Rebecca Priestley

by Guy Somerset / 30 May, 2009
Science writer and historian Rebecca Priestley, 41, is the winner of the inaugural $10,000 Royal Society of New Zealand Science Book Prize, New Zealand's first award for popular science writing: Priestley, a long-time contributor of articles and book reviews to the <i>Listener</i>, won with her anthology <i>The Awa Book of New Zealand Science.</i> The announcement was made at the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival by Richard Dawkins, via satellite from Britain.

It must have been a strange experience hearing you'd won from a disembodied Richard Dawkins.

I know. Just having Richard Dawkins saying my name was excitement enough for me. It was a surprise. I had convinced myself someone else was getting the prize from various clues I'd picked up. But obviously my intuition was completely off. My only regret is that I forgot to thank God in my speech - I thought that would have been a nice touch for Richard Dawkins' benefit.

What first piqued your interest in science? I think it was more books than anything at school. I was really interested in volcanoes and earthquakes and there were these books through the Lucky Book Club. There was one called Catastrophe, Calamity and Cataclysm, which was case studies of volcanoes, earthquakes, floods, tsunamis. It was pretty horrific, people died, and it was all very exciting. I had some pretty lame science teachers in my first couple of years of high school, but then a good scientist who was really hot on geology, which was quite inspiring [and led to Priestley studying Earth Sciences at university]. But at school I realised the path of any science course that I was most interested in was the beginning, where you learn about what the early scientists had discovered: the science history part of the course. Then once we got to grubbing around with experiments and things, I was a bit fumbly and klutzy and not that interested.

You're not a frustrated scientist then. Well, kind of. I love what I'm doing now, but why couldn't I have been exploring the moon or something exciting for the past 10 years before? But the reality was there wasn't any one thing I was so interested in that I could have made it my focus. I have always been a generalist - too interested in everything.

In your introduction to the book, you talk about the scant written attention paid till recently to New Zealand science history. What do you remember of reading about New Zealand scientists at school? All I can remember is Ernest Rutherford, nothing else.

But you've got some lovely older pieces in the book. The early naturalists, the geologists and botanists and zoologists, those guys wrote beautifully. I just think that was a part of being a scientist. Because they were scientists and explorers and travellers all at the same time. Everything's much more divided now. There are still scientists doing great work, but it's so specialised. But I still think scientists make the best science communicators. When I started the book, I was open to excerpts from biographies and journalism and so on that could be written by anyone. But just about all the pieces in the book are written by the scientists themselves, and I do think that the scientist who can communicate well can tell the story better than an outsider. And I say that at my expense, being a science writer rather than a scientist.

What makes their writing better? It's got that personal insight into what they're going through. Their passions and obsessions and journeys. The general reader wants to be able to relate to the scientist as a person, with their own, you know, hopes, dreams and aspirations, and frustrations along the way. And then the delight and success. Those are things that anyone can relate to.

Isn't that avoiding the science, though? Those narratives aren't actually the science narrative. But they are universal narratives. And it is applying it to science, and science is all about endeavour and discovery and success or failure. Those things are as applicable to science as to anything else, but the discoveries and successes are maybe a bit more important in the long run, have more of a long-lasting and far-reaching effect on our culture and society, than the story about whether some guy gets to wear an All Black jersey and play in the World Cup, or gets to stand for Parliament and be an MP.

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