Fast forward more than three decades, and his focus has shifted to this hemisphere - to the Milky Way, the "emu in the sky", and to studying the practice of astronomy by the original Australian inhabitants.
This year, the Baulkham Hills resident and adjunct professor in the University of Western Sydney’s School of Computing, Engineering and Maths at the Penrith campus, will establish the first undergraduate Aboriginal Astronomy subjects to help others learn more about indigenous perspectives of the southern skies.
The Yolngu people had figured out the tides from the phases of the moon. Galileo got it completely and utterly wrong, but the Yolungu people thousands of years ago had it all sorted.
‘‘That’s at least six months away... but we’re very optimistic that we will start our PHD program within weeks,’’ said the professor, who is also an adjunct professor in indigenous studies at Macquarie University.
‘‘UWS, it’s right in the centre of the Darug nation, so I’m hoping we’re going to have some help from local elders and build up knowledge of Darug astronomy.’’
The CSRIO scientist, who also runs the EMU (Evolutionary Map of the Universe) project for which the $165m ASKAP pathfinder telescope is being built in WA, said his career has taken him in fascinating directions.
‘‘My day job if you like is I’m an astrophysicist, so selling how galaxies evolve from the Big Bang using big telescopes and things like the Hubble.’’
In 2005, he pursued a long-held inkling about Aboriginal astronomy, partly inspired by his early days when he’d peered into the astronomical knowledge of Bronze Age England.
‘‘It’s been a real eye opener for me. I think many whitefellas like me don’t understand the beauty and depth of Aboriginal culture.’’
He recounted one stage of his research, when he spoke to Bill Harney, an elder of the Wardaman people of the Northern Territory, whose grandfather had assisted with navigation across country during the construction of a path to link the territory to Western Australia.
‘‘He just knows so much about the sky. He knows the name of pretty well every star you can see with your eye... Not only that, he can navigate with the stars.
‘‘He was the first one that told me about the songlines. When he was a little boy and the whitefellas were trying to plan a road from Katherine to WA, his grandfather was the guide... [and] he sang them the way.
‘‘That path is now the Victoria Highway, and it follows a songline, which I find amazing.
‘‘Aboriginal people have these oral maps, songs that describe the land... They don’t have a written language, so these songs are a way of remembering information and passing it from generation to generation.’’
Professor Norris said songlines could be used to navigate across territory, but would only work if you knew the land and the stars well. He said another example of a road along a songline was the Great Western Highway, from western Sydney into the Blue Mountains.
‘‘We know people understood how eclipses work... The Yolngu people had figured out the tides from the phases of the moon. Galileo got it completely and utterly wrong, but the Yolungu people thousands of years ago had it all sorted. That sort of thing I love - these people actually doing science, in their own cultural terms, of course.’’