Best Physical Science Writing of 2008?

I didn’t expect the post griping about the Best American Science Writing anthology to generate as much discussion as it did. Shows what I know.

In comments, “bsci” made a good suggestion:

Instead of complaining about this volume, I’d love it if you and your readers made a list of the best physics writing in the past year. I assure you that I would be one of many readers of the pieces on the list.

That’s a good suggestion, so let’s put it out there: What were the best articles about physical sciences published last year? These could be in general magazines (The New Yorker, etc.), in science magazines (Scientific American, Seed, etc.), in books, or on blogs and other online media. “Physical Sciences” here means, well, anything that would go in the “Physical Sciences” channel here on ScienceBlogs– physics, chemistry, geology, mathematics, computer science. Basically, anything that isn’t biomedical, as those were pretty well covered already.

A few suggestions from me, with one important caveat:

The caveat is this: I don’t particularly care for the story formula that tends to make it into these anthologies. Articles that alternate between tiny snippets of science and “quirky” anecdotes about scientists get real old, real fast. If you ask me to restrict my suggestions to New Yorker style articles, it’s going to be a real short list.

My preference in writing about science, particularly physics, is for pieces that offer straightforward explanations of interesting phenomena. So, for example, I thought the Wineland and Monroe Scientific American article on ion trap quantum computing was excellent.

In the comments to the original post, Bee joked that one of her pieces at Backreaction should’ve been picked. It would never make it with the Best American editors, but I did think her post about what mini-black holes at the LHC would really do was terrific. It’s a great antidote to the constant fearmongering seen elsewhere.

Finally, for something a little out of the ordinary, I thought Rhett’s Dot Physics post on videogame physics was fantastic. It provides a great look at both the detailed practice of basic physics, and also the mindset of a scientist. Science, at its most basic, is applied curiosity, and this post does a great job of showing how that works.

So, there are three examples of writing about physical sciences that stuck with me from the last year. What were your favorite pieces?


  1. #1 APP
    February 11, 2009

    Articles that alternate between tiny snippets of science and “quirky” anecdotes about scientists get real old, real fast.

    You mean like this one?

    A much better New Yorker article, but because it entirely focuses on the personality rather than the “science”, from Elizabeth Kolbert writing on Buckminster Fuller:

    The quirky anecdotes make this one (and perhaps are the essence of Bucky Fuller): “Fuller championed, and for many years adhered to, a dietary regimen that consisted exclusively of prunes, tea, steak, and Jell-O.” And, quoted from Fuller’s biographer: “One of the ways I could arrange this book would make Fuller’s talk seem systematic. I could also make it look like a string of platitudes, or like a set of notions never entertained before, or like a delirium.”

    It’s probably still not what you’re looking for, but it’s a good read, and it’s not biomedical.

  2. #2 APP
    February 11, 2009

    Oh, and this New Yorker piece was great, too:

    Atomic John: A truck driver uncovers secrets about the first nuclear bombs by David Samuels

    Also personality focused, rather than new science.

  3. #3 Chad Orzel
    February 11, 2009

    (Comment #2 edited to fix broken link)

  4. #4 gillt
    February 11, 2009

    Your caveat, Chad, is actually radical. Fresh from a masters in science writing from a great medical school, I can sadly say the storyline or narrative was the only–only!–format taught. Identity-centric, human interest writing was the only kind we were exposed to and the only type we submitted and workshopped. Spanning the New Yorker to WaPo, I believe this to be a pervasive and crucial weakness in science journalism. What’s needed are more review-of-the-literature type articles that expand on a theory or concept tailored for a general audience and far far less Gladwell.

    Thank you for this post.

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