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Sara Phillips (ed), The best Australian science writing 2020 (#BookReview)

April 29, 2021

In 2016, my reading group discussed the 2015 edition of The best Australian science writing. We enjoyed it so much that we decided to do it again, and so this month we read the 2020 (tenth anniversary) edition. Our discussion was as engaged as before (and the overall reasons I enjoyed this volume are the same as those I listed in my post on it, so I won’t repeat them here.)

The publishers invite a different editor each year, and for 2020 it was Sara Phillips, a respected and award-winning science writer herself, with a particular interest in environmental science. The edition opens, however, with a Preface by UNSW Press’s publisher Kathy Bail. She references the annual Bragg UNSW Prize for Science Writing, which was named for the father and son who were Australia’s first Nobel laureates. All shortlisted pieces are included in the anthology. 2020’s winner was Ceridwen Dovey’s fascinating, moving essay, True grit. (Dovey, many of you will know, is also a respected writer of fiction.) The runners up were Ricky French’s Case of the missing frogs and Konrad Marshall’s Jeepers creepersLesley Hughes’ The milk of human genius, Donna Lu’s Stranger thingsand Nicky Phillips’ Bringing home the ancestors, were the other shortlisted articles.

COVID-19?

There is so much I want to share about this volume, but I’m going to start with a quote I used in my 2015 edition post. It came from one of that edition’s Bragg Prize runners-up, Idan Ben-Barak’s Why aren’t we dead yet. This essay provided a wonderfully lucid description of pathogens and the immune system. You can guess why I want to share it again!

And so, an immune system must correctly identify a diverse array of harmful creatures and react to each one in its own special way. Oh, and you know what would be very helpful? If it could remember the pathogens it’s encountered before and store this information on file, somehow, so that it could make short work of them the next time they pop in. And it needs to be prepared for new invaders it’s never encountered before, because life is like that. And it needs to be prepared for completely new invaders nobody has ever encountered before in the history of humankind, because pathogens evolve over time. And it needs to be economical, so the body can keep it operational. And it needs to be fairly unobtrusive, so the body can keep functioning normally. And it needs to do it all very quickly, every time, or the body will be overrun, because pathogens multiply like the devil.

It sure does, as we all now know only too well. However, if you’re expecting pandemic articles to dominate the 2020 edition, you would be wrong, because the edition’s cut-off was March 2020. There are a couple of articles on the topic, but presumably there’ll be more in the 2021 edition. The two in this edition are Liam Mannix’s The perfect virus: two gene tweaks that turned COVID-19 into a killer, which tells us exactly what the title says it will (and in a clear, intelligent way), and Tessa Charles’ Synchrotons on the coronavirus frontline, which describes the importance of synchrotrons to mapping the crystallography of the SARS-CoV-2 protease. Knowing this is critical for the development of drugs/vaccines.

Science and politics

Each edition seems to have threads, which must surely relate to the “zeitgeist”. Introducing the 2015 edition, editor Nogrady wrote that while the 2014 anthology featured several articles “on our changing climate and its repercussions, this year there were an overwhelming number of submissions about our vanishing biodiversity, and what could be or is being done about it”. There were also several articles on robotics and artificial intelligence. Well, five years on, issues like climate change and biodiversity still feature strongly, as Phillips writes in her introduction, but there are some different threads too, as she also identifies, such as the role and importance of description and taxonomy, which, in fact, underpin many of the biodiversity articles. Dyani Lewis’ Identity crisis for the Australian dingo, is an example.

But, Lewis’ article also references something else I detected running through the volume, the close – and sometimes uncomfortable – relationship between science and politics. In the case of the dingo, there are political implications for whether the dingo is classified as its own (native) species (canis dingo) or as a dog (canis familiaris). As a native animal it “could be listed as threatened” if its populations decline, but as a dog “it wouldn’t qualify”. Some scientists accuse others of “bad science”, of forcing the dingo into its own species in order to protect it, when, they believe, the scientific arguments aren’t there for separate classification or taxonomy.

Nicky Phillips’ Bringing home the ancestors discusses the use of DNA to help identify indigenous remains held in museums (and similar institutions) but, she writes, “As a result of the history of mistreatment, some Indigenous people fear that unscrupulous governments or scientists might misuse their genetic information”. To invoke the potential of science or not, that is the question! The following article, The Murray–Darling’s dry mouth, by Jo Chandler, uses the stressed ecology of South Australia’s Coorong to exemplify “the mal-administration, negligence and ignoring catastrophic risks of climate change” that has brought the river-system to the parlous state it is in.

These are just three of many articles which explored the science-politics nexus. I’d love to share them all with you, but, given the year it is, I’ll end this section with an article written before the pandemic but which is so apposite, Felicity Nelson’s Pathogen sovereignty. Nelson explains how such a thing came to be and its implications for scientific research into, yes, pathogens like SARS-CoV-2. “For poorer nations, exercising state power over pathogen samples was quite often their only point of leverage”. Fair enough, as they’d been taken advantage of, but you can see the implications for the quick-sharing of samples so needed during pandemics.

A related thread through the volume concerned the practice, philosophy and funding of scientific research, but I’ll have to leave that, as I do want to get onto …

Inspiring people

It’s not surprising that articles written by journalists for educated-but-lay readers will often hang their information on the stories of inspiring personalities. Bragg Prize winner Ceridwen Dovey did this in True grit, by telling the story of Brian O’Brien, whose inspired idea about gathering and measuring moon dust in the 1960s was overlooked until the 2000s, when, quite serendipitously, his work was noticed by a scientist after NASA realised that it did indeed need to understand moon dust! Jo Chandler tells her above-mentioned Coorong story through the work of ecologist David Paton. He has studied the region for decades, and, though now officially retired, is not giving up, “not least because of his concerns about the capacity of working scientists to conduct deep, unfettered research. ‘You talk, they cut your funding. It’s as simple as that.’”

The inspiring people aren’t all old, however. Cameron Stewart’s Brain wave tells of Vietnamese-Australian inventor, Tan Le, whose work on producing technology that can read brain waves is already providing benefits – to quadriplegics, for example. The potential of this technology is immense, and Tan Le, herself, is astonishing, particularly when you read her trajectory from boat-person to Silicon Valley entrepreneur.

To end …

It’s impossible to do justice to an anthology like this, so, as I did last time, I’m concluding with three quotes that make important points, to my mind anyhow. First is Michelle Starr, who reminds us about the practice and limits of scientific research in The repeating signals from deep space are extremely unlikely to be aliens – here’s why:

‘Wild speculation can sometimes inform the next generation of instrumentation, which can then either confirm or refute the wild hypothesis, or see something else entirely unexpected. And that too is what makes science fun.’ The difficulty lies in understanding the difference between pondering wild ideas as a thought exercise, and evidence based on data and prior experience, observation and conclusions.

Then comes Brian Key from Peter Meredith‘s Underwater and underrated, which is all about fish brains and intelligence:

On the question of animal welfare, Brian emphasises it needn’t be linked specifically to an animal’s ability to feel pain. ‘You can apply human principles to animal welfare,’ he says. ‘Those principles don’t have to be based on scientific evidence; they can be based on the morals and ethics of a society.’

Finally, here is a Moore Foundation grant recipient in Smriti Mallapaty’s For risky research with great potential, dive deep commenting on one of the Foundaton’s sensible research grant conditions:

‘Science has a rich history of not talking about what doesn’t work,’ says Wilhelm, a grant recipient …. ‘By sharing our failures, we have been able to help each other and avoid making the same mistakes over and over again’ … 

Another rich volume, with so much to offer, but I really must end here – or, I’ll be putting you all to sleep.

Challenge logo

Sara Phillips (ed)
The best Australian science writing 2020
Sydney: NewSouth Publishing, 2020
ISBN: 9781742245072 (ebook)

18 Comments leave one →
  1. April 30, 2021 04:40

    I think I remember reading somewhere that the remains of a minority population were in a museum, and when that was discovered they were returned to the people. I don’t remember if it was a tribe or certain nationality…it’s been a few years. However, I can see the fear of giving up their DNA because of the situation with Henrietta Lacks and her immortal cells and the way people have profited astoundingly with this woman’s cells while her family lives in poverty.

    • April 30, 2021 08:16

      Thanks Melanie. Repatriation of Indigenous Australian remains (and artefacts) is a serious issue here, particularly regarding those still in overseas institutions.

      BTW, I was particularly reminded of Henrietta Lacks in the Pathogen Sovereignty article in which poorer countries were sharing their pathogens and then not getting the benefits of the resultant research.

  2. April 30, 2021 07:26

    Wonderfully interesting, ST !
    WHY did NASA need to understand moon dust ?

    • April 30, 2021 08:28

      You’ll have to read the article M-R! Seriously, though, it’s to do with their plans to set up long-term or permanent stations on the moon. The dust there is very different, sticky and abrasive. How might it affect people, instrumentation… actually, I think you can read it here where it was first published https://www.wired.com/story/moondust-nasa-lunar-ambitions/

      This is the problem with reviving anthologies! You want to explain so many of the stories. I didn’t even touch on the microbe diversity one, or the touching Mogo Zoo one, or, or, or.. And I didn’t properly outline in the politics and science discussion how there are two main issues: the possibility of twisting science for political purposes, and the more common one of politics ignoring science.

      • April 30, 2021 09:34

        Don’t fret: you wrote just the right amount to whet our appetites ! 🙂

        • April 30, 2021 15:17

          I do fret a bit though because there’s so much that is interesting in it! And, different readers here will be interested in different things.

        • May 2, 2021 16:33

          And as I’m constantly being told “You can’t please everyone”. But you make a pretty good fist of it. 🙂

        • May 2, 2021 18:13

          Thanks M-R 👍

  3. May 1, 2021 15:10

    Will be interesting to see if COVID dominates the next edition, or if the editor themselves is tired of thinking about it!

  4. Sue permalink
    May 1, 2021 18:48

    I borrowed this from the library the other day and haven’t started to read it yet – it looks and sounds fascinating, thanks for the review Sue! We’re in for some rainy weather here at last, so maybe I will have an excuse to stay indoors and read!

    • May 1, 2021 19:28

      It would be a good rainy day read Sue. Read an article, make a cuppa, stare at the rain, read another article, have a snack, stare at the rain, read …. Let me know what your think if you do manage to read it. I could ask you our reading group starting question: name one article that stood out for you and say why! (It doesn’t have to be your favourite, btw, so you don’t have to feel on the spot to name that!)

  5. May 2, 2021 13:31

    I get my science reading from The Conversation and from Google news. I read the other day that Mars dust had unexpected qualities (“too clumpy”) which made it impossible to hammer in a probe.

    • May 2, 2021 15:06

      I think it’s also quite sticky, Bill.

      If I remember correctly one or two of these articles were published in The Conversation. All have been published before – Nature, WIRED, Australian Geographic, ABC Science website, and so on.

  6. Meg permalink
    May 2, 2021 13:39

    Hi Sue, I loved this book. I remember once you asking if people were interested in reading about the COVID-19 – I wasn’t, but the information on this subject was fascinating. This book covers so many subjects, and I think I understood most of it.

    • May 2, 2021 15:08

      Oh, I’m so glad Meg. I love your comment that you “think” you understood most of it. I know what you mean. Some of the science, particularly the physics pushed me to the edge, but I never felt I hadn’t got the gist at least.

  7. May 8, 2021 09:23

    I haven’t read one of these anthologies for a few years now – you’ve reminded me what I’ve been missing. Maybe I should suggest the next one for my book club, although I’m also toying with Flanagan’s Toxic. We rarely do non-fiction though, so I will have to be convincing!

    • May 8, 2021 09:36

      The anthology is I think good if you don’t do much non-fiction, Brona, because people can just read a few and still contribute? We do mainly fiction, but every year we do at least one. We did 3 last year, for some reason, but 1 in each of the preceding two years. This is our first for this year. We haven’t scheduled July to November yet so who knows?

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