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Science communicators are the new book festival stars – so what do they read?

Politicians who cling to the past can view the scientist’s addiction to evidence as highly subversive. Francisco Osorio

Science communicators are the new book festival stars – so what do they read?

In the uncertain realm of traditional publishing, August/ September looms large as a preferred time to release new Christmas titles. Part of that involves authors strutting their stuff at writers festivals. And this year – at events such as the Melbourne Writers Festival (MWF) – it’s hard to avoid noticing that science, and scientists, are receiving special billing.

During MWF, participants will be discussing the science behind Steven Soderbergh’s terrific disaster movie Contagion (2011). As I discussed in my book Pandemics: What Everyone Needs to Know (2013), we haven’t endured a plague like that since the Black Death of the 14th century, but there’s always the possibility.

Issues around climate change and place were aired this past weekend by Tony Birch, Jacynta Fuamatu, Michael Green and Vanessa O’Neill, while Katie Mack and Brian Schmidt are aiming to demystify astrophysics.

As a relatively recent recruit to the literary world after decades of speaking at scientific conferences and striving with data-driven research papers and reviews, I’ll be discussing The Knowledge Wars (2015) - my latest effort at public science communication - in Melbourne and Brisbane.

Having a science profile may explain why I’m also performing at Sydney’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas (September 5-6). Science drives rapid change: politicians who cling to the past can view the scientist’s addiction to evidence (especially in relation to the the environment) as highly subversive. Literature is, of course, also dangerous.

Writers festivals feature current and veteran social revolutionaries who, like Germaine Greer, have morphed into cultural icons. Other stars are famous (or emerging) novelists, philosophers (AC Grayling) and gurus, who try to explain us to us. Self-knowledge does not necessarily sit well with a conservative worldview.

Writers festivals offer a very personal experience. Pay for the book and you can meet your favoured author! Downloading the electronic version to a Kindle or iPad means passing on that autograph and brief encounter at the signing table. But, though it’s by no means the same experience, e-readers are fantastic for someone like me who spends too much time on planes and in hotel rooms.

It’s great to travel with a library of diverse titles, purchased because they might be a good read, or from a need to know more about an unfamiliar endeavour. These e-versions take up no space and, if badly written or of little substance, they don’t clutter the bedside table.

Éditions du Seuil, Harvard University Press.

So what am I reading now on my iPad? Apart from easily-digested murder mysteries, I’m persisting through Thomas Piketty’s monumental Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2013). His general message, that the increasing prominence of inherited “aristocracies” of wealth is a present and ever-increasing disaster for human society, makes sense though, on the small screen, I’m missing a lot of the detail that’s in various graphs and the like.

Capital is one book that’s best experienced in print, where it’s also more convenient to flip back and forth. Why read Capital? All of us are impacted by policies based in economics, and most would like a better understanding. There’s an unfinished copy of the awful “Neocon Bible” (Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged (1957) on our bookshelves.

It’s horrifying to think that Alan Greenspan (former Chair of the US Federal Reserve) found this to be intellectually incisive, given he was implicated in the Global Financial Crisis. .

That negative view could just reflect the way that I see the world and may be why, on my iPad, I raced through, and greatly enjoyed, Jeff Madrick’s very readable Seven Bad Ideas: How Mainstream Economists Have Damaged America and the World (2015). Madrick, a former economics columnist for Harpers and the New York Times, points out how the neoliberal/economic rationalist belief system based in the revelations of Nobel Prize Winner Milton Friedman has minimal grounding in data and has, in fact, done enormous damage to Western Society.

UWA Press

Paul Krugman refers to such practices as “zombie ideas”: killed over and over by evidence but, undead, they continue to disinter and do even more damage. Does their “immortality” reflect that they work to transfer even more wealth to the rich and powerful?

Checking a list of e-books is one thing, but there’s nothing more satisfying than picking up something unexpected in a good bookstore. Browsing in Reader’s Feast (one of Melbourne’s “independents”) recently I chanced on Ann Moyal’s A Woman of Influence: science, men and history (2014). This sequel to Moyal’s autobiographical Breakfast With Beaverbrook (1995) is an easy read, dealing with life after she helped organise press baron Max Aitken’s (UK Minister for Aircraft Production, 1940-45) memoirs.

Focusing on the Canberra experience (I spent 72-75 and 82-88 there), she provides an insightful long view from within. Moyal is a professional science writer with, for example, Clear Across Australia: A history of Telecommunications (1984) being a major work. Her book that many love is Platypus: The Extraordinary Story of How a Curious Creature Baffled the World (2001).

Checking the bookshelves at home can also provide welcome surprises. People give us books, we buy books on whim and, particularly if they are too big to lug onto planes, they often sit around, unread and ignored.

Random House Australia

A recent “excavation” turned up two heavy volumes of Frank Moorhouse’s Edith trilogy. I’ve started number three, Cold Light (2011), which has the heroine, former League of Nations star Edith Campbell Berry, hoping for political preferment back in Bob Menzies’ Canberra (1949-51), when the conservatives were intent on outlawing the communist party. Moorhouse uses his characters to probe continuing, long-term political and sexual tensions.

So my reading of late has, in one sense or another, been somewhat Canberra oriented. That’s where the economists with real power in Australia live, and both the Ann Moyal and Frank Moorhouse books describe familiar locations and attitudes.

It is, along with the current polarisation in federal politics, suggesting some different thought on the workings of our national capital.

Well-written books remain central to my intellectual life. Though I use online media, and played a very small part in helping start The Conversation, nothing beats dipping into a hard copy lifted casually from a desk or coffee table. The inexorable decline of print newspapers is a real concern. We need insights that go beyond the increasingly constrained realm of investigative journalism.

Ink on paper or electronic, a well-researched and honest book has enormous power.


Peter Doherty is appearing at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, Sydney, on September 5 and 6, details here. And at the Melbourne Writers Festival on August 29, details here.