Aussie Science Writing Collected

By SciBooks 18/12/2013

by Grant Jacobs

REVIEW: The Best Australian Science Writing 2013
Editors: McCredie and Mitchell

NewSouth Publishing (University of New South Wales Press Ltd.)
RRP:$33.00 (Paperback)Best_Science_Writing_2012_jacket2.indd

Now in its third edition, I have only become aware this year of Best Australian Science Writing. Like its 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 University of New South Wales Prize for Science Writing. 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).

Anthologies such as this make for excellent gifts  – I’ve had past success with Best American Science and Nature Writing and Best American Science Writing, both part of the long-established ‘Best American’ series that offers collected writing over many niche genres. It’s a format that can be read in an hour here, half an hour there, and can be left on the table or at the bach for visitors to pick up. Another strength of  anthologies as gifts is that 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,  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 in Best Australian Science Writing are some that didn’t make the short-list for the Bragg Prize. Each to their own.

Brief biographies of each author are available in a section before the stories and the source of the articles are given in the back, under the (to me, slightly misnamed)  ‘Acknowledgements’ section. 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.

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. (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, but, in  some sense that’s half the attraction, isn’t it? Distraction by the curious and interesting. A watering hole for a few minutes, or hours.

Over the whole collection I’m happy to say that I chose to skip only a few, mostly those related climate – partly a consequence of writing style preferences and partly because it”s a topic that feels stale to me, important as it is. Others will choose differently. On the whole, the articles are excellent and fun reads.

Dr Grant Jacobs is a senior computational biologist who contracts to research groups and companies via his consultancy, BioinfoTools. Check out his Sciblog