Ice, magic and moa bones: this year’s science books inspire13/10/2013
New Zealand Science Teacher takes a closer look at the books from the Royal Society of New Zealand’s 2013 Science Book Prize, announced in May of this year.
Quinn Berentson’s first book Moa: The Life and Death of New Zealand’s Legendary Bird won the 2013 Royal Society’s Science Book Prize and it’s easy to see why: it weaves mystery and intrigue together with a deep understanding of natural science.
The book is a comprehensive study of the moa’s story, beginning with its early discovery, which was surrounded in controversy and intrigue between dueling scientists.
Since those days, with the help of technology and science, more has been discovered and understood about this amazing bird and the way it lived.
What is it about the moa that intrigues us?
Part of the answer lies in its scale and how the first discovery coincided with that of dinosaurs in the rest of the world.
“There was this realisation that in ancient times the world was dominated by these monsters that roamed the earth but weren’t around anymore – it really captured imaginations.
“There was something about a giant bird- when all the other creatures in New Zealand were pretty small, really- after all, the kiwi is the size of a chicken,” Quinn says.
The book is a rich account of all things moa, and simultaneously tells the story of early New Zealand and the colonial fascination with zoology.
Quinn says that even though the bird looms large in our national history, actual details about it remain unclear for most people.
“Part of the reason for doing the book was to address this memory gap we seem to have about the bird. What really makes the story, and what people have really responded to, are the characters – the human drama that was involved in the discovery of the moa.”
One central scientist is British naturalist Richard Owen, who first found a piece of moa bone in 1839. Quinn describes him as a Dickensian character who stopped at nothing to be ‘top dog’ of the moa discovery.
The book details the complex trail of moa discovery around New Zealand – in writing it, Quinn travelled from the East Coast of New Zealand, to Taranaki, and finally, Central Otago on his quest to piece together the bird’s story.
Because many moa bones were preserved in caves, DNA work is still ongoing to learn more about the unusual bird. Quinn says the story is not over yet.
“They’re still finding things out. The moa is the ‘poster child’ for ancient DNA because caves are good environments for preserving DNA fragments.”
Communicating science through images
Moa is also packed full of beautiful illustrations, photographs, and maps. Quinn says it was important to him that the book was visually engaging.
“I started collecting the images very early on. The moa is such a powerful image and I really wanted to show that.”
Quinn says the images came from all over the world.
“I was very pleased to be able to use a range of images that many New Zealanders would never have seen published before. A lot of the original Richard Owen bone artworks came from a University in Texas, so I turned over every rock trying to get as many as I could.”
Quinn’s favourite image is the Superman comic from the 1970s that features a battle between the superhero and a flying moa, found online by a friend. Permission to reproduce the piece was eventually given by management at DC Entertainment in Washington.
The book was published by Nelson-based Craig Potton Publishers, who were flexible with the amount of text and colour plates included in the finished pages.
“The design and production was totally down to the publishers, and they were great with the overall scope of what I was doing. They let me go for it,” he says.
Winning the book prize
The Royal Society Science Book Prize was set up in 2009 to promote and celebrate science communication in New Zealand.
“It was fantastic to win the prize, it was a great honour,” says Quinn.
“It certainly doesn’t hurt in getting the book to more readers. The idea is to try and get people who wouldn’t normally read non-fiction books to give it a try.”
A freelance documentary maker by profession, Quinn likens the book to a science programme in book form.
“I always thought of it as a documentary on paper, I wanted to write a ripping yarn. I’m interested in presenting science in a way that will really hold peoples’ interest.”
He’s looking forward to taking some time later in the year to ‘have a crack’ at another science book.
The other two books shortlisted for the prize were ‘Science on Ice: Discovering the Secrets of Antarctica’ by Veronika Meduna (Auckland University Press) and a book of poetry called ‘Graft’ by Helen Heath (Victoria University Press).
Veronika Meduna’s Science on Ice explores the strange and wonderful world of Antarctica, a place that she describes to be almost like another planet. She introduces the reader to the amazing science happening on the icy continent, and the people doing it.
Helen Heath’s Graft is the first poetry book to be shortlisted for the Royal Society prize. Helen kindly shares with us a poem from it:
When Isaac closes his eyes
he is hanging, arms outstretched
only faith keeps him
from falling – a magic trick.
In his left hand is the Book of Revelations
in the right, the Book of Nature,
written in geometry.
He opens his eyes to take note
of God’s will in action. Observations
must be interpreted –
bodies in motion, fruit from the tree.
Reclusive, he experiments upon himself,
slides a bodkin into his eye socket
between eyeball and bone
until he sees several white dark
& coloured circles.
Sibyls and Daemons
are still close enough
for him to hear their voices.
The sun rises so slowly it’s too hard
to pick the moment of first light
or the last of the night’s magic.
– Helen Heath 2009
Helen says that, as a poet, she was inspired by Newton’s story and the way he straddled two worlds, that of science and alchemy. She says, similarly, science and poetry can co-exist in harmony even though they might not have traditionally been linked.
“It bothers me that scientists are seen by some people as undermining the magical way someone like a child or poet may see the world – in awe – in my experience nothing could be further from the truth.
I think the quest for knowledge doesn’t detract from the awe you can experience; it only adds. This is the value of science to my literature.”
Helen is particularly interested in how ideas about ‘truth’ and knowledge are interpreted and expressed in science poetry.
“Since Aristotle, there have been debates about where the ultimate ‘truth’ can be found – in poetry or scientific fact,” she says.
But how can science poetry be used by teachers to inspire their students’ scientific thinking processes?
This is something Helen has given a lot of thought to. Because poetry has the ability to condense information, she says, it can use narrative and metaphor to help communicate the message of science more effectively.
“I think what scientists have come to realise recently is that narratives activate many parts of the brain- not only the language processing parts, but any other area in our brain that we would use when experiencing the events of the story too. And metaphors in poetry have exactly the same effect,” she says.
Therefore, using metaphor and other poetic devices help the learner to relate concepts to another of their existing experiences.
“While we search for a similar experience in our brains, we activate the insula, which helps us relate to that same experience of pain, joy, disgust, or whatever it might be.
“In fact, research indicates that frequent readers of fiction develop higher levels of empathy than infrequent readers. Therefore, using poetry to teach science concepts is a great idea.”
The Science Book Prize was established in 2009 to celebrate the very best in this genre. It aims to encourage the writing, publishing, and reading of good and accessible popular science books.