Voices And Memory: Australian Oral History: 8 March 1997

Astronomers and Women Scientists / Ragbir Bhathal

In this paper I discuss two of my oral history projects: Australian Astronomers and Women in Australian Science. Both projects are part of the National Library's extremely valuable oral history program that aims to preserve the life and achievements of Australia's distinguished men and women in all spheres of scientific and cultural activity through the recorded voice. I believe that the National Library's oral history program is one of the great institutions of Australian cultural life. The Australian Astronomers project dealt mainly with male astronomers and was completed last year. I am now conducting the Women in Australian Science project. Both projects deal with eminent male and female scientists.

The selection criteria for the astronomers project was that the scientists had to be either a Fellow of the Royal Society of London, a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science, a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering, head of a major scientific institution or leader of a major innovative research project. For the women scientists project I use the following criteria: the interviewees have to be women and a Fellow of one of the Academies, head of a major research project or have to have made significant contributions to science. They need not be professors or associate professors in universities or directors of institutions. What I am looking for is their contribution to science. They need not necessarily be elected members or fellows of the patriarchal Academies, as Ann Moyal, a distinguished historian of Australian science, calls these Academies.

The reason for doing these projects is to bring to the attention of fellow Australians the lives and achievements of our best scientists, and also to disseminate information on developments at the frontiers of science and technology to the general public. These projects provide biographical sketches of the scientists I interviewed.

I chose the oral history method to present some aspects of the lives and achievements of the scientists because scientists are less often in the habit of writing their memoirs than people from the worlds of the arts and politics. It is not because scientists are not good writers (many churn out three or four research papers per year). Rather it is an attitude that prevents them from writing their autobiographies. They feel it is an intrusion into their very busy lives. Most top scientists work a punishing 70-80 hours a week. They are also rather reticent about putting personal things down on paper.

My oral history method involves a rather loosely structured format of asking the interviewees questions about themselves and their scientific work. I have avoided the method of letting the interviewees talk more or less randomly about themselves. I have in a sense been guided by Lytton Strachey's approach to biography. In a famous passage in his preface to Eminent Victorians he tells us that a biographer

will row out over that great ocean of material, and lower down into it, here and there, a little bucket, which will bring up to the light of day some characteristic specimen, from those far depths, to be examined with a careful curiosity. (1959, p. 19)

What Strachey was saying is that biographers must select from the vast amount of knowledge available to them 'with the discretion of the artist if he is to achieve a true portrait'. That is what I have attempted to do with my projects Australian Astronomers and Women in Australian Science. Given present financial constraints, it appears to me that it is the only way to proceed with oral history projects. A focused interview, of course, throws greater responsibility on the interviewer to do a lot more background research before he/she begins the interview.

The oral history method allows one to obtain information not readily available in textbooks. It is also very personal. It allows information to be corrected or highlighted. It gives the scientists actually involved in a discovery a chance to tell us their stories in their own words, and to place their discoveries in a broader context. It also allows us to hear at first hand the controversies involved in trying to get their theories accepted.

Let me illustrate some of these points from my work on with Australian astronomers. Chris Christiansen was an Australian pioneer radio astronomer who invented the earth rotation synthesis technique to study radio stars in the 1950s. Despite the fact that he invented and was first to use this technique, British astronomers who write the early history of the development of radio astronomy leave him out of the picture. My interviews with him teased out the truth of the matter and this omission has now been corrected in my book Australian Astronomers: Achievements at the Frontiers of Astronomy . Here is an extract from the interview.

Ragbir Bhathal: You seem to be a little critical of the way British astronomers write about the early history of radio astronomy. Why is this?

Chris Christiansen: Although, they have acknowledged now that Pawsey, Payne-Scott and McCready did show the principle of aperture synthesis first, they've never acknowledged that we were the first to use earth rotational synthesis, which is now of course used by practically every large radio telescope. It takes a lot to convince them. One ex-Cambridge man a senior Fellow, said to me recently, 'You did it, but they'll never admit it'.

So the cat is out of the bag on the international front. Every astronomer worldwide will by now have read of this injustice to Christiansen in my book Australian Astronomers.

Oral history allows you to discover the politics that take place even in scientific institutions. Scientific institutions are not devoid of their politics and politicians. It gives you insight into the work environment which textbooks on the history of science do not ever tell you about. This is an extract from my interview with Ben Gascoigne from the Mount Stromlo Observatory in Canberra. Olin Eggen was a director of the Mount Stromlo Observatory in the 1960s.

Ragbir Bhathal: What was Eggen like as a director?

Sidney (Ben) Gascoigne: Eggen arrived in Stromlo in July 1966 to take up the directorship. I was in charge at the time ... From the day he came he made it clear I had no further part in running the Observatory. I was given no information, saw no documents, attended no meetings, and was asked for no advice, not even in optical matters. [Note: Gascoigne is an international expert in optics.] ... Many people, especially students, rarely saw Eggen. To me, there was a degree of claustrophobia about the general atmosphere, especially later as the place became more isolated, in the wake of the ANU [Australian National University] stand over the AAT [Anglo-Australian Telescope].

Hanbury Brown from the University of Sydney invented the intensity interferometer. With this instrument he solved the problem of measuring the diameter of stars which had plagued astronomers since the time of Galileo. Galileo had tried to measure the diameter of the stars in the 17th century but failed. Albert Michelson, an American Nobel Prize winner in physics had also tried the experiment in the 1900s but failed. It was left to Hanbury Brown to solve the problem in the 1960s. But in the process of building the instrument he had to fight all the way to get his ideas accepted. You can read about the whole controversy in my book Australian Astronomers. The following is a short abstract.

Ragbir Bhathal: Can you tell us about this controversy?

Hanbury Brown: ...When we published the theory of this optical interferometer using intensity interference, we decided that, as this was such a controversial topic, the only thing to do was to set up a laboratory experiment ... I set up this experiment and actually did it. Then Twiss and I published it in Nature and it raised a very great deal of opposition. Two experiments were done to show that it was wrong. One was done in Hungary by Lanos Janossy who wrote an immense paper full of theory showing it was wrong and did the experiments as well. Another was in Canada where they did a careful experiment also showing that it was wrong.

In a physics textbook this experiment is described without the controversy it aroused. All the punches between the scientists are missing. It may be one of the reasons why students are turning away from science. They don't see it as an exciting area for study because the textbooks have turned off the human side of scientific discovery and controversy. What we get in textbooks is a sanitised version of science.

When I began my project on Australian women scientists I was faced with the problem of whether there was a difference between interviewing female scientists as opposed to male scientists. I searched for papers on feminist research and interviewing women and came across a paper called 'Interviewing Women: A Contradiction in Terms' by Ann Oakley (1981). She was critical of the traditional method of interviewing (i.e. the one-way process in which the interviewer elicits and receives information but does not give information) as it is applied to women. She is of the view that the traditional interviewing technique follows a masculine paradigm. She questions the textbook advice to interviewers of adopting an attitude towards interviewees that allocates the latter a narrow and objectified function as data. From her research on motherhood she suggests that the traditional interviewing practice creates problems for interviewers who interview women.

However, I think the problems Oakley raises have to do with her subjects. Many sociologists tend to interview subjects who are either migrants or people from minority groups belonging to a low socio-economic strata. In cases such as these I think the interviewer probably needs to get involved personally with the woes and tribulations of the interviewee to obtain the necessary information. In my study of eminent women scientists I am dealing with a highly intelligent, highly articulate and highly educated group of people who work competitively in the scientific estate and present papers at international conferences which attract both women and men. The women scientists I am interviewing are the equal to, and in some cases surpass the scientific achievements of, their male counterparts. Some of them have even become the gate keepers and gurus of science. Unlike my interviews with male scientists I have taken it upon myself to ask the women scientists about their views on women in science.

The eminent women in science project also looks at the early life, formative years and scientific achievements of a group of women scientists who are working at the frontiers of international science. Just like the astronomers they are judged by an international peer group and not by a parochial scientific community based in Goondoowindi. The project also looks at what actual women scientists are saying about women in science from a working scientist's point of view.

One of the questions that I put to the women scientists was whether they perceived there was a difference in the way male and female scientists look at scientific work. While one of them was unsure how to answer this question, the others I have interviewed so far did not believe that male and female scientists look at scientific work differently. According to Nancy Millis who is a distinguished microbiologist and the Chancellor of La Trobe University, 'I think there is a spectrum of attitudes amongst males and I suspect it's very similar amongst females. I don't think there are science-looking males and females'.

It is generally held that women are more cooperative, consensual and less competitive than their male counterparts. The opinion on this issue was divided. Some women felt that women were cooperative and consensual while others felt that they had to be competitive in order to get to where they are today. Science is a highly meritocratic and highly competitive enterprise. There is always the rush to claim priority of discovery or an idea in the scientific estate. So it seems that one cannot help being competitive. That is the nature of the scientific enterprise. However, having said this, it is also important to realise that the nature and pursuit of science should not be accepted uncritically. There is a need, Keller (1995) tells us, for

the reclamation, from within science, of science as a human instead of a masculine project, and the renunciation of the division of emotional and intellectual labor that maintains science as a male preserve. (p. 178)

Will the influx of more women into science change the culture of science? Jan Anderson, an international authority on photosynthesis and a Fellow of the Royal Society of London, said in interview:

J.A.: I think more women into science will change the culture ... I don't know if women will be more cooperative and less individualistic and competitive ... When you have been someone going through the CSIRO like I have ... then I'm afraid I've had to be very competitive because if you don't put yourself forward in those early years, I wouldn't have got anywhere.

The eminent women scientists project is still in progress. It is proving to be extremely thought provoking, intellectually exciting and interesting. It is also challenging some of the ideas held rightly or wrongly by certain sections of society about women making it to the top in science. I think the general public ought to know that we have internationally recognised women scientists working in Australia and that science can no longer and should never be considered a male preserve.

I must thank the director of the National Library of Australia, Warren Horton, and Mark Cranfield, the Chief Oral History Officer of the National Library, for having the courage and vision to support this oral history project on scientists. I say this because scientists are often the forgotten intellectuals of Australian society.


Bhathal, Ragbir, Australian Astronomers: Achievements at the Frontiers of Astronomy. Canberra: National Library of Australia, 1996.

Keller, Evelyn Fox, Reflections on Gender and Science. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.

Oakley, Ann, 'Interviewing Women: A Contradiction in Terms. In H. Roberts (ed.) Doing Feminist Research. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981.

Strachey, Lytton, Eminent Victorians. New York: The Modern Library, 1959.

Other Readings

Moyal, Ann, Portraits in Science. Canberra: National Library of Australia, 1994.

Thompson, Paul, The Voice of the Past. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Vansina, Jan, Oral Tradition as History. London: James Currey, 1985.

Notes on the author

At the time of writing, Ragbir Bhathal is a physicist, writer and researcher of Australian studies in science, physics and astronomy. He is President of the Sydney Chapter of the Independent Scholars Association of Australia and the SETI Australia Centre at the University of Western Sydney Macarthur. He was awarded the 1996 Nancy Keesing Fellowship by the State Library of New South Wales.

Dr Bhathal emerged as an oral historian with the publication Australian Astronomers in 1996, based on interviews recorded for the National Library of Australia's collection.

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