Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

A Career Begins by Candlelight

By Stephen Luntz

Robyn Arianrhod studies general relativity and writes books on the history of science, but it is her own history that is most unusual.

Few scientists today first learnt about their field by candlelight, particularly in the developed world. For Dr Robyn Arianrhod the experience proved useful when she came to write about her predecessors, for whom there was no alternative.

In the 1970s Arianrhod dropped out of her Honours course in mathematics to live in a remote environmental community without access to the grid, mains water or the telephone. At a time when photovoltaic panels were in their infancy, this meant no access to electricity.

“When I was an undergrad we were concerned about the nuclear arms race, and there was a growing realisation of the impact of unquestioning use of chemicals in agriculture. So there was a lot of ‘counter-cultural’ interest in environmental, feminist and other critiques of science,” Arianrhod says. “In this radical context, I found mainstream study very alienating.”

Some of the locals were suspicious of urban environmentalism, although Arianrhod says that “eventually they showed interest in what we were doing”.

After a while she felt the community was becoming too insular so she got a radio powered by an old car battery. “It seemed a magical thing out in the wilderness, something I had not appreciated in the city. I was connected to the world in a way I found thrilling. I started reading about electromagnetism, and I discovered Maxwell’s extraordinary mathematical prediction of the existence of radio waves.”

Many years later this led to Arianrhod’s first book, Einstein’s Heroes. Einstein had portraits of three scientists on the wall of his study: Isaac Newton, Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell. Arianrhod’s book explores their lives and how their work was crucial to the most famous scientist of the 20th century. However, she also explains their science in more depth than most popular books on the history of science.

Subtitled Imagining the World through the Language of Mathematics, Arianrhod’s book reveals how the three scientific heroes did more than simply reveal enormous truths. They established a way of thinking about nature, where experimentation and mathematics were central, and the world’s mysteries could be unravelled through mathematical equations.

For Arianrhod appropriate technology, as represented by the community’s radio and hand-powered field telephones, showed the benign side of machinery. At the same time the lack of electric light made the stars glorious and mysterious, and she visited the nearest university to see if she could learn more about the universe. She was directed to Dr Wes Taylor, a researcher in general relativity, who suggested she study with him. And so began her candlelit studies in her cottage off the grid.

In 1991, a decade-and-a-half after leaving university, Arianrhod received a PhD in general relativity from Monash University. She taught in the School of Mathematical Sciences there and remains an Adjunct Research Fellow, as well as an examiner at Monash International College. She continues to explore general relativity, and is currently working with Dr Tony Lun on a class of exact solutions of Einstein’s equations.

The success of Einstein’s Heroes led Arianrhod to write her second book, Seduced by Logic (AS, September 2011, p.40). This tells the story of two scientists who were influential in the struggle to promote and extend Newton’s ideas. “And initially it really was a struggle,” she says, “because the theory of gravity was so radical”. Indeed, it changed modes of thinking in fields far from physics, influencing the Enlightenment and its emphasis on reason.

What is also remarkable is that these two scientists, Émilie du Châelet and Mary Somerville, were both women who had been forced to teach themselves mathematics at a time when it was not something considered appropriate for women.

Their studies were by candlelight, but in their courage to teach themselves these women also resembled an earlier stage of Arianrhod’s life. Attending a school that could not provide a qualified maths teacher for Year 11 and several months of Year 12, Arianrhod largely worked her way through the textbook on her own. “It gave me empathy for what my mathematical heroines had to go through.”

Arianrhod says she was inspired to learn mathematics in such challenging circumstances through her excitement at learning that here was a language that was both self-consistent and “could encapsulate key essences of nature in concise equations”.