Dad, what does that sign mean?
This is what my 9-year old daughter asked when she saw these signs adorning a wall on campus when walking to her music class on Saturday. Without waiting for an answer from me, she immediately gave her opinion:
It doesn’t make any sense – and it’s not even proper English!
She’s right of course – what on earth does it mean? Pursue the impossible? Pursue impossible dreams? And why are the campus walls decorated with this ungrammatical imperative? And what are we meant to do if we acquiesce – start attempting to square the circle or find a 5-chromatic planar graph? In mathematics at least, pursuing the impossible is not such a great idea.
Then I remembered seeing some people installing various objects in different places about campus last week. At the time I had assumed that this was the output of an art project, but now I went for a closer look. The first thing I saw was a collection of parallel metal plates on the lawn with a sign saying “Take Photo Here”. So I did, and when I took the photo from the recommended place, the plates lined up and I got a picture of John Winthrop Hackett, who was UWA’s inaugural chancellor.
Because my first view of the structure (sculpture?) was at almost the same angle as the “correct” viewing angle, there wasn’t all that much difference between the views. The next one was more interesting though – again a set of parallel plates, and obviously a person, but who?
The photo is of Barry Marshall, UWA’s one and only Nobel Laureate (shared prize with Robin Warren) and he really does have one of the great stories of scientific persistence triumphing against the odds. While working as a young internist, he noticed high concentrations of the bacterium Helicobacter Pylori in many of the biopsies he performed on tissue from people with stomach ulcers and other stomach problems, and he developed the theory that stomach ulcers might actually be caused by the bacterium. At that time, stomach ulcers were universally regarded as arising from excessive stomach acid caused by stress and diet. The medical establishment greeted his theory with ignorance, indifference or condemnation. After all, who would pay any attention to this maverick whose nonsensical theories about bacteria living in the stomach causing ulcers were obviously so wildly misguided that they should be summarily rejected.
One of the important and most dramatic steps that he took to prove that he was right after all was to create a Helicobacter Pylori broth, and drink it himself, while documenting the survival of the bacteria in the stomach (deemed impossible) and the almost immediate onset of a number of stomach complaints. The ultimate consequence of his persistence, indeed intransigence, is that stomach ulcers have been transformed from a painful, often-chronic condition making life miserable for tens of millions of people to an easily-treatable condition just requiring a short course of antibiotics. Occasionally I see a car driving round Nedlands with the vanity plates H PYLORI on it.
By now, it’s dawning on me that this is not some final year project in Visual Arts, but is actually the unveiling of the University’s new branding – yes, our new “slogan” or “motto” or whatever you call it is actually “Pursue Impossible”. I didn’t attend the meeting at which this branding was unveiled and explained, so I had to fill in the gaps myself. The installations are all about how by looking at things in just the right way, the impossible becomes possible. To my mind, the sentiment is fine, but not immediately apparent from “Pursue Impossible”.
Also some of the installations don’t seem to really be conveying the right idea. In this one, the word POSSIBLE on our staff club wall becomes IMPOSSIBLE if you manoeuvre the letters IM (sitting on a plinth some distance away) into place. So by looking at it in the recommended way, the possible becomes impossible! Hurray!
So what do we all think of our new motto? Everyone that I’ve spoken to has reacted with either disbelief, bewilderment or derision, but I’m not sure which is winning at the moment. I don’t know if anybody (other than the marketing firm that pocketed the cash) likes it, but if they do, they haven’t told me.
Our previous but now-outdated motto was “Achieve International Excellence” which is pretty clunky but at least the intent is clear. Even earlier we had a much more succinct motto with which surely no-one can disagree – “Seek Wisdom” – and to which I think we should return, if we really think a motto is important. But actually, what is the point of a university motto/tagline at all? Do students choose universities based on the motto? Is the motto intended to convey to the public some deeply held core value? If so, should it really be chosen by some marketing consultant?
It seems endemic though, because almost everywhere has a motto – for example, both of my daughters’ schools have mottos, one of them is Semper Altius and the other Savoir C’est Pouvoir. (Obviously, a motto in another language automatically has more gravitas than one in English.) The good news though is that we’re not the worst – when I went to UNSW a few years ago, I was surprised to be continually urged to Never Stand Still, which is their motto. To me, it always brings to mind the image of someone standing giving a lecture while hopping frantically from foot to foot, as though desperate for a pee.
I do have to feel a bit sorry for the VC though. Shortly after unveiling the “Pursue Impossible” brand, he was forced by UWA staff and students to reluctantly return $4m (to the government) that had been given to UWA to set up a think-tank analysing problems in the developing world and making recommendations on which development projects give the best bang for the buck. The catch was that the proposed centre was to be associated with Bjorn Lomborg, a Danish political scientist who performs “Freakonomics” style analysis of environmental and developmental issues, often with counter-intuitive and/or controversial results.
But UWA staff spoke loud and clear – they absolutely do not want to be associated in any way with this maverick whose nonsensical theories are obviously so wildly misguided that they should be summarily rejected.
Aha, at last I’ve got it – the motto that we should have if they were subject to truth-in-advertising rules.
UWA – you just can’t make this stuff up!