Reading about the Reef

Having mentioned this book in connection with Tribal Science, I’m posting my review of it here in spite of the fact that it has already appeared in slightly different forms in the Townsville Bulletin and in Waves, the newsletter of the Reef HQ Volunteers Association.

Woodford's 'The Great Barrier Reef' cover picJames Woodford, already an award-winning environmental journalist with several books to his credit, decided in 2008 to tackle a really big subject, the two and a half thousand kilometre long Reef. Wanting to learn about it from those who know most about it and see parts of it that are usually out of reach, he signed on as a volunteer on scientific expeditions from the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) between the beginning of 2009 and the middle of 2010.

It was a big commitment of time and effort (earning the scuba tickets he needed was a major exercise in itself) but it took him from Townsville past Lockhart River to Raine Island in the north, to the Swain Reefs in the south, to Heron and One Tree Island research stations, and even to Lord Howe Island, that last outpost of reef life far south of the Reef itself.

Slightly sceptical about the impact on the Reef of global warming when he began, he was convinced – and deeply concerned – by the time he finished. One expedition member after another pointed out the dangers to him, and in August 2009 he heard their research summarised at a conference in Brisbane: “Speaker after speaker made one point clearly … we were already in dangerous territory with regard to CO2 levels … the question right now is not whether the reef will suffer, but rather how bad the injury will be.” But this is a relatively small element in Woodford’s book. He dives some spectacularly beautiful coral reefs, has close encounters with cyclones, sharks and turtles, and meets a great range of colourful people.

The Great Barrier Reef is very readable, details of reef science emerging naturally from Woodford’s conversations with scientists (endlessly passionate about their work) and the experiments and underwater life he observed. This is a book for all of us who live near the Reef yet know little about it, and for visitors who would like to take away more than a memory of dazzling beauty.

The Great Barrier Reef
James Woodford
Macmillan, Sept 2010, $32.99

Woodford writes occasionally on the Australian environment for The Guardian. See his recent work here.

Tribal Science

Cover image "Tribal Science"

The fact that we are basically smart monkeys underlies a lot of our not-so-smart behaviour but Mike McRae focuses on only one aspect of it, that is, how it affects our relationship with science.

On one level we know we know science is our best means for discovering the truth, but on another we distrust it. McRae wanted to find out why, since our distrust encourages irrational and potentially dangerous responses to real-world problems.

His evolutionary history of our big brains leads into a brief history of philosophy and science. A recurring theme is that our social relationships, still tribal after all these years, often trump our rationality and make us reluctant to oppose authority or stand out from the crowd by accepting an idea which is rejected by most of our tribe. He doesn’t discuss the reception of climate science in any detail but that, to me, would have been the perfect case study, demonstrating all of the features he mentions.

Thinking about how we think is often fun, and Tribal Science is far more entertaining than my quick summary suggests, rambling amiably through scientific errors and frauds, logic puzzles and psychology.

UQP, $32.95, March 2011.

Two climate warnings

Expert panels in Stockholm and Canberra recently issued major statements on climate within a few days of each other. Here are the essentials of both, with links to more detail.

Nobel Laureates Speak Out

Seventeen Nobel laureates who gathered in Stockholm published a remarkable memorandum asking for “fundamental transformation and innovation in all spheres and at all scales in order to stop and reverse global environmental change”. The Stockholm Memorandum concludes that we have entered a new geological era: the Anthropocene, where humanity has become the main driver of global change. Continue reading “Two climate warnings”

Netizen science

Moth Noctuidae? 4057

Digital technology has made good science accessible to amateurs again, as both learners and contributors, 150 years after a gap opened up between scientists and the lay population in the nineteenth century. In entomology, for instance, authoritative online sources of information are plentiful. Amateurs can learn from them and – almost immediately – contribute to them. Encyclopedia of Life is a good example.

I took up insect photography when I bought my first DSLR camera, late in 2008, and opened a Flickr account – – as a way of sharing the results. Flickr ‘Groups’ bring together people fascinated by any topic you can think of – as broad as ‘Animals’ and as narrow as ‘Naked Mole Rats’ (okay, I made that one up – but you can start one yourself if you’re interested and there isn’t one already). That is the source of the moth above, and clicking on the image takes you to its original location.

I can also put my content on my own website – here, for instance – and search engines will find it for anyone who needs it.

My photos in Bugblog will normally be linked to a larger version of the image, either on Flickr or on this site.

Afterword, 25.4.11: Another benefit of this way of doing science – people will help out with expert advice when they see a gap. In this case, Graeme Cocks saw that I hadn’t identified the moth at the top of this post and emailed me to say it is “Noctuidae, Catocalinae,” (that’s family and sub-family, for those still finding their way around classifications) and tell me they are, “just about to become abundant.”