Edited by Rebecca Priestley;
Simon Nathan and Mary Varnham
Awa Press, $48/$25 | Reviewed by Andy Palmer

REBECCA PRIESTLEY’s recent publication Atoms, Dinosaurs & DNA was a history of New Zealand science and scientists ostensibly for the younger reader. The Awa Book of New Zealand Science came out about the same time and is a companion piece ostensibly for the older reader. Although it’s fair to say that both would be enjoyed by anyone with an interest in science, regardless of age.

It’s probably just my bias but I most enjoyed the biology and geology writings. As good and necessary as it was to have, say, something from Ernest Rutherford it didn’t hold my interest as much as, say, Buller’s discussion of the behaviour of a captive pair of huia, or his recounting of a huia hunting trip. Equally fascinating, to me, were the description of the 1855 Wairarapa/Wellington earthquake, and the sadly lost pink and white terraces.

The well-chosen writings vary from quite straightforward scientific papers to presentations to more personal expositions such as Charles Fleming’s autobiographical extract about the beginnings of his interest in thing science. Theme appropriate poems have also been interspersed.

It is a surprisingly depressing celebration of New Zealand science at times, reminding us of our legacy of stupidity and greed, particularly in Pérrine Moncrieff’s 1944 documentation of the loss of our native fauna. Occasionally it’s blackly humorous. Walter Mantell on the Takahe: “Kept it alive on the schooner for several days then killed and ate it. It was very good and as it was the first of its kind all hands had a taste for curiosity.”

Then there’s the truly uplifting, such as Joan Telfer’s retelling of the ‘rediscovery’ of the Takahe. Not quite as miraculous as I imagined, but a fine piece of detective work by Geoffrey Orbell (and team) all the same. There is also a surprising amount of discussion, often in passing, about the nature of science and scientific discovery. The extracts from Maurice Wilkins’s autobiography (which I really should have read already) illustrated that scientific discovery rarely happens in isolation or by one individual, while Joan Wiffen’s writing hints at a certain distrust of the amateur by the professional scientific community.

Starting with Peter Adds’ fascinating recent essay on Polynesian navigation and ending with the previously unpublished ‘To Find a Planet ...’, Karen Pollard’s retelling of her 10 year search to um ... find a planet (the wonderfully named OGLE-2005-BLG-390Lb), The Awa Book of New Zealand Science is a great round up of, and introduction to, important New Zealand science literature, and could easily be the first volume of many.

A more recent and equally valuable science book by Awa Press is The Amazing World of James Hector edited by Simon Nathan and Mary Varnham. The Dominion Post recently described James Hector as “the greatest New Zealand scientist you’ve never heard of.” Well I’m sorry, I have heard of him. And I don’t take too kindly to complete strangers telling me what I don’t know. Their point, however, was that James Hector deserves greater recognition than he is currently accorded. The Amazing World of James Hector is a good first step in spreading the gospel of James Hector.

As Hamish Campbell says in his introduction: “In his time, James Hector was much honoured and decorated, and in 1886 he received a knighthood for distinguished services. His name is commemorated in many ways, among them Hector’s dolphin, the plant genus Hectorella, Mount Hector in the Tararua Range, Lake Hector in Otago, and the mining town of Hector on the West Coast. ... Yet ... today he is little mentioned, except in passing reference.”

It is a fascinating and absorbing read, based primarily on talks from the 2007 symposium commemorating the centenary of Hector’s death. This makes it an easy and approachable read too, but in some ways it’s also the book’s weak point. You just know there’s a lot more to these stories than we’re getting here. The chapters cover many aspects of Hector’s life, both personal and professional, starting with his life (and near death) in Canada before his move to New Zealand in 1862 after which he helped found the predecessors to Te Papa, the MetOffice, Royal Society, Geological & Nuclear Survey, amongst others. I read it in a pick and mix fashion which didn’t seem to disturb the flow at all.

A great thing about books like this is that they remind us that things we take for granted weren’t always that way. Jock Phillips’s all too brief Forecasting the Weather and Telling the Time picks up a current interest of mine, the history and standardisation of time. It’s an intriguing story. And who would have thought that the government decreed national time (another world first for NZ) would be contentious?

I guess partly because of the time period, and partly because I’ve just read the recent biography, I couldn’t help but think about the underachieving (comparatively speaking) Charles Heaphy when reading this. 19th Century New Zealand really seemed to be a place where men could make of their lives pretty much whatever they wanted. Some like Hector, and Heaphy, made and contributed a lot, to this country and beyond. The Amazing World of James Hector is a great teaser for the full biography Simon Nathan is planning.

Both The Awa Book of New Zealand Science and The Amazing World of James Hector are just made for summer reading. Fascinating, illuminating.