Gene Expression

Chad is complaining that The Best American Science Writing 2008 is too focused on biomedical science. He finds it especially lame that there’s no physics when this was the year of the LHC. Here’s what I found in the contents….

Amy Harmon, Facing Life with a Lethal Gene
Richard Preston, An Error in the Code
Thomas Goetz, 23anMe Will Decode Your DNA for $1,000. Welcome to the Age of Genomics
Carl Zimmer, Evolved for Cancer
Tara Parker-Pope, How NIH Misread Hormone Study in 2002
Gardiner Harris, Benedict Carey, and Janet Roberts, Psychiatrists, Children and Drug Industry’s Role
Daniel Carlat, Dr. Drug Rep
Tina Rosenberg, When Is a Pain Doctor a Drug Pusher
Jerome Groopman, What’s Normal
Sally Satel, Supply, Demand, and Kidney Transplants
Oliver Sacks, The Abyss
Ben McGrath, Muscle Memory
Margaret Talbot, Duped
Stephen S. Hall, The Older-and-Wiser Hypothesis
Al Gore, Moving Beyond Kyoto
Jim Yardley, Beneath Booming Cities, China’s Future Is Drying Up
Joseph Kahn, In China, a Lake’s Champion Imperils Himself
John Seabrook, Sowing for Apocalypse

I see only one physical science pure play in the list. Looks like Chad has a point.


  1. #1 MIchael
    February 10, 2009

    Hmmm, two things:

    1) Biomedical is where it’s at these days. LHC might be new and interesting but BM has the “momentum” behind it. Physics has been largely “mapped” out for our lifetimes.

    2) Lay people are much more interested in BM, since it’s much more relevant to there lives; LHC, sadly, most educated people don’t even know about.

  2. #2 Juuro
    February 10, 2009

    PNAS (Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences), as well as PLOS (Public Library of Science), although claiming in their names to represent all sciences, show a very clear concentration on biological sciences. Plos ONE has perhaps a dozen subdivisions of biomedics, whereas physics is a single monolithic remnant.

  3. #3 razib
    February 10, 2009

    PLOS focuses on the biosciences very consciously. the physical sciences have ArXiv. biosciences has a particular problem re: OA.

  4. #4 justme
    February 10, 2009

    One way to understand major trends in the sciences today is to realize how much mainstream bio-medical research, computer science, and even economics and academic finance is becoming, or trying very hard to become, more like physics. For its part, physics is trying equally (or perhaps just slightly less) hard to get into these disciplines. Just as a matter of definition though, wouldn’t putting too much store by the physics-biology apparent disjunction be like, er, revivifying ‘vitalism’ and its various, er, incarnations?

  5. #5 Jason Malloy
    February 10, 2009

    This post obviates the need to buy the book.

  6. #6 outeast
    February 12, 2009

    Maybe it’s a matter of what decent writers who are writing for a lay audience actually cover? I don’t think it’s a matter of preferences so much as it is of what can be conveyed without really damn hard maths…

    I reckon I fall pretty much exactly in the key market demographic for this kind of writing – interested and moderately intelligent but only semi-numerate and unqualified to understand hard science. So I can read Zimmer on parasitism, for example, and really feel excited that I have learned and understood something new – but cutting-edge physics (hell, plenty that isn’t at all cutting-edge!) is just too damn counter-intuitive.

    That said, when the LHC actually starts generating results I think we’ll see a surge in physics writing… Oh, and calling 2008 ‘the year of the LHC’ when the blasted machine blew a fuse so quickly and has been waiting for the electrician ever since is perhaps stretching things a bit. Maybe 2009 with be… or 2010…

  7. #7 razib
    February 12, 2009

    it’s demand side. e.g., SEED sells more with biology related covers than physics ones.

  8. #8 Outeast
    February 12, 2009

    That does not contradict my suggestion. If popular science writing on physics is more confusing or unrewarding for the lay reader than similar writing on biology, that will be reflected in reader choices. There’s absolutuly mindblowing stuff in physics, but it tends to be far less amenable to compelling, persuasive, and comprehensible storytelling.

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