Project Description

Tasmanian lights

by Nicholas Shakespeare

For much of the past decade I have lived on a nine-mile beach with no land between my deck and the ice floes of Antarctica. What anchored me here, initially, was the quality of the light, like an overexposed photograph, but possessing a clarity that I have not encountered elsewhere. Until I came to Tasmania, I never knew what it was to feel drunk on light – sunlight, moonlight, starlight, the strange throbbing flare of the Aurora Australis, or the double-rainbows that are a feature of Tasmania’s east coast as much as its sudden winds. Here, unlike in England – and escaped from what Robert Louis Stevenson called “the Bastile of civilisation” – I find it no hardship to rise with the sun and pick my way through the boobyalla for a barefoot tramp on the sand. There are mornings, before the south-easterly picks up, when the air is so clear and the water in the bay so glassy that I have the illusion of being able to see not merely to the lip of the horizon, but beyond it – back even to the damp northern island where I’m from.

Tasmania’s air, according to a 1970 CSIRO report, is the purest – officially – in the world, cleansed by winds that hurtle in from Patagonia virtually ten thousand miles away. The exceptional clarity of its sky makes the island an auspicious site for astronomers.

Elevated on a dune, my glass and cedar house was once an observatory. It becomes so again on the evening that the President of the Tasmanian Astronomical Society hauls from his car a large object resembling a First World War mortar shell.

Through this self-same telescope 24 hours earlier, Phil Watkins had watched a NASA spacecraft pass on its way to supercede the Hubble telescope with another that hopes to be able to penetrate 13 billion lights years into space.

Tonight, we cannot locate the moving pulse of light that is the spacecraft with the Swift Burst Alert Telescope on board, but we see the elliptical rings of Saturn as they appeared seventy minutes beforehand; the small red dot of Mars; and in a blur over the bay, a co-galaxy which because of light pollution is seldom visible.

It’s impossible not to share Phil’s excitement, but what overcomes me is the sheer insignificance of our planet. It pulls me to ask him, childishly, whether he feels we can be the only living creatures out there.

Phil has been “gawking into space” for a long time. He is a scientist, a trained pilot. He stares up into the sky. So many stars, like particles of sand.

It is now that I hear for the first time the name of Grote Reber.

“It’s a pity you couldn’t have asked him,” he said. “If anyone had an answer, he did.”

“Who’s Grote Reber?”

And out it comes. The inventor of the satellite dish and pioneer of radio astronomy. Who had lived in Tasmania for almost 50 years, renting a field on an isolated farm where he built a telescope to rival Swift.

I’m back on terra firma. “Where is this field exactly?”

A by-word for remoteness, Tasmania is itself a sort of outer space on earth, but also one of those places far away from the so-called “centre” which intersects, even illuminates, our own history.

One November morning I woke to see, only a few yards from shore, a huge black shape suspended motionless in the air: the tail of a southern right whale. What books were written by whale-light, what assignations made, what cheekbones touched in the orange glow of its odd-scented flame, I have no idea, but I do know that for a brief period in the 1820s, many studies and street-lamps of London were illuminated by the oil of Tasmanian whales, harvested by convict crews operating out of five whaling-stations in Oyster Bay. Captain Ebor Bunker who sailed into this bay in 1803 on his way to set up the first European settlement in the Derwent, was so excited by the number of sperm whales in the water that he interrupted his mission to spear three. His expertise with the harpoon gave rise to the whaler’s cry: “Lay me on, Captain Bunker! I’m hell on a long dart!”

Montaigne well observed how it became heresy to believe in the existence of the Antipodes. Confronted by glazed haughty eyes – “Where is it you’re living, Tanzania?” – I find myself making lists of unlikely ways in which Tasmania is arrowed to the centre:

Those avenues of towering eucalyptus down which I trotted in my Argentine boyhood – probably Tasmanian blue gums. First documented by French botanists at Recherche Bay, Tasmanian eucalypts were planted in 1856 in Santa Monica, California. Less than an hour’s drive from where I live, Bob the Tinker in Tinker’s Creek loaded cargo after cargo with seeds of the quick-growing timber. By the 1870s, many of the ships that had transported whale oil were filled with blue gum nuts bound for South America, Spain, Italy, France, Greece, Turkey, Abyssinia.

Then there’s Darwin’s monkey. One of my best friends along the beach is a Hobart architect, a big bear of a man who insisted on sketching out a plan that would transform my possum-infested, ripple-iron garage into a proper and light-flooded study. In Hobart, Bill lives in a convict-built house that was once owned by the town’s chief surveyor. He tells me how, not long ago, he was busy constructing a conservatory in his back garden when “quite deep down” his spade jangled against a strange skull.

Bill wrapped the skull up and carried it round the corner to a geologist at the university who took one look and told him that he was clutching the remains of a monkey. Not only that, but one that had in all probability belonged to none other than Charles Darwin.

In February 1836, the Beagle moored in Hobart. Among the passengers to disembark was the 26-year-old Darwin. Clamped to his shoulder: a small pet monkey. Staying ten days looking for skinks and digging up rock-specimens, the naturalist celebrated his 27th birthday party at Bill’s house in 17 Secheron Road. Here, Darwin passed ”the most agreeable evenings since leaving England”. The one incident to mar his enjoyment was the sudden death of his pet.

Darwin recovered swiftly enough from his loss and even considered putting down roots. “If I was obliged to emigrate I certainly should prefer this place: the climate and aspect of the country almost alone would determine me.” Eighteen years on, unable to get Hobart out of his head, he wrote to his friend the botanist William Hooker: “I am always building veritable castles in the air about emigrating and Tasmania has been my headquarters of late; so that I feel very proud of my adopted country.”

A ten-minute drive from Oyster Bay brings you to the ghost village of Llandaff and an incredibly poignant reminder of how history in Tasmania can lie disturbingly close to the surface. Llandaff was planned out in the nineteenth century by a government draughtsman 14,000 miles away in London: one of several Potemkin towns that were never built, but designed to be put on the map – with an imposing array of streets and civic buildings – in order to discourage a Russian invasion during the Crimean War. In point of fact, Llandaff never consisted of more than a cemetery and a single dwelling.

One late afternoon outside the yellow weatherboard shack that was Llandaff I met an old man in grey corduroy slippers holding a bucket of rainwater.

When he saw that I wanted to see the cemetery, he offered to show me around.

We looked at the obelisk marking the grave of the first settler, William Lyne, a tall proud man from Gloucestershire who died from a bone that lodged in his throat as he was eating dinner. We looked at the grave of Lyne’s son John, known as “Leghunter” on account of his sexual wanderings, who was responsible for the extinction of the Tasmanian tiger, after proposing a motion, as the local MP, to pay £1 for every adult thylacine carcass presented and ten shillings for every pup. And we stood before the adjacent marble gravestones of a young woman shot dead at Port Arthur on 28 April 1996, when a Tasmanian man, Martin Bryant, coolly mowed down 35 people outside the Broad Arrow Café; and of her mother, who died on the same day, of shock, upon hearing the news.

The graves prompted my guide to divulge the recent death of his own wife, a woman he had discovered was schizophrenic only a few months after marrying her. His married life had consisted of one long unhappy vigil, every day on clenched alert to make sure that all razor blades and knives never came within reach of her unstable grasp. Although relieved not to have any children in case they had inherited her illness, he was lonely in Llandaff, and I could see that he was pleased to have someone to talk to, even though where we were talking was a cemetery.

He told me that used to work on the railways in Burnie, in northern Tasmania, where he was born, and that his father had sailed to Tasmania a hundred years before.

“Where from?”

“London,” he said. “My family owned a hotel there. It was named after us.”

Only mildly curious, I asked his name.

He looked at the ground and said: “Raymond. Raymond Charles Claridge.”

“But Claridge’s is still going! It’s probably the world’s most exclusive hotel.”

“Really?” and rubbed his chin and glanced around for his bucket with which he had been about to water his fruit trees. He didn’t trust what I was saying, I could tell.

I failed to give credence to his story until, a few months later, I stayed in Claridge’s and asked the manager about its history. Sure enough, the hotel was founded by William and Marianne Claridge (he pointed out her portrait in the lobby) who, falling on hard times, sold up and emigrated he didn’t know where.

Beautiful though is the day, more mesmerizing still can be the beauty of the Tasmanian night. Stevenson knew what a special pleasure it was to lie awake beneath the Southern skies, as on every visit I make a rule of doing – on one occasion when the night sky was so bright that it had turned blue. “Night is a dead monotonous period under a roof, but in the open world it passes lightly, with its stars and dew and perfumes… What seems a kind of temporal death to people choked between walls and curtains, is only a light and living slumber to the man who sleeps in a field. All night long he can hear nature breathing deeply and freely.”

The Tasmanian Aborigines believed that the sun came from England, and also the moon – in the shape of a woman. According to George Augustus Robinson, a lay missionary who lived with the Aborigines and was virtually unique in speaking their language, “the moon came from England and stopped at Oyster Bay.” Robinson goes on to describe a haunting Tasmanian Aboriginal myth, one of the few to endure that people’s disappearance: how the moon was roasting abalone on the beach when the sun came and swept her away and she, tumbling into the fire, was hurt on her side and then rolled into the sea and afterwards went up into the sky and stopped there with her kindred, the sun. “They say that the rainbow is the sun’s children.”

It’s a still sunny morning in May when I drive an hour and a half to the hamlet of Bothwell, where the man who mapped the heavens lived in obscurity. Few houses along the main street are without a grey metal plate tilting from their front wall. I picture the images being beamed into sitting rooms in Tasmania and elsewhere – thanks largely to Grote Reber.

News that this gangly recluse was none other than the inventor of the first satellite dish staggered most of the congregation who attended his memorial service on a hot January day in 2003. If they ransacked their minds, they could remember a nerd with bulbous eyes, “as if he had come from under a stone”, who motored around Bothwell in an electric car that he called Pixie. They remembered the talk he gave at the Local Historical Society. “I thought he was standing on loose floorboards,” Mary Ramsay told me. “He started talking and farting until old Mrs Webb leaned over – ‘What a pity he had onions for tea.’” Mostly, they remembered a bald American with little social grease who liked his tucker, especially if it was provided by someone else, and was mean with everything but his time. “He used the school laboratory to weigh fruit peelings in order to test which was the cheapest fruit to buy, and on ‘bring a plate’ occasions would bring an empty plate and go home with it piled high, or else with food stuffed into his towel cap.” Hardly anyone in this tiny community connected the tight-fisted figure they called Kermit with their ability to watch live cricket from Melbourne, Loony Tunes cartoons from Los Angeles, or porn from the Netherlands.

“They saw him as a funny old guy on a bicycle,” said Henry Edgell.

But the satellite dish wasn’t Reber’s only achievement.

I drive on to Henry Edgell’s farm at Denistoun, five miles north of Bothwell. Here, in the 1960s, Reber rented for £50 a year a 300-acre field where he built what amounted, in its physical dimensions, to the world’s largest telescope.

Before taking me out to the site, Edgell produces a folder of papers and letters about his former tenant, and leaves me to read it.

The person who emerged was a lone star, the son of a lawyer from Illinois and a domineering German schoolteacher who called him after her surname. A radio ham since a teenager, Reber believed that “the Big Bang Is Bunk” and that western cosmology was born in the dark and had remained there ever since. His mother had taught the astronomer Edwin Hubble. On the sole occasion they met, Reber asked Hubble what kind of new and interesting observations could be made. “He had no suggestions to offer.”

In his Illinois back-yard, Reber determined to chart this void. Aged 22, he read an article by Karl Jansky, a young engineer briefly employed by the Bell Telephone Company to investigate radio interference on transatlantic cables: Jansky had detected a fuzzy stream of radio signals that appeared to issue from the sun. Reber, anxious to follow this up, failed to interest any university or observatory in giving him funds, and yet if he believed in anything it was himself: “I consulted with myself and decided to build a dish.” Using his own materials – chickenwire and hardwood mainly – he erected a 31-foot parabolic reflector in the adjacent yard. What for a decade remained the world’s first and only radio-telescope, and the model for all satellite receiving dishes, stands now at the entrance of the Green Bank National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Virginia. At the time, his mother thought it good for hanging the washing on.

For two years, Reber spent his nights with ears cupped to the skies – the interference from cars’ spark plugs making it impossible to listen by day. Then, one night in 1938, Reber turned down the frequency and heard a “cosmic noise” coming from the direction of the Milky Way.

The weak hisses uttered by the stars allowed Reber to survey invisible galaxies and to create what is commonly recognised as the first detailed radio-map of the sky. But his work was unfinished.

The presence of an unusual hole in the ionosphere plus the absence of man-made electrical interference made Tasmania one of best locations in the world for eavesdropping on the universe.

Reber decided to go and live there.

Edgell drives me out to the flat field where Reber set up a circle of 192 telegraph poles. The green-painted eucalypt poles were Reber’s “telescope”: a radio lens one mile across and strung with a grid of copper-clad steel wire.

The wires – suspended at a height to allow cattle to graze underneath – converged into a weatherboard hut in the middle of the field, where, powered by a car battery, a machine recorded heavenly static at the low frequency of 2.1 Megaherz.

“If there’s anything out there, they’ll find us,” Reber believed. “Remember that Jansky wasn’t looking for cosmic static. It found him.”

Two decades, Reber sat in his Antipodean hut, eating sweet turnips that he had picked from somebody else’s paddock and poring over the meaning of signals that had travelled 5,000 million years or more, emitted before our planet existed. But whatever the signals communicated to him, he failed to communicate to others. In 1977, he published a paper in which he wrote: “The material universe extends beyond the greatest distances we can observe optically or by radio means. It is boundless…” One year later, he abandoned his hut.

Beneath the circling eye of two wedge-tailed eagles, Edgell guides me to the remains of Reber’s colossal radio-telescope. It’s not much: a wooden box of insulators and pulleys, a jumble of concrete weights and a pile of carelessly stacked telegraph poles hewn from Tasmanian blue gums.

As I look at the poles, I remember a letter in Edgell’s folder, written to Edgell’s father from Reber’s nearby house in Bothwell: “My rear fence here needs repair. I’d appreciate having you arrange to have some of these poles cut into six-foot lengths for eight fence posts and brought to me here. Thanks.”

Perhaps it was inevitable that the boundlessness of the universe would lead Reber to crave what we all crave: the cosy reassurance of some kind of enclosed space, of a den, of four walls, or, in my case, of a study. Even my deck – a promontory – is encircled by rails. Robert Frost wrote that “good fences make good neighbours”. How much more so, my time in Tasmania has taught me, when your neighbour is the immensity of the cosmos.