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Idan Ben-Barak on writing clearly about complicated science

September 4, 2016

Bianca Nogrady, The best Australian science writing 2015As I mentioned in my post on The best Australian science writing 2015, Iran Ben-Barak was a runner-up in the Bragg UNSW Press Science Writing Prize in 2015 with his article “Why aren’t we dead yet?” It’s an entertaining article about a complicated subject – pathogens (which are many and varied), the immune system, and how the two deal with each other.

He starts off by saying that in antiquity people thought disease was an act of God, and then, a little later on, they decided disease came from an imbalance of the four humours. Now though, he said, we have

the wonderful world of bacteria and viruses, toxins and free radicals, leukocytes and antigens and antibodies, cytokines and chemokines, MHC molecules and V(D)J recombination and hypervariable antigen binding and CD25+ regulatory T-cells and … It’s enough to make anyone’s head spin.

He goes on to explain that it’s even more complicated because “diseases can be genetic, or infectious, or can be the result of the body’s own workings breaking down in one way or another” and that even this isn’t where it ends because “diseases are caused by a combination of any of the above. For instance: you can’t catch cancer from other people – except for the types that you can. Or: you get infected with malaria by mosquito bites – unless you’re naturally immune to it by virtue of a certain allele of your DNA.” In other words, it’s not a simple story he has to tell. He writes:

In the meantime, I have a problem. It’s a problem I share with any writer who wishes to drive home the point that something is complicated. Simply saying ‘It’s complicated’ not only doesn’t really convey any of the flavour, but it also sounds sort of lazy. On the other hand, this book is meant to be read by you – the interested layperson or student. It’s not a textbook, and so while laying out the complications in agonising detail would indeed make the point, the reader would suffer for it, and readers don’t tolerate this kind of behaviour anymore; I might find myself unceremoniously tossed back on the bookshelf, and it’s cramped up there.

I enjoyed his style. I learnt a lot about how complicated our immune system is and why it is so hard to find cures and treatments for the myriad diseases we contract. I also learnt the value of having writers around who can make science comprehensible to laypeople like me.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. September 4, 2016 3:15 pm

    He doesn’t know how privileged he is to have escaped the TBR!

  2. ian darling permalink
    September 5, 2016 9:29 pm

    I think science essay writing must be a delightful challenge to scientists who can write well. With much of the material he/she must find language that is fresh and lucid. I suppose Stephen Jay Gould was most successful in this genre but your anthology shows how many very excellent essays there must be to enjoy.

    • September 5, 2016 11:30 pm

      Yes, I think you’re right, Ian. Some of the writers here, of course, are not scientists, but journalists interested in science. Some of them I suppose could very well have started as scientists. But some of the writers are clearly scientists themselves. Like any profession I suppose, there are some who can do the profession well AND write lucidly about it for the layperson. A real skill.

      I’ve heard of Stephen Jay Gould of course but I’m not sure I’ve read him.

  3. Meg permalink
    September 10, 2016 9:29 am

    The essays are entertaining and fascinating. It is nice to know your friends, but we do seem to keep our foes a lot closer. I especially liked the essays on robots. The other writings I enjoyed were Uneasy Alliance – how clever is the Bottle-nosed dolphin, and Aliens versus predators: The Toxic Toad Invasion – how snakes have evolved to protect themselves. Though my favourite essay was Christine Kennneally’s, The Past May Not Make you Feel Better – Hunting’s Disease.

    • September 10, 2016 10:04 am

      Thanks Meg. Yes I found the robotics ones fascinating too. I knew bits but those articles put the current state of play into a more coherent whole for me.

  4. September 20, 2016 6:17 am

    The immune system is a most amazing thing! It can help you by getting rid of a nasty cold virus or hurt you by attacking the myelin around your nerves and causing MS. It seems the more we learn about it the more we realize we don’t know half of what there is to know. Also, I can see why you enjoyed the anthology so much.

    • September 20, 2016 8:02 am

      Yes, Stefanie, you’re right about the immune system, and he does discuss how it attacks itself.

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