Monday musings on Australian literature: Science-based non-fiction

National Science Week, which inspired last week’s post, finished yesterday, but I decided to extend it a day by writing a post on Australian non-fiction on science subjects. I’ll focus of course on works created for general readers, not academic works. Unlike last week’s list, I haven’t read all the books I list here. Given the surge in general science publishing in the last decade or so, I bet you all have favourites – including of course non-Australian books. I look forward to hearing about them.

Science is a rather broad church, and I’m interpreting it broadly, so this is an eclectic list. As last week, the books are listed in order of publication

Margaret Wertheim’s Pythagoras’ trousers: God, physics and the gender wars (1995) is a book I read with my reading group, though my memory tells me I didn’t finish it! My excuse, as I recollect, is that it was a busy time. Wertheim is an Australian science writer who has lived for some time now, I believe, in the USA. In this book she argues that physics has, traditionally/historically been associated with God. Stephen Hawking and Einstein, she says, both invoke God in their writing. She develops this argument further to suggest that “the priestly culture of physics” has worked as a barrier to women entering the field. This book is now 20 years old. If she was right then, is she still now? I’m not sure about the religion aspect, but gender imbalance is still an issue in many sciences (though not, interestingly, in medicine!)

Tim Flannery’s The Weather Makers: The history and future impact of climate change (2005) is a book I should have read, particularly as I have it in my TBR pile. It won a New South Wales Premier’s Literary Prize for Critical Writing. Flannery is probably Australia’s best known and most prolific scientist-writer. Trained as a palaeontologist, he now uses his science to support his role these days as an environmentalist and climate change activist. For a list of his writing, which includes his quarterly essay on extinction that I have reviewed, check out his Wikipedia page.

Mohammed Khadra’s Making the Cut: A Surgeon’s Stories Of Life On The Edge (2009) is the memoir of a urologist. I read it just before I started blogging. Like many science-based books for a general market, this book is not so much about the science of medicine as about ethics and politics. It provides a fascinating insight into the tough life of medical students. I loved Khadra’s discussion of how he arrived at his choice of speciality. Khadra believes that surgeons must understand humankind and that one of best ways to teach this is through poetry! Every chapter in the book starts with a poem, just as his surgical tutorials, when he was Professor of Surgery, ended with poetry.

Bianca Nogrady, The end book coverBianca Nogrady’s The end: The human experience of death (2013) (my review) looks at death from every conceivable angle – medical, sociological, psychological, philosophical, legal and ethical. One of the most intriguing discussions – from a medical and ethical review – in the book concerns defining death. It’s not as easy as it might first appear! Nogrady is an Australian science journalist, and in this book she treads a fine line between expert opinion and anecdote, not letting either run away with the book to the detriment of the other. The anecdotes breathe life into the book, while the experts bring us back to earth!

Fred Watson’s Star-craving mad (2013) was described by the Sun Herald reviewer as “a lighthearted romp through the cosmos … [which] tackles the big questions about our place in the universe without ever being pompous, condescending, boring or baffling”. I haven’t read this book, but I included it because I have heard Watson, live, most recently at this weekend’s Griffyn Solo concert focussing on Urmas Sisask’s astronomy-inspired music. Watson is an astronomer who is well recognised as a communicator, winning, in 2006, the Australian Government’s Eureka Prize for Promoting Understanding of Science.

Christine Kenneally’s The invisible history of the human race (2014) was shortlisted for this year’s Stella Prize. Kenneally, a science journalist, draws on scientific research into genetics and DNA to explore who we are, where we’ve come from and where we might be going. Little questions like that. I haven’t read it, but some bloggers I respect (Resident Judge and Adventures in Biography) have, and loved it for its lucid presentation of complex ideas. I really should read it.

If you’re Australian, did you take part in any Science Week activities, like perhaps the Stargazing World Record event? And, if you’re not (or even if you are), do you have any non-fiction books about scientific matters that you’d like to recommend?

Evening with a Nobel Laureate

Chen Ning Yang

Chen Ning Yang, 2005 (Courtesy: Alanmak, via Wikipedia, using CC-BY-SA 3.0 Unported)

And now for something completely different! Tonight I was way out of my comfort zone, mixing as I was with physicists and mathematicians at an event involving staff, students, alumni (pas moi, but Mr Gums) of the Research School of Physics and Engineering at the Australian National University (ANU). The event involved a reception followed by a lecture given by Nobel Laureate in Physics, Chen Ning Yang. I would of course have been more excited had the Laureate been Patrick White but that would have been a bit weird given he died in 1990 and, anyhow, a Nobel Laureate is a Nobel Laureate, n’est-ce pas? The gobsmacking thing was that Professor Yang was born in October 1922. Yes, he’s nearly 88, and in the introduction we were told he’s about to move back to Stony Brook University in the USA because there are some exciting things going on there!

The topic of the lecture was, wait for it:

How mathematics and physics got together again!

I’ll spare you the details – not of course because I couldn’t understand all the “beautiful” formulae for exciting things like gauge theory but because I would want to bore you! I will say, though, that the lecture ended with the statement that maths and physics got together again in the second half of the 20th century when the two disciplines realised they both used F.F and F.F tilde (the tilde is supposed to be above the F but I can’t find that in my PopChar list). If you can understand what all that F-stuff means, you’re ahead of me.

The funny thing is, though, that I rather enjoyed the lecture. Sure, it was peppered with many incomprehensible (to me) formulae, but he was absolutely charming and there was, in fact, an engaging story amongst it all. For the rest of the audience it may have been an inspiring science lecture, but for me it was more like a wonderful fable (you know, like “The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse”). Each to her own, I say …

Is there a reason for all this, do I hear you ask, beyond an esoteric intellectual exercise? Well, apparently there is and it has to do with money. Physics has always been closely tied to the real, that is, physical world, but Mathematics has not. By reconnecting with Physics and thereby the physical world, Professor Yang somewhat cheekily said, Mathematics finds itself in a better position to attract funding. In other words, our world, as many of we humanities-focused people know only too well, is much happier when there is some practical application to intellectual pursuit!

POSTSCRIPT: I am, funnily enough, in the middle of writing my post on Ian McEwan’s Solar, which is about a Nobel Laureate physicist. In the book, the physicist refers to the Dirac equation and says “a thing of pure beauty, that equation…”. If you look at the article on it in Wikipedia you will see the sorts (though not the same) of equations I refer to in this post.