There was a time when science journalism was much more mainstream than it is today. It has been marginalised by the ideological battles of climate change and the slow death of specialised writing as the print media have been affected – ironically enough – by the advent of the internet.
It is still there, though the best work is now found mostly outside mainstream media. The finest essays have been collected yearly for the past 11 years in the publisher NewSouth’s The Best Australian Science Writing. This year again it contains essential reading by some of Australia’s most penetrating and descriptive science writers: the shortlist for the 2021 UNSW Press Bragg Prize for Science Writing.
The winner for the second year in a row is Ceridwen Dovey, with a long and gripping piece about the crowding of satellites in space. Her numbers are staggering: satellites are rapidly increasing light pollution as well as junk in the sky and are increasingly getting in the way of meteorological and space research. Dovey is a fine novelist and her scientific depth is immensely readable.
Every essay in the book is gripping, even those individual readers may at first think they’ll find uninteresting.
Paul Biegler’s work is about how biologists are pushing the ethical limits of human cell research even though, for example, procedures such as human embryo development are banned after 14 days and cloning humans is banned outright. The essay handles both the scientific and the moral implications.
Tim Dean discusses the development of cyanobacteria on Earth over hundreds of millions of years. As the sun slowly brightened, oxygen was harnessed, life came about as micro-organisms developed photosynthesis and the sky turned blue.
Benjamin Pope writes about the possibility of the toxic gas, phosphine, on Venus, a discovery of possibly millions of tonnes a year that has no chemical explanation – yet – except the presence of life.
And so on, through 31 works by novelists with a scientific bent, including James Bradley, Emma Viskic and Ashley Hay; academics with a writerly bent (Rob Brooks and Alice Gorman); well-known science journalists (Jo Chandler, Nicole Hasham and John Pickrell); and even poets, such as Amanda Anastasi.
Indispensible, lively and a little frightening to read.
NewSouth, 304pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 20, 2021 as "The Best Australian Science Writing 2021, Dyani Lewis (ed)".
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