- The Best Australian Science Writing, edited by Dyani Lewis. NewSouth Publishing, $32.99.
You are unlikely to finish a book like this in one or two sittings. The pieces need to be reflected on, coaxed into your understanding of the world and the way it is going to be lived by our children and grandchildren. And it does not always make for encouraging or optimistic reading.
The articles are written by journalists or professional writers, not all with a background in science. At the end of each, there are editorial suggestions of articles elsewhere in the collection which cover similar or ancillary areas. The result may not always be what was expected. Take for example "Hail Hydrogen" by Canberra press gallery correspondent Nicole Hasham. Just when you may be thinking that big H is the hope of humankind, we learn that in fact, it has lots of problems and is not as close to use as our politicians eagerly tell us.
We are then encouraged to read a chapter titled "Everlasting Free-Fall". This deals with the trove of SpaceX satellites that are blocking our human and telescope sight of the cosmos. In the longest article in the book, the writer introduces a number of scientists who warn of the pollution of space the way that Rachel Carson once alerted us to the troubles in our oceans.
Fortunately, it is not all bleak. In another long article, Jordan Ryan describes the success of a Japanese group of engineers and scientists who succeeded in landing a spacecraft on an asteroid orbiting between Earth and Mars and managed to "dig" material from under the asteroid's surface. The materials collected were returned to Earth at Woomera in December, 2020, to the delight of the vaccinated and recently-quarantined Japanese creators of the experiment.
Not surprisingly, a number of essays deal with COVID-19. One looks at the spread of the virus among animals - wild, domesticated and farmed. Mink have been particularly susceptible and there have been cases where they passed on the virus. Denmark and the Netherlands have culled their entire mink populations, totalling nearly 20 million animals. In another essay, titled "The Virus Detectives", Brisbane-based writer Fiona McMillan summarises the efforts to deal with the virus, first in China, then in the US, where they needed to deal with a bothersome president, and finally at a CSIRO Containment Lab in Geelong. "It is a phenomenal example of international collaboration," one of the researchers says.
With essays on global warming, oyster reef restoration, the mysterious change in frequency of whale sounds, endometriosis and even psychology, this is a book to be read slowly. You are likely to agree with Australia Chief Scientist Cathy Foley who admits that she "dipped in and out of this collection...because science is just plain fun to read."