Science Provides Evidence of Amazing Fun

The Australian | 2 January 2016


Science fact and science fiction don’t always mesh. This anthology reminds us why.


By John Ross

THE COLLECTION opens with Elmo Keep’s demolition of Mars One, the Dutch-based not-for-profit that wants to colonise the red planet. It made headlines in 2013 when its call for ​volunteers willing to make the one-way trip ​reportedly attracted 200,000 applicants.

“Summoning all the good faith I can muster, I wouldn’t classify it as a scam, exactly,” Keep sums up. “But it does seem an amazingly hubristic fantasy — an absolute faith in the free ​market, in technology, in the media and in money, to be able to do what thousands of ​highly qualified people in government agencies have so far not yet been able to do over decades of diligently trying.”

Too often — and I include myself in this criticism — science writers gild the lily, passing off incremental and often questionable advances as breakthroughs. Keep does the opposite, reminding us to keep our expectations in check.

It’s an important message, because science risks becoming a victim of its own hype. A ​recent analysis found that use of superlatives such as “ground-breaking”, “amazing” and “spectacular” in the pages of academic journals had multiplied eightfold since the 1970s. This could mean pressure to publish is forcing ​scientists to make outlandish claims.

On the other hand, it could mean science grows ever more amazing. There’s lots of evidence for this in The Best Australian Science Writing. Gillian Terzis’s “I, Wormbot” — about scientists who replicate a roundworm’s neural networks in a self-directing three-wheeled Lego robot — suggests “technological singularity”, when robots become smarter than their creators, is becoming increasingly likely.

Similarly, Wilson da Silva’s “Social Robots are Coming” reminds us the unnervingly realistic ​androids in shows such as Swedish drama Real Humans may not be that far off.

“Beating the Odds”, by The Australian’s Trent Dalton, chronicles the development of a ​titanium heart that could keep people alive and kicking — without a pulse.

Of course, we shouldn’t be surprised when science amazes us. Wi-Fi and smartphones have made our lives unrecognisable in just 10 years. Drones, driverless cars and 3-D printers look set to do the same over the next decade.

But Idan Ben-Barak’s “Why Aren’t We Dead Yet?” puts a different spin on amazing. In a chatty excerpt from his book, Ben-Barak outlines just how unlikely it is that humans are alive at all given the devious tricks that murderous pathogenic bacteria employ to sneak past our immune systems.

Medical issues feature strongly in this collection. Elizabeth Finkel won a Eureka Prize for “Will a Statin a Day Really Keep the Doctor Away?”, a forensic analysis of the pros and cons of the world’s most prescribed medications. Statins reduce cholesterol build-ups in the ​arteries, helping safeguard people from strokes and heart attacks. But do their benefits outweigh the side effects? Finkel’s analysis suggests yes, but the controversy rumbles on.

“How I Rescued My Brain” is psychologist David Roland’s account of his battle to recover from a stroke, using mind exercises designed for the elderly. Christine Kenneally’s “The Past May Not Make You Feel Better” examines the burgeoning field of genomic testing.

But biodiversity is the biggest theme. Wendy Zukerman’s “Love Bug” explains why we should take the sex lives of insects seriously; Bridie Smith’s “Playing God” suggests conservationists should cut their losses and take a triage ​approach to threatened species; and William Laurance’s “Global Roadmap” advocates a similarly pragmatic approach to road-building in the Third World.

John Pickrell’s “Messages from Mungo” looks at climate change through the lens of two of Australia’s oldest inhabitants; Fiona McMillan’s “The Vanishing Writers” charts the demise of the moths that gave scribbly gums their name; and Michael Slezak’s “Aliens Versus Predators” considers the upside of one of Australia’s worst ecological own goals: the introduction of cane toads.

Editor Bianca Nogrady, a prolific science writer, has put together an anthology that is wonderfully varied in style and content.

It comes at an important time for science in Australia, with Malcolm Turnbull talking up an innovation nation. But the main reason for ​getting a copy is that science, as the authors well know, is bloody good fun.

The Best Australian Science Writing 2015 Edited by Bianca Nogrady, Foreword by Adam Spencer New South, 301p, $29.99

John Ross is The Australian’s science writer. He has an article in the book under review.

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