The Best Australian Science Writing 2012

The Best Australian Science Writing 2012

Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: UNSW Press
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    The Best Australian Science Writing 2012
    Book Description:

    How were Ned Kelly’s bones finally identified? What makes cockroaches some of the most successful creatures on the planet? Could some obscure bacteria finally rid the world of dengue fever? How did infant reflux become the disease of the moment? Why does the discovery of a planet made of one huge diamond cause so much media excitement? And do video games really rot children’s brains? From the furthest reaches of the universe to the microscopic world of our genes, science offers writers the kind of scope other subjects simply can’t match. Good writing about science can be moving, funny, exhilarating or poetic, but it will always be honest and rigorous about the research that underlies it. Editor Elizabeth Finkel showcases the nation’s best science writing, drawn from some of this country’s best publications. With a foreword by Nobel Prize-winning astronomer Professor Brian Schmidt, the anthology includes contributions from Margaret Wertheim, Ashley Hay, Wilson da Silva, Jo Chandler and a host of new voices.

    eISBN: 978-1-74224-619-2
    Subjects: General Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vii)
    (pp. viii-ix)
  4. Advisory panel
    (pp. x-xi)
  5. Contributors
    (pp. xii-xviii)
  6. Foreword: A new era for science writing
    (pp. 1-3)
    Brian Schmidt

    It has never been a better time to be a consumer of scientific information. Thanks to the internet, we have an embarrassment of riches. Aficionados can help themselves to data from NASA satellites and seismic arrays, and to huge databases of information throughout the biological sciences. The broader community is even being encouraged to participate in citizen science activities such as the Galaxy Zoo or SETI Live. Scientists and scientific organisations are also reaching out with Twitter feeds, Facebook pages and Google Circles. YouTube provides a mind-boggling array of video material – everything from professional scientific presentations to the self-documented experiments...

  7. Introduction: Masters of the popular treatise
    (pp. 4-12)
    Elizabeth Finkel

    ‘I sometimes think that general and popular treatises are almost as important for the progress of science as original work,’ opined Charles Darwin.

    Indeed Darwin was a master of the popular treatise. HisOn the Origin of Species, published in 1859, was a best-seller. Take a look at his closing paragraph and you get an inkling why:

    There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from...

  8. Gateway to heaven
    (pp. 13-21)
    Wilson da Silva

    If humanity has a beachhead to the stars, this is it: Cape Canaveral. This sandy promontory, jutting out into the Atlantic from a barrier island on the midway point of Florida’s eastern coast, is the site of most of the manned space launches in human history.

    Inhabited for more than 12,000 years, and the scene of some of the first encounters between Europeans and Native Americans, it’s often hot and humid, a lowland speckled with marshy lagoons in every direction. Often sunny year-round, it’s also prone to sudden thunderstorms and lightning.

    To the north is the Canaveral National Seashore, a...

  9. Neutrinos and the speed of light … not so fast
    (pp. 22-26)
    Jonathan Carroll

    The media is champing at the bit to proclaim a discovery of faster-than-light travel by a subatomic particle known as a neutrino, with some going as far as claiming ‘Einstein was wrong: relativity theory busted.’ Startling stuff. If it’s true, then time travel – the stuff of science fiction – may be for real. The scientists responsible for the experiment and analysis let slip that they have some preliminary data that suggests that these particles travel faster than light, but they seem to be the only onesnotjumping to conclusions just yet. The team at the Oscillation Project with Emulsion-tRacking Apparatus...

  10. Blank canvas
    (pp. 27-35)
    Corey Butler

    Walking up to the flowering mallee growing in the red dirt of South Australia’s Bon Bon Station Reserve, I was so amazed by the amassed hum of thousands of native bees that I didn’t notice the brightly coloured beetle perched on one of the flowers.

    When the insect did finally catch my eye, I took a quick snap of its shiny shell before returning my focus to the bees flocking around on the small tree (Eucalyptus socialis).

    It wasn’t until I returned that night to the shed where the team of scientists and naturalists were based, and showed entomologist Andy...

  11. Under the hood of the universe
    (pp. 36-53)
    Margaret Wertheim

    What drives a man with no science training to think he can succeed where Einstein and Stephen Hawking have failed? In 1993, Jim Carter sent out to a select group of the nation’s scientists a letter announcing the publication of his bookThe Other Theory of Physics, in which he promised a complete alternative description of the universe. ‘Never before has any theory offered such a comprehensive explanation,’ his letter enthused. In addition to ‘shedding new light on phenomena that have long been considered to be well explained’, the book would contain solutions to ‘mysteries and paradoxes that have plagued...

  12. The ill-effects of quackery v scientific evidence
    (pp. 54-57)
    Cassandra Wilkinson

    Following the untimely death of Steve Jobs there has been continuing speculation about the extent to which his treatment was critically delayed by early efforts to employ alternative medicine.

    Fortunemagazine reported that the Apple founder had tried to treat his condition with alternative therapies for nine months. When these efforts proved futile, he had a Whipple procedure, a liver transplant and surgery to remove a tumour. Walter Isaacson, who wrote Jobs’s authorised biography, has said publicly that Jobs understood at the end that he had made a mistake.

    It’s not clear from second-hand reports exactly what Jobs was doing,...

  13. A hero’s legend and a stolen skull rustle up a DNA drama
    (pp. 58-61)
    Christine Kenneally

    Even with the best scientific techniques, you can’t always get what you want. But if you try, as the Rolling Stones put it, sometimes you get what you need.

    Consider the case of Ned Kelly’s skull.

    In Australia, Kelly needs no introduction; for Americans, it may help to think of him as Jesse James, Thomas Paine and John F. Kennedy rolled into one.

    Born about 1854 to an Irish convict exiled to Australia, Kelly became a folk hero as a very young man. He took up arms against a corrupt British constabulary, robbed banks and wrote an explosive manifesto. He...

  14. The rise and fall of infant reflux
    (pp. 62-78)
    Pamela Douglas

    At the dawn of the 21st century Queensland infants were in the grip of an epidemic. Babies screamed, vomited and woke frequently at night. They refused to feed, arched their backs, drew up their knees. Parents were frantic: even if they could soothe the flailing fists and the little crumpled face, the minute they put their baby down, the piercing shrieks began again.

    Once, we called this colic. We attributed it to wind, and a woman struggled through the nightmarish first months of a colicky baby’s life without much support from health professionals or even sympathy from those around her,...

  15. Earthquakes: When the world moves
    (pp. 79-82)
    Emma Young

    When the ground began to shudder, Gavin Corica didn’t worry about it – at least not at first. ‘It’s not uncommon in Kalgoorlie to feel the ground vibrate because of the mining activity,’ says the physiotherapist, who until recently had a practice in the West Australian town. ‘But then I thought that the morning was an unusual time for a blast – and then the ground started to shake sideways.’

    A few seconds after that, it felt as though someone was driving a truck through the front of the building, he says. ‘I could hear all these sounds, like massive 3-tonne boulders...

  16. Seven billion reasons to be a feminist
    (pp. 83-86)
    Rob Brooks

    Seven billion people: I had better write fast. Sometime between my deadline to submit this story and the time it goes live, the estimated world population will exceed seven billion for the first time ever.

    As I stare at the population clock, I am paralysed at the sheer speed at which the number of people grows. I am terrified at how our world might support all those lives.

    But the biggest challenge of all is how to elevate the lives of more than one billion people already alive who eke a living from less than $1 per day, so that...

  17. Balancing act
    (pp. 87-100)
    Adrian Hyland

    As policeman Roger Wood heads down the drive, he pauses. Listens. He’s struck by the eerie silence of the morning. The glare is blinding, the air a shimmering haze. The land is seared and withering under the sun’s relentless heat. There’s a strange smell in the bush, vaguely reminiscent of cloudy ammonia. A flock of choughs are huddled together, so exhausted by the heat that they can’t be bothered stirring. A pair of wrens – beautiful blue feathers, vicious eyes – dart about, little swoops.

    He watches a leaf twist and spin in the morning light. Then another. He follows their zigzagging...

  18. Under the influence
    (pp. 101-112)
    Frank Bowden

    One of the great advantages of being a well-paid specialist on the staff of a public hospital – rather than a ridiculously well-paid visiting medical officer in private practice – is that you are entitled to long-service and study leave. After ten years without much of a break, I was tired, grumpy, sick of being on call, fed up with working weekends, short with colleagues and occasionally dismissive of my students. I knew that soon I would reach that lowest of low points for a doctor – when you start to see patients as enemies and complain in the tea room about them,...

  19. Why clever people believe in silly things
    (pp. 113-126)
    Craig Cormick

    Why do so many otherwise clever people believe in paranormal events, or the benefits of fringe medicines and the dangers of infant vaccination – despite there being no real evidence to support their beliefs? According to some surveys, in Australia, about half the population believes in ESP (extra-sensory perception, such as telepathy) and one-third believes in UFOs as evidence of extraterrestrial visitation.

    And a 2005 survey published in theMedical Journal of Australiastated that half of all Australians are using alternative medicines, and one in four are risking their health by not telling their doctor that they are doing so....

  20. Painting the rainforests REDD
    (pp. 127-131)
    William Laurance

    In the ten minutes it’ll take you to read this article, some 120,000 rainforest trees will come crashing down. That’s scary if you’re a resident orangutan or a tree kangaroo, but it should concern you, too. The rampant clearing of tropical forests imperils us all, even if we live too far away to hear the growl of the approaching bulldozers.

    In a rainforest, every tree is a small green city of life – festooned with epiphytes and vines, and bustling with myriad insects and wildlife. But these forests are not merely the world’s most biologically rich real estate; they also keep...

  21. The evolution of the inadequate modern male
    (pp. 132-137)
    Peter McAllister

    Very early in my career as an anthropologist I stumbled across a curious report about a mid-19th century Aboriginal man, a whaler called Thomas Chaseland, who was said to have extraordinary physical capabilities – particularly eyesight. Chaseland’s shipmates claimed he could see land from 30 miles (48km) out to sea, spot whales surfacing outside of telescope range, and see a full mile (0.6km) underwater. A huge man of apparently prodigious strength, Chaseland also survived several shipwrecks at the hands of thrashing whales, on one occasion swimming six miles (9.6km) through freezing waters that killed his fellow whalemen.

    But the attribute that...

  22. A wee solution
    (pp. 138-139)
    Lachlan Bolton

    The swimming pool is the gathering place for swarms of noisy neighbourhood children enjoying the refreshing sensation of cool, sparkling water. All is well until … a wee surprise diffuses through the water particles.

    One child doing laps of breaststroke is intrigued by the presence of a patch of warm water that still hasn’t assimilated with the surrounding colder water. Meanwhile, another young child is proudly projecting a stream of pool water at his friend through his teeth.

    Is this wee problem a rare phenomenon? Not according to a 2009 US survey of 1000 adults, which found that 17 per...

  23. Diamond planets, climate change and the scientific method
    (pp. 140-143)
    Matthew Bailes

    Recently my colleagues and I announced the discovery of a remarkable planet orbiting a special kind of star known as a pulsar.

    Based on the planet’s density, and the likely history of its system, we concluded that it was certain to be crystalline. In other words, we had discovered a planet made of diamond.

    Following the publication of our finding in the journalScience, our research received amazing attention from the world’s media. The diamond planet was featured inTimemagazine, the BBC andChina Daily, to name but a few.

    I was asked by many journalists about the significance...

  24. Storm front
    (pp. 144-168)
    Jo Chandler

    The flight’s delayed – not long, just enough time to sit, breathe. Time to recover from the frenzy required to get this far. To remember what has inevitably been forgotten. Let it go. Time to survey fellow travellers, divine the fragments of their stories – that impolite, hard-wired journalistic intrusion. Time to enjoy a little of the magic that always occupies this moment.

    Routines are distorted and duties discarded. Nothing left to do but anticipate the adventure. This is the point of transition between realities, stepping out of the ordinary and into possibility. The departure gate is the wormhole. It’s why I...

  25. I want to play video games when I grow up (and so should you)
    (pp. 169-172)
    Michael Kasumovic

    Just like rock music in the 1950s, Dungeons & Dragons in the 1980s, and death metal in the 1990s, video-gaming has been demonised by parent groups. For decades, gamers were portrayed as obese social outcasts who spent hours in a dark basement hunched over a flashing screen, slowly becoming more aggressive and distanced from reality.

    Today, that stereotype couldn’t be further from the truth. The average gamer is as likely to be a university professor or a corporate banker as they are to be a high school or university student.

    Furthermore, a growing body of research is showing a whole...

  26. Licence to heal
    (pp. 173-179)
    Nick Miller

    In late 2008, a travel agent (and regular polo player) fell ill in Lusaka, Zambia. She had a high fever and her gums were bleeding. It looked a lot like Ebola, a fierce virus that kills four in five of those it infects.

    The patient was flown to Johannesburg in South Africa for treatment but the virus ravaged her system, sweeping through her body, ripping apart the lining of her blood vessels until they were unable to transport oxygen. She died.

    A few days later, a Lusaka paramedic from the flight fell ill with the same symptoms, and died. Then...

  27. Secret life of Enceladus
    (pp. 180-188)
    Richard A. Lovett

    From a distance, Saturn’s moon Enceladus looks like an overgrown cue ball. White, round and icy, it’s a 500km sphere that could snuggle nicely between Melbourne and Sydney with a couple of hundred kilometres to spare. It’s named after a giant from Greek mythology, but it isn’t really all that big. Saturn alone has five larger moons. But maybe there’s more to the name than simply size. In Greek lore, the giant Enceladus was buried under Italy’s Mount Etna, one of the world’s most active volcanoes. In some versions of the story, his breath fuels the mountain’s fires. While nobody...

  28. The roach’s secret
    (pp. 189-194)
    Wendy Zukerman

    On a midnight foray into my kitchen, I flicked on the light and was confronted with a devil’s playground. Cockroaches were fornicating on my pots and dancing on the cooker. They were grinding on my floor and scuttling around my fridge.

    Disgusted, I reached for the light switch again. The snack I had hoped for was no longer enticing. But then I saw one critter climbing up the wall. I leaned over to take a look. ‘How have you come to live in my home?’ I wondered briefly – before squishing it with an empty milk carton and going back to...

  29. Australia in 2050
    (pp. 195-199)
    Julian Cribb

    Welcome to 2050, ladies, gentlemen and children. you’ll notice a few changes in how we Australians do things, compared with the turn of the century – all for the better, once we had shed the anxieties that were holding us back. Please accompany me on this brief tour of the new Terra Australis.

    First, let’s have a look at what’s driving the economy. Our biggest export, far and away, is knowledge (including technology and advice). And our biggest export sector is climate adaptation: from food production, to water management, to construction of homes and workplaces, urban design and tropical medicine, we...

  30. Doctor’s orders: Debunking homeopathy once and for all
    (pp. 200-204)
    Ian Musgrave

    Homeopathy’s got a bit of a run in the media in recent months and the stories are by no means positive.

    It all started in April when the medical press highlighted the National Health and Medical Research Council’s (NHMRC’s) impending statement on the practice.

    ABC television’sAustralian Storythen broadcast ‘Desperate Remedies’, bringing the non-medical base of homeopathy into the spotlight by telling the tragic tale of actress and model Penelope Dingle. And then the commercial stations jumped on the bandwagon with Channel 7’sToday Tonightrunning a story about homeopathy.

    The NHMRC is still finalising its statement, which, it...

  31. The Aussie mozzie posse
    (pp. 205-214)
    Ashley Hay

    They flutter against the fine mesh that traps them in a small white bucket; tiny shimmers of darkness with white stripes on their six spindly legs and a white lyre shape on their thorax. These delicate creatures areAedes aegypti, the mosquitoes responsible for the spread of yellow fever, the Chikungunya virus and dengue fever, a disease that annually affects more than 100 million people worldwide.

    Crouched in a welcome patch of shade, away from the Cairns summer sun, I peel back the silky white gauze, blow across the open mouth of the container and shake it, stepping back...

  32. Life in Lake Vostok? The link between Antarctica and extra-terrestrials
    (pp. 215-217)
    Helen Maynard-Casely

    In early 2012, the Russian Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute (AARI) announced that they had successfully drilled into the elusive sub-glacial Lake Vostok, a body of water lying under nearly 4km of Antarctic ice. The breakthrough is the result of 20 years of drilling at one of the most inhospitable places on Earth.

    Much of the interest in the 15,000 square-kilometre Lake Vostok revolves around the fact that any micro-organisms within it have been isolated for anywhere up to 30 million years, trapped in an environment similar to that of the moons of Jupiter.

    So what does a sub-glacial lake...

  33. The doctor is in
    (pp. 218-223)
    Ranjana Srivastava

    ‘My husband is depressed,’ she says. ‘My cancer has gone on too long.’ Small tears coalesce into larger drops; soon her face is a soggy landscape that no box of tissues can dry. Some years ago, when she was first diagnosed, her husband was her rock. He cooked, cleaned, asked the right questions and said the right things. But the hard years and the relentless, nagging nature of her illness have clearly exacted their toll. ‘I am sorry,’ I say.

    ‘I didn’t see it coming,’ she mutters.

    Neither did anyone else, I think. When her husband left his job, I...

  34. A dream of goldfinches
    (pp. 224-224)
    Vanessa Mickan

    Some days the beauty of the natural world comes on almost like an ache. It is there right in front of me, but too intense, too big to put into words, to capture in a photograph or even to comprehend. The spring weather carries with it the energy of winter still. The air is crisp and cold like a crunchy apple. I want to grab hold of it, freeze the atmosphere like this forever. The branches are bare except for a few buds; the harbour’s water glows in the early-morning light. A Red-bellied Woodpecker trills. Titmice call, but I can’t...

  35. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 225-227)