Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Women Writin’ Science For Themselves

One panel session that was easily overlooked but a real gem at this year’s Melbourne Writers Festival was Writing in Lab Coats :
Dr Elizabeth Finkel (The Genome Generation), journalist and publisher Jane McCredie (Making Girls and Boys) and award-winning Age journalist Jo Chandler (Feeling the Heat) talk to Radio National's Natasha Mitchell about what makes great science writing (and what makes great science).
The Cube at ACMI was packed with a very appreciative audience for these three authors. The session title seemed a misnomer. So did the asymmetrical venue that is cramped, dark and much smaller than the presenters deserved.

None of the authors works in a lab. Elizabeth was a professional research scientist in biochemistry before becoming a science journalist with publications such as Cosmos Magazine.  Jo and Jane are both journalists with extensive backgrounds working in the media. Neither claims to be a scientist.

In fact Jane spoke of the need to find her voice and establish “authority” as a non-scientist. Her time as an editor at the Australian Doctor must have helped. She sees herself as a critical friend of science, a questioning observer. Jane’s book has a descriptor ‘inside the science of sex’ but it’s the nature of gender that she explores. What is gender identity? What makes us boys or girls?

Elizabeth spoke of the amazing “new universe” that we’ve been catapulted into since the mapping of the genome. Her book, which has yet to be released, is an exploration of its “new cosmic laws”, as old scientific dogmas have been left by the wayside. She aims for a "judicious, calm voice" like a “judge in a courtroom… weighing evidence”. Easier done than seen to be done. She is no stranger to the “combative corner” as her earlier work into organic food and genetically modified foods copped criticism for its findings.

When researching her book on climate change, Jo sometimes felt “like a non-scientist asking dumb questions”. That research took her to the rain-forests in Namibia and stunning vistas of Antarctica. She asked "what is balance in coverage and what is authentic storytelling".  She rejected the “objectivity lie” where the journalist tries to leave the self out. In her “overcorrecting” Jo has tried to go into her research as “confused”, like war correspondents going to the front without a particular agenda. There are parallels with embedding as she “inserted into research teams” in the field. She described it as “an epic adventure… going off the edge of the known universe”.

From Chapter 3 Buried Treasure:
The modern quest to dig into the ice is driven by the urgent need to see into the future, to track how the planet has behaved through history when the atmospheric composition has swung through sometimes dramatic cycles of change, when tipping points have been crossed. Here the consequences of change are written in mysterious script into the chemistry of the ice.
I haven’t had the opportunity to read their books, except for the sample chapter of Feeling the Heat that is online. Put these three writers who are ‘ringing on their own bells’ in your non-fiction shopping cart for some spring/summer reading.

(Unfortunately there was no video but hopefully ABC Radio National will broadcast it later in the year.)

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