Thursday, 1 September 2016

Best Australian Science Writing 2015, edited by Bianca Nogrady

We've done essay collections before - by Peter Singer and Oliver Sacks, for a start - and we've done short story anthologies including our very first book, Room to move, but an anthology of science essays is new territory for us. It proved, however, to be a very successful choice, for a number of reasons, as you'll read below. The book, Best Australian science writing 2015, was edited by science journalist/communicator Bianca Nogrady, and contains articles or essays "celebrating the finest Australian science writing of the year".

While most hadn't finished the book by the meeting, all enjoyed it, for various reasons, including that:

  • it could be read in "small snippets";
  • several of the articles linked to radio and TV programs we'd heard or watched in recent years;
  • many of the articles challenge popular conceptions (or misconceptions) regarding, for example, cane toads, managing endangered species, placebos, and statins.

One member commented that there aren't always clear ethical standards by which the work of scientists can be evaluated. Another enjoyed Adam Spencer's introduction, and liked the links at the end of each article to related articles. In fact, one member read the book by following these links, whereas most of us read it in table-of-contents order.

To discuss it, we decide to ask each person to name her favourite article. Following are our choices. We could have gone on much longer, except that Kate's delicious "healthy" banofee pie started to call:

Uncharted waters, by Daniel Stacey
Our member nominated this article about the search for Malaysian Airlines MH370 because it's an example of those events or activities that can have unintended spin-offs, that lead to the development of further knowledge or new technologies, the way, for example, that wars and space research do. One member, though, suggested that there's an opposite argument which is to keep this apparently unexplored area of the Indian Ocean pristine or free from interference.

Field guide to the future, by Ian Lunt
The member choosing this gorgeous article, which compares old printed field guides with their new digital counterparts, loved its tone and language. She shared a couple of quotes, including this one on how printed field guides (unlike digital ones with their audio features) must use words 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.)

All dressed up for Mars and nowhere to go, by Elmo Keep AND Messages from Mungo, by John Pickerel
The member nominating these liked the jump from exploration in the future to research into Australia's deep past. She liked the way the Lake Mungo "story" was written,  and quoted from its last paragraph:

'Aboriginal people have an intense commitment to country even today. Europeans have lost that connection. Country to us is something you dig up and export to China', Jim says.

How I rescued my brain, by David Roland
Not surprisingly, one of our medical members picked one of the medical articles, this one about a man retraining his brain after suffering a stroke. She enjoyed thinking about it from a medical point of view. She liked that by telling it first person, the author took us on his journey with him. We all liked how this one provided a wonderful practical example of reports we've been hearing about plasticity of the brain. It also led to a discussion about ageing, memory and keeping our brains active! (You can tell we are all of a certain age!).

She shared an example of the writing:

As he talks, his words appear in my mind slowly. They often disappear before I can get hold of them, as if they are in line, each being jostled along by the next.

Aliens versus predators: The toxic toad invasion, by Michael Slezak
The member chose this one because it counteracts what we have been told about the devastating effects of the cane toad invasion. She shared this quote:

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.

The past may not make you feel better, by Christine Kenneally
The member who chose Kenneally's article about Huntington's chorea and genetic counselling was fascinated by the fact that the gene can be found way back in time in the slime mould. She felt that the gene must have (had) some benefits to have survived through evolution to humans. We discussed how research into DNA sequencing opens up our understanding of genes. We also discussed the ethics of DNA testing services, and how some people, who are at a risk of carrying or suffering from genetic conditions, choose not to be tested. It can be tricky to know what to do with information about health.

(Kenneally won the Stella Prize in 2015 for her book The invisible history of the human race).

Other articles named in the second round free-for-all:
  • Honest placebos, by Jane McCredie: we loved the word nocebo.
  • How dust affects climate, health and … everything, by Tim Low: we were fascinated by how far in place and time dust can extend and the information it therefore provides.
  • All dressed up for Mars and nowhere to go, by Elmo Keep: the idea of choosing to buy a one-way ticket to Mars to be part of experimental community sounded a bit "whacky" until someone suggested that this could be our equivalent of those 16th century seafaring explorers who set off not knowing what they would find, where they would end up, and whether they would come back.
  • The women who fell through the cracks of the Universe, by Lauren Fuge: of course, we liked the story of the unsung late 19th to early 20th century women astronomers of "Pickering's harem".
All in all, a very engaged discussion that didn't let up until we absolutely had to ...