The Best Australian Science Writing 2016 edited by Jo Chandler

Australian Book Review | December 2016

Review by Ian Gibbins

MOST SCIENTISTS are writers. Notwithstanding the distortions induced by the ‘publish or perish’ imperative of funding agencies and academic appointment committees, the publication of original research is fundamental to the scientific process. Depending on the field, a successful scientist may write a hundred or more publications over his or her career. In terms of sheer numbers of words, this is equivalent to two or three full-length novels.

The best Australian science is published in a daunting array of international journals, mostly discipline-specific, but some, such as Nature and Science, cover the whole scientific enterprise. So far in 2016, more than 100 articles with Australian co-authors have appeared in Nature, and around sixty in Science. Modern science is highly collaborative, and not all co-authors necessarily end up with text in the final articles. Nevertheless, this output represents a significant contribution to the leading edge of scientific literature.

Given this wealth of internationally recognised, peer-reviewed literature, how much appears in The Best Australian Science Writing 2016? Well, none. Such is the paradox of scientific writing: it is aimed primarily at other scientists, using the unavoidable combination of technical terminology and dry writing style necessary for concise professional communication. However, these same constraints often make the scientific literature opaque to non-specialists in the field, let alone to readers without a formal scientific background.

This is nothing new. Coincident with the development of modern science in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, an emerging breed of authors used lay language to popularise the latest, most exciting scientific discoveries. Faced with our current absence of well-informed national science policy, we need good practitioners of popular science writing more than ever. Consequently, we should be grateful for the fine selection of contemporary popular science writing collected by Jo Chandler in the 2016 edition of Best Australian Science Writing.

Who are the best writers to bring science to the people? Scientists, who surely have the requisite insight and deep knowledge of their chosen subject? Or professional journalists who can tell a good story within the constraints of commercial publishing? Perhaps unsurprisingly, this collection contains articles from both camps. Indeed, two-thirds of the authors of the thirty-four articles assembled here are not by practising scientists. While most are experienced science journalists, poets and novelists add to the mix. Each of the scientists has made or is making significant contributions to his or her field of research. They range from PhD students through hospital physicians to a Nobel Prize winner, all equally intent on bringing their stories to a wider audience.

The broad appeal of science is indicated by the breadth of publications in which the articles have appeared. As well as established outlets like Cosmos magazine and ABC Radio National’s The Science Show, this year’s collection includes articles originally published in The Age (drilling ice core samples in the Antarctic), Newsweek (the perils of astronomy in Afghanistan), and The Monthly (infections; eel migrations; lizard census).

Many articles are short, offering alluring glimpses into modern research practice and its practitioners. However, this collection also contains longer articles originally published in the Griffith Review, The Weekend Australian Magazine, Aeon Magazine, and Australian Book Review itself (Ashley Hay’s Dahl Fellowship essay ‘The Forest at the Edge of Time’ has since won the Bragg UNSW Press Prize for Science Writing 2016).

These essays benefit greatly from extended discussions of complex scientific concepts and their relevance for broader society. Amongst them, Margaret Wertheim, artist and science historian, expertly traverses current debates into the nature of conscious experience; Leah Kaminsky, physician, novelist, and poetry editor at the Medical Journal of Australia, explicates the emerging potentials and perils of individualised medicine resulting from the astounding progress in molecular biology; while Kathy Marks, the Independent’s Asia-Pacific correspondent, critically appraises links between private and public players in the power and energy industries that have led to Australia’s demonstrably weak policy responses to global climate change.

Women feature prominently in this collection, both as authors (just over half) and as subjects of articles. Some female scientists, such as Tanya Monro, internationally recognised for her research on the properties of optical fibres (‘Her Brilliant Career’ by Wilson da Silva), wield substantial influence in their fields and beyond. Others, such as Claire Wade, dog geneticist (‘Lessons From The Working Dog’ by Hazel Flynn and Elizabeth Finkel), quietly pursue their work, with its impact largely unknown outside specialist circles. With the struggle for equal opportunity for women in science nowhere near won, these stories vividly illustrate how women can make a significant mark in science, technology, and their broader applications.

As in previous editions, The Best Australian Science Writing 2016 takes a cue from website design, and offers links to related topics at the end of each article. Given that article titles can be somewhat cryptic in isolation, these links are an excellent way to navigate the collection. In an era when so much information is presented visually, it is refreshing to find no illustrations in this anthology. It really is all about the writing, ‘the story telling’ as emphasised by Chandler in her Introduction. Quoting ‘Radiology’ by poets Magdalena Ball and Rob Walker, let’s ‘put those speech bubbles under their own scan’. In doing so, we gain remarkable insights into the ever-evolving world of Australian science and its scientists.

Ian Gibbins is a poet, electronic musician, and video artist, having been a neuroscientist for more than thirty years and Professor of Anatomy for twenty of them. His poetry covers diverse styles and media, including electronic music, video, performance, art exhibitions, and public installations, and has been widely published in print and online, along with three books: Urban Biology (2012); The Microscope Project: How things work (2014) and Floribunda (2015), the last two in collaboration with visual artists. He also has a key role in organising the Adelaide Festival of Ideas.