Longform’s Guide to the Best Science Writing of 2011
A scientific look into the minds of criminals … and octupuses.
This week, Longform.org will be counting down its list of the year’s best articles on Slate. For our full list—including the top 10 stories about sports, politics, tech, and more—check outLongform’s Best of 2011. Here now: our favorite science writing of the year. —The Editors
10. Taming the Wild
Evan Ratliff • National Geographic
On the “most extraordinary breeding experiment ever conducted”:
“Mavrik, the object of Trut's attention, is about the size of a Shetland sheepdog, with chestnut orange fur and a white bib down his front. He plays his designated role in turn: wagging his tail, rolling on his back, panting eagerly in anticipation of attention. In adjacent cages lining either side of the narrow, open-sided shed, dozens of canids do the same, yelping and clamoring in an explosion of fur and unbridled excitement. ‘As you can see,’ Trut says above the din, ‘all of them want human contact.’ Today, however, Mavrik is the lucky recipient. Trut reaches in and scoops him up, then hands him over to me. Cradled in my arms, gently jawing my hand in his mouth, he's as docile as any lapdog.
“Except that Mavrik, as it happens, is not a dog at all. He's a fox.”
9. The Fury
Amy Wallace • Wired
Why a University of Alabama researcher snapped:
"Yet some would say that when Bishop claimed she wasn’t there, she wasn’t entirely wrong. It didn’t seem to be the Amy they knew who had come to that meeting; another Amy had. Bishop “was someone I trusted,” says professor Debra Moriarty, who survived the massacre. ‘There were oddities of personality that made you just go, oh, well, that’s just the way she is. But nothing would have predicted any behavior like this. She never appeared hateful.’ But that afternoon in Room 369R, ‘she seemed suddenly different.’ Soon, Moriarity and her colleagues would learn that they weren’t the first to have seen Bishop’s dual nature. For years, there had been two sides to this quirky, haughty researcher known for introducing herself as ‘Dr. Amy Bishop, Harvard-trained.’ Many had met Arrogant Amy, who seemed to thrive on order and usually had the upper hand. An unlucky few had encountered another Amy—chaotic, confused, full of menace. Angry Amy rarely took charge. But when she did, things never ended well."
Meera Subramanian • Virginia Quarterly Review
The human consequences of a dying species:
"No longer a mystery, the vanishing of India’s vultures now presents a still greater challenge. India must find a way to restore its prime scavenger or risk untold human health consequences. Vultures once rid the landscape of diseases such as tuberculosis, brucellosis, and foot-and-mouth. Their strong stomach acids and high body temperatures allow them to ingest an anthrax-infected carcass and suffer no ill effects. The fear is that with vultures gone, and the human handling of dead livestock increasing, that these diseases could spread among both animal and human populations."
Sy Montgomery • Orion
Inside the mind of an octopus:
“As we gazed into each other’s eyes, Athena encircled my arms with hers, latching on with first dozens, then hundreds of her sensitive, dexterous suckers. Each arm has more than two hundred of them. The famous naturalist and explorer William Beebe found the touch of the octopus repulsive. “I have always a struggle before I can make my hands do their duty and seize a tentacle,” he confessed. But to me, Athena’s suckers felt like an alien’s kiss—at once a probe and a caress. Although an octopus can taste with all of its skin, in the suckers both taste and touch are exquisitely developed. Athena was tasting me and feeling me at once, knowing my skin, and possibly the blood and bone beneath, in a way I could never fathom."
David Eagleman • Atlantic
A neuroscientist on the criminal mind.
“If I seem to be heading in an uncomfortable direction—toward letting criminals off the hook—please read on, because I’m going to show the logic of a new argument, piece by piece. The upshot is that we can build a legal system more deeply informed by science, in which we will continue to take criminals off the streets, but we will customize sentencing, leverage new opportunities for rehabilitation, and structure better incentives for good behavior. Discoveries in neuroscience suggest a new way forward for law and order—one that will lead to a more cost-effective, humane, and flexible system than the one we have today. When modern brain science is laid out clearly, it is difficult to justify how our legal system can continue to function without taking what we’ve learned into account.”
For Longform’s top five science stories of 2011, click here.