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Australian National Oral History Project

Australian astronomers

Image Credit: Ragbir Bhathal

Ragbir Bhathal discusses the origins and successes of a project to record the variety of people involved in Australian scientific endeavour.

The National Oral History Project on Eminent Australian Astronomers, Physicists and Women Scientists began in the early 1990s just by chance. During a lunch break at a conference in Canberra, I paid a brief visit to the National Library of Australia. Just out of curiosity I searched the data base on the contents of the National Library’s Oral History Collection and was amazed that very few eminent or significant scientists were listed in their data base. It was dominated by politicians, writers, singers, artists and footballers..

On the spur of the moment I knocked on the door of the Manager of the Oral History Section to discuss with him the lack of scientists in the Library’s Oral History data base. After arguing his case for scientists to be included in the program, the Manager told me that if I was willing to take on the project he would gladly provide the support. So began a fascinating journey of recording some aspects of the lives and scientific achievements of Australia’s astronomers, physicists and women scientists.

Oral history is important as it allows the creation of a more complete picture of scientists who unlike their counterparts in the humanities rarely publish memoirs. The oral recordings enable scientists to tell their stories in their own words and to place their discoveries and research in a broader context. The outcome of my forays into this new field resulted in the publication of two first books (Australian astronomers: Achievements at the frontiers of astronomy and Profiles: Australian women scientists) in the intellectual history of Australian scientists. Both books were well received by the intellectual community and the public. Both books won high praise from the former President of the Australian Academy of Science, Professor Gustav Nossal. It was the first time Australia’s elite astronomers and women scientists spoke about their formative years, scientific controversies, scientific achievements of international significance and opinions on some aspects of Australian society.    

Fellows of the RAS will be familiar with the names of the astronomers who were interviewed and included in the book, such as Bart Bok, Chris Christiansen, Ben Gascoigne, Paul Wild, Bernard Mills, John Bolton, Donald Mathewson, Robert Frater, Ken Freeman, Ron Ekers, Russell Cannon, Richard Manchester, Ronald Giovanelli, Harry Minnett, Donald Brown, Jeremy Mould and Hanbury Brown. A copy of the interview I conducted with Hanbury Brown was requested by the Royal Society for deposit in their archives. Astronomers in Britain can access the interview by contacting the Society.

The more recent interviews include Ronald Bracewell, Brian Schmidt, Matthew Colless, Penny Sacket, Harvey Butcher, Rachel Webster, Naomi McClure-Griffiths, Mike Bessel, Matthew Bailes, Josh Bland-Hawthorn, Lister-Stavely-Smith, Michael Dopita, John Norris, John Storey, Donald Melrose, Warrick Couch and Brian Boyle. Except for a couple of interviews which have certain parts embargoed the rest can be accessed by scholars and members of the public by contacting the National Library of Australia.

Some of the more recent interviews were used by the author in the book (Mount Stromlo: From bush observatory to the Nobel prize) with Harvey Butcher and Ralph Sutherland. The author is writing a new book titled Mount Stromlo Astronomers: The endless frontier. The book has been accepted for publication by the Australian National University Press. It will review recent developments in astronomy and astrophysics in which Mount Stromlo astronomers are involved and the future directions of its research programs which will transform the institution into a global institution under the direction of Director Matthew Colless. 

Some of the interviews from the National Oral History Project have been published in Astronomy & Geophysics. Read about Harvey Butcher, Ken FreemanBrian Schmidt and Naomi McClure-Griffiths in A&G, and find out more about how British influence faded and America came to the fore at Mt Stromlo Observatory.

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