People with an interest in oral history will be familiar with the name of Hazel de Berg, the person who did the pioneering interviews for the National Library's oral history collection. De Berg interviewed several scientists and readers of this book will be able to compare her interview technique with that of Ann Moyal, who has chosen to include the transcript of an interview which Hazel de Berg did with Harry Messel in 1972 as one of her 12 edited transcripts. Perhaps even more interestingly the early life of Sir Mark Oliphant is covered by a 1967 de Berg interview, while the later period has been recorded by Moyal in 1992.
Sir Mark Oliphant, a nuclear physicist, is probably the best known living Australian scientist, so it comes as no surprise to find that he is the first scientist interviewed. At 92, he is also the oldest of the interviewees. In the first transcript, Sir Mark outlines his career up until 1945, and the second one continues the story, beginning with his decision to come to Australia in 1950 as Director of the Research School of Physical Sciences. The second interview is very wide ranging, covering the foundation of the Australian Atomic Energy Commission, his fears that nuclear energy gives countries the potential to make nuclear weapons and the foundation of the Australian Academy of Science, which he regards as his greatest contribution to science in Australia.
Harry Messel is also a physicist, who was born in Canada. Messel comes across as a person who is full of bright ideas and has the ability make things happen. His plans to set up an institute at the University of Adelaide which would not only keep young Australians but also attract good people from overseas were thwarted by the University. Fortunately he was able to set up the Science Foundation for Physics at the University of Sydney and the story of how he made this happen makes fascinating reading.
The final physicist interviewed is Paul Wild, a radiophysicist who was born in England. He says that solar research has been his life work, but interestingly his great contribution to Australian science and technology was the development of Interscan, an aircraft landing system. He touches briefly on his period as Chairman of CSIRO and finishes the interview by talking about the Very Fast Train Project. Perhaps the man who at the age of 7 wanted to be an engine driver may yet see his childhood dream realised.
Women are not forgotten, with the inclusion of Helen Newton Turner, who is 86, and Elizabeth Truswell and Susan Sarjeantson, both described as "baby boomers". Helen Newton Turner had an unorthodox introduction to a career as a sheep geneticist at CSIRO by way of an architecture degree and several years as a statistician. Elizabeth Truswell is a palynologist at the Australian Geological Survey Organisation, while Susan Sarjeantson was until recently the head of the Human Genetics group at the John Curtin School of Medical Research at the Australian National University and is now Deputy Vice-Chancellor there.
The biological sciences are well covered by interviews with Sir Gustav Nossal, Peter Bishop and Ralph Slatyer. Sir Gustav, in common with many of the interviewees, owes much to a mentor, in his case Sir Macfarlane Burnet. This interview touches more on personalities and work methods than most of the others, and it is interesting to learn more of Burnet the man as well as Nossal the man. The discussion on genetic engineering was also of interest.
Peter Bishop's best subjects at school were mathematics and physics, but he went into medicine rather than engineering to please his mother. Luckily he was able to use his engineering bent through much of his career to build his own equipment. He also conceived a fascination with the brain during his medical course and made that his life work, which eventually led to the award of the Australia Prize in 1993. The other eminent brain researcher in Australia was John Eccles, and we also learn more of him through this interview.
Ralph Slatyer has also had a fascinating career. He began as a climatologist at CSIRO, moved to a Chair in Environmental and Population Biology at the ANU, and followed this with periods as Australian Ambassador to UNESCO, Chairman of ASTEC and Chief Scientist. His wife encouraged him to take up the UNESCO job, which effectively led him into the science policy area and away from a research career. Interestingly he is most unusual in acknowledging the role played by his wife.
In the interview with Ted Ringwood, he described himself as a geochemist who was interested in the earth's core. Like most people involved in the history of science area I knew Ted Ringwood as the man who invented Synroc and more recently materials that were harder than diamonds and I was surprised to find no mention of these achievements. Did Ringwood not see them as his major achievements? Unfortunately we shall never know, as he died of cancer before being able to finish the interview to his satisfaction.
After a two year stint in Australia, Robyn Williams went home to England to do a science course at the University of London before returning to Australia. He was lucky enough to find work in the ABC Science Unit, where he has been ever since. He feels that in spite of all his work the average school student knows very little about Australian scientists, though he thinks the figures for school leavers wanting to enter science courses are encouraging. He also touches on the Commission for the Future, of which he is Chairman, and explores the possibilities for careers in science communication.
Michael Gore's academic career got off to a rocky start when he failed the Eleven Plus Examination twice. However, through perseverance he finally obtained a PhD in electronics and became a physics lecturer at the Australian National University. Because the preparation room was in a shambles he set up a laboratory of simple experiments to make the equipment available. Quite by chance he became aware that it was of interest to a wider audience than physics students. He set up Questacon at a primary school in Canberra and eventually became the Director of the National Science and Technology Centre, which I must confess to enjoying as much as my children do!
Obviously these 12 people come from a variety of backgrounds and their careers have taken different paths. Do they have anything in common? The thing that struck me as I read their stories was the strong influence of the mothers in so many instances. Something that surprised me was how few of them showed great promise in their early years - indeed, several repeated a year of school to improve their grades - and in many instances they did not come from a wealthy background. What, then, is the secret of their success? I think it was probably a combination of their tremendous energy and enthusiasm for their work.
However, you should read the book for yourselves and draw your own conclusions. It is a fascinating book and well recommended.
- Rosanne Clayton, Australian Academy of Science