Making It," by Evgeny Morozov, New Yorker, January 13, 2014. Tech critic Morozov explores how ostensibly anti-authoritarian, grass-roots, do-it-yourself movements--like the one catalyzed by The Whole Earth Catalogue decades ago--end up being coopted by the powerful corporate and political institutions that the movements purport to challenge. Morozov annoys a lot of people, but the guy speaks truth to power in an era of dispiriting intellectual timidity.

"The Intelligent Plant," by Michael Pollan, New Yorker, December 23, 2013. Are plants intelligent? Do they remember? Do they have free will? Who the hell knows, but I loved learning from Pollan about how researchers in "plant neurobiology" are plunging into these bottomless philosophical debates.

I would have listed at least one other New Yorker article, Elizabeth Kolbert's fantastic two-part essay "The Lost World," published in December, about the new and old science of mass extinction, but it's behind a pay wall. Praising The New Yorker is like cheering the New York Yankees, but let's face it, The New Yorker consistently produces the best long-form science journalism out there.

Speaking of great New Yorker journalism, I was saddened to hear that Jonathan Shell just died. (Read David Remnick's moving tribute to Shell.) Shell's terrifying, three-part series on nuclear weapons, "The Fate of the Earth," published in The New Yorker in 1982, inspired me to become a journalist.

Addendum: Feel free to name your own favorite articles below.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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