Strange but true facts about Canberra's Martian Embassy

Some call it the Igloo, others the Mushroom, but most refer to Canberra's iconic Shine Dome as the Martian Embassy.

Due to its eye-catching appearance, the Shine Dome - opened 60 years ago this week to house the Australian Academy of Science - has attracted many unusual stories, most of which when first heard could easily be categorised as urban legend. However, it turns out most aren't myths at all.

The Shine Dome by night. Photo: Trent Hubber

The Shine Dome by night. Photo: Trent Hubber

Here are my top 5, strange but true facts about our landmark dome.

Sitting in the dome can make you sea sick

Shortly after the opening of the dome, some visitors to the 260-seat chamber hall, which occupies the centre of the dome, began to suffer seemingly inexplicable bouts of nystagmus - a form of motion sickness.

These strings placed between wooden batons in the chamber hall at the Shine Dome alleviate an optical illusion which led to some visitors suffering from nystagmus. Photo: Australian Academy of Science

These strings placed between wooden batons in the chamber hall at the Shine Dome alleviate an optical illusion which led to some visitors suffering from nystagmus. Photo: Australian Academy of Science

Investigations revealed this was caused by the uneven spacing of timber batons lining the crescent-shaped walls of the hall. To remedy the problem, one of the academy's former fellows, Dr Victor Macfarlane, suggested strings be placed in the gaps between the batons, so as to produce almost an optical uniformity but still allow the sound to pass through to the baffles behind. This created a much-needed gap in the illusion of the walls moving and prevented people from feeling queasy.

Victor even published a scientific paper about it in the hope that nobody else would make the same design mistake.

It's the biggest free-standing dome in Australia

Phil Greenwood, a former business manager at the Shine Dome who runs occasional tours of the building, is often asked if it's the biggest in Australia.

Construction of the dome was precarious work for builders. Photo: Australian Academy of Science, John Edwards of Capital J Plan Printing & Photographic Co. Pty. Ltd

Construction of the dome was precarious work for builders. Photo: Australian Academy of Science, John Edwards of Capital J Plan Printing & Photographic Co. Pty. Ltd

"At just under 47.4 metres in diameter, not only is it the biggest in Australia but it's also bigger than many other well-known free-standing domes around the world, including St Paul's Cathedral in London (31 metres in diameter), St Peter's Basilica in Rome (41.5 metres), and the Pantheon of ancient Rome at 43.3 metres."

People swim in the moat

According to Phil Greenwood, "it used to be a rite of passage for medical students at ANU to go for a dip in the moat following graduation". In fact, it's not just jubilant graduates who have taken the plunge, over the last 20 years, on some of your Akubra-clad columnist's regular night tours around Canberra, I've had to physically restrain the occasional reveller from taking a midnight dip (yes, even in mid-winter).

Don't fall in! a 4.5 metre wide moat rings the Shine Dome. Photo: Chris Blunt

Don't fall in! a 4.5 metre wide moat rings the Shine Dome. Photo: Chris Blunt

However, not all swims in the moat are deliberate. "In 2016, during a function, an elderly visitor fell off the bridge and into the moat," reveals Phil, who explains "there's now a number of pool-style fences on each of the bridges to prevent similar incidents from occurring".

A toilet seat once adorned the top of the dome

The dome has been the location of several pranks carried out by students of ANU, especially in the 1960s and 70s when shenanigans during annual 'Bush Week' festivities were an infamous part of Canberra's cultural calendar.

The Canberra Times of July 31, 1964, reported: "Late last night a 'mysterious object' was sighted on the dome of the Royal Australian Academy of Science building, Acton, which uncannily resembled a toilet seat." Some 10 years later the students struck again, this time by painting a series of footprints up the side of the dome leading to a toilet bowl perched atop the dome. Talk about a royal flush!

A sprinkler was placed atop the dome to wet the copper-coated roof to help it oxidise. Photo: Australian Academy of Science, John Edwards of Capital J Plan Printing & Photographic Co. Pty. Ltd

A sprinkler was placed atop the dome to wet the copper-coated roof to help it oxidise. Photo: Australian Academy of Science, John Edwards of Capital J Plan Printing & Photographic Co. Pty. Ltd

Toilet seats aside, one of the more unusual sights spotted atop the dome was a large common garden sprinkler. While most observers thought the sprinkler, sighted just prior to the official opening in 1959, was to cool the building, according to Phil Greenwood it was an audacious attempt for a constant spray of water to "help the copper-coated roof to oxidise".

"Canberra's air was thought too pure for the roof to discolour naturally, so it was thought a sprinkler would aid the process," explains Phil.

Despite running the sprinkler constantly for a few weeks, the dome's appearance never changed, so the discolouration was left to nature," says Phil. "It did however prove a useful exercise in locating two leaks in the copper which were subsequently sealed."

Keen observers will note that the discolouration has been a slow process - only now after 60 years has the faintest green patina begun to develop atop the dome. Proof, I guess, that we are blessed with clean air.

The dome's architect sat on a model of the dome to test its strength

To test possible stresses in the daring dome design, during the design phases, Dr Leonard Stevens, a professor from the Civil School of Engineering School at the University of Melbourne, created a 1/40th scale model of the dome.

It was made of layers of cloth impregnated with polyester resin. In his book, A Big, Bold, Simple Concept: A history of the Australian Academy of Science Dome, Alan Roberts explains when the model was built, but before testing, architect of the dome, Roy Grounds, asked to see it.

Professor Leonard Stevens testing the 1/40th scale model of the Shine Dome for stresses. Photo: Australian Academy of Science, Leonard Stevens

Professor Leonard Stevens testing the 1/40th scale model of the Shine Dome for stresses. Photo: Australian Academy of Science, Leonard Stevens

According to Roberts, Dr Stevens "arrived at the laboratory to find Grounds already there, sitting on top of the model, with his knees drawn up under his chin," adding, "the model was still intact and Grounds announced triumphantly 'I've given it the bum test'!"

Fortunately the delicate electrical resistance strain gauges had not yet been attached to the model so no damage to was done to them. Subsequent tests confirmed the dome's design specifications. Phew!

Five more facts about Canberra's futuristic 710-tonne concrete dome

Since opening in 1959, the Shine Dome has sported numerous official names including The Academy Building (1959-1981) and Becker House (1984-2001). It was renamed the Shine Dome in 2000 to honour world-renowned biochemist Professor John Shine's donation of $1 million towards the building's refurbishment.

To prevent ducklings drowning in the dome's 0.7-metre-deep and 4-metre wide moat which features on overhanging lip, in 2010 maintenance staff cleverly designed and installed a special ramp to enable ducklings to safely exit the moat.

Ducklings use the purpose-built ramp. Australian Academy of Science

Ducklings use the purpose-built ramp. Australian Academy of Science

The Foundation Stone unveiled by former prime pinister Bob Menzies in 1958 was previously one of the legs of the 1869 Great Melbourne Telescope. The 1.5-metre-tall chunk of granite was salvaged in bush on Mt Stromlo after the telescope was transferred there in 1945 and given a new mounting.

The foundation stone, unveiled by former prime minister Bob Menzies, was originally the north pier of the 1869 Great Melbourne Telescope. Photo: Tim the Yowie Man

The foundation stone, unveiled by former prime minister Bob Menzies, was originally the north pier of the 1869 Great Melbourne Telescope. Photo: Tim the Yowie Man

Much to the chagrin of the Queanbeyan stonemason responsible for polishing the stone, architect Roy Grounds requested that the stone remain rough in appearance and character, even with a vein running through the polished section where the prime minister's name was to feature. The stonemason, wanting to impress with his workmanship was reduced to tears before being convinced to complete the job.

The Shine Dome has featured in various genres of popular culture including in scenes in the Canberra-based TV series The Code (2015-16) and most famously as a gigantic piece of apple pie in Michael Salmon's 1972 childhood classic, The Monster that Ate Canberra.

Alexander the bunyip feasts on a piece of 'apple pie' from the Shine Dome in Michael Salmon's 1972 classic children's book, The Bunyip that Ate Canberra. Photo: Michael Salmon

Alexander the bunyip feasts on a piece of 'apple pie' from the Shine Dome in Michael Salmon's 1972 classic children's book, The Bunyip that Ate Canberra. Photo: Michael Salmon

The dome also features in a poster designed by Trevor Dickinson to promote for this year's Canberra & Region Heritage Festival which has a space theme.

Trevor Dickinson's promotional poster for this year's Heritage Festival. Photo: Trevor Dickinson

Trevor Dickinson's promotional poster for this year's Heritage Festival. Photo: Trevor Dickinson

"I'm a big fan of the Shine Dome, it reminds me of 1960s science fiction movies and makes me nostalgic for a future that might have been," says Trevor. "I love that some locals call it 'The Martian Embassy' - a name both Canberran and alien, and the perfect title for my drawing."

Contact Tim: Email: timtheyowieman@bigpond.com or Twitter: @TimYowie or write c/- The Canberra Times, 9 Pirie St, Fyshwick.

Where in Canberra?

Do you know the location of this artwork? Photo: Tim the Yowie Man

Do you know the location of this artwork? Photo: Tim the Yowie Man

Cryptic Clue: Welcome Back

Degree of difficulty: Medium

Last week: Congratulations to Diana Nixon of Gunning who was the first reader to identify last week's photo as an electric vehicle charging port at Strathnairn Arts in Holt (90 Stockdill Drive).

An electric vehicle charging port at Strathnairn Arts in Holt. Photo: Tim the Yowie Man

An electric vehicle charging port at Strathnairn Arts in Holt. Photo: Tim the Yowie Man

Diana just beat first-time entrants Paul Melling of Latham, Jason Jones of Kambah and Dawn Bowra to the coveted prize. "It's a totally awesome place," reports Dawn, who predicts "in time, with suburbs expanding around it, Strathnairn will become an arts and crafts mecca".

The Strathnairn café is already a lovely quiet place for cuppa and I'm reliably informed that it won't be long before a new venture will keep alive the tradition of Strathnairn's wood-fired pizzas.

For updates on the new venture and also current (don't miss Alex Kosmas and Janet Coker's Brindabellas and Beyond sculpture exhibition on show in the Woolshed Gallery until May 26) and upcoming exhibitions, check out www.strathnairn.com.au

How to enter: Email your guess along with your name and address to timtheyowieman@bigpond.com. The first email sent after 10am, Saturday May 4, 2019 will win a double pass to Dendy - The Home of Quality Cinema.

Mailbag

It turns out that the large kangaroo outline etched into a hillside in the Molonglo River Reserve (Bouncing Back, April 6) isn't the only giant-sized marsupial lurking in Canberra's rural fringe.

Thomas Schulze reports "in 2015 a geocacher created a trail of 95 caches in the shape of a kangaroo in the Kowen Forest".

The 7km long and 5km tall roo can best be seen plotted on a map. Impressive.

A geocache trail in Kowen Forest laid out in the shape of a kangaroo. Photo: Thomas Schulze

A geocache trail in Kowen Forest laid out in the shape of a kangaroo. Photo: Thomas Schulze

Meanwhile, buoyed by the positive response from community with the giant Molonglo kangaroo, ACT park rangers are now preparing a similar weed scraping and native wildflower seeding regeneration trial in a nearby area.

While I can't disclose which native critter they've chosen this time, I can confirm that sadly it's not a yowie. Any guesses? Watch this space.