In 1996 the respected scientist and media commentator, Paul Davies, launched an attack against the ‘hysterical anti-science tirades’ that had become all too common within arts and literary circles. The ‘intellectual impotence’ of the literati, he argued, was revealed in their tendency to dismiss science as irrelevant to the big questions of existence. Science’s ‘claim to deal in reality’ was simply denied by invoking ‘the mantra of cultural relativism’. 1
Davies’ outraged defence of science was, of course, merely one fusillade in a series of skirmishes and sorties that have continued over the past decade or more under labels such as the ‘science wars’ or the ‘culture wars’. In Australia, combatants have rallied to the more familiar ‘history wars’, but the territory at issue is much the same— the meaning and control of ‘truth’. In the context of this thesis, it is also perhaps worth noting that Stuart Macintyre traces the history wars back to the interpretation of the Enola Gay and the atomic bombing of Japan in the Smithsonian Museum. 2 Amongst veterans, curators, politicians, and the public, the meaning of the Atomic Age remains problematic.
The ‘history wars’ have wrestled over the nature of ‘facts’, over our ability to pronounce with certainty upon the ‘realities’ of the past. But those who champion the straightforward correspondence between fact and reality draw much of their confidence from the example of science. In seeking to dispel the influence of political correctness, of fashionable French theorists and black-armband agitators, the defenders of truth are arguing for a history which is more ‘scientific’ in its methods and results. This is made explicit by Keith Windschuttle, one of the foremost history warriors, in his 1994 book The killing of history. Windschuttle devotes a chapter to the defence of the scientific method for, he argues, ‘if the fashionable view is correct, and truth and knowledge are really beyond our reach, then we might as well give history away altogether’. 3 The history wars are as much about science as they are about footnotes or facts.
In Paul Davies’ angry polemic, as in Keith Windschuttle’s truculent defiance, the possibilities of debate are whittled down to a series of clear-cut choices— science versus anti-science, history versus fiction, truth versus relativism. Boundaries and battlelines such as these have echoed throughout this thesis. Boosters have matched up against realists, ‘practical men’ have taken on ‘mere theorists’, reason has faced down emotion, enlightenment has battled ignorance. Debates about the nature of science and progress have often been reduced to ‘either/or’ formulations that defined what we could do, and what we could know, with considerable force and clarity. Both in understanding the past, and imagining the future, our choices, it seems, are limited.
This thesis confronts these limits, exploring complexities too often overlooked in our pursuit of simplistic dichotomies. And so, for example, the archetypical booster , EJ Brady, is portrayed not as someone who ignored the realities of science to promote his dangerous developmentalist fancies, but as a man of contradictions and insecurities, who was passionate about the possibilities of science. Harold Fry’s grief is not simply played out against the power of scientific truth. His desire to find a reason for his son’s death is examined within the context of uncertainty, within the space between ‘knowing’ and ‘feeling’. David Rivett’s idealism is not contrasted against supposed political ‘realities’. Instead it is offered as a practical response in a world succumbing to the sway of the ‘secret’.
In seeking to blur the boundaries of ‘for and against’ this thesis seeks to win for itself and its readers some of the space it offers Brady, Fry, Groom and others to find the meaning of science within their own lives, hopes and fears. But in treating the boosters seriously, in pondering the role of emotion in public debate, in questioning the limits of rationality and the nature of ignorance, this thesis is not staking out a position opposed to science. Instead it hopes to capture science in some of its richness and complexity, to explore it as something integral to the fabric of our culture and our lives. This is not anti-science—it’s just science, a broader, fuller, more meaningful, more human science.
In 1996, as Paul Davies was despairing of the widening gulf between the arts and the sciences, I was engaged in my own project to work across this cultural ‘divide’. The ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ engaged a group of artists to respond to themes within the history of Australian science. 4 There were no simple messages, no obvious truths. Interviewed by ABC radio to promote the project, I was asked who I considered to be Australia’s most significant scientist. I could have nominated Macfarlane Burnet, Howard Florey or Mark Oliphant, but mindful of his central role in guiding Australian science through some of its most difficult times, while still maintaining his idealism, I chose David Rivett. ‘What did he discover?’, the interviewer asked. I tried to explain that significance need not be measured in discoveries and breakthroughs, but clearly the interviewer was not impressed. He wanted something simpler—a hero not a human being.
This thesis is motivated by the belief that science is to be found not just in laboratories and learned journals, but in the lives of all. It is something we experience every day—as a source of authority, a creator of novelty, a giver of meaning, a bringer of liberation or oppression. It is part of our culture, part of us. While working, over a number of years, to foster interest in the history of Australian science, I became frustrated by the common assumption that what was needed were more tales of unsung heroes and forgotten pioneers—a garden of tall poppies to be reverently cultivated and admired. Stories about people offer the opportunity to connect—to find in the lives of scientists something familiar, something tragic, something infuriating, something joyful—but only if we treat them as people, and not as instructive icons. The challenge lies not in the recovery of neglected heroes, but in teasing out the points of meaning and connection that can open our experience of science to further reflection and debate. We should seek to understand science through both its possibilities and limits, through what it brings our lives both for good and ill. By exploring our experience of science, we may find new grounds for critique, but we may also find new possibilities for celebration—new ways of enlivening our appreciation that is not based on a parade of mythical pioneers.
One of the major contributions of this thesis has been to demonstrate how the history of Australian science can be expanded by pursuing connections, context and complexity—by exploring the cultural history of Australian science in the twentieth century. A series of interlocking case-studies have been presented to illustrate how the range of questions asked, and events and sources considered, can be broadened beyond the conventional confines of the discipline.
For example, the supposed conflict between the character of science and the utilitarian enthusiasms of Australian culture has been shown to be more complicated by examining the national building ambitions of progressives like Littleton Groom. The possibilities of science blended with ideas about nationhood and citizenship to create a vision of improvement that was pragmatic in orientation, but idealistic in intent. Moreover, by focusing on the hopes and histories of a slew of ‘national’ scientific bodies, from the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science to the Australian National University, the link between science and nation has been revealed to be as much about identity as the best formula for ‘application’.
The development of science is often assumed to be marked by the conquest of ignorance. Fear and misunderstanding supposedly give way to an appreciation of science and its wonders. But through a study of debates concerning the supposed characteristics of the Institute of Science and Industry, this thesis has shown that it was not so much the value of science that was at issue, but the boundaries of knowledge and expertise. A survey of attempts at science communication and some common representations of ‘the scientist’ reinforced the point that the meaning of science itself shifted according to the context of debate. Science and ignorance are themselves historically constructed. Instead of a war of conquest, the history of Australian science is defined by a series of skirmishes and changing allegiances fought upon an unstable terrain.
Atomic testing is a more familiar topic, but it was examined in chapter six not in an attempt to reveal scientific culpability or political manipulation, but to explore some of the consequences of uncertainty. When uncertainty intrudes upon public confidence, scientific rationality is commonly offered as an antidote to the excesses of emotion. And yet, such uncertainty is often of science’s own making. We tend to assume that emotion lies outside of the realm of science, but this thesis has sought to examine some of the connections between what we know and what we feel.
Some of the case studies are more familiar than others, but there is much within all that is new. This thesis adds considerably to the history of Australian science through the documentation of little-known events and characters, and by the addition of depth and context to well-worn stories of achievement. More importantly, though, it demonstrates that refusing to take for granted the nature of the boundaries that define ‘science’ and ‘the scientist’ does not condemn us, as Paul Davies might have it, to a career of pointless academic onanism. On the contrary, we gain the freedom to develop stories of greater richness and complexity, where the meaning of science is determined not by its epistemological status, but by its place in our lives and culture.
The neglect of the cultural history of Australian science in the twentieth century robs us both of understanding and alternatives. New perspectives on the history of science do not merely enrich our knowledge of the past, they offer us new ways of interacting with science in the present. The possibility of democratising science, of breaking down some of the barriers that prohibit public involvement in the direction of scientific research is a topic of interest in science studies worldwide. 5 But the challenge is also historical and local, encouraging us to reflect on the way such barriers are created and maintained. By examining how scientists have defined themselves in relation to the nation, to the public, to the quest for truth, we can speculate on the roads not taken. We can imagine something different.
However, this thesis has done more than broaden the study of Australian science. It has been explicitly concerned with the way in which the content and authority of science have been enlisted to shape our understanding of progress. Another major contribution of this thesis has been to reveal some of the complexities and contingencies of this thing we call ‘progress’. It is not merely a slogan, or a rallying cry. It is something more than rhetoric and ideology. Progress comprises both ideas and practices— practices of accumulation and disjunction embedded in our experience of time, the familiar contrast between old and new, the way we narrate the life-stories of individuals and nations. Progress invests our lives with a feeling of movement, of journeying, that we cannot easily do without.
The assumption of linearity seems difficult to avoid, but it is not inevitable. Other cultures maintain profoundly different understandings of the relationship between past, present and future. Even within Western society, some argue, it might be possible to build greater awareness of natural rhythms, or to incorporate deep-time perspectives into our appreciation of the here and now. 6 But even such suggestions as these are grounded in the hope that the future might bring a better world. The journey continues.
Could we recast our temporal language to avoid the spatial turn? The point is not necessarily to deny the journey, but to question its assumptions, taking neither the road nor the mileposts for granted. The distances and disjunctions that linearity imposes upon our perception of events are not absolute or immovable. As chapter three demonstrates, the characteristics of the ‘new’ and the ‘old’ are not determined by a set of temporal coordinates, rather, we establish their meaning within a cultural web of interactions and associations. Time exists within history, not outside of it.
The links between progress, space and travel were explored in chapter two, focusing, in particular, on the life and work of EJ Brady. The vision of ‘Australia Unlimited’ is of a triumphant march into the future, where fulfilment is gained through the conquest of Australia’s vast spaces. Progress is a journey, ever onwards, where the distances accumulate as a measure of our achievement. The only direction is forwards, the only options are those provided by a series of clearly-labelled turning points. But the ironies and contradictions of Brady’s life point to a different kind of journey. Instead of succumbing to linearity, we can imagine journeys that are as much about returning as about leaving. Instead of calculating our advance through the accumulation of wealth or knowledge, we can imagine journeys which mix remembering and forgetting, regret and hope. Nearing the end of his journey along ‘life’s highway’, Brady denied the power of time, the assumption of linearity: ‘I will not grow old’, he declared—the advance of years need not rob him of his dreams, he was not obliged to fade into weary acquiescence. Brady’s declaration is a reminder that the end of our journeys need not be taken for granted. Through wit, will, hope, and above all imagination, we can create alternatives, we can strike out in directions unmarked.
The idea of reclaiming for our journeys the possibilities of choice has been central both to the aims and the structure of this thesis. Chapter one began with Phyllis at the ‘crossroads of destiny’, confronted by a choice that would determine the fate of civilisation. But the temporal character of this choice, of the Atomic Age itself, were challenged—assumptions of newness and urgency were shown themselves to have a history. Rather than reflecting the impact of a particular technology, Phyllis’s dilemma was revealed to be a product of the way we imagine past and future, the way we understand progress. And so, instead of merely cataloguing the characteristics of a particular ‘age’, this thesis set about an exploration of a broader landscape traversing realms of science, nationhood, knowledge and identity—not the Atomic Age, but Atomic Wonderland.
Having examined, through its case studies, some of the ironies of Wonderland, this thesis returned, in chapter seven, to the image of the crossroads. In the context of ‘protection’, in the way we draw boundaries of trust, authority, security and belonging, we see the crossroads as an instrument of obedience. Phyllis’s choice was never made. It was never meant to be made. Our passion for neat dichotomies, for ‘either/or’ formulations, is more about demonising alternatives than offering a chance for change.
And so this thesis has declared neither for or against science; it has championed neither truth nor relativism. It has not sought to nail its epistemological colours to the mast for the sake of trying to keep open questions that are too quickly closed. Instead of seeking a false simplicity it has welcomed the contradictions of narrative. As already stated a number of times in this conclusion, the emphasis of this thesis has been on complexity.
But complexity brings challenges both intellectual and stylistic. After all, the usual form of academic treatise proceeds from the complex to the simple. Contradictions are resolved, order is regained, as argument proceeds confidently towards its preordained conclusion. An appreciation of complexity works against such a neat resolution, encouraging us to leave some threads ungathered, some knots untied. Instead of the comfort and certainty of argument, complexity offers doubts and questions. But even if the conceptual difficulties can be surmounted, the question of how to communicate complexity remains. Historians have begun to explore some of the possibilities of narrative—the use of multiple voices, the reordering of chronology, the subsuming of argument to story—but more experiments are needed. In the context of the ‘history wars’, the communication of complexity, in a way that engages and does not alienate or confuse, remains the historian’s greatest challenge.
This thesis has embarked upon its own experiment. Its contribution to knowledge is that knowledge is partial and fragmentary; that conclusions are meant to be challenged; that certainty can bring a misleading sense of security; that simplicity too often deprives us of new ways of understanding. Questions are more important than answers.
- Paul Davies, ‘The arts have lost it’, Australian Magazine, 19-20 October 1996, pp. 30-1. ↩
- Stuart Macintyre, and Anna Clark, The History Wars, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2003, p. 9. ↩
- Keith Windschuttle, The killing of history, Macleay Press, Sydney, 1996, p. 187. ↩
- See the Cabinet of Curiosities website <http://www.asap.unimelb.edu.au/cabinet/>. ↩
- See, for example the contributions to Daniel Lee Kleinman (ed.), Science, technology, and democracy, State University of New York Press, Albany, 2000. ↩
- See, for example, Barbara Adam’s work on time politics and time ecology: Barbara Adam, Time and social theory, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1990; Barbara Adam, Timescapes of modernity: the environment and invisible hazards, Routledge, London, 1998. For an example of attempts to develop deep time perspectives, see the Long Now Foundation, and in particular its plans to construct a 10,000 year clock <http://www.longnow.org/>. ↩