YOUR SCIENCE DOLLAR AT WORK

Reviews: new marine science books from the CSIRO In the current context of debate over science funding, it’€™s relevant to take a look at the things our research dollar is spent on. Nobody is saying science is cheap ‘€“ in 2012-13, the CSIRO generated about $1.2 billion in revenue, of which about $500 million came from its own activities. But around $730 million was contributed by government. The question is, what is that expenditure worth to us? Now more than ever, it’€™s no longer sufficient for scientists to talk to each other. They somehow have to become adept at talking to the rest of us, all the while dodging accusations of partisanship on issues like climate change, mining and medical research. One of the most effective ways for research scientists to communicate with the public is in publishing. This, of course, is only a tiny corner of what the CSIRO does, but it’€™s one that has the potential to influence public opinion and ultimately to change behaviour. Here’€™s a quick look at three new titles from CSIRO Publishing ‘€“ none of them light reading by any means, but each of them an important contribution to our understanding of Australia’€™s nearshore ecology.

 

7124A Guide to Southern Temperate Seagrasses Waycott, McMahon and Lavery If you live near, or have snorkelled over a seagrass bed, you’€™ll understand the critical role these habitats occupy in marine biodiversity. The marine flowering plants, or angiosperms, that colonise our coastal waters down to about 20m depth, are more closely related to giant redwood trees than they are to marine algae (seaweeds). And they’€™re home to a significant array of the fish and invertebrates with which we interact. This book is therefore a long-overdue contribution to our understanding of the systems at play in seagrass beds. The authors casually acknowledge in the preface that once they’€™d covered the seagrasses of southern Australia, ‘€œwe quickly realised that doing the seagrasses of New Zealand, South America and southern Africa wouldn’€™t expand things dramatically, so we included them.’€ So this small, full-colour guide stands as a complete survey of the southern hemisphere’€™s seagrass ecology. (There’€™s no seagrass in Antarctica, trivia buffs). As well as high quality underwater photography, the book includes clear and easy-to-follow distribution maps and graphics, a comprehensive glossary, bibliography and index.  

 

6813Discovery of Australia’€™s Fishes: A History of Marine Ichthyology to 1930 Brian Saunders Cuvier, Linnaeus, Castelnau’€¦who were these prolific fish-namers, and how are we to understand their contribution to the modern taxonomy of fish? Brian Saunders’€™ mighty tome (a large-format hardcover running to almost 500 pages) does much more than explain the family trees of our fishes. It delves into the lives of the explorers and naturalists who patiently, and often in circumstances of great adversity, developed the systems that led to a categorical understanding of these species. Saunders also recounts the great voyages of exploration: by Flinders, Baudin, Darwin and others, before launching into the critical sixty years on which the majority of our understanding emerged, between 1870 and 1930. Abundantly illustrated with colour and black and white plates, Saunders’€™ book is a scholarly work, but much more than a textbook: where there are yarns to tell he does so with a relaxed, almost barstool-ish enjoyment. The correspondence between the great figures in this scientific community is carefully explored, sometimes yielding exquisite quotes: ‘€œThe proposed South Australian checklist in conjunction with Waite has gone fut’€¦’€ (McCulloch, 1919) ‘€œIt has often been argued whether the look of simplicity on the face of a catfish when coming over the side of a punt is more to be admired than the look of contempt on the face of the angler.’€ (Welsby, 1967). The academic rigour on hand here is formidable. The appendix, references and index alone occupy more than sixty pages. But it’€™s the life in the work that makes this book accessible: open at carefully at any interval along that mighty spine, and like a baked mulloway, something delicious will emerge every time.

 

Ecology fo Australian Remperate ReefsEcology of Australian Temperate Reefs: The Unique South Scoresby Shepherd and Graham Edgar This is another anchor-weight volume, though with a markedly different mission in mind. Across the 5500 kilometres of Australia’€™s southern coast, Shepherd and Edgar set about explaining the intricate interconnections between the four major systems governing life: the estuaries, the two benthic systems (reefs and soft bottoms) and the pelagic system. The focus here is obviously the reefs, but the connections are kept in the foreground throughout. And these connections are not always clearly apparent: as we’€™re told in the introduction, the meiofauna of our reefs (the organisms of less than 0.5mm in size), are not just poorly understood, but virtually unknown. To a layperson, this gives credibility to the old tope about humans understanding outer space better than we know our oceans. ‘€˜Ecology’€™ is explained here as falling within two main approaches: holism and reductionism. The latter, we’€™re told, ‘€œis essentially a watchmaker’€™s view of the system, which, like a watch, can be taken apart and each part looked at in isolation’€¦whereas holism tries to reveal the working of the ecosystem as a whole.’€ Again, this field is as striking for the gaps in the knowledge as it is for the knowledge itself: ‘€œ’€¦the amount of study declines almost exponentially with depth.’€ Shepherd and Edgar’€™s book works more as a technical manual than a guide, and the weight of reference material, graphs and charts is daunting. But perhaps its most valuable chapter, from an amateur’€™s viewpoint, is the final one, on conservation and management. Here, the complexity of everything that’€™s gone before is synthesised into an understandable discussion about our impacts and what we can do to curb them.

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