In a message dated 9/9/2000 1:42:32 PM Central Daylight Time, :
> you mentioned something that surprised the hell out of me: aum shinri kyo
> 'may have tested an atom bomb in the australian desert' i did not know
> that! you'd think it'd be easy enough to verify with some geiger counters;
> satelite might even be able to tell.
This has been recently reported in Bill Bryson's latest book. Following
is the relevant exerpt.
In a Sunburned Country
By BILL BRYSON
* * * *
But then Australia is such a difficult country to keep track of.
On my first visit, some years ago, I passed the time on the long flight
reading a history of Australian politics in the twentieth century, wherein I
encountered the startling fact that in 1967 the prime minister, Harold Holt,
was strolling along a beach in Victoria when he plunged into the surf and
vanished. No trace of the poor man was ever seen again. This seemed doubly
astounding to me - first that Australia could just lose a prime minister (I
mean, come on) and second that news of this had never reached me.
The fact is, of course, we pay shamefully scant attention to our
dear cousins Down Under - not entirely without reason, of course. Australia
is after all mostly empty and a long way away. Its population, just over 18
million, is small by world standards
* * * *
But even allowing for all this, our neglect of Australian affairs
is curious. Just before I set off on this trip I went to my local library in
New Hampshire and looked Australia up in the New York Times Index to see
how much it had engaged our attention in recent years. I began with the 1997
volume for no other reason than that it was open on the table. In that year
across the full range of possible interests - politics, sports, travel, the
coming Olympics in Sydney, food and wine, the arts, obituaries, and so on -
the Times ran 20 articles that were predominantly on or about Australian
In the same period, for purposes of comparison, the Times ran 120
articles on Peru, 150 or so on Albania and a similar number on Cambodia,
more than 300 on each of the Koreas, and well over 500 on Israel. As a place
that caught our interest Australia ranked about level with Belarus and
Burundi. Among the general subjects that outstripped it were balloons and
balloonists, the Church of Scientology, dogs (though not dog sledding),
Barneys, Inc., and Pamela Harriman, the former ambassador and socialite who
died in February 1997, a misfortune that evidently required recording 22
times in the Times. Put in the crudest terms, Australia was slightly more
important to us in 1997 than bananas, but not nearly as important as ice
As it turns out, 1997 was actually quite a good year for
Australian news. In 1996 the country was the subject of just nine news
reports and in 1998 a mere six. Australians can't bear it that we pay so
little attention to them, and I don't blame them. This is a country where
interesting things happen, and all the time.
Consider just one of those stories that did make it into the Times
in 1997, though buried away in the odd-sock drawer of Section C. In January
of that year, according to a report written in America by a Times reporter,
scientists were seriously investigating the possibility that a mysterious
seismic disturbance in the remote Australian outback almost four years
earlier had been a nuclear explosion set off by members of the Japanese
doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo.
It happens that at 11:03 p.m. local time on May 28, 1993,
seismograph needles all over the Pacific region twitched and scribbled in
response to a very large-scale disturbance near a place called Banjawarn
Station in the Great Victoria Desert of Western Australia. Some
long-distance truckers and prospectors, virtually the only people out in
that lonely expanse, reported seeing a sudden flash in the sky and hearing
or feeling the boom of a mighty but far-off explosion. One reported that a
can of beer had danced off the table in his tent.
The problem was that there was no obvious explanation. The
seismograph traces didn't fit the profile for an earthquake or mining
explosion, and anyway the blast was 170 times more powerful than the most
powerful mining explosion ever recorded in Western Australia. The shock was
consistent with a large meteorite strike, but the impact would have blown a
crater hundreds of feet in circumference, and no such crater could be found.
The upshot is that scientists puzzled over the incident for a day or two,
then filed it away as an unexplained curiosity—the sort of thing that
presumably happens from time to time.
Then in 1995 Aum Shinrikyo gained sudden notoriety when it
released extravagant quantities of the nerve gas sarin into the Tokyo subway
system, killing twelve people. In the investigations that followed, it
emerged that Aum's substantial holdings included a 500,000-acre desert
property in Western Australia very near the site of the mystery event.
There, authorities found a laboratory of unusual sophistication and focus,
and evidence that cult members had been mining uranium. It separately
emerged that Aum had recruited into its ranks two nuclear engineers from the
former Soviet Union. The group's avowed aim was the destruction of the
world, and it appears that the event in the desert may have been a dry run
for blowing up Tokyo.
You take my point, of course. This is a country that loses a prime
minister and that is so vast and empty that a band of amateur enthusiasts
could conceivably set off the world's first nongovernmental atomic bomb on
its mainland and almost four years would pass before anyone noticed.*
Clearly this is a place worth getting to know.
* Interestingly, no Australian newspapers
seem to have picked up on this story and the
New York Times never returned to it, so
what happened in the desert remains a
mystery. Aum Shinrikyo sold its desert
property in August 1994, fifteen months after
the mysterious blast but seven months
before it gained notoriety with its sarin
attack in the Tokyo subway system. If any
investigating authority took the obvious step
of measuring the area around Banjawarn
Station for increased levels of radiation, it
has not been reported.
See <http://www.randomhouse.com/features/billbryson/excerpt1.html> for more
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