National Science Week is a chance to celebrate and acknowledge the significant contributions that Australians have made in the world of science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM).

Held from August 13-21, this year’s theme is ‘Glass: More than meets the eye’, to celebrate the many roles that glass plays in people’s lives, and to investigate glass as part of a sustainable future.

For Defence scientists in Australia, glass remains crucial to the science, technology, and innovation eco-system in which they work. But Defence scientists also played a major role in pioneering the optical glass industry in Australia.

Prior to the outbreak of World War 2, any optical equipment needed to provide optical sighting for Australian-manufactured defence weapons had to be imported from overseas.

Optical munitions (or optical instruments associated with weapons) were just as important as the weapons themselves – a Browning M2 Aircraft Machine Gun is of little use without the ability to aim it accurately.

In 1938, the Munitions Supply Laboratories (MSL) at Maribyrnong had begun to establish glass-making facilities to manufacture lens assemblies.

At the time, Australia had no optical equipment manufacturing industry, nor any local supply of optical-quality glass.

When supplies from Britain ceased with the collapse of France, Australia found itself in dire circumstances when providing optics for its expanding war-time munitions manufacture.

The Optical Munitions Panel (OMP) was formed in June 1940, bringing together university-based scientists, representatives from government laboratories and the armed services, to assist organisations and industries involved in the optical munitions effort.

Senior Physicist Eric Loxton Sayce from the MSL was there from the OMP’s inception and, along with several other MSL scientists, was integral to the burgeoning optics industry.

The first optical glass was produced in Australia in December of that year, demonstrating a new sovereign capability that was vital to the success of Australian defence production during WW2.

Forty-three different types of optical instruments (and more than 26,000 individual objects) were produced for the war effort in Australia, including angle of sight instruments, periscopes, telescopes, range finders, parabolic reflectors, camera lenses and prisms, theodolites, collimators, glide path indicators, reconnaissance and flash spotting instruments; just to name a few.

After the war, the government decided that an optical industry was not viable and withdrew its support despite the enormous industrial and scientific successes.

However, the success of the OMP helped demonstrate the practical value of science to government and the military.

From flow visualisation in tempered-glass water tunnels to combining diamond with glass to create a new quantum sensor, glass continues to support many of Defence’s vital technologies.

The uses for and intrinsic nature of glass in science make it an important theme for National Science Week this year.