Book Review: Why Science is Sexist, by Nicola Gaston

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_why_science_is_sexistNo doubt it is a reflection of my own background and insensitivity, but the question of sexism in science has never occurred to me, although I have worked supporting scientists for significant periods. I have missed a lot!

My initial thought when I saw the title was that there was a pretty massive assumption being made – that science was sexist. Fortunately, the author quickly demonstrated that there is sexist behaviour in science, and sexist attitudes. She demonstrates that women are under-represented at all levels of scientific study and inquiry, in all disciplines, and in all areas, including academia and professions, private and public services. She recounts the arguments that mental ability is gendered, although there is no actual evidence for that statement.

Nicola Gaston is a Senior Lecturer in Chemistry at Victoria University of Wellington, and President of the NZ Association of Scientists. The book is a very personal one, including her own experiences, opinions and reactions throughout. Starting from the widely reported incidents involving world-renowned scientists (including a Nobel Prize-winner), she gives many examples of the way that sexism plays out in the scientific world.

But the real question is ‘Why?’ Gaston delves into the research. Subconscious bias and stereotypes are examined. I found some of these alarming – do rational scientists really say things like that? Biological differences are assumed to exist despite there being no evidence for them. Women’s contributions are systematically undervalued or denied. Discussions about women in science are recounted which seem to be quite bizarre. The author demonstrates the considerable extent of our unconscious bias against female scientists, and warns of its damaging consequences for science and for society.

The author’s approach is interesting. There is a mix of objective research studies and personal observations. There are suggestions for positive ways forward, and her personal to-do list. Her call is to rethink attitudes not only to gender, but to scientific inquiry. The 93 pages pack in a lot of data, research, opinions and some conclusions. The writing is clear and the argument easy to follow – and so to accept or reject. But rejection would seem perverse in the light of the material here.

This is a book that raises many difficult questions, and offers some solutions. I found that it challenged some of my preconceptions, and has provided much food for thought. It’s short enough to read, think about and discuss in an evening: do it!

Reviewed by Gordon Findlay

Why Science Is Sexist
by Nicola Gaston
Published by Bridget Williams Books
ISBN  9780908321650

Book Review: Home Truths: Confronting New Zealand’s Housing Crisis, by Philippa Howden-Chapman

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_home_truthsHousing – particularly its availability, quality, and cost – is a common feature of news broadcasts and publications in New Zealand. There can be little doubt that the state of housing in NZ is a critical factor in many of the major issues affecting this country: the economy, employment, immigration, health, sustainability are all affected in one way or another by the housing situation.

Phillipa Howden-Chapman is a frequent commentator on housing issues. She is a Professor of Public Health, and is currently the Director of the University of Otago’s Housing and Health Research programme. She brings to this succinct survey an extraordinary mass of facts, figures, and opinions. She believes that comparatively recently we have lost a lot, and moved towards third-world conditions in many areas. She firmly believes too that access to dry, warm and safe housing should not be determined by a household’s income.

She begins with a survey where we have come from in housing policy. There’s more in this 25-page chapter (they are small pages too!) than might be expected. New Zealand has neglected its heritage of enlightened policies, and a case is made that we now have some of the worst housing in the developed world, especially for the approximately 50% of families in rental accommodation.

The second chapter deals with the interaction between the housing market, and the welfare state, and the third with the importance of housing in the national economy. Here she challenges some of the assumptions commonly made in economic discussions, and demonstrates the role of housing in the recent rapid increase in inequality in our society. And why this matters to both rich and poor.

The fourth chapter ‘Why Does the Quality of Housing Matter’ is, for me, the guts of the book. It is astonishing that in a ‘light-handed’ regulatory environment, legal costs are so high. As might be expected for a health researcher, the author canvasses the health issues caused by poor living conditions. She is scathingly critical of the lack of properly collected data available, and the thin layer of evidence that supports the development of policy. She does not accept current policies around rental houses, and regards current government measures as lukewarm at best. Her proposal is a strong, standardised Warrant of Fitness for all rental accommodation.

The final chapter sets out some directions that the author believes housing policy must move in. She considers policies to make more housing available; to make housing affordable, healthy and sustainable. She describes some successful models from Europe – especially Scandinavia. Changes are needed, she says, at both national and local government levels in the ways that planning and monitoring are done. She advocates mixed-tenure communities, and has several examples. She also calls for greatly increased regulation of the private rental market, in the interests of both tenants and landlords.

Don’t be mistaken: this is not a dispassionate book! The author has done the research (over some decades) and she has a firm conviction that the country can do better. She also knows what she means by ‘better’, and takes no prisoners in allocating blame. In brief, she has an axe to grind, and the facts to grind it on.

On one level, this is an easy book to read. It isn’t long (BWB bills the series as ‘Short books on big subjects from great New Zealand writers’) and the writing is fluent. At another level, it can serve as the gateway to much more: there are extensive notes and references, and it would be easy to follow up the statistics and graphs here in more detail. If you have any interest in society’s well-being, I recommend you read this book.

Reviewed by Gordon Findlay

Home Truths: Confronting New Zealand’s Housing Crisis
by Philippa Howden-Chapman
Published by BWB, part of the BWB Texts series
ISBN 9780947492335

Book Review: Ocean Notorious: Journeys to Lost and Lonely Places of the Deep South, by Matt Vance

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_ocean_notoriousThe Southern Ocean officially doesn’t exist anymore: the hydrological authorities redefined it out of existence. But sailors still know the body of water south of New Zealand, the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn, and stretching as far as Antarctica, as the Southern Ocean. And a fearsome place it sounds. The ‘roaring forties’ sounds bad enough, but the ‘screaming sixties’ is something else again. I know that it is supposedly the wind that is screaming, but I’m pretty sure that if I was there, the wind would have competition.

Matt Vance is a sailor who is much more at home in the deep south than most people. He is an expedition guide, and has ferried tourists, bird-watchers, artists and writers to many of the lonely places in this remote area. This book collects the stories he has heard, and the experiences he has enjoyed, and at times endured. Most recently he has guided participants in the Artists to Antarctica programme.

Just the names summon up awe: the Bounty Islands, South Georgia, Auckland Island, and Campbell Island – the list goes on. People will only have heard of most of these places from weather forecasts, disaster reports and reading about the explorers of the ‘heroic age’, like Amundsen, Shackleton and Scott. Cold, barren, wind-swept, dangerous places are challenged by sailors, ornithologists, geologists, climate scientists, artists and writers. Starting on a Russian icebreaker running Southern Ocean expeditions, Vance has spent a great deal of time on the sub-Antarctic islands, and on the ice.

The author gives his own account of this region, and also introduces us to many of the other characters who have made their mark on, and been marked by, this remote and frightening part of the world. Explorers are there of course. So are sailors in small boats, and large ones. The story of the coast watchers during the Second World War (total sighting in 12 months: 2 ships, both ours), and their contributions not only to defence but to science, cast an interesting light on NZ’s attitudes during the war.
Solo sailors feature, as do bird watchers and conservators. What drives a person to spend many months alone, at sea in the worst conditions on earth, in constant danger? Vance tells their story and guides the reader to some understanding of the passions and obsessions that drive these sailors, and graphically describes some of their adventures.

As well as the sub-Antarctic islands Vance has taken expeditions to Antarctica itself, and he tells the stories of the well-known explorers of a hundred or more years ago as if he was there. In doing so he casts new light on them, their motives, and the challenges that they faced. He is able to write as one who has faced similar challenges – albeit with better equipment and much more back-up – and the empathy he has with them shows in the writing.

There are some nice photos to accompany the text, although their reproduction is sometimes a little murky. There are maps too: thank goodness. Vance tells these stories concisely and vividly, and paints a fine word picture of this world that few of us will ever experience.

Reviewed by Gordon Findlay

Ocean Notorious: Journeys to lost and lonely places of the deep south
by Matt Vance
Published by Awa Press
ISBN 9781927249260

Book Reviews: Maori Carving: The Art of Recording Maori History, and Maori Weaving: The Art of Creating Maori Textiles

Available in bookstores nationwide.cv_maori_carving

These slim volumes are two of a series of four, produced by Huia Press, in conjunction with the New Zealand Maori Arts & Crafts Institute. While they really are small (54 and 44 pages respectively) they are packed with information.

Each has the same structure. The origins of the arts are explored – including the legends and traditional stories. There is a description of the materials used, the tools and techniques, the uses both traditional and contemporary, and some of the notable practitioners of the arts.

cv_maori_weavingThe weaving book centres on flax. Maori soon discovered the properties of harakeke “the wonder fibre”, and have used it to create a huge range of useful and decorative objects, including baskets, mats, housing materials, clothing, ropes, and fishing nets. The construction of these articles records histories and stories, and acts as a cultural record.
The book details the steps in selecting, preparing and weaving flax, and respecting the flax plant. The intricate patterns are described, and a wide range of finished products are described. As well as flax, some less traditional materials are shown in contemporary use, including plastic, wire, ribbon and paper. There’s plenty of detail here, although the book is not an instruction manual or how-to guide.

The carving book follows a similar outline, with an emphasis on the wide variety of carved objects produced using the same techniques. Of the uses of carving, most attention is given to carved houses. A significant part of the book deals with how to read a carving – seeing and interpreting details which reveal the history being recorded.

Throughout both books, Maori traditional stories and beliefs are incorporated, giving a broad picture of the place of carving and weaving in Maori culture. For me, a highlight of both books is the inclusion of the stories of practitioners of the arts, and something of the history and development of the art.

The text of each book is clear, concise and easy to read. Photographs make up a large part of each book. These photographs are magnificent! The production values throughout are high. Each book contains a glossary, a bibliography and a list of on-line resources.

Although these are not large books, they manage to include a great deal of information. Perhaps with the others in the series (Marae: The Heart of Maori Culture and Geothermal Treasures, Maori Living with Heat and Steam) they would make a fine introduction to Maori culture for many people who have seen museums, and perhaps visited Rotorua, but want some firm guidance and proper understanding about what they have seen.

Reviewed by Gordon Findlay

Maori Carving: The Art of Recording Maori History
by Huia Publishers and The NZ Maori Arts & Crafts Institute
ISBN 9781775501916

Maori Weaving: The Art of Creating Maori Textiles
Huia Publishers and The NZ Maori Arts & Crafts Institute
ISBN 9781775501923

Book Review: Work Rules! Insights From Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead, by Laszlo Bock

Available in bookstores nationwide.
There seems to be a minor industry around books from inside, or about, Google. This one is from deep inside – Laszlo Bock is the Senior Vice President of People Operations at Google. In simpler times he would be called the HR Director I suppose.

At Google, ‘People Operations’ includes not only hiring and firing, but staff retention, efficiency, evaluation, effectiveness, happiness and culture. And the scale of the operation is overwhelming. Google receives something like three million unsolicited job applications per year. There are many tens of thousands of staff, scattered all over the world. Many, if not most, of them are smart, creative people who could work elsewhere. They are people with ideas, opinions and other job opportunities which are often more lucrative.

This is the story of how Google has developed what it claims to be the ‘ultimate workplace’, staffed by a ‘talent machine’. Regardless of the validity of the slogans, it’s an impressive achievement.

Work has changed – at least in places like Google. Bock looks at the standard HR functions – recruitment, retention, remuneration, reward and the like. He takes the reader through the things that Google does now, and the way things became as they are. He is not shy to share the mistakes that have been made in the past, and the challenges not yet met.

The book is loosely based around common HR issues, which are analysed and adapted to meet Google’s needs. Google is data driven, and so is the book. Many fundamental beliefs about work have been analysed and challenged, then tested. Who would have thought that giving people money might not be a great motivator? But the facts are there: sometimes money isn’t the best motivator. Often aphorisms such as ‘only hire people smarter than yourself’ are reworked with surprising results. But that’s always done with a solid foundation of actual experience and data. Often there is academic research involved as well.

I was struck by the large amount of effort put into building and maintaining Google’s carefully designed culture. It was enlightening to find that many of the infamous perks of working at Google are intended to build culture rather than to retain staff. It was surprising too to find that most of these perks – hairdressers, massage chairs, games rooms and many others – are at no or very low cost to the company. The expensive perks, such as free transportation and meals, are carefully designed to increase the productivity and effectiveness of employees, not only their happiness.

This isn’t a manual of procedures or a collection of recipes on how to run a business. It is a book to provoke new ways of thinking about work. The author is at the top of his profession, and has been recognised widely. He is also a very good writer, with an easy, engaging style – although occasionally the asides get a bit twee. It is worth repeating that he very open about mis-steps in the past, and what has been learnt from them.

While the book is aimed at a general audience, it will have special appeal to managers and executives. Google is not a typical company by any standard. While I was waiting for this book to arrive I read that their new Chief Financial Officer had received a $70 million ‘golden hello’. That’s not an HR issue many of us have to confront. And quite a lot of Google’s policies and procedures are predicated around the sheer scale of the operation – in terms of people and of money. And few workplaces have a culture like Google’s.

Despite these differences between Google and wherever you work, the book is entertaining, and worth reading if only to reflect on how standard management practices may not be the only option out there.

by Gordon Findlay

Work Rules! Insights From Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead
by Laszlo Bock
Published by John Murray Publishers Ltd
ISBN 9781444792362

Book Review: Trackers: How Technology is helping us Monitor & Improve our Health, by Richard MacManus


Available at bookstores nationwide.

”Hello, I’m Gordon and I am a geek”. But although I am a hard-core geek and programmer I have been reluctant to get involved with trackers: hardware or mobile phone apps which measure, and monitor, the body in real time. Indeed, to track my weight, I use a pencil and paper. But I was interested in what is happening, and had many questions.

So this book was an opportunity to get answers to some of the questions about the technology. What sort of measurements could I record? How easy are these things to use? How accurate is the data collected? More importantly, once the data is collected, how should it be interpreted? Is this useful, or just an exercise in narcissism?

Richard MacManus became interested in monitoring his own health when diagnosed as a diabetic. After beginning to closely monitor his own health he has become quite involved with tracking, and has traveled widely visiting lots of people, trying many of the devices that are available.

And there are a lot of possibilities! Trackers range from pedometers to personal genomics: analysis of DNA, and the range is always increasing.

The bulk of the book is a number of case studies, ranging from pedometers to genetics, by way of tracking activity, food, weight, brain activity and internal bacteria (the microbiome). Although the author is based in Wellington, many of the stories are based in the USA, and at least in some cases indicate what we can expect soon, rather than what is here in NZ right now.

The reaction of the medical profession to all this patient-generated information is interesting. The author has found a warm reception from doctors to his own monitoring, and has case studies of doctors who not only recommend, but “prescribe” monitoring to some of their patients. This came as a welcome surprise to me: but still the risks of self-diagnosis are concerning. MacManus makes the point that interpreting the data collected must be done with the aid of informed people. Some of those involved in the industry are not so moderate.

MacManus is careful also to point out the benefits of monitoring one’s health in a social network, for support and motivation. He also describes the increasing importance of ‘gamification’: turning what might easily be a chore into a hobby.

Of course the book is a snapshot of the technologies available at this moment. MacManus is quick to point out that some hardware will be replaced by phone apps, and that hardware might morph into ‘wearables’, being woven into clothing or even implanted into the body.

The author Richard MacManus created the technology blog, and is well known for picking what is coming next in technology. Throughout the book, the writer is describing his own experiences and conversations, in a lively and engaging way. He is an enthusiast for the technology, and for taking responsibility for his own health, and makes a persuasive argument that we should take more responsibility too.

So, after reading the book, many of my questions are answered. No, tracking your health data not just an exercise in narcissism. I am still concerned about the interpretation of the data outside of a medical setting, however. Is a weight loss of 0.4 Kg significant? What should I make of a reduction of 3% in blood pressure? But I am now much better informed.

Even though the devices and software will change, the implications of self-tracing will not. This is an easy to read, well paced survey of an important development.

Reviewed by Gordon Findlay

Trackers: How Technology is helping us Monitor & Improve our Health
by Richard MacManus
Published by David Bateman Ltd
ISBN 9781869538804

Book Review: A Short History of Stupid, by Bernard Keane & Helen Razer

Available in bookstores nationwide.cv_a_short_history_of_stupid

I think that the deterioration of public debate, and the absence of common sense and moderation in both media and politics, are pretty much givens now. But why? And where did this come from? These are the questions that this apparently light-hearted, yet fundamentally serious, book seeks to answer.

For these authors, stupid comes in many forms, and damages us in many ways. And yes, ‘stupid’ is a noun for these 329 pages. Many different types of stupid are identified, and an attempt is made to find their origins. Far too many ‘species’ of stupidly are identified to list them all here. But the rise of individualism over social responsibility, vaccination denialism, excessive partisanship in politics, the conflict between sentimentalism and reason, postmodernism, fallacious opinion polling and reality TV might be a representative sample. For me the most important forms of stupidity identified were three: the inability to understand numbers, the preference for emotion over facts, and the ignorance of historical contexts.

A real attempt is made to pin down the development of stupidity in its many forms. This takes us into a elementary, and often light-hearted, discussion of the development of some core ideas in western thought. The authors also make a determined effort to be in seen to be touch with popular culture, invoking as many memes from popular culture as can be squeezed in, from Dallas to the Bond movies. The authors are Australian commentators, and quite a lot of the stupidity is taken from Australian sources.

The historical development is necessarily simplified – this is not a scholar’ tome – and in some places is so condensed as to verge on parody. And although it appears lightly written, it is dense on facts, people, and concepts. More than once I was driven to look something or someone up for more information.

The authors pull absolutely no punches at any point, and write as if everything in the world is binary: right or wrong, black or white. This writing is not nuanced in any way, and no prisoners are taken. To keep the venting going and the book rooted in popular culture and the here-and-now requires the authors to be (as they would probably put it) ‘always on’.
In other words, it’s a rant. A broad-gauge rant, which is based on gently concealed erudition. But a rant nonetheless. And that becomes the book’s weakness. The writing is always turned up to eleven. In places the F-bomb becomes a carpet bomb. This continuous bombast makes reading more than a little tiring. But it’s a great source of one-liners.

Each author has, independently, chosen ten ‘friends of stupid’, and ten ‘enemies of stupid’. In this appendix they turn down the vitriol a little, so paradoxically I found the appendix the most interesting part of the book!

The chapters are fairly independent of each other, and resemble long newspaper columns. That might be the best way to read the book: as a series of independent columns. Digest one thoroughly before tackling the next to avoid fatigue and overload.

It would be great to make this compulsory reading for every journalist, blogger and aspiring politician, but I can’t imagine them persevering with it. It would ruin their life’s work.

Reviewed by Gordon Findlay

A Short History of Stupid: The decline of reason and why public debate makes us want to scream
by Bernard Keane & Helen Razer
Published by Allen & Unwin
ISBN 9781760110543

Book Review: Hello Boys & Girls: A New Zealand Toy Story, by David Veart

Available in bookstores nationwide.

Toys are for children to play with, and adults to make money out of, right? Not so says David Veart, in this fascinating look at toys in New Zealand.cv_hello_girls_and_boyx

The author’s approach is basically chronological, starting with pre-european Maori toys, and then the early colonists. Toys were important in Maori culture for both children and adults. Once the Europeans arrived the two peoples played together, sharing their toys and ideas. It is hard to believe that when my knuckle-bone champion sister made me practice with her we were playing a version with features of both European knucklebones and Maori koruru.

Toys came with all arrivals to New Zealand, and of course were made here, often by the users. Shanghais, bows and arrows, trolleys and dolls were often crude, sometimes dangerous. More refined toys were imported – before the First World War they were imported mainly from Germany.

Depression and both World Wars changed the toy world of course. The 1950s and 60s were possibly a golden age, then the toy market became more international. The author takes the story right up to the current tsunami of cheap plastic from China and the development of virtual games. He includes many asides, with snippets on landmarks from cereal box toys skateboards and protests against war toys. The author comments that he made a special effort to understand girls’ toys but this coverage is perhaps a little light apart from the dolls.

Its great fun to wallow in the nostalgia captured here. I found once again the toys that I had many decades ago – and those that I envied when my friends had them. Then later, the toys that my children played with, and even later those my grandchildren enjoy. But the book is more than a collection of stories about toys: much more. Two themes stood out for me.

First, the important role that toys have played in our lives both as children and as adults. Toys were intended, by adults at least, to amuse, to educate, and to tame children. Marketing tricks were used to capture children’s imagination: the Hornby Railway Company was world wide and seemed to be run by children. Of course adults did not always have the last word, and at times children took control as the many broken ceramic insulators on power lines can testify.

Second, the ways in which our economic fortunes have changed our toys. Wealthy colonists brought toys with them and the less well-off made their own. As the economy developed we began importing toys in colossal volumes, mainly from Germany and Britain. After the great Depression, these imports stopped, driving the development of a local toy industry, which became increasingly sophisticated. And following the magic of the Rogernomics reforms, toys became another global product, closing local factories once again.

David Veart is a historian and archaeologist, who has done a great job of digging up stories both large and small. We meet the schoolboys who helped support their family by making jigsaws in a bedroom. And the Auckland store that hosted the largest Meccano club in the world, with over 1000 members in 1927. And the strange, to me at least, practice of “Barbie Torture”, which turns out to pre-date Barbie dolls by many decades.

The book is lavishly illustrated, and there are suggestions for further reading as well as a full set of notes on the sources.

Reviewed by Gordon Findlay

Hello Boys & Girls: A New Zealand Toy Story
by David Veart
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408213

Book Review: This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate, by Naomi Klein

Available in bookstores nationwide.

This is a big book in more than one way. It’s long – 566 pages, and that’s with no pictures. cv_this_changes_everythingDon’t panic though: the last 100 are notes and index. It’s got a big topic of course: anthropogenic climate change. And a big argument: that capitalism is at war with the planet. It isn’t the carbon; it’s the corrupt economic system.

Naomi Klein is a well-known journalist and activist, who has taken on various aspects of capitalism in the past, in books, articles and other ways. This book is her biggest salvo yet regarding her perceived malevolence of free-market capitalism.

There is no doubt about the science: as a result of human activity, the climate has already changed, and the rate of change is increasing, with disaster the most likely outcome. But little has been done. Governments have reneged from their commitments; the environment has been allowed to slip down the political agenda – at least in the USA. Why? Klein argues that the biggest obstacle to action on climate change is denial. She writes: “It is always easier to deny reality than to allow our worldview to be shattered, a fact that was as true of diehard Stalinists at the height of the purges, as of libertarian climate deniers today.” A large part of the book is devoted to showing the ways in which powerful lobby groups and right-wing think-tanks have stymied action on climate change and shaped the discussion.

The level of denial is staggering. I’d have thought that denying climate change was just for the lunatic fringe, yet many members (perhaps a majority) of the (US) House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space and Technology are climate change deniers.

The book falls into three parts. In the first part Klein argues that the fight against climate change has been derailed by the effects of the Global Financial Crisis, austerity measures in many countries as a result of the crisis, and the corporate agenda of denial. The second part is the meat of the book, dealing with what Klein calls “magical thinking”. She looks at some suggested technical fixes for climate change, including some ideas which sound like pure science fiction. Sulphate-spraying from helium balloons, to dull the effect of the sun by mimicking the effect of large volcanic eruptions? Interfering with hurricanes? What are the risks? At present we don’t know enough about the Earth system to be able to make these massive changes to the world safely. We may never know. But, Klein notes, if climate change reaches a tipping point as the result of inaction, this sort of terra-forming scheme will surely be attempted.

In the third part of the book, she looks at some of the movements that have sprung up to counter the neoliberal movement. I thought this the weakest part of the book. There is good news here: this crisis can be used to transform our failed economic system into something “radically better”. Of course, this reveals, if not a bias, at least the starting point of all Klein’s thinking: current capitalism has failed. Not everyone agrees with her, but you won’t find their arguments here.

The book is obviously written by a North American (Klein is Canadian) and most of the material is US-based. I have found Klein’s style difficult in the past, but here the writing is clear and approachable. That doesn’t make this an easy book: the issues are large and the scope of the book is enormous. It is unashamedly a polemic, and it’s possible to feel that the reader is being shouted at in places, or even harangued.

This book could have been even bigger. Klein doesn’t really consider the way in which the financial crisis has segued into global conflict, and if not into war then at least into disputes over resources such as water.

Changing the conversation is important; this book shows how to start. It behooves us all to get involved.

Reviewed by Gordon Findlay

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate
by Naomi Klein
Published by Allen Lane
ISBN 9781846145063

Book Review: Maralinga, by Frank Walker

Available now in bookstores nationwide. cv_maralinga

Suppose you’re designing a new super-weapon. It’s based on an earlier model which you know is quite destructive, but you don’t understand all of its effects. You’d like to test its effects on buildings, animals and people but you are rather risk averse. And likely this weapon has bad effects you haven’t even dreamed of. How can you test it?

One way might be to find a friendly ally, con him into letting you test the weapon on his soil, using his troops, his environment, his general population and his babies. Of course, you’d keep what you find secret, and not let your ally see too much or ask too many questions.

Nah – far too fanciful. No-one would make a movie based on such an unlikely scenario. Do irreparable harm to an ally, in secret? Never.

But that is just what happened in the 1950s. Britain tested its atomic weapons in Australia, using Australian troops, the Australian population, and Australian babies as guinea pigs. And while the effects were (and still are) horrifying, secrecy was maintained for decades. Many people were harmed; few were told about it.

It’s actually quite hard to review Maralinga without slipping into hyperbole, outrage and visceral anger. Reading it caused a growing tide of disbelief, anger and despair. But this is a story which must be told.

Britain began nuclear tests in Australia during 1953. This was agreed to by the Prime Minister at the time, Robert Menzies, apparently on his own in an attempt to get even cosier with Britain. They began in the Monte Bello islands off northern Western Australia, and in 1955 moved to Maralinga, in the northern part of South Australia. They conducted seven atomic bomb tests, and perhaps as many as 700 “minor” tests, many of which were just as dangerous as a full bomb test. Australian troops did the dirty work, and while there were Australian scientists involved, they were kept in the background.
The first part of the book describes the preparation and conduct of these tests in a series of vivid descriptions. There was a staggering lack of knowledge about the effects of radiation, and tests were conducted with an almost insouciant lack of concern for the Air Force and Naval personnel involved. Some of the descriptions of troops collecting radioactive samples in ordinary dress, then passing the samples over to scientists in full protective gear simply stun the reader. It is hard to accept that the British boffins involved didn’t realise, after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that radiation is not nice.

Was this deliberate, or just amateurish? The author has documentation that shows (in his words) “… from the very start the British regarded exploding atomic bombs in Australia as a chance to use troops, sailors and airmen as guinea pigs in their experiments, and Australia was to be regarded as one big laboratory”. Issues big and small pile up in the ensuing chapters The British treated even eminent Australians as “colonials”, and the disregard for their rights and interests blows the reader away (bad pun definitely intended). For example, Aboriginal groups were living unaware in the danger zone, and reporting of their presence was actively discouraged under military discipline.

The second part of the book describes some of the effects on those directly involved, their descendants, and the general population. Of course health issues are to the forefront here. Research into the effects of fallout continued long after the tests stopped in 1963. “Research” that went as far as to harvest bones from dead babies and foetuses, without their parents’ knowledge.
Eventually truth, or at least a change in government, will out. There was a Royal Commission in 1984, which drew many conclusions about the conduct and effects of the tests, and made recommendations about reparations and clean-up. Not all have been implemented. They paint an ugly picture.

Frank Walker is a freelance investigative journalist specialising in defence and related issues. In this book he draws on many sources – official documents, some of which were secret until recently, the report of the Royal Commission, news reports and most importantly many interviews with surviving veterans. These interviews are reported in lively word pictures which vividly describe the veterans thoughts and feelings as they took part in the tests and monitoring, and in their later years as what had been done to them became clear.

This is not a dispassionate book! There may be another side to this story, although I can’t imagine what it is. It isn’t mentioned here. The author makes no attempt to be a neutral reporter. Rather, he seethes with anger and outrage at what he refers to in the subtitle as “our secret nuclear shame and betrayal of our troops and country”.

This is a horrifying story, told vividly and fluently. I do wish it weren’t true.

Reviewed by Gordon Findlay

Frank Walker talked with Kathryn Ryan on Radio NZ recently. 

by Frank Walker
Published by Hachette Australia
ISBN 9780733631900