My father was always drawing pictures of atoms on his paper napkins at dinner. He told my brother and me that the napkin, his pen, and his hand were all just atoms and empty space — more atoms than stars in the sky, but too small to see.
One summer evening after dinner, I fell out of the biggest maple tree in our back yard in Hillsdale, New Jersey, and clonked my head against the trunk. Then I sat under the tree with a feeling of destiny: I could see them. Someday, I decided woozily, I’d make a trip to Columbia University, where my father lectured about engineering and atomic theory. I’d stand at his blackboard (from which he used to bring us pieces of chalk), and I’d tell the world what it feels like when you see atoms shoot through empty space right before your eyes.
That was my first moment as a science writer. It was also one of the first moments in science writing, because the ancient Roman poet Lucretius spent much of his epic poem The Way Things Are trying to help his friends, fellow Romans, and countrymen imagine what it might be like to see atoms, a job that he did at least as well as anyone has done since. Lucretius also wrote brilliantly about life and death, ecology and evolution, religion and rationality, human perception and optical illusions; but his favorite subject was atomic theory.
In one famous passage, the poet told his readers to sit in a dark room, let the sunlight stream in through the slats in the shutters, and watch the dust motes in the sunbeams. Every bit of matter is that turbulent, he said; even if it looks as solid as marble, or our own living flesh, its atoms are perpetually whirling like dust in a room or sparks above a bonfire. Sometimes the atoms crash into each other. Sometimes they stick together to form a strand — a strand that may grow many atoms long, but is still much too small for us to see. And each of those strands (which we would now call molecules) gets hit on all sides by hundreds of atoms pounding into it. That’s why the dust motes dance in the air, Lucretius wrote. They dance because so many invisibly small atoms and molecules are always pummeling each bit of dust, though our human eyes cannot see “what urge compels the dancing.” Lucretius, the best science writer of all time, was born in the year 100 BCE, the same year as Julius Caesar. He wrote that passage about dust motes on papyrus around 45 BCE. Physicists no longer believe that atoms swoop around in a block of marble as freely as dust in a breeze. But they do believe that the atoms and molecules in the air or in a glass of water are perpetually crashing into each other. Albert Einstein proved the point in a paper that appeared one hundred years ago, in 1905, which the world remembers as Einstein’s “wonder year.” He calculated precisely how much a bit of grit would tend to wander and meander in a drop of water if the atomic hypothesis was correct. His calculations matched perfectly with a French experimentalist’s observations through a microscope. That paper of Einstein’s finally convinced physicists that the atomic theory is a powerful way to look at the universe. (So did his formula E _ mc2.) And forty years later, of course, with Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the whole world understood the power of the atomic theory.
A surprising amount of Lucretius’ poem looks spectacularly right today, apocalyptically correct. But poor Lucretius might be better remembered if he had written his epic about heroes, gods, and goddesses instead of atoms. Science writing is usually seen as a world apart even though its subjects surround us, fascinate us, and terrify us, even though at their best all of the arts and sciences share the same subject, which is the way things are.
So we are fortunate that so many fine science writers are working today. I am honored to have been invited to introduce The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2005. In spite of its title, of course, this anthology is only a small sampling of the best that appeared last year in the United States. There were enough good articles to fill this book a few times over. It’s been a pleasure to work with the series editor, Tim Folger, and Deanne Urmy at Houghton Mifflin, sifting through hundreds of articles that appeared on all facets of science and choosing twenty-five of the strongest.
We are learning so much now about the atoms and molecules in living flesh — the field of study known as molecular biology — that the life sciences are beginning to merge with the physical sciences, bringing prospects of new kinds of healing and new kinds of disaster. These discoveries and what we will do with them present some of the biggest themes for any writer in the first years of the third millennium. With this new science, a life science based on atoms, we can hope not only for new cures but also for new evolutionaryyyyy strides, new genetic enhancements. How do we balance our yearning for cures and enhancements with the chance that we may do ourselves and our species real harm?
In “Getting in Nature’s Way,” the fine writer and surgeon Sherwin B. Nuland quotes Montaigne, who warned us that we should not meddle too much with nature, because “she knows her business better than we do.” And Jenny Everett gives us a poignant case study of the enhancement question and the pain it can bring to patients and their families in her essay “My Little Brother on Drugs.” Everett’s kid brother, Alex, was nine when he got his first shot of a synthetic growth hormone called Humatrope. Alex’s doctors estimate that he might have grown to five feet six without the drug. They can’t say how much taller he will grow with it. So his big sister wonders whether it is worthwhile to submit Alex to the pain and discipline of the daily shots and the medicalizing of a short, healthy, happy kid. And besides giving Alex a chance to grow a few inches taller, what else will Humatrope do? The growth hormone is known to stimulate the body to make a protein called IGF-1. Some researchers think IGF-1 may turn out to be a central regulator of human aging. So while his doctors try to enhance Alex’s height, they may also be helping to decide, in ways that nobody can predict today, how long or short a time he will have to live.
Nothing at the edge of science and medicine stirs more passion today than the debate over stem cells. James McManus gives us both a political and a personal view of the subject in his polemic “Please Stand By While the Age of Miracles Is Briefly Suspended.” His daughter is diabetic, and he feels that President Bush is ruining medicine’s chances of saving her. And Connie Bruck gives us a valuable look at the politics of stem cells in “Hollywood Science.” California has been a microcosm of the national debate over stem cell policy, and the debate will be analyzed for years, so Bruck’s report from the Western Front is likely to be read and reread by historians and politicians. The debate is so polarized that it is hard to see the way things are: how much Hollywood there is in stem cells and how much real promise. Bruck quotes one scientist who campaigned in favor of California’s stem cell initiative: “Maybe every hundred years we have one major milestone in medical research”; and stem cells are it. Bruck also quotes a doctor on the other side, who argues that stem cell research will lead to the cloning of human beings. “This is what we would call a clone-and- kill bill! It will make California the mecca of cloning and irresponsible medicine . . . and keep us in budgetary crisis for twenty-five years!” Well, the Age of M...