The Curiosity Show made Rob Morrison the face of science in the ’70s and ’80s. Lainie Anderson talks with the Bridgewater resident about the halcyon days of kids’ TV, historic sailing ships and how he came to be a witness in the Azaria Chamberlain case…
I have to start with The Curiosity Show – the most famous kids’ science show in Australia, loved by anyone who grew up in the ’70s and ’80s. How did you come to be a part of it?
By accident! I was doing my PhD and had done a few educational broadcasts for the ABC. In those days the ABC was fairly leisurely – you’d talk about your segment and then have a cup of tea, and then you’d talk again and then have another cup of tea, then maybe break for lunch.
I happened to be hand-rearing a little possum and a friend of mine at Channel 9 invited me to talk about it on Here’s Humphrey. I walked into the studio and chatted a bit with my friend on the set. She rushed off, and a while later came back out to ask what I was still doing there. I told her I was waiting to do the segment. She said “We’ve already filmed it – you need to get out of shot!”
They rang the next day and said they were looking for a new presenter, and couldn’t believe how relaxed I was on camera. They offered me the job – and I wasn’t relaxed from then on.
When I think back to The Curiosity Show, I remember your goatee beard and Deane Hutton’s big wide eyes. What’s your most enduring memory of the show?
Gee, it ran for 18 years so it’s hard to pick a single thing. In those days lots of children’s television was like a classroom, with presenters behind a table talking to a single camera. We didn’t do that. We’d focus on the material and bring the camera over our shoulder so people could see what we were seeing.
I look at the top 20 programs today and find I don’t watch anything. The ’70s and ’80s were such a great time to be involved because there were only a few channels and television was still special.
My boys love MythBusters – that seems to be the science show of its generation. Do you watch it?
Yes I do, and apparently there’s a link with The Curiosity Show. Deane met one of the MythBusters producers on a plane. He said they got some stuff from our old shows.
Do you think there’s room for a Curiosity Show in Australia today and would it work?
We’re often asked if we’d do it again – and we would – but I don’t think it would work. In those days, parents still controlled when their children watched television, so you had them corralled into that hour and you competed with just a few networks. These days, kids watch channels at all hours. On YouTube you can see science oddities and segments from all over the world. For all of those reasons, I don’t think it would work.
Are technology and the internet good for our curiosity, or are they curbing our capacity to think analytically?
Very good question. I think it’s both because curiosity comes in different forms. New media is tremendous for sociable children, but then they get addicted and worried when they’re not getting as many tweets as their friends. It exaggerates everything. Anything that’s powerful is equally powerful for good and bad. Think of atomic energy: used properly it can save millions; used badly and it kills millions. On balance, the ability to get information is a plus.
But the other loss of curiosity – and this does worry me – is that children with Xboxes are pretty good at using their thumbs, but they couldn’t make anything to save themselves. I do a number of interactive science shows and recently asked a group of upper primary kids to make me a paper glider. Only six out of 30 knew how. Kids have lost the ability to make things.
Do you think science is undervalued in Australia?
Hugely! HUGELY! The fact that we now have a government that doesn’t even have a Science Minister will tell you a bit. What message does that send?
It wasn’t until I started researching your life that I realised there’s a whole lot more to Rob Morrison than The Curiosity Show. For example, I never knew about your involvement in the Azaria Chamberlain case. Tell us about that.
Back in the ’70s I started writing a field guide on the tracks and traces of Australian animals. So I went around Australia with a big bucket of sand and a dismountable tracking tray, and I’d run animals through it to collect the tracks.
Just a few months before Azaria disappeared, we happened to be filming in Alice Springs for The Curiosity Show. Back in those days you could stay right near the Rock and I looked out one morning and there was this big dingo prowling around. They were watering the lawns and he was leaving these lovely big tracks in the wet sand. I always carried plaster with me to collect tracks and I thought ‘I’ll have those’. A few months later that was the dingo in question. I’ve still got those tracks as a cast in my room.
I published the book and the Chamberlains went through their first two ordeals. Much later in 1987 I got a letter from the Morling Royal Commission. They were very thorough in their investigations and asked if I, as an expert on tracks and traces, could make sense of conflicting Aboriginal testimonials about whether the tracks were left by a dingo or a dog. So I went off and did that. At the same time, some expert witness in the UK was still saying that dingoes couldn’t open their jaws 10cm to engulf a baby’s head.
Why would they get a dingo expert from England?
Exactly! English dingoes might not be able to open their jaws 10cm, but ours certainly can.
When I was casting tracks near the Rock, one of the dingoes made off with my plastic jar of plaster, and that was more than 10cm. The Royal Commission investigators got very excited when I told them about that, and asked me to verify it.
I got an Ingham’s chicken, measuring 13cm across, kept it frozen so it couldn’t be crushed, presented it to a dingo. And I filmed it. There was this enormous gape as the dingo took the chicken and raced off. So I ended up being a witness in the Royal Commission.
What was Lindy like?
I spent a couple of very interesting hours with the Chamberlains once, after I’d given my evidence. In private Lindy was the most engaging, attractive, funny, lively companion – so unlike that dour character on TV. I said to her, “You’re not at all like the character we saw on the television.” And she said, “My lawyer told me not to smile or they’ll think you’re heartless.”
So she didn’t smile – and we thought she was heartless.
Do you get frustrated by the lack of critical thinking in Australia, especially these days when we seem to constantly swing from one social media outrage to the next?
It’s really annoying. That’s one of the great benefits of teaching science, because you teach people how to test things, to be sceptical.
What do you think of the climate change debate in Australia?
Appalling. People come up to me and say, “You’re a scientist – is it happening?” And it’s a bit like saying “Are people nice?” It’s so complex – you cannot easily bring it down to a ‘yes’ or ‘no’.
Is it happening? Yes. How much of that is human induced? Hard to know. Do we depend on what the experts tell us, or take our clues from the environment? I reckon you can tell a bit from what plants and the animals are doing because migration patterns are changing quite severely, plant species are retreating up mountains … and you can see vegetation growth is changing. But how much of that is transient? It’s almost impossible to have a proper debate because it polarises people so much.
OK, let’s move to a more cheery topic. I read that you’ve been heavily involved in bringing the clipper ship City of Adelaide back to South Australia. Why is it so important to the state?
It’s internationally important, actually, because it’s the oldest, most intact clipper remaining in the world – older even than the Cutty Sark in London – and they’re not going to make any more of them. It’s like preserving old buildings. It has a particular resonance to Adelaide because it brought the ancestors of a quarter of all South Australians out here.
You’ve achieved so much Rob – and we haven’t even touched on the fact that you created the Lesueur Conservation Park on Kangaroo Island. My final question is this: if you could work on just one more project, what would it be?
I’d try to stop Australians thinking that our prosperity rides on the most trivial of operations, like digging up ore and selling it, or cutting down trees and chipping them.
We need to do what the Americans did without meaning to, when Kennedy said he’d have a man on the moon in 10 years. Technologists said it was impossible, but it became a national imperative. They invented small computers, carbon fibre … they’ve even got a magazine at NASA called Spinoff, which is all the technology designed for the space race that has been commercialised. And they’ve got patents for the whole lot of it.
Australians should state that in 10 years we’ll be able to do something we simply cannot do right now. Nothing symbolic like putting a man on the moon, but something that’s bloody useful – like taking a dying town and making it self-sufficient for power, water, food, recycling, everything!
I’d like to be a part of that.