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Taking Astronomy to the Outback

Anglo-Australian Observatory Newsletter | 15 May 2000

The DC3 outside the Birdsville pub
The DC3 outside the Birdsville pub

By Fred Watson Astronomer-in-Charge

OVER THE YEARS, many AAO astronomers have found themselves involved with National Science Week, Australia’s annual science promotion jamboree. It’s usually good fun, but is seldom a

life-changing experience.

For two of us, though, this year’s National Science Week has been entirely different. David Malin and I have just spent an unforgettable seven days participating in an event with the appealing title of “Science in the Pub Goes Outback”. It has been an amazing week, in which the everyday faded from sight and the extraordinary became commonplace.

The recipe was simple. Take 20 scientists, science journalists, media movers and shakers; add one photographer and one composer. And a guitar. Shake them well in a veteran DC3 aircraft, and ferry them around some of the remotest areas of Queensland and New South Wales.

At each venue, hold a series of lively, upbeat events: “Science in the Pub” (two scientists and two media comperes at the mercy of an inquisitive evening audience), “Science in the Bush” (rather gentler presentations during the day, with coffee instead of beer), and “Starry Starry Night” (astronomers exploring the cultural side of their science under the stars, with an Aboriginal Dreamtime interpreter, a famous musician and a few telescopes). Spice it with school visits, slide shows and the odd civic reception, and you have a potent mixture.

Of course, this was strictly an extra-mural activity, but the AAO featured prominently in many of the events. Indeed, it had played a significant part in the project’s gestation, for it was in my office at the AAT that Robyn Stutchbury (inspired originator and manager of the project), Michael Burton

(of UNSW), Wilson da Silva (of Newton magazine) and yours truly drew the threads of the trip together last November.

So, when Robyn’s fundraising, cajoling, organising, promotion and general encouragement had finally run its course, off we went.

Friday 5th May dawned to record-breaking overnight rain in central NSW, but after a spectacular landing through a 300-foot cloud-base in Dubbo to pick up the guitar (and me), the team headed west through clearing skies towards Broken Hill, our first venue.

Then came Birdsville, Longreach, Charleville and, finally, Bourke. A week ago, they were just names on a map; now they are smiling faces, cheerful venues, cramped accommodation, blue skies, and a landscape more reminiscent of Ireland than central Australia because of all the rain.

Most extraordinary was Birdsville, a tiny community at the edge of the Simpson Desert, where the pub is literally at the end of the runway. (A statistic to reckon with: the Diamantina Shire in which Birdsville is situated covers an area the size of Denmark ó and has a total population of 200.)

The swollen, kilometre-wide Diamantina River made ground-travel difficult, but we braved flooded roads to present “Science in the Bush” at Roseberth, an historic and scenically stunning cattle station. Our hosts, the Morton family, told us that Roseberth covered a modest 2,500 square miles.

Birdsville won my heart, but it was the children of the outback who stole it completely. There is nothing quite like sitting in a studio of the School of the Air being greeted by dozens of young, almost babyish voices from isolated homesteads chorusing “Good mor-ning Mis-ter Wat-son”. Their appetite for astronomy was insatiable, and when I finished off with a very silly song about aliens their applause over the loudspeaker was as enthusiastic as any on the trip. Heart-warming stuff, I can tell you.

And the tour was a great opportunity to spend time with two good friends: David, of course, and Ross Edwards, one of Australia’s best-known contemporary composers. Our afternoon “Art meets Science” sessions featured David’s stunning AAO images juxtaposed with a video clip of Ross’s sublime “Dawn Mantras”, which was performed on the sails of the Sydney Opera House before a TV audience of 2 billion people to greet the new millennium. I don’t believe anyone left these sessions unmoved by what they had seen and heard.

Though the TV crews who were supposed to be accompanying us didn’t materialise, the tour had a high media profile. Most complete is the copiously-illustrated online diary of ABC personality Bernie Hobbs.

Fred Watson, Wilson da Silva, David Malin, Bernie Hobbs
Fred Watson, Wilson da Silva, David Malin, Bernie Hobbs

Of course, we made mistakes on the trip, and learned what could be done better next time, but overall it seems to have been an outstanding success. Reflecting on the whole thing after I arrived home, several thoughts came to mind.

First was that considering how lively and outspoken most of the participants were, the general level of harmony between us was nothing short of astonishing. Secondly, I was very conscious of the debt owed to Helen Edwards, Phillippa Malin and Trish Watson, the unsung stay-at-homes who enabled Ross, David and me to do what we did in promoting the AAO.

And last was that my long-held suspicion that Coonabarabran has far more in common with suburban Sydney than outback Australia has been totally confirmed. We really are just a slightly remote corner of the metropolitan area. Good thing we don’t have their lights, though.


The Department of Industry, Science and Resources (through its Science and Technology Awareness Program) and the University of NSW Faculty of Science and Technology were major sponsors of “Science in the Pub”, “Science in the Bush”, school visits and distance education broadcasts, whilst the U Committee of the University of NSW sponsored “Starry Starry Night”.

Other sponsors include the Australian Mathematics Society, the Garvan Institute, the Australia Telescope National Facility, Sydney Observatory (Powerhouse Museum), New Scientist, Macquarie University, and a number of the outback centres. National Science Week is an initiative of the Australian Science Festival, the Australian Science Teachers’ Association and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.


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