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?

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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...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.