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Books that changed my mind

20 April 2016

A heritage architect and a radio astronomer each talk about a key book that gave them a new insight or opened them up to a new way of thinking.

Chris Legge-Wilkinson

As the Heritage Architect for the University of Sydney, Chris Legge-Wilkinson looks after more than 30 heritage buildings across the Camperdown, Darlington and regional NSW campuses, plus the Conservatorium of Music and Kirkbride Block that houses Sydney College of the Arts in Rozelle.

The agony and the ecstasy, Irving Stone, 1961

I was in my ‘year out’ of studying architecture, when I read this book and became inspired by Michelangelo’s story. The book is about Michelangelo Buonarroti, the great sculptor, painter, architect, poet, and engineer. It covers the history of his life and works, starting from when he was an apprentice sculptor in Florence, Italy, in the Renaissance.

Two aspects of Michelangelo’s life story stood out for me as I read this book.

One was when he was a teenager. He would sneak into Santo Spirito Church Hospital, where he undertook anatomical studies of the corpses in order to further understand the anatomy of the human body for his art.

The second aspect that emerged from the book for me was his ambition to establish a body of work.

His many successes include renowned sculptural works David and Pieta, the architecture of St Peter’s Basilica and the intricate paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

The last of the Pieta sculptures, Pieta Firenze, was carved in 1561. I found it particularly expressive. Michelangelo abandoned it as he made a mistake and smashed the piece in anger. The expression and power in this sculpture was evident to me when I saw it during a formative trip to Europe. Like Michelangelo, I also wanted to create my own body of work and was lucky enough to design many buildings, but sadly no churches or squares for famous emperors.

That didn’t stop me though. In one school, for the central playground I designed an approximate facsimile of the oval pavement of the Capitoline Hill, with a ‘folly’ in the middle as a poor substitute for Marcus Aurelius on a horse.

My work at the University involves care and maintenance projects for the older buildings. The knowledge gained from the trip to Europe helped me to understand the traditional method of construction, and Michelangelo is still an inspiration.

Associate professor Tara Murphy

A radio astronomer, Associate Professor Tara Murphy (BSc ’00 CertEdStud ’12) leads a project to detect astronomical objects such as exoplanets, dwarf stars, supernovae and gamma-ray bursts. When she isn’t searching the heavens, she loves to read a good book.

What is this thing called science?, Alan Chalmers,* 1976

As a second-year undergraduate student at the University of Sydney, I was looking for an extra subject to complement physics and mathematics. On a whim I chose History and Philosophy of Science. The textbook was What is this thing called Science?

The class was a mix of arts and science students, and the lecturer opened, as the book does, by asking us what makes science special. As a science student, this seemed obvious - science is based on facts, obtained by observing the world.

A heated debate followed, concluding with the radical proposal that science was a social construct. We science students found this very confronting - heretical even! If science were just one of many thought systems, was it special at all? The textbook provided answers to that question.

Chalmers presents a commonsense view of science, explaining the role of observations and experiments in obtaining knowledge. But the big revelation was the introduction of a concept that I hadn’t heard of before - falsifiability.

Falsifiability is the idea that for a hypothesis to be useful, it must make claims that can be tested by observations and shown to be false - something non-scientific statements often lack. For example, horoscopes make general or vague predictions, which can be hard to disprove.

The concept of falsifiability was a revelation to me and my peers. We discussed it with excitement - now we had a way of explaining why science was different, and why we thought it was the best way of discovering how the universe works.

What is this thing called Science? gave me a vocabulary for talking about science and a framework for thinking about science. I can’t count how many times I’ve introduced these ideas to other people - often scientists who have never considered how science actually works.

When I picked up this book I had no idea the impact it would have on the rest of my career, and writing about it has made me want to find time to read it again.

* Alan Chalmers wrote this influential book, now published in 19 languages, when he was a member of the University of Sydney Department of General Philosophy. He is currently an Honorary Associate Professor.

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