[ASC-list] Messel

Kaye Hargreaves kh at netspace.net.au
Wed Apr 30 13:34:40 UTC 2014

I am pleased to see Harry Messel being honoured with the Academy Medal for his contribution to science education. I went to high school in Canberra, where the schools were then administered by the NSW Education Department. My year was the first to go through the Wyndham system, which involved changing from five years of high school to six years. 

In the first four years we did English, Maths and Science as compulsory subjects, and three other subjects, one taken from each of three groups. So in one group, we could choose either History or Geography. Other groups included languages and various other options. 

But Wyndham obviously thought that a grounding in English, Maths and Science was essential. It was general science, too, whereas my brother, who went through the older system, did "PhysChem". Our Science did of course include Physics and Chemistry, but we had some coverage of Biology, Botany and Geology as well. 

I believed at the time that Science was very badly taught. One teacher was notorious because he was trying to complete a science degree at the ANU, and kept failing. Results were published in the newspaper in those days. 

In Geology, we had to learn characteristics of certain minerals off by heart. I protested to the teacher. "Why do we have to learn all this meaningless stuff off by heart? If I ever need to know it, I can just look it up." He got all flustered and cross, which I took as a sign that he didn't have an answer, and said it was "for the discipline - like learning Latin". 

Looking back, though, maybe it wasn't that bad. I never went on with a Science education, but I developed a love of Science. When I ran Science Issues Cafe, at least thirty years later, I was surprised by how much of the basics I actually knew and remembered. Of course, I had read a lot of popular science books, some of them quite challenging reads, but I doubt whether I could have done that without my four years of foundation. 

We did all sorts of things. We dropped balls and feathers off the balcony. What did that prove? The balls landed first. We went to the Mt Stromlo Observatory, visited the CSIRO, but most of all, we studied Messel. In the quaint academic tradition, teachers referred to the book by the name of the author. "Take Messel out of your bags" they would say. I have such a strong image of his grinning face, but even so, it is hard to think of Messel as a person rather than as a big blue (or slightly turquoise) book. I am sure he deserves the honour.

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