Key Points:

What a good idea lies behind this book and how well it is implemented. Rebecca Priestley has traced the place and achievement of science in or linked to New Zealand in an anthology of writing from the scientists themselves.

It makes a compelling read and although, like most collections, it is intended for browsing I was so absorbed I didn't put it down until I had finished it.

The book covers the advance of knowledge from the pre-European navigation techniques of the Polynesians, very much scientific being based on systematic observation, analysis and application, through to the application of genetic research in medicine and human evolution.

The rich variety comes not only from the range of scientific disciplines but from the societies from which the authors come and from their own widely differing personalities. Some disguise their passion in adopting a dry, impersonal manner but others, both from the past and the present, are happy to let their enthusiasm show.

That scientific attitudes are constantly changing is evidenced particularly in the pieces from the natural historians. Here, almost inconceivably to the modern reader, is Walter Buller's account from the late 1800s of how he studied the huia by cheerfully shooting them, helping them into extinction. Andreas Reischek records his prolonged search for the stitchbird and when his pursuit is successful proceeds to kill 150 specimens.

Contrast that with the wonderful conservationist accounts by Richard Henry of the kakapo and by Walter Mantell of the rediscovery of the takahe.

The more contemporary passages are equally fascinating. Here is Maurice Wilkins' narrative of the Nobel Prize winning discovery of the double helix structure of DNA, while Peter Gluckman and Mark Hanson look at the links between human environment and health.

Women feature too, with astronomer Beatrice Hill Tinsley and botanists Lucy Moore and Lucy Cranwell; and amateur fossil hunter Joan Wiffen describing her groundbreaking discoveries. Science is not cold, clinical reason. The book is punctuated with poems, William Pemberton Reeves lamenting the passing of the great forests and Anna Jackson on the takahe among them.

For all the differences there is a consistency to the pursuit of a science, some very familiar to the modern practitioner. Graham (Mont) Liggins writing in the early 1960s of researching premature births says, "I came back to Auckland to find no facilities and no money" and had to find funding from Britain.

But the real continuity is the pursuit of knowledge, the urge to discover and explain the world, qualities not in short supply in this country.

The Awa Book of New Zealand Science
Edited by Rebecca Priestley (Awa Science $48)

- John Gardner is an Auckland reviewer