The very name of this site makes clear our intentions. Blogcritics is about as democratic a review forum as can be found online. I do not mention this to blow our own horn, but rather to point out that titles can have a major impact on what a person chooses to read. A case in point is the newly released book The Best Science Writing Online 2012. Although I fancy myself a relatively intelligent guy, I do not regularly peruse “scientific” websites. Therefore, I had never read any of the 51 essays which are reproduced here. As I very quickly discovered though, any fears of this material being too technical for a layman such as myself were completely unfounded. The Best Science Writing Online 2012 is filled with fascinating (and easily understood) articles about all sorts of subjects.
One of the great things about a book such as this is that it is designed to be read any way you wish. Since each essay runs between five and ten pages, flipping through the book to a title that looks intriguing is a very simple way to start. I began with one that sounded provocative enough, “Freedom to Riot,” by Eric Michael Johnson. I assumed that this was written in response to the Occupy movement, and it may have been, but that is not the point of it at all.
What Mr. Johnson explores in the article is the psychology of mob mentality, and how rioting directly correlates to the conditions of a society. Now before you write this off as some bleeding-heart explanation that if the inequalities between rich and poor were eliminated, so would riots–hold up. What Johnson uses for examples are situations in which populations of monkeys were studied. What it reveals about basic simian instincts may or may not transfer to humans, but it makes for interesting reading no matter what.
The article was definitely intriguing, but a little on the dry side. So my next choice was “I Love Gin and Tonics,” by Matthew Hartings, and it did not disappoint. In the first couple of paragraphs, Hartings states that he does really like gin, or tonic. But he loves gin and tonics. How funny. So being a scientist, he breaks it down, and discovers that the molecular combination of gin, and that of tonic water are perfectly aligned. Voila! He now understands why he likes the drink so much. While it is easy for me to just say that I like a gin and tonic because I like the taste of it, I find it really cool to know why that particular taste goes together so well.
From booze it is a short step away to look at various forms of entertainment. And I can say without a doubt that there is a sport here that I would have never dreamed existed. It is called “chessboxing.” What could that possibly be? It is literally chess and boxing, combined. Here is the description, “Chessboxing is divided into eleven short, rapidly rotating rounds: six four-minute rounds of speed chess, alternated with five three-minute rounds of boxing. Winning is achieved by knockout (KO), or checkmate, or in the case of a draw, points determine the winner.”
You have got to be kidding! Here’s the picture I have, Mike Tyson vs. Bobby Fischer. While the very existence of such a bizarre hybrid sport was enough to pique my interest, the article goes much further. In “Chessboxing is Fighting for Good Behavior,” author Andrea Kuszewski argues that the discipline involved can be used across the board as a means to regulate one’s emotions. She explains that the biggest challenge for opponents is the switch from the adrenaline-filled physical act of boxing to the cold, logical state of mind needed for chess. By “training” oneself to be able to instantly switch gears from a highly-charged emotional state to a clear-headed mentality, a person might be able to avoid such terrible acts as domestic violence and road rage. It is a thought-provoking concept to say the least.
Those are but three of the 51 essays which first appeared online this past year. There were some which appealed to me far more than others. But as I have attempted to illustrate, the science in all of them is not to be feared, as the material was written with the general public in mind. That is to say that you do not need a Ph.D. to understand what is being expressed in these pages.
A few of the other subjects covered in the book include fungi, poisons, pirates, dodos, hurricanes, evolution, and astronomy. The Best Science Writing Online 2012 is one of the most engaging literary collections I have come across this year, and is well worth checking out.