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Posts tagged ‘Science’

November update

I’m deep in the middle of two books, so not here all that often, but just a few quick updates.

The first is the wonderful news that my essay, ‘The End of the Oceans’, which was published in The Monthly in August, has been nominated for the Walkley Award for Feature Writing (Long). I’m thrilled for all the obvious reasons, but I’m also delighted because it’s a subject of the utmost importance that I care about very deeply. If you enjoy it please share it.

I’ve also had several other pieces of non-fiction published over the past few months. The most significant was ‘An Ocean and an Instant’, a long essay about Adelaide, extinction and the death of my father for Sydney Review of Books’ New Nature series. It’s a very personal piece and was extremely difficult to write, but I hope people find something in it.

Also in Sydney Review of Books I have ‘A Family of Disguises’, a long review of Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight, in The Australian (and staying with the oceanic theme), a review of Joy McCann’s terrific new history of the Southern Ocean, Wild Sea (possible $$$). And finally, I’ve recently uploaded a long review of the imaginary history of Australia Rodney Hall mapped out in the Yandilli Trilogy, The Island in the Mind and The Day We Had Hitler Home. It’s a few years old now, but they’re marvellous books, and it would be wonderful if they found new readers.

 

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Fish have feelings too

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Steve Dunleavy, ‘Big Eyed Scad, Kona Hawaii’, cc by 2.0 2010

I’m delighted to be able to say my article, ‘Fish have feelings too’, has been shortlisted for the 2017 Bragg/UNSW Bragg Prize for Science Writing, alongside pieces by Jo Chandler, Alice Gorman, Elmo Keep, James Mitchell Crow and Laura Parker. Originally published in the March 2017 issue of The Monthly, the piece is about recent research into fish cognition and intelligence. It will also be published later this year in The Best Australian Science Writing 2017, edited by Michael Slezak. I’m incredibly grateful to everybody at The Monthly and to Jodi Pini-Fitzsimmons and Culum Brown from Macquarie University for being so generous with their time and research. The winner will be announced in November.

 

 

Dreaming in the Dark and a Best of Trifecta

Best ofs.jpgA little after the fact, but I’ve got a story in Dreaming in the Dark, the first book from PS Publishing’s new imprint, PS Australia. Edited by Jack Dann, the collection features stories by a roll call of brilliant writers, ranging from Garth Nix and Sean Williams to Angela Slatter, Lisa L. Hannett, Rjurik Davidson and many more (you can check out a full list of contributors and order a copy on PS’ website). Like all PS’ books it’s also a stunning-looking object, with a gorgeous cover designed by Greg Bridges, and if you hurry you can get an illustrated slipcased limited edition. It’s a fantastic book and I’m delighted to be in such fantastic company.

I’m very proud of the story that appears in the collection. Entitled ‘Martian Triptych’, it moves from the dying moments of Percival Lowell to billions of years in the future, and explores the way human time and geological time intersect in our imaginations and in reality. So I’m absolutely delighted Charlotte Wood has selected it for Best Australian Stories 2016, where it appears alongside stories by people such as Elizabeth Harrower, Tegan Bennett Daylight, Fiona McFarlane, Gregory Day and Georgia Blain. It’s a real honour to be included and I’m very grateful.

It’s also a real honour to be able to say my essay about the late David Bowie, ‘Loving the Alien’, which began life as a post on this site, has been included in Best Australian Essays 2016, edited by Geordie Williamson. It’s a piece I’m very proud of and one I’m thrilled is now going to find a new audience.

I’m also thrilled to say ‘Slippery Migrants’, a piece I wrote for The Monthly about the amazing lifecycle of the long-finned eel, has been included in Best Australian Science Writing 2016, which was edited by Jo Chandler. I’m not sure I’ve ever thought of myself as a science writer – certainly when I look at people who write about science for a living like Chandler and Bianca Nogrady I’m keenly aware of the skill and knowledge they bring to bear on their work – so it’s wonderful to find myself in their company, and even more wonderful to be able to say the piece was shortlisted for the 2016 Bragg Prize for Science Writing.

And finally I’d like to thank both the editors who helped shape and refine the original pieces – ‘Slippery Migrants’ in particular benefited from careful and thoughtful editing by the team at The Monthly – and Black Inc Books and New South Publishing for their continued support of these Best of series, which play an incredibly important role in celebrating and supporting Australian writing and Australian writers.

 

The mouse that roared

My apologies for my silence over the past couple of months: despite good intentions about getting back to regular posting after two months trapped in the time vortex of school holidays I’ve ended up swamped with work, which has rather slowed me down.

I suspect that situation isn’t going to change any time soon, not least because I’m now working on a new book and at least two sets of short stories on top of my usual reviewing commitments (which is exciting but more than a little consuming) but with luck I’ll still be able to keep things at least ticking over here.

I’ll link to some of those stories as they appear (in case you missed it I had one in Get Reading’s 10 Short Stories You Must Read in 2011, I’ve got one in the next Overland, another in a forthcoming anthology designed to raise funds for The Sydney Story Factory, and two which are being published as part of digital initiatives: a story in the second volume of The Review of Australian Fiction and a novelette which will appear next month as part of something I’m not really allowed to talk about yet).

In the meantime you might want to check out a few of my recent reviews (though many are now hidden behind The Australian’s paywall), in particular my pieces on Colson Whitehead’s terrific zombie novel, Zone One, Dana Spiotta’s electric Stone Arabia and Margaret Atwood’s deeply flawed In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination.

And finally, if you haven’t seen this outstanding video of the savage grasshopper mouse, I recommend you watch it now. Apparently they’re carnivorous mice that let out their piercing shrieks before moving in for the kill, and you can read all about them over on Wired’s Laelaps blog, but basically they’re just made of awesome.

The Book of the Ocean

As I mentioned a while back, one of the projects I’ve been working on for a while now is an anthology of writing about the ocean for Penguin. It’s been a fascinating process, both because it’s given me a chance to revisit a number of books that have meant a great deal to me over the years and because it’s forced me to acquaint myself with many more I didn’t know, or only knew by reputation.

As the imbroglio over the Macquarie/PEN Anthology demonstrates, assembling anthologies is a perilous business. The bigger the subject, the more people have invested in it, the more likely you are to come in for a bucketing for mistaken emphases and omissions. And since the literature of the ocean is one of those subjects which is both vast and weighed down by its history it’s one that offers plenty of pitfalls.

As a result I decided early on that I had no desire to be either definitive or exhaustive. Instead my intention has been to assemble a relatively personal collection, which draws together a selection of writing I love. As someone whose life has been spent on the shores of the Southern and Pacific Oceans I also decided I wanted to put together a collection that spoke to and about that experience, rather than concentrating on the exploration of the northern seas that has traditionally preoccupied collections of this sort. In practice that’s meant letting go of a number of things I wanted to use, but it’s also helped give the collection a shape and cohesiveness it might not otherwise have had.

All of which brings me to the point of this post. The book’s now largely done, but I’ve still got space for a few more pieces, so I thought I might call upon all of you out there for suggestions. Is there anything you can think of that absolutely, definitely should be in a book of this sort? Or do you have ideas for things I might have overlooked? Because if you do I’d love to hear them.

A few caveats. I’m not looking for unpublished work or submissions. And while it doesn’t have to be Australian I’m very keen for a couple more pieces by Australians. Likewise, given the fact most of the pieces I’ve got so far are by men, I’m very interested in suggestions about work by women which might be suitable. And in the interests of preserving my sanity I’ve also limited the collection to writing in English, so no Jules Verne or Bachelard.

And please don’t assume I’m only after prose. Although the collection is predominantly prose it contains poetry, so suggestions for poems (especially Australian poems!) about the ocean are very welcome. Likewise I’m relaxed about whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, though since this is a book aimed at the general reader I’m not after academic writing, or monographs (which has, much to my regret, precluded a couple of idols of mine like Greg Dening I was hoping to include). What matters is that it feels urgent, and necessary, and – though obviously this isn’t something any of you are able to gauge – that it fit with what’s already in place.

I’ll look forward to your ideas.

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Reporters snare huge shark in Sydney Harbour

The front page of this morning’s Daily Telegraph is given over to a photo of a huge bull shark struggling on a hook in Sydney Harbour. The face of the shark, which is somewhere between 2.7 and 3.0 metres long (about 9-10 foot to those of you on the old system) is a ghastly sight, its pale, corpse-like eye swivelling downwards, its mouth twisted back by the line.

It’s a horrible image, but not, I suspect, for the reasons it graces the paper’s front page. Instead it’s horrible because the shark is so obviously frightened and in pain, and because there’s something grotesque about presenting an animal’s panic and fear as a sort of theatre (there’s video of the capture in case the photo doesn’t satisfy your blood lust).

There’s a lot of agitation about sharks in Sydney at the moment, following two attacks in the last fortnight. In the first, which took place in Woolloomooloo Bay, Navy diver Paul de Gelder lost his right hand and right leg, reportedly to a bull shark like the one in the photo, in the second, which took place at Bondi Beach, surfer Glenn Orgias had his hand torn off by what seems to have been a Great White. The hand was subsequently reattached and while there was some initial doubt the operation seems to have been a success, with a report in this morning’s Sydney Morning Herald that he’s already moving his fingers.

I’m sure I’ll be almightily rubbished by many people for feeling sympathy with the shark in the photo. Sharks are unlovely creatures in many ways, not least because they are Nature at her most utilitarian and functional. I’ve written elsewhere about my first encounter with a Great White, and the way the brutish reality of the creature stripped away my romantic preconceptions.

But for all their brutishness they are also creatures perfectly designed to do what they do, and it’s hard not to feel that in them we glimpse something of a world in which we are simply another creature among many, and reminded of what it is to exist in a world where we are prey as well as predator. This is a chastening realization, but it’s also, as the excitement of the reporter in the video and his rapturous text suggests, exhilarating.

Of course there’s an irony in using images of an animal we regard as monstrous being tormented as theatre. In the incessantly moralizing but curiously Old Testament world of the tabloid, the shark is a monster, and so whatever we do to it is justified. But I think there’s a more disturbing set of assumptions in play as well. There’s something profoundly alien about sharks, some sense in which they are unsettlingly blank and unknowable, and to some extent this justifies the use of the image. Certainly an image of a dog being tormented on the front page would provoke an appalling outcry, and I’m reasonably confident the same response would be provoked even if the image were of predatory animals such as tigers or orcas.

Some might argue there’s a qualitative difference between tormenting a shark and tormenting a dog or a tiger or an orca because of the disparate levels of intelligence. Perhaps. Certainly dogs, tigers and particularly orcas are more intelligent than sharks. But intelligence is less quantifiable than we usually assume, and what exactly it means in animals is particularly problematic. The shark is what it is because of its ecological niche, and its intelligence is a function of that niche. As with most animals, once closely observed, sharks begin to reveal complexities and subtleties of behaviour which suggest they exist in a more complex world than we would have assumed.

In fact it’s the alienness, the Otherness of the shark that makes it possible for its pain and suffering to be presented as moral theatre. We do it because sharks are unlike us, and outside the circle of human sympathy.

History has taught us the danger of this kind of thinking, but the problem is more that our thinking around animals and their treatment is hopelessly incoherent. I feel sympathy for the shark but I’ll settle down to a meal of salmon for dinner tonight, and there’s no reason to think the experience of being hooked and killed was any more pleasant for the salmon than it was for the shark (for the record the shark in the photo actually escaped alive). Likewise we recoil from fox-hunting and battery hens, while comforting ourselves that farm-fed meat is acceptable because it’s humanely slaughtered (which is a weasel word on a par with friendly fire and inhumane torture).

I’m no better than anyone on this question. I eat meat, though not a lot of it, as well as fish and other creatures. I could go vegetarian but I haven’t, mostly because I’m too lazy and I like meat and fish. I also have a series of completely incoherent ideas about food that has been hunted and caught using relatively traditional methods being somehow okay, while factory fishing and slaughterhouses aren’t. And although I give it less thought than I should, I have my moments when I feel like Elizabeth Costello in J.M. Coetzee’s profoundly disquieting The Lives of Animals, when she cries out:

“It’s that I no longer know where I am. I seem to move around perfectly easily among people, to have perfectly normal relationships with them. Is it possible, I ask myself, that all of them are participants in a crime of stupefying proportions? Am I fanatasizing it all? I must be mad! Yet every day I see the evidences. The very people I suspect produce the evidence, exhibit it, offer it to me. Corpses. Fragments of corpses that they have bought for money.”

Coetzee is, of course, drilling down into something deeper than the simple question of whether the industrialized slaughter of animals and aquaculture is morally comparable to genocide (a connection he makes explicit, without ever committing himself to it). Instead he is drawing forth the forces of violence and subjection that lie not far beneath the surface of every human society, and offering us a glimpse of the hidden engine of human culture, just as Benjamin did when he observed, “there is no document of civilization which is not also a document of barbarism”.

I have little doubt what Coetzee would make of the image of the shark. But what would he make of the shark itself, and of our relationship to it? Nature is amoral, but our relationship with it, and in many ways our understanding of it, is deeply moral, and not just because we so routinely use the natural world to illustrate our moral arguments. In a crude sense our relationship with the natural world is moral because we are now custodians of it, by default if nothing else, simply because our actions will determine so much of what happens over the next century or so. The wrong decisions will have appalling consequences, not the least of which will be runaway climate change.

It’s usual to try and found arguments for our custodianship in notions of nurture and balance. There’s little doubt these have intuitive and sentimental appeal, but I think we should be wary of them as well. We are custodians by default, but if we make the wrong decision, we will suffer as well as the planet, and it’s always dangerous to overestimate our importance in the scheme of things. Certainly it’s safe to assume that just as rabbit and lemming plagues spike and then collapse, if we push the planet’s systems too far they will regulate themselves, a process that might take millions of years to play out, but which is unlikely to be pleasant for humanity as we know it.

I don’t want to push this point too hard, but I do wonder whether there is soemthign we could learn by looking at both way we treat the shark and the shark itself. The first reveals something uncomfortable about the nature of humanity, and society. But the latter reveals something about the dangers of romanticizing the natural world, or of overestimating our importance in the scheme of things. For as we watch the shark move through the water, scavenging and hunting in its casual, opportunistic way, we see the amorality of the natural world made manifest, and its ultimate disinterest in us and our fate.

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The Hunt

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Photo by Paul Nicklen

This is an amazing and beautiful thing. Photos and video of sailfish cooperating to herd schools of sardine.

“The hunt seems almost mammalian. Sailfish—which often travel in loose groups—clearly join forces. Males and females alike circle the prey, pushing the school into tighter formation, and taking a few bites in turn. Each forward rush is punctuated by a startling flare of the dorsal fin, which more than doubles the hunter’s profile . . . The sardines, too, work in concert. Detecting each other’s proximity and movement, they shift in synchrony, each fish both leader and follower. The fish mass slides like a drop of mercury, mesmerizing, with a shimmer that may help to confuse predators . . .”

Read more at National Geographic.

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