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The Best Australian Science Writing 2020

Cover of the book Best Australian Science Writing 2020
BASW 2020

Science is a messy business. A product of humans, it has all our flaws. It proceeds in fits and starts. It fails. It goes up dead-ends and gets stuck. It flails hopelessly in confusion. And yet, somehow, through teamwork, perseverance, and often, sheer bloody-mindedness, little wonders emerge.

This year, I had the very great privilege of editing the Best Australian Science writing. What better thing to do in a year of COVID lockdown that to read through hundreds of entries to this anthology. The 33 stories that made it in are shining examples of really, really good science writing. They capture the humanity of science. They capture that messiness, the uncertainty, and they present it honestly.

And who better to write the foreword to such a book than a Nobel-prize winning immunologist? Peter Doherty is not only a great scientist, but an enthusiastic speaker and writer on science for non-experts. His ongoing support for this anthology is evidence of his belief that science is not complete until it’s communicated.

Thanks too, to Merlin Crossley, Jodie Bradby, Helene Marsh and Matthew England for being a reliable go-to scientific committee that vetted the shortlist.

People often ask me what I looked for in “good science writing”. To me, it is a story that is effortless to read; a story that barrels along in such a fascinating manner, you’re sad to reach the end. And when you do, you realise that you have learned a vast amount about a topic you hadn’t even heard of before.

It’s also the research. I like to see evidence that a writer has dug deep to find new gems. Ceridwen Dovey, who won this year’s Bragg Prize for science writing went back to the original Apollo mission logs to check her facts. Runners up Konrad Marshall and Ricky French went into the field, searching for possum poo with researchers, or visiting sterile frog breeding facilities, to secure their stories. Lesley Hughes must have drowned in an ocean of research on synthetic milk production. And John Pickrell added to his already prodigious knowledge of all things palaentological to discuss new research on the ear-bones of early mammals.

But more than anything else, I love the nexus between intellect and emotion in good science writing. Being an intellectual pursuit, you expect a science story to bring you new knowledge. But when science writers wrap that new knowledge in cloak of heartstring-tugs, that’s when they lift science writing to the level that gets them into the annual anthology. To paraphrase every movie trailer ever, the stories in this book will make you laugh, they will make you cry, they will make you wonder at the mysteries of the universe, they will make you rage, they will make you nervous, they will make your heart sing.

Summer is coming in the southern hemisphere. Time to relax and revive. And the northern hemisphere is staring into the face of a long, dark winter of COVID lock down. In both of these circumstances, a good book is the companion you need to get you through to 2021.

Buy your copy here, or in all good bookshops


Southern Brown Bandicoots

My story for Sunday night ABC 7pm news.

We went to film the bandicoots at the Cranbourne Botanic Gardens but couldn’t find one of the little blighters, despite Terry assuring us they are usually common.

So we returned on another day. Sean the camera man said: I’ll set up the cameras and if we  just sit here quietly maybe they’ll come out.

Sean suggested sitting quietly would go well with a coffee and so I offered to get the coffee. And then I got lost on the way to the cafe. By the time I came back with his latte, Sean excitedly showed me 13 minutes of bandicoot footage he had captured while I was gone.

The baffling Gore and Palmer show

'Like cigarettes and lung cancer' - Al Gore links climate change and fires

AL GORE became the face of climate change back in 2006, when he released the documentary An Inconvenient Truth. He climbed aboard a cherry-picker to emphasise just how shocking the rise in global temperatures has been relative to the last few thousand years.

It was a ground-breaking film on a number of levels. The film was very, very effective at spreading the message about climate change. Coupled with Sir Nicholas Stern’s economic report on the threat of climate change, suddenly the whole world was talking about climate change.

In Australia one of the principal reasons for Kevin Rudd’s convincing election win in 2007 was his clear commitment to action on climate change. He ratified the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gas emissions as his first order of business.

The film spawned a thousand doubting bloggers and galvanised the climate sceptics movement…

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Cultures to change with climate change


IN THE USA today, many Americans will be celebrating the first day of spring. Down under, of course, we have autumn while they’re having spring, but our first day of autumn was back on March 1st. Why do we have different dates for our seasons?

Americans tend to count the start of spring from the equinox, the day of the year when daylight hours and dark hours are equal.

Meteorologists are a bit more arbitrary in their definition, and Australia has followed their tradition. Autumn starts of the 1st of March in order that longer term weather trends can be meaningfully compared.

In all reality, the delineation of the year into four seasons is just as arbitrary as starting them on the first of a certain month…

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Sunny with a chance of climate change



THE WEATHER IN OUR nation’s capital today is predicted to be 28°C. Mostly sunny, with light winds.

I have no crystal ball, but I reckon it’s pretty likely that the Bureau of Meteorology is going to be about right. I suppose we’ll find out later today.

The Bureau’s website is one of the most accessed sites in Australia. Everyone wants to know whether or not to bring a brolly. The fact that it is accessed so often is testament to the fact that the BoM is usually pretty reliable. Sure, we all like to whinge about the weather — particularly when showers show up unexpectedly — but by and large, you’ve got to admit, they do a pretty good job.

At home, I check the weather before I get up on my phone using the WiFi internet connection I have in the lounge. It’s only very recently that WiFi was invented — 1996 — but Aussies are keen on technology and it’s really caught on.

WiFi was invented by that other great Australian institution, the CSIRO. It wasn’t the first local area network, but it worked the best of the technologies jostling for position back in the day.

Every two years, these two venerable scientific institutions team up to release a State of the Climate report.

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Explainer: why is World Heritage important?

Two of Australia’s World Heritage listed places have made the headlines in the last week. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority gave the go-ahead for silt from a government-approved dredging operation to be dumped within the World Heritage listed park boundaries. And the federal government announced that it was seeking to have a recent extension of Tasmania’s World Heritage listed forests partially overturned.

What is World Heritage listing and why is it important?

Back in 1972, various international bodies united to draw up the World Heritage Convention. It was designed to provide a way for international co-operation to occur to protect cultural or natural places of ‘outstanding universal value’ so that future generations may enjoy them as we do now. It is administered by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

Australia was an early adopter of the Convention, ratifying it in 1974 and signing up the nation’s first ‘property’, Kakadu, in 1981. Australia even has its own Act of parliament to protect World Heritage properties, which was established in the battle for the Franklin Dam back in 1983….


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How you pay for your neighbour’s air-conditioning


Are you one of the lucky ones with air conditioning? As we swelter through this heatwave, those that can are switching on the AC and keeping cool. Those that can’t are lying semi-naked in front of fans with a wet cloth on their heads.

In the past 20 years, Australians have embraced air conditioning. In 1994, a quarter of households had it. These days more than half do.

While it’s bliss to sprawl in front of the cold air, there is a serious downside to chilling out. The Productivity Commission last year said that air conditioners are largely responsible for putting the electricity network under strain and that strain costs us dearly…

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Australia dashes G20 climate hopes

DON’T BE FOOLED by their fancy words, there is no indication the current government takes climate change seriously.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s most recent statement on climate change was at a press conference on November 12: “we accept that climate change happens, that mankind, humanity, make a contribution to it and it’s important that we take strong and effective action against it.”

But let’s have a look at the government’s “strong and effective action”…

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Carbon tax repeal is a free kick



ENVIRONMENT MINISTER Greg Hunt has made good on an election promise: he has released the draft legislation for the abolition of the carbon tax. It’s the first legislation the Liberals have put on the table since their election, and you could detect just a little bit of chuffed in Greg Hunt as he announced its release.

This legislation gives one of the parties a free kick, but the question is which one.

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The election that forgot the environment

IN 1996, WHILE campaigning as Opposition Leader hoping for election, John Howard promised a one billion dollar fund to help the environment. He won that election and, true to his word, established the Natural Heritage Trust and set about putting those dollars to work.

In 2007, Kevin Rudd swept Howard aside with promises of faster action on climate change and an immediate ratification of the Kyoto Protocol on climate change.

Not three years later, Julia Gillard was moved to topple Rudd as party leader in part because his approval ratings had plummeted following his fluffing of the climate change policy solution. She was victorious that same year while promising the emissions trading scheme that Rudd had failed to deliver, defeating Tony Abbott and his ‘direct action’ plan on carbon abatement.

Every Prime Minister for the last 17 years has made it to the top job with a little bit of environmental promise; a little bit of green flair, a nod to our collective love of our wide brown land.

But don’t expect to see any of that in 2013. This will be the election that forgot the environment.

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