The office of the Head of Physics looks how you would expect.
The room is spacious, but the cabinets, bookshelves and touches of home make it feel close, personal. A broad desk dominates the centre of the office. Papers and folders form hills and tussocks across its top. The actual surface is hidden.
Behind it all, legs crossed and hands templed on his thigh, is the Head himself, Ian McArthur.
“Vegetarianism is up to the individual,” he says. “But if we want to eat animal products, it’s up to us to drive producers towards more humane and sustainable methods of production.”
I nod and make a note, but at that moment, my mind is elsewhere. I’m considering how I ended up here, talking about a subject that I wouldn’t associate with frontier physics. Talking about vegetarianism.
It started a week ago, I realise, with a decision that seemed innocent at the time, but would set my week on a course that I could never have predicted.
A week ago, on the second storey of the physics building, I saw something pasted to one of the windows. A quote, about a person and subject that seemed an unlikely pair.
The person: Albert Einstein. The subject: Vegetarianism. The quote? Well, it went as follows:
“Nothing will benefit human health and increase the chances for survival of life on earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.”
It piqued my curiosity. I didn’t know Albert E. was a vegetarian, and I wondered who it was that went to the effort of posting this quote – and, as I discovered later, several others.
Although I had a lecture to attend, I lingered a moment longer, an idea forming in my mind. What drove someone to post it, I wondered. Who were they? Could I find them? If I did, what would they have to say?
In an instant, I made a decision, innocent of the knowledge of how it throw my week into chaos.
I decided to find the mystery poster.
I started with the simplest course of action: I asked my lecturer whether he knew who had posted the quotes. He didn’t. Moreover, he didn’t know that the quotes even existed.
Curious, he asked me to take him to the stairwell, and so I did. I showed him the quote, hoping for an epiphany, some sudden remembrance. What happened instead raised more questions than it answered.
My lecturer stepped up to the window, tilted his head, like a cat examining a mouse hole, and ran a fingernail across the paper. The paper didn’t tear. His finger slid past the quote with a dull squeak.
He turned to me and said, “It’s pasted to the outside of the window.”
Allow me to explain something. The physics building is not easy to access from the outside. You would need a ten metre ladder to reach the second storey – something most casual activists don’t have lying around.
This means that our mystery poster is someone in a position of authority within the university, or it means that they scaled the outside of the building, clinging to window frames and water pipes, to post the quote on their lonesome.
At this point, I realised that I was chasing after someone who might be impossible to find.
Over the next week, I continued the search. My lecturer, Ian McArthur, emailed the entire undergraduate cohort asking for leads, but nobody responded.
By all rights, I should have been disheartened, but I wasn’t. Ian had found more quotes scattered across the physics building. Some hidden, some easily visible. All of them stuck to the outside of a window. The mystery poster had gone to an impressive amount of effort, and not without reason.
See, they had gotten me thinking.
All these famous scientists, the brightest minds of their age, had shared the belief that it was ethically wrong to slaughter animals for consumption. They believed it barbaric, something that needed to change for humanity to progress. I found myself asking a question: What does it mean to be vegetarian in this day and age, and what will it mean in the future?
I had to know the answer to my question. So, in a few spare minutes, I booked interviews with every physics lecturer I could think of.
Ian McArthur accepted my request for an interview, which is how, a week later, I find myself where I am: in his office discussing vegetarianism.
Ian is not a vegetarian, but he believes in sustainable and humane eating practise. Vegetarianism, he believes, is the most extreme expression of these values – the furthest end of the spectrum. Instead, he advocates for purchasing products from confirmed humane and organic producers.
“I don’t think there’s much of a chance to convert the large majority of people to vegetarianism,” he confides. “But it is incumbent on those of us who can afford to spend more to drive produces towards humane and sustainable practises.
“But a major problem in Australia is that there isn’t rigorous enforcement of the definition of what is meant by ‘free range’ or ‘organic’. I think some other countries do better in that respect.”
As the interview comes to a close, Ian repeats the statement with which he opened. “In the end, it’s the individual’s choice.”
“I was from China,” says Jingbo Wang, lecturer and researcher, “and during that time, we really didn’t have much meat. Life was simple, but beautiful.”
A day has passed, and I have traded Ian’s office for another. This one is smaller, but neater. The stacks of files and ordered cabinets exude a sense of precision and control. I appreciate it, even as I listen.
“My view is that we need food to sustain our lives. If we take the minimum, the right amount, then there is no waste. That is the way to go.”
When pressed on the subject of vegetarianism, Jingbo responds by saying, “You do need protein. But if you don’t eat meat, you can eat soya and tofu and beans. There are many options.”
Another day passes, and I have much to think about. Both of the views presented to me side towards ethical meat consumption, but they are quite different in nature. Furthermore, I have had no positive responses from the physics department, and I suspect the one I’m chasing after hails from another school of study.
As my search comes to a close, I hear back from one last staff member: Carlo Margio, second year lab coordinator and teaching assistant. He is interested in being interviewed.
I meet him in the second year lab room. We sit down. Only lab stools, this time. There is no desk between us.
“I am a pescetarian,” he tells me. “I eat fish and fish products about once or twice a month. I was vegetarian for a long time, but eventually ate a bit of fish to keep my diet one hundred per cent nutritious.”
Intrigued, I ask him what caused him to become a vegetarian.
“My daughter became a vegetarian, and as I was cooking for her, it was easier to eat the same meals. Then I read a book on ethics by Peter Singer, and that swung me to vegetarianism.
“I would like to see our species move to vegetarianism just for the ethical aspect of eating other living creatures,” he continues. “But especially because of the suffering we cause them during so-called ‘processing for consumption.’ ”
“What I dislike most about the current system is the factory farms and cruelty to animals. That’s a principal driver for me. The life of a cow or pig is considered a commodity, and they’ll spend years in cages, on controlled diets, feeding and giving birth. To take a creature that can suffer and put their whole life to that use is an astounding level of cruelty.
“I believe that when future generations look back, they will think us barbaric for eating other living creatures.”
As I listen, I’m struck by the passion behind his words. They resonate in the empty laboratory and gain a weight beyond simple sound.
“It’s an individual choice,” he says. “I happily ate meat for a long time, because I hadn’t given it much thought. I don’t begrudge those who choose to do so.”
After my last interview, I reluctantly pull the pin on my search. I’m disappointed that I didn’t find the mystery poster, but in the end, I didn’t need to. The quotes had done their job: they had gotten me thinking.
Moreover, they have opened up new ways for me to view the issue of vegetarianism. It is, largely, an ethical dilemma over whether we should kill and eat creatures capable of suffering. It is possible to reduce this suffering by enforcing humane, sustainable practise, by reducing our reliance on meat and shifting to vegetable proteins, or by giving up meat entirely.
But ultimately, these interviews have reinforced the undeniable truth of the issue: our diet practices are our own choice, something we need to consider and decide on as individuals. What may work for one might not work for someone else.
I have my own thoughts, and after this, I will be making a few changes.
Words by Mark Brandon