Art Freed saw the borrowed book from the lab on the Krakatoa

Tales of our time

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Art Freed passed away on June 21. He was 92 years old.

Freed was a steady agent to get it right in all of his many pursuits. His long activities included years as head of the Los Alamos National Laboratory Research Library and years on the J. Robert Oppenheimer Memorial Committee. I knew Art best from his work with the Los Alamos Historical Society.

In 2016, I happened to write a column about the explosive eruption of 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 revived the rich memory of Art Freed. Part of my article went into detail:

Evidence indicates that the explosion was the loudest sound on Earth in recorded history. The British ship Norman Castle was 40 miles from the Krakatoa at the time of the explosion. The ship’s captain wrote in his logbook: “The explosions are so violent that the eardrums of more than half of my crew have been shattered.”

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

Beyond 3,000 miles, the pressure pulses became too weak for human ears to detect as sound. Still, the pressure waves continued, circling the globe back and forth for about five days. Each time around the world, pressure pulses caused spikes on barographs used to record atmospheric pressure at weather stations around the world. In total, the pulses were recorded while circumnavigating the globe three to four times.

The deadliest effects have been tsunamis, those menacing waves that cross the oceans. The largest of them rose over 100 feet high and destroyed 165 towns and villages in its path. Rumor-sized tsunamis were the main killer of people, estimated between 36,000 and 120,000. The tidal waves then swept across the Earth for a day, as recorded on tide gauges around the world.

In terms of energy released, the effects caused by the Krakatoa turn out to be 10,000 times more energetic than during the Hiroshima atomic explosion….

Two days after the column, Art Freed sent me a thoughtful email in their fact-gathering style:


“Interesting topic!

“I wonder if you are familiar with and/or perhaps use as a reference the report on Krakatoa published at the same time by the Royal Society of London, which is in the collection of the LANL Research Library? A bit of context:

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

“Mainly because of its rarity, in 1970 or perhaps a little later the work was entrusted 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 precisely why Berkeley sent the publication to Los Alamos, who requested it, etc. Your essay probably provides the rationale. I was also told that the book was sent to the Pacific Proving Ground when the Lab conducted tests there, but for whom?

“I can only remember one request on the publication after I commandeered it…. It was then borrowed from me and returned to me. …I haven’t seen it since I left the library, that is to say no later than 1991….

So read Freed’s brilliant nugget of history on the postwar lab’s borrowing of a book on Krakatoa. The explosion of the island was indeed a ready reference to measure the effects of giant explosions.

Freed took the time to look, which opened doors. A to Z efforts will always need more talent, as Art Freed did.

Christopher S. Washington