Category Archives: 6. Experiments

Experiments · Prologue

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At 7.00am on 1 July 1946, radio listeners in eastern Australia tuned into a live broadcast, relayed via telephone from the National Broadcasting Company of America. The commentary was barely audible above the static, distorted by strange whines and roars. In the background a metronome ticked off the seconds as the much-anticipated moment approached. Tick. Tick. Tick. Finally the call, ‘Bombs away! Bombs away!’, and then, from nowhere, a warning: ‘Listen world, this is the crossroads’. As the people of Australia readied themselves for another day of work or school, the world’s fourth atomic bomb was exploded on the Pacific atoll of Bikini. 1

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Notes:

  1. A recording of the broadcast is available as ‘Bikini Atom Bomb Test’, Screensound: 7HT Collection, AUDN d16 2051. For details and description see SMH, 1 July 1946, p. 1; 2 July 1945, p. 3.

A vast laboratory

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The continent of Australia was rich in the raw material of scientific endeavour. Everywhere was novelty. ‘No country’, wrote the naturalist PP King, ‘ever produced a more extraordinary assemblage of indigenous productions—no country has proved richer than Australia in every branch of natural history’. 1 There were plants to be pressed, animals to be shot and skinned, as collectors set about transforming this array of biological wonders into the artefacts of scientific study. But European invaders brought more than bottles and pins to hold their specimens in place, they brought a new system of classification and nomenclature to embed such novelties firmly within the corpus of science. 2 Collection was just the first stage in a complex system of knowledge production, where ultimate authority usually rested in the scientific centres of Europe. Local naturalists exchanged their specimens for patronage, fuelling the careers of the eminent few who pronounced from afar upon the meaning of antipodean experiments in creation. 3

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Notes:

  1. Quoted in Ann Moyal, A bright and savage land, Penguin, Melbourne, 1993, p. 29.
  2. Libby Robin, ‘Natural history’, in Graeme Davison, John Hirst and Stuart Macintyre (eds), Oxford companion to Australian history, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1998, pp. 461-2; Colin Finney, To sail beyond the sunset: natural history in Australia, 1699-1829, Rigby, Adelaide, 1984; Colin Finney, Paradise revealed: natural history in nineteenth-century Australia, Museum of Victoria, Melbourne, 1993.
  3. Centre/periphery relationships and systems of imperial exchange have received considerable attention, see, for example, the papers in: Nathan Reingold, and Marc Rothenberg (eds), Scientific colonialism: a cross-cultural comparison, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, 1987; RW Home, and Sally Gregory Kohlstedt (eds), International science and national scientific identity, Kluwer, Dordrecht, 1991.

The tree of knowledge

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In March 1954, Bikini Atoll was the focus of world attention once more as the USA exploded a massive hydrogen bomb, at least six hundred times more powerful than the bomb that devastated Hiroshima. As humanity sought to comprehend the accelerating horror of the arms race, it was still more disturbing to realise that the power of the explosion had ‘completely surprised’ the bomb’s designers. 1 More than ever, scientists seemed to be experimenting with the future of civilisation itself.

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Notes:

  1. Herald, 18 March 1954, p. 2.

The control of weather

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William Wood was worried about the weather. In March 1956, he wrote to Prime Minister Menzies noting that recent poor weather conditions coincided with ‘the explosion of a number of Atom bombs in the world’. Had this connection had been properly examined?, he asked. ‘As few of us can gauge the consequences of our actions with any certainty’, he added, ‘why should Atom bomb experiments be likely to behave much differently?’ 1

The reply from the Prime Minister’s Department reassured Mr Wood that ‘leading International Meteorological opinion’ was satisfied that the effect of an atomic explosion was ‘comparable only with that of a small isolated storm and could have no important general influence on weather conditions’. 2 Wood, however, was not convinced, and the announcement that a further series of atomic tests was to be held at Maralinga spurred him to write once more. ‘What else will this certainly mean for us here’, he demanded angrily, ‘than that the few days of nice sunshine we are enjoying now will come to an end immediately these confounded tests begin’? There would be ‘more weeks of cloudy days, he insisted, more ‘blustery, off-quarter winds’, as well as ‘other signs of serious atmospheric disturbance’: ‘Do you want to starve us, sir, as very few crops in Australia will now grow in a normal manner?’ 3 No further reply was sent.

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Notes:

  1. Letter from William F Wood to Prime Minister, 22 March 1956, NAA: A6456/3, R087/016.
  2. Letter from AS Brown (Secretary PM’s Department) to WF Wood, 3 May 1956, NAA: A6456/3, R124/007.
  3. Letter from WF Wood to Prime Minister, 11 September 1957, NAA: A6456/3, R124/007.

The highest scientific authority in Australia

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‘IT’S TURNED BACK!’, exclaimed the headline above a dramatic photograph of the mushroom cloud from the recent atomic bomb test in the Monte Bello Islands. On 21 June 1956, the Daily Telegraph reported that the ‘deadly cloud’ had not dissipated harmlessly over the Indian Ocean as expected, instead it was believed to have ‘drifted eastward across northern Australia’. 1 A series of unusual events along the north-west coast had alerted journalists to the fact that the test had not gone wholly to plan. Strange flights by radiological monitoring aircraft, the appearance of air crew wearing protective film badges, and the banning of flights by civil aircraft, all added to the impression that there was ‘a “big flap” going on about the whereabouts of the atomic cloud’. 2 Suspicions that westerly winds had blown the cloud inland seemed confirmed when Mr S Stubbs, from the Comet Mine in Marble Bar, reported that after a brief shower of rain his trusty geiger counter had given an air reading of 500, compared to the usual 15. Questions about the cloud’s location had ‘caused a stir among experts and the general public’, the Age noted, ‘but officials remain silent’. 3

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Notes:

  1. Daily Telegraph, 21 June 1956, p. 1.
  2. Adelaide Advertiser, 21 June 1956, p. 1. See also: Age, 21 June 1956, p. 1; Courier-Mail, 21 June 1956, p. 1.
  3. Age, 21 June 1956, p. 1.

Unreal nervousness

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In 1954, Harold Fry’s wife fell seriously ill with heart disease. The following year she developed cancer. Fry and his daughter nursed his ailing wife until she died in 1956. Only then, in the midst of his grief, did he discover that his son, John, living in England, was suffering from Hodgkin’s disease. Fry desperately embarked on ‘a horror voyage to England by the first available ship’, but was too late. John died on 24 June 1956, at the age of just 36. 1

John Fry was a talented radio engineer who worked on the development of radar in the CSIR Division of Radiophysics from 1941 to 1947. A few months after his death, Harold Fry learnt from one of his son’s former colleagues that his was not the only mysterious illness associated with the division. Further investigation convinced him that experimental apparatus used within the radiophysics laboratory had exposed staff to ‘dangerous irradiations’. Such ‘irradiations’ had probably caused his son’s disease, and the deaths of at least three others, but who knew the full cost of the division’s negligence? In August 1957, Harold Fry wrote to Prime Minister Menzies seeking that these matters be subject to a ‘full and open enquiry’. 2

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Notes:

  1. Letter from Fry to FM Burnet, 19 September 1957, NAA: A463/17, 57/3982.
  2. Letter from Fry to RG Menzies, 27 August 1957, NAA: A6456/3, R069/003.

Human guinea pigs

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The second atomic bomb was exploded at Bikini on 25 July 1946. Whereas the first bomb was dropped from an aeroplane, this one was detonated underwater. A ‘calm and implacable’ voice counted down the seconds as the final moment approached. 1 That voice belonged to Ernest Titterton.

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Notes:

  1. David Bradley, No place to hide, University Press of New England, Hanover, 1984, p. 92.