Macinnis, Peter 1944–

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Macinnis, Peter 1944–

(Peter Andrew Macinnis)


Born April 22, 1944, in Ipswich, Queensland, Australia; son of Ian Dumaresq and Veronica Fay Macinnis; married Christine Dorothea Clarke (a science teacher), May 19, 1969; children: Angus, Catriona, Duncan. Education: University of Sydney, B.Sc., 1969, diploma, 1970, M.Ed., 1982. Hobbies and other interests: Classical music, Celtic music, travel, geology, storytelling, the works of George Seurat and René Magritte.


Home—Fairlight, New South Wales, Australia. E-mail—[email protected]


New South Wales Department of Education, science subject officer, 1976-79, senior education officer, 1982-85, principal education officer, 1985-87; New South Wales Department of Technical and Further Education, senior education officer, 1980-81; Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, community services manager, 1987-90; Australian Museum, Sydney, educator, 1991-93; St. Paul's College, Manly, Sydney, teacher of science and computing, coordinator of technology and applied studies, and operator of college learning center, 1994-99; Webster Publishing, Sydney, science writer, 1999-2005. Occasional freelance broadcaster with the Australian Broadcasting Corp., various programs, including Ockham's Razor and Science Show; full-time writer.


Michael Daley Award high commendations for science and technology journalist, Australian government, 1991, 1993; Whitley Award, New South Wales Zoological Society, 2000.


(With Jane Bowring) The Rainforest, illustrated by Kim Gamble, Puffin, 1999.

Bittersweet: The Story of Sugar, Allen & Unwin (Crows Nest, New South Wales, Australia), 2002.

Rockets: Sulfur, Sputnik, and Scramjets, Allen & Unwin (Crows Nest, New South Wales, Australia), 2003.

The Killer Bean of Calabar, and Other Stories, Allen & Unwin (Crows Nest, New South Wales, Australia), 2004, published as Poisons: From Hemlock to Botox to the Killer Bean of Calabar, Arcade Publishing (New York, NY), 2005.

It's True: You Eat Poison Every Day, Allen & Unwin (Crows Nest, New South Wales, Australia), 2006.

Kokoda Track: 101 Days, Black Dog Books (Fitzroy, Victoria, Australia), 2007.

Australia's Pioneers, Heroes, and Fools, Pier 9 (Sydney, New South Wales, Australia), 2007.

Also author of Exploring the Environment, 1986, and Applied Studies in Science, Mathematics, and Technology, 1993.

Macinnis's book on the killer bean of Calabar was translated into Polish and Slovak.


Peter Macinnis is an author whose "real passion in life is science, any sort of science," as he remarked on his home page. A former education official, museum administrator, and teacher in his native Australia, Macinnis is "officially retired," and so his night job and day job are now seamlessly merged. His ideas "begin harmlessly enough as mild curiosities, but then they erupt into full-scale obsessions of a temporary kind," he stated in an online interview for the Allen & Unwin Web site. Macinnis observed on his home page that he "couldn't do a book without it turning into a temporary obsession," and that he finds new projects when "either somebody suggests a temporary obsession to me, or I develop it for myself."

Bittersweet: The Story of Sugar presents "an informative and readable history of the simple substance that changed the world and often brought out the worst in people," commented a Kirkus Reviews contributor. Macinnis traces the history of sugar cane from its discovery in the New Guinea jungle more than 9,000 years ago. The locals turned the tasty plant into a cultivated crop that spread rapidly throughout the civilized world. Crusaders brought sugar cane into Europe, where it was considered a luxury item. When the New World was discovered, European colonials had both adequate land and an appropriate crop to grow on it. Macinnis describes how the labor-intensive cultivation of sugar cane led to slavery. He also outlines how sugar helped shape a number of historical outcomes, including French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte's decision to keep his country's sugar-growing colonies while selling uncultivated lands in North America to the United States in a land deal now known as the Louisiana Purchase. The Kirkus Reviews reviewer concluded that Bittersweet is "lively and entertaining: a splendid saga for the general reader."

Macinnis frames Rockets: Sulfur, Sputnik, and Scramjets with two pivotal events. The first was the awe-inspiring space journey of the Sputnik satellite in 1957, an event that inspired numerous youngsters with a fascination for rockets and science. The second was the 2002 testing of an experimental hypersonic ramjet engine, or "scramjet," designed to take in critical oxidizers from its own slipstream. This technological advance "may well mark the way to a new generation of space launch vehicles," noted Raymond Puffer in Kliatt. Macinnis presents a popular history of rockets and space science designed for readers who are not steeped in the lingo of science. From the development of gunpowder in ancient China to modern rocketry, Macinnis's history "is presented in an easy, enthusiastic and sometimes ironic style, stuffed full of interesting factoids, stories and anecdotes," Puffer commented.

In Poisons: From Hemlock to Botox to the Killer Bean of Calabar Macinnis explores the history of poisons, the machinations of a number of the world's most famous poisoners, the ubiquitous nature of poison, and how poison is actually essential to life itself. He "delivers his carefully researched material in a series of anecdotes crafted with dry humor and informed ruminations," noted a Publishers Weekly reviewer. He profiles purveyors such as Locusta, a seller of poisons to Roman nobles whose clients included the Emperor Nero himself. He describes how early medical science would mistakenly, sometimes fatally, prescribe poisons for treatment of patients' ailments—one such patient who nearly succumbed was George Washington. The uses of poisons for purposes of assassination, terror, and political maneuvering are also covered, including the shocking and near-fatal poisoning of Ukrainian prime minister Viktor Yushchenko, the U.S. anthrax scare, and the deadly release of sarin gas into the Tokyo subways. A Kirkus Reviews contributor commented that the book "never quite jells into a coherent work, but its many individual parts are great fun to read."

Macinnis's later writings are more strictly historical in nature. Kokoda Track: 101 Days tells the story of the Australian militia reserves who defended the Kokoda Trail in Papua New Guinea during World War II. In 1942, Japanese soldiers attempted to use the trail to capture Port Moresby, strategically located at the southeastern coast of the island of New Guinea, and render the port useless to American forces that had recently entered the war. The Australian defenders had no hope of defeating the Japanese invaders. Their intention (and achievement) was to delay the enemy until reinforcements could arrive to finish the job. Though classified as a book for young readers, Kokoda Track has sufficient depth, according to some reviewers, to engage the interest of adult readers as well. It also demonstrates Macinnis's narrative skill, which enables him to infuse historical accounts with the excitement and suspense of a work of fiction. Sydney Morning Herald reviewer Paul Collins described Kokoda Track as a "gripping" account of brave, outnumbered Australian heroes in wartime.

Australia's Pioneers, Heroes, and Fools offers a look at some of Australia's other heroes—the men (and rare women) who explored and mapped the vast, dangerous, and unforgiving terrain of the island continent. He writes of the heroes who are familiar to Australian readers. These include John Oxley, who explored the interior wilderness west of Sydney in the 1820s at great risk to his health and well-being, and Burke and Wills, the team that explored Australia from south to north in 1860, only to perish on the return trip to Melbourne. But he also remembers the forgotten pioneers, such as Caroline Creaghe, who may have been one of the first European women to explore indigenous territory in the north, near the Gulf of Carpentaria, in 1883; and the adventurers whose lives were cut short before their time, such as John Horrocks, who died in his twenties from an accidental gunshot discharged by his lurching camel. Like Macinnis's earlier nonfiction works, Australia's Pioneers, Heroes, and Fools is enlivened by his narrative style, according to his critics, transforming historical vignettes into engaging stories and bringing biographical subjects to life.

Macinnis once told CA: "I was a wartime child, and my mother was stuck in a strange city with a new baby, no husband—he was away fighting in the Pacific—and not many friends. So I was read to fairly intensively. But since she reasoned that they were all just words to me, she read her own choice. That included the lovely essays of Walter Murdoch (the erudite uncle of Rupert Murdoch). That gave me my love of literature. Later, in a misguided attempt to form me, she ought to have driven any joy in writing out of me, when I was forced to write, and she criticized mercilessly everything I produced. Like many earnest teachers of English, she loved literature, but had no idea of how to craft words. They can do good by encouraging a joy in language, but small plants need to be allowed to grow as they will. I have mentored a number of young writers, and I have always stayed well away from damning ANYTHING. Ever.

"I came into writing through a back door, writing science textbooks, then I tripped over a case of fraud (Dulong and Petit's law of 1819), and so I rang Robyn Williams at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), hoping he would interview me—instead, he asked me to do a talk, and I have been doing them ever since.

"Very hard to say who has influenced my work, but J.B.S. Haldane would certainly be a part of it, and so would Michael Faraday. I would have liked to be Lewis Thomas, or Martin Gardner or Douglas Hofstadter, but I am me, squirreling away in my corner, playing my small part in trying to boost the public understanding of science.

"More often than not, I begin with a spreadsheet. No, don't laugh—I begin by sketching chapter heads, and then adding more ideas. Three columns, chapter, part and section, can be used to sort the entries. As time goes on, I add key facts, salient quotes (always in italics, to warn me not to use the text as is unless it is a quote), journal references with summaries. About that time, I open a new worksheet in the same spreadsheet, and start building a list of references. That worksheet is transferred to my Palm Pilot for quick reference in libraries.

"I also add dates where possible, so I can sort by date, I add category headings, region headings, and anything else that seems like a good idea—the SORT function in a spreadsheet is my favorite one. When I start moving stuff across into a word processor file, I change the color of the text to blue, to make sure I don't use something in two places."



Kirkus Reviews, March 15, 2005, review of Bittersweet: The Story of Sugar, p. 445; March 15, 2005, review of Poisons: From Hemlock to Botox to the Killer Bean of Calabar, p. 338.

Kliatt, September, 2004, Raymond Puffer, review of Rockets: Sulfur, Sputnik, and Scramjets, p. 49.

Magpies, July, 1999, Barbara James, review of The Rainforest.

Publishers Weekly, March 14, 2005, review of Poisons, p. 55.

Sydney Morning Herald, March 10, 2007, Paul Collins, review of Kokoda Track: 101 Days p. 35.


Allen & Unwin Web site, (September 3, 2005), interview with Peter Macinnis.

Peter Macinnis Home Page, (February 23, 2008).