Scratching open your brain in your sleep and other stories (Best American Science Writing 2009)

By Grant Jacobs 22/10/2009

Among a wide range of topics, this book explains why one woman scratched through to her brain in her sleep. More on that later.

The Best American Science Writing 2009

This is the latest of a series of books where a respected writer of a genre gathers in one place their pick of the best full-length articles of their genre for the year from top-end publications. The series covers a wide range, replace the ‘Science’ in the title with any of: Science and Nature, Technology, Essays, Travel, Sports, Political, Magazine, Medical, Crime Reporting, or Legal.

The full introduction, table of contents, the first three pages of some of the stories, and the biographies of the contributors of the Science edition for 2009, edited by Natalie Angier & Jesse Cohen, are available at the publisher’s website. The on-line material closes with the list of permissions, giving the original sources of the articles. The current edition offers 24 stories.

Natalie Angier (Pulitzer Prize, American Association for the Advancement of Science journalism award and others) opens her introduction to the book by saying that the most frequently question in her mail are queries by aspiring science writers for advice. She replies in her introduction:

These days, I don’t know where to begin, or whom to scold more vigorously: the supplicant or myself. Dear Reader, you want to be a science writer? Have you lost you carbon-based buckeyballs? […]

She writes for several pages on this topic before introducing the stories in the book; you can read this on-line for free.

As I don’t have a review copy, I can only comment from the introduction and the chapter excerpts on-line. These show this latest edition continues the usual high-standard of this series. Articles cover a wide range, from whether fetuses can experience pain (apparently they can), blocking the transmission of violence, why with African blue monkeys it that the females that do the fighting, to a contagious form of cancer (in the Tasmanian devil). The book closes with satire from The Onion. (Those new to The Onion should interpret their use of the word “news” liberally.)

What about that woman who scratched through to her brain? One story is about pathological itching; as Angier recounts in her introduction, one woman woke with green goo on her face. Apparently overnight she had scratched through her skull; the greenish goo was brain fluid. Who needs horror fiction, when you’ve got that?

At least one local (New Zealand) on-line bookshop has stock available at $NZ24 ($NZ22 for the Science and Nature edition).

You could buy some trashy novel, or could could buy some top-drawer science writing… what’s it going to be? No contest, surely.

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