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The Best Australian Science Writing 2013
By Jane McCredie, Natasha Mitchell
University of New South Wales Press LtdCopyright © 2013 University of New South Wales Press Ltd
All rights reserved.
The weather of who we are
Talking about the weather
Don't start with the weather: Elmore Leonard's first rule of writing. Which I'm breaking here, start to finish.
Everything starts with the weather, so why wouldn't a writer? Why wouldn't we all? And often we do: How's the weather over there? Hot enough for you? Have you ever seen so much rain? Though these days most of us spend most of our lives inside (93 per cent, to be precise), still we live inside the weather. There's no escaping it: it's how the world speaks to us; it tempers and colours all our days and nights. It clothes us; it decorates and articulates the places where we live.
Start thinking about the weather and you soon find yourself in outer space: the sun's radiation, the orbit of the earth around our star, the sun; the daily rotation of the planet; the tilt of this orb in its daily spinning; the location of our planet just near enough to, and yet far enough from, the sun to kickstart life and keep it going, to let the whole miraculous system work and keep on working within the insulation of the atmosphere.
For weather is how our planet behaves in space, and how the atmosphere curdles and gyres and rotates around it; weather is intergalactic and it is global. But think about the weather another way and you are right here, and what the weather means is how things look and feel outside your window. For weather is also local; it's how the sky behaves when it turns up at your place: the distinctiveness of the light at dawn, the way the wind picks up from the west in the afternoons, the species and colour of clouds that inhabit this valley with you, the heaviness of the rain that falls out of winter storm fronts or dumps from January southerlies, or the way rain rarely falls this side of the mountain, the size of the hail in April downpours, the particular shade of green the sky turns above the bay ahead of a tropical storm in late November, the speed with which the ground fog comes up the paddocks from the flood plain some nights in early winter, the blueness of the light in June over the harbour, the characteristic heaviness of the frost in the east-facing lawns in July, the weight of the pre-Christmas winds.
There is always weather to report, and there will be weather long after there are any of us around to report it. Weather is the oldest story in the world – one we want to keep on telling each other when we meet, as though it were part of who we are, a story that wants to keep on telling itself, and affecting us, whether we like it or not. Clouds – those thought bubbles of the atmosphere, those oracular utterances of the sky, those prophesies, those poems – may have taught us to think, especially higher thoughts, to speak our mind and to change it.
And still we're at it, this most ancient discourse, for the weather never lets up, and it continues to affect the way we experience life, and our lives, on earth.
These days, weather talk is bigger and more abstract, for although we are, most of us, removed from it, living most of our lives under cover, we can read the weather of the entire planet on our laptops and television screens. Now more than ever, everyone else's weather is our own. Weather talk isn't small talk any-more; now it is most of the news. Weather talk is politics now. It is econometric discourse, because the weather is changing around us, and changing faster, perhaps, than it's ever changed before – though it's hard to tell with weather: its patterns are long and our memories are short, our data inexact and shallow. It looks like long-established weather norms are changing, and not in our favour, and it looks, so the climate change hypothesis goes, as if we may have caused it, changing the chemistry and behaviour of the atmosphere we conduct our lives inside, by burning too much fuel, in part, to defy and transcend the weather – to stay too warm, to keep too cool, to prosper everywhere, all the time, regardless of the weather.
Weather is the stage on which we enact the drama of our lives. We breathe it in; we see embodied in it our fears and desires; it falls on our head. And we'd better take care of it: our lives are in its hands. Its drama has become our own. A morality play in real time. The days of our very own lives.
The weather of who I am
I go the way the weather goes, though not always in sync. Eddies of energy rise and fall in me, travel me in a ceaseless, undulant, sometimes turbid, and recursive circuit. The world that is my body is travelled by weather. We are creatures made largely, like the planet, of water; we are physical beings under the sun, moving in space, small wildernesses of microbes and energies, and all the rest of it; we are made of the same atoms the world, the whole universe, is made of; we are creatures adapted profoundly to the earth in its manifestations. So it should not surprise us that we have weather, too, and are, even in these air-conditioned days, affected by changes of mood of the weather of the larger world – of air pressure and light, or wind and rain and cloud.
Sometimes the weather going on inside your self is the same weather going on inside your habitat; sometimes your weather rises out of memory or desire or fear. Each of us is a small world trafficked by weather, emotional and intellectual and physical. And perhaps how we feel is just how who we are responds to the whirlpools of energy, internal and external, that course us – the highs and lows. Certainly this is how my life goes. I harbour weather; I am made of it. And this helps me understand the world, and all the weather it suffers, how the world and all of us within it are weathered, without end.
Winds ease through the day, along the Shoalhaven, and the evening is cool. By 10 pm the night is as still as a singing bowl that's finally stopped singing. The sky is perfectly clear; the stars are the only weather to report; the low has moved offshore, and New Zealand is in for it next. Here in the Shoalhaven, I sit under the edges of the slow-moving high that covers the continent. Lows are moving west in the Southern Ocean, fiercely, like a pod of whales in a hurry, but none of them looks likely to make landfall here. Weather too good to write in is coming along. But that, too, will pass. Weather always does.
The weather of who we are
We are a sclerophyll people, adapted in our speech and manners, in our worldview, to the manifold variations on a theme of dryness that are the prevailing weather of the continent.
We are a conforming, decent people, good at getting things done – on the battlefield, the playing field, the farm, the mine site, the mall. At home. We're good at civility and embarrassed by ceremony, though good at putting on a do; we're not much given to introspection, to political histrionics, revolutions, bills of rights, that sort of thing; we're rhetorically awkward, suspicious of large gestures, unless they're commercial; we're dedicated, it is said, to a fair go, in particular for ourselves; we're suspicious of the foreign and the new, but we tend to come around. We don't like to look far into the future. As if it were the weather – another cyclone on the horizon, another flood coming downstream, another fire running up the ridge. Perhaps the difficulty of many of our landscapes and the temperate recalcitrance of much of our weather have taught us to be pragmatic to a fault.
But most of our history happens between disasters, not in them; most of who we are lies between the droughts and fires and flooding rains. We are a stable people on a stable continent, whose weather is not, in fact, uncommonly wild, and perhaps we tell ourselves stories of military and meteorological disaster (narrowly and bravely survived) to reassure ourselves we're real – that we have ticker and pluck; that we're tough.
This is to overlook, of course, the long savage dispossession of the first peoples by the settlers – but this has been a part of our history that, until recently, the nation has chosen to ignore. A history of surviving savage weather is a nobler sort of history to own up to.
In the sunburnt country, firestorms and flooding rains and ten-year droughts and cyclones are our myths of identity. Which is not to say we get no grief from nature. It's just to note how much of ourselves we find, and how much of our natural and national history we tell, in calamities – and the doggedness of our spirit in the face of them.
But we are not more prone to natural disasters than the international average. There are hotter places, stormier – though there are none, it has to be admitted, drier. It doesn't get dangerously cold; there are no ice storms or heavy-duty blizzards (not unless we include our territories on that driest continent on earth, the Antarctic.) We get dust storms, and we get more than enough cyclones, but we don't get many tornadoes (the most destructive force on the planet); we have no equivalent of America's tornado alley. We do fire as well as anyone, and we'll do it bigger and more often as the atmosphere warms. Drought is our great affliction; and in the years ahead, water – the scarcity of rivers in the places where most of us live and farm, our profligacy with it, the drying of the climate – is our area of national vulnerability.
Between downpours and conflagrations, though, we get about the greater part of who we are. We make history, most of it quiet, in mild weather. But we tell ourselves in fires and floods; we find ourselves in drought. We think of ourselves as a people who know how to pick up the pieces when the floodwaters ease and the fires are dowsed, when the cyclone has petered out. And so we are, and so the national memory is crowded with images of the damage the weather often enough wreaks, and how bravely we bear it and get on. And it looks like we're going to get plenty of opportunities to keep proving it in the years ahead.
The weather: an intimate essay
When I walked to the river at dusk yesterday, there was no wind anywhere in the valley. Walking across the paddock was like swimming in the shallows – warm air pooled here and there. Nothing much stirred anywhere. At the river, a pair of masked lapwings, probably nesting, circled me and looped out over the river where it bends, kek-kek-kekking, warding me off. Then some weather started up, as if the cyclonic circling of the birds had conjured it. The eucalypts on the scarp across the water began to weave and sway and roar in a wind that was happening nowhere else along the river. They kept at it, howling down the lapwings. The trees seemed to be articulating some kind of a downdraft – a narrowly adapted katabatic breeze, perhaps, rushing off the ridge as the valley cooled. But why here? And why only here? I don't understand what I witnessed, but this was weather. Which is sometimes very small – shaped by and native to a place. Later, sitting at my desk, I heard the wind racing down off the ridge in the dark and then I heard the rain clattering the roof – the larger weather, perhaps, the smaller weather had foretold. Coming to tell me who I am.
Living under the influence of the sky
Weather joins us to everyone and everywhere else, but in its local adaptations, it also shapes, changes and defines us. We are who we are, indirectly and directly, because of the weather we lead our lives in. How we behave, even how we speak, is how we adapt to the weather. Australian weather makes us Australian; Pilbara weather, Pilbaran; Tasmanian weather, Tasmanian. It's a large part of it, anyway. But weather is regional and global, too. We share our cold fronts with New Zealand and Asia shares her monsoons with us. El Niño and La Niña link us to the fates of South Americans. And we all share global warming, unevenly though its effects may be distributed.
More personally, life lived under the influence of weather, mindful of it, as long as one survives that weather, is a life more fully lived. The days in which I am aware of what's going on in the sky, which way the wind blows, what species of clouds came by, are days that feel more lived in. In which my life feels more ample. It helps if the weather is bright, or, on the other hand, wild; it helps if your hat will stay on your head – or your hair, for that matter. But it's the observance, not the value you put on what you observe, that counts. It's a way of dying, as the Buddhists say, to one's self – one's mere self – and opening to the world. It's a bigger kind of life. Humbler. Older, longer. Who you are is so much bigger than what your body encloses, and how your society wants to define you. You're no longer a taxpayer, a consumer, a New South Welshman. You're a citizen of the real world again. A part of a place. You're a-piece with the weather. A piece of the weather, even.
Turbulence Masters of the universeCHAPTER 2
It's time to become gonads
Deep-sea anglerfish (Ceratiidae family)
Being an anglerfish male would be the absolute worst. As proud as most males in the animal kingdom tend to be of their genitals, the idea of actually becoming genitals by fusing yourself to your mate is a bit much. Unless you're an anglerfish male, in which case it's just something that has to be done. Some people have to be garbage collectors, others have to be genitals. The bizarre reproductive habits of deep-sea anglerfish were first described in 1922 by Icelandic fisheries biologist Bjarni Saemundsson, who discovered a large female Krøyer's deep-sea anglerfish (Ceratias holboelli) with two smaller fish attached to her stomach by their snouts. What Saemundsson didn't realise was that these tiny fish weren't young offspring taking nutrients from their mother, but sexually mature males. 'I can form no idea of how, or when, the larvae, or young, become attached to the mother; I cannot believe that the male fastens the egg to the female. This remains a puzzle for some future researcher to solve,' he wrote in the journal Videnskabelige Meddelelser fra Dansk Naturhistorisk Forening. Three years later, British ichthyologist, ecology and evolution expert Charles Tate Regan found a similar situation. This time a single small fish was fused to a female, and Tate recognised it not as a mother–offspring relationship, but a parasitic male–female relationship, reporting in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B:
[The male fish is] merely an appendage of the female, and entirely dependent on her for nutrition ... so perfect and complete is the union of husband and wife that one may almost be sure that their genital glands ripen simultaneously, and it is perhaps not too fanciful to think that the female may possibly be able to control the seminal discharge of the male and to ensure that it takes place at the right time for fertilisation of her eggs.
Anglerfish belong to an order Lophiiformes, which is a highly diverse group of fish boasting an array of shapes, including elongated, spherical and flattened bodies, living 300 metres below the surface. There are around 200 species of anglerfish spread around the world's oceans. Anglerfish in the family Ceratiidae, also known as sea devils, live at depths of 1000–4000 metres in the bathypelagic zone where not a speck of sunlight exists. They are famous for the reproductive process that sees free-swimming adolescent males attach themselves to a female and morph into a living, parasitic set of gonads.
Members of the Ceratiidae family are generally top-heavy, with relatively large heads and jaws filled with many tiny teeth set into an extreme underbite position. The females of each species are adorned with a bioluminescent lure that extends from their foreheads in myriad shapes, sizes and lengths. Characteristic of the Ceratioidea is their extreme sexual dimorphism, which describes a genetically determined difference between males and females of the same species expressed by their morphology, behaviour or ornamentation. In birds, sexual dimorphism is the difference between the stunningly beautiful male peacock and its drab female counterpart, and in the Ceratioidea's case, this means large females and significantly dwarfed males. So dwarfed are the deep-sea anglerfish males, measuring an average of just 6–10 millimetres in their free-swimming, adolescent stage, that they are one of the world's smallest vertebrates. In the most extreme cases, such as the Krøyer's deep-sea anglerfish, the females can be up to 60 times larger than the males, at more than a metre in length, and half a million times heavier.
Excerpted from The Best Australian Science Writing 2013 by Jane McCredie, Natasha Mitchell. Copyright © 2013 University of New South Wales Press Ltd. Excerpted by permission of University of New South Wales Press Ltd.
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Table of Contents
Foreword: Not a Nobel laureate Tim Minchin,
Introduction: An intimate dissection Natasha Mitchell and Jane McCredie,
The weather of who we are Mark Tredinnick,
It's time to become gonads Becky Crew,
The last laughing death Jo Chandler,
The perils of evolution Janine Burke,
Darwin's modest discovery Damon Young,
Earthmasters: Playing God with the climate Clive Hamilton,
Science is more than freaks and circuses Paul Livingston,
Animals on drugs Rhianna Boyle,
Dreamtime cave Elizabeth Finkel,
Heart dissection Ian Gibbins,
Reaching one thousand Rachel Robertson,
Higgs boson Michael Lucy,
Here come the übernerds: Planets, Pluto and Prague Fred Watson,
Many-worlds quantum mechanics vs earth-based grease monkeys gareth roi jones,
The vagina dialogues Cordelia Fine,
Big Data can tell by your tweets if you're a psychopath: That's only the beginning ... Kirsten Drysdale,
With body in mind (after Vesalius) Ian Gibbins,
How a donor is done Kellee Slater,
Nest: The art of birds Janine Burke,
My father's body Francesca Rendle-Short,
Sentinel chickens Peter Doherty,
The science of shark fishing Ian Gibbins,
On flatulence Nicholas Haslam,
Radioactive cigarettes: X-ray inhale Karl Kruszelnicki,
Martyrs to Gondwanaland: The cost of scientific exploration Chris Turney,
Mr Jevons and his paradox Antony Funnell,
Alimentary thinking Emma Young,
The carnivore's (ongoing) dilemma Åsa Wahlquist,
Beyond the shock machine Gina Perry,
Australia's endangered future Tim Flannery,
Alive as a dodo Nicky Phillips,
Probably a sacrifice Ian Gibbins,
Fire on the mountain: A walk on Mt Stromlo Andrew Croome,
The Bragg UNSW Press Prize for Science Writing,