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 ...

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of arguably the biggest single breakthrough in our knowledge of how immunity works. After years of uncertainty, it turned out that the immune system contains two major functional classes of white blood cells. One class recognises foreign organisms, such as invading bacteria or transplanted tissue from an incompatible organ do ...

As I write this article in my Adelaide Hills home, surrounded by native eucalypts and introduced fruit trees, large areas in New South Wales are dealing with the consequences of some of the worst bushfires in recorded history. Remarkably, given the unseasonally extreme weather, the rugged terrain, and the ferocity of the fires the ...

David Rothenberg’s formal appellation at the New Jersey Institute of Technology is Professor of Philosophy and Music. He refers to himself as a ‘musician, composer, author and philosopher-naturalist’. Others have called him an ‘interspecies musician’. Rothenberg, a highly regarded jazz saxophonist and clarinettist, has published a range of books on science, technology, and music. But an ‘interspecies musician’? Much of Rothenberg’s fame stems from his improvised duets with ‘singing’ animals: whales (Whale Music, 2008), birds (Why Birds Sing, 2005) and even cicadas (see YouTube). With this background, Rothenberg is well credentialled to tackle a problem that lies at the heart of the apparent divide between science and the arts: what is beauty? Why do we find much birdsong beautiful? More critically, what do the birds themselves hear in these products of their evolutionary history? Can mere animals experience some kind of aesthetic sense, a sense of ‘beauty’?

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I could, if you prefer, create a list
like a birdwatcher, concealed
in a reedy hide, with binoculars,
field guide and record book, a mnemonic
of migration lines, our lines of sight,
a cladogram of our evolving past.

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Regardless of debates over Australian cultural identity, the flag and a potential republic, the ‘Green and Gold’ colours of our national sporting teams are recognised worldwide. The Golden Wattle (Acacia pycnantha), from which these colours are derived, was first proposed as a national flower in the 1880s during the prelude to Federation. However, it was not until the 1988 Bicentenary Celebrations that it was formally declared as Australia’s floral emblem. Why was the wattle chosen for this honour over its main competitor, the spectacular red waratah? And what was the significance of using wattle as a symbol of national unity and mourning in the wake of the 2002 Bali bombings?

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