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A brief history of some science

There were several significant events of a scientific nature which contributed to Arthur Phillip raising the flag in Sydney Cove on January 26, 1788. (For obvious personal reasons, 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 June 3, 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 (the Astronomical Unit) 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 a 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 by John Harrison of the chronometer. Cook carried one on his second and third voyages. (He didn't have it on his first voyage because there was an argument going on 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 kilometres out in calculating longitude, 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 eleven ships did not follow or backtrack along Cook's route. They went to Teneriffe, Rio de Janeiro, Cape Town and Botany Bay. Of the 1,490 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 which allowed the First Fleet to undertake a trip of eight 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 which has killed the most humans in history is the anopheles mosquito, 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 suffering a 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 from the anti-vaccination crowd. The environmental damage caused by overuse of plastics is being ignored in the horror about two of the four major supermarket chains stopping the supply of 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.

This article was published as the Naked Skeptic column in the September/October 2018 edition of Australasian Science

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