Science

The publication of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring (1962) is widely regarded as one of the key moments in the development of the global environment movement. In the wake of Silent Spring, science fiction writer Frank Herbert published the first of the Dune series in 1965. Herbert presented complex descriptions of alternate planetary ecologies, with influential characters known as ‘planetologists’ (a new film version is due out this year). In 1972, the image of the ‘Blue Marble’ was released, a photo of Earth taken by the Apollo 17 crew on their way to the moon, also widely considered to be critical in influencing public understandings of our finite planet. Each of these developments extended a long history of exploratory research, experimentation and imagination about the deep and complex connections of Earth systems. Sarah Dry’s Waters of the World investigates six critical figures in this history.

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Imagine you’re trying to make sense of the universe five hundred years ago, when astronomers believe there are just seven visible ‘planets’ wandering about the Earth: the sun and moon plus Mercury to Saturn. Intriguingly, there are also seven known metals: gold, silver, copper, iron, tin, lead, and mercury. For hundreds of years there have been just seven known ‘planets’ and seven metals. Wouldn’t you be just a little tempted to see more than a coincidence here? Take gold, for example, which ‘does not react with anything in the air or the ground, and so retains its brilliance seemingly forever’: surely its power is similar to that of the ever-shining sun?

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Once, when we humans reflected on what made us special, we latched on to those qualities that distinguished us from the rest of creation. We were smarter, more rational, more cognitively capable. The philosopher Joseph de Maistre, for example, proposed that ‘the concept of number is the obvious distinction between beast and man’. More recently, with the onrush of the digital age, we have come to feel less confident in our mental powers. We may understand numbers better than other beasts, but our phones can carry out arithmetic calculations at inconceivable speeds and beat the brainiest among us at chess.

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Reading good science writing is not just pleasurable and informative: it’s also necessary if we want to live engaged and examined lives in today’s hyper-technological, climate-changing world. The Best Australian Science Writing 2019 offers readers all these things – the delight in good writing, the satisfaction of learning, and the sobering reckoning with our society’s environmental impact and lack of political engagement with science. Yet it’s not afraid to challenge science itself on occasion – showing ‘its flaws as well as its finer moments’, as editor Bianca Nogrady puts it.

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Fred Watson’s inspiration as a lad was the legendary telly astronomer Patrick Moore, who presented the BBC’s show The Sky At Night for more than fifty years. At the end, when others such as Chris Lintott began taking over, Moore was simply wheeled in at the start of the show in his wheelchair, to mumble a couple of sentences, then wheeled off again, out of the way, looking on wistfully.

Watson and Moore have a lot in common: both British, both immensely informed, both musical performers. And they both showed not just deep knowledge of deep space but also the essential emotional commitment to the vast tapestry they were investigating. I well remember the night when the first pictures of the far side of the moon came to Moore, live on air. As he showed them to the television audience, he simply cried, talking in choked tones as tears streamed down his face.

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Underland is English nature writer Robert Macfarlane’s longest and, by his own admission, deepest and strangest book. It took almost a decade to write. From the remote mountain peaks of his first book,

Nick Haslam reviews The Gendered Brain by Gina Rippon

Nick Haslam
Monday, 25 February 2019

A few intellectually superior women exist, conceded nineteenth-century anthropologist Gustav Le Bon, but ‘they are as exceptional as the birth of any monstrosity, as, for example, of a gorilla with two heads’. Armed with cephalometers, scales, and birdseed for measuring skull volumes ...

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I first encountered Stephen Jay Gould when I happened on one of his books in a bookshop during my late teens. Its unusual title, The Panda’s Thumb, caught my eye. The lead article channelled Charles Darwin’s approach to understanding the natural world, not through looking at perfect adaptations to the environment but ...

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Peter Atkins writes a sentence at the beginning of this bewildering book that seems both preposterous and cheeky: ‘I would like to assert that not much happened at the Creation.’ And then: ‘I would like to replace the “not much” by “absolutely nothing”.’ How can any leading scientist ...

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The Best Australian Science Writing 2017

Rachael Mead
Thursday, 22 February 2018

It is a common misconception that scientists are not writers. As Professor Emma Johnston states in her foreword, writing is a fundamental part of the scientific process and innumerable volumes of scientific journals are published each year. These papers often employ dry, opaque language ...

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