By Barbara J. King
November 19, 2014
IDEAS
Barbara J. King is a biological anthropologist at the College of William and Mary.

My bedside table holds a jumble of fiction and non-fiction books, since in my reading I trade off across genres. In any given week, my mood swings between a desire to lose myself in the vivid writing of novelists who create imaginary worlds and a competing wish to keep up with breaking knowledge in science. Sometimes, though, vivid writing and scientific material happily collide in a single volume, as it has done in The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2014.

Edited by the Pulitzer-Prize winning writer Deborah Blum, this book isn’t, of course, fiction. It is a work of science, not a novel. But it does contain worlds of imagination, as 26 scientists and science writers offer enticing essays spanning mutliple disciplines and topics. (I am honored to be included for a piece I wrote called “When Animals Mourn” that originally appeared in Scientific American and is based on my book How Animals Grieve.)

In her introduction, Blum promises readers “stories that range from the shimmer of deep space to the wayward nature of a wild sheep,” tales that show “the stumbles and the hopes, the the unexpected ideas and unexpected beauty” of doing science.

Several of the chapters focus on the body, health and disease. Do you know which is the most infectious microbe in the world, with a 90% rate of transmission? I didn’t, until reading Seth Mnookin‘s chapter “The Return of Measles” (originally published in The Boston Globe Magazine). “The fact that measles can live outside the human body for up to two hours,” Mnookin writes, “makes a potential outbreak all the more menacing.” Alarmingly, parents who refuse to allow their children to be vaccinated against measles and other diseases turn this theoretical public-health risk into a risk quite concrete: In 2013 an unvaccinated 17-year-old from Brooklyn caught the virus while in the UK, and once he returned home it spread rapidly through a community where many other deliberately unvaccinated children lived. Fifty-eight people came down with measles, making it, Mnookin says, “the largest outbreak in the country in more than 15 years.” The costs–health- and money-wise–were significant. Measles may be fatal, as it was during France’s recent prolonged outbreak: in 2007 only 44 measles infections were reported there; over the next four years, Mnookin notes, 20,000 people were sickened, almost 5,000 people were hospitalized, and 10 died.

By contrast, a disease that’s still greatly misunderstood–and feared–as highly contagious isn’t at all. Rebecca Solnit‘s piece “The Separating Sickness” (first published in Harper’s Magazine) profiles people who have Hansen’s Disease, also known as leprosy. Somehow I’d thought that this condition was no longer present in the U.S., but in 2011, 173 people were diagnosed with it in this country. The U.S.’s largest leprosy clinic is located in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Solnit’s profile of what goes on there is informative and inspiring. “Contrary to long-standing belief,” Solnit writes, leprosy “is very nearly the least contagious contagious disease on earth. Ninety-five percent of us are naturally immune to the disease, and the rest have a hard time catching it.” Yet those who did catch it in past decades suffered not only physically (with skin lesions and sometimes the need for amputation of limbs owing to neuropathy) but also emotionally, because of the disease’s terrible stigma. At places like the Baton Rouge clinic, that stigma has vanished (though, sadly, it persists in other places). And, if the disease is caught early, the cure may be total.

It’s a real challenge, it seems to me, for the human brain to assess relative risks accurately. We see this also with the Ebola epidemic in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, specifically in the fear and anxiety that regional epidemic has caused for people living in other parts of the world. This striking map of Africa without Ebola and its accompanying text puts the matter into perspective. Yet when isolated cases occur in the U.S. or European countries, panic has ensued, along with disturbing patterns of discrmination against people thought (incorrectly) to be possible sources of contamination through casual contact. (As scientists have widely reported, the virus is transmitted during the acute phase of the illness via bodily fluids.)

Mnookin’s and Solnit’s chapters intersect powerfully with one about the effect of sudden, violent and debilitating trauma on the body and the mind. In “A Life-or-Death Situation” (originally published in The New York Times Magazine), Robin Marantz Henig describes the day when a retired English professor named Brooke Hopkins goes out for a bicycle ride in Utah canyon country and collides with another cyclist. Gravely injured, with a snapped neck, Hopkins stopped breathing but is revived on the trail; his living will, a document unknown to his rescuer, had specified no heroic measures in the case of catastrophic injury or illness. In one of life’s dark ironies, his wife Peggy Battin is a well-known scholar in the bioethics of end-of-life decisions. In captivating prose, Henig recounts the twisting course over the next years as Hopkins copes–just as happens with sufferers of Hansen’s Disease–in rollercoaster ways both physical and emotional. He catapults from good to poor health, from steely determination to shaky hesitation about wanting to continue on.

Henig’s was one of the pieces in the book that affected me mostly deeply, perhaps because I know that what happened to Hopkins and Battin could happen to any of us when we begin an apparently routine day with a bicycle ride: at some subconscious level, our brains know the risk of trauma exists, but we don’t dwell on it, and surely this is the right approach. (We would do better to be alarmed daily at the rising costs of anthropogenic climate change, after all.)

Since the Paleolithic age, when we gathered in small groups in front of glorious cave images of animals or around a community fire to weave tales of the natural world, we humans have learned best through storytelling. The Best American Science And Nature Writing 2014 is a modern-day equivalent, in written form, of those conversations, this time between science writer and science-intrigued reader.

Barbara J. King is a biological anthropologist at the College of William and Mary who teaches, writes and speaks about animal studies, primate behavior, human evolution and evolutionary perspectives on gender. Her latest book is How Animals Grieve, published in 2013.

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