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

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.


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)

Rebecca Skloot, The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks (#BookReview)

Rebecca Skloot, The immortal life of Henrietta LacksIn her extensive acknowledgements at the end of her book, The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot thanks “Heather at The Book Store, who tracked down every good novel she could find with a disjointed structure, all of which I devoured while trying to figure out the structure of this book.” Interesting that she looked at novels, particularly given our recent discussion regarding non-fiction that reads like fiction, but more on that later …

Many of you will have heard of the book, or, if not, of Henrietta Lacks, or of her HeLa cells? It’s a sort of hybrid biography-cum-science book about an African-American woman named Henrietta Lacks who died in 1951, and the immortal HeLa cell line that was and continues to be cultured from her cervical cancer cells. As Skloot writes, “these cells have transformed modern medicine.” The book was published in the USA in 2010. It won multiple awards, including, says Wikipedia, the National Academies Communication Award for “best creative work that helps the public understanding of topics in science, engineering or medicine”. In addition, the paperback edition was on the New York Times Bestseller List for 75 weeks.

I’ve described the book as hybrid, because the story (or biography) of Henrietta Lacks is just one of its threads. It also interrogates the complex intersection between race, class and ethics in medical research as well as broader ethical ramifications of issues like “informed consent” and the commercialisation of human tissue. Skloot, herself, says early in the book,

The Lackses challenged everything I thought I knew about faith, science, journalism, and race. Ultimately, this book is the result. It’s not only the story of HeLa cells and Henrietta Lacks, but of Henrietta’s family—particularly Deborah—and their lifelong struggle to make peace with the existence of those cells, and the science that made them possible.

If you haven’t guessed it by now, then, this book is another example of those non-fiction books that I like so much in which authors author takes us on their journey of discovery, in this case to understand the people and the science, the ethics and the law, behind this astonishing story. Skloot wasn’t the first so tell it, however – something she makes clear during our journey. Earlier stories include Michael Rogers’ 1976 article in Rolling Stone, and the 1997 BBC documentary, The way of all flesh, which you can watch on YouTube. I’m not going to spend a lot of time on the story of the cells, so if you want to know about them – read the book and/or watch this video.

Skloot explains her own fascination with Henrietta, from being introduced to her cells in high school, through those HeLa cells being “omnipresent” throughout her biology degree, to when she was in graduate school studying writing “and became fixated on the idea of someday telling Henrietta’s story”. It’s not surprising then that this book has been extensively researched – as evidenced by the Notes and Acknowledgements. (These two chapters make great reading in themselves.) It took around 10 years to write, not just because of this extensive research. A major issue which Skloot had to confront was the understandable suspicion and anger of the Lacks’ family, whose help she needed if she were to tell this story properly and with integrity. Their story is bound up in a long invidious history of research carried out on African-Americans, which is also detailed in the book.

“What do you mean, ‘everybody else’?!”

So, the structure. The book is divided into three parts – Life, Death, Immortality. In the first two parts, the story is told in two roughly alternating, chronological threads – one telling the story of Henrietta Lacks, her cells, and her family, from 1920 to 1973; the other tracking the early days of Skloot’s research from 1999 to 2000. In the third part, the two tracks coalesce into one chronological thread, starting from 1973 when the late Henrietta’s daughter-in-law, Bobbette, discovers quite accidentally via a friend’s brother-in-law, that Henrietta’s cells were being used in scientific research and had been since 1951. Until that point, no-one in the family had known that Henrietta’s cells were still “alive” and being used in research all over the world:

“What?!” Bobbette yelled, jumping up from her chair. “What you mean you got her cells in your lab?”

He held his hands up, like Whoa, wait a minute. “I ordered them from a supplier just like everybody else.”

“What do you mean, ‘everybody else’?!” Bobbette snapped. “What supplier? Who’s got cells from my mother-in-law?”

She is, to put it mildly, horrified – and rushes to tell her husband and thence the family.

Here, though, I’m going to return to the issue of writing non-fiction like fiction. There’s the use of narrative structure, of plot lines, to create some sort of tension for the reader – in this case it largely revolves around the lives and reactions of the family, particularly Deborah – while we are also learning drier “stuff” about the history and ethics of cell culture and medical research. The dialogue I’ve just shared is part of the main plot line concerning the family’s discovery of what had been happening to Henrietta’s cells.

Then there’s the use of evocative, descriptive language. Skloot doesn’t overdo this, staying, in the main, direct and focused – but there are enough little flourishes to keep the writing interesting, like “HeLa grew like crabgrass” or “tufts of hair like overgrown cotton sprouted from his head”. The imagery draws from the area in which it is set. And, there’s the use of dialogue. Skloot did carry out a lot of interviews over her decade-long research and often makes clear when she’s quoting from those – but not all dialogue comes from that research. Some is imagined – or what critics call “representative”. No-one, for example, would have recorded Henrietta’s exact words when she visited her gynecologist, but Skloot writes:

“I got a knot on my womb,” she told the receptionist. “The doctor need to have a look”.

How much more interesting that is to read than, say, “Henrietta visited her gynaecologist, telling the receptionist that she had pain in her womb that needed to be investigated.” I know what I’d rather read. Not only is dialogue more engaging, but if the writer gets the voice right it enhances our understanding of the character. One of the delights of this book, in fact, is our getting to “know” members of Henrietta’s family, and the dialogue plays a significant role in this. Not non-fiction readers, however, approve of this approach.

As I’ve already said, I’m not going to write a lot about the content of this book, fascinating though it is. It has been written about extensively; there are interviews with Skloot on the web; and for background there’s that BBC documentary. The book is now nearly a decade old. Cell research has moved on, but the story of the intersection of race and class with science and ethics is still relevant. Moreover, this is a book of history – the history of medicine. Close to home for me, for example, was learning that HeLa cells were involved in identifying the connection between the HPV virus and cervical cancer, and thence the development of the vaccine with which my reading group’s daughters were among the first in the world to be vaccinated.

All this makes the book well worth reading. There were, admittedly, times when the cell science got the better of me (and other non-scientific members of my reading group) but not enough to turn us off. Skloot’s courage, warmth and empathy with people out of her ken, the trust those initially fearful, angry people came to place in her, and her ability to tread the fine line between judgement and analysis when discussing actions of the past make this a special read. No-one in my reading group regretted this choice for our schedule. A fine way to end the year.

Rebecca Skloot
The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks
Sydney: Picador, 2010
ISBN: 9781742626260 (ePub)

Idan Ben-Barak on writing clearly about complicated science

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.

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)