Award for man who helped avoid nuclear catastrophe

A FORMER Timboon man who is credited with helping save the world from nuclear annihilation has been awarded the Australian National University’s (ANU) highest honour.

Professor Des Ball, who spent his formative years in Timboon, was presented the Peter Baume Award last month, recognising a career of global significance and an association with the ANU lasting almost five decades.

Professor Ball attended Timboon High School in the late ’50s and early ’60s while his father was station master at the Timboon railway station and later when his parents ran a shoe store in the town. 

Professor Ball progressed from a prize-winning economics student who was arrested for climbing a statue of King George V during an anti-Vietnam War rally, to blowing the lid on the secret military facility at Pine Gap during a Senate hearing on treaties in 1999. 

Despite his outspoken criticism of US government policy, he was personally invited by President Jimmy Carter to critique the USA’s nuclear defence plans during the Cold War — his analysis persuading the US that its plan to destroy selected Soviet targets would not work in practice.

At the end of last year, a book of essays honouring the iconoclastic scholar contained a contribution from the former president saying Professor Ball had helped save the world from a potential nuclear holocaust.

The book, Insurgent Intellectual: Essays in Honour of Professor Desmond Ball, quoted Mr Carter as saying Professor Ball’s “counsel and cautionary advice, based on deep research, made a great difference to our collective goal of avoiding nuclear war”.

ANU chancellor Gareth Evans, who presented the award at a ceremony last month, described Professor Ball as a “living national treasure”.

“For almost half a century on this campus, Professor Desmond Ball has led the way in his unceasing efforts to understand the nature of defence and security,” Mr Evans said. 

“In honouring him with the Peter Baume Award — the university’s highest accolade — we pay tribute to one of Australia’s greatest minds, a servant of the ideals to which we aspire.”

The prize recognises academics whose “contributions to the economic, cultural, scientific or social development of Australia or the international community have demonstrated eminent achievement and merit of the highest degree”.

Professor Ball noted that he had appeared to break the mould of the award going to physicists, chemists and mathematicians.

With trademark understatement, he said he supposed he had been in the running after “a pretty prolific career”, but felt honoured to win the award.

During his career, Professor Ball has worked on Australia’s signal intelligence, exposed the nation’s secret history of cracking diplomatic cables and examined firsthand south-east Asia’s “shadow wars”. 

But despite the lure of academic positions from some of the most prestigious universities in the world, he agreed to stay at the ANU when they made him his own chair as Special Professor within the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre in the College of Asia and the Pacific 25 years ago.

With no plans to slow down, Professor Ball is focusing on security issues in south-east Asia, particularly the Thai/Burma border, which will be the subject of forthcoming publications. 

jwoolley@fairfaxmedia.com.au

-WITH CANBERRA TIMES

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