Category Archives: 5. Practical knowledge

Practical knowledge · Prologue

Chapter 5 | Previous | Next

The ‘sharp, cruel teeth’ of Rex the Alsatian were ready to tear into any who dared intrude upon the mysteries of Stanton Farm. Located somewhere in the Dandenongs, east of Melbourne, the farm seemed run-down, disused almost—except for the barn. There, two young men were working in secret upon ‘a sleek, crimson-coloured aircraft’ of unusual design. The wings seemed too small, and the engines were missing, and yet this streamlined craft conveyed an ‘overwhelming sense of power and speed’. More rocket than airplane, this was ‘the most amazing aircraft of our time’—the Firefly. 1

The designer and builder of this remarkable craft was Simon Black, hero of a series of children’s books written by Ivan Southall in the 1950s. Simon Black was an inventive genius, who combined his work as a motor mechanic with daring deeds in defence of country and empire. Together with Rex and his trusty navigator, Alan Grant, Simon piloted the Firefly above and beyond the frontiers of Australian imagining: into space, into Antarctica, even into China.

Continue reading

Notes:

  1. Ivan Southall, Meet Simon Black, Sydney, Angus & Robertson, 1950.

A plaything for unpractical academicians

Chapter 5 | Previous | Next

Littleton Groom’s introduction of the Institute of Science and Industry Bill displayed a ‘supercilious authority’ the Age adjudged in August 1919. The acting Attorney-General, it continued, ‘seemed to regard questions about the probable cost of the gigantic official scheme as an intrusion upon ministerial privilege’. 1 For Groom, the Institute represented the fulfillment of a long-held dream, but to the Age it was merely another of Billy Hughes’ expensive follies. Conceived in haste, without adequate consultation or a proper consideration of cost, the scheme was stamped with Hughes’ arrogance and conceit. It was a triumph for the ‘official mind’ rather than for science, an unnecessary bureaucratic edifice, designed not to encourage discovery and invention, but to reward government cronies with ‘fat billets’. 2 What was needed, the Age concluded, was ‘a fresh beginning, characterised by direct simplicity and common sense’. 3

Continue reading

Notes:

  1. Age, 8 August 1919, p. 6.
  2. Age, 17 January 1916, p. 8.
  3. Age, 8 August 1919, p. 6.

To inspire and stimulate a science sense

Chapter 5 | Previous | Next

EJ Brady claimed Hugh Cleland McKay as one of his ‘intellectual “finds”’. McKay was ‘a modest genius’ who made a ‘brilliant’ contribution to Brady’s short-lived journal, the Native Companion. 1 He was an iconoclast and inventor, a critic of contemporary poetry, and a passionate devotee of science. McKay was also one of Australia’s first specialist science journalists.

Unlike many of his bohemian contemporaries, McKay found inspiration more in science than art. Science fuelled his rebellion against the shallow certainties of bourgeois existence. It gave him the confidence to reject religion, and roused him against the mystic anthropocentrism that dominated Australian verse. 2 He called on poets to look ‘not upon the Universe through the eyes of Man, but upon Man through the eyes of the Universe’. 3 ‘Science’, he wrote in the Lone Hand, ‘has created a new heaven and a new earth which still await a singer’. 4 The challenge was not easily met. McKay struggled to publish his serious verse, though his humorous ditties and speculative fiction found a regular audience. At times he supplemented the meagre earnings of a literary life by working as a pharmacist, but he always returned to writing. In the 1920s he became the science writer for Smith’s Weekly, and began delivering a stream of witty, informative and often insightful articles. Thirty years later, nearing the age of eighty, he was still reporting on the latest scientific discoveries for readers of the Daily Telegraph.

Continue reading

Notes:

  1. Edwin James Brady, ‘Life’s highway – extracts (continued)’, Southerly, vol. 16, no. 2, 1955, p. 108.
  2. Peter Kirkpatrick, ‘“His name is not in Who’s Who in Australia”: the life and some of the opinions of “a modest genius”, Hugh McKay’, Southerly, no. 2, June 1990, pp. 222-239; David Walker, Dream and disillusion: a search for Australian cultural identity, ANU Press, Canberra, 1976, pp. 22-3.
  3. Hugh Cleland McKay, ‘The forgotten universe’, Native Companion, vol. 2, no. 3, 1 October 1907, p. 164.
  4. Quoted in Kirkpatrick, ‘“His name is not in Who’s Who in Australia”‘, p. 234.

Not the time for dreamers

Chapter 5 | Previous | Next

In January 2003, the Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies (FASTS) launched a campaign ‘to end the use of the word “boffin” in media headlines’. The word ‘bordered on the offensive for many scientists’, explained FASTS president Chris Fell, ‘it conjures up images of weird old men in flapping lab coats, pouring strange chemicals into test tubes’. 1 Not the kind of image likely to attract young students.

Physicist David Martyn was also concerned about the effect of negative images on the recruitment of young people to science. ‘It is only when the current popular conception of the scientist as a soulless and dangerously unpredictable robot is replaced by the human reality’, he argued in 1956, ‘that adequate numbers of young men and women will come forward to fill our dangerously depleted ranks’. 2 Elsewhere Martyn suggested that television programs and comic strips should feature scientists as heroes, rather than villains, in order to attract children to science. ‘The scientist is always mad, or wants to blow people up’, he noted of the current crop of children’s entertainment. 3 But the ‘human reality’ was not always attractive. Martyn was an embittered and sometimes obsessional man, whose hatreds coloured his scientific dealings. His latter years were consumed by depression, fed by his fear of an impending environmental catastrophe. No heroes came to the rescue. David Martyn committed suicide in 1970, while serving as president of the Australian Academy of Science. 4

Continue reading

Notes:

  1. ‘Science plea: drop “boffin”‘, media release issued by FASTS, 20 January 2003, <http://www.fasts.org/site/releases03/ten_top_rel_2003.htm>.
  2. SMH, 21 January 1956, p. 2.
  3. SMH, 24 January 1958, p. 4.
  4. RW Home, ‘David Forbes Martyn (1906-1970)’, in John Ritchie (ed.), Australian Dictionary of Biography, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2000, pp. 320-2; JH Piddington, and MLE Oliphant, ‘David Forbes Martyn 1906-1970’, Records of the Australian Academy of Science, vol. 2, no. 2, 1971, pp. 47-60.

All our inventive and improvising genius

Chapter 5 | Previous | Next

Cla Allen waited anxiously for news from home. The world was at war, but he and his colleague Arthur Higgs were far removed in South Africa, preparing to observe the 1940 solar eclipse. ‘I am afraid I still feel I am wasting time here and would very much prefer to be doing something towards “the nation’s war effort”’, a worried Higgs wrote to Richard Woolley, director of the Commonwealth Solar Observatory (CSO), ‘when I come back I shall be champing at the bit to jump into something useful’. 1 Allen was more cautious. He was keen to be involved in war-related work, but was worried about the effect on his young family. Would he have to move? Would they be able to stay with him? What would become of the observatory itself? Woolley had originally intended to join Higgs and Allen in South Africa, and his non-arrival had set them wondering whether he had decided to join up. 2

Continue reading

Notes:

  1. Letter from AJ Higgs to RvdR Woolley, 28 July 1940, NAA: A9103, item 4.
  2. Letter from CW Allen to RvdR Woolley, 26 July 1940, NAA: A9103, item 4.

A broad stream that passed the door of all

Chapter 5 | Previous | Next

The Australasian Manufacturer ‘unblushingly’ confessed to be ‘a paper with a mission’, perhaps ‘the greatest mission of modern times’. Established in 1916, the fiercely nationalist journal sought to advance the ‘special interests of manufacturers’, believing that ‘industry in its widest and deepest sense is the foundation of civilisation’. Australia had the necessary ‘resources’, ‘people’ and ‘brains’; what was needed to ensure its greatness was better organisation, promotion, cooperation, and ‘the application of scientific discovery and scientific methods’. 1 The Australasian Manufacturer promoted the glories of ‘efficiency’ and the benefits to be gained from a scientific approach to industrial management. But it also championed a broader appreciation of science, a respect for intellectual development, and a much expanded role for science in education. ‘The great aim must be, not a dry-as-dust knowledge of science or sciences’, the journal proclaimed, ‘but the creation of the scientific habit and the scientific spirit’. 2

Continue reading

Notes:

  1. ‘The story of ourselves’, Australasian Manufacturer, vol. 2, no. 79, 6 October 1917, p. 16. See also: ‘What we are and what we stand for’, Australasian Manufacturer, vol. 1, no. 27, 30 September 1916, p. 4.
  2. ‘More about science in our schools’, Australasian Manufacturer, vol. 1, no. 35, 25 November 1916, p. 10.

Rockets in the desert

Chapter 5 | Previous | Next

In the 1960s, Simon Black was left to tinker away in obscurity, as Ivan Southall pioneered a new realism in children’s storytelling. But would-be rocketeers found some inspiration still, in Southall’s accounts of life and work on the Woomera rocket range. In Rockets in the desert, written specifically for children, Southall encourages his young readers to consider a career in rocketry. ‘There are jobs for people who love adventure’, he notes enthusiastically, ‘and for studious people who are not very interested in heroic deeds’. However, the recommendation comes with a warning, for there is ‘danger in…impatience’. ‘It would be foolish’, Southall explains, ‘to try to learn about rockets by building one yourself’. ‘No!…You must never do it’, Woomera’s chief scientist exclaims in support, ‘If you’re interested in rockets, read all you can about them, but be patient’. 1 There was no place for Simon Black in this modern world of science. Rockets were not to be built in barns, but in large government facilities staffed by ‘properly trained’ scientists. It seemed the time for tinkering was past.

Continue reading

Notes:

  1. Ivan Southall, Rockets in the desert, Sydney, Angus & Robertson, 1964, pp. 77-8.