By Richard Conniff
Carl O. Dunbar, director of the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History in the 1940s, wasn’t the sort of person you would immediately imagine as an eyewitness to one of the epochal events of the twentieth century. He was a paleontologist, specializing in little known marine invertebrates called fusilines, which vanished from the Earth, along with most other life forms, in the Great Permian Extinction of 252 million years ago.
So I was surprised during the research for my book House of Lost Worlds, about the Peabody’s colorful history, when a researcher at the University of Kansas sent me the painstakingly photographed pages of a journal kept by Dunbar 70 years ago this summer, during his time as part of a scientific delegation invited to witness Operation Crossroads, the first atom bomb tests of the post-World War II era, on Bikini Atoll in the mid-Pacific. (Dunbar, a Kansas native, had left the journal and associated papers to the university archives, where they were largely forgotten.)
The Pacific had figured in my research, up to that point, mainly because one of the Peabody’s founding scientists, James Dwight Dana, had served as naturalist on the 1838-42 U.S. Exploring Expedition around the world. Dana saw the Pacific islands much as they were when they first entered Western lore, as places of incredible beauty and occasional terror, both due in part to the underlying volcanoes. He wrote about climbing the volcanoes, and also about gathering corals by “floating slowly along in a canoe,” studying the reefs through the clear water and pointing out specimens for his hired divers to retrieve. In the “Feejee” Islands, he did his collecting among people he regarded as “a cruel, treacherous race of cannibals.” But they were “kindly disposed towards us,” he wrote, adding, “A white man, they say, tastes bitter.”
This work led Dana to a theory about the origin of Pacific atolls with their peculiar, idyllic lagoons: Coral reefs had built up in a ring around volcanic islands, which later subsided. He was no doubt dismayed on arriving in Australia in November 1839 to find a brief notice that Charles Darwin had just proposed the identical theory. Dana generously remarked that Darwin’s work “threw a flood of light over the subject, and called forth feelings of peculiar satisfaction, and of gratefulness to Mr. Darwin.” The two men later corresponded at length, each playing the part of the gentleman scientist.
Dunbar’s colleagues in the summer of 1946 were also gentlemen scientists, 22 of them altogether, invited not just from the United States, but from Russia, China, and other nations to see for themselves the appalling power unleashed just eleven months earlier on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The U.S.S. Panamint, a Navy amphibious force command ship, carried them from San Francisco, and the atmosphere was remarkably casual, even high-spirited, as the scientific delegation made its way more than 4000 miles across the Pacific. At various stops en route, the military welcomed the group with an open bar and tours of recent battle sites. (Only the summer before, Panamint itself had faced repeated torpedo and Kamikaze Read the rest of this entry »