When I was Kim Carr’s science and research adviser in the last Labor government, Senator the Hon Dr Brett Mason was our appointed nemesis, first as shadow parliamentary secretary then as shadow minister.

A Queensland Liberal, he did his duty and gave us heaps every day, although always with good humour and courtesy. But at every turn Mason carefully differentiated his perpetual war on the forces of organised labour from his equally unstinting support for Australian research and researchers, and the institutions that sustain them.

Exhibit A is his contribution to the second reading debate on the Australian Research Council Amendment Bill 2011. Mason foreshadowed the present narrative – the remarkable role played by two boys from Adelaide in the scientific effort that helped the Allies win World War Two – while articulating the depth and sincerity of his admiration for Australian researchers.

Exhibit B is his compelling new volume of Australian science writing, Wizards of Oz: How Oliphant and Florey helped win the war and shape the modern world (NewSouth Publishing)

Mason tells the story of Mark Oliphant and Howard Florey, Australians who grew up within shouting distance of one another in peaceful interwar Adelaide, and who made their respective marks on the other side of the world under the most serious circumstances imaginable.

The book traces the key roles played by these two scientists in the development of three technologies that gave the Allies a decisive edge in the war effort: portable microwave radar; pharmaceutical penicillin; and the atomic bomb. (Whatever you think of the rationale for dropping the bomb on non-combatant civilians in 1945 – I remain unconvinced – its historical impact is undeniable.)

The treacherous path from blue-sky, fundamental research to industrial-scale manufacture in each case was astonishing for its brevity, moving from the fog of incomprehension to front-line rollout inside a few years. Moreover, each path was precarious in the extreme, obstructed by petty bureaucratic squabbling, scientific envy, nationalist paranoia, administrative incompetence, enemy espionage, political cowardice, sheer stupidity and, at least in the beginning, the masterful inaction of Americans determined to keep out of Europe’s war.

Florey and Oliphant came up against all of it, and somehow prevailed.

Which is not to say they did it all by themselves. Mason highlights the critical roles played by their close collaborators, especially Ethel Florey whose deft management of the penicillin trials was pivotal.

He also neatly demonstrates that scientific brilliance was only half the genius of Oliphant and Florey – the other half was their ability to draft to the cause like minds and even the odd adversary at just the right time. Perhaps precisely because they were outsiders in this titanic Anglo-American struggle, they were able to achieve breakthroughs where all others had failed.

The adjective “consequential” crops up frequently in Wizards of Oz, for good reason. The larger counterfactual – how the war might have played out had these scientific advances not been pursued in time by the Allies, which they very nearly were not – is sobering indeed. It’s another question entirely whether those outcomes would or could have been achieved without the specific agency of Florey and Oliphant, but Mason makes a convincing case that the contingencies of personality, professional connections and sheer authority of expertise they brought to bear were determining factors.

These scientists are hardly unsung, but it is a marvel that this particular take on the pair is not already a staple of the Australian mythos. It’s also fortunate, in a way, because in Mason this yarn has found its ideal troubadour. His enthusiasm for his topic is wholly infectious, carrying this gripping story along without falter for the duration of a decent length novel. He offers just the right amount of scientific detail, interwoven with an informed account of the political travails. Both the telling and the tale are utterly captivating.

Politics is a brutal game. At the end of 2014 Mason was tumbled off the new government’s front bench after coming out second-best in a bruising party stoush. He left the Senate a few months later to become Australia’s Ambassador to The Hague.

In that second reading speech over a decade ago, then Senator Mason concluded:

“This bill, the Australian Research Council Amendment Bill 2011, might be a short, administrative, non-controversial piece of legislation, but it is part of a much larger story. It is a story of ingenuity and imagination, of long hard work as well as instant flashes of inspiration. Who knows—maybe one of the recipients of an ARC grant next year will discover the secret of the universe or will build the proverbial better mousetrap.”

That was from Opposition. It makes you wonder what the nation missed out on when internal squabbling denied Brett Mason a shot at being minister. It’s not an esoteric question, given the mixed fortunes that have befallen Australian research over the last decade. We’ll never know, of course, and there’s only so much a minister can do if their government is unsympathetic. But on the evidence of this book – passionate, erudite, respectful and driven by an unquenchable curiosity – I think a Mason research administration might have been pretty bloody good. Consequential, even.

John Byron is principal policy adviser at QUT. His debut novel, The Tribute, was published by Affirm Press in 2021


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