Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

A Brief History of Some Science

By Peter Bowditch

Science has brought public health a long way since the voyages that led to Australia’s discovery and settlement were ravaged by disease. Why, then, do some people want to turn back?

Several significant events of a scientific nature led to Arthur Phillip raising the flag in Sydney Cove on 26 January 1788. (I’m disappointed that I can’t include Nathaniel Bowditch’s recalculation of navigation tables, but he didn’t publish his work until after 1800.)

Science was the reason that James Cook was in this part of the world in 1770. The purpose of his trip was to observe the transit of Venus across the sun on 3 June 1769. By comparing the measurements made at Tahiti with those made at Hudson Bay in Canada and North Cape in Norway, it was possible to calculate the distance from the Earth to the Sun with some accuracy.

Following the transit, Cook was instructed to search for the postulated Great Southern Land. After mapping New Zealand and most of the east coast of Australia, Cook sailed to Batavia (now Jakarta), where one-third of the people on board the Endeavour died of malaria.

The second scientific advance that contributed to European settlement of Australia was the invention of the chronometer by John Harrison. Cook carried one on his second and third voyages. He didn’t have it on his first voyage because there was an argument between Harrison and the Admiralty over payment. This meant that the accuracy of his location was not as good as it might have been, and he could have been about 60 km out in calculating longitude (which is still quite good.)

Where the chronometer had its influence was that it allowed the first settlers to sail to Botany Bay and know exactly where they were going and how to get there. Arthur Phillip and his 11 ships did not follow or backtrack along Cook’s route. They went to Teneriffe, Rio de Janeiro, Cape Town and Botany Bay. Of the 1490 people who set out from Portsmouth, about 40 died on the trip. Six children were born on the way, of whom four survived.

The third scientific advance is the most important of all. It was what made it possible for Cook to sail for months in unknown parts of the world and allowed the First Fleet to undertake a trip of 8 months with such a low death toll. The significant event happened in 1747, and it was the invention of the clinical trial by James Lind, who used it to demonstrate the efficacy of citrus juice in the prevention and treatment of scurvy.

I would also like to mention Matthew Flinders. Among the collection of Flinders memorabilia in the New South Wales State Library is a letter from Flinders’ wife giving him permission to remarry if she died. The reason that she was worried about dying was that she was pregnant.

You might think that science is so settled that we can look back with nostalgia to these ancient discoveries and inventions.

One-third of the children born on the First Fleet died, and Ann Flinders saw childbirth as a real death threat, but we have active movements in Australia opposing hospital births and even devoted to stopping Caesarean deliveries. Cook lost 30 out of 90 people to malaria in 1770, but we have an active anti-vaccination movement who want to take us back to the time before protection against disease was possible. (I’ve heard it said that the animal that has killed the most humans in history is the Anopheles mosquito, which is the vector for malaria. Opposition to a malaria vaccine started before such a vaccine was developed.) More than 270 years after Lind tested fruit juice, spokespeople for alternative medicine are saying that it will bankrupt the industry if they have to test their products or show that they work.

Active denial of science seems endemic in society. At the time of writing, 100% of New South Wales is officially in drought, but climate change is denied as a cause and there are politicians advocating the construction of more coal-fired power plants.

My local council has just announced that they will be fluoridating the water supply. I attended public meetings about this, and the hysteria and nonsense was reminiscent of the output of the anti-vaccination crowd. Meanwhile the environmental damage caused by overuse of plastics is being ignored due to the horror that two of the four major supermarket chains here have stopped supplying single-use plastic bags at the checkout.

I suppose I should be discouraged by all this, but opposition to science and knowledge is as old as civilisation. Lind’s ideas about fruit juice were received with skepticism, and we are often told that they laughed at Galileo (they didn’t).

Carl Sagan described science as a candle in the dark, and as long as the candle burns we can retain optimism.

Peter Bowditch is a former President of Australian Skeptics Inc. (