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Christian physicist joins hunt for hidden landmines

By Elaine E Bolitho

His Christian faith has led a Wellington nuclear physicist to help find a way to eradicate landmines. Dr Murray Bartle is a parish councillor at Ngaio Union Church, and last month he attended a United Nations conference on humanitarian de-mining and explosive detection in Padua, Italy.

“There are over 110 million unexploded landmines in 70 countries worldwide,” explains Murray. “Ever since World War II, in times of conflict, anti-personnel and tank mines have continued to be laid. These kill or maim at least 25,000 innocent people each year.”

Scientists from developed and developing countries met at Padua to once again examine the seemingly impossible task of finding buried landmines. The plastic casings on modern landmines give metal detectors little chance, so other methods of observing the “anomalies” have been explored – radio waves, sound waves, sniffer dogs and even bees.

Most effort has concentrated on nuclear and X-ray technology– developments Murray has followed with interest. From the 1990s he has kept in touch with scientists who are working on de-mining, and he is currently part of an international programme that will run through to 2009.

Murray’s own work – developing big industrial scanners using new advances in X-ray technology– led him to thinking laterally. On his own initiative, he has investigated how new X-ray technology can find hidden hazards in the ground. He says X-rays need to be taken more seriously as a potential solution to detecting mines. A fusion of nuclear and X-ray technologies might be the best way forward.

These efforts extend from Murray’s Christian faith. He quotes his great-uncle Rev CT Laws, principal of Trinity Theological College, who said that faith must be fresh, live and relevant for each era.

“Faith is an important part of living. My Christian faith I see as living on earth, carrying on Jesus’ work in whatever small part it is in the scheme of things. I believe that I am fortunate in my career and that I have been guided into things.

“I try to live so that I am aware of opportunities that are shown to me. When those opportunities show up I naturally take them. There is much more to it than my making decisions. It is due to the faith connections.

“I believe that this conference is such an opportunity, building on something I have naturally been interested in contributing to over the past 10 years. When the invitation came to share in this conference I knew that I had to go. If my career is about anything, it’s about opportunities where I can contribute. My career is worth nothing if I do not try to do that.”

Murray and his fellow scientists know they are faced with a massive and seemingly impossible problem but they know too that technology keeps getting better. By bringing together people who know these developments they can work together for a breakthrough. Look in the February Touchstone for an update on the conference findings.