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Mark Oliphant

November 14, 2006 /
Tim Sherratt, ‘Civilisation versus the giant, winged lizards – Changing climates, changing minds’, Altitude, no. 7, 2006.

 

‘Modern man is a forest butcher’, warned the pioneering science journalist Hugh McKay in 1923. ‘He is also an oil-spendthrift and a coal waster’, McKay continued, ‘recklessly spending his capital of fuel… with never a thought of the tomorrow when he will stand shivering and motionless in the middle of a coal-less, oil-less, treeless, steel-less planet’.1 Read MoreCivilisation versus the giant, winged lizards

  1. McKay, Hugh Cleland. ‘Mankind’s Last Stand’. Smith’s Weekly 15 September 1923: 29. []
July 31, 2003 /

The development and use of the atomic bomb was a turning point in history. It seems so obvious—the world was changed, a new age dawned. But this was not the first turning point, nor the last. History is littered with critical moments, crossroads, watersheds and points of decision. Each brings a new sense of urgency, each draws renewed attention to the fate of humankind, but the moment soon passes and the urgency fades…until next time. Read MoreAtomic wonderland

November 29, 2002 /

In the 1950s, CSIRO biochemist, Hedley Marston, became embroiled in what Roger Cross describes as ‘the single most important crisis’ of his professional life. Research into fallout from the British atomic tests in Australia brought Marston into bitter conflict with the government appointed Safety Committee. It was a dispute that involved many of the major players in the Australian scientific community, and one that culminated in ‘perhaps the most unseemly episode in twentieth-century Australian science’. This is a fascinating story of ‘jealousy, hate and power’ that takes us behind the facade of scientific detachment and adds to our knowledge of the politics and personalities involved in Australia’s atomic adventures. Read MoreHedley Marston

December 1, 2001 /

It’s rare for a book relating to the history of Australian science to draw the attention of the national media. But Australia’s Bid for the Atomic Bomb made the front page with its claims that the origins of major institutions such as the Snowy Scheme and the ANU could be found in the government’s frustrated longing for nuclear weaponry. Wayne Reynolds’ ‘controversial’ book, it was reported, made use of ‘recently declassified documents’ to ‘debunk’ conventional assessments of Australian government policy in areas such as defence, foreign policy, education and science. Exciting stuff… I just wish I liked the book more. Read MoreAustralia’s bid for the bomb

July 1, 1996 /

The clouds of radioactive fallout are descending and humanity is doomed to extinction. In Nevil Shute’s book, On the Beach, the inhabitants of Melbourne await their end – the final victims of a 37 day nuclear war that has destroyed the northern hemisphere. John Osborne, played by Fred Astaire in the film version, decides to die in the embrace of the one he loves. So donning his crash helmet and goggles, he pops his suicide pills while sitting behind the wheel of the Ferrari that has recently won him the Australian Grand Prix: ‘The car had won him the race that was the climax of his life. Why trouble to go further?’ For John, as for all, it was the end of the road.

With the onset of the Atomic Age, Australia set out optimistically along the yellow-brick road to peace and prosperity, but 50 years later, the Emerald City seems as far away as ever. Australia’s involvement with nuclear energy has been largely limited to the provision of raw materials – uranium to power other countries’ reactors, and test sites for Britain’s bomb program. To understand Australia’s nuclear history you need to focus not on the journey’s end, but on the journey itself. How was the road mapped? Where were the markers? And who was doing the driving? Read MoreOn the beach: Australia’s nuclear history

November 15, 1993 /
Tim Sherratt, ‘“A physicist would be best out of it”: George Briggs at the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission’, Voices, Autumn 1993.

 

A physicist would be best out of it
A physicist would be best out of it

A tall, thin man in his early sixties was led into the recently remodelled Darlinghurst courtroom. Interest in the current proceedings was so great that extra seating had been provided to accommodate 200 members of the public, as well as 100 officials and 60 journalists. However, this session was to be heard in private, so the witness entered and was sworn before a strangely quiet and empty court.

‘What is your full name Doctor?’ asked W.J.V. Windeyer, the senior counsel, noted especially for his thorough but tedious manner.

George Henry Briggs‘ replied the witness.

‘And what is your doctorate?’

‘Physics.’ Read MoreA physicist would be best out of it

December 1, 1985 /
Tim Sherratt, ‘“A political inconvenience”:Australian scientists as the British atomic weapons tests, 1952-3’, Historical Records of Australian Science, vol. 6, no. 2, December 1985, pp. 137-152

 

Then there was a great flash that reached the far horizon. Even Dr Penney, who had witnessed the first historic cataclysm in the desert at Almagordo and later seen a bomb burst over Japan, described the scene as ‘terrifying’ as he turned around to find the frigate Plym had vanished and to see a great greyish-black cloud shooting up thousands of feet into the air and ever-growing in size.1

In the Monte Bello Islands off the coast of Western Australia on 3 October 1952, Dr William Penney watched as an atomic device for which he was largely responsible vaporised a test ship and sent thousands of tonnes of water erupting into the air. His programme had been successful; Britain was now a fully-fledged nuclear power. Read MoreA political inconvenience

  1. Leonard Bertin, Atom Harvest (London, 1955), 154. []
November 15, 1985 /
Tim Sherratt, ‘Australian scientists at the British atomic tests’, in Robyn Williams (editor), Science Show 2, Nelson, 1985, pp. 216-9. Broadcast on ABC Science Show, 11 May 1985.

 

The radioactive dust had barely settled on the devastated cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki when, in November 1945, Winston Churchill proclaimed: ‘This I take is already agreed, we should make atomic bombs.’ It was, and they did – seven years later Britain exploded its first atomic bomb in the Monte Bello Islands off the coast of Western Australia. In the years that followed, Australia hosted another eleven such tests at three different sites – Monte Bello, Emu Field and Maralinga. Thirty years later we are still attempting to count the costs. Read MoreAustralian scientists at the British atomic tests