History In Making – What Happens Next? podcast, Series Four, Episode 3

In this final episode about exploring our history, Monash Alum Elizabeth Finkel explains why she tells the stories of how science works, and our experts offer their best tips and advice on where to do a deeper dig for knowledge.


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Transcript

Susan Carland:

Welcome back to What Happens Next? I’m Susan Carland. This is our final episode for this topic. Dr. Elizabeth or Ella Finkel is one half of an Australian scientific power couple. A scientist and researcher, Ella turned to telling the stories of science as the editor of COSMOS and more recently through her books. Her latest book explores how scientific theories are tested. And as always we’ve gathered all the best tips and advice from our featured experts to help us as individuals make change.

Elizabeth Finkel:

Hello, I am Elizabeth Finkel, who abbreviates herself as Ella. I have had a career in science all my life. I started off as a research scientist. I shifted from being a research scientist to a science journalist. And more recently I spent six years as editor of the popular science magazine COSMOS. And I left a couple of years ago. And for a year now I have been working on my third book.

Susan Carland:

Ella Finkel. It is so nice to have you here today.

Elizabeth Finkel:

Thank you, Susan.

Susan Carland:

Can you tell us a bit about what you’re working on at the moment?

Elizabeth Finkel:

Right. Oh God. I’m in the agony of writing a book, looking at theories in science and how they’re tested. And just to tell you a little bit about myself, I think you’ll have it in your introduction, but I was a working scientist and then I was a journalist and then I was an editor and it’s been a process of turning from a carrot into a rambling pea, because as a scientist, you’re very narrow, you know a lot about very little, as a journalist you start spreading a bit, but then when I had to be the editor or when I chose to be the editor of this popular science magazine, COSMOS, I had to know about everything. And in-depth because I was passionate about a mission to educate and I wasn’t going to allow anything to go on those pages unless I understood it. And I can tell you when I started, I did not know much about general relativity or string theory or things like that.

Susan Carland:

And now you do?

Elizabeth Finkel:

And now I do.

Susan Carland:

So you’re looking at the way we test scientific theories?

Elizabeth Finkel:

Yes.

Susan Carland:

What have you come across so far in your research that might test some of the theories about how we understand human history or how we research human history?

Elizabeth Finkel:

I should just say my approach is a narrative one. I’m a storyteller and I’ve found, through my two previous books that this is the best way to convey information, even complex scientific information.

Susan Carland:

What is the story of the way we research human history?

Elizabeth Finkel:

The story? Okay. So fascinating, and I have to say that my book is really a thesis, because I don’t know what I’m going to find going in there. I’ve told you, I’m looking at how science works, but I don’t know really. I thought I did, but being the editor of COSMOS, I had this sense that there were different cultures and the different sciences kind of, there were differences about the way they operated. And so I went into this book as a kind of a thesis and exploration, let’s see how it differs across the sciences.

Elizabeth Finkel:

And let’s see how it operates in the 21st century, because worthy people like, Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn have written about this stuff already, but they were writing about the science as it was in the 50s, 60s, 70s. And science has transformed. There was a time when theories were big and data was small. Now data is big and sometimes you can’t even find the theory in there. Prefacing this by saying, this is an exploration for me. What have I found in archaeology? This is one of the stories from my book, looking at the peopling of Australia and what’s the theory here?

Well, because it plays into a much bigger theory, which is the origins of all humans, modern humans. And Australia’s first people are enigmatic. They seem to have been here more than 65,000 years. And our best theories at the moment of when people came out of Africa sometime between 60 and 70,000 years. So you see the problem, you see why geneticists and archaeologists around the world are zeroing in, on trying to figure out the origins of Australia’s first people. This is chapter two, following on from gravitational waves. Two light chapters, to get the book going.

If I have a mission, it is to better understand the way science works. And I would say science as a discipline is the distillation of probably all that is the best in homo sapiens. Here we are with our brain that, an ape brain, adapted to hunting and gathering across the Savannahs. And this ape brain has been able to fathom things that use nothing of our senses. The workings of the universe, the ability to fathom that space and time are actually a fabric and that we can detect gravitational waves, ripples in that fabric. This is my first chapter – Einstein’s theory of relativity, whose prediction was that there would be gravitational waves and a hundred years after he made that prediction, we detected them as ripples in space time. This is science, the distillation of the best that is in homo sapiens, but we still are homo sapiens with that ape brain and all the other things that come with it.

It is still flawed people who practise and aspire to science. And I think that in telling my stories, I want to show how we’ve iterated through the centuries and in telling the story of Australian archaeology, how we’ve gone from archaeology when it was really a history where you couldn’t do much more than make imaginative leaps to now with the infiltration of science, those theories are being tested ruthlessly. And I don’t think all the archaeologists are enjoying it all that much, but a lot of archaeologists do. I definitely … What you see now in Archeology’s huge multidisciplinary teams and that’s the way that it progresses.

Susan Carland:

What do you think our investigation into pre-colonial history can tell us about what it means to be human and what it means to be Australian?

Elizabeth Finkel:

We are really finding out, and it’s tricky territory. I’m also having to educate myself about Aboriginal understandings of their history. And it means I have to write very sensitively and I’m trying to find a path that is both true to the science, and yet would not be offensive to any Indigenous people. The Indigenous traditional narrative, as I understand it, is that they don’t see it in terms of thousands of years, 65,000 years, they see it as we’ve been here forever.

Like any people, there are many, many voices, right? So you will often hear traditional owners say we’ve been here forever, but you will also hear traditional owners who are taking tourists across their lands. Well, we’ve been here for 65,000 years or 40,000 years. I think, and indeed many Indigenous people are working archaeologists and I will consult with them to help me articulate the scientific narrative in a way that respects the beliefs of traditional owners. I think the best thing I can say is I’m feeling my way of how to tell my story, which looks at what the science is saying in a way that is also completely respectful of the traditional view.

Susan Carland:

Why do you think this work is so important?

Elizabeth Finkel:

We are in the post-truth era. And once upon a time, we were in the era of enlightenment. The thinkers of the enlightenment were in turn inspired by the thinkers of the scientific revolution, a century or so before Newton and Galileo, who had developing the scientific method, a method for how you gain knowledge about the universe, a method for doing that based on theories, on obtaining evidence, on testing those theories and understanding the limits of what you were observing, the limits of your data. And we are now living in this beyond belief era that has been brought in by the information superhighway.

Like many other people, I’m trying to figure out how we have gone in the exact opposite direction of enlightenment. I would like to think that by telling people stories of how science works, of how we gather evidence, of how we overturn theories or how new theories are deemed to hold more water than yesterday’s theories. That if I make the story good enough and entertaining enough, I’m not writing these stories to hit anybody over the head with science and say, you’re an idiot. But I think what it shows me is I have taken it for granted. My decades in science have taught me how science works. That is what I’m attempting to do. Softly, softly, you won’t even know you’re getting this stuff down your throats. I’m just going to tell you great stories.

Susan Carland:

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