For reasons that defy explanation the Australian National University condemned a perfectly adequate building that is also the heritage-listed point of origin for world-leading research in half a dozen disciplines. Why squander money and resources? Welcome to tertiary education in Australia
May 31 marked the end of the old Applied Maths Building at ANU. We moved into it in 1971, 47 years ago. For about 20 years before that it had already been home to the famous Department of Geophysics and Geochemistry. Before the war, when both Lake Burley Griffin and ANU were dreams, there were nurses quarters close by and the old hospital. This building has been a center of research for 70 years, there from the very beginning of ANU.
With a magnificent view over the lake and the Brindabella mountains, the building occupied a prime site on campus, where the freeway crosses the creek. Before that, the Ngunawal peoples who owned this country forever caught fish where the Molonglo turned and passed by Black Mountain.
There was no asbestos. The building worked very effectively for collaboration between scientists. It had been declared a major heritage site, not once but twice. No building will replace it for the foreseeable future. Academics will just have to double- and triple-up.
Its demolition is a significant and symbolic act of barbarism. As Henry Lawson suggested : “Something ought to be said . We should have a party or something ”.
There are some lines from Hamlet that are apt.
My words fly up, my thoughts remain below;
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.
Thoughts, not words. That’s the thing .
Apart from lamenting the good old days, as one does, why on earth could it matter for the future of universities?
First of all, remember that in those early times the ANU was an Institute of Advanced Studies — a place of cutting edge research, a place in which undergraduate teaching was deemed a diversion from the main game and not allowed. Research was done in this building of a quality no one imagined. It was first the Dept. of Geophysics and Geochemistry, founded by the eminent applied mathematician John Jaeger. Later it became the Research School of Earth Sciences, one of the leading Schools in its disciplines in the world. For nearly twenty years they did their work here.
Ted Ringwood’s high pressure laboratory was the Tower block in the center where he invented Synroc, a new way of disposing of nuclear waste. Ted’s idea was to put the nuclear waste back into synthetic rocks which resembled those that the uranium originally came from. The competitive technology was to put it inside solid glass and bury it in the ocean. Ted missed out because the competition was owned by Rockwell International which is an organization that makes hydrogen bombs and whose CEO was a friend of President Reagan. Reagan and the Head of Rockwell had adjoining ranches in California . Rockwell pushed glass disposal . Glass won but to no good purpose because the sea water cracked the glass. If Ted had won, the world would have been a better place.
Then there was Bill Compston who developed mass spectrometry and measured the age of the Earth. Then Merv Patterson was there . And Ross Taylor, known for his analysis of rocks that came back from the moon, and for work on the origin of planets. Paleomagnetism research was so important for the theory of continental drift, still heretical even in the early 1960s
After Earth Sciences moved out, our Department of Applied Mathematics came in. It made a lot of remarkable contributions in the Natural Sciences over the years. And a lot of applied experimental and development work was done over and above mathematics. We were scientists and engineers who worked in the enabling disciplines, physical, colloid and surface chemisry that underlie all of biology and chemical engineering.
For example the department’s laboratories did the first measurements on molecular forces , something Isaac Newton tried to do in the 1600s and failed. It did outstanding pioneering work in fibre optics, on porous media which won the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in chemical engineering. These things were commercialised too. It brought strange new non Euclidean geometries into science They turn out to be common geometries of nature; from inorganic chemistry to biology. It made major contributions to membrane biology and changed the face of physical chemistry. Mark Oliphant, one of the five eminent founding fathers of ANU, was our first research visitor for two years after being moved on from his position for being too old, at age 65!
The Applied Maths Building was optimal for personal engagement and collaboration. Everybody, including myriad overseas visitors , loved it. It had all the right stuff, not least the old staff centre. This was a pub without peer, famous worldwide and great for collaboration.
Whatever, it worked. It attracted visitors from many countries. It produced over 100 full professors so far in all kinds of fields, in this country and overseas. There were many PhDs. The department gained all kinds of awards and distinctions. Four of its members or colleagues mentored became chairs of the Nobel Prize Committee in chemistry.
It is all forgotten now, but what we all did will stand. And it will be remembered elsewhere.
At the end of every speech that the elder Cato gave to the Roman Senate , he always finished with : Carthago delenda est. — Carthage must be destroyed!
Something like that is happening here . Why erase the past ? Why bulldoze a perfect working building when funds are being cut?
There are plans for a new building in three or five years time. But if you believe that you believe in fairies. Meantime, academics will have to double- and triple-up in cramped quarters. There has been no reason advanced for the abolition of a twice-declared heritage site, one with with so many triumphs.
Imagine if some administrator decided to abolish a college at Cambridge, perhaps including, say, Newton’s old rooms. It simply could not happen, would not be allowed to happen, and it ought not to have happened here. The life of the building spanned a gentler time for scholarship and learning in universities and the end of that era should also be mourned.
A poem by E.W.Horning after the Great War catches a whiff of it , and the ghosts of those who were here.
Who are the ones that we can not see,
Though we feel them as near as near?
In chapel we felt them bend the knee,
At the match one felt them cheer.
In the deep still shade of the Colonade,
In the ringing quads full light,
They are laughing here , they re chaffing there,
Yet never in sound or sight
The lights are going out in universities across Australia, with the triumph of a grim political correctness and the death of history. The old Australian larrikin dipped his “lid” to no man. He is gone. The Enlightenment has gone and with it Science itself
Vale the Applied Maths Building.
(This essay is an edited version of that which appeared in Substantia, a Journal of the History of Chemistry published by UNI Florence Press.)
Barry Ninham founded the Department of Applied Mathematics in 1970. He is an Emeritus Professor at ANU. He does research with many collaborators in Italy, Russia, Sweden and other countries. Last year he was awarded the Matthew Flinders Medal of the Academy of Sciences, its most distinguished award