Tales Of Our Times: Art Freed Saw To The Lab’s Borrowed Book On Krakatoa

Tales of our Times

New Mexico Citizens
for Clean Air & Water

Art Freed passed away June 21. He was 92.

Freed was a steady agent for getting things right in all of his many pursuits. His lengthy pursuits included years as head of the Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Research Library and years on the J. Robert Oppenheimer Memorial Committee. I knew Art best in his work with the Los Alamos Historical Society.

In 2016, I happened to write a column about the explosive eruption in 1883 that destroyed most of the small volcanic island of Krakatoa in the Sunda Strait between the islands of Java and Sumatra. My brief essay jogged the rich memory of Art Freed. A portion of my article recounted details:

Evidence says the blast was the loudest sound on Earth in recorded history. The British ship Norman Castle was 40 miles from Krakatoa at the time of the explosion. The ship’s captain wrote in his log, “So violent are the explosions that the ear-drums of over half my crew have been shattered.”

At 1,300 miles distance, reports read “extraordinary sounds were heard, as of guns firing.” The sound was clearly heard 3,000 miles away in the Indian Ocean, reported as “coming from the eastward, like the distant roar of heavy guns.” At that distance, the sound had traveled for four hours from its source. That muffled roar was the most distant sound ever heard on Earth.

Beyond 3,000 miles, the pressure pulses grew too weak for human ears to detect as sound. Still, the pressure waves pushed on, circling the globe in both directions for some five days. On each tour around the world, the pressure pulses caused spikes on barographs used to record atmospheric pressure at the world’s weather stations. All told, the pulses were recorded passing around the world three to four times.

The most deadly effects were tsunamis, the ominous waves that cross oceans. The largest of these rose over 100 feet high and destroyed 165 towns and villages in its way. Rumor-sized tsunamis were the chief killer of people, estimated from 36,000 to 120,000. Tidal surges then traveled the Earth for a day, as recorded on tide gauges around the world.

In terms of energy released, the effects wrought by Krakatoa work out to be 10,000 times more energy than in the atomic blast at Hiroshima….

Two days after the column, Art Freed sent me a thoughtful email in his style of gathering facts:


“Interesting subject!

“I’m wondering, are you aware of and/or perhaps used as a reference the report about Krakatoa published contemporaneously by the Royal Society of London, which is in the LANL Research Library’s collection? A little background:

“Quite early on, a request, or requests, were made of the library at the University of California, Berkeley, for scientific and technical publications needed at Los Alamos. I have a copy of a December 22, 1945, multi-page list of such material then sent from Berkeley. The Royal Society’s Krakatoa report, although its title is not cited there explicitly, was among them.

“Primarily due to its rarity, in 1970 or perhaps somewhat later, I had the work charged to me. It was available on demand, but I kept it in my safe at the Laboratory. It is a beautiful publication, with hand-colored plates, etc.

“I was told years ago that the books on Berkeley’s list had been returned. Obviously “Krakatoa,” or at least this copy, was not, and I did not investigate the matter! It would be interesting to know specifically why Berkeley sent the publication to Los Alamos, who requested it etc. Your essay probably supplies the rationale. I was also told that the book was sent to the Pacific Proving Ground when the Laboratory conducted tests there, but for whom?

“I can recall only one inquiry about the publication after I commandeered it…. It was borrowed then and returned to me. … I’ve not seen it since I left the library, that is, no later than 1991….”

Thus read Freed’s shiny nugget of history about the post-war laboratory’s borrowing a book about Krakatoa. The explosion of the island was indeed a ready benchmark for sizing the effects of jumbo explosions.

Freed took time to look, which opened doors. Endeavors from A to Z will always need more pitching in of one’s talents as did Art Freed.


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