Competence and competition….and community

This Tuesday I’ll be hopping over to Sydney to attend the launch of a science writing anthology, The Best Australian Science Writing 2015. It should be a great read, from the few pieces I’ve been able to track down before I get my hands on the anthology itself. By all means grab a copy for yourself at your nearest book-dispensing entity. But that’s not exactly what I want to talk about.

Here’s the thing: My piece, an excerpt from my immunology book, is on the shortlist for the Bragg science writing prize; the winner and the runners-up will be announced at the launch, so I don’t know yet. It’s an absolute honour to even be considered; to be frank , when I got the email telling me I’m shortlisted, the first thing that popped into my mind was the phrase ‘there must be some mistake’.

Still, to be even more frank  – and this is getting a bit uncomfortable for me to write – I’ve been walking around these past couple of weeks with a part of me nagging away anxiously “I wonder whether I’ll win it; I wonder whether I’ll win it”. And I seem to be thinking that, not just because it involves money, or that it’ll look nice on my cv (I’ll admit to both of these fairly legitimate, if somewhat embarrassing, considerations), but just so that I can say to myself that I’m BETTER.

Which is, of course, utterly idiotic. Not only has the decision been made already, but it is, anyone will admit, kind of meaningless. Any piece of writing in the anthology is bound to be of high quality; any piece on the shortlist would be of very high quality (I’ve read a couple and yes they are very good indeed) – and there is no way to objectively measure which piece is ‘the best’ of the lot – we’ve all written about different topics, in different styles and approaches, for different audiences, and under different constraints. How can winning be meaningful at all if you’re not even running the same race?

So when I try to analyse what I feel about this episode, I find that I can neatly separate two different kinds of feelings: the first came when I was told I’d been included in the anthology. It is a bright, well-scrubbed sense of professional competence – a validation of my ability that I can produce science writing to a high standard. This feeling is a useful tool in any professional’s toolbox, possibly even more than average for writers, who are notoriously plagued by self-doubt about their abilities. Such a sign that you’re okay at this writing thing can really really help when you’re struggling with a recalcitrant passage.

The second kind of feeling is one of competition – the wanting to win this. With all due respect to the cultural drive ‘to be the best’, in this case I find it’s useless, perhaps even damaging, for me to feel this way; if I do happen to win (and I don’t think that’s likely, by the way), it won’t validate my competence to any greater extent than it now is. It might even make me think about writing in competitive terms – which, again, is not even a thing. And if I don’t win, then I stand to be disappointed. Both results will affect not my professional view of myself, but the immature part of my ego that craves adoration (ouch).

And so, as Tuesday draws near, I’m working on myself, reiterating to my inner child that whatever happens in Sydney doesn’t matter. Oh, I’ll definitely be making some noise if I end up being the winner or a runner-up; but internally, for the person who’ll be sitting at the keyboard the next day, the result of the competition doesn’t matter. What matters is taking the next blank page and finding a way to tell another good story.


The anthology launch was yesterday. It was great. I came home with a ‘runner-up’ award, which I’m very happy about. This year’s winner is Christine Kenneally, and her contribution is an exceptional story of Huntington’s disease excerpted from her most recent book.

In regards to all the stuff I wrote about above, I found that it took a neat little twist: After attending the launch, I feel – for the first time – that I’m a legitimate science writer, but I feel that not because of the formality of receiving a nice piece of paper, but because I was treated as a legitimate science writer by my fellow science writers, publishers, and other people who are interested in science communication. We talked, we shared anecdotes, views and ideas, laughed and sympathised. In short, I felt I was included by a community of my peers.

And so, what ended up mattering the most was the tribe. It seems obvious in retrospect; a science writer should’ve remembered that us humans are above all social animals who strive for inclusion. It’s a good feeling to have, isn’t it?

More than water

NASA’s announcement about evidence for flowing water on Mars is indeed very exciting – but I’d like to point out (as NASA has also been careful to do) that although water seems to be a necessary component for life, it does not follow that ‘where there’s water, there’s life’.

This might be the case on our own dear planet, but that logic cannot be extended to Mars. The only thing we know is that Life emerged once. We really can’t infer anything beyond that, because we don’t know how life started on Earth and whether the same process could happen again on another planet. It may turn out that life is a robust phenomenon, popping up when given even the slightest chance. Or life may have been a freak occurrence on one planet, which we’re only seeing because we’re among its products. We have no way of knowing until we travel to several other planets and investigate (by person or probe) thoroughly.

Personally, I’d be ecstatic to learn of life on Mars. But the history of research in exobiology and the Origin of Life often reads like a case study of grand hopes dashed. (if you’d like to read 70,000 words on the topic, here you go. Knock yourself out)

I think we all hold an instinctive expectation that life will be found on other planets; after all, our entire history as a species, for millions of years, has been one of continual exploration and movement from one place to another, and finding new and exciting life there. That all sort of stopped around the 19th century or so, when we finally ran out of unexplored territory. The planet was demystified, and we had no more world to conquer. And so we looked to the heavens – it is, I think, no coincidence that science fiction literature begins at this point in history – and we’re exploring other worlds, the final frontier. We know they’re completely different from ours, but somewhere embedded in our psyche is the assumption that we’ll find what we’ve always found when setting out into unexplored territory – life, opportunity, and exotic people. The idea that other planets are a different kind of thing, possibly barren lumps of rock too far away to be of any use, is something we sometimes find it hard to accept.

Darn Tootin’ My Own Horn:

Endorsements are in! I’m very excited. Also humbled to a near-catatonic state. Check them out:

This surprisingly ambitious, eminently accessible book brilliantly summarizes the essential features of the immune system for a lay audience. The quirky humour masks an underlying authority and competence. The work is right up to date, even incorporating recent Nobel Prize winning insights into the evolutionarily ancient innate immune system. It is a triumph of popular medical science.
Sir Gustav Nossal

An accessible account of a complex and important topic.
Prof. Peter C. Doherty, Nobel Prize winner

A terrific introduction to the complicated beast that keeps us alive.
Dr Karl Kruszelnicki

We’re putting them on the cover of Why Aren’t We Dead Yet – and now it’s off to the printers (I’m told) for the 23rd July publication.

Finally, for those of you who like the phrase “darn tootin’” as much as I do, here’s something completely unrelated and very, very funny

Done and Dusted

I just pressed ‘send’ on an email to my editor containing the final draft of Why Aren’t We Dead Yet?. It’s good to be done with this, and yet quite frightening. I wonder what people will make of it?

The Jitters

You’d think that a person who sets out to write a book on immunology would be an immunologist. A professor, perhaps, or a medical doctor specialising in immune disorders, or anyone else who’d spent some time involved in the field.

For many books that does turn out to be the case – but not in mine. I studied some immunology at uni, but my sum total of hands-on experience in immunological research is one year when I worked as a student/ research assistant at a university lab, after which my lab head suggested gently, firmly, and rightly, that I should seek my scientific future in another field. “Perhaps molecular work would suit you more”, she suggested, because for immunology work you need to be good with your hands as well as with your brain. I wasn’t such a hot thinker, but my handiwork was even worse; everything I touched turned out crooked, blotched, spilt, contaminated or all of the above at once.

I left immunology – and, some years later, scientific research altogether – with a feeling of resignation. Like two lovers who know they are not meant for each other, we said our farewells and went our separate ways. I knew it was over between us, but I bore no resentment, and checked up on immunology sometimes to see how she was doing without me.

Then I wrote an immunology book. I’m not formally the most qualified person to write one of these, but I tried hard to make up for that by reading up on research and gathering information from reputable resources until I reckoned I had enough to go on. Still, I couldn’t be sure I wasn’t making a fool of myself somewhere along the line. Perhaps I was missing some important advance or theory that somehow slipped past me? Perhaps I misunderstood what I was reading and couldn’t even tell?  Perhaps anything. If you’re an active immunologist, even if you’re not sure of something, you have labmates and other colleagues you can ask. I was going it alone, and that’s scary.

With WAWDY well on its way to publication, the jitters were getting worse, and I was asking around whether anyone knew a good immunologist who might be kind-hearted enough to read an entire manuscript and see whether it was scientifically sound. Time was growing short and I was getting actually rather worried, but then two friends came forward almost simultaneously with two possible contacts – and lo and behold,a short time later I had people who were willing to devote time and energy to telling me just how off the mark I was.

The feedback from both volunteer reviewers is now in, and I’m feeling better. I received a number of comments and suggestions for improvement, of course, which is lovely, but I was relieved to see that I didn’t get any comments along the lines of “you’ve obviously never heard of…” or “that’s not how T cells work at all” or “what the hell gave you that idea?!”.

So off I go now to edit the third draft and insert some scientific corrections and additions, but I do it with a feeling of a weight lifted off my shoulders. Whatever people think of the immunology book I’ve written, immunology itself at least will recognise its face within the pages, and to me, that’s important.