The Best Australian Science Writing 2011

The Best Australian Science Writing 2011

Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: UNSW Press
Pages: 222
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  • Book Info
    The Best Australian Science Writing 2011
    Book Description:

    From the elemental forces that drive our expanding universe to the delicate hairs on the back of your neck, science offers talented writers the kind of scope that other subjects simply can’t match. This dynamic genre of Australian writing has never, until now, been showcased in an anthology. With a foreword by Nobel Prize winner Peter Doherty, The Best Australian Science Writing 2011 is a landmark book. Showcasing selections from the work of renowned communicators such as Tim Flannery, Germaine Greer, Anna Funder and Paul Davies, this book is an inspiring exploration of the most exciting, elegant, powerful, and important writing about science and nature published in Australia and by Australians.

    eISBN: 978-1-74224-575-1
    Subjects: General Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vii)
  3. Advisory panel
    (pp. viii-ix)
  4. Contributors
    (pp. x-xvi)
  5. Foreword: Science writing for our time
    (pp. 1-5)
    Peter C. Doherty

    The continuing communication revolution defines our time. What’s most intriguing is that the written word is again stage centre. Setting aside the social media such as Facebook and Twitter, the massive expansion of material available via the web has irrevocably changed the way we access information. For instance, I check Wikipedia from time to time to see if this or that account reflects my understanding for areas of science I know well. When a topic is new to me, I often start with Wikipedia and go from there. My general experience has been that the subject matter is presented clearly,...

  6. Introduction: Specimen hunting
    (pp. 6-11)
    Stephen Pincock

    In the good old days, science was simple. A chap of independent means who fancied getting involved in this natural philosophy lark could simply avail himself of a pair of sturdy boots, a butterfly net and a servant or two, and stomp off into the jungle to fill a satchel with exotic new species.

    After a few years of grasping and swatting, sweating and scribbling, our hero would return home, tip his bounty out onto the table and begin sorting iridescent blue beetles from lacewing butterflies. Discoveries would fall like fruit from a tree.

    Well, perhaps things weren’t exactly like...

  7. Bad hotel
    (pp. 12-16)
    Anna Funder

    At dusk the bats fly silently over our house in inner Sydney. Unlike birds, which coast through the air without apparent thought or work, the bat’s effort to stay aloft, with each wing-beat going from out wide to almost touching under its heavy body, is visible in the span. When I watch the bats, for reasons I can explain, I always think of David Chalmers, one of the world’s leading philosophers of consciousness.

    I had the good fortune to sit next to David while watching Cathy Freeman run in the Sydney 2000 Olympics. Strangely, I don’t remember much of Freeman’s...

  8. Science without a capital S: Battling Grumpy Uncles, Media Tarts and Jurassic Marxists
    (pp. 17-27)
    Robyn Williams

    Science is one of the few human constructs designed to test its own veracity continuously. There is no point in time at which we all nod, wise men with beards, women with six-figure IQs, and say: ‘That’s settled … next!’ All aspects of scientific inquiry are always under review.

    But it’s not as simple as that.

    When I was an ABC cub, in the early 1970s, I was regaled by History Men and Counter-Culturists with the view that Science had lost its capital S. Science was, like everything else, conditional, even if we agreed that most of it was considered...

  9. You should probably just move oceans, male Gulf pipefish
    (pp. 28-31)
    Becky Crew

    It’s well known within seahorse circles that it’s the males who bear the responsibility of pregnancy, not the females. The same goes for their relatives, the pipefish, whose males are equipped with a specialised external brood pouch into which the females will deposit eggs during copulation. But a recent examination of pipefish male pregnancy and mate selection by Kimberley Paczolt and Adam Jones from Texas A&M University has found that this process is nothing to coo over. Henry Gee, Senior Editor atNature, described it as ‘sinister’.

    Observing the reproductive behaviour of 22 captive male Gulf pipefish (Syngnathus scovelli), a...

  10. The trouble with genes
    (pp. 32-43)
    Elizabeth Finkel

    ‘What’s a gene, Dad?’ I’d like to be there when the nine-year-old son of iconoclastic geneticist John Mattick pops the question. It used to be simple – a gene coded for a protein. But when I put that question to Mattick, based at the University of Queensland, his response was as disturbing as it was confusing: ‘Genetic information is multilayered and a gene can convey lots of different information into the system. It’s almost like we’ve moved into hyperspace in terms of information coding and transfer.’

    Mattick’s cutting-edge theories about gene regulation have been published in the British journalNature...

  11. There is no mercury in vaccines
    (pp. 44-45)
    Deb Hodgkin

    You’ll have to indulge me a little here, but ‘elements and compounds’ is Year 7 or 8 science so this is a class I teach pretty much every year. I’ll actually avoid mercury and vaccines until the end, and start by telling you a little story …

    Chlorine is a highly poisonous gas. It was used in 1915 to devastating effect on soldiers in Ypres. It is a pale yellow–green and smells terrible, so it’s pretty noticeable.

    Sodium is a soft, silvery metal that is extremely reactive in water – it has to be stored under oil because it...

  12. Is your brain making you fat?
    (pp. 46-49)
    Michael Cowley

    Spend enough time in public places or even watching television and it’s clear that people are becoming more overweight. Indeed rates of obesity are rising in both adults and children. But the average adult’s weight increases by less than 500 grams a year – the equivalent of just a few potato chips a day. This demonstrates the remarkable job our bodies do of balancing our food intake and energy output. So for those of us whose waistlines are expanding – what’s going wrong? And are we solely to blame?

    The recent increase in the amount of fat in our bodies...

  13. It’s time to talk
    (pp. 50-61)
    Kate Legge

    One morning last November, a teenage schoolboy leapt in front of a city-bound train as it hurtled towards Cheltenham station in Victoria’s bayside suburbs.

    There was no mention of his death in the media. If he had drowned in a swollen river on a Duke of Edinburgh hike, or been killed in a level-crossing accident, there would have been headlines, perhaps heated talkback radio debate over inadequate supervision and safety precautions. His school newsletter made brief mention of the ‘tragic event’ – a euphemism often applied to suicide – in amongst cheerier references to speech nights, sporting victories and academic...

  14. To save a species
    (pp. 62-67)
    Deborah Smith

    ‘She has eggs.’ The animal reproduction expert Dr Thomas Hildebrandt is carrying out an ultrasound on an 800 kilogram black rhinoceros and tells everyone around him the good news visible on his computer screen.

    It is early morning in a dusty enclosure at Taronga Western Plains Zoo in Dubbo and an Australian and German team of more than 25 has gathered to attempt rhino IVF.

    Each part of the procedure has been specially adapted for the giants, from the harness attached to a bulldozer that lifts the anaesthetised rhino, Rocket, onto an operating table, to the long thin needle used...

  15. Birth of a killer
    (pp. 68-74)
    Sonia Shah

    Terrie Taylor is one of the world’s leading experts on pediatric malaria. Since the 1980s, she’s spent six months of every year inside malaria’s epicentre in central Africa, unravelling the mysteries of a disease that takes the lives of 3000 African children every day. Taylor meets me at the airport in Blantyre, a city in southern Malawi with a population of 500 000, at the beginning of the 2007 rainy season. Suffering an average of 170 bites from malaria-infected mosquitoes every year, between 40 and 70 per cent of the entire populace of malaria-plagued nations such as Malawi harbour malaria...

  16. Lousy science
    (pp. 75-78)
    Christine Kenneally

    In a laboratory in the Faculty of Veterinary Science at the University of Melbourne, Vern Bowles slides a Petri dish into a microscope and centres it on two coffee-brown lice eggs: one is full and opaque, the other empty and almost entirely translucent. Suspended to their right, like a distorted astrological sign, is a big, fat louse. The microscope illuminates her segmented body, creepy-crawly legs, and the dried scraps of blood in her gut. Bowles is the chief scientific officer at Hatchtech, a biotech startup developing a new kind of lousicide. When I ask him why lice are interesting, his...

  17. A fresh look at Earth
    (pp. 79-92)
    Tim Flannery

    What is life? Is it separable from Earth? At the most elemental level, we living beings are not even properly things, but rather processes. A dead creature is in every respect identical to a live one, except that the electrochemical processes that motivate it have ceased. Life is a performance – heaven’s performance – which is fed and held in place, and eventually extinguished, by fundamental laws of chemistry and physics. Another way of thinking about life is that we are all self-choreographed extravaganzas of electrochemical reaction, and it is in the combined impacts of those reactions, across all of...

  18. How to keep the river flowing
    (pp. 93-97)
    Jessica Weir

    On a hot summer’s day in Mildura I was discussing the river sand mining industry with Muthi Muthi elder Mary Pappin. She asked, ‘Is this what you do when you’ve killed everything on top: you take out the minerals from underneath and sell them?’ Mary can always be counted on to go to the heart of the matter.

    Rarely reported in the current water debate are the experiences of the Aboriginal people whose ancestral country is the Murray River. They have as much to lose as anyone, if not more, with the devastation of the river country.

    Aboriginal elders have...

  19. Blame it on the Stones
    (pp. 98-105)
    Rob Brooks

    Music is the quintessence of culture, but it also has evolutionary roots that run deep. Music stimulates parts of our brains that first evolved for other purposes, but music-making has also evolved in its own right. It is especially important in courtship, and in learning to navigate the tricky social transition to adulthood. It may be the most complex and sophisticated courtship display in the animal kingdom.

    The Rolling Stones are the biggest, baddest rock and roll band of them all. (They may not have sold as many records as the Beatles or AC/DC, but they outlasted the Beatles by...

  20. In the age of fishes
    (pp. 106-110)
    Nyssa Skilton

    Buried beneath an unsealed road on the outskirts of the NSW town of Canowindra lies a story that has waited about 375 million years to be told. Parts of the tale have emerged: how a drought dried an ancient billabong, leaving thousands of strange, armoured fish to die in the baking sun. And how a flood or winds quickly covered them with sediment, which later turned to rock and preserved them like a snapshot.

    But the palaeontologist who worked to unearth more than 4000 of these fossils in 1993 is certain there is more to the story. One of Australia’s...

  21. Tiger by the tail
    (pp. 111-117)
    Robert Reid

    It was possibly the world’s most unusual shark-attack injury, but for 37-year-old marine scientist Richard Fitzpatrick it was all in a day’s work, and he considered himself lucky to get off so lightly. His expensive sunnies were broken, he complained, but his face was intact. The first words he uttered when regaining consciousness were, not surprisingly: ‘That hurt!’

    Fitzpatrick and a team of shark researchers were working in waters off Raine Island, on the extreme northern tip of Queensland’s Great Barrier Reef, on a mission to capture tiger sharks and attach satellite ‘splash’ tags to monitor their migration patterns. It...

  22. Gone viral
    (pp. 118-121)
    Frank Bowden

    My mother had scarlet fever as a young girl. She lived through epidemics of whooping cough, measles and polio, and her personal experience made her quite neurotic about germs. She would make me wash my hands if I handled money – coins or notes, it didn’t matter. She was going to cancel my brother’s 10th birthday party because he had a cold, and she wouldn’t let him blow out the candles on the cake because of the risk of ‘viral icing contamination’, until my godmother saved the day by cutting out a protective paper ‘condom’ for the cake so just...

  23. Skin feeders
    (pp. 122-125)
    Katherine Fleming

    Tonight, as you sink wearily into bed, you won’t be alone – even if you’re the only person in the room. Under your slumbering head, the pillow will teem with potentially thousands of unseen bedmates, feasting on your fallen skin flakes.

    The good news is they don’t bite. The bad news is they’ll be procreating, defecating, dying and decomposing in your bedding, couches, carpets and clothes. Essentially, we all spend a good deal of time wallowing in dust-mite filth.

    The humble dust mite – the speciesDermatophagoides pteronyssinusis most common in Australia – is an arachnid, a relative of...

  24. Once were dinosaurs
    (pp. 126-140)
    John Pickrell

    If you could step back to the late Jurassic, 160 million years ago, and conceal yourself in the prehistoric foliage of Mongolia, you would see something remarkable. Between the tree ferns and cycads, an unusual-looking bird would appear.

    It tidies up a clearing – removing leaves, sticks and other debris. Then, with a dramatic flourish, the pigeon-sized creature stands on tiptoes, puffs up its strikingly coloured plumage, and starts to jerkily dance from side to side, all the while producing clicks and shrill little calls. Most conspicuous are its four long tail feathers, which flick and waft as it shimmies...

  25. Australian floods: Why were we so surprised?
    (pp. 141-147)
    Germaine Greer

    What’s going on in Australia is rain. British people might think that they’re rain experts. Truth is that they hardly know what rain is. The kind of cold angel sweat that wets British windscreens isn’t proper rain. For weeks now rain has been drumming in my ears, leaping off my corrugated steel roof, frothing through the rocks, spouting off the trees, and running, running, running past my house and down into the gully, into the little creek, into the bigger creek, and on to the Nerang River and out to sea at Southport. We’ve had more than 350mm in the...

  26. No escaping the science
    (pp. 148-157)
    Clive Hamilton

    One of the most striking features of the global warming debate has been how, with each advance in climate science, the news keeps getting worse. Although temporarily slowed by the effects of the 2008 global financial crisis, the world’s greenhouse gas emissions have been growing much faster than predicted in the 1990s. In addition, since 2005 a number of scientific papers have described the likelihood of the climate system passing significant ‘tipping points’ beyond which the warming process is reinforced by positive feedback mechanisms – small perturbations that cause large changes. This new understanding has upset the comforting idea of...

  27. How aqua regia saved Nobel Prize medals from the Nazis
    (pp. 158-161)
    Captain Skellett

    It was a brisk April morning in 1940, and George was in a fix. In his hands were two Nobel Prizes illegally smuggled from Germany, while outside the lab the Nazis were swarming the streets of Copenhagen. Denmark was occupied by the Germans, and it was only a matter of time before they entered the Institute of Theoretical Physics and searched the building.

    The medals belonged to Max von Laue and James Franck, Germans who had won Nobel Prizes in Physics some years ago. Their names were engraved on the medals, and removing gold from Germany was a serious offence,...

  28. Extremes of sound
    (pp. 162-179)
    Bryan Gaensler

    Our lives are never silent. I am typing these words in a seemingly quiet room, but if I pause a moment to listen, I can hear the ticking of a clock, the rumble of traffic on a nearby road, the hum of an air-conditioner next door, and some snatches of distant conversation from passers-by.

    Throughout a normal day, I will speak to my friends and family, listen to music, and grumble at an aeroplane flying too low over my house: sound is both a constant presence and a vital component of our lives.

    All these sounds are actually minuscule oscillating variations in air pressure, which travel outwards from...

  29. String theory ties us in knots
    (pp. 180-182)
    Marcelo Gleiser

    Einstein spent the last 30 years of his life looking for the unifying force, as did the brilliant pioneers of atomic physics, Heisenberg, Pauli and Schrödinger. Following in their footsteps, I grew up a Platonist, fascinated with the idea of unification: the idea that all the forces of nature are but different expressions of a single force. So I went to graduate school in England to pursue this intellectual Holy Grail and worked on superstring theories, the epitome of the unification dream.

    But as the years passed I watched with growing apprehension as hundreds of my colleagues published papers on...

  30. Deepak Chopra: Misunderstanding physics since he willed himself into existence
    (pp. 183-187)
    Richard Hughes

    So, about a month ago an article by Deepak Chopra came to my attention … It’s calledWhich Is Real, the Moon or God?and it manages to be even dumber than its name suggests.

    Chopra begins:

    Most people have spent at least a few minutes pondering a famous riddle, although they may not know that it originated in Zen Buddhism: If a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Strangely, this turns out to be a pivotal question if you want to prove that God exists, or doesn’t....

  31. Twinkling stars
    (pp. 188-191)
    Karl Kruszelnicki

    One of the best-known rhymes in the English language is ‘Twinkle twinkle little star, How I wonder what you are’. The rhyme’s author, Jane Taylor, first published it way back in 1806, in a book calledRhymes for the Nursery. She called the poem ‘The Star’ for its first publication. And sure enough, if you look up at the night sky, the stars reallydoseem to twinkle.

    But the reality is that stars don’t twinkle.

    The stars we see at night are huge objects, of the order of a million kilometres in diameter. All the stars that we can...

  32. Flesh and stardust
    (pp. 192-207)
    Richard King

    When I was growing up in England, I didn’t have a chemistry set, but I did have a television set, and on that television set, once a week for what seemed like an age, a man called Johnny Ball would appear and tell me about all manner of science subjects, from geology to biology to physics and astronomy. A presenter of preternatural energy, Ball was a marvellous entertainer whose enthusiasm for his subject was obvious and whose ability to convey often complex ideas with the aid of eccentric and implausible gizmos remains, as far as I know, unsurpassed. He was,...

  33. Is anybody out there?
    (pp. 208-219)
    Paul Davies

    On a cold and misty morning in April 1960, a young astronomer named Frank Drake quietly took control of the 26-metre dish at the US National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia. Few people understood that this moment was a turning point in science. Slowly and methodically Drake steered the giant instrument towards a sun-like star known as Tau Ceti, 11 light years away, tuned in to 1420 MHz, and settled down to wait. His fervent hope was that alien beings on a planet orbiting Tau Ceti might just be sending radio signals our way, and that his...

  34. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 220-224)