Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Norfolk Island Effect

An important yet little known part of our island’s history was presented to us this week. A very interested audience was treated to a fabulous presentation by Dr. Miller Goss on The Norfolk Island Effect. Miller is a radio astronomer who spent his career working at places such as the Parkes Radio Telescope, the Kapteyn Astronomical Institute of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Socorro, New Mexico (USA). He and his wife Libby still live in New Mexico.

The story of the ‘Effect’ takes us back to the dying stages of World War II in 1945. At that time Norfolk Island still played an important role due to its location, airstrip and the placement of the Radar Station at Mount Bates. Miller pointed out to us that there are very few places where you can gain a 360 degree view of the horizon, as you can on top of Mount Bates. The COL radar placed there was used to warn of aircraft in the area.
Dr. Miller Goss

One day late in March 1945 Royal New Zealand Air Force Flight Officer, Hepburn, who was in charge of the radar station, noticed increased radiation recordings at sunrise and sunset. We are lucky that Hepburn was alert to the fact that this was something to follow-up on and that he reported the discovery to RNZAF headquarters. From there the information was passed to Dr Elizabeth Alexander of the Radio Development Laboratory of the Dept. of Scientific and Industrial Research in Wellington. She began an immediate investigation. Within weeks similar recordings had been confirmed by other stations in New Zealand and she gave the name to the discovery as The Norfolk Island Effect. What had been detected were Type I solar bursts from an active sun. The news of this discovery had a major impact on science in New Zealand and especially Australia, leading to the Australians becoming a world power in radio astronomy within the next 5 years. The impetus of the Norfolk Island news was a major force in the re-birth of radio astronomy in the post war era.

The fact that today we generally know so little about the Norfolk Island Effect and the important historical role that the radar station at Mt. Bates played is surprising. The ruins of the radar are still there – and in fact Miller was surprised at the amount and intactness of some pieces, as most other stations of this type have all but disappeared. However, despite local attempts in years gone by, there is no sign or information that alerts us to what an important discovery was made at this place in 1945. The challenge of conserving what is left is also there. It is hoped that some re-dress of this may occur through attention brought by organisations such as the Museum and National Parks as well as interested community members.

Dr. Goss beside the remains of the COL Radar at Mount Bates
 Miller’s talk was made so interesting by the stories he told of the people involved in and that their backgrounds, connections and diligence were in no small part, the reason why the discovery was made. In particular he was able to really convey what a remarkable woman Dr. Elizabeth Alexander was. Educated at Cambridge at a time when women were not allowed to be full members of the university she went on to become one of the world’s first female radio astronomers – even though geology was her primary science. Her story of evacuation from Singapore in the days before it fell to the Japanese, her career in New Zealand and finally correspondence on the news of the Effect with colleagues in Sydney, were fascinating parts of Miller’s presentation.

Miller and Libby spent time in New Zealand prior to coming to Norfolk where Miller was able to talk with two of the men who worked at the Radar Station in 1945 and research more about Dr Elizabeth Alexander’s life. His enthusiasm for ensuring that the story of the Norfolk Island Effect is not lost to history was obvious. He left us enlightened on a small but very important part of the history of this island and charged with the task of making sure that the story and relics on Mount Bates do not get forgotten or lost to future generations.


  1. I'm very glad to read of Miller Goss's mentions of my mother Elizabeth Alexander. I am currently preparing her biography and it is from me that Miller obtained his biographical details. My progress on Elizabeth's biography is very slow because I have a disabled daughter who demands a lot of my attention, and I do not have a wife! But I am happy to answer questions about her life.

    1. Dear Mary, I am writing a history of the Piha Radar Station which participated in the radio astronomy trials which your mother organised. I have been in contact with Miller Goss for some years and an an elected member of the Auckland Council and have the parks portfolio - the area where the radar station was located is on a regional park. I am on the organising committee for the conference on radio astronomy to be held in Auckland in January 2013 and am presenting a paper on the Piha radar station.

      I would very much like to obtain a photo of your mother for inclusion in my book. Is this possible? I have written about the "Norfolk Island effect" trials for my book, and a photo of your mother would be a valuable addition to the story.

      I am happy to answer any quesions you may have.

      Regards Sandra Coney

    2. Dear Mary,
      I am very interested in the biography you are writing. My thoughts are with you and your daughter. I work as a volunteer at the Mills Cross radio telescope near Canberra. Elizabeth sounds a fascinating person.
      A few years ago I worked on Norfolk Island for a few days measuring the earth's magnetic field.

  2. Hi Mary,
    How lovely to recieve your post. Your mother sounds like a most amazing woman and Miller told us about your forthcoming book on her. He also forwarded your contact details to me at the Museum. I hope you do get the time to keep writing - it will be well worth it. We should keep in touch. best wishes

  3. Dear Mary,
    I've just submitted a precis of your mother's story to 'A Mighty Girl', a website which promotes confidence and achievement for girls and women. It sounds like the sort of inspirational story which is much needed, particularly when we need more women in scientific endeavours. All the best for your biography - I hope to be able to read it one day.
    Kind regards

  4. Hello Mary
    I just posted a reply to your first post regarding help to continue writing your mothers biography
    I am not sure whether it went through as I am not a blogger but am gradually getting there!
    I can be contacted via my email
    Kind regards