A total solar eclipse was due on 21 September 1922. An eclipse always held scientific interest, but this one offered the chance to confirm one of the most revolutionary theories in science. Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity predicted that light passing near an object such as the sun would be bent by gravity. In 1919, Arthur Eddington’s observations of a total solar eclipse lent support to Einstein’s theory, but some challenged his results. The 1922 eclipse, best observed in Australia, promised to decide the matter. Read MoreLooking at the sun
The atomic bomb is deployed more often as a symbol than a weapon. No discussion of the ‘dangers’ of science is complete without it. But the accompanying stereotype of scientists blinkered to the consequences of their work is hardly accurate. Even before the destruction of Hiroshima, there have been scientists prepared to enter the political fray to ensure that the technology was adequately controlled. Read MorePolitical fallout
In January 1945, a small Australian Army reconnaissance unit pushed through the jungles of New Guinea, narrowly avoiding the enemy Japanese forces. With the assistance of the local inhabitants, the unit gathered vital information on Japanese movements, relaying it back to headquarters using carrier pigeons. This was “Jockforce”, named after its commander, zoologist Jock Marshall. Read MoreThe many battles of Jock Marshall
Dorothy Hill’s fascination for corals was sparked not by the beauty of the Great Barrier Reef, but by a visit to the small Queensland town of Mundubbera, about 160 km inland. There, in the late 1920s, the young Australian geologist discovered a rich deposit of fossil corals from the Palaeozoic era. It was the beginning of a distinguished scientific career that established Dorothy Hill as a world authority on fossil corals, and one of Australia’s foremost geologists. Read MoreLife in ancient corals
Amidst the carnage of Gallipoli, a young stretcher-bearer named Esmond Keogh struggled under enemy fire to drag his comrades to medical aid. Twenty-five years and another war later, Keogh was again far from home, serving with the Australian armed forces in the Middle East. However, Bill Keogh (as he was known by then) was neither a stretcher-bearer nor soldier, he was still saving lives, but now as a medical scientist. Read MoreA war against disease
Early this century in the Victorian country town of Terang, the young son of a local bank manager was often seen wandering alone through the countryside, on the look-out for beetles to add to his collection. One of his treasured possessions was a book on Australian insects, in which he carefully recorded his own observations and sketches. Today that book is preserved at the University of Melbourne along with a large collection of notes, papers and photographs that tell the story of one of Australia’s greatest scientists, Macfarlane Burnet. Read MoreFrom beetles to a Nobel Prize
A relief map is a three-dimensional model that shows the features of a particular region, like mountains and valleys, to scale. You’ve probably all seen one at some stage, perhaps you’ve even built one. However, I don’t suppose you’ve ever thought that a relief map might provide a starting point for scientific research. But thanks to one influential Australian geologist, that’s just what happened.
During the Second World War, military planners were concerned about the lack of detailed maps of Northern Australia. Acting on the advice of the professor of Geology at the University of Melbourne, Edwin Sherbon Hills, they decided to construct a relief model of the area. Once completed, data from the model was to be used to draw up the required maps. Read MoreA model scientist
Funnily, much of what we call ‘big science’ is concerned with observing very small entities. Large, expensive machines are built to harness the unimaginable forces necessary to open the sub-atomic world to scrutiny.
In this fascinating, perhaps frightening, area of research, one Australian woman found an outlet for her curiosity, and made an important contribution to nuclear physics. Joan Freeman was born in Perth in 1918. When she was four, her family moved to Sydney where Joan was educated at the Sydney Church of England Girls’ Grammar School and the University of Sydney. Throughout her childhood she was interested in finding out how things worked, often roping in her friends to help her perform simple scientific experiments. However, it was the news, in 1932, that Cockroft and Walton had succeeded in ‘splitting the atom’ that particularly inspired her to consider a career in scientific research. Read MoreA passion for physics
‘Australian scientists are wimps. They spend all their time working away in the background, investigating some topic that nobody else in the world understands. They might make a contribution to our knowledge of the world, but they don’t really make things happen, do they?’
Perhaps we should start a list of common myths about Australian science – the paragraph above could go right at the top, followed by: ‘Australian scientists are all more than five foot tall, and of course they never, ever wear funny hats’. Jean Macnamara, who was rather short and certainly did have a collection of odd-looking hats, was one Australian scientist who was determined to be of use to society and to make things happen, even though this sometimes brought her into conflict with her scientific colleagues. Read MoreNo standing back
We hear a lot about science communication these days. More and more, scientists are attempting to convey something of the fascination and wonder of their work to a general audience. But imagine for a moment a radio program, devoted solely to natural science, a radio program that ran for twenty years on commercial stations from 1938-1958. A quirk? An oddity? Imagine now that this radio programme reached more than 70% of the listening audience. Impossible? No — this was the achievement of pioneering science broadcaster Crosbie Morrison. Read MoreCommunicating with Wild Life