Opinion- 28 July 2007


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Harry Robinson Reflects on - Science and the Wordsmith

Poet John Tranter threw light on the future when he talked to Ramona Koval on ABC's Book Show. Poets, he said, were getting more recognition from a notice in his Jacket Magazine than from any mention in the press, even in small mags devoted to poetry. Try the Tranter publication at www.jacketmagazine.com and you'll never be the same again. It looks plain but the nature of the material is anarchy. Be that as it may, it is obviously successful, more successful than rivals in old fashioned ink on paper.

The future belongs to wispy electrons.

The media are in flux. Now we hear that the Prime Minister launches a policy statement on YouTube. Bigpond will put TV shows into mobile phones. Will we learn to grow antennae instead of ears, keyboards instead of fingers?


Only heaven knows.

So far, though, we can say that, superwondeerful as the new media may be, valuable subject matter will still need wordsmiths to select and shape material. Gifted talkers too. Science needs science writers to build bridges out to the public. There is not only hope for wordsmiths there is certain demand.

Curiously, the science community does little to attract and reward writers.

I recall Bob Beale at the Sydney Morning Herald, working quietly in the big reporters' room as the paper's science writer. He knew what he was at and the paper gave him good space but it was a solo effort lacking the frissons of daily journalism, and the monetary rewards of star columnists.

ABC Radio has been a long-term friend of science since Peter Pockley began to push the cause. Then came Robin Williams with The Science Show just over 30 years ago. He can talk ad lib but the first time I saw him in his office he was sitting at an old typewriter, tapping out words while ginning with mischievous intent. Williams has never swerved from his self-chosen path of telling good news and bad to the nation.

Then there are people who, while not exclusively science interpreters, are able and willing to engage with matters scientific. If you'd been listening to whatever they called Radio National around 1970 you'd have heard one Kirsten Blanch telling of the archeological  and anthropological wonders of Lake Mungo, soon to be declared a World Heritage site. She not only told the facts, she created the atmosphere of the dry, sandy saucer and suggested the life that must have teemed there 25,000 years ago and more. Her spoken features took listeners into a time machine.

Time, of course, moved on and Kirsten Blanch became Kirsten Garrett, staff-elected member of the ABC board from 1996 - 2000. For some time now she has been executive producer of Background Briefing, a rolled gold program airing Sundays at 9.10 am and again at 7.10 pm Tuesdays. But what do time and date matter now that Radio National's prime programs can be heard at any time and in any place thanks to audio streaming and podding? More of the wonders of media flux.

BB's subject matter ranges from political trends to social issues, ethics and a goodly ration of science.

Especially the science which will never be seen in the nightly news but may turn out to be prophetic. As a frinstance, BB brought Prof Jared Diamond of UCLA to our ears when his book "Why Societies Collapse" was first published. Farmers and graziers hated him at first but later came to listen to his findings that tree-clearing could lead to people-clearing. The battle is not over but it is now taken seriously. Background Briefing had done it again..

More recently, Garrett edited and presented a speech by Pulitzer Prize winning science writer Natalie Angier who spoke with earthy realism and intellectual enthusiasm for a life devoted to telling the public about cells, bacteria, stars, galaxies, viruses and all that stuff. "Beautiful Science" was the BB title of the program and beautiful seemed the Angier mind.

She was pretty clear about two threats to contemporary science -- the restrictive influence of evangelicals in the southern states of the US, and the commercial predators who want to patent new knowledge. She did not have ready answers to the question of why young students go into finance and law rather than science. Who does?

Time insists on moving on and Kirsten Garrett's mind is on the work she'll do after she has to finish up with Aunt ABC. Idle retirement is of no interest.. She will miss radio but she is perfectly able to practice the new arts of flexi-smoke-and-mirrors media.

Dare one suggest that she set up a website a la Johm Tranter's Jacket? With a masthead such as Foreground Briefing, how could she miss?

And dare one suggest that one of our scientific bodies set up a system of awards to rival the Walkleys to be called the Mac Burnets?


Harry Robinson -- for 25 years worked in television journalism in Oz and the US and was for several years air media critic for the Sydney Morning Herald and the Sun-Herald.