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Not just physics, Indigenous Australian physics

As JGrossman, one of the commenters to the Guardian article I will quote extensively below, says of it, there are some views to which the only possible response is to quote the physicist Wolfgang Pauli:

This is not only not right, it is not even wrong.

The article I am about to quote falls, crashes and burns into that category.

Some background: the writer, Dawn Casey, is an Australian museum director and a well known Indigenous (i.e. Australian aboriginal) public figure. Warren Mundine, mentioned in the article as head of Tony Abbott’s Indigenous Council, is of the same heritage. Christopher Pyne, the Australian Education Minister, isn’t. How sad that one needs to spell out such things to understand what is being debated here. Here is what Dawn Casey writes:

Last week, Warren Mundine, head of the prime minister’s Indigenous council, was quoted in the Australian as saying that it is ridiculous to include an Indigenous culture perspective in the teaching of science and maths. Mundine said: “I agree with Christopher Pyne, I think in some areas we have got ridiculous. What is Indigenous physics? Physics is physics. If we are to compete in the job market we must learn technology and engineering, we need to be taught subjects properly.

“I agree that we need to reassess the curriculum because we need real units that teach the subjects without this ridiculous insertion of culture, the idea that you have to have an indigenous or Asian perspective, to be frank, is silly. The sciences and maths should be taught properly.”

Mundine’s comments add nothing to the very important debates on what should be included in the national curriculum and how children, regardless of their cultural background, should be taught. They ignore that culture permeates everything we do — including maths and physics — and reinforces stereotypical views that Indigenous culture is only about language, kinships systems and hunting and gathering – important as they are.


For centuries, people from all cultural backgrounds have been developing ideas andsolving problems. Euclid who lived in Alexandria more than 2000 years ago laid the foundations for mathematics. Australia’s Aboriginal people represent the longest-living culture on earth. It is incredible that our culture should be treated as a stand-alone subject or as part of the humanities.


To go back to a time when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture was put into an ethnographic box, as some sort of anthropological curiosity, and excluded from the breadth of mainstream knowledge, including maths and science, is to disadvantage all Australians.

The commenter who quoted Wolfgang Pauli chose his example well. Pauli was born in Germany but had to flee to the United States in 1940 because of his Jewish ancestry. So he would have been familiar in his own life with the concepts of “Jewish physics” and “German physics”. One can guess what he would have made of “Indigenous physics”.

48 comments to Not just physics, Indigenous Australian physics

  • Paul Marks

    There is no “capitalist reason” or “proletarian reason” – there is no “Jewish reason” or “Nordic reason”.

    There is only reason.

    Physics is either right or wrong – it is nothing to with “race” or “class”.

    The various factions of historicist (including the Frankfurt School of Marxism – which developed into the “Political Correctness” and “Critical Theory” movement) are wrong – utterly wrong, and vile.

  • Mr Ed

    It is tempting to ask for them to provide example of, say, ‘indigenous radar’, but, apart from being examples of Peter Simple characters come to life, these types should be held up as exemplars of what should not receive state funding, or indulgences, and any argument for State funding of anything on grounds of actual or purported origin should be exposed as the thin end of this wedge. This is not silly, it is sinister.

  • Oh God. Our museum was doing a whole new exhibit hall on electricity and magnetism — that’s fair enough, it’s what the museum was about. But the director was flogging the entire staff to find women and non-Europeans who’d done Important Things for the development of electrical science. Which was hard, because electrical science was developed in Northern Europe, almost exclusively by men.

    We found Chinese who’d done important work on magnetism, and used electric fish in much the same way we use TENS stimulators. Acupuncture was imported into Europe, crossbred with electricity, and turned into electropuncture. Even better, it was before Europe got around to such things. We played it up, but you can only do so much with fish, needles, and magnetized spoons. We had precious few artifacts to display.

    Would have been easier if they’d asked for mathematics, computing, or nuclear physics. Lots of women and non-Europeans there!

    When the People in Charge lust for diversity, it can be hard on the staff ordered to find it. Sorta like the search for indigenous radar.

  • Mr Ed

    When the People in Charge lust for diversity, it can be hard on the staff ordered to find it.

    Indeed Ellen, I think the RNLI got into ‘hot water’ (as it were) for not rescuing enough Asians when they tried to get some government or lottery funding a few years back, and Mountain Rescue teams get similar issues if there are state grants going. I did wonder if they might try to persuade a few Gurkhas to ‘get lost’ in the hills and then go up and find them to ‘boost the stats’ but thankfully honesty prevailed. AFAIK, both the RNLI and the various Mountain Rescue teams avoid state funding, if only to avoid this sort of nonsense. Soon they will not be deemed charitable unless they rescue enough people with the ‘right’ characteristics.

    Would Uri Geller count for the Museum as a non-European? After all, he is Israeli origin, although he was born under the British Mandate. He has apparently, been asked to help the search for the tragic missing Malaysian airliner. Perhaps there is ‘indigenous radar’ somewhere on Earth, which works backwards in time too, so it is more advanced than boring old European radar.

  • Anat T.

    The article mixes the teaching of Science with the teaching of the History of Science, the latter being part of the history of culture and indeed diverse. Genesis Chapter 1 may be seen as a scientific article of its time, but one that belongs not in the Science class but rather in the History class. Myself an art historian, I come across this fallacy only too often.

  • Mr Ed

    Ought that not to be the ‘history of nonsense that some might purport to be true, mixed with the history of attempts at science, followed by scientific enquiry.’

    The ‘root’ of the word ‘science’ is the Latin verb for ‘to know.’ Genesis Chapter 1 must have been invented by someone, somewhere, at some point, and then elaborated on, it was never knowledge, just a claim based on supposition and embellishment, at best.

  • Unfortunately(?) Geller would not count, as being of Ashkenazi descent he is as European-white-male as they come. In that vein, being Jewish and Israeli is just another bug, rather than a feature.

  • Mr Ed

    Alisa, for these sort of bureaucrats, Mr Geller could be put on the forms as ‘native of Palestine’ and it would tick all the right boxes, as it would not be untrue, it would help fill the ‘quota’ for the gross output indicator, just like Robert Conquest’s report that Stalin’s first Five Year Plan target for blast furnaces was met by building them from wood, after all no one cared if the furnace worked, just that it was built and recorded. By the time of an audit, they all might be purged on another pretext anyway, but it bought time.

    Anyway, I must dash, in case someone starts trying to stage fake rescues of drowning minorities.

  • Anat T.

    No, Mr Ed
    If you think I meant Creationism as understood today, you are mistaken. There is another aspect to Genesis, in essence an argument between Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 (from verse 4) on the ORDER of creation. Have a look at it. It reveals two different attempts to understand the world, the one universal and the other anthropocentric. The fact that neither text is today considered scientifically acceptable does not diminish the historical value of the argument, as an example of the development of methods and perspectives.

  • Mr Ed

    Anat T. No, Genesis. It was bunk from the start. No mention of geology, astronomy, biology etc. it is very important as a bedrock of Western Judaeo-Christian civilisation granted, but it is beyond reason to say that it is a satisfactory explanation, or even the start of one, any more than Ygddrasil, for how life started.

  • Anat T.

    Mr Ed. Why do you insist on misunderstanding. Nobody said it was a satisfactory explanation. I said it was an attempt to understand the world, and in this reveals a kind of scientific curiosity. BTW, it does refer to all the fields you mention, though of course not in the way they are understood today.
    Beside, your definition of science (in one of your previous comments) is deficient. Science is not knowledge but rather the pursuit of knowledge, through a combination of observation and theory. Many different courses were taken in the past, now considered redundant, and the same fate may well await some of today’s theories.

  • Mr Ed

    Anat T.

    Genesis Chapter 1 may be seen as a scientific article of its time

    By whom, may I ask, may it be so seen? Someone who does not know what science is, I venture. I did not give a definition of science, I stated the root of the term. You accuse me of insisting on misunderstanding, but you misquote me, and you raise Creationism as you think I understand it today. There is little point us discussing what you think I think, since I think that what you think I think is not what I think.

  • PersonFromPorlock

    What? Is there no room for feminist indigenous Australian physics? For shame!

  • Mike James

    So he would have been familiar in his own life with the concepts of “Jewish physics” and “German physics”.

    Not that “German physics” didn’t offer some dread foreshadowing, but not a patch on what it might have if the Germans hadn’t gotten all shirty about “Jewish physics”. But close only counts in horseshoes and atom bombs. Which, oddly enough …

  • Mr Ed

    PfP I have to say that a boomerang is a very good application of physics, you don’t need formulae to make one, just skill, a design, materials and tools of some kind, but the misogynist Europeans probably suppressed the particular feminist boomerangs they found on arrival, lest patriarchy be undermined.

    Give it 4 years and there might be a modular degree course element of ‘Indigenous Feminist Aerodynamics’.

  • Tedd

    Just so that I don’t freak anybody out, I’ll begin by declaring that, yes, scientific truth (i.e., reality) is independent of one’s culture. Having said that, there are a couple of ways in which the relationship between culture and science is not pure moon-battery.

    One is learning styles and learning context. While what is to be learned in the study of science is independent of culture, one’s preferred style of learning may not be, and the context of existing knowledge definitely is not. Where I went to school it was common to demonstrate Newton’s third law with the example of two ice skaters pushing each other apart, which made perfect sense since nearly everyone I went to school with would have already had that exact experience. But it’s perhaps not the best example for someone from an equatorial area who has never seen ice not in a glass, and perhaps never even heard of ice skating. So culture can have a place in a discussion of the pedagogy of science, which appears to be part of what is being discussed in the quoted article.

    The other way in which culture is related to science is analogy and metaphor. We’re all familiar with Newton’s force model. But many (all?) dynamical systems can also be modeled as information flows, producing the same result. So neither model, force-based nor information-based, can be said to uniquely characterize the real system. They are both, in a sense, metaphors for reality. I don’t see any reason not to believe that one metaphor might be more easily grasped in one culture and another in a different culture. Classical mechanics is the only area of science that’s I’m truly au fait with, but I’m sure similar examples exist in all areas of science.

  • Surellin

    Anent Genesis – my father said that, if he were God trying to explain the origin of the universe to a bunch of ignorant shepherds, it would probably come out something like Genesis 1.

  • Tedd


    You’ve hit on something that has long been fascinating to me: Genesis is an amazingly apt metaphorical description of what we now know about the origins of the universe, and of life. If we compare it to other creation myths, it seems implausible that this could be merely a coincidence. Genesis is impregnated with an intuition about cosmic and biological evolution, and it astounds me that isn’t the main thing most people have to say about it. And yet it is rarely mentioned by either Christians or non-Christians.[/OT]

  • Laird

    Excellent point, Tedd. I’ve long thought that myself.

  • Nick BTF! Gray

    Yes, Alisa, you are quite right! I often argue that Chapter 1 of Genesis is the over-all Creation of the world, including humans, with God telling humans to replenish the earth, and seeing that everything is not just good, but very good.
    Then Adam comes along, and he and his wife are expelled for sinning, and God is not happy! Therefore, these are two different events. Humans first (very good), then a branch of humans we could call Adamites (disappointing).
    Therefore, no need of a clash between evolution and creation. The bible is good at concentrating on one issue, so it ignores the non-Adamites. Noah saved the Adamite line, but other humans would not have been affected. Simples, really.

  • Nick BTF! Gray

    Sorry, not Alisa, I mean Anat T. And Mr. Ed!
    And how come no-one has mentioned Social Justice!?

  • Talking about feminist indigenous Australian physics is mentioning Social Justice!

  • Richard Thomas

    Maybe Charlie Drake will finally get his problem solved.

  • Anat T.

    Mick BTF,
    Thanks. And you have no doubt noticed that neither Judaism nor the Catholic Church oppose the theory of evolution. Creationism comes from non-Catholic fundamental Christians who take the Bible literally, which is definitely not so with Jews and Catholics.

  • Nick BTF! Gray

    And when I say the Adamites were disappointing, I do feel that they ultimately came good. But the bible can be read literally AND metaphorically- and you have to be careful of interpretations.
    For instance, when there were giants in the earth, might this simple be referring to nobles and aristocrats? People with a large amount of social standing? After all, kings are mentioned next! (And Nimrod was a mighty hunter before the Lord)

  • Anat T.

    Nick BTF! Gray,

    Since I see that you are interested, perhaps you would care for my take on Genesis 1 as opposed to 2.

    Genesis 1 is amazingly modern. It begins (first day) with the creation of energy (light) and Time (separation of day and night). This is why Jews and Christians call it the Temporal World. It then proceeds in Time to the ordering the primeval chaos by separating the earth from the firmament (second day), and, on earth, land from sea (third day). Life then appears, progressively in Time from plants (third day) through fish, birds, and land animals, to humans (sixth day), while in-between the heavenly bodies are created for the specific purpose of indicating Time, i.e. days, months, and years (verses 14-18). Mankind comes last and, you will notice, male and female from the start (verse 27). Finally, social order is created (Sabbath).

    A completely different creation story is given in Chapter 2, from verse 4 onwards. Man, male only, is created FIRST, and everything else is created for him, including Woman. This anthropocentric version is much more primitive, but probably the more popular at the time.

    Whoever edited the Bible should be credited with the open-mindedness of including both versions, and even putting the more sophisticated one first. I am sure the editor was aware of the contradictions between the two versions, because Chapter 2, v.5 may be seen as an argument against the order suggested in Chapter 1.

  • Nick BTF! Gray

    And why did God need to create animals in Eden, instead of guiding some existing animals to the place?
    And who did Cain marry when he became a wanderer?
    And another point- some of the words in the bible have been inserted for clarity. In the King James Bible, if a word is tilted, that was not for emphasis, as I originally thought, but because it wasn’t in the original texts. sometimes this is because Hebrew tended to not use ‘to be’ words. Instead of ‘I am a doctor’, it reads ‘I, a doctor.’ However, some words are just guesses. When God promises blessings for a thousand generations unto those who follow his commandments, the word ‘generations’ is the guesswork word. The esoteric jews, the Kabbalists, thought that ‘incarnations’ would be a good substitute.
    Food for thought, indeed!

  • Anat T.

    With due respect, Nick, I am Israeli. I read the OT in the original Hebrew.

  • Rob

    Let us build aeroplanes based on ‘indigenous’ physics and engineering. The diversity pushers can then happily use these instead of real ones. For a short time at least.

  • Nick BTF! Gray

    Anat T.- then you might want to get a King James Bible, just to see what the translators have made of it! I’m sure they tried to do a good job- but how good was the final version? Maybe only you can tell us!

  • Nick BTF! Gray

    Rob, one trouble with that is- here in Australia, they used boomerangs! Who would be strong enough to throw a passenger-filled boomerang? and would the passengers survive all that high-speed rotation?

  • I was once asked to illustrate Pauli’s statement. I replied that it would be like playing chess and, faced with the choice of sacrificing a rook or a knight, solving the choice by drinking bleach.

    Sad to say, this is often similar to actions performed in the body politic. But enough of the Obama Administration’s foreign policy…

  • Julie near Chicago

    Nick, thanks very much for explaining about the italics in the King James Bible. I took them as indicating emphasis too, but I never could see why the emphasis in any particular case.

    Anat T, is modern Hebrew close enough to Old Testament Hebrew that the differences and likelihood of misinterpretation are small?

  • Anat T.

    Fault of ‘progressive’ education, most Israelis don’t know their own language well enough to understand anything which is not in current use. But I am old enough to have benefitted from traditional education, including proper grammatical analysis, which does allow you to understand most of the Bible. Most of Genesis is pretty straightforward. Some other parts less so, and the book of Job is the worst; high language repeatedly corrupted by copyists.
    I know that English speakers like the King James Bible, understandably, since it has had such an influence on the English language. But for a taste of original meanings, I recommend the New English Bible.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Anat T. — I’m glad you had that education … it must be satisfying to be able to read the original (more-or-less).

    Actually I grew up in a Congregational Church in Illinois (U.S.), and we used the Revised Standard Version. Of course there were plenty of King James Versions around, as that’s what our grandparents’ and even our parents’ generations (I think) mostly used. And the Catholics still used it, naturally. Personally I can’t say I find it all that easy to parse, however.

    Paul Marks has recommended the Jerusalem Bible (the original 1966 version, and not the “Reader’s” version). He says he likes it because it’s straightforward and clear. But I’ll have to see if I can find a copy of the New English B. also, since you say it carries a “taste of original meanings,” which would be very nice to see.

    Hm. One doesn’t often see a taste. Oh well!

    Thanks for your reply. :>)

  • Nick BTF! Gray

    In fact, you can also buy a Lamsa version of the Bible, based on the Aramaic language AND customs! Footnotes explain that turning into a pillar of salt was simply a customary way of saying that Lot’s wife turned pale from the shock of seeing her home destroyed. Just as we don’t really turn green from envy, people still know what we mean when we say it. Well, nowadays they do. I wonder if people in the future will be literal-minded and insist on faces that can change colour!

  • Laird

    Nick, that sounds fascinating. It turns out that my library has copies of the Lamsa translation (that isn’t always the case with the things I’m interested in) and I’ve requested one. Thanks for the tip.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Nick, Laird’s right, it does sound fascinating. I’ll have to see if I’m as lucky as he is.

  • Nick BTF! Gray

    I read about the original tip from a book ages back by Gina Carminara, called ‘Insights for the age of aquarius’. It was all about the pitfalls of translation, especially in regard to the bible. You might also want to read that.

  • There’s an online version of the Lamsa Bible.

    And, a grain of salt, as it were.

  • Mr Ed

    I have to say, that even if ‘a camel is a horse designed by a committee’, the King James Bible is probably the finest work of a committee in history. I was given one on leaving school, with my forename and surname in it, both spelt incorrectly. It does, of course, owe much to William Tyndall, he was the salt of the Earth.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Wow, Alisa, thank you! (I have a whole shakerful handy. *g*)

  • Julie near Chicago

    …And here all the time I thought UW was just a party school….

  • You are most welcome, Julie:-)

  • Nick BTF! Gray

    Yes, Alisa, that Carminara! And your articles are interesting, as well. Must dash. Happy world Harmony day! Or is that world harmonica day?

  • Nick BTF! Gray

    On the subject of reincarnation, do read Deuteronomy, chapter 5, verses 1 to 5. The context is that Moses is speaking 40 years after the covenant on Mount Sinai. He is addressing people who’s bodies were not at that place, as the 40 years was a trek so that generation would die out! So why does he sound as though he’s speaking to the same people? This is a subtle clue, but reincarnation provides the best answer- even though they’ve forgotten that covenant, they were there! Not someone else, but the same souls in new bodies! That is the Kabbalic viewpoint, and it is worth thinking about.