Update: If anyone is inspired by this to see Mick Thomas, they might want to consider this charity concert.
I spent Christmas Eve enacting one of my annual traditions, seeing Mick Thomas perform. Thomas used to be with Weddings, Parties, Anything, a band whose Christmas Eve gigs became something of a Melbourne legend. Towards the end of their existence they’d sell out Richmond’s Central Club Hotel December 19-24. Thomas has continued to perform smaller gigs on the same date each year with his subsequent bands.
Mick’s not a great singer and the band is not nearly as tight as the Weddoes. His songs are catchy but his real strength is as a lyricist. There’s not a lot of scientific content – if any – but I think the Weddoes could be the soundtrack to a documentary about what I see as one of the biggest issues for Australian science.
Many of Thomas’s songs deal with universal themes. His achingly beautiful and sad For a Short Time tells of hearing of the death of someone you barely met, yet touched you deeply in that time. Other songs relate to the effects of shift work on relationships and people who’d rather tell someone where they went wrong than admire success.
However, perhaps the most common feature on any WPA album was of songs deeply rooted in places. Whether it was kicking footballs into the Arafura Sea or starving in the Western Tiers the location makes up a big part of Thomas’s songs.
Local references carry a shorthand for those who know the territory, although this can change with time. Parties In Fitzroy are still filled with hipsters, but Grey Skies Over Collingwood mean something a little different now house prices there start at $700,000.
Knockbacks in Halifax was one of the band’s most popular songs for its highly danceable beat, but it is actually about hoping to find something distinctive in a distant place, and instead finding it colonised by the worst of global culture.
Sure I’d like to dance my girl, but hey not to that song
For I hated it in Richmond and despised it in Geelong
I love the bluenose women, I love the local beer
But when I dance to Whitney Houston I wonder what I’m doing here.
I’ve always wondered if this was one of the reasons WPA never made it as big as many thought they should. They had critical acclaim, reliably drew substantial crowds and toured like furies, but only one of their songs ever got serious radio play, despite the fact that many seemed to have all the characteristics that would make them highly suitable for commercial fm stations. However, so many of their songs related specifically to their home town they may have suffered from the cultural cringe.
So what does all this have to do with science? Glad you asked, oh voice in my head.
Most science is indeed universal. The capacity to do quantum mechanics, or molecular biology might be greater in a university with excellent laboratories or a critical mass of brilliant people, but the work is otherwise the same in Sydney as San Francisco. There are exceptions however. If you want to study arguably the most interesting star in the sky, Eta Carinae, you have to be in the Southern Hemisphere, or near enough to it. If your interest is in the geology of lands untouched by glaciers for millions of years you’d better step outside Europe or North America, and of course there are plenty of animals that can only be studied in the wild far from the major centres of learning.
I’m wary of outsiders being too specific as to what scientists should be studying, but I think Australian science should be focussing much more on the topics where we have what might be considered a competitive advantage. There are some fields where this is obvious. If we don’t study marsupials, for example, who will? But there are some topics that could be well suited to scientists in many countries, except that most of those countries don’t really have the funds for large scientific infrastructure. The study of tropical rainforests springs to mind. We’re the only wealthy nation to have any, shouldn’t this be a bit of a priority, rather than expecting Americans to fly down to the Amazon to do similar research? I wasn’t joking about the glacier-free geology example either. Most of what was once Laurasia has been repeatedly scoured by glaciers over the last few million years, removing the regolith that lies to considerable depth over Africa and South America. This has implications for mineral exploration and possibly agriculture that Australian scientists are better placed to explore than those in the wealthy nations of the northern hemisphere. Some are working on it, but I’m not aware of any recognition of priority status. Indeed, the very fact that such areas might be ignored in Oxford or Harvard may reduce their prestige, just as the fear WPA would never play in Peoria kept them off radios in Perth.
It might be argued that this is all very theoretical. I can’t prove the ARC are not taking local advantage into account and it is obviously very subjective how much such factors should be considered.
However, there is one example where the lack of attention to local factors is utterly unambiguous, that being my regular obsession with renewable energy. It is common to find opponents of subsidies of solar and wind pointing to the cost in Germany as evidence for why they will fail in Australia. Given that the cost of solar panels has fallen by 75% in the last few years such comparisons are of questionable value, but even if you didn’t know this it shouldn’t be that hard to work out why energy from solar panels might be more economically viable in Brisbane than Berlin. Here’s a hint.
Meanwhile, sources of energy particularly suited to Australian conditions, such as wave power and energy from hot dry rocks, go largely unexplored. No one else has the same resources and understandably don’t do the research and Australians would rather look overseas than develop technologies adapted to our own circumstances.
Oh and the gig on Christmas Eve – 60 people came.