Science

Undertaking fieldwork in Iceland, anthropologist Hugh Raffles was combing a beach when he noticed, and became transfixed by, a ‘large rectangular black stone’. So transfixed, in fact, that he decided to take it back to New York. On his return to his car, everything was in chaos. The alarm went off, piercing the tranquil landscape; the ‘door open’ icon flashed, despite all the doors being closed. Raffles began to drive, but the alarm and blinking light were unceasing. So he pulled over, gently placed the stone by the side of the road and drove on in relieved silence. Upon hearing this story, his Icelandic friends laughed knowingly. ‘Everything is alive,’ they said. Later, poring over archival material, Raffles discovered that the coastline on which his brush with the supernatural had occurred was known for causing chaos with ships’ navigational instruments, ‘perhaps because of high levels of magnetite grains in the basalt’.

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One of the blessings of Covid-19 lockdown was discovering the wildlife cameras streaming on the internet in real time. With a click it became possible to observe brown bears catching salmon in Alaska, sea lions clambering on and off a rocky beach in British Columbia, and white-bellied sea eagles nesting in an eyrie high in bushland on Sydney’s fringes. Watching newly fledged eaglets literally stretching their wings as they stare across the treetops, it’s impossible not to wonder what they must experience in that moment, as they sense for the first time the instinctive urge to take flight. What does it feel like to be a bird? What sense does a bird have of itself as a subjective, experiencing being? How might its consciousness be characterised?

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The Monash University team at the Queen Victoria Hospital in Melbourne has achieved great success in its endeavours to relieve infertility by the production of ‘test-tube babies’. This collection explains what goes on, discusses moral and legal problems relating to the programme, and gives a preview of what might lie ahead. The contributors include members of the medical team, their clients, and moral philosophers and theologians.

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A Letter to Layla is very much a book of our times. Its impetus lies in our rapidly changing climate, and it concludes with the unexpected impact of Covid-19. In between, the book explores both our distant past and our future.

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The announcement in June 2000 that a first draft of the human genome had been completed was rightly recognised as a landmark in scientific endeavour. Predictions were that the sequencing of the genome would allow for the pinpointing of genes responsible for conditions such as Alzheimer’s and heart disease, and lead to finely targeted, even personalised, treatments for a range of disorders. That these ambitions are still some way from being met doesn’t make the discovery any less remarkable. The Human Genome Project (HGP) gave us the capacity to read the basic building blocks of life. Research into the human genome is teaching us that the relationship between our approximately 30,000 genes and who we are is enormously complex, the result not merely of the action of individual genes but also of the ways in which those genes interact with each other and with their environment.

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While climbing in British Columbia, Canadian writer and journalist Eva Holland becomes paralysed by fear. She has long been troubled by exposed heights, but this is different. What she experiences is an ‘irrational force’ that prevents her from moving. It is only the dogged encouragement of friends that allows her to make her tentative way back down the mountain.

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In lectures delivered at Princeton University in November 2016, science historian Naomi Oreskes asked why, at a time when the epistemological and cultural relevance of science is subject to increasing doubt, we should still have confidence in science as our primary source of knowledge about the physical world. Why Trust Science? is the culmination of those lectures, and includes not only Oreskes’s appraisal of the scientific method but also four commentaries on the lectures. It is a work predicated, rightly or wrongly, on the assertion that the eminence of science ‘can no longer be maintained without argument’.

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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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