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History lesson for smart kids

This is a talk I gave at the 2015 Young Scientist Awards, an event organised by the Science Teachers’ Association of NSW.

I would like to start by congratulating all finalists for the awards on behalf of Australian Skeptics Inc. You might wonder what the connection is between skepticism and science, but they both have the same objective – it’s to ask questions and find the answers. Science is skepticism put into practice.

One of my greatest disappointments during 2015 was that I was unable to attend the memorial service for Professor Harry Messel, head of the School of Physics at the University of Sydney for many years. I actually had one of the rare tickets for a seat inside the Great Hall which doubled the disappointment that I couldn’t get to the function. Professor Messel was my ultimate boss when I had my first job as computer programmer, working in the Computer Science Department, and while I have occasionally been accused of being around since the Stone Age I can assure you that the computers we had there were the very latest ones and were made of bronze. (As a nice coincidence, the video you saw earlier of the finalists in the Paper Plane Competition was made on the field immediately outside the Sydney University Physics Building.)

Professor Messel is relevant for two reasons to do with tonight.

One of the things he noticed shortly after arrival in Australia from Canada was that there appeared to be no girls’ high school in Sydney, or maybe even in the state, which taught physics. Apparently it was quite common then to hold the nonsensical opinion that girls are incapable of understanding complicated science. Don’t think, however, that the boys got everything and the girls got nothing. Biology was not taught in boys’ schools. I went to a rather pretentious boys-only high school in Sydney’s North Shore, and our choice of science subjects were Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics I (the symbolic stuff – algebra, calculus), Mathematics II (spatial – geometry, trigonometry), and because at least one mathematics subject was required to graduate from high school there was Mathematics III which seem to be targeted at students who had to take their shoes off to count beyond ten. (As a computer person, I can of course count to 1023 on my fingers.)

To remedy this problem of what was taught where and to whom, Professor Messel started a project which resulted in the first ever integrated science syllabus for secondary education anywhere in the world. This meant that at least the subjects of physics, chemistry, biology and geology would be available to all students in the state. The manifestation of this was the famous Blue Book. First published in 1964, this still stands out for its clarity of writing and explanation. Certainly, there have been amazing advances in science in the half a century since, but the principles remain the same for effective communication. I mentioned the restricted range of science subjects at my high school, and I am very proud to note that Mr Ron Hull, who was Science Master at the school and taught me physics and chemistry for several years, was on the advisory board for the production of the Blue Book. He obviously knew what should be taught even if he didn’t have the facilities to do it.

The change would almost certainly have happened eventually, but all the girls and most of the boys (and many of their parents) can thank Professor Messel for the fact that they are here tonight.

Another thing that Professor Messel did was to set up what was then called the Summer Science School (now the International Science School) with students in the final years of high school being brought together and accommodated at Sydney University to hear lectures from and interact with famous scientists.

One of the people he brought out regularly was not a scientist in the sense that he had extensive publications or had made a major breakthrough discoveries. He was instead an educator. His name was Professor Julius Sumner Miller, and what he did was to perform small experiments and then follow-up with his catchphrase “Why is it so?”.

If you want to see the sort of experiments that he did you can find many of them on YouTube. A warning however – don’t start watching just before you’re about to leave for school or about to go to bed because typing his name in the search box at YouTube returns 27,500 videos.

The question “Why is it so?” is the fundamental question of science. It is all very well do experiments and record the results but unless you know why those results are meaningful you have learnt nothing. I encourage you to find something new every day that causes you to ask yourself the question, because that’s what science and being a scientist is all about.

[I wanted a copy of the hard-to-get Blue Book to hold up during the talk. I would like to thank the family of the late Noel Cannon, founding Principal of Redeemer Baptist School, for lending me the copy from his library. He was a leading figure in the field of Physics Education having being the Science Master at Trinity Grammar, the Kings School and then Principal at Redeemer Baptist School. He was a member of the Science Teachers' Association of New South Wales for over 50 years and he could remember how teachers used to meet regularly to share their favourite experiments.]

This article was published as the Naked Skeptic column in the January/February 2016 edition of Australasian Science

A modified version of this article was published in the December 2015 edition of The Skeptic

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