Robert Clancy, The Long Enlightenment: Australian Science from its Beginning to the mid-20th Century
Halstead Press and the Royal Societies of Australia, 184 pp., ISBN: 9781925043532, h/bk, AUS$49.99
Robert Clancy – who would be familiar to many through his work as a clinical immunologist, gastroenterologist and auto-immune disease specialist as well as his work to promote the study of maps and mapping – set himself an ambitious task to unpack the story of Australian science from colonisation through to the 1950s. The resulting work, The Long Enlightenment: Australian Science from its Beginning to the mid-20th Century, is, predictably, excellent.
This is a history by discipline, rather than by strict chronology, allowing readers to read this book from the first page or to explore different areas of science in which they might have a particular interest. There are sections on botanists, zoologists, agricultural and pastoral scientists, anthropologists, chemists, biomedical scientists, geologists, surveyors, astronomers, physicists and engineers. In all, the contributions of over one hundred innovators are included. There are many names that are well known, including Joseph Banks (botanist), Douglas Mawson (geologist), Thomas Mitchell (surveyor) and John Bradfield (engineer), as well as many names that should be much better known. The Zig Zag Railway, for example, is instantly recognised by most Australians but the man behind the project, John Whitton, is not nearly as famous however as the creatively constructed rail tracks that were built in the 1860s near Lithgow (pp.161, 163).
Each profile offers a neat overview of key biographical information, major achievements and an insight into how the work of one person, or a small team, can contribute to a broader progress. Many of these vignettes cite privilege or being in the right place at the right time. Some also acknowledge a preparedness to invest in those who had obvious potential. Such investment came through the provision of space, resources and, critically, permission to go out and change the world. This book is, perhaps inevitably, dominated by men. Many of these stories might be about ‘permission’, and being granted permission – across the colonial era, into the mid-twentieth century and into the modern day – has always been easier if you are male (more specifically if you are male and you are white). That said, there is an excellent overview of the work of astronomer Ruby Payne-Scott. A career that began in the early 1940s, Payne-Scott helped to research ‘small signal visibility on radar displays and sort out difficulties with noise factors’ to support Australia’s war effort. Later, she would be an integral member of a team that would conduct ‘the southern hemisphere’s first radioastronomy experiment with long wave radiation’ and help identify ‘million degree temperatures in the corona [an aura of plasma that surrounds the sun and other stars]’ (p.148). There is, too, a section on ‘Women in Australian Science’ that discusses some extraordinary achievements made by women, despite concerted efforts to exclude them from the world of scientific work. Clancy notes how women were often restricted to supporting roles, despite obvious intellect and talent, and he offers a shocking statistic to make his point: ‘Through to the 1920s, only one to two per cent of communications in the Journal of the Royal Society (NSW) were authored by women’ (pp.167, 174–75).
The production values are very high, with each section beautifully illustrated by artworks, documents, maps, photographs of objects and of people as well as sketches. The end papers are stunning. Essentially, this is a coffee table book as well as an important resource.
There is an excellent bibliography, one that has been thoughtfully arranged by discipline for those wanting to explore a particular field of science in more detail. There is also a useful index.
Clancy’s history of the long enlightenment in Australia is a narrative of national ambition, of collective enthusiasm and of remarkable (if occasionally difficult) individuals. This volume is an invitation to reflect on our shared scientific past and to engage in science-based conversations about our future. The threat of climate change and the struggle to create a ‘new normal’ in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic are just two of the obvious challenges that face us, in Australia and around the world, right now. I often find myself defending the humanities. Yet, the sciences also face similar issues of public dismissal, political interference and underfunding (pp.8, 175–80). In the opening pages, Clancy asks ‘does it matter?’, do these stories of science matter now? In short, yes, they do. They have to.
Reviewed by Dr Rachel Franks, March 2021