July 2010 Letters

Opinions expressed in the pages of the magazine are those of the signed contributors or the editor and do not necessarily represent the official position of the University of Sydney.

Needlessly Cumbersome?

Clyde Long (Letters, Summer ’09) quotes dates as CE and BCE. I presume this is meant to mean “common era” as a politically correct nod in the direction of the atheists/agnostics/anti-Christians or whatever.

Who is the era common to? Not to Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Chinese, pre-Tsarist Russians, Zoroastrians and probably others. The era therefore is only common to Christians so why not call it for what it is. To date the others have accepted this definition as a practical convenience.

I do support the substituting of CE for AD due to the demise of Latin literacy among the general public, but it needs to be accepted for what it is.

It is inevitably Christian since the year zero of the world’s calendar is taken as the arbitrary date of the birth of Christ, for want of a better definition, even though astronomers suggest that Christ may actually have been born in 4BC.

Therefore let us call BC “Before Christ” and CE “Christian Era”. BCE is needlessly cumbersome.

John B Walker (MBBS ’51)
Edgecliff NSW

Tubular Bells

I thoroughly enjoyed reading “For Him The Bells Toll”, (SAM Summer ’09). It is fantastic to see traditional instruments and musicians being given the spotlight for a change.

I’m also from Hong Kong, and have played a similarly traditional instrument, the pipe organ, since high school. Like the carillon, the pipe organ is large with different sounds and extensive pedals, quite different from the piano in structure and complexity.

Why not feed your curiosity by visiting some organ concerts? You may come to appreciate something that you may have missed all your life. Concerts are often advertised on www.sydneyorgan.com and are regularly held in the Great Hall. Some are even held in conjunction with carillon concerts!

Arthur Lee (BCom ’04 LLB ’05)
Bexley North, NSW

Irrational Attitudes

We were warned long ago, in a poem by Ogden Nash, that “he who attempts to tease a cobra is soon a sadder he and sobra”. So when a small cobra tried to enter my suburban kitchen I did not tease it, but killed it with a spade. It fought hard, reminding me that it had a built in, genetically determined instinct to fend off danger.

The same applies to the ancestors of all contemporary species of sentient organisms, including Homo sapiens. Our remotest ancestors must have had the cobra’s determination to survive and the genes required for it.

However, our ancestors became more and more intelligent as the eons rolled on, and at some stage they realised that the imperative within was to avoid death. Later, perhaps, they realised that no individual could avoid it. There was thus a conflict. Then came resolution! There is another life after death, for our souls.

It seems likely that the concept of the soul developed very early in our evolution. Winwood Reade, in The Martyrdom of Man, suggested that a villager, dreaming of a dead chief, might have concluded that he was still alive in some other dimension, and had returned to convey a message or an order.

In present-day Taoism there are common beliefs and practices (of ancient origin) that accord with Reade’s idea. In a very recent case in Malaysia, the soul of a man, who had died tragically, appeared in a relative’s dream to request changes in the arrangements for his funeral. That, at least, was how the dream was interpreted, and acted upon.

The genetically determined instinct to reject death may lie behind some of the more irrational attitudes to abortion, euthanasia and even suicide.

The pathological depression commonly preceding suicide can, as we now know, be treated medically. We were not always so wise. In 19th century NSW attempted suicide was a crime. One man who tried to cut his throat failed in his intention; his wounds were sewn up and he was then hanged, successfully, for the crime.

I cannot give a source for this story, which I read many decades ago. I should be grateful to anyone who could. The tale is instructive, reminding us yet again of Schiller’s pessimistic remark: “With stupidity the gods themselves battle in vain.”

G.F.J. Moir (BSc ’49)
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Eyres and Graces

Having just completed a story about “unseen presences”, ghosts, etc, including one on the Eyre Peninsula, I opened SAM (March ’10) to find someone else who appreciates that wonderful place.

We were returning from a visit to Lincoln National Park and decided to camp for the night at Carapee Conservation Park, an inselberg south of Kimba. As I lit the fire my wife walked off into the reasonably dense bush for an evening stroll. She was back in record time without saying a word. I then took my turn and after turning up a small gully I decided it was time I returned to the camp without delay. We packed up early next morning and it was not until we returned to Adelaide that we confessed to each other that there was some very strange feeling about the area and that we were not welcome by whatever presence there was there.

During our time in the Solomon Islands we had lived in so called haunted houses where others had strange experiences but at no time did we feel unease. So we considered we were not “switched on” to such unseen presences.

But do not let our experience stop you from visiting the beautiful Peninsula.

James LO Tedder (BEc ’51)
Stuarts Point, NSW

Einstein Factor

It would be interesting to know where Bob Hinchcliffe (Letters, SAM March ’10) found his quotation from Albert Einstein, since, although it is frequently quoted, it is difficult to track down the source. Einstein actually said, “I do not believe in a personal god and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly”. He went on to say, “The word ‘god’ is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weakness, and the Bible a collection of honourable but still purely primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish”. It is difficult to reconcile these authenticated quotes with the views that seem to be conveyed in Bob Hinchcliffe’s letter, although Einstein was known to take a wide view of the meaning of the word “religion”, and this has perhaps caused some confusion amongst theistic apologists.

Bruce Hyland (DipTCPlan ’60)
Daleys Point, NSW

Greenhouse Gas

I couldn’t agree more with Duncan Ivison’s proclamation (SAM, March ’10) that graduates should be able to “write a decent sentence”. Having spent the past five years trying to convince Sydney Uni’s physics students that good writing skills are essential for a career in pretty much anything, I’ve often wished that academics in all fields, not just humanities, placed more emphasis on the quality of writing. In my experience, only about one in three second-year science students is capable of correct spelling, grammar and punctuation, to say nothing of good style.

Humourously [sic], just after his proclamation about writing skills, Ivison wrote, “Our student body needs to be diverse and accessible to of ability and potential”, which just goes to show how fiendishly difficult it is to write well.

Cliff Kerr (BSc (Hons) ’05, PhD Physics ’10)
Camperdown, NSW

The egregious error of the missing word mentioned by Dr Kerr is all mine, whereas the misspelling of humorous is all his! –Ed

Ruby Remembered

I shared Caroline Baum’s story of the biography of Ruby Payne-Scott (SAM March ’10) with my father, Les Clague, now 94 and living in retirement in Mudgee, NSW, whose working life was spent as a Technical Officer with the Radiophysics Division of CSIR/CSIRO.

He remembers Ruby Payne-Scott well - she was his boss in the 1940s - and he made the same progression from wartime radar work to post-war radio astronomy, as did she. Perhaps he could throw some light on biographer Miller Goss’s unanswered question as to why she became so intrigued by radio astronomy. I got the impression from father that her interest in astronomy predated 1945. It may well be that a vision of the potential peacetime application of radar technology was fermenting in earlier years and simply needed a champion to pitch for the radio astronomy program and its ongoing funding at CSIRO after the war.

The champions of the radio astronomy program were clearly successful at the time. The world-leading research of Payne-Scott and the other outstanding scientists at the Radiophysics Laboratory, then and since is the legacy of that commitment. It certainly did my father no harm: he spent some 35 years working there, much of the time with the radio astronomy teams interspersed with periods working in the cloud physics program.

The Radiophysics Laboratory in the grounds of the University was a very family friendly workplace, at least in the 1940s and early ’50s. I well recall successive annual Christmas parties where we children would receive gifts of toys made in the basement workshops. It was certainly the kind of place where the secret of Payne-Scott’s marriage would be kept by any colleagues aware of it.

As to Goss’s other unanswered question as to how and why she left the Communist Party of Australia, there may be little mystery in that, although there are others better qualified than I to account for the divisions and decline of the CPA, particularly among its members in Sydney in the 1950s. There were certainly a number of women of Payne-Scott’s intellectual stature in the CPA in Sydney in this period, some of whom were my wife Joyce’s mentors after she arrived in Sydney from a NSW north coast Aboriginal reserve in the 1950s and who were leading members of the Aboriginal Australian Fellowship and supporters of FCAATSI.

Colin Clague (DipSW ‘65, BA ‘75)
Maclean, NSW

Good Old Damocles

Gregory Thiele’s argument for the existence of God (Letters, SAM, March ’10) is based in part on a misconception of what Science claims to do (“how can it be proved empirically that we should only believe things that we can prove empirically?”)

Science never claims to have proved any positive assertion about the natural world. It seeks to explain how the natural world works by the following iterative process:

  1. A parsimonious and testable explanatory hypothesis is advanced that fits an observed phenomenon.
  2. Predictions are made from the hypothesis regarding what phenomena should be observed under different conditions if the hypothesis is true.
  3. Those predictions are tested by experiment and the hypothesis is promptly discarded if the predictions are not borne out.

When a hypothesis has stood for sufficient time without being thus disproved it comes to be adopted as part of orthodox scientific thought.

That is a far cry from its having been proved empirically to be true.
Thus, the sword of Damocles hangs forever over the head of every scientific principle. No scientist can ever be absolutely certain that a so-called “law of nature” will never be disproved by hitherto unseen and unforeseen observation.

That said, it may be thought then that, since the hypothesis of the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent God has stood without being disproved for a long time, it ought to be adopted as orthodox scientific thought. The problem with that idea is that the hypothesis is inherently un-testable. Whether you espouse the resurrection of Jesus or an afterlife for each of us, no rational experiment can be devised that will test your hypothesis. The God hypothesis is also far from parsimonious. We do not need such an elaborate hypothesis to explain our existence. Isn’t it far simpler and more satisfactory to say that the natural world has a continuous existence and we, as individuals, have brief lives within that world?

Gregory Thiele may cling to a belief in the existence of God as a matter of faith, if he wishes, but that is all it is – a matter of faith.

Michael O’Callaghan (BSc (Hons) ’66 MSc ’69, PhD (Maths) ’77)
Eugowra, NSW

Monkee Business

Gregory Thiele (Letters, SAM March ’10) proposes that if God exists we can only know him by how he reveals himself to us. In Mr Thiele’s own words “all recourse to human reason as the ultimate arbiter of truth in the matter” (God’s existence or non existence) “is futile”.

It would appear that Mr Thiele’s thought process runs somewhat as follows: a lack of empirical evidence in support of a belief that God might exist can only be proof of his non-existence if that higher authority (God) had revealed to us that he does not exist. That is clearly absurd therefore God must exist.

That Mr Thiele and his fellow believers can base their conviction of belief on revelation alone untroubled by logic or reason or empirical evidence is their concern. It is however, incumbent on them to explain how it is they can presumably, religiously apply logical reasoning and empirical evidence to all other aspects of their existence but arbitrarily dismiss these essential reasoning factors when they relate to what one must believe is, for them, the most important and central aspect of their lives.

In the final analysis, if anyone has to prove anything it is the believer who has to justify his/her belief. The atheist does not have to prove that God does not exist any more than he/she has to prove that leprechauns, fairies or elves don’t exist. If anyone thinks they do, only reasoned argument and the application of empirical methodology would be sufficient to convert others to their belief.

Richard Birrell (BA ’57)
Waitara, NSW

Magis mutat, magis manet ... the new University coat of arms

Different University coats of arms

The University’s new logo has been controversial for some alumni. Those who believe it is a departure from a long and important tradition might be comforted to know that since the University was given its Grant of Arms in 1857, there have been many redesigns and tweaks to the original crest with its curlicues. A small selection of these designs is reproduced here (courtesy of the University of Sydney Archive).

For everyday use, the simplified logo is now standard issue. In order to reinforce the importance of our history, the University has reverted to using the original 1857 coat of arms for ceremonial purposes, and the Latin “Sidere mens eadem mutato”, is still very much the University’s motto: it is referred to proudly – and legibly, with explanatory text for those who have not studied Latin – wherever appropriate.

Meanwhile, the Chancellor's Committee reports that a range of memorabilia carrying the old coat of arms is still available at discounted prices. See sydney.edu.au/ccs/shop.

It is not surprising that Neil Radford was annoyed by the apparently insensitive adoption of a modern logo to facilitate online and media communication for the University (Letters, SAM March ’10). As a former University Librarian (1980-1996), Neil has continued his support of the University by endowing a staff development scholarship scheme for library staff. Also, in the beautifully produced Fisher Library Centenary 1909-2009, Neil is credited with providing much of the text. “His long association with the University and its libraries provide him with an insight that is unique.”

The Senate adopted the Grant of Arms to the University of Sydney from the College of Heralds, London on May 14, 1857. The logo may retain all the heraldic components required under the Grant of Arms, but not the Latin motto Sidere mens eadem mutato (“Though the stars are changed our spirit is the same”), which implies that the tradition of ancient universities will be continued in Australia. (The University of Sydney 1850-1975, G.L. Fischer, University Archivist, 1975). It is a pity that the computer age cannot continue this tradition.

Thank you, Neil Radford, for speaking for the traditionalists among us.

Shirley McGlynn (BA ’48)
Lavender Bay, NSW

Many thanks to Neil Radford for his criticism of the University’s new logo. I agree.

Before “alumni” and “campuses” migrated from Rome via the USA, there was no campus at the University of Sydney. Here, to quote the old song, “Grads and undergrads and Fellows/Gorgeous Profs in reds and yellows” trod the University’s grounds.

“Logo” (Greek) meant “word” not a “shape” or “crest better suited to media, particularly online.” I do not know what is left of the Arms of the University of Sydney (1857), incorporating the open book of Oxford, the Royal Lion of Cambridge and four stars. Sidere mens eadem mutato implies that the tradition of these ancient universities will be continued here. Have you killed it?

The answer to Neil Radford, written in modish PR English with an IT flourish, is almost incomprehensible to this once lowly student of Professors Holme and Todd. To quote Ovid – in English – “Thou beginnest better than thou endest. The last is inferior to the first.”

Helen (Frizell) Kenny (BA ’41)
Lavender Bay, NSW

Despite a long defensive reply about a new University logo, Neil Radford’s letter “Trendy nonsense” is sound criticism. For former students it [coat of arms] was not “arrogant, old-fashioned, ivory tower-ish”. Historians and many of today’s students will see the former logo in perspective, many outstanding Australians qualified under it, including Neil Radford.

Joan M Ritchie (MEd ‘68)
Aachen, Germany

Having been associated with the Nation’s first Teaching Hospital (Sydney), and seen it dismembered by the politicians, I am distraught that the first University should want to “modernise” its logo. A young country like ours (an adopted one for a “refo” like me) should, in my view, try to preserve what traditions it has built up over its short (modern) history. Was a survey or referendum of Alumni done before this momentous, and, I presume, irreversible step was decided on? If so I missed it. Could a retrospective survey still be done to know people’s views?

Alex B.L. Hunyor (MBBS ’64 BSc (Med) ’61)
McMahons Point, NSW

Dr Radford was rightly concerned about money being spent on changing the University’s coat of arms into a logo at a time when academic departments are suffering financially (Letters, SAM March ’10). Marian Theobald’s response opened by offering the red herring of aesthetic differences. It may well be “that this project was carried out as economically as possible”, as one would expect, but it need not have cost even one cent! Unlike the charges and tinctures, the actual shape of the coat of arms is not determined in the grant by the College of Arms. If no one in the External Relations section was able to draw a shape differing from that previously used, then a quick visit to the University Library would have provided standard books illustrating different designs.

If the Library no longer holds such a book, then perhaps External Relations could have donated one?

Edward Reid-Smith (EdD ’02)
Wagga Wagga, NSW