Monday 19 February 2007

Hobbits and Interviews, but its not all about science

Something new I'm doing on Mr Science this year is reviewing various scientific books, podcasts and websites.

Book Review
Title: The discovery of the hobbit : the scientific breakthrough that changed the face of human history
Author: Mike Morwood and Penny van Oosterzee
Publisher: Random House Australia 2007

There are not many books that combine world-changing scientific discovery with political intrigue, soap opera relationships and international fueds.

Mike Morwood and Penny van Oosterzee take us on an amazing journey, detailing the astonishing discovery of a hominid species which lived as recently as 12,000 years ago, long after homo sapiens emerged from Africa and colonised the rest of the world. The hobbits of the Indonesian island of Flores were only a metre tall, hunted pygmy elephants and giant rats and were hunted by fierce komodo dragons.

The Discovery of the Hobbit, by Professor Mike Morwood from the University of New England and Australian co-leader of the discovery team, kept me intruiged and entertained throughout my 7 hours stuck in Townsville airport recently. And although I paid an airport price for the book, $35 for 7 hours entertainment, considering my options, is probably worth it.

Morwood, who co-wrote the book with science writer Penny van Oosterzee (famous for Where Worlds Collide: The Wallace Line and Dragon Bones: The Story of Peking Man) took a diary throughout the archaeological dig, and details not only the scientific discovery, but gives an insider's account into the personal relationships and ego clashes across international borders that threatened to destroy the scientific evidence, take credit from the researchers and leave the hobbit bones in the bottom of an Indonesian university.

The authors tell of how Professor Teuku Jacob, the father of Indonesian paleoanthropology, took the bones, much to Morwood's disgust, and whilst in his care, were irreparably damaged. The relationship between Morwood and Jacob was clearly not good, and Morwood reveals how Jacob almost took over the operation and all the credit not long after the bones were discovered.

It was these conflicts, based more around ego and ideology than science, that threatened to bring down the discovery.

Morwood, normally a teetotaller, took up drinking and smoking home-grown Indonesian products such was the stress caused by Jacob, the claims by Australian scientists Dr Alan Thorne and professor Maciej Henneberg, that the hobbits were just deformed modern humans, and the spiriting away to Germany of some remains for DNA testing without permission.

There were disputes between Morwood and colleague Professor Peter Brown over the nickname Hobbit, bureaucratic bungles and cultural hurdles to overcome, and this was even before any robust scientific discussion could be undertaken.

Morwood gives a fascinating explanation of his theories of the human evolution that brought about the homo florensiensis - that indeed it was an ancient hominid species that had undergone generations of island dwarfing (of which Morwood also gives an interesting account), rather than homo sapiens, or even homo erectus.

A fascinating book that balances a wealth of scientific detail with great story telling - something rare in a science book. It doesn't treat the reader as a dope or make science unapproachable, nor does it trivialise the astonishing discoveries for the sake of story telling.


Podcast Review
Science Talk Australia
Producer: Darren Osborne

I should declare at the start that Darren is a friend of mine, and we've worked together on Diffusion and The Beer Drinking Scientists (which is soon to get its own podcast, thanks for the feedback, stay tuned), but that said, as a previous editor of The Helix magazine among other science and science communication qualifications, he knows what he's talking about.

Science Talk Australia is one of the few science podcasts that actually asks the researchers about their work. Each episode generally centres around an interview. The topics are all breaking stories, and Darren not only covers the scientific research angle, but also teases out from the researchers why we should care about their work - what is the context of their results, how does it effect us? This is something I like!

Its very listenable, approachable, informative and has recently been expanded to include breaking science news and a quiz. It appears in my itunes fortnightly, and at the time of writing is one spot ahead of mine in the Australian itunes science list - the bugger!

Recent interviews include conversations with Dr Severence MacLaughlin from University of Adelaide about how a mother's lifestyle before conception can affect her offspring and Dr Russell Keast of Deakin University who found that caffeine does not have the flavour enhancing qualities claimed by soft drink manufacturers.


Website Review
Author: Eva and sometimes Ed

As is probably obvious, I really like science resources that make science accessible and put science in a social context - because, let's face it, science is interesting, relevant and fun. I stumbled across through random conversations over at myspace, and now its a mainstay of my feed reader.

The mission statement of the site is:

Science is involved in everything we see and do, and likewise, there is an aspect of non-science in all scientific research. points out both sides of the story, by highlighting the science behind news items or everyday things, or by pointing out the social or artistic aspects of science.

How cool is that? The site tackles various topics, with my favourite tags being arts & crafts, Caffeine, Chemistry, communication and music. They also do reviews, and I must admit this spurred me on to finally do some reviews over here. There's also plenty of links to other sites.


Speaking of reviews, feel free to leave comments on this site, on itunes with regards to the podcast, drop me an email, or even digg the podcast. Digg is great as I can see what episodes people like, what other science podcasts are popular, as well as getting great exposure.

These reviews will be out on the podcast this week - mp3 here

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