The New York Times Book of Science: A book review by Bob Morris

Posted on: January 16th, 2017 by bobmorris

The New York Times Book of Science: More than 150 Years of Groundbreaking Scientific Coverage
David Corcoran, Editor
Sterling Publishing Group (2015)

How “progress in science extends the reach of certainty into precisely articulated realms of uncertainty”

In the Foreword, Brian Greene observes, “We scientists are just as protective of what we know as we are of what we don’t. Our ignorance is a precious commodity. It not only defines the boundary of understanding but provides the terra incognito that beckons exploration and, on rare occasion, plays host to a remarkable new insight…The point is that there is uncertainty on the frontier of knowledge — which is what makes science exciting — but there is a core of scientific insight that you can count on. Einstein’s discovery of the General Theory of Relativity does not mean your effort in high school physics to understand Newtonian gravity was a waste of time. Unlike that ultra skinny tie in your closet, deep scientific understanding doesn’t go out of fashion.”

This unique and invaluable anthology consists of 125 contributions that have been edited by David Corcoran. Are they the best as yet published in The New York Times since September 18, 1851? “No, let’s say most representative — articles from more than a century and a half of science reporting.” They document what Greene refers to as the progress in science that “extends the reach of certainty into precisely articulated realms of uncertainty.” I agree with Corcoran: “This book is less survey course than nonfiction narrative, a newspaper story — in its own words — of the evolution of science journalism over an immensely consequential period for both science and journalism.”

These are among the several dozen subjects of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to suggest the scope of the contributors’ coverage in Chapters 1-6:

o “Tut-Ankh-Amen’s Inner Tomb Is Opened, Revealing Undreamed-Of Splendors, Still Untouched After 3,400 Years,” 1923 (Pages 2-8)

o “Peering Back in Time, Astronomers Glimpse Galaxies Aborning,” John Noble Wilford, 1998 (30-35)
o “What Happened Before the Big Bang?” Dennis Overbuy, 2003 (36-37)
o “The New Solar Theory,” 1939 (39-40)
o “If Theory Is Right, Most of the Universe Is Still ‘Missing’,” William J. Broad, 1984 (67-70)

o “50 Years Later, Rosalind Franklin’s X-Ray Still Fuels Debate,” Denise Grady, 2003 (99-101)

o “U.S. Satellites Find Radiation Barrier,” John W. Finney, 1958 (127-129)
o “Mercilessly Unpredictable, Quakes Defy Seismologists,” Sandra Blakeslee, 2004 (147-149)

o “A Tree’s Life Through Thirteen Centuries,” 1908 (158-162)
o “The Endangered West,” 1995 (171-173)

o “Perry Discovers the North Pole After Eight Trials in 23 Years,” 1909 (200-203)
o “A Clash of Polar Frauds and Those Who Believe,” John Tierney, 2009 (209-212)
o “Amundsen Describes His Polar Dash,” 1912 (213-217)
o “Down in Davey Jones’s Locker,” William Beebe, 1930 (218-225)
o “Soviet Fires Earth Satellite into Space,” William J. Jorden, 1957 (233-235)
o “U.S. Satellite Is ‘Working Nicely’,” John W. Finney, 1958 (236-240)
o “Glenn Orbits Earth 3 Times Safely,” Richard Witkin, 1962 (245-252)
o “Men Walk on Moon,” John Noble Wilford, 1969 (253-261)
o “The Shuttle Explodes,” William J. Broad, 1986 (271-276)

Here in Dallas, near the downtown area, we have a Farmer’s Market at which some of the vendors offer free slices of fresh fruit as samples. In the same spirit, I now a few brief excerpts from the remaining seven chapters, 7-13:

“In the midst off this constant and complex struggle for existence, there is a formative principle ever at work modifying the structure of organized beings. This, Mr. Darwin calls the law of Natural Selection. The doctrine of Natural Selection is the radical thought of the book.” From a review of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life, March 28, 1860

“The turtle’s core morphology has changed little over time, and today’s 250 0r so living species all display an unmistakable resemblance to the earliest turtle fossils…’Turtles can persist in habitats where little else can survive,’ said Dr. J. Whitfield Gibbons, a professor of ecology at the University of Georgia in Athens.” (Slow is Beautiful, Natalie Angier, December 12, 2006)

“As traffic between Moscow and the KGB office in New York increased in volume, the Russians apparently ran out of numbers and committed the cryptographer’s cardinal sin. They repeated themselves, betraying details of Soviet espionage efforts on American soil. The spell of randomness was broken, and meaning began seeping in.” (The Spies’ Code and How It Broke, George Johnson, July 16, 1995)

“All the same, if Professor Goddard’s rocket attains sufficient speed before it passes out of our atmosphere — which is a thinkable possibility — and if its aiming takes into account all of the many deflective forces that will affect its flight, it may reach the moon. That the rocket could carry enough explosive to make on impact a flash large and bright enough to be seen from the earth by the biggest of our telescopes — that will be believed when it is done.” (A Severe Strain on Credulity, January 13, 1920)

“The list of applications of miniaturization runs on seemingly without end. And around the electronics industry there are rumors that somewhere, in some laboratory, really miniature work is being done which will soon make integrated chips seem big and old fashioned. Exactly what that means, or will mean, is still a matter for guessing. One thing is certain: Miniaturization will unalterably change our lives and the lives of our children far beyond recognition. From tiny chips, and perhaps tiny chips of chips, the world of the future will grow.” (The “Chip” Revolutionizes Electronics, Charles Leedham, September 18, 1965)

* * *

Those who share my high regard for this book are urged to check out The Story of Western Science: From the Writings of Aristotle to the Big Bang Theory, written by Susan Wise Bauer and published by W.W. Norton & Company (2015). In it, she “traces the development of great science writing – the essays and books that have most directly affected and changed the course of scientific investigation. It is intended for the interested and intelligent nonspecialist. It shows science to be a very human pursuit: not an infallible guide to truth, but a deeply personal, sometimes flawed, often misleading, frequently brilliant way of understanding the world.”

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