Category:

reviews and review essays

June 29, 2005 /

Tim Sherratt, review of Treasures of the Museum, Victoria, Australia and Land Nation People: Stories from the National Museum of Australia, in Historical Records of Australian Science, vol. 16, no. 1, 2005, pp. 122-125.

Australia is blessed, it seems, with a frightening abundance of treasures. A quick survey of our cultural institutions reveals an escalating ‘treasures race’, as libraries, museums, and archives bombard the public with accounts of their rarest, most beautiful, and most interesting items. The State Library of Victoria, for example, has published a lavish description of its ‘treasures’, and features them prominently on its redesigned website. The National Library of Australia also has an online display of its most treasured holdings, hoping to bring in sponsorship for a permanent ‘treasures gallery’. Meanwhile, the ‘Treasures Gallery’ at the National Archives of Australia is already up and running, while the South Australian Museum guides visitors around a ‘treasures trail’. The Australian Museum recently presented their ‘treasures’ in a special exhibition, and even the University of Melbourne has catalogued the highlights of its collections in a glossy book of ‘treasures’. Celebrating its 150th birthday, the Museum of Victoria has made an impressive entry into the fray, with a well-designed treasures website, a treasures trail for visitors, and a beautiful volume simply entitled Treasures of the Museum. Read MoreTreasures

June 1, 2004 /

Few institutional histories could boast such a dramatic conclusion as Stromlo: an Australian observatory. The manuscript was substantially complete when a savage firestorm swept through the pine plantations flanking Mount Stromlo, destroying all the major telescopes and many of the observatory’s buildings. Among the losses was the Oddie Dome, built in 1911 to test the site – one of the first buildings in the nation’s yet to be inaugurated capital. This sudden twist of fate forced the authors to add an epilogue, providing both a poignant account of the fires, and an expression of hope for the institution’s future. Inspecting the scene shortly after the devastation, Prime Minister John Howard promised government assistance in rebuilding the site. Like many others, he lamented the loss of what he described as a ‘national icon’. Read MoreStromlo: an Australian observatory

November 29, 2002 /

In the 1950s, CSIRO biochemist, Hedley Marston, became embroiled in what Roger Cross describes as ‘the single most important crisis’ of his professional life. Research into fallout from the British atomic tests in Australia brought Marston into bitter conflict with the government appointed Safety Committee. It was a dispute that involved many of the major players in the Australian scientific community, and one that culminated in ‘perhaps the most unseemly episode in twentieth-century Australian science’. This is a fascinating story of ‘jealousy, hate and power’ that takes us behind the facade of scientific detachment and adds to our knowledge of the politics and personalities involved in Australia’s atomic adventures. Read MoreHedley Marston

December 1, 2001 /

It’s rare for a book relating to the history of Australian science to draw the attention of the national media. But Australia’s Bid for the Atomic Bomb made the front page with its claims that the origins of major institutions such as the Snowy Scheme and the ANU could be found in the government’s frustrated longing for nuclear weaponry. Wayne Reynolds’ ‘controversial’ book, it was reported, made use of ‘recently declassified documents’ to ‘debunk’ conventional assessments of Australian government policy in areas such as defence, foreign policy, education and science. Exciting stuff… I just wish I liked the book more. Read MoreAustralia’s bid for the bomb

June 1, 2000 /

Secrets are seductive. They offer knowledge, power, belonging – initiation into a world neatly divided into the knowing and the unknowing, us and them. The atomic bomb was revealed to an unsuspecting public as evidence of humankind’s increasing knowledge of the ‘secrets of nature’, but such secrets were not for sharing, they were a ‘sacred trust’ to be protected against misuse. Protected from whom? The idea of the ‘atomic secret’ gained its potency from the Cold War’s vision of warring ideologies – the good and the evil, the knowing and the unknowing, us and them. The ‘atomic secret’ was a lesson in global politics. Read MoreAtomic secrets

December 1, 1993 /
Tim Sherratt, review of Scienceworks, in Historical Records of Australian Science, vol. 9, no. 4, December 1993, pp. 387-388 .

 

As a suburban teenager, one of the highlights of my school holidays was a trip into ‘town’. This expedition into the wilds of central Melbourne always included a wander around the Science Museum, then housed snugly with the National Museum and the State Library behind the imposing columns of 328 Swanston Street.

Naturally I pressed all the buttons I could, making all the engines start and the models come to life. I played noughts and crosses against a ‘computer’ that regularly cheated. But most of all I just stood in front of the glass-fronted cases and marvelled at the collections — the rows and rows of swords, the wax apples, the radioactive sample with its chattering geiger counter. Between visits I embroidered complex daydreams where the deserted building was mine and all its treasures lay waiting. Read MoreScienceworks

January 29, 1989 /
Tim Sherratt, ‘Making science for whom?’, Antithesis, vol. 2, no. 2, 1988/9, pp. 13-18.

 

The title of this book, Australian Science in the making, strikes me as somewhat ambiguous. In one sense it seems to indicate an ongoing process of creation, while in the other it appears retrospective, reflecting on the establishment or achievement of science in Australia. The difference is significant, I believe, for the two interpretations suggest disparate views about the nature and development of science. The former implies that a continual process of construction and negotiation is involved in producing what we know as ‘science’. Science is a process, or an activity, rather than a discrete entity. There is room, then, in this interpretation, for the work of the social historian or political reformer, who seeks to highlight the cultural roots and social implications of a science. The latter view, however, assumes that there are certain criteria which, when met, enable one to recognize science as ‘made’ or established. Such criteria would be formulated with reference to some fixed model of what science is, and would thus emphasize fulfilment or attainment of that model. This inherently conservative view clearly imposes limits upon the study of science, and thus upon any discussion of its social role. Nonetheless, I would argue, it is this latter conception of science which is embedded in the structure and much of the content of this volume. This raises important questions about the way science is perceived in Australian society, and indeed about the role of the history of science in maintaining such perceptions. Read MoreMaking science for whom?