Scientific discovery

Of all the non-fiction books I have read this year, The Awa Book of New Zealand Science is my hands-down favourite. Edited by Rebecca Priestley, this is a compilation of 50 essays written by New Zealand’s scientists, explorers and observers who have, in nearly every case, changed the way we look at the world.

The book begins with an essay by Victoria University’s Peter Adds about Polynesian navigation and then gets straight to the early explorers with a “General Account of New Zealand” by Joseph Banks and “Not a Pleasant Place” by Charles Darwin.

While some of us have actually read bits of Darwin (and I suggest next year we all celebrate his 200th birthday and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species by reading or re-reading it), how many have only read about Banks, Rutherford, Marsden, Wilkins, Liggins and Tinsley?

One of the most appealing things about this book is the work that Priestley must have done behind the scenes, trudging through what must have been screeds and picking out the bits and pieces that would engage the general reader and keep them captivated.

Writing styles have changed since the days of Banks and Darwin and, while a modern reader may not have the appetite for a complete book written in an older fashion, essays included here offer flavour and colour that we have somehow managed to edit away in our modern (and often very cynical) language. It is a joy to step back and see our world through the eyes of those who came so much earlier.

The eight pages written by Ernst Dieffenbach about whaling in the Tory Channel were too gruesome for me to bear, but I loved the stories about kakapo, huia, stitchbirds and yellow-eyed penguins and I laughed out loud at Charles Fleming’s description of himself and his early interest in nature (“…this odd child who used Suter’s Manual …”).

And, while it was fantastic to read Buller, Haast, Marsden, Rutherford and Wilkins all in one place, it was equally fantastic to read authors and scientists whose names haven’t yet been given to grants and buildings, glaciers and rivers. Indeed, the stories Priestley has put together weren’t all penned from the point of a feather grown on a now distinct bird. These stories are also told by some of our more recent greats: Allan Wilson and Rebecca Cann write about mitochondrial DNA; Charles Daugherty and Alison Cree tell the story of the tuatara; and an extract by Peter Gluckman and Mark Hanson talks about Sherpas, Nepal, Easter Island and the environment.

As one who immigrated here as an adult, I didn’t learn about New Zealand’s natural history or its scientific achievements in school. For me, the essays in this hugely enjoyable book cleared up some of the snippets I have heard in tramping huts and around dinner tables and that I have read while quickly glancing through other books. For those who were educated here, I suspect the stories will tap into lessons learnt and the stories of names long ago memorised and perhaps forgotten.

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