WE HAVE just finished our extension which features an exotic day bed resplendent with a canopy of Indian wedding saris and covered with plumped up Turkish cushions. It is the evening, in this cold winter of ours, and we are lounging, warmed by a glass of red or three, and listening to the hypnotic deep timbred voice of Robyn Arianrhod as she weaves her tales.
Robyn came to live in Bass Coast a couple of years ago. I have asked her to tell me the story of her life, but what she recounts is not so much that, but the lives of those who are from decades and centuries past, her scientific heroes, Einstein, Maxwell, Newton and two of her pioneering scientific heroines, Mary Somerville and Émilie Du Châtelet. Listening to her that evening it is clear to me now they truly are part of her.
Whether it is our conditioning or whether it is innate – isn’t it often the case you are either good at maths and science or good at English? In Robyn’s case, she loved both. She loved reading and remembers clearly the cherished leather-bound classics that she collected as a teenager sitting side by side with the obligatory Readers Digest editions that seem to have graced most homes in those days.
In the final two years of high school Robyn had to choose between her love of literature and her love of mathematics, physics and chemistry – courses were not so flexible then as they are today. In the end she chose to study science. You can imagine her joy then in her final year in high school when the chosen English required readings included a biography of Marie Curie! Both of her loves covered in one subject.
Just as she found it thrilling to learn about English and other languages, Robyn had the same thrill learning the language of mathematics. In addition she was fascinated by the idea of “proof” with no shades of grey.
Not so much of a thrill was learning computer programming at university. She remembers the tediousness of filling out with a paper clip the binary code on a large stack of computer cards, at a time when it would take a week to get a simple program processed and where the slightest punching error would result in it not working. She says “Hats off to those early computer programmers because at the time I was so frustrated I thought, ‘This ain’t going nowhere!’”
As she neared the completion of her degree, Robyn was increasingly concerned at the way mathematics had become the enabler of inventions that had led to nuclear weapons, excessive consumption, pollution and ultimately climate change. Like many in the 70s who saw a future ruined and resource starved planet, she sought an alternative lifestyle, and hoped she could use her knowledge in more positive ways.
She left her studies behind to live in a commune with several others spread out over many acres of idyllic but rugged bushland. They had no electricity or running water – a deliberate attempt to “tread lightly” on the earth. It was a tough but exciting existence. They needed to communicate with each other but were quite some distance apart and rarely in line of sight, and so they found some old wind-up phones in a disposal store and took great joy finding usefulness in society’s castoffs. Castoffs that employed a simpler, less polluting kind of technology. Robyn remembered her physics classes about turning magnets to create electricity, just as turning the handle in the old phones set up an electromagnetic current. She became excited about science again, and sought other ways of making life in the wilderness more comfortable but with minimal impact – for instance, she and her partner built a solar-powered stove, and “plumbed” tank water into their tiny home, which they’d built from recycled materials.
But it was in the quiet times that she would immerse herself back into her beloved books. And whilst wanting to be separated from the outside realities of too much technology and other problems, she couldn’t help but read about the scientific discoveries that were occurring in the world she had left behind. Discoveries such as black holes, which fascinated her so much that she found a perfect mentor, Doctor Taylor, at a nearby regional university. He guided her reinvigorated love of science through to the completion of a bachelor of letters degree. She would take the treasured library volumes back to the commune and by the light of a candle or kerosene lamp she became engrossed in the theory of general relativity. So engrossed that she later went on to finish a PhD.
By this time she had left the commune behind and during the course of her doctoral studies started to lecture at Monash University. Now she’s concerned that government funding cuts and social policies mean that universities are becoming increasingly vocationally oriented. Perhaps they would no longer welcome a young female hippy arriving unannounced with the wish to learn as much as she can about black holes.
Nevertheless, she recognises that in many ways it’s an exciting time to be studying science today. She hopes that in these trying times we will develop the political and personal will to ensure that technological innovations are applied more ethically and responsibly. She also hopes we will continue to fund and respect “pure” maths and science – the kind that foster creativity and wonder, and that often lead to surprising new technologies as well.
Robyn has now written three books which have been published in several languages and is close to finalising her fourth. I have now read her second book, Seduced by Logic, and I loved it – reading just a chapter at a time to fully absorb the content. Jane Gleeson-White writing for the Sydney Morning Herald, describes Robyn’s style, “Arianrhod brings to her subject so much care, intelligence, attentiveness, enthusiasm and simmering excitement that the book reads like a good novel”.
If only my mathematics text books had been written by Robyn!