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Five Books About Science and Scientists

By Simon Nathan
Twenty years ago the publication of a book about New Zealand science was an unusual event. But in 2008 science writing is now sexy, attracting creative writers and established publishers. These five recent volumes are a sample of the excellent new science books that are available.

A Continent on the Move

Chief Editor, Ian Graham

Geological Society of New Zealand (distributed by Craig Potton Publishing). $50

science001.jpgThere has been a revolution in geological ideas over the last thirty years. When I was a student, it was widely believed that the continents and oceans were fixed and unchanging. Development of the concepts of plate tectonics has given a completely different way of looking at the earth. This encyclopedic book is a synthesis of present knowledge of the geology of New Zealand and how it fits in with the rest of the world.

New Zealand has a huge variety of spectacular landscapes, from fiords and glaciers to volcanoes, which are wonderfully illustrated in this volume. It includes many unique aerial images by Lloyd Homer, collected over his career photographing geology and landscapes. At one level this is a coffee table book for browsing – and indeed a table is needed to hold the weight of its 377 pages – but it also has a well written text at layperson level.

Twelve chapters cover all facets of earth science from fossils to meteorites, with a final chapter looking at New Zealand as a natural laboratory. Chapter 11, “Climate swings and roundabouts” is especially interesting because it was not regarded as a coherent topic before 1990. But now it is appreciated that the geological record in New Zealand provides some unique clues to past global climate fluctuations, and local scientists have had a long involvement. For example, Timaru journalist and amateur scientist, John Hardcastle made the connection between loess (windblown dust) and glacial climates in 1890-91, although his work was overlooked for almost a century.

The Geological Society of New Zealand produced this book to commemorate its 50th birthday. I must admit minor involvement, as the author of a short section. But as there are another 121 contributing authors, there can be few experienced earth scientists in the country who have not been involved. The whole text has been expertly welded together by Chief Editor Ian Graham and a number of assistants, and layout and colour printing is first class. It has clearly been subsidised with the assistance of GNS Science and other sponsors, allowing it to be sold at a bargain price.

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The Awa Book of New Zealand Science

Compiled by Rebecca Priestley

Awa Press, Wellington. 368 pages. $48

What makes a scientist? I believe that it’s the distinctive thought process that makes a scientist want to know how the natural world works – usually combined with a refusal to accept received wisdom without challenge. We don’t know if this is a genetic trait or learned behaviour, but many non-scientists lack this inherent curiosity. This book contains an intriguing set of extracts using the words of a series of well-known scientists to explain what motivates them, and what led to their important discoveries.

Many scientists are obsessive to a certain level – or at least extremely single-minded. Consider how Andreas Reischek describe his search for the stitchbird:

“You may be surprised that any man, instead of ….. devoting himself to wife and family, should go running after a rare bird that nobody had seen for years, and give up all his hardly gotten gains to such a purpose. But from the day I saw the first stuffed specimen of the Pogonornis cincta in Christchurch Museum, and learnt from Sir Julius von Haast that a few examples were still said to live in the virgin bush of the most mountainous islands of the Hauraki Gulf, I resolved to seek him out, or die in the attempt”.

Not everyone gets immediately gets excited by new discoveries, and even scientists can be dismissive. Although Joan Wiffen is now widely praised for her recognition of the first New Zealand dinosaurs, she remembers the disbelief when she first described
her discovery at a scientific meeting:

“But, for the greater part, the reaction was a thunderous silence, and a general lack of interest or understanding of the geological significance of dinosaurs in New Zealand. What had I expected – a champagne party? Looking back, the disappointment I felt that so few shared out excitement over the proof that New Zealand had dinosaurs was somewhat naïve. The typically conservative reaction was perhaps to be expected”.

There are few “Eureka!” moments in this collection. Most scientists are rather understated when describing their own work, and are a far common reaction was, “Oh, that’s interesting”.

As a scientist I found this a gripping set of stories, Many non-scientists may not realise how unusual they are because scientists are trained to write unemotionally, in the third person. I recently lost an argument with a science editor when I wanted to write, “I believe …..” and he insisted on “It is generally accepted that …”. Most of the quotations here are not from conventional scientific journals. Looking closely at the list of sources, I appreciate what a huge amount of work that Rebecca Priestley has done to find personal accounts, often in obscure places such as letters and lecture notes.

This is a great book of discovery. I read it right through in one sitting, but others may prefer to browse. The black-and-white illustrations are well chosen – but it is a pity that there weren’t more of them.

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Mettle and Mines: the life and times of colonial geologist Edward Heydelbach Davis (1845-1871)

by Mike Johnston

Nikau Press, Nelson. 288 pages. $40

Nineteenth century geologist Edward Davis never gets more than a footnote in historical accounts. He worked for the New Zealand Geological Survey for less than a year in 1870-71. Aged only 26, he had the misfortune to be drowned while crossing a swollen West Coast stream. Over a century later he is mainly remembered as the only New Zealand geologist to die while undertaking fieldwork.

So Davis might seem an unlikely subject for a biography – and he didn’t make the Awa Book of New Zealand Science. But author Mike Johnston uses his life as the framework for a detailed and clearly written account of the New Zealand mining industry in the early 1870s. Writers tend to gloss over the huge effort made by prospectors and miners to find minerals in difficult and inaccessible parts of the country. And often forgotten are the absurdly optimistic investors who gambled their savings on rumour and hope rather than technical information.

Davis was the son of a mining entrepreneur with interests in the iron-ore deposits of Cumbria. He studied briefly at the Royal School of Mines, and was then sent by his father to investigate prospects in Portugal and Colombia where he contracted malaria. Optimistic reports of iron ore deposits in Taranaki led to Davis being sent to New Zealand with his young wife – partly a busman’s holiday so that he could recuperate.

The Taranaki ironsands defied efforts to smelt them (and were to do so for another century), so Davis travelled on to look at gold in Coromandel. There he met James Hector, Director of the Geological Survey, who was looking for an assistant. Davis got the job, and his first assignment was in Nelson, where he was sent to report on gold prospects as well as copper and chromite near Dun Mountain. He died a few months later, while crossing a swollen stream near Greymouth.

In less than a year Davis had visited and reported on most of the main mining areas in New Zealand apart from Otago. The author paints an intriguing picture of the issues facing the early mining industry, illustrated with an excellent selection of images. Finding minerals was often the easy part – transporting ore and selling it at a profit was usually much more of a challenge.

This book is a good read – and I hope that it acts a reminder to historians that New Zealand’s mining history has been largely ignored in recent years.

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Atoms, Dinosaurs and DNA: 68 great New Zealand scientists

by Veronika Meduna and Rebecca Priestley

Random House. 160 pages. $35

Two years ago the National Library held a major exhibition featuring New Zealand scientists, curated by Veronika Meduna and Rebecca Priestley. This book is derived from the exhibition, but the number of people covered has almost doubled. Most scientists well-known for their New Zealand work are here, from Joseph Banks through Ernest Rutherford to Beatrice Tinsley. But it is far more that a collection of dead scientists as it also includes contemporary scientific leaders. The lives of the scientists are presented in chronological order, so the book also acts as an account of scientific advances in New Zealand over the last two centuries.

Some difficult choices had to be made about who to include. I’m particularly pleased that the book includes a number of non-professionals, who worked for love and satisfaction, as well as others outside the main scientific organisations (and funding sources). These include Herbert Guthrie-Smith, Perrine Moncrieff, Leslie Adkin, Arthur Jones, Joan Wiffen, David Crockett, and Ingrid Visser. Each of these has had a major impact on the scientific understanding in their own field. For example, Ingrid Visser has dedicated her life to tracking and understanding the small population of Orca (killer whales) around New Zealand.

This is essentially a reference book, in standard format. Most individuals get a double page, with text, a large illustration and other small images, a quotation, and a list of medals and awards.

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Wetlands of New Zealand: a bitter-sweet story

by Janet Hunt

Random House New Zealand. 256 pages. $70

When I was working for Te Ara, the online Encylopedia of New Zealand, we wrestled with producing articles related to different types of wetland. Areas like swamps and estuaries are often seen as unappealing, and its so easy to produce material about them that is worthy but dull. Janet Hunt has done a superb job preparing a well-illustrated book that is both interesting and up-to-date. She uses examples from all over New Zealand (located on an index map near the beginning), so there is local information of interest to all readers.

Her writing is delightfully evocative:

“ As I walked on the edge of Putiki estuary this morning, over seamed clay, past the toothy rocks with the tide at half-mast, an oystercatcher flipped its wing and I passed a tiny pioneer mangrove on its own, a long way from its fellows. It is struggling in a stony place where it is trying to put down roots, encrusted in barnacles and unlikely to survive. I know much more now about how it got there, its place in the scheme of things and what its fate may be. I also picked up some plastic, a frayed piece of synthetic rope, an empty pie wrapper, and a drink bottle full of urine and I thought, ‘so there we have it,’ or as my friend Frances would say: so there you are. The good and the beautiful smack up against the appalling and abhorrent – the bitter and the sweet. New Zealand wetlands”.

All the books described earlier are well-designed and printed, but this one stands out because a huge amount of thought and effort has gone into all aspects of production, including choosing appropriate photographs, effective captioning, and the individual design of each page. This volume was the winner of the Environment category and the best Non-fiction book in the 2008 Montana book awards. Thoroughly deserved.

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SIMON NATHAN is a Wellington-based geologist and writer. As Science Editor for Te Ara, the online Encyclopedia of New Zealand, from 2003-07, he has become interested in writing for the web. Recent work includes editing and contributing to The Amazing World of James Hector (Awa Press, 2008) as well as web articles, blog pieces and book reviews.