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The Book Scene Oscars: An Arts and Sciences Ceremony

By Stuart Mitchner

This Oscar Night fantasia was inspired by the winner of the Book Scene Award for the Best Cover Art on a Science-Related Topic — Captivating Technology: Race, Carceral Technoscience, and Liberatory Imagination in Everyday Life (Duke University Press $29.95 in paper), an anthology edited by Princeton Associate Professor of African American Studies Ruha Benjamin. If I were following the Academy model, representatives from the publisher would join the editor onstage, but the person accepting the trophy should be Manzel Bowman, the artist whose brilliant, complexly suggestive digital collage, Turbine, not only illuminates  the cover’s catch word but helps lighten the weight of the subtitle.

“A Mysterious Sexy Stranger” 

The Einstein Oppenheimer “Spooky Action at a Distance” Oscar goes to theoretical physicist Sean Carroll’s Something Deeply Hidden: Quantum Worlds and the Emergence of Spacetime (Dutton $29). On accepting the award and paying homage to the two Institute for Advanced Studies legends it was named for, Carroll playfully credited Einstein for “sticking quantum mechanics with the label it has been unable to shake ever since,” namely spukhafte, or “spooky.” There were #MeToo murmurings from the audience when he described the alluring inscrutability of quantum mechanics as “a mysterious, sexy stranger” tempting us “into projecting all sorts of qualities and capacities onto it, whether they are there or not.”

“Fasten Your Safety Belts”

The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming (Tim Duggan Books $27), with its provocative opening sentence, “It is worse, much worse than you think,” captured the “Fasten Your Safety Belts” Oscar for David Wallace-Wells, whose “insanely lyrical prose about our pending Armageddon” hits the reader “like a comet,” in the words of Andrew Solomon, the author of Far From the Tree.

Recommended by Rush Holt

For providing evidence that Wallace-Wells isn’t being an alarmist when he claims that “the slowness of climate change is a fairy tale, perhaps as pernicious as the one that says it isn’t happening at all,” the Rush Holt Award goes to Why Trust Science? (Princeton Univ. Press 24.95), the multi-author volume edited by Naomi Oreskes, “one of the world’s most important and trenchant observers of science and society,” according to the former N.J. Congressman, now CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “With misinformation and disinformation rampant today,” Holt warns, “caring citizens do not know what or whom to trust and have become confused about evidence, opinion, and partisan assertion.”

Lifetime Recognition

As someone whose life has been enhanced by the work of Herman Melville, I have to recuse myself as judge and jury of the Book Scene Oscars when it comes Richard J. King’s environmental claims for the novel Annie Dillard calls “the best book ever written about nature.” Ahab’s Rolling Sea: A Natural History of Moby-Dick (Univ. of Chicago Press $35) lives up to its premise, according to the American Scholar review by Princeton Professor Emeritus William Howarth: “King gives us natural history done Melville-style, looking over a ship’s rail, and this ingenious focus neatly weds field science and literary history, yielding a study that is fresh, provocative, and welcome.”

Writing in the Washington Independent Review of Books, John P. Loonam echoes “King’s main point: that Melville’s novel can now be read as an introduction to environmental issues of the twenty-first century,” having “combined the rational, objective, Darwinian perspective with the emotional, poetic, Emersonian perspective, pushing the reader to see nature as both dangerous and damaged.”

The best explanation for my recusal concerns the disparity between rhetoric and experience. Anyway, there’s no room for “rational, objective, Darwinian” language on King’s Book Scene Oscar. The only line that fits comes from Nathaniel Philbrick, author of In the Heart of the Sea: “Anyone who loves Moby-Dick should read this book.”

“Maybe I’m Amazed”

I’m ending the long strange trip of this column with Paul McCartney’s song, “Maybe I’m Amazed,” not only because of the music and the love and passion McCartney puts into singing and playing it, nor even because the way the line about a “lonely man in the middle of something that he doesn’t really understand” expresses how I feel whenever I’m writing about cookbooks, fashion, ballet, mathematics, and, on this occasion, science and climate change. Nor is it even the spooky-action-at-a-contradiction-in-terms of a song that zooms from a tentative “maybe” to a joyous “amazed.” It’s the flashback to what could be called my first ever “book scene,” presented as a ninth-grader at a student assembly at McBurney School in Manhattan. My subject was The Book of Amazing Facts, subtitled A Collection of Astonishing Facts About the Longest, the Shortest, the Smallest, the Largest, the Swiftest, the Slowest.

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