It 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.