Stromlo: an Australian observatory

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’.

Institutional histories are often suffused with a sense of inevitability. Looking back from the security of a firmly-grounded present, the road seems straight and well-marked. The journey that is reconstructed is one where the end point is always known, where uncertainties and diversions are forgotten – a journey that lands neatly on the institution’s front doorstep. Institutional histories are often burdened, too, by the expectation that they will not merely tell a story, but provide a record of achievement. Written for the institution’s staff, as well as broader public, they can become bogged down in the details of personnel and projects. In this case, the fires of January 2003 add an unexpected final act to what is a fairly traditional story of growth and success. The force of nature intervenes to remind us of the limits of inevitability, to fashion from the end point another beginning.

The book is roughly divided into halves. The first six chapters recount the Mount Stromlo Observatory’s origins and early history, concluding with its incorporation into the Australian National University. The latter five chapters each describe the institution’s development under successive directors, from Bart Bok to Jeremy Mould. As the preface explains, this division also reflects the contributions of the two authors. Historian Tom Frame was largely responsible for the first half, while Don Faulkner, the observatory’s former Associate Director for Education and Outreach, took on the second after Frame’s appointment as Anglican Bishop to the Australian Defence Force. I have to confess to a certain weary familiarity when I learned of the structure and division of responsibilities. Too often, it seems, the recent past is deemed to be the province of retired scientists rather than professional historians.

But despite my determinedly grumpy frame of mind, I was won over by the book’s engaging style, and ended up enjoying the second half more than the first. Even though the latter chapters mainly comprise a summary of the observatory’s changing research effort, they gain much from the author’s enthusiasm. The sense of excitement builds, particularly as the observatory pursues fundamental questions relating to the nature and history of the universe. The MACHO Project, an attempt to track down the universe’s ‘missing matter’, is probably the most well-known of these endeavours, having won the coveted front page spot in Nature. At times the narrative does fall back into lists of people and projects, but the feeling is less one of worthy commemoration than an expression of the joy of research. You are left with a sense of the observatory’s intellectual evolution, and a desire to get outside with a telescope.

Equally as fascinating are the personalities of the directors themselves. They were, to put it mildly, a diverse bunch, both in their research enthusiasms and their personal habits. As Ben Gascoigne observed of Richard Woolley and Bart Bok: ‘they were men of widely different character and temperament who detested each other’ (p. 131). The differences were perhaps not always so acute, but with contrasts such as those between the extroverted Bok and the shy Olin Eggen, or the refined patrician Woolley and the self-confessed larrikin Alex Rodgers, it is difficult not to see this line-up as a lesson in the differing styles of scientific leadership. And I am still trying work out how Eggen, whose working day was between noon and near-dawn, managed on one meal a day.

The way in which the passions of the directors shaped the observatory’s research priorities are interestingly observed, however, the impact of staff is not so easy to determine. Bok, for example, insisted that all staff and students undertake observational projects, forbidding purely theoretical studies. This is described as ‘especially hard’ on some researchers, but you are left wondering about the tensions that ensued (p. 151). The directors tend to loom so large within the narrative that it is difficult to form much of an impression of the community as a whole.

One characteristic that a number of the directors did seem to share was a peculiar sense of humour. Woolley, it is suggested, was ‘addicted to the one-line put-down’, demonstrated most painfully at the 1947 ANZAAS congress. When asked where he thought the exciting new field of radio astronomy would be in ten years’ time, he replied, ‘Forgotten!’ (p.108). This was perhaps one of the lowest points in the often frosty relationship between Mount Stromlo and the Sydney-based radio astronomers, a relationship that provides one of the connecting themes in the second half of the book. Even though collaborations between the optical and radio astronomers became increasingly common, the first signs of a lasting thaw did not emerge until Don Matthewson, who had worked both at Stromlo and in the CSIRO Division of Radiophysics, was appointed director in 1977.

The other major characters in the Stromlo story are the telescopes. Perhaps more than any other scientific institution, the history of an observatory is bound up in the history of its instruments. In Stromlo’s case, the telescopes existed before the observatory, as inaugural director, Geoffrey Duffield, gathered donated instruments from around the world even as he was lobbying the Commonwealth government for its creation. Successive directors continued arguing for bigger and better facilities. Woolley secured a 74 inch reflector, Bok obtained an additional site at Siding Spring, Eggen championed Stromlo’s interests in the development of the Anglo-Australian Telescope, while Matthewson pushed forward with the Advanced Technology Telescope. But even as each victory was won, the realisation firmed that neither Mount Stromlo, nor the continent as a whole, could provide a site that would enable Australian optical astronomy to compete with the world’s best. In later years emphasis shifted towards involvement in large, internationally-funded facilities overseas.

The early chapters, detailing the establishment of the observatory, don’t seem to carry the same sense of excitement. Duffield’s personality appears somehow more elusive, and his energetic efforts on behalf of solar physics become rather submerged in the detail of meetings and resolutions. Unfortunately, too, there is some confusion in the chronology. Even though the shifting political fortunes of the early twentieth century can be confusing, it doesn’t seem quite fair to make Liberal Prime Minister Joseph Cook a minister in the Fisher Labor government (p. 28). In fact it was Cook, not Fisher, who met with a high-powered delegation of astronomers during the British Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in 1914. A minor matter of detail, perhaps, but made more significant by the fact that the delegation also included Cook’s former leader, Alfred Deakin. Moreover, a slip of this kind seems to reflect a feeling that politicians and bureaucrats are essentially dispensable in what is, after all, a story of scientific achievement. Rather than being active participants, politicians and bureaucrats tend to be slow and uncertain, providing only obstacles for the determined, clear-sighted scientists. This hardly does justice to enthusiasm of Deakin or Littleton Groom, nor to the administration’s hopes for the Mount Stromlo site

Related to this is the book’s failure to offer any real explanation of its title – what is it that makes Stromlo ‘an Australian observatory’? Duffield’s campaign succeeded with the establishment of the Commonwealth Solar Observatory, later simply known as the Commonwealth Observatory. The institution was one of the first to be built in the nation’s capital, and would eventually become part of the Australian National University. It was one of the Commonwealth’s earliest forays into the realm of scientific research, and yet we are offered no suggestions as to how the observatory might have contributed to a sense of national prestige or hopes for national development. Instead of examining the place of science and education in the nation-building agenda, or the imperial cachet of the solar physics enterprise, we are directed instead towards the scientists’ powers of persuasion.

Despite a number of setbacks and difficulties, astronomy in Australia has benefited through the public support of a series of large and expensive projects. The Great Melbourne Telescope did not bring the success imagined of it, but it was followed in the twentieth century by the Commonwealth Solar Observatory, the Parkes radio telescope, the Anglo-Australian Telescope, and the Australia Telescope. The latter notably opened amidst a cloud of green and gold balloons, funded as part of Australia’s bicentenary celebrations. There has been a nationalistic element to the country’s astronomical ambitions. Perhaps such themes are reckoned beyond the scope of an institutional history, but we might at least have expected a greater attempt to locate Stromlo within its Australian context. The early history of Australian astronomy is granted little more than a paragraph, while most of the introduction is turned over to a hand-waving invocation of astronomical greats from Copernicus to Einstein. That the history of a major Australian scientific institution should regard it as more important to affirm its subject’s connection to the scientific revolution than to its local circumstances, seems to indicate a lingering sense of illegitimacy. In the aftermath of the 2003 bushfires we are left wondering what it is that makes the Mount Stromlo Observatory a ‘national icon’. As rebuilding begins, it would seem a question worthy of further consideration.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Tim Sherratt Written by:

I'm a historian and hacker who researches the possibilities and politics of digital cultural collections.

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