Science Under the Microscope

The Australian | 13 January 2017


By John Ross

THE SYDNEY astrophysicist says the universe would be largely devoid of carbon, the basis of all known life, but for a special “resonance” in the nucleus of the element that boosted its production in the nuclear furnaces of massive stars.

He says that if the force holding carbon protons together were only “fractionally different”, it would wipe out this property — and consequently most of the universe’s carbon. And if oxygen — just a couple of elements further on in the periodic table — possessed the same property, it would have hoovered up all available carbon.

This is just one example of the elemental good luck that spawned the cosmos we know, Lewis says. “We can play ‘what if’ games with all the properties of all the fundamental bits of the universe. With each change we can ask, ‘What would the universe be like?’ [And] in any other universe, we simply wouldn’t be around to wonder why we didn’t exist.”

Lewis’s article exemplifies the philosophical flavour infused throughout the latest edition of The Best Australian Science Writing. While previous volumes of this terrific anthology have pulsed with the excitement of the latest research discoveries, the 2016 version has a reflective, almost wistful quality.

Melbourne physician Leah Kaminsky’s “The Doctor Will Scan You Now” switches the focus on to life’s “genetic crapshoot” as it deconstructs the philosophy and pitfalls of the genomics revolution and its promise of personalised medicine. Journalist Paul Daley’s Transforming the Bush poses similar questions in relation to the robotics revolution that has left Australia’s farms increasingly automated.

“Will the people who once worked in the dairies stay in the bush and learn how to write code?” Daley asks. “Or will they just walk away and abandon the bush to the robots?”

Brisbane blogger and biophysicist Fiona McMillan’s wonderful “Lucy’s Lullaby: Song of the Ages” traces how the evolutionary developments that allowed humans to walk upright also spawned bigger brains and a need for language.

McMillan explores a theory that changes to early humans’ hands and feet meant youngsters could no longer ride on their elders’ backs, forcing mothers to put down nursing infants “for the first time in prehistory” — and necessitating words and song as a means of reassurance.

Margaret Wertheim’s “I Feel, Therefore I Am” explores the physics of consciousness. Andrew McMillen’s “The Bone Collector” is the grisly yet strangely sweet story of the human skeleton collection at the University of Queensland’s Gross Anatomy Facility. This tale is rendered more resonant by The Australian’s recent revelation that McMillen’s book on the subject has been pulped by Queensland University Press, over concerns it could upset donors’ relatives.

Elmo Keep’s “Built for Eternity” looks at three monuments to permanence in Nevada: the 1930s Hoover Dam, a proposal for an enormous clock capable of keeping accurate time for 10,000 years, and a now abandoned plan for a massive nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain. More than a mere exploration of engineering, the article drifts into the philosophy of communication.

Keep says Yucca Mountain was the focus of a branch of research established specifically to warn people of the distant future — when current languages may be long gone — of the dangers of radiation. Some of the more bizarre suggestions included jagged concrete spikes, a nuclear “priesthood” modelled on the Catholic Church, and cats genetically tweaked to glow when they ventured too close to the waste site.

Nobel laureate Peter Doherty’s “Reality Cannot be Denied” is an angry rumination on climate change, likening Earth’s prognosis to a doctor’s diagnosis. Climate change is predictably a strong theme in this anthology.

Ashley Hay’s “The Forest at the Edge of Time”, which won the Bragg UNSW Press Prize for Science Writing, explores Australia’s beloved eucalypts as a global experiment charting the likely impacts of a warming world.

Some of the anthology’s chapters are perhaps more quirky than philosophical. Craig Cormick’s The Hunt for Ned Kelly’s Head reads like a script from the CSI television series as forensic scientists track down the renowned bushranger’s bones, then wonder where the hell his skull ended up. Bianca Nogrady’s “Once Bitten: The Tick Making a Meal Out of Carnivores” explains why bushwalkers in Sydney’s northern beaches are becoming reluctant vegetarians.

Some articles deal more with straight-out coincidences than philosophical brainteasers. Belinda Smith’s Tooling up for Mars suggests geologist Abigail Allwood might never have become Australia’s first scientific leader of a mission to the red planet if she hadn’t met a salt-crusted adventurer on a flight from Sydney to Brisbane.

Wilson da Silva ’s “Her Brilliant Career”, a profile of Tanya Monro, suggests she might never have become a brilliant researcher if Sydney’s Conservatorium High School — where the then 10-year-old was bound as a gifted cellist — had included science in its curriculum. Instead, Monro won a music scholarship to a private school where she met an inspirational physics teacher.

Science often revolves around moments such as these. Developments are usually incremental, building on work done by others, rather than breakthroughs. The Best Australian Science Writing is a great way of keeping abreast of a narrative transforming our world quietly but far more profoundly than any political brawl, business coup or sporting triumph.

This is my third year of reviewing this series, and it’s a rewarding job. More than a great read, the annual anthology also functions as a highlights reel of the fast-moving world of science — and the philosophical questions it raises.

The Best Australian Science Writing 2016,

Edited by Jo Chandler, Foreword by Fiona Stanley

NewSouth, 308pp, $29.99

John Ross is The Australian’s science writer.

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