Victoria has a public holiday today, in honour of the Australian Football League Grand Final tomorrow. We also have a public holiday on the first Tuesday of November, in honour of the Melbourne Cup horse race (which at least runs on the public holiday). I am utterly appreciative of a day off, don’t get me wrong. I believe we all work too hard, without much in the way of recognition, and the trend towards crazy working hours is bad for everyone.
But… seriously? A public holiday in honour of a football game? I guess it’s consistent with Australian history. After all the Prime Minister of the day, Bob Hawke, seriously suggested that Australians should be allowed to take the day off when “we” won the America’s cup (a boat race). But I can’t help noticing that no-one proposed a public holiday when Barry Marshall won a Nobel Prize for proving that ulcers were caused by bacteria – Helicobacter Pylori – rather than stress or diet.
We raise up football players as heroes. We laud movie stars and television personalities. We call the Melbourne cup the “race that stops a nation” and it’s not so far from the truth. We happened to be in Perth when the semi-final games were run involving the Fremantle Dockers and the West Coast Eagles (different games, I know, I know), and the frenzy was amazing. Banners hanging from buildings. Crowds everywhere dissecting every moment of each game. I don’t begrudge anyone their interest in football, even though I don’t share it. But I do begrudge the public holidays, and the official reinforcement that sport is our proudest achievement.
Sport. Seriously? That’s what we’re proud of? That’s what we want to focus on?
Australia produced wi-fi, thanks to the CSIRO.
Fiona Wood created spray on skin, a radical, life-changing treatment for severe burns.
Howard Florey and his team discovered medical uses for penicillin, and ways to produce it in large quantities.
Graeme Clarke and his team developed the cochlear implant, giving hearing to people who would otherwise have spent their whole lives profoundly deaf.
All Australian achievements. And there are plenty more.
No Australian PM would dare to be anti-sport. That would be a real vote killer. But being anti-science is quite socially acceptable. So our politicians pander to sports fans by giving public holidays and being seen to be sports-mad. But they kill funding for science (which struggles on and changes the world even so!). They raise sportsmen (always men) to godlike status. And they feel quite free to ignore scientific evidence when they make their policy decisions.
Science changes our lives every day. It saves our lives. It improves our lives. It changes the world. If we’re very lucky it might save us from the worst of climate change, if we actually listen to it.
Sport entertains us.
What does our adulation of sportsmen teach our children? That if you’re good enough at wielding a bat, a racquet, or a ball, if you can run fast, or swim a world record, all sins are forgiven and any kind of bad behaviour is acceptable. That sport washes away all sins.
So I’d like to propose Bright Sparks day, in honour of all the remarkable and bright Australians who are changing the world. The engineers who invent things. The scientists who discover things. The people who make our very lives possible.
A day to reflect. A day to create. A day to recognise the contribution of science and engineering to everything we do. A day to celebrate real achievement.
Imagine teaching our children that scientists and engineers are heroes who change the world. Now that would be something to celebrate.