Bianca Nogrady (ed), The best Australian science writing 2015

Bianca Nogrady, The best Australian science writing 2015It was one of the more science-minded members of my reading group who tentatively suggested we add The best Australian science writing 2015 anthology to this year’s schedule. I’m not sure why she was uncertain because we’ve shown ourselves to be pretty open readers. Our main question when someone suggests a book is “Will there be something to talk about?” I can’t imagine a book like this lacking in things to talk about. And so we scheduled it.

Five editions of this anthology have been published, each with a different editor, so I was tickled to find that our edition’s editor was Bianca Nogrady whose thoughtful book about death and dying, The end, I reviewed a couple of years ago.

Now, an anthology like this can be read in different ways. You can read it sequentially, as I did because I know editors put thought into ordering their content. Nogrady did a careful job here, not butting articles on similar topics up against each other, but ordering them in a way that built on our understanding. Alternatively, you can pick and choose depending on your interests, though the titles don’t always give away their contents. What are science writers doing getting creative with their titling! Or, in this case, you could meander through the anthology by following the links to “like” articles provided at the end of each article. Presumably your perambulations would get you through them all at the end! This approach might be a fun (and enlightening) way to read it, but I was on a deadline, so …

I started at the engaging Foreword by Adam Spencer, the Australian comedian and radio presenter with a special interest in science and maths, and read on. I was quickly engaged and read it almost like a page-turner. Truly! Of course, there was the odd article that didn’t really grab me, and some grabbed me so much that I’ll not forget them in a hurry, but overall it was an enjoyable, stimulating read.

In her Introduction, Nogrady analyses the content. She says 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”. She argues that this “suggests a shift away from the big picture catastrophe of climate change – in the face of which many of us feel utterly powerless – towards a more specific and manageable concern”. She also notes that there were “a number of articles exploring the rapidly evolving field of robotics and artificial intelligence” and observes that “despite being a relatively small nation, we have long held our own in the global science and technology arena”. This is certainly borne out by the articles in the anthology. I’d add a third thread – medical issues. We probably don’t need an explanation for this one. Who is not interested in health and medicine!

Entrants for the annual Bragg UNSW Prize for Science Writing, named for the father and son who were Australia’s first Nobel laureates, form the core of the anthology. The 2015 winner was Christine Kenneally’s “The past may not make you feel better”. Excerpted from her Stella prize-winning book The Invisible History of the Human Race, it explores, from multiple angles, DNA testing and genomic counselling, using Huntington’s chorea as its reference point. The runners-up were Idan Ben-Barak’s “Why aren’t we dead yet”, a wonderfully lucid and surprisingly entertaining description of pathogens and the immune system, and Trent Dalton’s “Beating the odds” about the driven Australian man who has developed an artificial heart.

There are several reasons why I enjoyed the read, and I’ll dot point them to keep it simple:

  • subject matter: although I’m not at all scientifically inclined, I recognise the significant role science (or STEM) plays in our lives – in health, the environment, our buildings and transport, for a start. These essays, selected for their ability to communicate scientific issues well, were just what I needed to bring me up to speed, particularly in those areas I’m pretty ignorant in, such as robotics. James Mitchell Crow’s  prize-shortlisted article “Robots on a roll”, for example, introduced me to “big” robots working on the Brisbane docks and in Pilbara mines.
  • radical ideas: some articles challenged current thinking or practices. These included Brodie Smith’s “Playing God” on the idea that we should use triaging to manage the problem of vanishing species and Michael Sleaze’s also prize-shortlisted article, “Aliens versus predators: the toxic toad invasion”, which argues that this invasion, while not a good thing, is not the disaster we’ve believed it to be.
  • esoteric topics: by this I mean articles on topics I would never have known about had I not read the anthology. Lauren Fuge’s “The women who fell through the cracks of the universe” delves into late 19th to early 20th century astronomy to tell us about “Pickering’s harem“, the mostly unsung women (or “human computers”) who contributed hugely to “the first Henry Draper Catalogue, a catalogue of more than 10 000 stars classified according to spectrum, published by Pickering in 1890”. Of course, I loved that this article was as much about history as about science!
  • style: the articles varied in style and tone. There was even a poem or two. There were some written in first person, giving a personal perspective. In “How I rescued my brain”, David Roland took us on his journey of diagnosis, treatment and eventual recovery from his stroke. And there were some written with a light, humorous touch. Ian Lunt’s “Field guide to the future”, for example, provides a delightful comparison between traditional printed field-guides (I particularly love wildflower ones) and the new digital ones.

But here’s the common problem with anthologies and collections – how to do the book justice without naming every contribution. I think I’ll just share a few quotes, to give you a flavour, starting with Slezak on the toads:

The toads are spreading further and faster than anyone expected, and they do have a devastating impact when they first arrive in a region. But most animals are adapting to their presence surprisingly quickly, and some even benefit.

‘If you’re a frog, the toad is your superhero,’ says Shine. ‘You’ve got its picture up on the wall. This guy is coming in, he looks like a frog and is killing everything that attacks frogs. If you’re a green tree frog, what more could you hope for in life?’

[…] ‘I’ve gone to thinking it’s a good-news story about the resilience of ecosystem. (from “”Aliens versus predators: the toxic toad invasion”)

Here is Ian Lunt on the fact that printed field guides must use words (not audio) to describe bird calls:

With a budget for paint – one illustration per species – but none for sound, cheerful ornithologists turned to onomatopoeia: ‘Pee-pee-pee-peeooo, Wee-willy-weet-weet, It-wooa-weet-sip, Zzzt zzzt zzzt. Cher-cher-cherry-cherry, Wah-i-wah-i-wah-oo, Twitchy tweedle, Kupa-ko-ko, Lik-lik-lik’. Less cheerful colleagues followed suit: ‘Chop-chop, Four o’clock, Wide-a-wake, Walk to work. Want a whip? It’s for teacher. Tweet-your-juice, Sweet pretty creature’. (All real calls, I assure you.) (from “Field guide to the future”)

And thirdly, here is Idan Ben-Barak on the human immune system:

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. (from “Why aren’t we dead yet”)

Hopefully by now, I’ve convinced you that this is a great read – and if I haven’t, well, you’re probably a lost cause! Either way I’ll leave it here.

awwchallenge2016Bianca Nogrady (ed)
The best Australian science writing 2015
Sydney: NewSouth Publishing, 2015
ISBN: 9781742242231 (ebook)

Bianca Nogrady, The end: The human experience of death (Review)

Bianca Nogrady, The end book coverHave you thought about your death? About how and where you want to die? These are the questions Australian science journalist Bianca Nogrady asks us to consider in her recent book, The end: the human experience of death. I’m not a morbid person, but when Nogrady contacted me to ask whether I’d consider reviewing her book, The end, it didn’t take me long to say yes. Like Nogrady I did witness, a couple of years ago, something I would call “a (pretty) good death”. That I felt it was so, intrigued me. I was therefore interested to read what Nogrady had to say.

And what she had to say was fascinating from beginning to end. In her introduction, she says:

This book could just as easily have been Everything you wanted to know about death but were afraid to ask. Death is fascinating, compelling, and it consists of much more than simply the end of a biological life-form. In seeking to understand death, we are seeking to understand life.

The rest of the book is structured logically according to the sorts of topics we are likely to ask about, starting with why we die, and then moving on to issues like defining death, where, when and how we die, spiritual and out-of-body experiences, and religion. Nogrady looks at these issues from all the likely points of view –  medical, sociological, psychological, philosophical, legal and ethical. She organises her information well, and the chapters (and subchapters) flow very naturally from each other.

So far, I have probably made it sound like a well-organised rather dry read – but that’s not how it is. Not only did Nogrady do a lot of secondary research (as the Notes at the end attest) but she also interviewed a lot of people. As a result, the formal information garnered from her research is supported by people’s stories, which also add colour and life to the facts. Many are of course sad – we are talking death after all – but this is not a sad book.

The most complicated section of the book is the second chapter on “Defining Death”. Nogrady takes us carefully through the different “definitions” – specifically, cardiac death and brain death (which, I learnt, can be further subdivided into “whole brain death” and “brain stem death”). She shows how the definition issue has been complicated by medical advances enabling us to keep the body alive and, of course, by the organ transplant process. Royal North Shore Hospital’s Intensive Care Specialist Dr Ray Raper suggests that death is:

a continuum; a graded box with one end as ‘being alive’ and the other end as ‘being dead’ … If you look at the domains of the transition between life and death, they’re spiritual, functional and structural and they’re biological, and the most important ones are the functional ones.

Death, in other words, is a process. If your fingernails are still growing when you are in the coffin, then, says Arizona State University Professor of Philosophy Joan McGregor, the questions needing answers relate to what are we preserving and why do we value it. I’ll leave this discussion here because there is no single solution – or not at present anyhow. This is murky ground indeed, but Nogrady manages to traverse it with clarity. I will probably have to read the book a few times though for the concepts to stick!

She also discusses euthanasia, teasing out misconceptions. She explains the differences between physician-assisted suicide, voluntary euthanasia and terminal sedation. She also explores the rise in palliative care as a profession, covering related issues like death doulas and volunteer workers in palliative care hospitals (or hospices). And of course she talks about near-death experiences, and those death-time phenomena that science can’t explain such as clocks stopping, machines behaving erratically, and deathbed visions.  The final chapter discusses faith and belief. Death is cultural, but, as she discovered, there is as much similarity as there are differences in end-of-life rituals.

It’s a funny thing to say, I suppose, but this is an enjoyable book. It’s neither superficial nor so detailed that you get bogged down. There is a lovely balance between expert opinions and anecdotes. I can imagine reading it again – or parts of it. It’s a shame, though, that there isn’t an index, which seems to be common in non-fiction books aimed at a general market. I guess it’s all about cost.

Australian Women Writers ChallengeIn her epilogue, Nogrady returns to her own experience, to how the death of her grandmother had caused her to want to better understand death. Writing the book, she says, made her think about “the value of planning, or at least thinking about how we want to die”. Death is, after all, a “one-way journey”. We do it alone, and it may well be, she argues, our best chance “find out who we are at the core”. One man who spent a long time thinking about his death, because he had a degenerative, terminal disease, was Australian public intellectual Donald Horne whose last book, written with his wife Myfanwy, was Dying: A memoir. He wrote:

My final drifting away, via a morphine dose, I would want to be among my memories, with Myfanwy whom I love holding my hand.

Think about your death, plan for it, is Nogrady’s final message to us. If you’re ready to take up her challenge, The end would be a good place to start.

Bianca Nogrady
The end: The human experience of death
North Sydney: Vintage Books, 2013
ISBN: 9781742752051

(Review copy supplied by the author)