NB: Science writing is now mostly published at my second blog, Longhand & Scribblings. Follow the link to find out more!

Wednesday, 27 August 2014


At thirty thousand feet above the ground, my heart breaks.


I am not built for Business Class. The gentlemen to my left, wearing shirt and suit and sipping Scotch, frantically types emails to remote colleagues, running his hotel empire from the skies. En route to Singapore, he had embarked fresh from a meeting and is heading straight to another. His body language is deliberate; his emails are succinct. He is a professional businessman: he is to be taken seriously. Meanwhile, I have found the buttons that make the seats go up and down.

And through the perks of business travel — the myriad films, television programmes, radio stations, music albums and even interactive language classes; the four course meals and fine dining; and that ultimate luxury, a bed on an aeroplane — I fail to conform. I do not want to sit and watch a screen. I do not want to sit and do business. I want to know the stories of those travelling. I want to know what is taking them to where they are going. I want to know their businesses, and how they fit in to this world. But most of all, I want to see what is going on outside that window.

It is mid-afternoon, and not a cloud can be seen in the sky. Out there, through my tiny portal from this irrelevant flying metal tube, is the red centre of the entire Australian subcontinent. Dust and spinifex dominate for hundreds of miles. Barely a human scratch can be seen on this scorched surface. The Great Dividing Range and the plains beyond have disappeared, the ground has morphed from yellow-green to yellow, and now the rust colour is kicking in. Giant old river networks stretch across this desolate place, their long evaporated waters leaving behind bleached scratches and scars, deceased capillaries of a once pulsating lung.

We fly so quickly, yet the landscape passes so slowly. I turn back to my screen, lower my seat once more and watch my film. Yet whereas in any other context this otherwise decent picture would keep my attention, I, like the titular hundred-year old man who was to climb out of a window and disappear, am desperate for a story, for an adventure. The seat motor whirs as I lift again to peer out on to the world below. My neighbour ignores me, and orders a refill of Scotch.

Desert. Dust. Spinifex. A road! Houses! A grid based system so far from anywhere, on the shores of a salty lake relic. What possesses such souls to live in a desperate place like this? What draws them here? What sustains them?

The town passes. I return to my film. It is not long before the window is my theatre stage once more.

Lines, perfectly straight, pattern a ground that has quite suddenly become a much stronger red. We are over the red spot in the centre of the continent: the Simpson Desert, an erg or sand sea. For hundreds of miles, in all directions, nature has been practising with set squares. Her winds have whipped up the sand into perfect dunes, untouched by man. Her flaming carmine palette flaunts her ores, so lucrative to this mining nation.

Suddenly a sizeable town. It can only be Alice. I am flying above Alice Springs — Uluru might be visible from the other side of the plane! My face is wedged against the window. My attention is rapt.

It is at this moment that my heart begins to ache.

It has not even been a full day since my three-year old niece, fresh from her bedtime story, had been found defying her parent's instructions to go to sleep. After much singing heard over the monitor hidden in her room, her mother had gone to investigate, while I sat in their living room, glowing with pride from having been personally selected to read to her one last time before I flew home. Her mother returned to describe how my niece, far from sleepy, was pressed up against the window, enraptured by the traffic on the street below, by the lights and the sights of this corner of the city. She had been desperate to know all that was going on below, just as I am now, thirty-three thousand feet above and many hundreds of miles west from that moment, heading much further away.

My hardened soul had been melted. The in-laws I so rarely get to see had welcomed me in, loved me, cared for me, entertained me and accepted me in a way I had not been expecting. It had been so comfortable and had felt so right to be one of their clan for a few days. I had been uncle to the greatest niece and a miracle nephew. I had been brother to the most loving of people.

Desert. Dust. Spinifex. Desert. Dust. Spinifex. Ocean. Volcano. Night time.


Image sources: 1 2 3

Sunday, 27 July 2014

King George Square

I'D had a day of wandering. Partly, this was to fill time, to make the most of a rare free day before business began. Mostly, however, it was to fend off jet lag, for I had arrived at 7am after a day of flights on the back of a full working day, with little sleep in between.

I packed it in. First there was the music emanating from the West Side, next the story of the kuril and the elephant, the dinosaurs, the Nepalese pagoda and finally the lizards of the botanic gardens. I was all ready to head back to my hotel, when I heard it.

"ABC. Easy as 123."

Except... this was no Jackson 5 song. As far as I recall, the Jackson 5 version did not include such words as 'boycott' or 'Israel'. I walked towards the sound. There, in the shadow of a cafe whose logo is of Batman, the masked vigilante, a speaker rallied masses to boycott Israel.

No matter your feelings, expertise or interpretation, sometimes a sight is truly stronger than words, certainly stronger than words I can think of. The sight of 1000 people, including children, marching in solidarity with Gaza through the streets of Brisbane, is one I shall never forget.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Frankfurt am Main

Baggage carts roam wild with
dollies pulled behind and
tugs heave the big boys,
the jumbos and the jets, and
Lufthansa the main man,
the lord of all around but
other airlines flash their
tail feathers with pride as
planes they line up end to end
ready for the skies, and
trolleys zip between them all,
to keep the queue from failing
and a giant hulk of metal touches down, ready to be serviced, confident that all will bow before him

I look up. Ukraine have just missed a shot on goal, their blue livery a flash of colour between the whites of England. It had been a spark of excitement in an otherwise disappointing game. The lone man at our gate sits down, disappointed. It is just him and us, three in all, watching the people, the football, and the patterns of the vehicles as they perform so dutifully outside.

Small and nimble luggage carts

zigzag past the fuel trucks;
vans they follow secret tracks
that intersect the thoroughfare
occupied by flat things:
wide and brutish flat things
chased by wobbling stairwells
and a bendy sluggish apron bus;
catering trucks elevate
while belt loaders they lift weights:
the weights of all the baggage load
of nimble, zippy luggage carts
while a giant hulk of metal roars, ready to tear a hole in the sky en route to far away

It is unnervingly quiet at our gate. It is still just three people, and departure is imminent. The score remains 0-0. 

But outside, everything is moving to a secret rhythm. Planes land. Planes take off. Planes taxi and are swarmed by mechanical pilot fish: tugs and ramps and carts and vans and caterers and refuelers and container loaders and conveyor belt loaders and solid states. And all around are invisible roads, crossing one another to keep everything ticking. Everywhere movement: everyone busy. It is a logistical dream! A vehicular ballet! Another set of engines roar.

A call is made on the radio. Our gate has changed.

We have to run.