November 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.

More Waterhouse Memories

I enjoyed David Tunny’s piece on Eryldene, Professor Waterhouse’s Gordon house (SAM July 2010). I draw to readers’ attention that the south also commemorates this fascinating man’s work, with the EG Waterhouse National Camellia Gardens in Caringbah.

Waterhouse’s own great achievements aside, he remains intrinsic to the University’s history. He was the Senate’s replacement Professor of German and Comparative Literature upon its 1925 sacking of Christopher Brennan (ostensibly for adultery). I hasten to add that Waterhouse was previously and would remain a loyal friend. Brennan’s biographer Axel Clark records that the Waterhouses housed him – presumably at Eryldene – in his darkest hours, and that in later years, at lunches of les Compliques, the Francophone club founded by Waterhouse and others, Brennan would slap his own knee and say “put it there, put it there!” whereupon Waterhouse would pass a pound note under the table.

In the Brennan context, I particularly enjoyed the reference in the article to Sir Norman Cowper. The knighthood and an establishment career belie a firm support for the unconventional. I think it fitting that the day after the sacking, Brennan visited poet Hugh McCrae’s house in Balmoral where he enjoyed distracting McCrae’s daughter with recitations of his poems, as she prepared for her marriage to Cowper the next day.

David Ash (BA '84 LLB '87 LLM '96)
North Bondi NSW

Heavy Lifting Eadem

Debate on the no-frills logo and its missing motto has included several restatements of the meaning of “Sidere mens eadem mutato”, all agreeing that it’s something like “The spirit is the same though the stars have changed”. But as one who studied no Latin I’ve wondered since I was an undergrad 40-something years ago how all that could be packed into such a tight phrase. Okay, general knowledge allowed some of it to fall into place: “sidere” ought to be stars; “mens” something like spirit; and mutato some form of change. “Stars spirit [something] change”. “Eadem” is the one I never got. As best I could ever figure it had to mean, “the preceding noun experiences the opposite action to the following verb, which acts upon the first word in this phrase, the latter action notwithstanding the former”. That’s some pretty heavy lifting for such a short word. I’d be grateful if someone could deconstruct the dear old motto a little better for me – perhaps the scholar who last year informed us startled SAM readers that we are pronounced “Ah-loong-knee”!

Jeffrey Mellefont (BA ’72)
Coogee NSW

Eight Crucial Minutes

I, for one, am indebted to Michael O’Callaghan (Letters, SAM July ’10) for his fine explanation of what Science claims to do. He does make it all sound so simple. But if we can choose the theory of man-made global warming as an example I do see problems with the explanation. If science never claims to have proved any positive assertion about the nature of the world, then any hypothesis of man-made CO2 ought to be adopted as orthodox scientific thought when the hypothesis has stood for a long time. It would have been an enormous help if Dr O’Callaghan had given some clearer idea of the time needed to scientifically qualify.

In the absence of such detail it appears that the man-made CO2 hypothesis is running into scientific limbo. Consensus was said to have been achieved on the reliance of modelling, but all too soon it was pointed out that those results were problematic, and the findings didn’t reasonably fit recorded observed phenomena. However, for certain scientists it appeared that this was one scientific principle that did not have the sword of Damocles hanging over it. Other scientists claimed there are still too many unseen and unforeseen observations to be made on the natural world.

Certainly Dr O’Callaghan’s third condition for scientific claims, namely that the hypothesis is promptly discarded if predictions are not borne out, is not to be found in the practice of today’s science. Science has changed since the days of Johann Kepler, who found his calculation of the position of Mars was out by eight seconds of an arc when using the data of a Danish astronomer. Consequently he found his results contradicted all previous Greek astronomy dating back to Aristotle’s theories. He did, however progress the mathematical relationship between heavenly bodies – our first natural laws – and achieved the synthesis of astronomy and physics. Kepler, a scientist with deep humility, acknowledged the accuracy of the Danish astronomer’s instruments, “For if I had believed we could ignore these eight minutes, I would have patched up my hypothesis accordingly. But since it is not permissible to ignore them, these eight minutes point the road to a complete reformation of astronomy.”

Climatology has synthesised certain disciplines of science, and with a certain humility, climatologists do update their forecasting of the next week’s weather. I’m hoping some unseen, or unforeseen observation will soon point the road to a new science like Kepler’s dioptrics. The future for my grandchildren still looks optimistic while scientists hold onto a degree of wonderment about the world.

Teresa Varjavandi (BA ’82)
Balgowlah Heights NSW

More Moving Forward

Predictably, the University’s new logo has “been controversial for some alumni” (Letters, SAM July ’10).

Personally, I think it’s a stylish rejuvenation simply reflecting the times or, to borrow a slogan, a case of “moving forward”.

Of course, ultimately, it’s all a matter of opinion, but the reality is that “some people have good taste; others not so good”.

Edward Loong (BA ’66 LLB ’69)
Milsons Point NSW

Theist v Atheist

Michael O’Callaghan and Richard Birrell (SAM, July ’10) seem to have misunderstood my position on the question of God and evidence (SAM, March ’10). Dr O’Callaghan suggests that questions such as that of God’s existence are not ones to which the scientific method can properly be applied. I quite agree, which is why I nowhere use the word “science”, or refer to the scientific method. My use of the term “empirical methodology” was intended to embrace methods of attempting to establish truth based on experience and observation, assessed through the filter of reason: a process essentially different from the standard scientific method as described by Dr O’Callaghan.

He concludes by dismissing belief in God as “(merely) a matter of faith”. One of the aims of my letter was to point out the difficulty of seeing methods of determining truth based on empirical methods as inherently superior, or more reliable, than all possible alternatives. As far as I can see, nothing in Dr O’Callaghan’s letter could be construed as evidence that his view is correct.

Richard Birrell begins by suggesting that my view of God and evidence leads inevitably to a logical absurdity. Mr Birrell seems not to have grasped the implication of his own argument. If “a lack of empirical evidence in support of a belief that God might exist can only be proof of his non-existence” on the basis of an absurdity, it hardly seems a reasonable proposition – which is precisely my point.

Given, then, that it still seems difficult to come to satisfactory conclusions on the question of God’s existence purely on empirical grounds, it is not unreasonable to think, contrary to Mr Birrell’s suggestion, that there might validly be qualitative differences between the way believers organise their thinking concerning God, and the reasoning factors they apply to other areas of their lives.

Mr Birrell’s final points are based on his assertion that “it is the believer who has to justify his/her belief”. His reference to leprechauns, etc, does not constitute a meaningful comparison with belief in the God of the Bible, since no sane adult seriously thinks that belief in fairies, etc, is warranted; but further, it suggests an evidentiary epistemology, which is problematic when applied absolutely (as against pragmatic concerns). Where is the evidence that one should only ever believe propositions for which there is adequate evidence?

On the basis of the above, the claim that the atheist position is intellectually more virtuous than that of the theist still seems difficult to sustain.

Gregory Thiele (BA (Hons) ‘90)
Lewisham NSW

Gorgeous or Gaudy

Thanks to Helen Frizell Kenny for reminding us of the University song (Letters, SAM July ‘10). But did it say “gorgeous profs”? I don’t think so.

The song had died out by the time I started (early 1950s) but I knew it due to my hearing it from my mother, who had been a student in the late 1920s.

It was sung to the tune of “Men of Harlech” and my memory of the opening is:
Grads and undergrads and fellows
gaudy (sic) profs in reds and yellows
sing with hearts (lungs?) as strong as bellows to our varsity.

Another verse included something like
More and more attack the law
and revel in its method of defining.

I imagine that the University archive has the full text – can SAM publish it?

Anton Crouch (BSc ’57)
Glebe NSW

Logo in Perspective

Despite a long defensive reply, about the new University logo, to Neil Radford’s letter “Trendy Nonsense” (SAM July ’10), for former students it was not “arrogant, old fashioned, ivory towerish”. 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 (BA (Hons) ’52 MEd ’68)
Aachen Germany