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Introduction · Prologue

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What is atomic wonderland? As this introduction explains, the metaphor of ‘atomic wonderland’ is intended to connote a study more complex and revealing than one limited to the Atomic Age, or even ‘atomic culture’. Atomic wonderland brings challenges to our understanding of time, meaning, significance, and style.

This introduction traces the intellectual development of this thesis from the ‘turning point’ of Hiroshima, through to the problem of communicating historical complexity. It explains how an exploration of the Atomic Age in Australia became focused on the meaning of progress; how a story of pioneering scientists became a cultural history of Australian science; and how a thesis became an experiment in some of the possibilities of narrative.

The Atomic Age

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As the twentieth century neared its end and pundits began to compile their lists of significant moments in history, it was hardly surprising to find that the development of the atomic bomb ranked high amidst the top ten turning points. 1 With the destruction of Hiroshima, it seemed, the world had changed in an instant. The power of the bomb had obliterated a city, killed many thousands, and brought the end of the war suddenly near. But the bomb also wrought changes in politics and culture, as an unwary humanity was suddenly confronted with the possibility of its own apocalyptic demise. The Atomic Age had begun.

Delivering the 1956 Dyason Lecture, historian Arnold Toynbee reflected on the meanings of both democracy and the Atomic Age. They were, he argued, ‘portmanteau words’, whose contents had to be carefully unpacked. 2 The Atomic Age comprised intellectual and technological elements, Toynbee noted, but the factor that loomed largest was apprehension inspired by the prospect of atomic war. The Atomic Age was a label, a period of time, an index of technological development, and a feeling. It is a phrase that conjures still a range of familiar images, from missile silos to ‘duck and cover’, from bad sci-fi to the prospect of a technological utopia. Where do we begin in a study of the Atomic Age—with the scientists? the technology? And what do we mean when we talk about the Atomic Age in Australia, a country whose involvement with the atomic energy has been largely as an exporter of uranium and testing site for British bombs? For something that seems so familiar, so obvious, so central to an understanding of the twentieth century, the meaning of the Atomic Age remains elusive.

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Notes:

  1. Daily Telegraph, 25 February 1999, p. 26. The Newseum website conducted polls of journalists and the public, and both nominated the bomb as the most significant event of the twentieth century. See: <http://www.newseum.org/century/century_essay.html>.
  2. Arnold J. Toynbee, Democracy in the Atomic Age, The Dyason Lectures, 1956, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1957, p.1

Progress

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What is progress? There are histories of progress that chart its meanings from ancient times to the present. There are treatises that explore its moral and spiritual dimensions, its eschatological origins, its apocalyptic fulfilment. 1 There are the familiar economic definitions, of course, as well as attempts to factor environmental health and human happiness into the calculations of the number crunchers. 2 But the most detailed studies of progress have been undertaken within the history of ideas, where JB Bury’s 1920 definition still provides a useful point of reference. Progress, Bury asserts, ‘is a theory which involves a synthesis of the past and a prophecy of the future. It is based on an interpretation of history which regards men [sic] as slowly advancing… in a definite and desirable direction, and infers that this progress will continue indefinitely’. 3

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Notes:

  1. For example: J B Bury, The idea of progress: an inquiry into its origin and growth, Macmillan, London, 1920; Sidney Pollard, The idea of progress: history and society, CA Watts & Co, London, 1968; John Baillie, The belief in progress, Oxford University Press, London, 1950.
  2. For example: Clive Hamilton, and Richard Denniss, Tracking well-being in Australia: the Genuine Progress Indicator 2000, Discussion paper no. 35, Australia Institute, Canberra, 2000; Richard Eckersley (ed.), Measuring progress: is life getting better, CSIRO Publishing, Melbourne, 1998.
  3. Bury, The idea of progress, p. 5.

Science

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It seems almost self-evident to assert that science shapes our understanding of progress. Through continuing advances in knowledge and technology, science invests progress with much of its sense of dynamism and inevitability. This hold on the future was dramatised by the development of the atomic bomb. No longer, it seemed, could implications of science be ignored by any responsible government. The Atomic Age, nuclear physicist Ernest Titterton argued, was ‘an era in which science has become so important in our lives that all our decisions, including political ones, must be made with scientific considerations in mind’. 1

Science, as in this case, is commonly portrayed as something external to the revolutions it conjures upon an impotent and unsuspecting world, as an engine of change constructed to its own internal specifications. But just as the meaning of the Atomic Age cannot be simply read from the activities of scientists, so the relationship between science and progress is not one merely of cause and effect. To explore this relationship we have to lift the bonnet on the engine of science and tinker with the mechanics; we have to examine failed designs and superseded models; we have to ask who is doing the driving and why.

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Notes:

  1. Ernest William Titterton, Facing the Atomic Future, FW Cheshire, Melbourne, 1956, p. 4.

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.

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Experiments in narrative

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In setting out the scope of the argument and the contents of each chapter, it is obviously hoped that this thesis will display a certain logic. There is a beginning and an end, a literature to be addressed, problems to be solved, connections to be made. Each chapter is expected to build upon the last, to carry the reader onwards, perhaps even with a sense of inevitability. There is a familiarity to this journey, for the characteristics of a ‘good’ argument reflect our conception of progress. Point by point we proceed, as ideas and evidence accumulate towards enlightenment. This steady movement is punctuated by moments of insight and clarity that challenge our preconceptions and broaden our perspective. In a ‘good’ argument, all this is achieved within a framework of confidence and authority that gathers the reader’s trust. Alternatives are considered and discarded, problems are solved—the journey seems so natural, its conclusions loom inevitable.

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