Wednesday, 28 April 2021

Best Australian Science Writing 2020

Back in 2016, our group went a bit left field and scheduled the 2015 edition of Best Australian Science Writing. We thoroughly enjoyed it and the discussion, and so decided it was time to do it again with the current edition. This one, Best Australian Science Writing 2020, was edited by Sara Phillips, and is the 10th Anniversary edition.

In a slight variation of our usual start where we go around the room giving our first impressions, we decided for this meeting, as we did for the 2015 edition, to start with each person naming a favourite or standout article, and describing why they'd chosen it.

This is how it went ...

Dyani Lewis' An identity crisis for the Australian dingo: the ecological importance of the dingo, the taxonomy issues involved, and the politicisation of science. This was a thread through the collection but is reflected here in how different taxonomic decisions can affect policy regarding the dingo (native or domestic?)

Ceridwen Dovey's True grit: an elderly scientist has his day, finally. Also liked the sense of human warmth in the story, and found the science itself regarding moon dust interesting

Jo Chandler's The Murray-Darling's dry mouth: the politicisation of science is saddening; also sad about the ongoing deterioration of the beautiful Coorong and its impact on the whole Murray-Darling system.

Peter Meredith's Underwater and underrated and Rebecca Giggs' Bovine friends forever: this member snuck in two favourites! Grew up around cows, and loved reading about something she'd seen and experienced.

Cameron Stewart's Brain wave and Konrad Marshall's Jeepers creepers: another member who snuck in two favourites. Loved the medical ones in general; was particularly interested in the brain research involved in "Brain wave" and the work of the woman driving the research described in the article.

Lesley Hughes' The milk of human genius: really liked Jo Chandler's Coorong one too, but that had been taken, so nominated "the milk one" because of the environmental issues and the research involved in finding alternatives.

Bianca Nogrady's Meet the families; Jen Martin's Listening to Antarctica and Jane Cadzow's Sixteen zoo staff. More than 200 animals. An encroaching fire. The rescue operation that became the pride of Mogo: Another cheeky member, this one nominating three! Each one spoke to topics or places of specific interest to her (taxonomy, Antarctica and Mogo Zoo).

Ricky French's The case of the missing frogs: really liked the evocative opening paragraph about a frog suddenly giving birth through its mouth, while it was in a cage on the passenger seat of the car a ranger was driving. This member had chosen Ceridwen Dovey's True grit, but it had been taken already, so French's article was her back-up choice! She really liked Dovey's writing.

Arwyn Stone's Not-so-smart technology: The science (or lack thereof) behind period and fertility trackers: she was impressed by the journalistic style, the science, and the fact that it dealt with apps. (This article won the Bragg Student Prize, and was added at the end of the book, after the after-matter.) 

This last member, as some did with the 2015 edition, read the book by following the links of like articles at the end of the article she was reading.

Then the free-for-all ...

We then talked about other articles we enjoyed, and some of the issues the volume raised for us:

Michelle Starr's The repeating signals from deep space are extremely unlikely to be aliens - here's why: partly because of what it says about scientific method.

Peter Doherty's Foreword: Science writing for normal and not-so-normal times and editor Sara Phillips' Introduction: Seeing the world with fresh eyes: enjoyed reading Doherty's perspective on COVID-19 (written very early in the pandemic), and liked the effortless way Phillips covered the volume's contents. One commented on Doherty's statement that "the reason that COVID-19 can be so bad is that it is both a respiratory infection and a blood clotting disorder", although a medical member of our group didn't fully agree that it was "a blood clotting disorder".


Andrew Wear's Gone with the wind: the description of how Denmark, over 40 years ago, started addressing the "energy" issue, and its ongoing innovative social, scientific and economic approach versus Scott Morrison's lack of vision (still). We particularly liked that Denmark has only two TV stations, both government, which means Danes trust the news. We did note that Denmark had been quick to stop AstraZeneca immunisation which seemed a paradoxically emotional rather than rational response.

COVID-19: We commented on the three articles on the pandemic - noting that the choice of articles for the edition had been made in March 2020, which was very early in the pandemic. Nonetheless, the three articles were illuminating: Felicity Nelson's What is pathogen sovereignty, Liam Mannix's The perfect virus - two gene tweaks that turned COVID-19 into a killer, and Tessa Charles' Synchotrons on the coronavirus frontline. Regarding pathogen sovereignty, we discussed the issue of sharing science with the world (which is also covered in Smriti Mallapaty's article on protists). One member was particularly interested in the synchrotron article. It filled in some holes in her understanding of things she'd read.

We talked about Wilson da Silva's The good earth and its message about improving mircodiversity in the city. One member was interested in the issue of animal ethics, and the view, as explored a little in Peter Meredith's Underwater and underrated, that animal "intelligence" provides arguments for treating them ethically. We agreed that the fact that they are living, regardless of human notions of "intelligence", should warrant ethical care and treatment of all creatures. One member then talked of her awareness of a stick of celery's "will to live" in her fridge!

In terms of the overall volume, we noted that most of the articles - probably not surprisingly - are about cutting edge developments, and also that the majority are written by science journalists rather than practising scientists. The journalists translate the science for lay readers, but they also tend to use a journalistic formula to do so - anecdote, explication of the science, conclusion. 

This led us to talk about research in general and the dire situation in Australian universities. We teased it out from personal, political and economic angles, the poor support, in particular, provided research and researchers. Universities have moved from a salary-based research system to a grant-based one. One academic in the group noted that you tend to have to "have the results" before you apply for the grant to prove the grant is worth being awarded! Smriti Mallapaty's article on protists, For risky research with great potential, dive deep, looks at other research, looks funding models, particularly for risky or longterm research.

We briefly discussed the early 20th century Australia father and son scientists and Nobel Laureates, William and Lawrence Bragg. They are too little known in Australia, but they are commemorated in the Bragg Science Writing Prize which is associated with this anthology. The 2020 winner was Ceridwen Dovey's True grit, and the runners up were Ricky French's Case of the missing frogs and Konrad Marshall's Jeepers creepers. Lesley Hughes' The milk of human genius, Donna Lu's Stranger things, and Nicky Phillips' Bringing home the ancestors, were the other shortlisted articles.

Finally, we talked about the two poems in the collection, Jenny Blackford's Black ice, frogmouth and Alicia Sometimes' Gravitational waves.

Present: 9

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