Book review: The Open Laboratory: The Best Science Writing on Blogs 2009

By Grant Jacobs 28/02/2010

The Open Laboratory offers 50 of the best writing that science blogs gave over 2009.

You know the WWW is the source when the editor is listed by their pseudonym! Scicurious edits, with Blake Stacey as production editor and Bora Zivkovic the series editor.

It’s available for the princely sum of $US 15.50 from Lulu in either book form, or as a download. The PDF version includes links to sources. (Those new to Lulu may want my tips in the footnotes.)

The volume opens with with a poem (Beyond Energy, by Kristopher Hite), a refreshing start that caught me slightly off guard. It’s bookended with another poem: My Personal Genome Project by The Digital Cuttlefish.

Next in line, editor Scicurious’ Preface introduces science blogs, to quote, we scientists and science writers:

do our geeky best to fight ignorance and hype, and to show people just how useful, and cool, science can be

(I’d add that one more thing that people can get from science blogs is to they are ask scientists things and can engage in conversation. More than just seeing science and scientists for what they really are: they can interact with them. It’s something I don’t see enough of.)

She rightfully hopes that this volume can extend the reach of the science blogs further into ’living rooms and offices around the world’ and looking at it, I hope it does.

There’s 50 articles. That’s precisely 31¢ per article, if anyone cares.

I can’t possibly review all 50 articles in any realistic amount of time! This leaves me with something of a dilemma, as I have to hope that the subset I choose is representative of the total.

Firstly, I’m familiar with many of the writers and know these writer’s high standards. That in itself should speak volumes: some of the writers are among the best science writers out there.

Most articles are fairly short, as is the usual format on blogs. (With exceptions. Seeing Orac name I expected a longer piece from him and while not as long as some of his, err–can we say entertaining, and educating, rants?–it was, indeed, longer as are others in the anthology.) There are a wide range of styles, as you’d expect.

To review this, I decided to skim the total contents, focusing on those who I was unfamiliar with, as I know the strengths of those with who I am familiar. I’m not going to mention them all: please don’t feel unset if a favourite isn’t included. I’ll give a little away where I feel it won’t hurt to try give readers some feel for the content. Some I’ve left out as any comment would be too much of a spoiler. This isn’t a ’best of’; I left a few of my favourites out. The complete list of articles are given in a footnote.

Jon Lomberg, an artist inspired by astronomy, describes his part in sending messages to whatever other life in space might find it, including the copper phonograph–record, for those stranded in the digital age–strapped (as it were) on to the side of Voyager 2. More than most he can say that some of his work has travelled a long way from home.

Dr. Jekyll follows with a delightfully tongue-in-cheek account of her measurements of her breast milk production as only a scientist could: comparing pumping and slurping, and the performance of Lefty with Righty.

Where Martin Rundkvist remarks upon on dumping gravestones, Chris Kamel examines a quintessentially male question: the composition of beer and why it ought to have a head.

’Flight surgeon and specialist in space medicine’ Michael Barratt blogs from the space station.

Keeping his feet (and science) well-grounded, Marc West’s piece opens with ’A recent publication has stated that ’more than half of all Britons have been injured by biscuits.’’ Uh-huh.

Ambivalent Academic writes about what she is ambivalent about in a long (and wonderful) examination of academia; Zen Faulkes thumps home why he thinks the days of Carl Sagan and their ilk really have gone, or at least why he not next in line for their throne.

In a theme seen in several articles, Marianne Freiberger provides a fine example of one group of researchers catching out another. (Science is never ’resolved’ at the point a paper is published… Journalists reading this take note, please.)

Anyone who has read a little on the more virulent influenzas will have heard the term ’cytokine storm,’ which Revere explains. Still related to infectious disease, this time on the side of prevention, David Dobbs pitches in with a lightened, and enlightening, history of vaccine adjuvants.

Eva Amsen pokes fun segueing from freebies on offer at laboratory equipment sales-fests, to her favourite–Squishy Cow–and on to fetal bovine serum and more.

Janet Stemwedel, whose clarity of thinking I admire–and the clarity of her writing of her thinking–takes on the tricky subject of animal research.

Social insects, like bees, don’t suffer from the effects of irregular work hours as we do: Bora Zivkovic explains why.

Crystallographer Stephen Curry reveals to us some very open-access science publications, which include the reviewers comments, and goes on to dissect the science, the publishing approach used and his thoughts on them.

Geologist Garry Hayes looks at the geologic history of the Colorado Plateau. It’s great seeing the long view on a landscape, something non-geologists don’t see.

Peter Watts decides to step outside his usual coverage and head-butt climate change denial. In contrasting style, Alexis Madrigal schmoozes into Sleep Paralysis, if you can schmooze into something terrifying.

There’s even a comic strip, Zach Weiner’s How Science ReportingWorks, and the population biology of vampires and zombies. The Hollywood kind. (By Southern Fried Science)

I’m going to stop this with DeLene Beeland’s Genital mimicry, social erections and spotted hyenas. (’Spotted hyenas have two kinds of erections: sexual erections for reproduction, and social erections for… well, socializing.’)

There’s just too much for one sitting, even by skimming, and skipping over many of those I’m already familiar with.

The writing is great, as expected, but I have a few quibbles, even if they are barely worth mentioning. There is a distinct leaning to biology and medicine. These are probably easier to ’connect’ with for most people, but it’s a pity we’re not seeing more from other disciplines. [Please see Footnote 0.] The illustrations are in grey-scale, as is appropriate for a modest-budget production; this shouldn’t be seen as a negative, but it does mean that some more ‘visual’ blog styles are understandably not represented.

And, oh yeah, I want to see some more countries represented. Especially New Zealand, of course!


0. Offerings biased to particular fields… reflect biased submissions.

As part of my qualifications are computer science, I am allowed to count from zero. (Actually, I’m using this as an excuse to pre-pend this to the footnotes after the fact.)

At the time I suspected the leanings to biology (medicine, neuroscience…) reflected the submissions, rather than editorial selection and should have said so. According to the editor and looking at the original submissions it does.

Readers can read the editor’s comments on my review on her blog, Neurotopia.

1. Further credits

Not to be left out, the layout is by Reed A. Cartwright, Maria Brumm and Blake Stacey. IT geeks will rejoice that was typeset in LATEX. There’s an index, giving access to the authors and keywords or terms.

2. Contents of Open Laboratory

Beyond Energy, Kristopher Hite

Preface, Scicurious

1. Life as a Laboratory

Astronomical Art: Representing Planet Earth, Jon Lomberg

Breastatistics, Dr. Jekyll

Making the Archaeological Record, Martin Rundkvist

Aspartame and Audrey, Joshua Howgego

You Aren’t What Your Mother Eats, Marianne Freiberger

The Pressure to Preserve, Michelle M. Francl

Good Head, Chris Kamel

Cosmopithecus, Michael Barratt

A sorry saga–the crumbling cookie, MarcWest

2 The Laboratory as a Life

What Exactly am I Ambivalent About?, Ambivalent Academic

In which I ramp up, Jennifer Rohn

The Glamour of Marine Biology, Todd Oakley

Why you didn’t really want the job: the Waiting for Godot edition, Kristen Marhaver

I Want to be Carl Sagan, but Can’t, Zen Faulkes

Start Seeing Micro-Inequities, FemaleScienceProfessor

The Aquiline Nose, Anna Barros

Bittersweet, Whitecoat Tales

3 Science and Society

How Science Reporting Works, ZachWeiner

Male Chauvinist Chimps or the Meat Market of Public Opinion?, Eric Michael Johnson

The Weird History of Vaccine Adjuvants, David Dobbs

Charles Channels Isaac. . . or the Principles of The Origin, Tom Levenson

The Grid of Disputation, Sean Carroll

Academia: Slowing down the search for cures?, Orac

Why H1N1 (’Swine’) Flu Is Resistant to Adamantane Drugs, Nick Anthis

More on the Science of the Influenza ’Cytokine Storm’, Revere

4 Societal Science

The Rightful Place of Science in Society and the African-American Community, Danielle N. Lee

A Squishy Topic, Eva Amsen

Impediments to Dialogue about Animal Research, Janet Stemwedel

Eye-Opening Access, Stephen Curry

Betting on the Poor Boy: Whorf Strikes Back, Mark Liberman

Because As We All Know, The Green Party Runs the World., Peter Watts

It’s official: we really have saved the ozone layer, Chris Rowan

5 Train Your Brain

Sleep Paralysis, Alexis Madrigal

Does faking amnesia permanently distort your memory?, Dave Munger

Addiction and Opponent-Process Theory, Scicurious

Brain and behaviour of dinosaurs, Moheb Costandi

Why social insects do not suffer from ill effects of rotating and night shift work, Bora Zivkovic

Blood and Brains–can vampires survive a zombie apocalypse?, Southern Fried Science

6 Do the Evolution

How Research Saved the Large Blue Butterfly, Ed Yong

And the Old World Passed Away… The Geologic History of the Colorado Plateau, Garry Hayes

The Origin of Big, Carl Zimmer

The Incredible Shrinking Genome, Iddo Friedberg

Spermophilus, Chris Clarke

Maiacetus–The Good Mother Whale, Brian Switek

Deep Sea Corals andMethane Seeps, Kevin Zelnio

Genital mimicry, social erections and spotted hyenas, T. DeLene Beeland

The First Great Mammoth, JohnMcKay

Darwin’s Degenerates–Evolution’s Finest, Christie Wilcox

7 In Closing

My Personal Genome Project, The Digital Cuttlefish


3. Articles, not ’posts’…

I have to admit I prefer to refer to these blog entries as articles rather than ’posts’. The origins of the terms follow from personal web logs (weblogs, truncated to ’blogs and so on), I find it somewhat demeaning for works that are not personal journal notes to be called ’posts’.

4. Tips for Lulu registration and shipping rates

You’ll need to register to this to purchase your copy.

If you’re in a hurry, as I was, the Lulu registration involves too many try and fail loops as far too many registration schemes do. With that in mind, some tips to make it easier for you:

1. The ’store name’ does not refer to an existing store name, but a character string you invent to provide personalised access for yourself to their site.

2. The store name character string cannot have any non alphabetical or non-numeric character. (You have to fail to be told this!)

3. Each time you try and fail a store name, it’ll toss away your passwords, which you then have to re-type. I suggest not entering a password until the registration form stops objecting that your chosen store name is already taken or invalid. (IT might agree that they ought to be using AJAX to check the store name element without refreshing the registration page.)

The value presented in dollars is not in whatever your local dollars are, but $US. I know this is trite, but I’m tired of international commerce sites not being clear about the currency. The clue to this is in a pull-down at the bottom of the page.

I’m bit uncertain as if I have this right, but it seems as if the shipping rate is the same wherever you are: $US7.99, or $US21.99 for express.


My thanks for Bora for providing a review copy of Open Laboratory 2009.

Other book-related articles on Code for life:

Lab lit: for bookworms who like the science to be plausible

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

Book review: Victorian Popularizers of Science

Book excerpt — Losing the faces of your wife and children

Royal science

Science book suggestions for Christmas

Explore ancient science books on-line

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