Interviews with Australian scientists
Professor Ray Martin
Physical and inorganic chemist
Ray Martin earned a BSc in 1946 and an MSc in 1948 from the University of Melbourne. From 1949 to 1951 he was an Exhibition Scholar and studied at the University of Cambridge where he was awarded a PhD in 1952 and a ScD 1968. He stayed at Cambridge as a research fellow until his return to Australia in 1954. Martin returned as a senior lecturer at the University of New South Wales where he stayed until 1959. He left academia to work in industry at Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) from 1959 to 1962. From 1962 to 1972, he was professor and head of inorganic chemistry at the University of Melbourne where he helped set up the inorganic department. In 1972 he moved to the ANU as foundation professor of inorganic chemistry in the Research School of Chemistry. In 1978 he received a DSc from the ANU. Professor Martin returned to Melbourne in 1977 to become vice-chancellor of Monash University, a position he held until 1987. He then was professor of chemistry at Monash University until 1991. During these years he was also chairman of the Australian Science and Technology Council (1988–1992).
Interviewed by Professor Bruce Holloway in 2008.
A background environment of learning
Studies at the University of Melbourne
To Cambridge for an inorganic chemistry PhD
Further research, marriage and back to Australia
Valuable academic and industry experience
Establishing inorganic chemistry departments
Contributions to chemistry and to industry
New opportunities at Monash University
The Australian Science and Technology Council
An arts interest with family underpinnings
Extended interests and involvements
Many challenges and pleasures, with few regrets
You can order the DVD from us for $15 (including GST and postage).
Sponsored by Monash University
Ray, what do you remember of your early life?
Looking back on it, Bruce, I think I was very fortunate; I had a very happy life. Close friends of my parents owned an old Victorian mansion, 'Astolat', set in four to six acres of land in Riversdale Road, in the middle of Camberwell, and subdivided into four flats. I lived there from the age of six to the beginning of my university days. There were lots of young people in the neighbourhood, and we used to go around building tree huts, playing cowboys and Indians and doing the things you do as you are growing up – and all in that lovely environment.
This great property had an asphalt tennis court, where as a youngster I used to watch the adults have their tennis days. At afternoon tea time they would always lend me a racquet and let me have a hit, and that's where I learned to play tennis.
I started Scotch College in Melbourne at six years old and went through to Leaving Certificate. Later, however, I attended North Sydney Boys High School, where I experienced one of the most memorable events of my school years. This occurred in 1942, in the middle of the war, when we lived on the North Shore Line. One night there was a lot of banging and crashing going on, and my mother dragged my father and me out of bed and said, 'We're being attacked! We must get under the kitchen table!' It turned out that a couple of Japanese midget submarines had got into Sydney Harbour and had started firing at ships. There were torpedoes and things going off around the harbour, causing all the commotion.
Otherwise, I suppose my memories are fairly typical of an Australian child growing-up, except that normally one does not grow up in a large property which has now been taken over by the National Trust. (Actually, one of the owners of the property, 'Uncle' Lynn Martyn – not really a relation – became a sort of mentor.) Those were happy times.
Did your parents or relatives have any influence on your interest in science?
My parents and also my relatives provided an environment which, in various ways, made me interested in learning. My maternal grandfather and grandmother were country schoolteachers but settled in the city, and Melbourne Grammar invited my grandfather to teach for a few years in retirement. Of their children, two of my uncles were school teachers and one was a refrigeration engineer – again an atmosphere of learning. My father was involved in universities for most of his working life, and my mother had gone to the Conservatorium of Music at Melbourne University and was a very accomplished pianist. So when I was young I heard classics being played on the piano all the time and had a father who worked at Melbourne University. Among the family and the relatives there was a lot of personal involvement with scholarly matters, and I suppose that inevitably provides a background environment of learning.
Your father was a distinguished scientist. Did this influence your interest in science?
The answer has to be yes. I don't remember either of my parents actually trying to direct me into science, but probably the family background meant, subconsciously, that I was always very interested in science and music.
Did school teachers, or other people outside of the family, stimulate your interest in science?
Yes. I was very fortunate at Scotch because, particularly in the senior years, I had some memorable teachers of chemistry and physics. After I had done my Leaving Certificate there, my father was moved quite suddenly to Sydney, where the government had asked him to head up the radar activities at the CSIRO unit. I applied to enter Sydney University, but they wouldn't accept me because I had only one language at leaving level. So I had to repeat a year to do the Leaving Certificate of New South Wales – at North Sydney Boys High School, where the science teacher, in chemistry and physics, was excellent. At both schools I was fortunate in having excellent, inspiring lecturers in those subjects.
Then you moved back to Melbourne?
Yes, my parents and I moved back to Melbourne in about 1943. I applied for entry to Melbourne University and this time I managed to get in without a second leaving-level language.
What are your memories of those Melbourne University days?
One has a lot of freedom at university; I think that one immediately becomes conscious of the lack of school discipline and restrictions. Being in that environment was a wonderful experience. I enrolled in a combined engineering and science degree. One of the requirements of engineering was that you had to do 'workshop practice', so that one of my memories is of travelling out to Footscray Technical School every day (after the university year had finished) to learn to file pieces of aluminium with great accuracy. At the end of a month of doing workshop practice, we had to cut what was called a square thread: a thread which you cut in a rod of iron, but square rather than the normal angular one. That experience was enjoyable and mind opening, but it decided me that really engineering wasn't for me, so in second year I focused very much on science. It was probably at about that stage that I became committed to science and strongly interested in it, particularly in the physical sciences.
Was it that second-year focus on science which resulted in your becoming a chemist?
I don't think so. Actually, I still took second-year physics as well as the second-year chemistry subjects – and I did pure and applied maths in second year. But by the third and final year of the BSc degree, my father had become a professor of physics, head of the physics department, and I thought, 'Well, one physicist in the family is probably enough. I'll strike out on my own and major in chemistry.' That would have been the turning point in my decision to major in chemistry. I ended up taking a double chemistry major in the final year of my BSc, and I think I did pure mathematics also.
That year, 1945, was interesting for other reasons, being the year when the war in Europe stopped. I remember that we all ended up walking in from Melbourne University to Swanston Street, in downtown Melbourne. I don't know how the message got around, but people seemed to be coming from everywhere. Everybody was hugging everybody else, whether they knew them or not, and kissing each other. There was a euphoria that the war was over. It was really remarkable, and the memory of that occasion has stayed very clearly with me. In fact, all my late schooling and education to that BSc level took place in wartime years, and there were all sorts of unusual facets of life during that period.
Then you went on to graduate work.
Yes. When I finished the third year for the BSc degree, I was fortunate that I'd done quite well – I'd got a double first in the two chemistries that I took – and I decided that I'd like to do some research. There was no PhD available in Australia at that time; the standard degree on offer was a Master of Science, which was not done by course work but was a research degree. So, in the fourth year, I enrolled for an MSc in chemistry. That took two years.
One of my lecturers in the undergraduate course had been JS Anderson (a Fellow of the Royal Society) – who later became a professor at Oxford and an FRS, a very distinguished man – and because I had found him an enthusiastic and excellent lecturer I asked if I could do my MSc under his supervision. He said yes, and set the topic: to look into a class of compounds called, in chemistry, nonstoichiometric compounds. Most of the chemicals we deal with are 'stoichiometric', one-to-one. For example, salt has one sodium atom and one chlorine atom. That is nice. But there are classes of oxides and other materials that are 'nonstoichiometric'. They don't obey these simple rules and they have very strange formulae. JS Anderson was a specialist in this area, and I did my MSc on a problem of oxide compounds of so-called rare metals.
We all use transistors and sensors of various kinds, solid state devices, which use compounds based on nonstoichiometric solids. That is the field I was in, not to make transistors or semiconductors but to learn something more fundamental about the particular compounds I was working with. Of Australian interest is that the sands in Byron Bay (which often figures because Paul Hogan lives there, amongst other things) are monazite sands, absolutely loaded with rare metals. The problem I was given was to look at some of the rare metals from Byron Bay which form these nonstoichiometric compounds – a problem with a fundamentally Australian origin.
Why did you decide to go to Cambridge for your PhD thesis work?
I completed the masters degree with – luckily for me – with first-class honours, and so a PhD seemed to be an exciting prospect. My father had done his PhD at the University of Cambridge and I grew up seeing photographs of the well-known Cavendish Laboratory, the physics side of academia in Cambridge, and photographs with people like Lord Rutherford of Nelson, a famous New Zealand physicist. In the household there were many memorabilia which went back to Cambridge days, because, almost immediately after my parents married, my father got an 1851 Exhibition which took him to Cambridge to do his PhD. I don't think I ever thought clearly about the various options; I just felt I'd love to go where they'd had such a happy time. And it was a famous university. So I made the decision for emotional reasons rather than by any logical analysis of what might be offering at Manchester or Oxford, or even in America.
I think you and your father were each awarded an 1851 scholarship.
Yes, I was lucky and managed to get an 1851 too. It was probably very unusual that a father and son should do that. I hasten to emphasise, though, that my parents never pushed me to do any of these things. They provided an environment, consciously or subconsciously, but these were decisions that I made.
Who did you work with at Cambridge, and how was the topic of your thesis decided?
Well, in final year undergraduate work we had had a textbook called Modern Aspects of Inorganic Chemistry, whose authors were JS Anderson – who became my MSc supervisor – and HJ Emeléus. Much of the exciting growth in chemistry had come from the organic chemists, whereas inorganic chemistry, to some degree, had not fully developed in the same way. This book, however, was quite a leap forward. Harry Emeléus was professor of inorganic chemistry at Cambridge, so I wrote to him and said I'd love to enrol in a PhD in his department. Would he be willing to take me on? Happily, the answer was in the affirmative, and that is really how I ended up there. But I knew I wanted to go to Cambridge because of the family associations.
And so Harry Emeléus was your PhD supervisor?
Yes, but not immediately on my arrival. He was on holidays at that time, and a relatively senior man in the department tried to persuade me to work on problems he was interested in. I had a very good friend in Cambridge, Norman Greenwood, who later became a professor at Leeds University. (We had graduated BSc together, and he was now a year ahead of me at Cambridge.) Knowing what was going on, he said, 'Look, why don't we go walking in the Lake District for a week or two? Harry Emeléus will be here when you get back and you can make your decisions then.' So we went off walking for a couple of weeks, and talked a lot about life and about possible research topics. We decided that it would be great fun to work together on a new subject: to study the compounds formed by a molecule called boron trifluoride. Boron trifluoride was well known to have very high catalytic activity and I think certain industries use it as a catalyst, so it had some applied interest. The research program we worked out involved the application of many physical methods and techniques, like electrochemistry and measuring the electrical properties of these boron trifluoride compounds.
When I returned to Cambridge with Norman Greenwood, Harry Emeléus was back from his holiday and said, 'Martin, I'd like you to start by measuring the composition of the Cambridge gas supply.' [laugh] This was not quite what I'd travelled from one side of the world to the other to do, so eventually Norman and I arranged a meeting with him and told him about what we'd decided would be an exciting problem. He was very good, saying, 'Well, why don't you go ahead and see how it goes?'
In the end we worked jointly on this problem of the boron trifluoride compounds. Norman finished off his PhD with a chapter on the problem, but because I was running a year behind, I had two years of working on it and my whole thesis was devoted to it. Both of us succeeded in satisfying the examiners and we both got our PhDs on this problem. As well as that, we managed to publish 15 or 16 papers in the Journal of the Chemical Society and then a review on top of it. So it turned out to be a very exciting project.
Did you come straight back to Australia after gaining your PhD?
No, I stayed on at Cambridge. I was lucky enough to get what was called a Senior 1851 [Exhibition], four of which are awarded in the sciences in the UK each year. My other bit of good fortune was that the college I was at – Oliver Cromwell's old college, Sidney Sussex College – invited me to be a college fellow. That meant I had living accommodation, three meals a day and a stipend to go with it, plus the 1851. So I was very fortunate. I stayed on in Cambridge until 1954, researching as before and playing tennis.
Following the days of 'Astolat' and the asphalt tennis court I'd played a lot of tennis, and I was chosen for the Cambridge team. That was a wonderful facet of Cambridge, because the team played not only many of the county teams but also some overseas teams. For example, I went across to Amsterdam, where we played the Dutch international club. The tennis gave me an excellent opportunity to meet and make friends with people who weren't necessarily in the academic stream.
At one stage during those postgraduate Cambridge years, however, I decided it would be good to work in another laboratory and, after some consultation, Professor Emeléus said, 'Look, I have a very good friend in Stuttgart in south-west Germany. Why don't you go down and see if he'll take you on?' I went to Stuttgart and I worked with Professor Joseph Goubeau. He was a charming man, as was Harry Emeléus – old-world gentlemen, both of them. I lived in Stuttgart for six months and did some research there. I wasn't very popular, because Professor Goubeau had asked me to explore a compound called anhydrous perchloric acid, which nobody had ever made. This field was notorious for violent explosions and people didn't want to share a laboratory with me, as they used to feel that an explosion was imminent, but fortunately none happened. So I had that break away from Cambridge.
But what happened was that I met my future wife in London, when I was essentially fairly penniless. I had no money to speak of and no home, because I'd lived in the college. I think she used to wonder how I'd ever support her if she said yes when I proposed to her. Like Mr Micawber in Charles Dickens' novel, I said, 'Oh, something will turn up,' but to make sure I started applying for positions back in Australia.
Now, one of the people who came to Cambridge and lectured was an Australian, from Broken Hill, named Ron Nyholm. (Nyholm became one of the most distinguished chemists, I think, that Australia has ever produced.) He gave a lecture in which he talked a lot about a renaissance of inorganic chemistry. Essentially, the 'renaissance' was built around two things. One was that the chemistry of so-called transition metals had been neglected in the past, and the second was the importance of applying the methods of physical sciences to work out the structural behaviour of these compounds. He was a big influence on me: I thought this sounded tremendously exciting. Nyholm was at the UNSW, where I sent one of my applications. By good fortune, he offered me the position of senior lecturer at the UNSW.
Rena and I were married in Cambridge and then came out, so in 1954 we started married life on the trip back to Australia, where I was looking forward very much to working in Nyholm's department..
What are your memories of being at the University of New South Wales?
That was my first lecturing position, and of course I had to gain experience in articulating the discipline of chemistry to first year, second year and third year. That was a very important part of the learning process. One memory I have is that Professor Nyholm gave me the 6 pm chemistry 1 class, in which a large proportion of the students were people who worked during the day and then came to do a part-time degree. After the lecture the students had to do a three-hour prac, in the evening – it was not uncommon during the lecture to see a brown paper bag come out and a sandwich taken in to keep them going – so I had the opportunity to get to know a lot of them. I was greatly impressed by their dedication and sheer capacity to be in a full-time job and then to try to stay awake during the chemistry lectures! All in all, a very interesting experience.
I had to learn not only the techniques of lecturing but also course design, the running of laboratories at the undergraduate level and the design of appropriate experiments. Then, the third thing that I hadn't had any experience in was supervising students who wanted to do a higher degree. So the five years I spent at the UNSW were very important academically – a great opportunity for me to learn what a career in academia, from the teaching side, was about.
On the research side, Nyholm had already arranged for a magnetic balance. He was very interested in the magnetism of metals and it was fashionable, if you were involved in this subject, to have magnetic balance. He had a young PhD student, BN Figgis, who was doing all the hard work of setting up the magnetic balance and, subsequently, became a worldwide expert in the magnetism of metals and a professor at the University of Western Australia. Nyholm, much to my disappointment, was invited back to University College, London within the first year after I returned. So, although I'd had great hopes of working with him and we did publish a couple of papers together, he left. He asked me to supervise the finalising of Brian Figgis's PhD on the magnetism of copper compounds. (Brian has written a textbook on the subject and has had a distinguished career in his own right.)
The department was quite research oriented, as well as teaching, so there was a lot of opportunity – and interesting research opportunities. I had collaborated with Ian Ross, who was at Sydney University, and he and I did some work together. He was a very fine chemist, and later became a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science.
On the personal side, Rena and I didn't have a great deal of money when we started. But her parents had a beach cottage at Newport Beach, a most beautiful spot about an hour's drive north of Sydney, and we asked whether we could rent that for a while – which we did. By coincidence, as I was going to work in Sydney one day on a double-decker bus which used to run up that part of the coast, an old friend called out to me, and so we very quickly got assimilated into his group of friends at Newport Beach. We had a wonderful sunny, beach-type lifestyle in that period, during which our first two children were born.
Personally, then, we had very happy memories of being in Sydney, and academically it was a great learning experience for me.
Was that an important time for you in selecting your research interests?
Oh, very important. I left nonstoichiometry at that stage and became totally immersed in the chemistry of metals and the application, particularly, of magnetism and other physical techniques such as infrared spectroscopy, nuclear magnetic resonance – all the modern techniques which were available and which give you a lot of information on the details of structure and shape of molecules and their chemical behaviour.
Why did you decide to leave the University of New South Wales and work in industry?
I think the circumstances just were there. The five years at UNSW terminated in 1959 and I had gone to Cambridge in 1949, so altogether I'd been away from Melbourne for 10 years. By then various things had happened. In particular, Nyholm had gone back. Then Sir David Zeidler, one of the directors of ICI, came to see me and said, 'We're going to build one of Australia's first industrial research laboratories, to be called the Central Research Laboratories, at Ascot Vale. We want it to have a fairly basic approach to research, which often will deal with problems that ICI need to solve, but we don't exclude fundamental research.' He was very enthusiastic about this prospect, and said that the company was looking for someone to take over the inorganic side of the new development. So I think the combination of getting back to Melbourne, one's home town, after 10 years and of being involved in what seemed a very exciting new venture was what really persuaded us that maybe it was time to make a move.
Did you enjoy your time in industry?
It was an interesting experience, because it involved many things that otherwise I would never have done. For example, I was sent to ICI UK and spent time there being taught about what ICI did, what they made and how they did it. I learned quite a lot about the industrial chemistry process and strategies. In addition, they sent me to Canada and America because there are outposts of ICI in those countries, and also organised me to visit what you might call competitor companies: Monsanto and so on. That was really very interesting to me. Although it wasn't basic research, at least it gave me a feel for how chemistry operates in industry. I ended up being called an associate research manager, so I suppose I learned a little bit about being responsible for research management from the industrial point of view. I wasn't there for a long period, but it was an enlightening experience – during which, probably, I saw enough of industry to know that it wasn't my natural forte.
What made you return to the University of Melbourne, and to university life, in 1962?
Well, I had a visit from the head of the Chemistry Department at Melbourne University, Professor Alan Buchanan, which – like Dirk Zeidler's visit to Newport Beach to see if he could persuade me to join ICI – was quite unexpected. I was most surprised that Buchanan wanted to come and see me, but it turned out that as head of department he had decided it would be very good if Chemistry were subdivided into three departments, for physical chemistry, organic chemistry and inorganic chemistry. Already, in effect, there were de facto departments of physical and organic chemistry, but not inorganic. He wanted to encourage me to take over the job of setting up an inorganic department at Melbourne University.
It occurred to me subsequently that there was a link involved. When JS Anderson left Melbourne University and took up the chair at Oxford, Buchanan had asked me if I'd be prepared to go to the chemistry school and do a course of lectures each year that Anderson had given on solid state chemistry – nonstoichiometry and things of that kind. So I had been going to Melbourne University for some time and giving this course of lectures.
From my point of view at the time, it was just an unexpected opportunity that came up, but I do think I knew that I wanted to go back to academia.
What were your main research interests in your time as a professor at Melbourne University?
I continued in the Nyholm tradition, focusing very much on metals and their chemistry – and magnetism, of course. I built magnetic equipment and things of this kind. That focus has continued.
Why did you leave Melbourne University in 1972 and go to the Australian National University?
The 10 years I was at Melbourne as head of Inorganic Chemistry were very happy years. I had to make a number of appointments to build up the inorganic department, and managed to get some excellent staff. It was very productive; it was oriented very much to research as well as to teaching. As a team, they did extremely well. And I made some very good friendships which I've kept from that period.
When eventually I thought I'd be retiring at Melbourne University, however, Professor DP Craig – another very distinguished professor who had been back to University College – wrote to me and said the ANU would like to get an inorganic department going at the Research School of Chemistry, in the Institute of Advanced Studies. They had strength in organic chemistry, under A J Birch (Arthur Birch), and in physical chemistry, under David Craig. There were one or two people doing inorganic chemistry, but the school didn't have an inorganic department, so Craig asked whether I would be willing to come up. Rena and I talked about it and we decided it might be a very interesting challenge and opportunity; also, my parents had moved to live in Canberra. So we went off to Canberra.
Did you continue the same areas of research there?
Essentially, yes. One of the attractions of the ANU was that they had a lot of money for provision of postdoctoral fellows and a lot of money for equipment. (It was a research school, so there was no teaching.) Towards the end of my Melbourne time, universities were having some fairly tight budgetary times and it was very hard to get money for postdocs, but Canberra offered money for equipment and for postdoctoral fellowships, so I had two really good postdocs working there with me. Also, I took several of my top candidates who were enrolled in PhDs at Melbourne with me. Consequently, I had a fairly quick start to getting something built up.
What do you think are the most significant contributions you made to chemistry?
[laugh] This has to be very subjective! The first two I would mention are fairly specialist areas, so they are not easy to explain.
In my UNSW times, using magnetic technique we discovered two new types of bonding. All chemists know that in chemistry there are sigma bonds and pi bonds, but we managed to find in some of the metal compounds, such as copper acetate, a 'delta bond'. It was the first example that had ever been established. Copper acetate's chromium analogue, chromous acetate, had a sigma bond, two pi bonds and a delta bond totalling four bonds – and we called these a quadruple bond. Delta bonds had never been discovered before, so that was quite exciting.
Another successful piece of work was in the magnetic area, where we discovered some compounds in an unusual class that had two different electron spin conditions present at the same time, in what technically is called a 'spin crossover situation'. We did some extensive work on elucidating that phenomenon, and that work has been well regarded overseas.
During, I think, the ANU period I developed a new theoretical interpretation of the nonstoichiometric problem: coordination defect theory. That seemed to be quite well regarded too. So they are three of the areas which I personally feel were exciting.
Did your work have any implications for industry?
Indirectly, I think. Anything in the nonstoichiometric oxide area potentially has links to transistors, semiconductors and solid state devices, but the knowledge we developed may or may not be directly useful industrially at some stage.
At UNSW I was only ever supported by a pseudo industry – once – when the Sydney Water Board came along and said, 'We're having terrible trouble with corrosion in our giant outlet pipes; all the concrete is just falling apart. We'd like you to look at it. We think it might be because all the effluent we're trying to get rid of has a lot of sulfide in it. We'll provide some money for the research and we'll provide you with a research worker.' So we looked at ozonising the Sydney effluent (but on the laboratory scale, of course). That was about as close to industry as I got. I don't think the project solved their problems, but it was fun.
You left the ANU in 1977 to become vice-chancellor of Monash. Was it difficult to decide to give up full-time research?
That invitation was again something I hadn't expected. My secretary at the ANU came in and gave me a rather crumpled little bit of paper on which someone had written a message in pencil. It was from the distinguished Sir Brian Hone, who had had a wonderful career as head of Melbourne Grammar and was by then a council member of Monash University, and it read, 'Ray, would you give me a cup of coffee if I come in tomorrow?' So I told my secretary that of course I would, and when Sir Brian came in he said, 'Monash want a vice-chancellor and, if you're interested, we'd like you to come down and meet the selection committee.' And that's how it happened – it came totally out of left field.
Rena and I looked at all the pluses and minuses. I suppose one factor was that, by then, the eldest of our four children was into his early 20s, and our daughter was 17 or 18. Canberra is a wonderful spot in some ways but it's very small and parochial. The number of employment opportunities for young people in their 20s and so on is quite limited, and we were beginning to feel conscious of that type of argument.
Probably the time was right for a move. We both love being in Melbourne, where we have spent so much of our life, and we thought returning there would give the family many more options – which is exactly the way it has turned out; they've all done different things. The invitation just happened to turn up at a time when we had some concerns about staying in Canberra, and it seemed a very exciting possibility that we would never have dreamed of.
What were the challenges of being a vice-chancellor, compared with those of being a professor of chemistry?
I suppose it's a little bit like comparing the challenges of being an admiral of the fleet with those of being captain of, say, a battleship. A vice-chancellor has all the challenges of trying to position his university in as strong a position as he can. My personal view about Monash was that the most important thing was to do whatever we could to maximise its scholarly and its research reputation. Louis Matheson had done a marvellous job in the preceding 10 or 12 years in creating and building it up and getting all the staff in position, and the students – a remarkable job. It seemed to me that now the most important thing for Monash was to make sure that, in scholastic terms and research terms, it attempted to become pre-eminent in the Australian system and also the international system. I used to get immense pleasure out of looking at how many of the Fellows of the Academy were from Monash, and so on. It was and is doing very well.
The challenges for the vice-chancellor are formidable. You're essentially chief executive officer of the institution, meaning that anything which happens in the institution is ultimately your responsibility. This is fine if there are good things happening [laugh] but it can be a bit difficult when bad things happen, because it's still your responsibility.
In practical terms, at Monash the system is that the vice-chancellor chairs the professorial board and the Committee of Deans, who are the senior people providing all the information and input about where the university should head and so on. He has the responsibility of being the public face of the university, so there are myriads of invitations to go and talk to this group or that. It's a very time consuming job, but it's one that provided me with a lot of pleasure. I think Monash is a tremendous institution, again because of the quality of its staff.
Did you try to strengthen the connections between Monash University and industry?
Yes. It seemed to me quite important to get financial help from the industrial sector. At one stage, Professor Ron Brown and I did a trip to the UK, including Scotland, and to Canada and the United States, specifically looking at science parks and other ways in which universities in these countries had tried to link in with industry. We presented a written report to Council when we got back, and we ended up creating the body called Montech, of which you have been a director. Its purpose was to try to be the bridging link between industries – Melbourne based, largely, but Australian if necessary – and the university. The other hope I had was of converting the other side of Blackburn Road to a science park where industries would put their research institutions, in addition to which we would have Montech doing the management and the linkages.
Montech did come into being and it survived for a number of years, but we didn't ever quite achieve the grandiose plan. Perhaps, in retrospect, neither industry nor the university was ready for this type of development; perhaps the United States and the UK are much further advanced in this type of relationship than we are in Australia. But that's just a personal view.
As vice-chancellor I was able, however, to exploit Professor Roger Short's invention of melatonin, which he recognised might be a very good drug to counter jet lag after long flying trips. Leon Serry, the head of Circadian Technologies, came to see me and we worked out an agreement between his firm and the university in which we gave them licensing rights to melatonin – with Roger's consent, of course – and the university benefited from that. Circadian Technologies prosecuted the commercialisation of melatonin quite successfully, in the sense that Eli Lilly, the American giant pharmaceutical company, paid Circadian something like $3 million.
In 1988 you were made chairman of ASTEC, the Australian Science and Technology Council. What were some of the important outcomes of your time on ASTEC?
ASTEC was an interesting body, being set up under legislation which enabled it to deal directly with the Prime Minister without any bureaucrats present. That is, the chairman of ASTEC had the opportunity to take the council's recommendations directly to the Prime Minister, discuss them with him and try to get the message across. That made it a very relevant council at the time.
I was chairman of ASTEC for four years, in which time we published about 12 reports to the Prime Minister. Broadly speaking, they could be broken up into two groups.
The first group were specific studies of some six or eight projects in different kinds of science and technology. For example, we did one which looked at all aspects of the fishing industry in Australia. We did another one on whether the government should build an Australian gravitational telescope, a laboratory which can pick up very sensitive gravitational waves in the ground. Another one was on nanotechnology. Now, I'm talking of the period around 1990, so that was an early specific identification of nanotechnology. There was also one on accelerator and beam facilities – atomic beams, cyclotron-type beams – for Australia.
The second type of report was more to advise the Prime Minister (and government, hopefully) about the more broad issues. For example, reports were written on the health of science, technology and research in Australia, broad issues of that kind. So there were really two main foci of the ASTEC reports.
When each report was completed, the chairman then made an appointment to see the Prime Minister to discuss the implications of the recommendations, why ASTEC felt they were important and how they might be implemented.
ASTEC was a largish body. It had, I suppose, 20 to 24 people, taken from all aspects of science and technology – for example, Peter Laver from BHP as a representative of industry – as well as academic representation. It acted as a very broad-spectrum, very good committee.
While at ASTEC and Monash University, were you able to continue research in chemistry?
In actual fact, I left the vice-chancellorship of Monash in 1987 and became professor of chemistry instead, until 1991. And I was at ASTEC from 1988 to 1992. Although ASTEC had its permanent office in Canberra, the chairmanship was part time, so it probably took only a day or two of my week and the rest of the time I was in chemistry. So, yes, I was able to get some research going again, putting out perhaps eight papers during that four-year period.
Are you still writing papers for publication?
I am. In fact, I've just had a paper with a colleague in Adelaide accepted by the Journal of Solid State Chemistry, a distinguished American journal, and another manuscript has been submitted we haven't heard about it yet. I'm still finding some time to do a little bit. [laugh]
Has your family been involved in your professional career?
By 'family' I imagine you mean Rena and our children. I can't say enough about the wonderful job Rena has done. In all these different positions I have held, she's been a tower of strength in providing the necessary facilities to entertain people and in supporting me in every way a wife can. She has done a marvellous job.
Three of our children have graduated as PhDs, but they are all in different fields: our daughter is a chemist, as I am, but one son has a PhD in anatomy and another in petroleum geology, so they've broken away from any family tradition. The fourth graduated in computer science and he has led a very interesting career more on the business side. In their various ways, they've been quite integral, as a family is. They all get on well together and, by and large, they don't give their father too hard a time.
Outside your science, you've had considerable interaction with the arts community over a long period. Has your family played any special role in your interest in the arts?
Certainly both my mother and my wife did. My mother was a very good pianist. I grew up with her playing the piano for large parts of the day, and in the evenings my parents used to play a lot of classical music on the old-fashioned gramophones and so on. That side of life inevitably gave me a strong interest in music.
Rena herself used to paint a lot, so I got quite interested in art – although, even before I was married, whenever I went London I would be sure to try to find time to go to the National Gallery, or I'd try to go to the Prado in Madrid or the modern art gallery in New York. I have always been very interested in art, wherever I am. I find it a great way to relax and I just enjoy the visual interaction with painting.
You have chaired or been on committees for various organisations. How did you become involved with them?
Well, at one stage the Victorian College of the Arts invited me to become a council member, but as always it's difficult to say why. Somebody must have said, 'Oh, he's quite interested. Why don't we invite him when a spot comes up?' I ended up being president of the college for a number of years. That was a very stimulating and interesting exercise, because the college had about five schools covering all the arts.
Then the board at the Heide galleries invited me to join them, so I used to go out to Heide quite regularly for board meetings. They have a noteworthy collection of Australian art, with an interesting history. So things have gone along in that type of direction.
At Monash I was involved (as you yourself were) in helping Celia Rosser, the Faculty of Science artist, to do her wonderful 1975–76 paintings of the Australian Banksia genus, and in bringing that project to fruition. I had a very good chance to become quite close to the Banksia project because, when I first arrived at Monash, I found a lovely Banksia painting in my office. I was soon told that, every time Celia completed a painting, it was framed and put in the vice-chancellor's office. I became even more involved when the first 24 or 25 paintings were going to be put in volume I and we had to decide on a publisher – I spent time in England trying to identify who might be the best publisher. Academic Press, which finally was our choice, did a splendid job; its director Roger Farrand was very taken with the project, and I think volume I set the high quality for the subsequent two volumes. I had a great interest in the banksias, both for their sheer beauty and for the fact that that was an Australian project with a wonderfully gifted artist.
I have had other interests in the arts, and all these probably go back to the family environment making me aware of such things.
Did you ever want to do any painting yourself?
I did painting up to intermediate level, I think, and I quite enjoyed it and never had any trouble in passing the subject. But I don't think I ever had the leisure to take painting any further than my school days.
What have been the other main interests in your life?
Ah, let's see. [laugh] One of the more bizarre interests, I suppose, was in what some people call astroarchaeology – a combination of astronomy and archaeology. I had read a book about Stonehenge and the possibility that the Stone Age community had set it up as an astronomical observatory. It is an interesting monument which has a circle of 56 holes. The author of the book suggested that those ancients, somewhere about 2000 BC to 1500 BC, were able to predict lunar eclipse cycles, and that this circle of 56 holes, called the Aubrey circle, represented a 56-year eclipse cycle. One of my colleagues whom I'd appointed to the Department of Inorganic Chemistry at the University of Melbourne was Ray Colton, an Englishman who not only was a fine inorganic chemist but also had the hobby of astronomy. We sat down and looked at this monument very carefully, and decided that 56 years was not a particularly significant cycle in eclipses of the moon. We ended up having two papers on this topic published in Nature, and a third paper in another journal. It was quite a consuming hobby-type interest at one stage.
There have been other interests. At one stage I got involved in a commission of the big International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry. I was invited to join IUPAC's Commission on Atomic Weights and Isotopic Abundances, and ultimately I became chairman for a number of years, so I used to have to go overseas. It sounds an odd thing, but atomic weights keep changing slightly and these changes are very important for certain types of science, and so the commission was important. That was a slightly different type of involvement that I had for a while.
Probably the longest involvement I've had of a non-academic type was with the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust. I was a member of the board of that organisation for 23 years and, eventually, its national president. The Churchill trust was started by public donation in the early 1960s and raised £4 million, which was invested. The proceeds are used to send Australians overseas in any walk of life in which they have some excellence, if they want to get an opportunity to go and work in an expert's laboratory, or whatever it is, and bring back to Australia the knowledge they have gained. The corpus has gone from £4 million to, perhaps, $70 million now – it's quite large – and we send away about 25 Churchill Fellows a year. They could be a house painter or an artist, anybody. Any Australian can apply for this, provided they have some expertise in a field and can make the case that, by going overseas for four weeks, six weeks, 12 weeks, they can bring a lot of knowledge home to Australia. I've had a long involvement in the trust, and I think it has done a great job.
What was one of the best career decisions that you made?
I don't actually know how to quantify career 'decisions'. I think I would answer in reverse by saying that the different career changes that I've experienced have been, in general, quite unexpected: they weren't planned changes but opportunities that came up. Rather than saying that one career change was better than another, which I'd find hard to do because the circumstances of each are so different, I think I can truthfully say that I've never regretted any of them. I have found each, in its own way, very rewarding, very challenging and very enjoyable.
Did you establish important scientific collaborations in Australia and overseas during your main research years?
Having recently gone back through my reprints, I don't really think I ever had a strong link of the type you're asking about. Altogether I've ended up with something getting close to 200 scientific papers, and when I look at them I feel they are a tribute to the remarkable quality of students – the majority of them Australian – who come on and decide they want to do a BSc honours degree, a masters degree or a PhD. The quality is just excellent. So I have never felt for any particular reason that international collaboration has been necessary, because the quality of what we've got in this country is outstanding.
You have received a wide range of prizes and distinctions from various organisations. Which ones gave you the most pleasure, and why?
My top choice would probably be receiving the Order of Australia, which gave me immense pleasure. That came as a surprise – a letter in the mail – and I have no idea of who might have nominated me. I would rate very highly indeed, also, receiving news that I'd been elected as a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science. That too gave me a lot of pleasure. And again one never knows who might have made the nomination.
Is there anything you would like to have done but haven't?
I've always regretted never having learned to play the piano. My mother, when I was quite young, tried to get me started, but I always found there were other things I wanted to do more; I never seemed to have the time that is necessary for it. Nowadays I think being able to play the piano, if you would like to, would be wonderful.
The other thing I've regretted is perhaps slightly bizarre [laugh]: I've never learned to fly an aeroplane. As I drive home I see these little planes pottering around over Moorabbin airfield and I think, 'Gosh, that would be fun.' Those aren't regrets that weigh heavily, but they are two of the things I'd like to have been able to enjoy.
On a more positive note, however, I've been very fortunate in being able to play tennis, and at a level that has opened up a lot of avenues, providing me with the opportunity to meet people in walks of life that I'm not familiar with. Not only has playing competitive tennis given me a lot of pleasure but through tennis I have met a number of people who have become good friends. I've always enjoyed sporting activities, and have had much pleasure from playing an occasional game of golf and from skiing. I have enjoyed skiing because the family all enjoy it and, on most occasions when we've skied, it has been a family trip – a great opportunity to enjoy something with the family, even though they are all adults.
I have found another great thing about tennis. You asked me earlier about the challenges of being a vice-chancellor. Every Saturday I was able to go and play tennis with a regular group – a wonderful way to unwind from all the trials and tribulations of that very challenging job.
That is probably the main note I would like to finish on. If you can find a hobby, a sport or something that can give you a break from whatever particular challenges you are dealing with during the week, it's a great thing.
Professor Ray Martin, thank you very much.