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Science

An anthology dedicated to the transnational history of psychedelic drugs and culture seems a timely enterprise. We are twenty or so years into what has become known as the ‘psychedelic renaissance’, the global revival of interest in compounds such as LSD, mescaline, and psilocybin centring on their use alongside psychotherapy as treatments for a growing number of mental health disorders.

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During a recent lunar eclipse, I marvelled as Earth’s shadow nibbled away the Moon’s light. This creeping shadow testified to the awesome movement of the celestial spheres, Earth inching along its trajectory around the Sun while the Moon fell around Earth until, on this special night, all three bodies were closely aligned in the same plane: Sun, Earth, Moon. A related alignment occurs each month, when the Sun’s light is reflected from the full, uninterrupted Moon. We can see it because the Moon orbits Earth in a slightly different plane from that of Earth’s motion around the Sun. But on this night, the Moon was passing through a point where these two planes intersected, so that Earth directly blocked the light from Sun to Moon.

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The photograph arrives while I am reading Dave Witty’s What the Trees See. A tree’s branch close-up, outer brown-red bark peeled back to smooth and brilliant green. A friend, spotting it on Quandamooka Country in Minjerribah, North Stradbroke Island, has been understandably stopped in her tracks. Framed intimately like this, its shape and textures suggest warm musculature: lean in, you will be held. This beautiful creature.

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In 2019, Smithsonian magazine published a profile of an American inventor, entrepreneur, and undersea explorer named Stockton Rush. Rush and his company, OceanGate, had recently celebrated the successful descent of their experimental manned submersible Titan to the extraordinary depth of 4,000 metres. Titan’s design was innovative in two important ways: its body was composed centrally of carbon fibre, which made it light and comparatively inexpensive to operate, and it was a cylinder. A spherical sub might have had ‘the best geometry for pressure’, observed Rush, ‘but not for occupation’ – and this represented an unpalatable check on OceanGate’s plans to deliver groups of high-paying tourists to the wreck of the Titanic. ‘I had come across this business anomaly I couldn’t explain,’ Rush reflected: ‘If three-quarters of the planet is water, how come you can’t access it?’

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The Best Australian Science Writing (BASW) anthology is here again, and readers are in for a treat: a wide-ranging selection of easy-to-read articles describing some of the amazing science that is happening right now.

Of course, it is an impossible task, choosing the ‘best’ writing, and in her introduction editor Donna Lu acknowledges her subjectivity. It is the same for a reviewer, and since I don’t have room to name everyone, I won’t single out my own favourites.

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Our planet is in trouble. Climate change is real. Widespread, tumultuous change has occurred in our atmosphere, oceans, biosphere, and cryosphere, driving weather and climate extremes, anomalies, and record heat across the globe. Already, the damage has been substantial. ‘[Climate change] has led to widespread adverse impacts and related losses and damages to nature and people’ (Sixth Assessment Report, UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC). And the cause is well known. Decades of research and legions of scientists attest unequivocally that human-caused greenhouse gas emissions are causing global warming, threatening to precipitate unprecedented levels of global heating across the planet.

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Fifty years ago (when I was a very young scholar), I was asked to write an essay review of some recently published books about the Huxleys. None of them in my view, including Julian Huxley’s own volume of Memories (1970), did justice to their subjects’ scientific achievements and social concerns. Half a century later we now have Alison Bashford’s An Intimate History of Evolution: The story of the Huxley family. It has most definitely been worth the wait. Indeed this work is the crowning achievement of her distinguished career. 

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In the months leading up to the 2022 federal election, as the two major parties duked it out over the cost of living, integrity, and the climate crisis, one issue barely rated a mention amid the barrage of leaders’ debates, press conferences, and doorstops: the Covid-19 pandemic. Having raged in Australia for more than two years, resulting in once-in-a-generation disruption to daily life, including the world’s longest lockdown, the virus had become all but untouchable on both sides of the political divide. Labor and the Coalition obviously reasoned that the best position on Covid electorally was not to have a position at all. Neither party articulated a strategy to manage the virus, or its ever-expanding roll-call of variants, into the future. For the most part, journalists – more interested it seemed in the then Opposition leader’s ‘gaffes’ – could not bring themselves to mention the C-word either.

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In 1962, a small group of scientists from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC embarked on what would become the most ambitious biological survey of the Pacific oceans. Across seven years they travelled to more than 200 islands over an area almost the size of the continental United States. They banded 1.8 million birds, captured hundreds of live and skinned specimens, and collected ‘countless’ blood samples, spleens, livers, stomach contents. What became of most these biological samples has never been disclosed. The Smithsonian’s Pacific Project was, and remains, shrouded in secrecy. The scientists involved were left to guess at the aims of their research. They were mere subcontractors, following the directives of their funding agency: the biological warfare division of the US Army Chemical Corps. ‘To me, as a bird man, it was a wonderful breakthrough because it was a source of funds,’ said S. Dillon Ripley, the Smithsonian’s secretary during the project. ‘That’s all I know about it.’ 

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In 1943, of the 101 science graduates of the University of Sydney, 55.4 per cent were women. That same year at the University of Melbourne the proportion was 46.2 per cent, and by 1945 women made up 37.4 per cent of all science graduates across Australia. Given contemporary anxieties about women’s involvement in science, these statistics appear unbelievable. Yet, as Jane Carey explores in Taking to the Field, between the 1880s and the 1950s women were not only completing science degrees in notable numbers but, even outside the unusual war years, were contributing valuably to Australian science through research, teaching, and social reform.

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