Making science an open book

by Rebecca Priestly / 28 May, 2015
An eponymous tome about our tangata whenua scoops the country’s science-writing award.
The way it was: an illustration from Tangata Whenua showing Ship Cove, Queen Charlotte Sound in 1777. Art/Alexander Turnbull Library

With topics ranging from brains and honey to dolphins, and genres including poetry, history and biography, the diverse bunch of books shortlisted for this year’s Royal Society of New Zealand Science Book Prize was a delight to read. Science writer Philip Ball announced the winning book, Tangata Whenua, at the recent Auckland Writers Festival, with the authors – Atholl Anderson, Aroha Harris and the late Judith Binney – receiving a $5000 prize.

Sally Blundell’s article about Tangata Whenua (“Our nation stands on two legs”, February 14) described it as “a weighty yet readable and beautifully illustrated account of Maori history and identity”. My fellow judges – emeritus professors Jean Fleming and Ken Strongman – and I were impressed by the book’s accessible yet meticulous science content and the way it brought together archaeology, anthropology, ethnography, paleoecology, genetics and climate science, as well as history, to tell the stories of the Maori people.

Works of poetry and fiction are eligible for the prize and this year, for the second time, a poetry book was shortlisted. In 2013 it was Helen Heath’s Graft; this time it was the remarkable Gathering Evidence, by Caoilinn Hughes, in which scientific words and phrases are transformed into poetry. Curiously, poems about Marie Curie appear in both Heath’s (Radiant) and Hughes’ (Rational Dress) books. In Rational Dress, Curie spent long days and nights aglow/in the luminous silhouettes of test tubes, the blue-green activity/of uranium compounds; absorbed in the electric assay of the atom.

Hughes’ lively and powerful poems are distinctive for their emotional intensity. In contrast, Michael Corballis’s The Wandering Mind is from and about the brain. In this scientifically rigorous and quietly humorous book, Corballis, a leader in this field, draws on neuroscience, psychology and evolutionary biology to explore what happens in our brains and to our minds when we are not paying attention.

Human-dolphin interactions are the subject of Dolphins of Aotearoa, by Raewyn Peart. In this beautifully produced book, Peart goes beyond the traditional illustrated natural history book to tell a scientifically grounded, moving and engaging story of the relationship between humans and dolphins in New Zealand.

I’d read these four books when they were first published, but the fifth title on the shortlist was an unexpected delight. In Manuka, beekeeper Cliff Van Eaton tells the captivating story of the science behind the discovery of the antibiotic effects of manuka honey, with a focus on the scientists and beekeepers who brought this product to the world.

The biennial Royal Society of New Zealand Science Book Prize is open to works by New Zealand authors that communicate scientific concepts “in an interesting and readable way for a general audience”. Many fine books were entered this year – including sumptuous illustrated books and engaging memoirs – but it would be great to see more.

Science writers can develop their book projects in a variety of supportive and stimulating environments. The University of Otago’s Centre for Science Communication, for example, offers a masters programme in creative non-fiction writing in science, and I co-teach (with Ashleigh Young) a science writing workshop at the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University. I hope to see some books from graduates submitted for the 2017 prize.

 Tangata Whenua: an Illustrated History, by Atholl Anderson, Judith Binney and Aroha Harris (Bridget Williams Books, $99.99)

 The Wandering Mind: What the Brain Does When You’re Not Looking, by Michael Corballis (Auckland University Press, $34.99)

 Gathering Evidence, by Caoilinn Hughes (Victoria University Press, $28)

 Dolphins of Aotearoa: Living with New Zealand Dolphins, by Raewyn Peart (Potton & Burton, $49.99)

 Manuka: the Biography of an Extraordinary Honey, by Cliff Van Eaton (Exisle, $34.99)

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