Graduation address given by Dr Ann Moyal AM

Dr Ann Moyal AM gave the occasional address at the Faculty of Arts graduation ceremony held at 11.30am on 26 October 2007. Dr Moyal is an historian of Australian science and recipient of Doctor of Letters (honoris causa).

Graduation address

I am delighted to find myself receiving a distinguished honorary degree from my alma mater. And I warmly thank the University for conferring this honour upon me.

Despite our rather quiet acceptance of all we were offered in my far off undergraduate days, I have, from the sound training I received, gone on to enjoy a career of great opportunity, diversity and interconnections - all ingredients, I’m sure, which await you as you take your professional places in this infinitely more complex and diversifying world.

Very early in my career, I had the good fortune to work for a period in London with a very powerful man, Lord Beaverbrook, the British press lord and member of Churchill’s wartime Cabinet, who gave me a very special gift of advice. It was ‘not to be overawed by the sources of power, or people of power; to be brave; to take risks, and to become a participant. And these are messages, I pass on to you as you go forth in your careers today.

I mentioned interconnections, and as a historian of Australian science who has, in my work, brought together science and the humanities, I want to speak today about the interrelationship of these so-called ‘two cultures’ and the importance of their increasing closeness.

My own qualification in science when I was invited in Australia to take up this field of history was negligible and consisted only of school geology. But researching and delving, and building knowledge and connections with scientists, alive and dead, it became possible to construct a vast landscape of social history in an arena that had been formerly overlooked.

Working from the first appearance on our shores of Cook and Banks, through the diaries, letters and journals of a cavalcade of venturesome naturalists and explorers, I encountered a company of remarkably modern participants whose nineteenth century enterprise, discoveries, and practices made outstanding contributions to Australia’s progress and whose stories added a vivid thread to our cultural history.

Intellectually and philosophically, it was a revelation. It had long been held by many Australian historians, that Colonial Australia was a cultural wilderness cut off from the currents of European thought, and caught in an intellectual barrenness of its own. Rather, working through the vast array of letters of Colonial scientists I would uncover a rich scientific community emerging from the 1850’s with a lively exchange of information and discoveries between the scattered Colonial naturalists and between Colonial scientists and leading scientists around the world.

I would also discover the singular importance that Australia with its unique fauna played in challenging the accepted taxonomic classificatory systems of Britain and Europe; in fertilizing nineteenth century evolutionary theory, and the role that our curious fauna continue to play in yielding insights from DNA investigation into their significant physiological relationships with humankind.

Across two centuries, innovation and technology also played a pivotal part. It was highly enlightening to me to write the large history of telecommunications, Clear Across Australia , where inventiveness, technical know-how, imagination, and human determination spun the evolving lines and differing systems of communication out across what Prime Minister Deakin called ‘a country of magnificent distances’ .

And in my more contemporary studies, I have brought history to bear in examining the growth of our scientific institutions, exploring the political and social attitudes to nuclear policy, and, in my most recent book – of all things- a historical biography of the Koala, contemplating issues relating to environment, to conflicting government policies for wildlife management, and questions that turn on the important point that this country is not only for humans.

All these pieces of scientific history have illustrated how the driving forces of science and technology have intersected with society and how human responses, creativity and understanding have merged to frame the process of social change.

The phrase the ‘two cultures’, which I have mentioned, was first coined some 50 years ago by the English novelist C.P. Snow. Snow was trained as a scientist who worked at Cambridge by day and wrote his novels at night. Passing regularly between the two disciplines, he came to deplore what he saw as the great divide that had opened up between humanists and the rising tide of scientists since WW11. ‘I felt constantly’, he wrote, ‘that I was moving among two groups- comparable in intelligence but who had almost ceased to communicate with each other.’ Snow’s concept of this divide, this gulf between two mindsets and frameworks of knowledge, stirred great discussion at the time and continues to retain quite some relevance today.

There is, of course, growing evidence in this University - and in others - of important cross-disciplinary approaches in research and teaching and some id apparent in the work of some of the postgraduates today. Yet, in this 21st century, we face mammoth challenges that are centred in science – man-made climate change, global warning, nuclear futures, the water crisis, species extinction, stem cell research, global terrorism, and the internet and other rapidly changing forms of communication and knowledge, to name a few.

So I believe we need above all to work together, to dissolve the barriers, to make use of all our intellectual equipment, creativity, values and analytical skills to address these questions. We critically need the insights and training of people drawn from the Arts and its many disciplines, to help shape our very interesting, complex, yet dangerous future.

So I see you today - an emerging body of very talented graduates - as a potential leaven in the national loaf - capable of bringing your skills to make intelligent interconnections; not intimidated or turned off by science, but emerging as ‘engaged participants’.

Today, however, is essentially a time for celebration and congratulation. I extend my warm congratulations to you all for your individual achievements across many fields and subjects; to your teachers for their contribution to your success, and to your parents and the proud part they have played in your presence here today.

Let me close with the timely words of a great world figure, a former Secretary-General of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjold:

‘For the Past Thanks! for the Future, Yes!’