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The eradication of smallpox.

The double helix.

Genetic engineering.



It took about one minute for me to jot down a bare-bones list of watershed moments in 20th-century biology-discoveries that have transformed (or will transform) life on every continent in just about every way, as well as creating a whole new industry: biotechnology. I took a considerably longer time trying to figure out what could possibly have been going through the minds of the “experts “convened by the journalism department at New York University (NYU), who compiled and recently published a list of the century’s best 100 works of journalism.

According to NYU’s judges, the top choice was John Hersey’s Hiroshima. Also ranking high were Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Woodward and Bernstein on Watergate, Edward R. Murrow on the Battle of Britain, Ida Tarbell’s history of Standard Oil, Lincoln Steffens’ The Shame of the Cities, John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World, and H.L. Mencken on the Scopes trial. The list was heavy on muckrakers and literary journalism about important stories, and light-very light-on science and technology.

Having worked on a couple of these “Best of… ” exercises myself, I’m generally not inclined to work myself up into a froth of indignation. Although these lists can be obvious, myopic, self-interested, mystifying, encrusted with cronyism or just plain wrongheaded, they force us into a cultural argument about what we ultimately value.

What we don’t value, apparently, is science and its offspring, technology. The absence of science and technology is so glaring that the roster is virtually preatomic, pregenetic -our own little Dark Age. You could argue that Silent Spring was about environmental biology and that the Scopes trial was about evolution,
but it’s a stretch. From Hiroshima (number 1) to Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail (100), the list contains no moon landing, no transistor, no Earth-orbiting communications satellites, no vaccines, no double helix, no computer, no Dolly-no nothing!

The more interesting question is:Why? The list is crowded with a lot of literary heavy-hitters: Tom Wolfe, Joseph Mitchell,Hannah Arendt,Norman Mailer and Susan Sontag, to name a few.Wonderful storytellers and shrewd intellects. Which begs the question:Why don’t science and technology attract literary journalists?

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Tagged: Biomedicine

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