Here Paul Hannah, a well known local writer reflects on how we regard the exploration of both the huge and the minute universe.
I was a terrible Law student, far too easily distracted, I’d go up to
the top floor where the stacks are and just browse through the books.
Sometimes it was the American section where the books were straight
from the publishers, almost nobody has read them and you’d open the
book and hear the pages crackle as you turn them.
But my very favourite books were the old ones. Their leather binding with hundreds of years of fingerprints turning black along the spine. And when they were opened the smell was divine. The cases seemed positively
Dickensian, somebody’s cow broke down a fence and ate some of the hay.
Or a man wants to enforce the contract he made with the miller or the
baker or the blacksmith.
Little glimpses of your average 17th-century bloke, that give you a taste of their life and the way they see the world.
I didn’t restrict my browsing to the Law on more than one occasion, I
walked through the stacks in the biology library. There you could see
drawings done by early explorers or reports to the Royal Geographic
Society about new discoveries and new land for the white man to come
In one of these journals I came across a leaflet that had been inserted in the magazine sometime early in the 19th century. It announced there was to be a new expedition to explore the upper reaches of the Congo River. It sought interest from men of means to join the expedition – it was an advertisement for an entry-level gentleman explorer. Of course, what these men sought out was information known to lots of people, just not the white ones who wrote the books and put advertisements in the journals.
Can you imagine how exciting it would be to live in a world where the
poles had not been reached, where the source of the Nile is a complete
mystery or the great inland sea of the Australian Centre had not been
Nowadays our modern explorers don’t deal so much with the stuff
accessible with a few native bearers and a couple of canoes. Explorers
today, look at galaxies formed billions of years ago and many billion
light years away from us. They look at the incredibly small, way
smaller than viruses, smaller than even the smallest part of an atom.
To discover these new lands you don’t just need a few thousand quid in
the bank a few friends with canoes, you need to convince politicians
to give you a few billion dollars and you need them to wait a few years before any of that investment shows results.
Modern science isn’t as romantic as paddling up the Zambezi, it isn’t
as dangerous as walking to the North Pole doesn’t even make you a
famous celebrity like Burke and Wills, Magellan or Mason and Dixon.
But it should. I still get a buzz when I read about cosmologists
pushing the envelope deeper and deeper into our past, or physicists at
the Large Hadron Collider solving yet another mystery. I get that buzz
because I feel some pride in us as a species. Pride that, no matter
how hard some may try to to pull us back to some mythical ideal point
in the past, we as a species, keep pushing forward. Pushing ever
forward until sometime in the distant future the RAAF’s motto will
Per Ardua Ad Astra, through adversity to the stars.
(c) Paul Hannah. 2018