Stochastic thoughts from your Director

Published in the Research School of Physics Event Horizon
Vol42 Issue7 22–26 February 2016

If you’d like some historical perspective of the ANU take a quick look at this 1956 production.

The documentary is informative, but if you want to jump to our School go to the 24 min 11 sec mark (remember that Mt Stromlo Observatory was part of the School back then).  As quaint as the 50’s style might seem now, remember that was a state-of-the-art contemporary presentation of public science. It was produced in defence of the National Institutes Fund and the half-a-million pound start-up our School enjoyed at the expense of other Australian Universities (which had, btw, an economic power of almost $400M in today’s terms,  Unfaltering and resolute in his vision Oliphant leads with his views of how physics spans all, telling the atomic age audience that disciplines like astrophysics connects to the fundamental particle research he wishes to lead the world (detailed in his 1950 Nature publication). There is great footage of grand technical achievements, and a few cameos of notable players like Sidney “Mick” Cornick our first Chief Technical Officer who according to “Fire in the belly” had a “face that sank a 1000 schooners”.  Maybe a little unkind but you will see we still honour his huge contribution in our main tea room, along side Oliphant. 

It’s a lovely comparison to consider the video made around the announcement of the detection of gravitational waves last week.

Elements of the grand physical vision of all things, astronomical in extent right down to quantum realm can be realised in the two presentations, but there are some very big differences.  Don’t worry, you'll spot them. Production qualities aside I’m struck by how much more inclusive the presentation of our public science is these days.  Is it that public understand relatively more science?  Maybe, but I think primarily it’s because we want to make our research more accessible, and maybe more fundable.   Today our communications are far more centred around the team, a more human face than “aloof men in white coats”. Nonetheless the excellent message about dedication to the fundamentals survives the 60 years.  I have to confess that while the atomic age viewers may have be been stirred by Oliphant’s monologue, I’m in absolute cosmic raptures over the way we now tell our School story.  Through the legacy of great educators such as Mick Gore we far better understand how to bring people into physics, and now powered by the equivalent of 3 solar masses!


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