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Monday, 29 May 2017

My Visiting Scientist talk

One of the fun things I do is to be the "visiting scientist" at a local primary school, and I am to give a talk to stage 3 later this week. What follows is an outline of what I will probably say, though I still need to cut a bit. That said, any savvy adults wishing to chip in with comments, or, in particular, detected errors, go for it.

There are quite a few salient links here, and there is also some additional material, because I will encourage my students to read this, when they are ready.

My basic brief was to show them how other cultures helped us learn about the night sky. If you know me, you will know that I stand up for respect for other cultures.

Really, I am in the school to support all four STEM areas, but if you don't know the jargon, that's Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, and I like to at least give them all a bit of a canter.

I plan to begin my talk by explaining that I turned 21 last month. What I only explain later is that I am counting in base-36. I do explain that mathematicians use notation a lot, and I mention factorial numbers. If you don't know them, factorial 6 is written 6! and that means 6x5x4x3x2x1.

I add that mathematicians use lots of notation, and any mathematician seeing this, would immediately confirm that mine is a correct mathematical statement.

I then move on to observe that STEM is like a four-legged elephant: "Take away one leg and it may fall over." This goes with a pic that is part of my nod to technology: you can find any picture you want on the Interwebs.

That elephant lost its leg to a land mine, a nod to the fact that technology can do bad things, but other technology can fix the harm.

STEM is always about HOW COME? and WHAT IF? and that leads me into a verse that most of those I have ever taught have seen and heard (and the more perceptive reader will note that the elephant theme is still running):
I KEEP six honest serving-men
 (They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
 And How and Where and Who.
That is from Rudyard Kipling's 'Just So story' called  The Elephant's Child, which most people refer to as How the Elephant Got its Trunk.  In summary, it goes something like this:
  •   The Elephant’s Child always asked questions, and people spanked him;
  •   He wanted to know what crocodiles eat: each one he asked spanked him;
  •   The Kolokolo Bird told him to go to:
  •         the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever-trees, 
             where he asked the crocodile about its diet.
Kipling was a delightful writer for children like me, with the elephant's old nose being a mere-smear nose, which got stretched, and mere-smear nose repeats over and over, as does the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever-trees, but the bit I always loved was him saying:


'Led go! You are hurtig be!' Why?  Look at the picture above.

As Kiplingites will know, there is more to the story: if you aren't a Kiplingite: go to this link.

Why do I go off on this tangent? Well Kipling's 'Just So' stories tell us one version of how things began, but they may not be entirely reliable, and science has its own Just So stories.

For example, we say that Mendel discovered genetics, but anybody who has read my Not Your Usual Science Quotations will know about an account that Pierre de Maupertuis wrote about a family with six digits: here is an abbreviated version:
Jacob Ruhe had six digits on each hand and foot, as did his mother Elisabeth, and her mother. Four of Elisabeth’s eight children had six digits. Jacob Ruhe, one of the six-digital children … had six children; two boys had six digits …
So clearly, there was genetics before Mendel, and now, you might think I was ready to start on astronomy, but infuriatingly, I move back into numbers:

Thinking about the Ruhe family, if we had six fingers and six toes, would our counting be based on tens or dozens?

Then I demonstrate how we can count in blocks of five, with the help of an assistant, before revealing this truism on the right.

No, I won't explain it here, either but I do mention some reading (left) that they can do when they are older. My point is simply that we can count in other systems, if we wish. And why does this matter? Well, blame the Babylonians.

I filched this pic from Wikipedia (right), but it is just to show why we measure angles and time in a base-60 counting system.

Now, we really are getting close to astronomy, space and all that stuff. We begin with the shape of the Earth, which most of us think is a sort of sphere.

Did Columbus invent the idea of a planet that was round?  No, of course not: that's just a Just So story, made up by people who knew no better, passed on by modern ignorami.

Some 2000 years before Columbus, the old Greeks knew our planet was a sphere (even though they didn't realise that it was a planet). They knew the shape because:
  • things always fall towards the centre of the Earth;
  • they saw the Earth's shadow on the moon in a lunar eclipse; 
  • things further away disappear over the horizon; and
  • they could measure the size of the globe.
Pythagoras was probably the first to say that our planet is more or less spherical, but most Greek philosophers mentioned the shape at one time or another. Aristotle knew about it, and Archimedes clearly knew it, given his Proposition 2:
The surface of any fluid at rest is the surface of a sphere whose centre is the same as that of the Earth.
Even Herodotus (c. 485-425 BC), the first historian, seems to have had a hint of the evidence. He described a circumnavigation of Africa by Phoenicians, and how they saw the Sun to their north when they passed around the southern tip of Africa.
These men made a statement which I myself do not believe, though others may, to the effect that as they sailed on a westerly course round the southern end of Libya [Africa], they had the sun on their right—to the northward of them. This is how Libya was first discovered to be surrounded by sea...
In the 2nd century AD, an astronomer called Ptolemy summed up the evidence: as you sail north, the Pole Star is higher in the sky; eclipses of the moon are seen at a later hour in the east than in the west, and the differences are proportional to the distances east or west. When you sail toward a mountain, you see the peak first. The Earth always casts a circular shadow on the Moon during a lunar eclipse, and if that isn’t enough, the sphere was the most perfect shape imaginable.

When you put together all of these, the Earth just had to be a sphere, or close to it. Cylinders, flat and concave surfaces just did not measure up. Now all the Greeks needed to put the whole question to bed was a way of measuring the world. The problem was that they could not get a large enough tape measure, and even if they could, trees and mountains would get in the way!

The measuring bit involves another Just So story, because in the official version, Eratosthenes measure an angle of 7°12', which is 1/50 of a circle, but they didn't have protractors then, and we still can't be that precise with just a protractor. 

My guess is that Eratosthenes cut out a wedge of papyrus, matching the angle, and then made more copies, and formed them up into a circle: that's how I would do it. Still, here's the way the story is usually told, and how I told it in a book called 100 Discoveries, which is about how we probably discovered things.

Eratosthenes was a Greek astronomer, born in what is now Libya, and he died at Alexandria in Egypt. Being Greek back then was more of a cultural thing than a matter of living in Greece. If you spoke Greek, and especially if you were educated in the Greek way and lived among other Greeks, you were Greek, like Eratosthenes—or Archimedes, as we will see shortly.

Because he had access to the huge library in Alexandria, Eratosthenes learned about a vertical well at Syenê (today’s Aswân on the Nile). There, on a certain day of the year, the sun shone straight down the well at noon. And on the same day of the year, the noon sun was seven degrees and twelve minutes away from the vertical at Alexandria.

Divide 360° by 50, and you will see that 7° 12’ is one fiftieth of a circle so the two places are a fiftieth of the way around the globe. Long before Eratosthenes, the ancient Egyptians had noticed this difference in sun angle, but they thought the earth was flat, so they used the angular difference to estimate distance of the sun from the earth as about 5000 miles.

Eratosthenes knew the sun was much further off, which meant the sun’s rays must all be parallel, so the difference just had to be a result of the curved surface of the earth. Measure the distance from Syenê to Alexandria, multiply by 50, and there would be the circumference of the earth.

The angles were fairly accurate: modern Aswan is at 24° 5’ 23” north while Alexandria is at 31° 13’ north, so the angle was only wrong by about 1%, but the distance estimate was far more questionable. Syenê was not directly north of Alexandria, so they did not lie on the same meridian of longitude, meaning that if the measured distance was accurate, it would be too high. In any case, the estimated distance over land was always open to error.

The biggest snag for us is that Eratosthenes gave the distances in stadia. Back in the days when units were not standardized, this was fine. Sadly, the length varied from city to city and we have no idea exactly how long Eratosthenes took a stadion to be. If we assume the most probable length of the stadion, he was within a few percent of the correct measure of the planet—but he probably got close only because a few compensating errors evened out the rough bits in his method.

In the end, Eratosthenes said: “If the extent of the Atlantic Ocean were not an obstacle, we might easily pass by sea from Iberia to India, keeping in the same parallel.”

Then because we are in Egypt, I turn to Egyptian astronomy and the Nile floods. The Egyptians had no idea that monsoons in Ethiopia caused floods, but they knew when floods would come, based on the heliacal rising of Sirius, which is the time when Sirius is visible in the morning sky, just before the Sun, each August.

That leads me on to records in preliterate societies, and in the bush, not too far from the school, there are some petroglyphs, engravings in the rock made by Aborigines.

I have been seeking and photographing these for 60 years now, so I know a fair amount about them, as an uninitiated Gubba. I know that they were used for teaching, in much the way that I use PowerPoint. I also know that there are right and wrong ways to photograph them, and spilling water on them is now seen as the best way to record them.

Then there are the oral sources: it has been reported this year that the Gugu Badhun people of northern Queensland have a story about a pit with dust emerging and causing fire to run down gullies, and that sounds very like a volcanic eruption that probably happened 7000 years ago!

Working out some of the old stories mean they mean is hard, but some of them must have been reminders for things to do, or teaching legends, like Wirreenun the Rainmaker and Tiddalik the Frog.

(Wirreenun, in particular, has me excited, because it mentions using "ant-bed" [termite nest] to make a solid floor. I knew this as a common practice followed by early white settlers, but this points to their having obtained this from the people whose land they invaded.)

I will also mention a story from Jean A. Ellis's book, From the Dreamtime : Australian Aboriginal legends. This tale, The Two Brothers and the Pointers, explains the danger of fire, and whenever children looked up at the Pointers, two stars near our Southern Cross, they would be reminded to be wary of fire.

Here is a key point: I argue that the Greek legends about the stars are also using the stars as reminders, much the same as the way the original Australians used engravings and the stars — but the original Australians also used the stars as a calendar, just like the Egyptians, as these examples show:

Around Yirrkala, Orion and the Pleiades warn of storms that may upset canoes.
The Pitjantjatjara people lnew that the Pleiades (Kungkarungkara) in the dawn sky indicated the start of the dingo breeding (and hunting) season.
In Arnhem Land, the appearance of Arcturus and Vega was fish trap time.
In Victoria, that is time to look for the pupa of the wood ant.
Around Sydney, the Guringai were reminded when to gather emu eggs in October, by the Emu in the Sky.

Let's jump on this last one, because it relates to an engraving site that I have been visiting for 60 years: I went there first in 1957, but only now, have I found out Barnaby Norris' explanation. His pictures are copyright, and I am using them without permission, but I hope he will excuse my admiring use for educational purposes of one of those pictures. I got it from the link below, but go there for even better stuff.

There is a formation in the Milky Way, known in some Aboriginal cultures as the Emu. Here is Barnaby Norris' version of it:

Now the thing Norris noticed was that there are engravings of Baiame and his emu wife, on sandstone in Kuring-Gai Chase National Park, and in October, the Milky Way emu hovers above the stone one, just at the time when one should gather emu eggs.

In this way, the night sky became a reliable calendar (more reliable than the Julian calendar that was going haywire by the early 1500s when Copernicus began looking at it.

The Greeks had named the constellations and gave them legends that helped people remember them, but they named few stars, and they hardly used the stars for navigation, unlike Captain Bligh, who used something called plane sailing (and please notice the spelling!).

At this point, I launch into ways of making simple measures of angular distances in the sky, using hands, a cross stave and a simple astrolabe. I'll say more about those, some other time.

Then there's the kamal, invented by Arabic traders across the Indian Ocean. This uses a card and a strong with knots, and depending on the knot you use, can tell you if you are in the right latitude. The Arabs, by the way, gave a lot of stars their modern names: I cherry-picked this one from Wikipedia as well.


After a bit of jumping around, looking at early instruments, I come to the planets, and why they are called planets, heliocentric and geocentric models and the influence of printing and books and how, after Gutenberg invented moveable type in about 1460, there was a sudden surge in the 1540s: the titles, all in Latin, are left out here, but look up the author's name and the date if you want to know them.

1541, Paracelsus, medicine;
1542, Leonhard Fuchs, plant science;
1543, Vesalius, human anatomy;
1543, Copernicus, astronomy;
1544, Sebastian Münster, geography;
1546, Georgius Agricola, fossils.

One of those books, the De Revolutionibus Orbium Caelestium (see why I left the Latin out?) of Copernicus, proposed a new model for the solar system, but only to make it easier to correct the calendar that we had been using since the time of Julius Caesar.  he wasn't trying to change astronomy at all: if you think so, that's another Just So story.

Instead, I wrap up with a look at where the star watchers came from:

Aborigines;
Egyptians;
Babylonians;
Greeks;
Arabs.

I have to confess that I know little about any work done by the:

Chinese;
Indians;
Africans; and
Scots.

But I know a few individuals who deserve special credit:

Copernicus (Pole);
Galileo (Italian);
Brahe (Dane);
Kepler (German);
Newton (English).

The thing about science: there's no national science, just human science.

And that's quite enough moralising for one talk!

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Control burning

This is something I wrote first in 1994, but this weekend, the air of Sydney is heavy with the smoke of control burns: we have had a number of lush years, and the standing fuel loads are high.

***

I got up early one Sunday to drive my older son down to the ferry wharf.  We live on the top of a hill, and as we pulled out of the drive-way, the hills to the north were almost hidden in smoke, each ridge more hazed than the one before.  Angus suggested that there would probably be more smoke haze before the day was out.  The trees on our hilltop were motionless, and so I had to agree with him.  We have had several mild and calm days, and the control burners have been out in force, getting ready for the coming summer.

These people have a simple aim: reduce the fuel levels close to any natural or artificial barrier that might slow the progress of a fire.  Get rid of the dead fuel on the ground, they say, and you can stop a fire anywhere.  Roads and fire trails often travel along ridges, and these can be used to stop fires dead, provided the available fuel has been burnt before the fire comes through.

A wildfire feeds on the gases that explode out of the fuel as the first searing blast leaps forward.  The drier the fuel, and the more finely divided it is, the more gas it produces in the first moments, and the worse the fire becomes.  If the fine, dry, standing fuel is burnt out before then, the summer wildfires will be starved.  That is why we burn the bush each year in winter and spring.

Aborigines "using fire to hunt kangaroos" by Joseph Lycett: like many early
white visitors, Lycett failed to understand the science involved.
Our natural environment has been regularly burnt, perhaps for the last 50 000 years, so our plants and animals are adapted to that sort of regime.  The original owners burned the Australian bush, clearing the undergrowth.  This helped them find the best track from A to B, it improved hunting, and it brought on new growth for prey animals to feed on.  So every living Australian plant is long since adapted to recovery from burning, the rest are long dead.  Equally, the bush animals which exist today are those which are well-equipped to escape from fire.

If we burn different patches in different years, we get the whole of a bush area running through a mosaic of stages.  In this way, nearby unburnt areas can first supply a refuge for the animals, and then later be a reservoir of seeds and immigrants to repopulate the burnt areas after the fire.  These small fires are slow, low in heat, and give wildlife a chance to escape to neighbouring areas.

Some people say that ‘conservationists’ oppose the practice.  This committed conservationist does not oppose it, because control burning kills feral plants and weeds, limits the spread of feral animals, and maintains the biodiversity of an area.  It is far less harmful than a rampaging wildfire every twenty years.  The opponents are mostly people who let emotion get in the way of good sense.

The most effective method is to make regular burns along roads and ridge fire trails, making a site for a fire break in time of need.  Of course, the cowboys who give 4WD off-road vehicles a bad name are forever demanding more roads and better access into wilderness areas, as though letting hoons in will somehow stop the fires from happening.  We need the fire trails, we need the fire breaks in moderation, but we don't need any more hoons in the bush.  The fire trails must be securely locked off, and we have to steer a middle ground between the mad green disease and organised ruthless perpetual arson.

Control burning must be carried out with care, whether it is the mosaic form or the roadside form.  Personally, I favour regular roadside burns to eliminate the weeds which grow there: cars are a major transport method for weed seeds.  This has been proven by analysing (would you believe it?) the sludge tanks of car wash establishments!  A good fire every year or two, penetrating five or ten metres from the road's edge, will see off most weeds, for they are unused to regular fire, and unable to penetrate beyond the disturbed roadside verges in any case.

One Sunday afternoon, in spring, 1994, we visited a favourite bush area, one that was badly burned in then previous January.  It is on a ridge fire trail with a large area of waratahs on its north side, which should have been blooming by then.  Waratahs have large spectacular red flowering heads, rather like the related Protea, and well worth the walk.  As we walked, my son and I played our usual spring ‘spot the species’ game, while my wife, a better taxonomist, pointed out all the ones we had missed.

Running across the photo, you can see the fire trail we walked in on.
Duncan and I found thirty species in flower before we got to the waratah patch.  All the way along, the southern side of the track showed unmistakeable scars from January's fires, even now, while the northern side seemed almost to be unmarked.  The fire fighters had clearly burnt off the southern side to make a fire break, and we started to gather hope for ‘our’ precious waratahs.  But just before the waratah patch, the wildfire had jumped the track, and the whole site was burned out.  We found maybe fifty young waratah plants, and many of the larger plants had survived, and were suckering nicely from the blackened trunks.  There would
be no flowers in 1994, and only a few next year, but 1996 should easily make up for it.

The fire had only run a small distance beyond the waratah patch: far enough to do significant short-term damage to the patch, but also far enough to ensure that there will be waratahs there for many years to come, sprouting from the ashes of their predecessors.

We climbed to the top of the next hill and looked at the plumes of white smoke rising all around us.  I wondered how many other waratah patches were being licked into shape, somewhere inside those burning areas.


Saturday, 29 April 2017

Engravings at dawn

This was written quite a few years back, but soon enough, I will be taking newest grandchildren out like this. The photos here are all more recent, because we keep hunting, and keep recording.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Er collectors call this "a shield" — but is it?
Up in the early morning, long before piccaninny daylight, I look at the night sky to make sure there is no cloud, then I awaken my younger son.  His older sibs lack the resilience to tackle a pre-dawn scramble up a rocky hillside, but he seems to have inherited a wild and scatty nature that makes such things appeal to him.  He must get it from his mother, because she has elected to come as well.

All the day birds are silent at this hour, though I can hear one mopoke making his mournful cry of ‘more pork’ away in the distance.  We hurry into the clothing we laid out the night before, grab up the rucksack of water bottles, coffee flask and fruit, and then we sneak quietly out into the car and away.

In sunlight, water on the rock makes the images show up.
This is the only approved way, but there are lots of wrong ways.
We head for a small mountain, half an hour north of our home through the dark and deserted streets.  We pass just two other cars on the way out, and my son points out a smudge of light in the east, just before I stop the car.  The moon is about four days past full, so it is still up, and there is light to see by.

This is a wrong way. Some idiot has scratched the surface,
and missed the line. Notice the 38mm 50-cent coin for scale.
We all know how to walk quietly through the night bush without a torch, but the moon will help us see any wildlife still out on the hillside in the cool pre-dawn.  Dawn is close now, for the day birds are staking out their territorial claims with considerable gusto.

We have been this way be
fore, and we know from the tracks and scats we have seen that there are quite a few mammals in this area, so we walk quietly.  There is barely any breeze, but what little there is blows towards us.  We maintain our hope, but we also maintain our pace, for the wildlife is a secondary concern this morning.
 
Professionals (I'm not one) carry proper scales like this.
On a rock ledge that looks out to sea, there is a swarm of faintly engraved animals.  There are at least eight kinds of fish, lizards, and many other shapes that are too faint to see clearly.  We are here now because the early morning sun will have to slant across the ledge, bringing the faint grooves into sharp relief, and we plan to photograph as much as we can.  The engravings are at least 200 years old, but probably they are older, very much older.

I first heard of this ledge from a friend.  Some years ago, I carried his book on the area up here, and followed his vague instructions.  He is delightfully vague, as I discovered when we collaborated on a book some years ago, but I think the vagueness here may well have been calculated to make those lacking commitment retreat in dismay.  Anyhow, at first, I managed to get lost all over the mountainside.

These are probably eels. There is often a pool nearby.
After a while, I found three small groups and one very good site, but I eventually despaired of ever finding the famous ledge.  Heading back to the car, I went across country and stopped on the edge of a small cliff line to drink some water.  Stepping forward to look over the edge, I realised that I was about to tread on a whole mess of fish.

Most engraving sites are in places with good views, and this one is no exception.  From here, you can see the highest of Sydney's city buildings, some 30 km to the south.  Close by in the east, you can see Pittwater, the next harbour up the coast from Sydney, a few small patches of settlement, and a huge expanse of unbroken bush, with the Pacific Ocean lying beyond that.  By careful selection, you can see the view almost as it was before the white man came.

Probably meant to be a goanna: see my
previous entry for more on these animals
As we step onto the top level, the sun shows suddenly in the east.  I hurry my son back down the track, so we can watch it rise once more, then we scramble back up and sit behind the ledge.  Now we can relax, eat, drink, and search the bush below with our binoculars, looking to see who is late in getting to bed.  After the fires last year, we only see two wallabies and a couple of moving blurs, probably bandicoots.

It will be maybe half an hour before the sun is high enough to show the engravings off to their best advantage, and my wife begins to speculate.  The main engraving site on this mountain, after this one, is believed to be where the women went to give birth.  This mountain has most of the main food animals on it that women used to catch: could it be a ‘women's business’ site?

The sad fact about these sites is that nobody knows enough about them to say anything at all with any real certainty.  The people who knew the answers nearly all died within a few years of the arrival of the first whites, mainly from disease.  The remainder had their society shattered by the trauma of their losses: with few descendants to pass their culture on to, they took their surviving secrets to their graves.  Her theory sounds like a good one, we decide.

We know how they were made, though, because when the makers died, there were some works-in-progress. The makers used a larger stone as a hammer, and pecked small holes in the stone by hitting a piece of ironstone. Then they used something like ironstone to gouge a groove, joining the holes.

By now the sun is just beginning to slant across the rock.  My son sets up the camera on a tripod, lays a metric scale on the rock, and we start photographing systematically.  We repeat this every five minutes until the grooves start to fade with the rising sun, and then retreat back down the mountain.  Fruit may fend off hunger, but now we need a serious breakfast.

This is an emu, but from this angle, it is upside-down.
As we turn into our driveway, a black 4-wheel drive churns past in the street with its top is down.  Two women, one short and one tall, both dressed as Valkyries, all blonde plaits and plastic horned helmets, hurl the Saturday papers onto our front lawn.

The stereo in their car is playing ‘Ride of the Valkyries’, and they are lustily croaking all the ‘Tojohojo’ bits and giggling as they go.

We call this a spirit figure.
The Fancelli sisters, it seems, are filling in for somebody.  I rather suspect that it will not last for long — Wagner is not popular with the locals.


I must tell you all about them, one day.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Not Your Usual Australian Tales



This is a new, all-singing, all-dancing  Australian social history, and it's in e-book format, because that way, I can offer the reader >1200 hotlinks to the sources that I used. It is just a tad under a quarter of a million words, in 48 chapters.

You can buy it from Kindle for $4 (US or ~$5.27 AUD) right now. If you go to that link, you can view the first six or so chapters for free, using the 'Look Inside' link on the left.

And there's a great deal more background on the book if you look at this link.

What I am trying to do before I get old and gaga, is  quite deliberately to subvert the way people see e-books: this work is self-published, but that's because no commercial publisher has yet realised that there are really exciting things you can only do by exploiting a new medium.

I have no plan of going gaga soon, but I want to put my feet up in the next few years, and then howl with mirth as newbies realise I was right, and try to claim my ideas for themselves.  They are going to have this priority claim to get around :-)

How is this book subversive?

This is history like you never saw before: it is participatory history, where the reader can become a player.  You don't have to, but I hope you will.

If you are Australian, this book fleshes out the bald, dead-white-male hero story you learned at school. It introduces new characters (not all of them white, or male, or heroes); provides contexts; and encourages you to ask your own questions.

And if you have the misfortune not to be an Australian, Mark Twain explains why you should read this book:
“Australian history … does not read like history, but like the most beautiful lies. And all of a fresh new sort, no mouldy old stale ones. It is full of surprises, and adventures, and incongruities, and contradictions, and incredibilities; but they are all true, they all happened.”
Here, you will meet reformed would-be assassins who fought bushrangers; the first cases of redbacks on the dunny seat; the truth about bunyips and the crocodile in Sydney’s Rocks; methods for getting rid of fleas; how horse thieves worked; what had to be done before paddle steamers could run on the Murray River; the Russian invasion ‘scare’ in Melbourne; duels fought by foolish men; a scandal over a dead horse; cruel treatment dished out to coolies; wrecks, floods, bushfires, droughts and plague; booms and busts; early schools and early poets: some sublime and some awful.

The real history of Australia, the untold stuff, has many diversions, like the case of the society ladies who stood on their chairs, waving their handkerchiefs: their action was one of the starting points for the book, and in chapter 48, you will learn why they did it.

The real Australian history is very different from the packaged stuff that you get from written and dramatic fiction in books. The judges weren’t all monsters, screaming “Hang Them!”. Judges often worked very hard to save prisoners from the gallows (even Samuel Burt, who really wanted to hang!). That said, quite a few of the convicts were serious villains, who did far more than “steal a loaf of bread to feed their hungry children”.

Then again, some of the other convicts were political prisoners, and at least one was falsely convicted: you’ll find all of those here, and you’ll also learn that transported convicts weren’t kept below decks, in chains, the whole voyage — and Norfolk Island wasn’t always the hell-hole it was in later years.

Then again, the people they called squatters weren’t always rich, the first bushrangers weren’t thieves, and Edward Hammond Hargraves wasn’t the first to discover gold — in fact, he never did discover gold, but he conspired to make Australia’s gold rush happen. Oh, yes, and if you learned about the explorers at school, they weren’t all heroes, some were villains, and some of them were fools.

The surprises don’t stop there: specialist pedants will tell you that Matthew Flinders was the first to use the name ‘Australia’, but this book offers two earlier documented sources for that name. Then again, pop history has swimming only starting with ‘neck-to-knee’ costumes in the 1890s: sorry, but your ancestors, if you are Australian, probably skinny-dipped. Certainly, the nation’s first swimming races came off with it all off, so to speak.

In short, this book tells it like it was, but more importantly, in the age of Fake News and Alternative Facts, this book gives you the sources, so you can ask the important questions:
* what happened before that?
* do you really expect us to believe that? and
* what happened next?

Come on in: the water's fine!

Friday, 14 April 2017

Our Easter is in the autumn

Easter in Australia is a major holiday period.  Our schools have a four-term year, with the first two terms being divided by a break beginning around (or before) Good Friday and running through the following week.  Nominally, it is autumn, but this blog includes a dozen or so species of wildflowers that were photographed, in bloom, in the sanctuary where I work on North Head, on 11 April 2017.

Our seasons are weird, as I said before. Anyhow, the first six are: three banksias and three Acacia species.


Many Sydney people will be off to the coast, or inland, or anywhere, queuing in bumper-to-bumper traffic for hours, just to escape the crowds.  We who stay here say nothing about how Sydney at Easter can be very quiet indeed, for most of the remaining locals gather in just a few crowded venues.

In a research plot, fenced from rabbits,
the flannel flowers and wattle do well.
Here is a flannel flower or Actinotus,
called by that name from the feel of the petals.
Australia is a nominally Christian country, but once again this year, we will be reminded of just how nominal that allegiance is.  All over the nation, churches will swell to almost-full, as they only ever do at Christmas and Easter, but even then, few churches will overflow as they did in my youth.

Australian people seem to be able to find the comfort they need in more material things.  Perhaps we miss the symbolism northern hemisphere people get from celebrating the Resurrection in the spring.

Lambertia sp.
Epacris longiflora, long known also
as Native Fuchsia
Be that as it may, it is still autumn for us now.  We have just had two days in a row with 20 degree (C) temperatures in Sydney.  Over the Easter weekend, we have been promised maxima of 25C each day.

In Canberra, and in the mountains west of Sydney, and in the more pretentious suburbs, their foreign deciduous trees are turning to autumn colours and losing their leaves.  Elsewhere, people grow sensible Australian trees which are never bare, except after a bushfire.

One year at this time, a small bushfire broke out on the next ridge, smothering us in smoke.  It was a minor burn, though it crowned once or twice, sending flames up into the sky, and raining ash on the the houses nearby.

The blaze was soon controlled, but it's an ill wind, they say.  During the holidays that year, I found time to poke around the burnt areas, to see what relics I could uncover of the earliest inhabitants, whose engravings dawn many of the sandstone rock faces throughout the bush.  After a fire, many of these surfaces become accessible for the first time in maybe thirty years.

The clean smell of bush smoke was actually a blessing, for there had been a smell of mothballs on the bus, as woollen jumpers (our name for what others may call a pullover or a sweater) are resurrected from storage for yet another year.  All over Sydney, electric one-bar radiators are being pulled out and given their annual run-in, adding a distinctive burnt dust smell to the great indoors.

Our old dog always recognised autumn.  He would lie curled on his bed in their conservatory each morning, rather than standing hopefully and peering through the glass at us as we ate breakfast.  The humans are often a little less wise, and many of them will be swimming still. perhaps I will be among them.

Glycine, a delicate member of the pea family
We are ambivalent about our autumn.  Many people will cross the mountains to Bathurst on Thursday and Friday for a weekend of camping, drinking, and motor-bike races, but many will decide that it is too cold for a last swim, and spend their time in museums and art galleries.  After six years working in the museum industry, I have some sympathy for my former colleagues as they prepare for the onslaught of the masses.

Grevillea buxifolia, the grey spider flower,
is around for most of each year,
Few people will go walking in the bush, which is where you will find us in the next week or so, making the most of the peace and quiet.

My wife and I found a whole new series of rock engravings two weeks ago on an isolated ridge.  We will work our way slowly along the ridge, following the fine smooth sandstone bed that attracted the artists. 

Hakea or needle bush
Not all sandstones are the same, but this stratum was once a washed-out river bed, filled later by sand that was particularly pure and free of clay, making a smooth, flat, tough sandstone surface to work on.

The bush tracks around Sydney are deserted right now, partly because there are fewer flowers blooming, maybe as few as a dozen or so species right now, and also because it is also Easter Show time.

I go to ‘the Show’ about once in ten years, and always come away swearing I will never do it again.  It looked for a while as if we would be going this year, and I found myself looking contemplatively at places I might fall from, breaking a leg as I land. That would  have saved me, but strategically placed rain did the job instead. Now the crowds will be too large.

Woollsia pungens commemorates an early Australian botanist,
William Woolls. Like Grevillea buxifolia, it flowers all the
year, almost.
One thing is certain: you will never find me travelling the roads at Easter.  There are just too many people driving at Easter.  Not that they can drive fast, of course, but there will be an ill-concealed fury in their driving that I have decided I can do without.

It would be enough to have to mill around the Royal Agricultural Society Showground with 150 000 other people, growing footsore and weary, getting annoyed by either dust or mud or both, becoming exasperated by outrageous prices, and yet somehow being entranced by some of the sights and smells that return me to my childhood.

Instead, I am at home, doing a last listen to the mp3 files version of my next book, a massive Australian history, as big as three normal paperbacks, which will be called Not Your Usual Australian Tales.

I will have more to say about that in a week or so, but here's an anecdote from the end of my foreword:
On a personal note, I have another reason for doubting paper records: I was born in Queensland in the latter days of World War II. When my father, who was in the RAAF, moved north into “the islands”, my mother flew to Sydney with me as a babe in arms on an Air Force Catalina.
The RAAF was subject to inflexible regulations, and the number of passengers allowed on a Catalina was restricted. An Air Commodore on the flight ordered that I be embarked as a Gladstone bag, and that was how I appeared on the manifest, so anybody would seek in vain who sought evidence of my travels on faded, curled, foolscap sheets.
I am grateful to the Air Commodore, but according to my mother, not the most reliable of witnesses, I showed my gratitude at the time by throwing up on him. I tend to believe this, because I have always been a bit of an anarchist at heart, but posthumously (so far as he is concerned), I express my thanks to that kindly and probably slightly smelly Air Commodore.
Still, neither my travel nor the arc allegedly described by my stomach contents appear anywhere in any surviving record. There is a lesson there for us all.



Monday, 10 April 2017

Life in Hyde Park

The easy way to Sydney's Hyde Park is by train.  There are two stations on the city circle that drop you off there: St James station at the northern end, named for the nearby early colonial church (designed by that great convict, forger and architect, Francis Greenway), and Museum station at the southern end, not too far from the Australian Museum.  Any number of buses run along Elizabeth Street past the park.

The pleasant way to get there is to walk.  Hyde Park lies along the eastern side of the main city district, so you can reach it by heading up almost any east-west street in the middle of the city.  If you miss it, you will probably bump into either the open grassed areas of the Domain, or the Royal Botanic Gardens.  Between them, these three open areas make an almost continuous belt of green, penetrating more than a mile from the harbour, up into the CBD.

There are no real times for Hyde Park to be open, and no gates or fences to keep you out, but it may not be the best of places to wander in the middle of the night.  It is not, however, a muggers' paradise like Central Park in New York.  Not yet, anyway...  On the other hand, it would be a shame not to go there at night, for the giant Moreton Bay fig trees are filled with tiny bud lights, making the park a fairyland for young children.  Fairyland with a bite, maybe, for you will often hear the harsh squabbling of the fruit bats as they feast on the figs overhead.

Tawny frogmouth, Middle Head, Sydney.
There are birds as well, ranging from daylight's noisy, pushy gulls and pigeons, to ibis with long curved beaks, prowling the garden beds and spearing the soil in search of worms.  By day, there will be a couple of tawny frogmouths, owl-like birds which imitate dead stumps, sitting motionless somewhere in the park, their disguise betrayed only by the spatter of white droppings beneath their favourite roost.  At night they hunt insects and small mammals, but by day, they remain motionless.

In about 1992, I was working nearby, took a camera into the park in the early morning, at a time when I calculated that the perch would be in sunlight, and took several careful photos.  An old man, one of life's less fortunate beings, wandered past.  He stopped to see what my target was, and said gravely, ‘Excuse me, mate, I think that kookaburra's dead.’  Then he wandered on without waiting for a reply.  Next came one of the gardeners, wanting to know how I had stuck ‘that thing’ up in the tree.  She had been working in the immediate area for a month, and had never noticed the bird on its branch, just three metres up.

The gardeners know all about the other wild life in the park.  There is an active population of possums living there, and the thick leaf litter of the garden beds provides a rich source of invertebrates to stoke a food chain which is also supported by the park's visitors.

The invertebrates have mostly come in with potted plants at various times, and include some rare treasures.  Around that time, I worked at the nearby museum, and we were in the habit of paying serious money to get Peripatus, velvet worms, from Victoria, so we could show these unusual animals to people.

Velvet worms have stubby little legs, and look like the missing links between the worms and the arthropods.  They catch their prey by spitting sticky slime at them, but they look delightful, with a jet-black matte skin.  You can imagine my delight (and the museum accountant's annoyance) when a children's workshop that I was running started to find velvet worms in leaf litter samples from Hyde Park!  Later, we found giant pseudoscorpions, 5 mm in length, and all sorts of other treasures that the passing tourist would never know about.  My friends the gardeners were equally excited when I took part of our catch back to show them what we were getting.

Once upon a time, it was just a race course and a cricket ground, sometimes referred to as ‘the exercising ground’.  By 1816, it was Hyde Park, but even in 1840 it was nothing grand.  Mrs. Charles Meredith called it ‘a park utterly destitute of trees . . . merely a large piece of brown ground fenced in, where is a well of good water, from which most of the houses are supplied by means of water-carts.’
Hyde Park in the 1850s: no trees, but sheep as lawn mowers.

Here, that usually reliable observer was a little off beam.  After the original water supply for Sydney, the Tank Stream, was completely polluted, Busby's Bore was established.  The ‘Bore’ was a long sloping tunnel, running down from swamps in what is now Centennial Park to Hyde Park.  From there, the water ran in wooden above-ground pipes to the corner of Elizabeth and Park Streets, high enough for the water carts to be filled by water pouring from the pipes.

At least one modern guide-book to Sydney tells a sad tale of the convicts toiling away with windlass and bucket, hauling water to the surface, but the whole tunnel was started at the lower end, at ground level, and was always drained on gravity.  The only thing to be hauled out by windlass was the rock spoil from the tunnel, once the tunnel had gone far enough to make it difficult to haul the spoil back to the lower opening.

Water remains a theme throughout the park, with fountains and pools in many places.  The Archibald Fountain at the northern end is a delight when it is running  On a more serious note, the southern end of the park contains a large War Memorial and the Pool of Remembrance, which seems mainly to commemorate fallen leaves and ice cream wrappers.
The Archibald fountain can be fun when the wind blows.
The statue of James Cook at the southern end was set up where he could look down on the harbour, but now the trees have grown, buildings have sprung up, and poor old Cook is more or less landlocked.  Still, the statue can, if viewed from the appropriate angle, cause uncontrolled lewdness and hilarity in most adolescents, due to a most unfortunate telescope.

Hyde Park is largely a passive activity area, although the old men who play chess there are anything but passive, crowing with delight as they capture each other's pieces.  This activity is well worth watching, but be warned: they can be scathing in their response to those who offer advice.  Their version of chess is a no-quarters form of psychological warfare, and no prisoners are taken.

Anybody who walks there often gets to recognise the regulars, like the man with the long pole who goes around putting slices of bread in the trees for the possums, the power-walkers, the dawdlers and the bird-watchers.  The gardeners know the regulars as well, and when a flower bed is cleaned out in the early morning, the flowers are saved in bundles, and handed out to the recognised faces as they trudged along the gravel paths.  In a city of five million people, it is nice to know that there can still be a sense of community like that.