The importance of being Ernest Karen Hartshorn

The Awa Book of New Zealand Science 
Rebecca Priestley (ed)
Awa Press, $48.00,
ISBN 9780958262996

I grew up in a household with a chemistry professor for a mother, a kitchen full of mysterious jars labelled “Experiment: Do Not Eat”, and dinner parties with physicists for guests. Not everyone is similarly awakened to science from birth, and luckily for them an excellent introduction now exists in The Awa Book of New Zealand Science.

Rebecca Priestley has gathered writings both about science in New Zealand and by New Zealand scientists, presented in a way that is, unlike your average school textbook, friendly and approachable. In fact, there is a very good argument for making this a standard introductory science text – it might encourage more students to take the subject up. Or at least not leave school hating science.

The book reads roughly chronologically. We are first introduced to a history of New Zealand flora, fauna and geography, as seen through the ideas of explorers and the mainly amateur scientists who flourished in the 18th and 19th centuries. Many of the extracts are written in the first person, a refreshing change for those of us used to the dry descriptors and methodologies of academic science writing. We hear about how glad Darwin was to leave New Zealand – “it is not a pleasant place” – and Buller’s appreciation for the now-extinct huia, a “beautiful bird” with “noble bearing”, that is, “before I shot him”.

The book then moves into the 20th century and beyond, the professional era. We hear from New Zealanders who made their mark on the international scene in a wide range of different disciplines. Our trio of Nobel laureates, Rutherford, Wilkins, and MacDiarmid, all make first-person appearances. Maurice Wilkins, the third man of the DNA double-helix structure discovery, explains to us that DNA resembles “a sticky blob that … look[s] like snot”.

The early kitchen experiments raise another point. I’m the perfect target audience, because I already have an interest in both science and how people communicate it. In the wider world, though, science is not a sexy discussion topic. It does not come up as standard dinner party conversation, and certainly doesn’t feature anywhere on the list of issues of national importance to New Zealanders. In fact, our Ministry of Research, Science and Technology has done some work on this – public perceptions of science – which estimates that about half of New Zealanders fit into the “unconverted” category: those sceptical of, frightened of or simply turned off by science.

Is this important? Those of us engaged with the science system would say absolutely, critically and unconditionally, yes. We argue that research and science are critical to the future economic, social and international health of New Zealand. The ongoing production of good research science in this country goes far beyond employing a few thousand scientists, and affects health services, economy and markets, our knowledge of the environment and social structures. Any knowledge-based economy trumpeted by political leaders will simply not happen if there is not a concerted effort to actually develop it. Knowledge of “science”, however you define it, becomes critical to the national conversation.

But for this to happen, science has to become part and parcel of society. People have to start talking about it at kitchen tables and dinner parties and even talkback radio. And science will probably not become part of society except via stealth. The “unconverted” won’t be converted by science stories. Instead scientists and communicators of science have to learn how to tell stories that happen to weave some science in, and then show how critical it is to the health of the planet.

Noticeable in this book is how early science writers managed to do just that. Ernest Marsden’s personality profile of his boss at the time, one Ernest Rutherford, includes a description of an experiment, suggested by Rutherford, to see “whether you can get alpha particles reflected from a solid metal surface”. He tried, and both Ernests were surprised to find that these particles, rather than passing through a sheet of gold film as expected, bounced off and reflected back. Why is this important? Because it is the beginning of the story of how Rutherford actually came up with the structure of the atom we use today, which underpins pretty much all of chemistry, materials, and by association, any tangible thing on the planet.

Also, Ernst Dieffenbach, a German working as “surgeon and naturalist for the New Zealand Company” wrote a journal extract about his experiences with the whaling industry. His story of whaling and whalers weaves in lessons about the life and migratory cycles of whales. It also goes further to explore the long-term unsustainable nature of the industry itself, and the impact humans can have on animal species over a very short amount of time.

This volume, then, does an excellent job of telling stories and teaching introductory science lessons. I do not know that it yet ventures into the larger and trickier world of converting the unconverted. In order to do that, unfortunately, it probably could not have the word “science” on the front cover in the first place. However, I don’t think this book is aimed at converting – that is still a problem for another day and probably another medium.

So, for anyone with an understanding of or appreciation for science – physical, natural, or technological – this is a highly pleasurable collection of journal entries, images and poems from more or less all the big names in New Zealand science. I read it cover to cover in about three sittings, but it works just as easily as the kind of book you can dip in and out of. And, as far as I am aware, it is also the first time science writings featuring solely New Zealand science and scientists have been gathered under one cover.


Karen Hartshorn is a Dunedin-based science communicator and scientist.


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Posted in Non-fiction, Review, Science
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