March 23, 1994 /
Tim Sherratt, ‘From beetles to a Nobel Prize – Macfarlane Burnet’, Australasian Science, vol. 14, no. 1, Autumn 1994, p. 64.


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

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

November 15, 1993 /
Tim Sherratt, ‘“A physicist would be best out of it”: George Briggs at the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission’, Voices, Autumn 1993.


A physicist would be best out of it
A physicist would be best out of it

A tall, thin man in his early sixties was led into the recently remodelled Darlinghurst courtroom. Interest in the current proceedings was so great that extra seating had been provided to accommodate 200 members of the public, as well as 100 officials and 60 journalists. However, this session was to be heard in private, so the witness entered and was sworn before a strangely quiet and empty court.

‘What is your full name Doctor?’ asked W.J.V. Windeyer, the senior counsel, noted especially for his thorough but tedious manner.

George Henry Briggs‘ replied the witness.

‘And what is your doctorate?’

‘Physics.’ Read MoreA physicist would be best out of it

September 23, 1993 /
Tim Sherratt, ‘A model scientist: Edwin Hills’, Australasian Science, vol. 2, no. 1, Autumn 1993, p. 56.


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

June 23, 1993 /
Tim Sherratt, ‘A passion for physics: Joan Freeman’, Australasian Science, vol. 2, no. 2, Winter 1993, p. 64.


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

January 29, 1993 /
Tim Sherratt, ‘No standing back: Dame Jean Macnamara&rsquo, Australasian Science, vol. 13, no. 4, Summer 1993, p. 64.


‘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

July 26, 1992 /
Tim Sherratt, paper presented at AAHPSSS annual conference, 1992


In the Riverview Observatory, Father O’Connell readied his seismographs – seven of them. The possibility of breakdown had to be considered, and now, with the coal miners out – a blackout at the wrong moment … So the clockwork instruments were oiled and tested, set up alongside their electric successors. Springs taut, whirring, they waited. No anomaly would escape the methodical priest.

But when the time came, when the Bomb was exploded, nary a flicker was registered on the caefully prepared charts. The shockwave from Bikini never arrived. No vibration was detected in Sydney. Yet it was there, that subtle tremor. A ripple moved across the earth, shifting the ground beneath our feet. A ripple formed as some massive bulk shifted, flexed, deep, deep down. Read MorePhyllis in atomic wonderland

January 29, 1992 /
Tim Sherratt and Anne-Marie Condé, ‘Communicating with Wild Life: Crosbie Morrison’, Australasian Science, vol. 1, no. 4, Summer 1992, p. 8.


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

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?

December 1, 1985 /
Tim Sherratt, ‘“A political inconvenience”:Australian scientists as the British atomic weapons tests, 1952-3’, Historical Records of Australian Science, vol. 6, no. 2, December 1985, pp. 137-152


Then there was a great flash that reached the far horizon. Even Dr Penney, who had witnessed the first historic cataclysm in the desert at Almagordo and later seen a bomb burst over Japan, described the scene as ‘terrifying’ as he turned around to find the frigate Plym had vanished and to see a great greyish-black cloud shooting up thousands of feet into the air and ever-growing in size.1

In the Monte Bello Islands off the coast of Western Australia on 3 October 1952, Dr William Penney watched as an atomic device for which he was largely responsible vaporised a test ship and sent thousands of tonnes of water erupting into the air. His programme had been successful; Britain was now a fully-fledged nuclear power. Read MoreA political inconvenience

  1. Leonard Bertin, Atom Harvest (London, 1955), 154. []