The Open Laboratory: The Best Writing on Science Blogs 2006

Edited by:
  • Bora Zivkovic
Lulu: 2007. 336 pp. $19.85, £10.99

The Open Laboratory is a collection of writing from science blogs, selected and published by the energetic US biologist-blogger Bora Zivkovic with the help of the blogging community. In the run-up to the first conference of science bloggers earlier this year in North Carolina, Zivkovic took it upon himself to collate the fifty best posts put up by the end of 2006. Topics include micro black holes, bird migration, human sleep patterns, evolution, quantum mechanics and psychology. The writing ranges from PhD students enthusing about concepts from their research areas, to opinion pieces on themes such as the rights and wrongs of particle-physics funding, intelligent design and political interference in science policy.

This wide-ranging book provides something — hopefully many things — for everyone. Particularly enjoyable is browsing entries about areas of science away from one's own research interests. As a physicist, I learned a lot about the origin of mitochondria from the representative entry of Carl Zimmer's award-winning blog The Loom. I was pleased, too, to see entries from some of the highly trafficked blogs that I habitually read and enjoy, such as The Panda's Thumb and Cocktail Party Physics.

By their nature, blogs are dynamic. A post typically bristles with links out to elsewhere on the web and accretes an ever-changing exchange of comments between readers and the author. To capture this energy and texture in a static book is a challenge that the editor fully acknowledges in his introduction. The solution Zivkovic fixes on for The Open Laboratory is to pick posts that he feels work in isolation, to list links as footnotes and to omit the comment strings.

The results of this snapshot editing process are mixed, and sometimes sloppy. For example, the freewheeling satire of the post, “Hurray for being eaten by a bear!”, from the blog Thoughts From Kansas is hard to appreciate out of context. Plus, the URLs supplied reveal curious differences between the printed posts and those online. Why, for instance, does a graph that links rising bear attacks to rising temperature in the book, plot bear attacks against human population on the web?

The entries highlight the great variety of styles that can thrive in the blogosphere. Most of the pieces are a little chattier than the usual book or magazine article, but those chosen are formal enough not to grate on the printed page. Occasionally, the prose is loftier than a typical popular science book. Some even veer too much towards the tone of a research article — leaving terms like suprachiasmatic nucleus or a zygomaticomaxillary suture unexplained.

The book works well enough as a standalone anthology of science writing, but I share the editor's hope that it will prompt eager print readers hitherto unfamiliar with the vibrant young medium that is science blogging to have a look, and maybe even have a go. Nominations for next year's anthology are already being sought ( It will be interesting to see how this project develops over coming years as the blogosphere itself evolves.