Dr Jean Laby (1915-2008), physicist

Dr Jean Laby. Interview sponsored by the Australian Government as an ongoing project from the 1999 International Year of Older Persons.

Jean Laby was born in 1915 in Melbourne, Victoria. She received a BSc in 1939, an MSc in 1951 and a PhD in 1959, all from the University of Melbourne. Laby was employed by the University in 1940 to work in the Department of Natural Philosophy, later named the Physics Department. Serving initially as a part-time demonstrator she was appointed to the position of lecturer in 1959. Her research was in the area of cosmic rays and wind studies. While continuing as a lecturer at the University of Melbourne, from 1961-80, Laby also held a position as senior lecturer at the RAAF Academy at Point Cook, Victoria. During this time her research included radar meteorology and balloon-borne cameras as well as cosmic radiation measurements. From 1972-80 Laby was involved in the Climatic Impact Assessment Program. In collaboration with the University of Wyoming, she measured atmospheric aerosols, ozone and water vapour in the stratosphere. Dr Laby passed away in 2008.

Interviewed by Ms Nessy Allen in 2000.



Dr Jean Laby was probably Australia's sole woman atmospheric physicist of her generation. Indeed, in an era when it was rare for a woman to be a scientist at all, she was one of the very few who took up what was considered to be the most masculine of the sciences, physics. The fact that she had to endure unequal treatment, which very few women would tolerate today, may partly be explained by her choice. Her research was highly specialised and entailed working under very difficult physical conditions, demanding qualities of sheer courage and determination. These she possessed in abundance. During her career she attracted large research grants for work in the southern hemisphere to supply wind data, to assess the effects of supersonic transport and to measure aerosol particles up to the stratosphere.

'I was always interested in science': like father, like daughter

For a girl to become a physicist in Australia before World War II was very unusual. Do you think your father influenced you in that direction? Perhaps you would tell us about your parents.

My father was born in Creswick, Victoria. At 29 he became professor of physics at Victoria College, Wellington, New Zealand, where my mother was born. They were married in London, and returned to New Zealand soon afterwards. They stayed there until my father was appointed professor of natural philosophy – now called physics – at the University of Melbourne. In 1931 he became a Fellow of the Royal Society of London where he developed the practical teaching and promoted research. According to Sir Mark Oliphant, it was the best university school of physics in the southern hemisphere.

Where did you live?

I was born in 1915, in Parkville (near the university), and my sister was born in South Yarra. I remember us living in South Yarra, where we used to go for walks in the nearby Botanical Gardens. Just inside the gate was a pond into which my father used to put his walking-stick and show us that it appeared bent – the effect of refraction. Later we moved to the university grounds. Living there was quite good for me as a child because the grounds were very extensive, and when I was an undergraduate it was convenient to go to lectures. Also it suited my father very well, because he could work at night.

Quite often my sister and I would go with him at night to his department. I remember one occasion when we were there preparing for the lecture he was to give next morning. The experiment was to put a tennis ball into a container of liquid air (which is very cold) and then to try to bounce it, when it would just smash. But unfortunately the ball wasn't at the right temperature, and so when he tested the bounce it didn't break – it came back, hit a flask on the desk and broke it! On other occasions he spent many hours inspecting all areas of the department and showed particular interest in the workshop, and how the work was progressing.

Were you interested in science at school?

Oh yes, I was always interested in it. I went to Melbourne Church of England Girls' Grammar School, where I studied physics, chemistry and mathematics up to matriculation. The school had what was called the Howard system: the subjects were divided into six units and you could take all six or only one or two, according to your preference, so you could get much further ahead in some subjects than in others, which I did in science and mathematics. Although my father didn't directly influence my choice of subjects, he saw to it that I had a good teacher of physics, because when a rather elderly teacher retired he ensured that she was replaced by a more up-to-date one, Elizabeth Pownall, a recent MSc graduate of natural philosophy. Actually, when I matriculated I thought I might do either architecture or physics at university, but finally chose to do physics. That meant going to my father's lectures, but I was much too nervous to enjoy them very much.

Were there any women on the staff of the Department of Natural Philosophy?

Yes, there were two women senior demonstrators, Misses Natalie Allen and Edith Nelson. They were there for many years before being promoted to lecturer. Miss Allen gave some short courses of lectures as well as demonstrating.

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Gaining useful skills and contacts

You mentioned architecture. During your undergraduate course in Melbourne you took graphics – architectural drawing – in the School of Engineering. Why was that?

My father thought it was a better subject to do than mixed mathematics, which was rather the same as physics. You had to draw all sorts of things, either freehand or with a steel pen that needed great care and attention. I wasn't any good at free-hand drawing. I had a much too shaky hand. I was the only girl in the class, and at first they never called my name on the roll – because, they said, it was so obvious I was there. Having so many male students around made it very difficult to get to the piece of railway line or whatever you were supposed to be measuring and drawing, but one day another student, Rupert Leslie, brought out a piece of line so that I could draw it. He became a friend for life! I gave up doing the subject anyway, shortly after.

I went also to the Working Men's College (now the RMIT) and learnt to blow glass. It was useful to be able to do that because a lot of apparatus was made of glass at that time. That was a night class, and when the boilermakers appeared for the next class we had to make a hasty retreat with our hot glass.

I think that through your father you met Lord Rutherford.

Yes, when we went to England with my father in 1936. I met Lord Rutherford first at a lecture he gave at the Royal Institution and then later at a Royal Society soiree.

Also, in Cambridge, where he lived, there was a very big meeting of academics assembled for the congress of the Universities of the British Empire which my father attended, and we had breakfast with him then.

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Laying the foundations of a career

You graduated in 1940 with a major in physics. Did your father help you to choose a career?

No. He thought I should do that on my own, and left me to my own devices. I answered a newspaper advertisement for a job at the Weather Bureau. I went there for an interview and they showed me around, but they were a bit concerned: beds were provided for the observers to sleep on between taking observations at night, and they didn't quite know how I would fit into that situation. I gather they didn't expect a woman to apply for the job, but eventually I did get it.

I didn't take up the position, though, because by this time the war had started and most of the young physics graduates were employed by the Optical Munitions Panel to produce optical instruments for the forces. Consequently there was a shortage of demonstrators in the Department of Natural Philosophy and I was chosen to become a part-time demonstrator.

You also had something to do with the Optical Munitions Panel, didn't you?

Yes. There was no glass available in Australia of good enough quality for optical instruments, so the Optical Munitions Panel decided to investigate the manufacture of suitable glass in Australia. Professor Hartung, the professor of chemistry, devised a method to do this, and from it optical lenses and 'flats', very flat pieces of glass, were made. The lenses were then made into various instruments in the Natural Philosophy Department, and I had to keep separate costs for each of these things they did so an account could be sent.

In 1946 I asked the interim head of the department, Dr Hercus, if I could do some research. At his suggestion I worked on the measurement of the conductivity of water. For some years conductivity measurements had been made of gases, but there were extra problems with liquids. For this work I obtained an MSc.

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Cosmic rays and high-altitude balloons

What did you do next?

At that time Dr V D Hopper offered me the opportunity to work on the cosmic ray project which he was doing with a group of others. I knew him quite well, as he used to come and help my father with the revision of his book, tables of physical and chemical constants, and I used to help with that too. Even when we went on holidays my father sometimes didn't stop work, and Vic and I used to help him then with the revision also.

How did you detect the cosmic rays?

We used nuclear emulsions, which were thick layers of photographic emulsion on a thin glass plate. They were exposed to cosmic radiation by sending them up into the atmosphere, using balloons because aeroplanes did not get quite high enough.

There were two different types of balloons: expandable neoprene, which was an artificial rubber, and non-expandable plastic ones, which were not commercially available. You could make those yourself but they needed an enormous room and were very difficult to deal with (you had to test that there were no leaks at the joins and so on) so we didn't use them. We used neoprene on the whole.

How big were these balloons?

The neoprene ones were about 3 to 6 metres in diameter, but they got up to 10-plus metres in the atmosphere when they expanded. The plastic ones were a different order of magnitude altogether, with diameters of hundreds of metres, and had to be launched by quite different methods. It took a team of people with trucks, cranes and goodness knows what to get everything into position, and the use of an aerodrome runway for launch.

How did you modify your balloons so that they would stay up for long periods?

The balloons were filled with hydrogen to make them ascend and as they went up into the more rarefied atmosphere they expanded and ultimately got to a stage where they burst – and that was the end of the flight. Our group, working together, devised a valve at the neck to keep them from bursting. The valves consisted of a metal tube with a ping-pong ball in the top to form a seal, the bell was attached to the top of the balloon by a length of string just less than the bursting diameter. A soft spring held the ping-pong ball down until the string unwound from the outside of the tube; when it reached the set height, the string lifted the valve and let out some of the hydrogen; and the balloon then just went on at that constant level.

Because the balloons would remain at a level height and float like that for hours, they gave our plates a very long exposure to the cosmic rays. The plates had to be recovered and then they were developed. They produced black grains where the rays had been through the emulsion and you could determine their properties from these, examining them under a microscope. We could also compare the results at different altitudes, varying the height at which we wanted the level flights by adjusting the length of the string. The longer the string, the higher the balloon would go, so long as it remained under the bursting diameter.

I understand that by 1952 your balloons reached above 24 kilometres and stayed there for about three hours, and by 1953 you got them up to 38 kilometres.

Yes. It was quite an achievement, I guess. In fact, the manufacturers of the balloons in America didn't believe the heights we got. (I once saw how they used to predict the diameter at which the balloons would burst: it was done just by blowing them up gradually in an enormous room, to bursting point, measuring this size.)

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What goes up must be tracked until it comes down

Where did you launch the cosmic ray flights from?

Somewhere in Victoria, around Melbourne. For any of the balloon flights that were going to be in the air for a long time, the wind patterns would determine where you needed to launch them and where they were expected to end up. We needed somewhere good for recovery on landing – not in a forest or the sea. So on the day before a flight, we let a balloon off on its own, without any load, and then calculated what the winds were up to the required height, and forecast its trajectory.

After the pre-flight to forecast the wind, we had to prepare the balloon. That necessitated putting the valve in with the string and attaching it to the top of the balloon, before boiling the neoprene balloons (which performed better when they were boiled) and putting them in a plastic bag to take to the launch site the next day. Then we obtained from the weather bureau their forecasts as to where the skies would be clear of clouds so we could use our theodolites. Later on, the weather bureau were very cooperative and allowed us to use their radar at Laverton, which made it a much simpler operation, a different story altogether: there was only one place around Melbourne – the Laverton station – to operate for the tracking. That meant for tracking you were some distance from where the balloon was launched, and to find the balloon on the radar was sometimes difficult, particularly not knowing the exact time of release.

What did you have to carry with you to the launching site?

To launch the balloon with the cosmic ray equipment we had to go quite a distance to the selected spot. We had to take the two theodolites, the hydrogen cylinders, balloons, timers, maps of course, and radio communication, to wherever it was – and all this had to be packed up and put on a truck. A team of three or four would go out. The theodolites were set up a few miles apart, in sight of each other. They were aligned by using flashing mirrors between the two and were then ready to observe the flight when the balloon was launched. You kept it in sight, taking minute readings, until the load was dropped off. The load was unhooked from the balloon by the unwinding of an alarm clock, so that had to be set at the right time beforehand.

Later the government set up the HIBAL launching station, near Mildura, to launch the much bigger plastic type balloons for scientists from overseas, as well as Australia. We used to provide the wind information, using flights with our balloons with the valves because they went up much higher than the ordinary meteorological balloons and the plastic type balloons would be going much higher. I would do a flight the day before as a wind forecast. Some of these flights were very long and I assisted the bureau observers by using the radar for some of the many hours needed in order to track the balloon throughout its flight, sometimes from pre-sunrise and sometimes right through the night as well.

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Criss-crossing the world in not enough days

Didn't you go to South Africa to continue your work on the cosmic rays?

Yes. Vic Hopper had obtained some large research grants from the Nuffield Foundation – one in 1956 of about £3000, and another one of £5000, with which we could go to South Africa and South America for further work.

We set off in 1959 by ship, taking a van with us. We took two or three weeks to get to Cape Town, where we had a few flights, and then we went northwards in the van and also a car which the Nuffield Foundation had given us in Cape Town. I drove that. We stopped at Potchefstroom, where some South African scientists were interested in flying balloons, and showed them how to launch a balloon and so forth before we continued to Pretoria. But unfortunately that one was never recovered, because in calculating its descent time they thought it would land directly underneath where it started to come down, instead of allowing for the descent pattern of winds.

After some flights in Pretoria, we went further north to Beira, in Mozambique, for Dr Hopper's wife and sons to catch a ship home. (They had accompanied us so far on this trip.) We then returned to Cape Town.

Unfortunately, the ship we were booked on to go on to South America had been wrecked in a typhoon, so we began to run late on our program. The next ship took another few weeks to get to Rio de Janeiro and then although the people in South America were trying to be helpful, nothing ever got done. There was great trouble in getting the van off the ship: they kept it strung up on a hoist on the ship for hours and we knew if you were not standing on the wharf to take possession, it, or its contents, would have been quickly disposed of. We spent a few days on that 'activity' – by which time my leave had run out and I had to return home. So I got back on the same ship and returned to Cape Town. In Cape Town the Customs people had charged us duty on any of our balloons that we had flown and lost. They thought they were toys, which were highly dutiable! Having paid the duty on the balloons we didn't take home, I tried to explain they were not toys and to get a refund, without success.

Your group concentrated on intensive field work during International Geophysical Year (1957–58) as well, didn't you?

Yes. We increased the number of balloon flights to determine the winds to maximum heights and we also studied all our cosmic ray flights, also we provided valved balloons for the weather bureau to conduct flights at several stations to achieve greater heights. The results of those flights were analysed and published.

And the balloons went higher and higher?

Well, yes. I think our highest went to 154,000 feet (about 47 kilometres).

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The balloons join the Air Force and the research goes on

By 1961 Professor Martin was responsible for setting up the Royal Australian Air Force Academy at Point Cook, about 30 kilometres from Melbourne. What was your connection with the academy?

Dr Hopper was appointed professor of physics and dean of university studies at the academy and he asked me to join the staff as a senior lecturer, which I did. We then had an office there as well as one at the university.

We still continued research on the measurement of cosmic radiation, as well as a few minor projects with radar meteorology and balloon-borne cameras. We got a photograph of Port Phillip Bay from a balloon directly above it – and setting the camera to make the exposure just when the balloon was over the bay took a bit of calculating!

Were there any other women academic members of staff in your department?

No. But just before I retired, there was one other woman, Elizabeth Sonnenberg in the mathematics department.

What would you say about the physical conditions in which you worked at the University of Melbourne and also at the Point Cook Academy?

The rooms we were given at the University of Melbourne were terrible: dirty, and smelly. But at Point Cook it was a different story. The rooms were very good, you got a doormat (if you were of a certain status), and I had a wardrobe with a holder for my swords.

Travelling between the two places took about 30 to 45 minutes. Telephone communication between the two places was difficult because the Air Force used to start at 8am and had lunch at 11am, whereas the University of Melbourne started at 9am, with lunch at 1pm. There was not a great deal of time in which to communicate with colleagues between the two places, and besides, you couldn't dial directly: you had to get the Air Force telephone exchange to put you through to the university.

I believe that not long after the academy was set up, there were rumours that it would close down.

Yes. It was quite awkward, because a lot of the staff felt that they would be better to get another position and also it was very difficult for new students to come for research without knowing whether the academy would close before they finished their PhD. I stayed, and fortunately the academy wasn't closed down until a few years after I retired. The Australian Defence Force Academy was set up in Canberra for the Army and Navy as well as the Air Force.

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The Climatic Impact Assessment Program

In 1972 you became involved in the Climatic Impact Assessment Program of the United States Department of Transportation, funded by the United States Office of Naval Research.

That's right. It was a global study of aerosols in the atmosphere, and the department of physics in the University of Wyoming, in Laramie, asked me to take part in providing the data for the southern hemisphere area. They had devised a dust-sonde to measure the aerosols, which were of particles two sizes: greater than 0.3 and greater than 0.5 micron. They were to supply this instrument and I would fly it in Australia. For quite a while John Gras, a post-graduate student, cooperated with these flights until he went to the CSIRO. I continued the flights with the help of a technician, although we continued to cooperate with the resulting data.

I think you sampled the atmosphere to the lower stratosphere, about 30 kilometres up.

Yes, we went as high as we could get. These flights were carried out with plastic balloons for greater height (with the heavier leads). We measured the two sizes of aerosols, water vapour, ozone, and the atmospheric pressure and wind patterns. Then we analysed the records – some were on paper charts and others on recorded tape, and these had to be hand read and measurements made from them to get the figures to feed into a programmable electronic calculator – for the final results tabulated by hand.

The aim was to assess the transport of particles that could have been put out by the supersonic transports, to see what effect this would have on the atmosphere. We wanted to establish whether there was a transfer of air between the two hemispheres over the equator. Some nuclear testing was being carried out at this time above ground, and information was needed on how far and in what direction radioactive material could travel.

Weren't there military implications to this kind of work?

Well, there was no constriction on us at all. We freely published anything we found.

What did this program involve in Australia?

The dust-sondes and subsidiary equipment had to be transported to Mildura and Longreach, Queensland, for their flights. Getting the equipment to Mildura wasn't so hard. Originally we used to pack it all into a hired van and put it – van and all – on the train, which got there reasonably quickly overnight. Longreach was somewhat harder. Because of the airline timetable I had to spend overnight in Brisbane, and sometimes the airlines wouldn't let me leave the equipment in the airport. So I had to trolley it to a locker for storage, collect it from there at dawn next day, and get it onto the aircraft for a 6am flight to Longreach.

Afterwards, of course, it all had to be repacked and brought back. The dust-sondes were sent back to America to be calibrated, for return to Australia for another flight.

The balloons, a larger plastic type, were launched by the team at HIBAL at Mildura and Longreach and we had to set up receiving equipment and recalling for receiving of signals transmitted from the balloon. This took quite a lot of work too. The balloons were tracked by the weather bureau radar and HIBAL recovered the equipment.

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Opportunities and some recognition

Didn't you go to Laramie for some work with the University of Wyoming group?

Yes, for two study leaves and several shorter visits. I worked on the dust-sonde instruments and eventually learned how to calibrate them so that I didn't have to send them back to Laramie all the time. And among other programs I did a test of a device being used – to measure water vapour, which showed it was not reliable.

After that I maintained and calibrated dust-sondes in Melbourne. Laramie is 5000 feet high, with very clean air, but in Melbourne University I was working right next to the tramline and in a not very clean building, so it was rather difficult, as it was necessary to see the sonde was not contaminated with dust before calibration.

Your work must have created great interest, because in 1975 you were awarded a $US25,000 contract by the United States Office of Naval Research, in collaboration with the Division of Cloud Physics of CSIRO.

Yes. I went to ONR in Washington for discussions, and was awarded the contract. The CSIRO group had developed a different method of measuring from the Wyoming dust-sonde, and our work gave both unique data on the stratospheric aerosols and a valuable cross-check of the validity of the two techniques – the one using in situ light scatter and the other, electron microscope analysis of collected particles. For the first time these two methods were demonstrated to be in agreement.

Analysis of the southern hemisphere aerosol data provided interesting and unique information on atmospheric circulation, particularly of inter-hemisphere transport. When there was a volcanic eruption, this provided material that could be checked with the dust-sondes and so we could make deductions about the stratospheric transport methods. That was then applied to the exhaust gases of supersonic aircraft, and an estimate could be made of their residence time and their trajectory.

How long did you go on with this work?

Till 1980, when I retired from the academy. But in 1981 I made one last visit to Laramie to discuss all the results of this work. And in 1998 the Laramie group came to Mildura to make some flights to check whether layers of higher concentration of aerosols could still be found in the lower part of the atmosphere. (These had been detected in September and October of several different years.) At their invitation I went to Mildura and participated in a minor way in the flights, which took place at about midnight when aircraft activity had ceased.

Did you ever feel discriminated against because you were a woman – apart from the fact that your name was not even called out at lectures in architectural drawing?

No, not really. But sometimes the Air Force cadets, when they came into the lectures in the morning, would say, 'Good morning, sir.' And at other times, when I went to physics society meetings, they would say, 'Lady and gentlemen…'

Although you were never promoted beyond senior lecturer – nor given any reasons why not – you have a record of publications in world-class journals, working with first-rate physicists and attracting huge sums of money for research. Your contributions to this field have been enormous and your world-class work has been acknowledged by many, including Dr John Gras, Principal Research Scientist in the Division of Atmospheric Research at CSIRO, who is an expert in your field. Thank you very much indeed, Jean, for participating in this interview.

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