Science

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It seems almost self-evident to assert that science shapes our understanding of progress. Through continuing advances in knowledge and technology, science invests progress with much of its sense of dynamism and inevitability. This hold on the future was dramatised by the development of the atomic bomb. No longer, it seemed, could implications of science be ignored by any responsible government. The Atomic Age, nuclear physicist Ernest Titterton argued, was ‘an era in which science has become so important in our lives that all our decisions, including political ones, must be made with scientific considerations in mind’. 1

Science, as in this case, is commonly portrayed as something external to the revolutions it conjures upon an impotent and unsuspecting world, as an engine of change constructed to its own internal specifications. But just as the meaning of the Atomic Age cannot be simply read from the activities of scientists, so the relationship between science and progress is not one merely of cause and effect. To explore this relationship we have to lift the bonnet on the engine of science and tinker with the mechanics; we have to examine failed designs and superseded models; we have to ask who is doing the driving and why.

This thesis seeks to explore the links between science and progress by embarking upon a cultural history of Australian science in the twentieth century— a field that scarcely exists. A reader can safely peruse most survey histories of Australia without being troubled by the appearance of science. There are exceptions of course: Hancock presents Farrer in an important cameo; Blainey is sensitive to the impact of new technology; while Serle includes the establishment of scientific institutions as markers of the country’s cultural maturation. 2 However, compared to politics, war, and religion, or even sport and literature, science has been assigned a very minor role in the formation of nation and identity.

On the other side of the supposed ‘two cultures’ divide, Australian scientists have made significant efforts to document their history, but tend to remain suspicious of the theoretical concerns that shape the sorts of questions historians frame about the past. Historical and cultural analysis has given way, too often, to the antiquarian plod or the celebratory frolic. 3 The emergence, in the last few decades, of the history of Australian science as a distinct discipline, has offered hope of a more rigorous and insightful approach. Ann Moyal, Rod Home and Roy Macleod, amongst others, have done much to broaden the field’s conceptual foundations. 4 Yet still the field seems dominated by a regular stream of institutional histories and biographies that ignore the cultural complexities of science.

The question of context remains problematic even for more academic studies. Rather than focusing on questions relating to the local production of knowledge, the history of Australian science has tended to be dominated by diffusionist models that emphasise the outward flow of knowledge from the metropolitan centre of Europe. 5 Australia receives the gift of science from abroad and eventually nurtures it to maturity. The focus is on the end point rather than the journey, on the connection between centre and periphery rather than that between science and culture. Indeed, science becomes science through eradication of cultural dependencies and contaminants. The end point, science in its ‘modern’ form, needs no explanation. This structure is reflected in The making of Australian science, the contents of which are divided into sections that mirror the stages of scientific development proposed by George Basalla. 6 As the essays move from ‘early days’ and ‘colonial science’ into the ‘passage to modernity’, the style of writing becomes more descriptive, focused increasingly on internal issues—personalities, funding and institutions. This movement reflects the idea that science is ‘made’ through the achievement of certain pre-determined criteria—the good guys always win. ‘Science’ can be no other way than it is within such a scheme, the only choices people can make are about the means of travel—the road itself is already marked. 7

Of course, the reverse also holds. As we retreat from the self-contained certainty of modern science into the murky recesses of the past, the space allowed to cultural influences expands. So it is that studies of colonial science or, indeed, the science of exploration and ‘discovery’ display a much greater sensitivity towards the context in which knowledge is manufactured and received. For example, Barry Butcher’s chapter in the Making of Australian Science traces the development of evolutionary ideas in Australia. But the controversy he examines, over whether monkeys have feet, ‘finds its meaning and significance only because its discussion is embedded in larger cultural values’. 8 There is much to be gained by pursuing such richly-textured studies, and carrying some of the themes of ‘colonial’ science into the ‘modern’ era. However, as Wade Chambers has noted, the history of Australian science remains reluctant to embrace the significance of ‘locality’. 9

In a similar way, cultural history has tended to confine its sorties to the margins of Australian science: those realms in which the character of the science itself seems doubtful. Where scientific fads and fashions have been discredited, disowned, or discarded, culture rushes in to fill the void once occupied by truth. This is most evident in areas of medical or racial science where we are comfortable in condemning the scientific prejudices of the past. Eugenics has proved particularly popular with cultural historians, and the early work of Roe, Bacchi and Garton has been extended by a variety of scholars exploring questions of gender, identity and race. 10

Scientists are also exposed to cultural scrutiny when they are perceived to have transgressed upon the domain of politics. It is notable that the British atomic tests constitute probably the most well-documented scientific undertaking in twentieth century Australia. 11 However, the literature tends not to address complex questions of uncertainty and proof, or to examine the way in which scientific expertise is constructed and deployed in public debate. Rather, it prefers to separate good science from bad, to use the atomic tests as an instructive example of the dangers that follow the contamination of science by politics. Such a reading serves to protect the imagined neutrality of science. Highlighting the crimes of supposed transgressors reinforces the image of scientists as essentially apolitical, detached from the social world.

Non-science, wrong science, and old science can all be subjected to critical study without breaching the core of scientific integrity. Culture seeps in around the edges, softening the lines of demarcation, but rarely forcing its way through. Real science is different. Reluctant to challenge the conventional boundaries of scientific participation and authority, the history of Australian science thus remains a field intimidated by its subject. 12 Just as the complexities of progress are disguised as something monolithic and unyielding, so the historical nature of science is hidden behind its claim to special epistemological status.

Within science and technology studies, however, ‘boundary work’ has carved out its own methodological niche, with the demarcation of science shown to be dependent as much upon the rhetorical strategies of scientists as their privileged access to reality. 13 The growing literature reveals that the boundaries setting science apart are neither static nor predetermined. The territory of science is frequently contested as scientists and others construct their own maps of the social and intellectual landscape. Scientists can, moreover, champion more than one map at a time. As Tom Gieryn observes, it is common for scientists seeking public support to stress the fundamental utility of their work. If, however, such support comes with strings attached, a new map is promptly unfurled to demonstrate the essential autonomy of science. 14 Seemingly fixed and inviolable, the domain of science shifts from one debate to the next.

But for all its insights, boundary work brings its own considerable frustrations. Like much work in science and technology studies, history tends to appear only in the form of convenient, bite-sized case studies. Moreover, there is a tendency to reduce the process of boundary-making itself to a catalogue of competing interests. Our newly-discovered appreciation of complexity is in danger of being lost amidst the clamour of battle, as we focus only on the contest for cultural power. This thesis seeks to take the idea of science as a shifting terrain into an examination of progress in twentieth century Australia. But instead of trying to isolate the key conflicts, to close down on the historical context for the sake of a compelling explanation, this thesis employs the insights of boundary work to open up the relationship between science and public. By examining some of ways in which science is defined and defended, we can enrich our understanding of its cultural context. We can set about a history of Australian science in the twentieth century that does not take the character of science itself for granted.

Whenever the public has appeared in the story of Australian scientific achievement, it has tended to be characterised as a conservative force needing to be overcome. Like the astronomer HC Russell in 1888, Australian scientists have long complained of the utilitarian bias of Australian culture, of the public’s indifference or hostility towards the pursuit of intellectual progress. 15 This complaint has been taken up by historians like Donald Fleming, seeking to categorise attitudes towards science in formerly frontier societies. 16 Australian scientific institutions have thus been imagined in a battle for legitimacy against an ignorant, short-sighted public, obsessed by the practical application of knowledge. Successful scientists are celebrated as ‘Tall Poppies’, having contributed to the advance of civilisation while resisting the public’s penchant for pruning. 17

Even within this saga of scientific forbearance, considerable complexities have been revealed in the forms of public engagement and support. Currie and Graham’s pre-history of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, observes the pernicious influence of utilitarianism while demonstrating that it was politicians, rather than scientists, who drove early efforts to win government support for science. 18 Read alongside Roe’s Nine Australian Progressives, Currie and Graham’s work provides a useful account of the way in which the cultural preoccupations of early twentieth century Australia fed into plans for scientific development. The supposed divide between science and utilitarianism becomes less clear cut when the influence of nationalism, or changing ideas about education and citizenship, are considered. The complexity of the relationship between the perceived nature of science and the needs of both nation and citizen is explored in chapters four and five of this thesis.

Effective communication of the content and methods of science have been deemed important not just for the edification of an ignorant and utilitarian citizenry, but to ensure public support for the scientific enterprise. No one who understands science, it is assumed, can be opposed to it. In the history of science, focus has thus lingered on the major conduits of scientific communication. The development of museums and educational institutions have been documented, as have some other efforts to bring science to the masses. 19 The centenary history  of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science (ANZAAS) broadly surveys the intersection of science and society, but it is the organisation’s role in fostering the growth of the scientific community that is considered in most detail. 20

But how are scientific ideas transmitted? Generally, the processes of science communication have been characterised as ones of translation or diffusion. 21 Scientists have been urged to eschew specialist language, to make their research more accessible. Communication is assumed to be a matter of propagating knowledge outwards from the centres of learning and research. Recent work in the public understanding of science, however, has challenged the assumption of one-way traffic. Instead of portraying the public as ‘empty vessels’, ready to be topped-up with liberal doses of scientific enlightenment, a more complex picture has been suggested, where scientific certainties are received and interpreted within a web of local knowledge and events. ‘Ignorance’ can thus be understood not simply as an absence of knowledge, but as an actively constructed relationship with science 22.

This thesis is concerned with this broader meaning of communication, examining the way that science enters our lives through a host of connections, assumptions and images. At stake in the battle to map the territory of science is not merely status and power, but our own ability to imagine the future and find a place for ourselves within it. Chapter five examines some of the ideas that have shaped efforts at science communication. The ways in which such assumptions are played out within broader discussions of certainty, rationality, participation, and authority, are considered further in chapters six and seven.

To pursue the cultural history of Australian science, boundaries that separate science from culture, the scientist from the public, have to be challenged and overcome. Science has to be revealed as something inherently cultural, its meaning displayed not in a parade of breakthroughs and discoveries, but through the lives and hopes of people. One way of doing this is to humanise scientists, to consider the complexity of their motivations and beliefs. While most literature relating to the British atomic tests tends to highlight the trangressions of ‘bad’ scientists, Roger Cross offers a more nuanced story in his description of the bitter battles between Hedley Marston and the Atomic Weapons Tests Safety Committee. 23 Marston’s personality figures large in both his science and his grumpy refusal to be silenced by Ernest Titterton and his ilk. He is not quite a hero of scientific integrity, but a somewhat flawed champion of truth—his actions are those of both a scientist and a human being.

In a similar way, we can work to be more inclusive in charting ‘public’ participation in the construction and dissemination of scientific knowledge. Libby Robin’s work expands upon the conventional cast of characters to include not just scientists, but activists, bureaucrats, and enthusiastic amateurs. She shows that disciplinary narratives need not take the accepted boundaries of knowledge-making for granted, and develops her stories in a landscape shaped by both politics and biology. 24

Within the field of cultural history are some other examples of what is possible. In both The quest for authority in Eastern Australia and Nine Australian progressives, Michael Roe has examined the place of science within a broader constellation of beliefs. As has been stated, Nine Australian progressives is particularly relevant to this study, demonstrating the importance of science and technology in the reformist vision of early twentieth century liberals. 25 The progressives’ excitement at the possibilities of the ‘new’, at the transforming power of technology, have been echoed in the Atomic Age and beyond. Tom Griffiths’ Hunters and collectors is another work of cultural history which treats science not as an unwelcome visitor, but as an integral part of the lives and beliefs of its characters. 26 Similarly, David Walker’s Anxious nation examines developmentalist rhetoric within the context of prevailing anxieties about climate, disease and racial integrity. 27 Within such works, science is simply part of the story, part of culture, part of life.

Science, Tom Gieryn explains, is ‘nothing but a space…empty until its insides get filled and its borders drawn amidst context-bound negotiations over who and what is “scientific”’. 28 There is no centre from which knowledge and authority flow, there is no essence or core. This thesis explores the history of Australian science without assuming that science is at the centre of the story; without assuming that the boundaries have been fixed, the emptiness filled in. It is a history of Australian science where politicians and poets feature as prominently as scientists, where ideas are more important than institutions, where discoveries are not just made, but lived.



Notes:

  1. Ernest William Titterton, Facing the Atomic Future, FW Cheshire, Melbourne, 1956, p. 4.
  2. William Keith Hancock, Australia, Ernest Benn, London, 1930; Geoffrey Blainey, The rush that never ended : a history of Australian mining, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1963; Geoffrey Serle, From deserts the prophets come: the creative spirit in Australia 1788-1972, Heinemann, Melbourne, 1973.
  3. See: Tim Sherratt, ‘Science, history of’, in Graeme Davison, John Hirst and Stuart Macintyre (eds), Oxford Companion to Australian History, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1998, pp. 572-3.
  4. Moyal provided the first broad survey of Australian science in A bright and savage land, Penguin, Melbourne, 1993. As well as publishing on the history of Australian physics, Home has developed Historical Records of Australian Science as the only specialist journal in the field, and initiated the Australian Science Archives Project, see, for example: RW Home, ‘Origins of the Australian Physics Community’, Historical Studies, vol. 20, April 1983, pp. 383-400; RW Home, ‘Australian science and its public’, Australian Cultural History, no. 7, 1988, pp. 86-103; RW Home, ‘Science on service, 1939-1945’, in RW Home (ed.), Australian science in the making, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1988, pp. 220-51. Macleod has published on a remarkable variety of topics relating to the history of Australian science, for example: Roy MacLeod, ‘On Visiting the “Moving Metropolis”: Reflections on the architecture of imperial science’, Historical Records of Australian Science, vol. 5, no. 3, 1982, pp. 1-16; Roy MacLeod, ‘The ‘Practical man’: Myth and Methaphor in Anglo-Australian Science’, Australian Cultural History, no. 8, 1989, pp. 24-49; Roy Macleod, The commonwealth of science: ANZAAS and the scientific enterprise in Australasia, 1888-1988, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1988. For a general discussion of the development of the field, see: R W Home, ‘History of science in Australia’, Isis, vol. 73, no. 268, 1982, pp. 337-342; Sherratt, ‘Science, history of’.
  5. See, for example, the contents of: Nathan Reingold, and Marc Rothenberg (eds), Scientific colonialism: a cross-cultural comparison, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, 1987; RW Home, and Sally Gregory Kohlstedt (eds), International science and national scientific identity, Kluwer, Dordrecht, 1991.
  6. RW Home (ed.), The making of Australian science, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1988; George Basalla, ‘The spread of western science’, Science, vol. 156, 1967, p. 611. The Basalla model has been criticized and modified by a number of writers, such as: MacLeod, ‘On Visiting the “Moving Metropolis”’; Ian Inkster, ‘Scientific Enterprise and the Colonial “Model”: Observations on Australian Experience in Historical Context’, Social Studies of Science, vol. 15, no. 4, 1985, pp. 677-704.
  7. See: Tim Sherratt, ‘Making science for whom?’ Antithesis, vol. 2, no. 2, 1989, pp. 13-18.
  8. Barry W Butcher, ‘Gorilla warfare in Melbourne: Halford, Huxley and ‘man’s place in nature’’, in Roderick Weir Home (ed.), Australian science in the making, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1988, p. 153.
  9. David Wade Chambers, ‘Does distance tyrannize science?’ in Roderick Weir Home and Sally Gregory Kohlstedt (eds), International science and national scientific identity, Kluwer, Dordrecht, 1991, pp. 19-38.
  10. Roe, Nine Australian progressives; C L Bacchi, ‘The Nature-Nurture Debate in Australia, 1900-1914’, Historical Studies, vol. 19, no. 75, 1980, pp. 199-212; Stephen Garton, ‘Sound minds and healthy bodies: reconsidering eugenics in Australia, 1914-1940’, Australian Historical Studies, vol. 26, no. 102, 1994, pp. 163-81; Martin Crotty, John Germov, and Grant Rodwell (eds), ‘A Race for a place: eugenics, Darwinism and social thought and practice in Australia, Proceedings of the history & sociology of eugenics, Faculty of Arts & Social Science, University of Newcastle, Newcastle, 2000.
  11. In addition to works already cited by Sherratt, Tame and Robotham, and Millken, and the findings of the Royal Commission, other books include: Denys Blakeway, and Sue Lloyd-Roberts, Fields of thunder: testing Britain’s bomb, Unwin Paperbacks, London, 1985; Judy Wilks, Field of thunder: the Maralinga story, Friends of the Earth, Melbourne, 1981; and the ‘official’ history, Lorna Arnold, A very special relationship: British atomic weapon trials in Australia, HMSO, London, 1987.
  12. Sherratt, ‘Science, history of’, p. 572.
  13. Thomas F Gieryn, ‘Boundaries of science’, in Sheila Jasanoff, Gerald E Markle, James C Petersen and Trevor Pinch (eds), Handbook of Science and Technology Studies, Sage, Thousand Oaks, 1995, pp. 393-443.
  14. Thomas F Gieryn, Cultural boundaries of science: credibility on the line, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1999, pp. 23ff.
  15. Russell is quoted in Roy MacLeod, ‘From imperial to national science’, in Roy MacLeod (ed.), The commonwealth of science: ANZAAS and the scientific enterprise in Australasia, 1888-1988, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1988, pp. 40-1.
  16. Donald Fleming, ‘Science in Australia, Canada, and the United States: some comparative remarks’, Proceedings of the 10th International Congress of the History of Science, Ithaca, 1962, Paris, 1964, pp. 179-96.
  17. See, for example the Australian Institute of Political Science’s ‘Tall Poppies’ campaign: ‘Salute to our tall poppies’, AQ, vol. 72, no. 3, June-July 2000, pp. 17-20.
  18. Sir George Currie, and John Graham, The origins of CSIRO: Science and the Commonwealth Government 1901-1926, CSIRO, Melbourne, 1966.
  19. For example: Ronald Strahan, Rare and curious specimens: an illustrated history of the Australian Museum, Australian Museum, Sydney, 1979; Carolyn Rasmussen, A Museum for the People: A history of Museum Victoria and its predecessor institutions, Scribe Publications with Museum of Victoria, Melbourne, 2001; Libby Robin, ‘Collections and the nation: science, history and the National Museum of Australia’, Historical Records of Australian Science, vol. 14, no. 3, 2003, pp. 251-89; David Branagan, and Graham Holland (eds), Ever reaping something new : a science centenary, University of Sydney, Sydney, 1985; Jean Moran, ‘Scientists in the political and public arena: a social-intellectual history of the Australian Association of Scientific Workers’, M.Phil, Griffith University, 1983.
  20. Roy Macleod, The commonwealth of science: ANZAAS and the scientific enterprise in Australasia, 1888-1988, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1988.
  21. Stephen Hilgartner, ‘The dominant view of popularization: conceptual problems, political uses’, Social Studies of Science, vol. 20, 1990, pp. 519-39.
  22. See the articles in Alan Irwin, and Brian Wynne (eds), Misunderstanding science?: the public reconstruction of science and technology, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1996; especially Brian Wynne, ‘Misunderstood misunderstandings: social identities and the public uptake of science’, pp. 19-46, and Mike Michael, ‘Ignoring science: discourses of ignorance in the public understanding of science’, pp. 107-25.
  23. Roger Cross, Fallout: Hedley Marston and the British bomb tests in Australia, Wakefield Press, Adelaide, 2001. See also my review of Cross in Historical Records of Australian Science, vol. 14, no. 2, December 2002, pp. 209-10.
  24. Libby Robin, Defending the Little Desert: the rise of ecological consciousness in Australia, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1998; Libby Robin, ‘Ecology: a science of empire?’ in Tom Griffiths and Libby Robin (eds), Ecology & empire: environmental history of settler societies, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1997, pp. 63-75.
  25. Michael Roe, Nine Australian progressives: vitalism in bourgeois social thought, 1890-1960, University of Queensland Press, St. Lucia, 1984.
  26. Tom Griffiths, Hunters and collectors: the antiquarian imagination in Australia, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1996.
  27. David Walker, Anxious nation: Australia and the rise of Asia 1850-1939, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1999.
  28. Gieryn, ‘Boundaries of science’, p.405

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