There's a new kid on the block, with very high expectations. This is The Conversation, a website devoted to just about everything, but restricted to writers with an academic handle or members of a research organisation. The editors say that "access to independent, high-quality, authenticated, explanatory journalism underpins a functioning democracy." The Conversation is funded by CSIRO and a number of Australian universities, and it is a free resource for anyone to use. The motto is Academic Rigour, Journalistic Flair.
Recently The Conversation branched out into book publishing. There's a section of the website called Explainer, which contains short essays, explaining things. And that's the name of the book: The Explainer, and it is full of short essays, explaining things.
It's not an encyclopedia, because the essays are longer, and each one is written by a named author. The topics cover a wide range: Mind and Brain; Research and technology; Space, time and matter; Medical myths, and many more.
After reviewing the book Toxin Toxout, (Express February 6) I went first to Medical myths, and read "Deodorants cause cancer". Well, according to author Terry Slevin of Curtin University, this is probably a myth. Chocolate probably doesn't cause acne, either, though milk products may be implicated.
Everyone knows that monosodium glutamate, the essential taste of Chinese food, is a dangerous toxin and causes splitting headaches. Well, no. It's not the glutamate that's to blame. We normally eat glutamate every day, when we eat and digest protein.
It also occurs in many processed foods, even Vegemite. What does the science say? A very small proportion of people experience an MSG reaction, when they eat very large quantities of highly spiced foods, as they might at a Chinese banquet.
However, laboratory studies have so far failed to confirm that these (real) reactions are caused by MSG. The suggestion is that something else has caused the problem, and it could be something as simple as eating too much. It was a banquet, after all.
Getting away from medical topics, there's a fascinating account of dreaming. What is dreaming? Why have all societies from Native American to Central Asian to Sigmund Freud used dreams as a sort of alternative reality, even a source of prophecy? The truth is that no one really knows. Recent research into dream psychology raises more questions than it answers, but the main finding seems to be that a healthy dream state is vitally important to a healthy waking state.
So far, so understandable. But when we get into Black Holes, quantum theory and the General Theory of Relativity, the head starts to spin. It's fascinating but mind-blowing stuff, out there at the edge of the universe and the edge of science. Find out about Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, the importance of Quarks and the controversy over String Theory.
This book gathers together the best available brains with the best science communication skills, and tries hard to explain matters which most of us can only wonder about.
It's a credit to the editor and the writers that such a wide variety of topics are covered in a way which is entertaining, always interesting, and (mostly) comprehensible. I'm still not sure about wave-particle duality. We certainly have to avoid that ultra-violet catastrophe. As Anna Phan writes, in her account of the Higgs Boson, "theoretical physics is full of mysteries and unknowns."
The Explainer, The Conversation, edited by Andrew Jaspan (CSIRO Publishing, 2013) is available in Cooma from Pages of Life, Sharp Street.