Book review: The Best Australian Science Writing 2013

By Grant Jacobs 11/12/2013

Looking for a Christmas present for someone who likes reading about ‘things’, how they work, why?

Or just generally musing about life.

I’ve had past success with anthologies of science writing as gifts, in my case Best American Science and Nature Writing or Best American Science Writing, both part of the long-established ‘Best American’ series that offers collected writing over many niche genres.


Now in it’s third edition I have only become aware this year of Best Australian Science Writing. Like it’s American counterpart it’s an edited collection of works previously published elsewhere, from newspapers, books, magazines and radio.

Among the entries are all short-listed articles from the 2013 Bragg[1] University of New South Wales Prize for Science Writing.[2] This year’s winner was Fred Watson’s, Here come the ubernerds: Planets, Pluto and Prague.

The collection is mostly of short to medium length articles on science-related topics, but also features poetry and biographical pieces. The authors, too, are a mixed collection. Some are scientists who write in addition their scientific work; many are full-time (science) writers.

The book is available as a paperback and in electronic form (EPub, Kindle or ePDF; this review is of the paperback format).

Among the reasons I feel these anthologies make for excellent gifts is that it’s a format that can be read in an hour here, half an hour there or an afternoon and can be left on the table or at the bach for visitors to pick up.

Another strength of science writing anthologies for gifts is they cover a very wide range of topics. There’s bound to be something for everyone.

Tim Minchin, a man of many talents but perhaps best known for his comedy including the excellent beat poem Storm, has placed his introduction, Not a Nobel Laureate,[3] on-line. It’s excellent and worth reading, even if you don’t buy the book. (Fellow sci-blogger Siouxsie will be disappointed with his description of pink-haired people.) It’s followed by the editors’ preface then the articles themselves.

My views on the individual pieces vary, as they will for any reader, a natural consequence of the variety on offer, but one that in many ways makes these anthologies better gifts: they’re likely to always include styles the recipient likes, even if you’re unsure of their reading tastes.

As a measure of this, among my favourites are some that didn’t make the short-list for the Bragg Prize. Each to their own.[4]

Over the whole collection I’m happy to say that I chose to skip few,[4] mostly those related to climate – partly a consequence of writing style preferences but also in part as it’s a topic that feels stale to me, important as the subject is. Others will chose differently. On the whole, the articles are excellent and fun reads.

To give some flavour of the book, here’s a peek at some (by no means all) of the contents, in no particular order of merit:

  • Fish that become gonads. (Not have gonads, become gonads.)
  • Some fairly (seemingly) off-the-wall ideas as solutions for climate change in Earthmovers: playing god with the climate.
  • Pregnancy testing, then and now (very entertainingly).
  • Darwin, a perennial favourite for science writers, turns up several times. I especially liked Janine Burke’s short account of rebelling her Catholic College teachers and Francesca Rendle-Short’s much longer article of her six day creationist father, mentor to Ken Ham—of Creation Museum infamy—and her father’s Alzheimer’s.
  • One writer rails against the characters (caricatures) in Big Bang Theory.
  • I like Elizabeth Finkel’s piece following an examination of Aboriginal art for it’s portrayal of the team work and fallibilities of research, showing an understanding of the reality of scientific work as you might expect from a writer with research experience.
  • There’s a neat account of a writer’s autistic son, told in a different style that you’d usually encounter – fresh and very effective.
  • One of this year’s big science features in the media was testing for the existence (or not) of the Higg’s Boson; one article plays on the media coverage. (Peter Higgs and François Englert won this year’s Nobel Prize for Physics.)
  • A longer piece spans the death of Pluto as a planet while wandering among other astronomical and planetary topics.
  • Female sexual desire.
  • Behind the scenes of organ donation. Written by a surgeon, the practical, hands-on knowledge comes through.
  • Chickens as sentinels of epidemics.[5] (By Nobel laureate, Peter Doherty; author of several popular science books.)
  • Flatology, the science of flatulence, opening with Charles Darwin’s concerns about his emissions.
  • Cigarettes and polonium-210, the radioactive element probably best known as used to poison former KGB officer Alexander Litvinvenko in London. Smokers and friends of smokers will want to read this.

There’s more that I can possibly list without driving the reader to distraction, if I haven’t already. But in some ways that’s half the thing isn’t it? Distraction with the curious and interesting. A watering hole for a few minutes or hours.

Brief bibliographies of each author are available in a section before the stories. (I missed this at first.) The source of the articles are given in the back, under the (to me, slightly misnamed) section Acknowledgements.[6]

Each article ends with an unusual cross-link feature, a short index of words found on other pages in the book, that I take to be a print version of links embedded in the text of the electronic versions of the book.

About the book

Title: The Best Australian Science Writing 2013

Editors: McCredie and Mitchell

Publisher: NewSouth Publishing (University of New South Wales Press Ltd.)

ISBN: 97817422 33857 (pbk), 97817422 41654 (ePub/Kindle), 97817422 46666 (ePDF)


My copy is courtesy of the publishers.

None of the entries are from blogs. I don’t know if they were ruled out, but, if so, it’s worth noting the American counterpart occasionally includes writing of merit from on-line, too.

1. The Braggs are a famous father-and-son science team, who together won the Nobel Prize in Physics, 1915 for their work in X-ray crystallography. The Bragg name features in several terms in the field such as Bragg’s Law and Bragg diffraction. They were Australia’s first Nobel Prize winners.

2. For writers wanting to try their hand, entries for the 2014 competition are now open.

3. Tim Minchin’s introduction title is reference to that the introductions of both previous editions were penned by Nobel laureates.

4. My own taste in reading these days, particularly when busy, favours clear, lean(er), writing with interesting things to think about leavened with humour rather than, say, the slower-paced descriptive prose of the opening piece, The weather of who we are. It might also relate to that I tend to tend to escapism at busy times, tackling slower reading when time is there for the killing. Bear in mind, too, that as someone who follows popular science some topics are old news to me.

5. Sentinel Chickens has been published and was also short-listed on the Guardian science writing books of the year. I’ve a library copy I may (no promises) review before Christmas.

6. While it’s understand their use of the word, I think of acknowledgements as thanks for support or inspiration, rather than publication credits.

Other articles on Code for life:

Mad on Radium

Ancient books (or I’d rather be reading)

The Panic Virus

Science-y reading

A Geek Nation reviewed

Book review – The Poisoner’s Handbook

The bosom serpent

What books do you think geeks should read?