Deconstructing ANU

wrecking ball IIMay 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.

And memories.

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

9 thoughts on “Deconstructing ANU

  • en passant says:

    Why do it?

    Because they can …

    Heritage – Who cares? We are the PC Left

    Real Science? – Who cares? We are the PC Left and Algebra is racist and not gender balanced

    Money? – Who cares? We are the PC Left and the taxpaying proles OWE us their money for a new building

    Memories – Who cares? We are the PC Left and memories are bourgeois affectations of a time before the PC revolution that must be excised.

    • lloveday says:

      On the opposite hand, lunatic-left Gawler (SA) Council obtained a heritage order or some such to prevent the Jockey Club, as part of their upgrading of facilities, demolishing an old Tote building, unused for yonks, so decrepit that the windows sported sheets of rusty corrugated iron. To get the money for upgrading, the Club sold off an unused part of the racecourse land for $6m, but only after said lunatics had spent $500k of ratepayer money unsuccessfully opposing the rezoning of the land – they wanted it to lay vacant, but maintained by the Jockey Club, despite being situated on the Main North Road, the major north-south arterial route through the suburbs north of Adelaide and a prime site for the shopping centre now there.

      Council staff came every day in their ratepayer-paid car, checking that nothing untoward was being done, so I suggested to the CEO, a mate of mine, that if the keys were left in a bulldozer overnight, a “vandal” would drive it into the dilapidated Tote building. He would not come at that, but there were 3 of the many trees on the property where they wanted to erect new facilities, including a multi-function hall, which is now used by, inter alia, the nearby High School, and my mate knew better than to apply for Council permission to cut them down, so he had a crew remove them at night and fill in the holes.

      Mate reckons that next day the Council lackeys were looking around as if they sensed something was up, but did not cotton on to what had happened.

  • brian.doak@bigpond.com says:

    The revolutionaries in 1917 St Peterburg would have destroyed the Winter Palace but authority was imposed to save it.
    Obviously Canberra [no Ransay Centre for Western Civilisation here] has fallen to the Bolshevik mob.

  • johanna says:

    It is indeed sad, Barry. The progressive uglification of the ANU campus over recent decades is very depressing.

    Growth for growth’s sake and activity for activity’s sake are now the ruling passions of the administrative class who run the ANU. They are obsessed with renovations and construction and destruction, as though the place is now the location of one of those TV reality shows. Any activity, as long as it generates make-work and justification for more dollars, is preferable to preserving and nurturing a campus which was once both beautiful and functional. Out with the old! cry these latter day Philistines. The new is by definition superior, in their deaf and blind version of progress.

    They will not be satisfied until the ANU resembles that architectural and visual abomination, UNSW. Even then, there are always buildings to be knocked down and rebuilt. The measure of greatness of a university in the eyes of these louts is apparently the number of cranes on the skyline.

    • mburke@pcug.org.au says:

      The progressive ugliication of the ANU campus mirrors the galloping uglification of the entire city of Canberra. The formerly beautiful “bush capital” has been utterly ruined by rapacious developers in an unholy alliance with a Labor Government beholden to the CFMMEU, the whole corruption-ridden conglomeration controlled by a fanatical Green, holding the balance of power and, as far as I know, the first and still the only non-Labor politician in coalition with a Labor Party Government since at least World War II. Behold the ridiculous light rail monstrosity.

      • whitelaughter says:

        Canberra was meant to have a tram system, it’s in the original design; and the bottle neck caused by the creation of Ngunnawal renders it essential.

        Still, worth noting that Canberra was not meant to exceed a size of 90,000 for 5 *centuries*. A mere century later, bureaucratic bloat means that Canberra is 4 times that size. Not surprising that Canberra is broken.

        • mburke@pcug.org.au says:

          90-odd years ago a tram system would have made sense. This monstrosity is all about pandering to Rattenbury’s and the other Green extremists’ twisted ideology and is unlikely to solve or even alleviate the Ngunnawal bottle-neck.

  • padraic says:

    The PC Left may change their mind about al-gebra if they realized it is an Arabic word – but that would not assist them in their understanding of mathematics which is limited to using a calculator when applying for grants. It does not help the survival of the old building in that it appears to have housed only anglo-celtic white men – another PC Left confection of obsessions.

  • johanna says:

    I am reminded of one of C P Snow’s novels about Cambridge. A wealthy Captain of Industry indicated that he was interested in making a hefty donation. He had a relative, not very bright, who was struggling to get any sort of degree.

    Well, they grovelled, and he kept them up till all hours discussing his theories of education, with which they all agreed, of course.

    But when it came down to it, the College grandees wanted the money for building, and the donor wanted to invest in people.

    The donor won, after a long tussle – it was his money. But, the principle that Those in Charge want to use OPM to build momuments to themselves remains intact.

    Oh, and he well understood that the kid was dumb, and resented being told otherwise as though he was an idiot.

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