Peter Mason (1922-1987)
Science For The People
My great friend Peter Mason died before the political upheavals that marked the end of the 1980s. He did not live to see the years of unbridled greed collapse. Nor did he see the fall of those 'People's Democracies' which had painted the map red from Prague to Vladivostok. Nor, for that matter, did he see Mandela become president or Yasser Arafat shake hands with Rabin.
So it crossed my mind when thinking about his ideas, his extensive writings and, indeed the many programs we made together for ABC Radio, would they now seem out of date, a little quaint, passé? Just a tiny bit more thought and, of course, I knew the answer. Peter Mason would be as dated as Shakespeare or Mozart or the perfume of spring flowers. As old-fashioned as Avogadro or Pythagoras or Ohm. I know this because I knew him well enough over a sufficiently long period to watch him face changes and challenges equal to any which have occurred since his death.
Peter had several fundamental beliefs. One was that people have an equal right to be taken seriously and to be given consideration. Another was that science should be for everybody. A third was that most subjects could be treated as being potentially hilarious. When these were applied to the latest dramatic twist in politics or research he could think his way through as only a few privileged souls can and come up with a remarkable and refreshing viewpoint. He was no ideologue. Nor was he a 'sage on a stage'. There was nothing he enjoyed more than having some five year old telling him he was a clot.
But he was also without fear. Who else would dare bowl up to a school speech on Remembrance Day - and describe Gallipoli from a poor Turkish kid's point of view? Who else would agree to face a live radio audience with Margaret Throsby and take on all comers with their science questions - whilst professing to be not nearly as informed as the general audience? Who else would greet the diagnosis of a brain tumour that would wipe out his left-brain functions of literacy and numeracy as being challenges for him to develop right-brain functions of artistry and design? All with that beaming smile on his face. Enthusiasm you could bottle!
He did, however, grow up in a different age. It was a time when HG Wells, JBS Haldane and JD Bernal avowed that science was the key to 'building a better world' almost as if we needed this powerful new magic ingredient to 'engineer' changes to society never before really possible, some new force that might help everybody overcome the nasty qualities hitherto so manifest in human societies. How would we overcome shortages of food, shelter and medicines that allowed only the wealthy to be properly served? Why, by enlisting science to multiply the resources until EVERYBODY had what they needed. How would we banish the scoundrel lurking in the nether reaches of everyone's soul? Why, universal education and the spreading of the new enlightenment.
It didn't quite work out that way. Science isn't a single entity. The attempts to 'engineer' society according to scientific principles usually involved someone called Stalin or Hitler eliminating those scientists whose ideas they didn't like - or nominating as 'scientific' those acts of bastardry which happened to suit their agendas at the time. Peter Mason was fully aware of this. But he could see the difference between the stalinist apparatchik and the Russian or East German person. Indeed not long before his diagnosis of cancer he travelled to the 'German Democratic Republic' (to witness the anniversary of the joyful encounter between American and Russian forces on the banks of the Elbe marking the end of the war in Europe) and sent me some very rosy news about splendid deeds in turning kids on to science in that otherwise bleak nation.
My cherished last memory of Peter (NOT the suffering patient with vanishing faculties) is of his final performance in public in my company. It was at the ANZAAS Youth Congress in Melbourne, in 1985. He was facing 900 school kids at the Dallas Brooks Hall and had all the paraphernalia needed to make a song'n'dance show out of GENESIS TO JUPITER, our first Science Show series together, one in which the history of navigation is explored. He had an 'ark' as large as the entire stage (from which navigation's instrument, the dove, would fly to look for land), some space junk, me, Patrick Moore, Rod Quantock as clownish host and a cast of ... well, lots!
After the interval, when Peter resumed the stage, he found himself being pelted with paper darts. Quite a few folk I know would have been peeved and a little flustered at such a barrage. Peter simply joined in the fun and chucked them back: whilst of course making a telling scientific point about aerodynamics!
He was a great Australian, a great friend and a splendid broadcaster. His scientific work proper is less well-known to me. I know he was a polymer boffin at the CSIRO and latterly (such irony!) worked on the brain and the location of its thermostat.
I am delighted that someone has the initiative - and the wisdom - to make this collection of his papers and to enable future generations to have access to them. I can think of few scientists in this country whose work both in research and its communication are more deserving.