Atomic wonderland

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What started as a history of the Atomic Age has become something quite different. The supposed newness of the bomb has given way to a greater appreciation of continuity. Instead of setting the limits of this study to the temporal boundaries of the age, the way in which such limits are drawn, the nature of the turning points and dividing lines that structure our experience of the technology, have themselves become subjects for study. Instead of simply documenting an age, this history explores the nature of the journey that gives such turning points their power and meaning.

The journey is known as progress. But even as this name is uttered, as the concept solidifies, as the metaphor endows a familiar sense of onward movement, progress gains its own set of limits—a feeling of unity and coherence, of distance and direction. This is a history of progress, but it is not the history of a single idea. Instead of taking for granted the image of progress as a unifying creed, an ideology of domination, as the inevitable outcome of scientific development, this thesis attempts to explore some of the practices, contradictions and assumptions that are gathered together under the heading of progress.

Science, of course, is an important part of the mix, featuring strongly in the articulation of progress and its consequences for society. This is a history that surveys many of the significant features of twentieth century Australian science, both to tease out the meaning of progress, and to broaden understanding of science’s cultural context and content. This is an attempt to move beyond studies of the ‘culture of science’ towards an appreciation of ‘science as culture’. 1

The structure, content, style and methodology of this thesis have been developed through the questioning of boundaries—boundaries that define the limits of the Atomic Age, the meaning of progress, and the nature of science. Such boundaries not only set parameters for academic inquiry, they help to determine what society accepts as possible, inevitable, necessary, realistic, and rational. They constrain our choices for change. They set the limits of hope. The way in which science and progress combine to narrow the realm for action and imagination is another important thread within this thesis, explored, in particular, through the recurring image of the crossroads.

Thus, the argument of this thesis is developed through four major themes. The first insists that our assumptions of change and sequence, our fondness for dividing lines and turning points, must themselves be subjected to historical scrutiny. In the case of progress, it is argued, there are important continuities often obscured by our fascination with the ‘new’ and the comfort of our supposed sophistication. The second theme is concerned with the nature of progress itself, arguing for a greater appreciation of the complexities of its historical expression. Progress, it is maintained, consists of both ideas and practices, echoed as much in the rhetoric of business leaders as in the ticking of a mechanical clock. The third theme elaborates upon some of the connections between science and progress in twentieth century Australia. Such connections are not, it is argued, mere consequences of scientific development, they are part of the ongoing battles of legitimation and authority that define what science is. The final theme insists that at the intersection of all these lines of inquiry is the question of choice, of our ability to imagine how the world might be different.

This is not the Atomic Age, this is ‘Atomic Wonderland’. Instead of clearly defined boundaries there are questions and doubts, warnings that the normal rules do not always apply. Like Alice in her Wonderland, we find ambiguity, uncertainty and surprise—a journey of discovery in a world both alien and familiar. It was Lewis Carroll himself who coined the phrase ‘portmanteau words’. In Wonderland, as in this thesis, words and meanings matter:

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master—that’s all’. 2

The meaning and scope of ‘Atomic Wonderland’ is introduced in chapter one, which examines the ‘newness’ of the bomb and our passion for turning points. It begins at the crossroads, finding in this familiar metaphor a dialectic of accumulation and disjunction that underpins our conception of progress. Progress is assumed to be built upon the accumulated knowledge and power of preceding generations. Like the passage of time itself, progress is characterised as a journey carrying us inevitably onwards. And yet, progress is revealed most compellingly in the contrast between old and new, in the idea that it has wrought an irreversible break with the past—a revolution, a new age. This dialectic shapes our understanding of past and future; it is embedded within the practice of history; it limits our ability to imagine change. In setting about an exploration of Atomic Wonderland, this chapter ponders the nature of the journey that confronts both author and audience.

The spatial dimensions of progress are considered further in chapter two. Progress is imagined as a journey, its achievement assured through movement, acceleration, the accumulation of distance and the conquest of space. In a land of forbidding distances, and ‘empty’ spaces, Australian national progress was frequently imagined in spatial terms, as reflected in EJ Brady’s book Australia Unlimited. This chapter focuses on Brady while examining the way concepts of space, distance and movement have entered into the rhetoric of national progress. Brady provides an important study, not only because of his insistence upon the value of Australian space, but also because of the way in which his work entwined knowing and travelling. The journeys of individual and nation were linked in the exploration of the continent’s vast potentialities. Indeed, while Brady is often cited as a key propagandist for the developmentalist cause, the significance of such ideas is rarely considered within the broader sphere of his life and work. One of the aims of this thesis is to explore the complexities of progress, to examine some of the ways it enters our lives and hopes. This chapter tells the story of EJ Brady the lifelong socialist, the disappointed utopian, the failed entrepreneur, and the struggling writer. By understanding some of the detail of Brady’s life and career, we can see how a belief in progress can combine emotion and intellect, disappointment and optimism, personal hopes and national ambitions. Progress is lived through its contradictions and ironies.

Chapter three continues to examine some of the complexities of progress, focusing on the experience of disjunction, the imagined contrast between old and new. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Australia was a ‘new’ nation, its character and potential contrasted with the ‘old’ nations of Europe. Throughout the century, ‘newness’ remained an indicator of national progress, as Australians were urged to seek advancement through a succession of new ages, new orders, new minds, and new men. Australia’s destiny was presumed to lie in the remaking of land and people. From plans to bring life to the continent’s ‘dead heart’, to the satisfaction gained through the latest household gadgets, this chapter considers the allure of transformation, noting, in particular, the role of science and technology.

The supposed connection between science and progress is taken up explicitly in chapter four. National progress is commonly assumed to be dependent upon the application of science and technology, but exactly what is to be applied, and how? The chapter examines various plans to turn the power of science to national ends. It focuses, in particular, on the early  efforts of progressive liberal Littleton Groom, and the perceived role of Canberra as a centre for national scientific achievement. These plans reveal changing ideals of education and enlightenment, conflict over the best means of organising science, questions about the role of the individual and of government, even uncertainty about the nature of science itself. While the relationship between science and progress seems self-evident, the precise formula linking the two has remained elusive.

Chapter five continues to explore how discussions about progress brought to the fore questions about the nature of science and knowledge. The central case study concerns the establishment of the Commonwealth Institute of Science and Industry. Debate on the Institute often centred on the appropriate balance of theory and practice, with critics of the scheme being taken to reflect the utilitarian bias of Australian culture. The supposed conflict between scientific enlightenment and narrow-minded utility has proved a pervasive theme both in the history of Australian science and in scientists’ attempts to win public support for their endeavours. Progress is portrayed as the conquest of ignorance. By examining the debate and a number of other crises and controversies, this chapter provides a more complex assessment. The battle lines between the scientist and the ‘practical man’ were constantly shifting in a contest of authority and legitimation. What was at issue was not just the nature of scientific knowledge, but the question of whose knowledge counts.

This question seems most critical in cases where uncertainty holds sway. Chapter six addresses the meaning of uncertainty by examining the significance of ‘experiments’ to Australian progress and security. Experiments are open-ended, offering advances in knowledge and utility that only the future can know. But who sets the parameters, who defines the objectives? The British atomic tests offer a useful case study in the interplay of uncertainty and authority, demonstrating how trust has been sought through the power of reason to dispel any ‘unreal nervousness’. The control of ‘experiments’, the battle over the future, is reduced to a conflict between reason and emotion. Progress is portrayed as a victory over fear, with science enlisted to sooth our doubts.

The relationship between progress and fear is considered further in chapter seven. From the economic protection of Deakin to the border protection of Howard, concerns about development and defence have been constantly intertwined. Anxieties surrounding the ‘atomic secret’ illustrate the way in which progress has been assumed to be found in the maintenance of boundaries defining knowledge and participation. For all its revolutionary potential, progress brings a new set of limits. Our choices are revealed in the image of the crossroads, where progress is set against destruction as our only options. What sort of choice is this?


  1. Sherratt, ‘Science, history of’, p. 573.
  2. Lewis Carroll, Through the looking-glass and what Alice found there, Folio Society, London, 1962, p. 75.

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