Cover of book: The Best Australian Science Writing 2019

Bianca Nogrady (ed.)
The Best Australian Science Writing 2019

We are living on the doorstep of a new global dark age, in which superstition, conspiracy theories and distrust of scientific expertise have risen hand in hand with right-wing authoritarianism. The howls of climate crisis denialists fill the air, gleefully pronouncing that the “science isn’t settled” – as if it weren’t in the very nature of science to be constantly questioning itself – and sowing fatal confusion about the nature of truth. Anti-vaxxers drivel and children die. Tech entrepreneurs ask us to trust them with new technologies whose workings they themselves don’t fully understand and cannot control. And some men still can’t find the clitoris.

All I can say is thank the cosmos for scientists and science writers in general, and for anthologies such as The Best Australian Science Writing 2019 in particular. In her foreword, Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith states that great science writing should “wake us from our slumber, challenge us with fresh perspectives and resonate with our sense of global responsibility”. Knowledge is power, and the writing here represents the democratisation of power. On a need-to-know basis, we all need to know so we can push together against the darkness.

Back to the clitoris. Professor Helen O’Connell of the Royal Melbourne Hospital, a urologist, was outraged to discover the set text for her surgical exam in 1985 devoted two pages to the penis but scarcely mentioned the clitoris, dismissing female genitalia as a “failure” of male genital formation. It simply wasn’t considered necessary for urological surgeons to know what they might be cutting into when they cut into a woman. As O’Connell told Melissa Fyfe, “I knew at some point that I was going to have to tackle that.”

And that she did, 13 years later, mapping the full clitoris for the first time in medical history. The little “button”, it turns out, is in fact an organ that can be as large as four centimetres in length with nine-centimetre-long “legs” and eggplant-shaped bulbs seven centimetres long. Fyfe recalls reading about O’Connell’s discovery at the time. It was buried on page six of The Age: “Even in this, its moment of glory,” Fyfe writes, “the clitoris was treated as it had ever been: downgraded and difficult to find.” Her profile of O’Connell, “Getting cliterate”, is one of the collection’s highlights – beautifully written, informative, witty and warm.

Women scientists and science writers feature large in this anthology. We meet Araceli Samaniego, a leading rat eradication expert solving the vexing problem of vermin infestations on tropical islands, where they endanger seabird populations by stealing their eggs (Carl Smith’s “A pest in paradise”). Then there’s Kristen Todhunter, who worked out the connection between caterpillars and spontaneous abortions among horses in the Hunter Valley (Natalie Parletta’s “Solving the mystery of lost foals”), while Jennifer Lavers, a marine eco-toxicologist, leads a team studying the ingestion of plastic by shearwaters, or mutton birds, on Lord Howe Island (Cameron Muir’s “Ghost species and shadow places”).

Sometimes, gender itself is part of the story. Ceridwen Dovey’s “Elon Musk and the failure of our imagination in space” illuminates the male biases that have traditionally kept women grounded lest, as Dovey cheekily suggests, it might be presumed that space flight was such a simple thing that even a woman could do it.

Space is the subject of several excellent contributions. Lauren Fuge explains “Why we need to send artists into space”, quoting the Japanese poet-lyricist Wakako Kaku, who cautions that we shouldn’t “entrust our inquiry into the nature of the universe exclusively to science”. Mark O’Flynn’s delightful poem “Golf balls on the Moon” imagines extraterrestrials coming upon the golf balls that an American astronaut hit on the moon in 1971: “One day / some Martian or other will peer / over the lunar horizon to the blue / opal floating in the void, this little / dimpled asteroid in his alien paw / and cry silently to the darkness – fore.” And then there’s “A star is torn” by Phil Dooley, which begins like a police report: “Astronomers have caught a supermassive black hole secretly devouring a star and spraying its entrails across the sky.”

In “Oceans of krill”, oceanographer and krill specialist Stephen Nicol relates how, sick of having to describe the size and appearance of krill, he decided to have a life-size picture of one tattooed onto his arm. Unfortunately, the tattoo artist wasn’t quite up to the task and he is stuck with “a rather terrifying lobster-like creature about twice the size of a krill” that requires even more explanation but at least is a “guaranteed conversation starter”.

Not surprisingly, while there is great breadth in these essays, many of them, including Nicol’s, return to the most pressing – and depressing – topic of our time, climate change. In “When planetary catastrophe is your day job”, Lesley Hughes, an eminent climate change scientist, writes about “apocalypse fatigue” and the difficulty in balancing “motivation and despair”. She observes that climate scientists are “the only members of the scientific profession who also hope every day that we’re wrong”.

Emotions, including eco-anxiety and passion, permeate the pages of this anthology, more than you might expect if you think “science” is a cognate of “dry”. In his essay introducing the work of Jennifer Lavers’ team, Cameron Muir observes the effect on the researchers of having to confront daily the horrors of what we are doing to some of the most defenceless inhabitants of our planet. The youngest member of Lavers’ team, Peter, is normally cheerful, but at yet another dissection of yet another dead bird with a stomach taut with plastic, tears well in his eyes.

Muir defines “shadow places” as “all the places from which we extract resources, or to which we outsource disorder, risk and pollution”, while keeping them neatly out of sight, lest they disturb our material and psychological comfort. Only light can dispel the shadows.

Linda Jaivin

NewSouth, 320pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 14, 2019 as "Bianca Nogrady (ed.), The Best Australian Science Writing 2019".

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Reviewer: Linda Jaivin

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