Professor Andrew Cole, chemist

Professor Andrew ColeAndrew Reginald Howard (Andy) Cole was born in Perth, Western Australia in 1924. He qualified for a place at Perth's only selective school, Perth Modern School, in 1937. After finishing secondary school in 1941, Cole was awarded a government university exhibition to study at the University of Western Australia (1942-46). Cole graduated with a BSc (Hons) in chemistry. In 1946, Cole received a Hackett studentship which enabled him to study in England. After spending a year doing further research in Western Australia, Cole took up this studentship at St John's College, Oxford (1947-49).

In 1950 Cole moved again, to take up a position as postdoctoral research fellow at the National Research Council of Canada in Ottawa. Cole was awarded a Nuffield research fellowship and returned to the University of Western Australia in 1952. He was subsequently appointed senior lecturer in chemistry (1955-57), reader in chemistry (1958-68), personal professorship in physical chemistry (1969) and head of department (1971-89 .

Interviewed by Professor Donald Watts 15 October 2010.


I’m Don Watts. I am a colleague and admirer of Andy Cole and I am very pleased to be here today to interview him.

A head-start

Andy, where did it all start? What were the early influences in terms of the way that you developed as a person?

I was born in the town of Midland, one of the eastern suburbs of Perth, where my father worked in the Western Australian government railways and I lived there for most of my early life. I went to the Midland Junction state primary school. I didn't study very much science in primary school, but there was one great event in my early education. My father and mother always felt that they had lacked a full education when they were young and they took a great interest in where my two brothers and I were educated and how far we could advance in education. At the end of primary school, I sat for a qualifying exam for entry to Perth Modern School. This was the only selective high school in Perth and, because of that, it was staffed with some of the very best teachers in the state education department. I was successful in that qualification, which pleased my family very much, and I then enrolled in Modern School in 1937, at the beginning of their five­year course.

In your studies, when was the decision taken to concentrate on science?

I suppose that it was about halfway through the Modern School course. Some of the teachers I had – Jock Hetherington in maths and physics, Gordon Brown in chemistry and, later, Cliff Carrigg in chemistry – were extremely good among science teachers. Under their influence, I made the fairly early decision that I might become a science teacher – probably about third year in high school.

There is one little anecdote I would like to tie to that. At the end of third year of high school, we had to nominate which class we would go into for the final two years of high school. Thinking that I might become a teacher, I was influenced by the view among the education department that they liked teachers to have a fairly broad coverage in their high school education. There was the main science class, which took maths, physics and chemistry along with English. Then there was another one, which included physics and maths but not chemistry, but it included a foreign language such as French. Because of this impression I had picked up about the requirements for teachers, I thought perhaps I should go into that slightly broader class. So I put my name down for that and, on the very last day of third-year high school, the form master, one of our maths teachers, Mr 'Pips' Piper, asked me which class I had chosen and I told him, whereupon he was somewhat aghast and told me in words of rather strong emphasis not to be so stupid but to change and nominate for the main science class which took chemistry. I did that and I have never forgotten; I have never failed to thank him, because I spent the whole of the rest of my life in chemistry.

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Scholarships to the only free university in the British Empire!

Of course, in those days there was no choice in which university you went to.

No, there was only one university in Perth, the University of Western Australia. Luckily, it was a free university in those days, I think the only free one in the whole of Australia, and I think we used to boast that it was the only free university in the whole British Empire; but I am not too sure of that particular comment.

Who were the most influential professors in the university, in terms of your future?

I think streets ahead of the rest was Noel Bayliss, the head of chemistry, whom you would also know extremely well.

Yes, undoubtedly the most influential of all the people in the faculty of science.

I’m certain that is right. I enrolled in first year in physics, chemistry, maths and biology and then, in second year, physics, chemistry and maths. In third year, I found that the lab load was getting pretty heavy, so I enrolled in chemistry and in statistical maths, the latter requiring only a few lectures a week and that meant that I was able to spend most of the time in the chemistry lab. In fact, most of us in the chemistry class in third year used the chemistry lab as our complete headquarters in university. We spent all day in the lab, just leaving it to go to a chemistry lecture, a maths lecture or a physics lecture, depending on our enrolments.

The decision to study chemistry was taken before first year?

On the Leaving exam at the end of high school, I was awarded one of the government university exhibitions; some of those were given for the highest marks in individual subjects. The particular one that I was given was called specifically a Science Teachers Exhibition. Firstly, it involved signing a bond with the education department stating that, after university, I would become a science teacher with them. It was awarded on the basis of aggregate marks in most of the science subjects at the leaving level. That exhibition gave me the huge sum of £32 pounds or $64 a year for three years in the university.

At the same time, I was offered a half-scholarship to go to live in St George’s College at the university. This had the great advantage that I didn’t have to travel to go to university each day. In going to Modern School for five years, I travelled about 30 miles – about 40 or 50 kilometres – each day, there and back, for five years and I had had enough of that sort of thing mixed up with my education. The half-scholarship that Josh Reynolds, the Warden, gave me at St George’s combined with my exhibition covered my full costs of living on campus for three years while I was an undergraduate. That was an enormous advantage because I was able to study with many other students who were living in college. We used to joke that, if we didn’t feel like studying, we could always go and stop someone else studying in the college. Anyway, that was the life that I lived as an undergraduate.

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Honours in alunite and training in spectroscopy

When did you first perceive research as a possible way to develop a career?

With the enrolment in honours. At the end of third year, I decided I wanted to stay on to do the fourth-year honours course, which involved some research. I went to the Education Department and asked for leave from my bond with them for the fourth year to do honours, which they agreed to.

During honours, I was working on a project organised by Noel Bayliss; it was a very large research project in Western Australia carried out in collaboration with CSIRO and with the state government chemical research labs. This involved the chemistry of a clay called alunite, which occurred in a salt lake out near Merriden, out towards Kalgoorlie. The chemistry we were involved in had two main aims: one was to extract potash fertiliser from this clay; and the other was to possibly extract alumina as a source for aluminium from the clay. The whole project was very large. It involved, over three or four years, a total of something like 16 or 17 research students working with Noel Bayliss. Of those 16 or 17 students, about 11 subsequently became chiefs of sections in CSIRO or lecturers or staff members or heads of chemistry departments in some of the universities, and a number became heads of research labs in industry. So it had a great effect on the future of the research students out of our chemistry department.

I worked on a phase diagram involving a four-component system: potassium sulphate, sodium sulphate, magnesium sulphate and water – quite a complex system. That led me to think of taking up some sort of chemistry research as future employment. This then took me back to the education department to tell them that I wished to resign from my bond to become a science teacher because I wanted to go overseas to do a PhD. One couldn’t do a PhD in Australia in those days since the universities had not yet established the PhD degree. The Education Department took a rather nasty view of this and the first thing they said was, ‘Well, you can resign from it, but you’ll have to repay the money we’ve given you as part of your agreement to become a science teacher.’ I agreed to that repayment.

I applied for a Hackett Research Studentship from the university, which was awarded to me, but I didn’t take that up immediately. Noel Bayliss arranged a research appointment for a year on some funds that he was able to gather and this involved a research project collaborating with Eric Underwood in Agriculture. At that time, sheep in Western Australia were grazing on subterranean clover, which was grown because it was a source of nitrogen in improving the fertility of the soil. But the sheep eating this subterranean clover began to experience infertility among the ewes, the female sheep. One possible cause of this sort of disease was that there was a mineral deficiency in the clover due to the poor soil on which it was being grown. Eric Underwood had for years been studying mineral deficiencies in the Western Australian soils, so Noel Bayliss arranged that I should carry out a spectrographic analysis using emission spectra on the ash that we could get by charring and burning the clover. So I spent a year doing this and I used some of my salary to repay the Education Department. But the whole outcome was negative, because there turned out to be no mineral deficiency in the clover that could have caused this infertility in the sheep. Some years later Doug White in Organic Chemistry in our School of Chemistry solved the problem by isolating a hormone-like organic compound – I think it was called ‘genistein’ – which caused the infertility problem. Anyway, it was useful experience for me in spectrographic work.

At that stage I discussed in detail, with Noel Bayliss and Lloyd Rees (the head of Chemical Physics in CSIRO, who happened to be visiting our Chemistry Department), what field I might go into for a PhD. They both strongly recommended that I go into something related to molecular spectroscopy, particularly using the infrared part of the spectrum.

It was difficult in those days to develop a career from the undergraduate degree into research. I presume that you did a masters degree at that stage?

No, I didn’t. I was awarded first-class honours and, when I wrote to Oxford to ask whether I could enrol there for a PhD (which they called a DPhil) on the basis of my training, they agreed that I didn’t have to go through a masters stage first. I was accepted by St John’s College and by the Physical Chemistry lab to work on my DPhil with Dr Thompson, who was a fellow of St John’s. His name was actually Harold Thompson, but he was always called Tommy Thompson.

That association with the industrial projects that Bayliss managed to get funding for, that supported you, also supported Wilf Ewers, who remained a close friend of yours and became a colleague in the chemistry department.

Yes, that’s true. He was working for CSIRO but was stationed in our chemistry department working on part of this alunite problem. Later he went to Melbourne to join one of the divisions – the Division of Industrial Chemistry – in CSIRO. Much later again, he came back to Western Australia to be head of the mineralogical lab established here and was connected quite closely with the mining industry in Western Australia. But at that stage he worked for a year or two in our Chemistry Department again.

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DPhil @ Oxford

Tell me about the early development at Oxford and who influenced you to commit to spectroscopy.

I had arranged to work with Tommy Thompson, who was their expert in infra-red spectroscopy, and he had quite a large group working on honours degrees and PhDs. The equipment in Oxford in those days was pretty crude. An infra-red spectrometer had, as its central point, a prism for dispersing the infra-red radiation. Ordinary spectrometers – by ‘ordinary’ I mean visible and ultraviolet – used prisms of glass or quartz in different wavelength regions, but neither of those prism materials was very transparent in the infra-red. Infra-red spectrometers were based on a prism of a very strange material in this respect: rock salt, sodium chloride crystal. For different wavelengths, other prisms of potassium bromide, lithium fluoride, calcium fluoride and caesium bromide and chloride were used. Many of these, other than lithium fluoride and calcium fluoride, are quite soluble in water. They could be polished to give a good optical surface, but water vapour in the atmosphere led to deterioration of the crystal polish. One had to be fairly careful not to breathe on the prism and to take some precautions to reduce the amount of water vapour in the air inside the spectrometer.

Later I’ll mention the design of some instruments that we made here where we evacuated the whole instrument, but in those days we tried to dry the air in the spectrometer using water absorption materials like phosphorus pentoxide and also soda lime, which would also reduce the amount of carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide was a problem because molecules like water vapour and carbon dioxide had their own infra-red absorption, which interfered with whatever we were trying to measure, so we had to reduce the amount of those in the spectrometer.

Those instruments, as I said, were fairly crude, but they enabled spectra to be measured. There were very few industrial companies or instrumental companies making spectrometers at that time. The Grubb Parsons company in England began making spectrometers for the infra-red while I was a student, but we didn’t have one of those. The PerkinElmer company in America began making infra-red spectrometers at about that time; their instruments were particularly good, both optically and electronically. But the instruments I used were pretty crude. They didn’t have electronic recorders and they didn’t have very good amplifiers; but, we managed to measure spectra.

I carried out a number of projects as part of my DPhil program. One was measuring the intensities of infra-red absorption bands in a selected group of compounds related to benzene. The intensity of an infra-red absorption band is related to the change of dipole moment in the molecule while it’s vibrating. You can have stretching vibrations of the atoms and you can have bending vibrations etc. Anyway, I was measuring intensities of absorptions and calculating dipole moments from them. It wasn’t the normal method of measuring dipole moments, but it was a useful approach.

The other type of approach to infra-red absorption was the application to organic chemistry. Complex organic compounds had very complicated patterns of vibration. Some of those vibrations were localised in substituent groups, such as hydroxyl groups and carbonyl groups etc, and one could identify the presence of these substituent groups by the existence or otherwise of one or two strong absorption bands in the infra-red spectrum. I did a few of those types of measurement but not all that many.

The other things I studied were molecules with only six, eight or 10 atoms, things like the molecule of glyoxal. Glyoxal with two CHO groups, six atoms, was often described as the ‘simplest coloured organic compound’. By being coloured, it meant that it absorbed in the visible part of the spectrum, but I was studying its vibrations in the infra-red part of the spectrum. The two aldehyde groups making up the molecules could be oriented in the trans-form, where the substituent groups were opposite, or the cis-form, where they were turned over and existed in that other form. It wasn’t known exactly at that time which way the molecular structure lay. It was thought that it was a planar molecule; in the trans-form. If so, it had a centre of symmetry which influenced the number of vibrations which were active – that is, caused absorption – in the infra-red. In the cis-form of the molecule it would not have a centre of symmetry and more of the vibrations would be infra-red active than in the trans-form. As it turned out, the measurements that I made showed pretty clearly that the molecule had the trans structure. That, in itself, was useful information. But later, as we’ll see, I went into a much more detailed study of the infra-red and visible spectra of glyoxal which led to its full molecular structure.

Those instruments that you brought back to the University of Western Australia produced a new generation of thought for me. I think the thing that amazed me most was, in fact, the size of those prisms.

Yes, that’s true. The crystals of rock salt and the other substances were grown artificially from the melt, a very delicate process to get a large lump, but then they could be cut and polished. The order of magnitude that you are talking about was faces on the prisms of three or four inches.

Infra-red spectroscopy and Raman spectroscopy are related; when did you start using the results of both those areas?

The Raman spectrum depends on visible light scattering. You irradiate the sample with one wavelength of visible light, usually the blue light from a Mercury lamp. You could separate the blue light with filters and irradiate the sample. The light was not absorbed but, while it was going through the sample, it was scattered. Some energy was transferred from the light beam into the sample and this energy related also to the molecular vibrations in the sample. So that particular part of the light emerged from being scattered by the sample having lost a bit of energy and changed its wavelength. The Raman spectrum depended on the detection of these extra wavelengths coming out after scattering and being displaced from the ingoing energy by a vibration frequency. That complemented the infra-red measurements which measured the vibration frequency directly.

Coloured compounds were not easy to study by Raman spectroscopy. Also, it was a much more delicate technique to detect the very weak Raman lines. We didn’t actually do any Raman spectroscopy in the section that I worked in in Oxford, but there was a Raman lab in the physical chem lab where other people were studying Raman spectroscopy. So I didn’t do any measurements, but I had to study the theory of Raman to complement the theory of infra-red spectroscopy.

At this stage your career, of course, was punctuated by the examination of the DPhil and, in that examination process, you met two very significant scientists who gave your work so far the big tick.

Yes. One was Jack Linnett, who was in the inorganic department in Oxford; and the other one was Christopher Ingold, whom you would have known well in London.

He, in fact, supervised me, with Sir Ronald Nyholm, in my postdoctoral years. I was the only student who did postdoctoral work under the joint supervision of Nyholm and Ingold.

Ingold came into this because he had a group working on the molecular vibrations of benzene compounds, and the infra-red intensities that I had measured related to dipole moments in the bonds of the benzene compound, which were of interest to him.

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Advancing technology

One of the things that I used for another part of my DPhil project was a reflecting microscope. A reflecting microscope is made with all mirrors and no lenses. It was too difficult to make the lenses of a normal microscope from the same optical materials as the prisms
I have mentioned. Luckily, at the time that I was getting towards the end of my DPhil program, a chap named Robert Barer had brought to Oxford from Bristol a reflecting microscope designed and made by a scientist named Burch. The Burch microscope looked to us as if it would be very valuable for illuminating an extremely small sample of material because it focused the light, either visible, infra-red or ultraviolet, into an extremely small spot in the centre of the microscope. We arranged to collaborate with Barer in infra-red measurements using this microscope on one of the spectrometers that we had at that time in the physical chem lab. This was a PerkinElmer instrument which had only recently been obtained by the infra-red lab. With that, we were able to measure infra-red spectra on extremely small crystals of the mass order of about one microgram, a very small sample. Or we could measure spectra of extremely small amounts of solution which we could enclose in a very small cell. That was a successful development.

I could say here that this was an invention. Nowadays, if someone invented a piece of equipment of that type, it would be patented for the benefit of the inventor and the benefit of the institution in which the invention took place. If a patent was granted, it could be licensed to instrument makers and license fees would be paid back to the inventor and the lab. We didn’t do that. In those days, people were satisfied to have a letter describing the invention published in Nature. So we wrote a letter on the application of the reflecting microscope to infra-red spectroscopy, which was published in Nature.

Also, in Thompson’s lab at that stage they were developing a grating spectrometer, which was capable of higher resolution of the spectrum of gases. The need for higher resolution came about because the vibrational bands that we measured were fairly broad in their structure. If one measured a vibration band of a gas, it was possible to resolve some rotational fine structure. From the rotational fine structure, we could calculate the moment of inertia of the rotating molecule and, from that, derive bond lengths in the molecular structure and something about the geometry of the molecular structure.

So these different topics made up my DPhil thesis. The examination was carried out by these two examiners who asked, in general, for further explanation or more information about what I had written in the thesis.

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Postdoc in Ottawa

At the end of the DPhil period, you went to Canada to work in the National Research Council laboratories in Ottawa and you had an opportunity with Norman Jones and subsequently with Ramsay and had interplay with the great Herzberg.

Yes. I applied for a postdoctoral fellowship at the National Research Council in Ottawa during the last few months of my time in Oxford and I was awarded that postdoctoral appointment. My appointment was to a lab in the Chemistry Division in a section run by Norman Jones. He was originally an organic chemist who had specialised in the structure and properties of steroid compounds – fairly complex organic compounds. So I went to Ottawa after finishing at Oxford and joined Norman Jones and his group.

The structure of this postdoctoral program in the National Research Council was rather interesting. Most of the sections in chemistry, and some of them in physics, had only one or two permanent employees; the rest of the staff working under them were postdoctoral fellows employed there usually for a two-year period. This was probably the biggest and the best postdoctoral program anywhere in the world; it certainly competed well with some of the big research universities in North America.

Herzberg was the head of the Physics Division in the same building as we were working in. He had two or three permanent employees under him, one of whom was Don Ramsay. Don Ramsay had gone to Ottawa originally to work with Norman Jones in the same section that I joined but, after a year on organic applications, he moved into the Physics Division to take up physical spectroscopy in more detail.

It is interesting that only this week I read that the Australian government is going to lower, in relative terms, the investment in postdoctoral fellowships in Australia. Based on your experience, how do you view that decision?

I think it’s a very retrograde step to reduce the number of postdoc appointments. This group in Ottawa in one division of the National Research Council contained about 25 postdoctoral fellows. Most of those and the postdocs in American universities went on to permanent positions in universities or in groups like the National Research Council of Canada and CSIRO in Australia. That always has been, for the last 50 or 60 years or more, the recruitment path for high­level scientists virtually all around the world.

There are enormous advantages in having postdocs working in a university department. The day-to-day supervision of PhD students occupies a fair bit of time of the academic staff. It is also an enormous advantage to those PhD students to have one or two postdocs ahead of them, working in the same lab. The postdocs can solve many of the difficulties in designing experiments for the PhD students with their research. So I would be very disappointed if the Australian government cuts down on postdoc employment here.

We have talked around the subject, but what exactly was the science you did and what was the contribution?

I took part in this large program on steroid structure. Norman Jones was working in collaboration with a group under Dr Dobriner, working in the Sloan-Kettering Institute attached to one of the hospitals – Memorial Hospital, I think it was called – in New York. Steroids are very common and very important in biology and medicine. The structure of steroids needed to be determined in fine detail so that new steroids could be synthesised with new and interesting medical and biological applications. What we were doing was organic infra-red spectroscopy, determining structures of many steroids and passing that information on to this lab in New York which was investigating the medical properties of the steroids and diseases related to steroid metabolism.

The infra-red spectra of complex molecules like steroids are rather interesting. Part of the spectrum contains absorption bands related to identifying the presence of hydroxyl groups, carbonyl groups and CH groups in special environments in the molecule. The other part of the spectrum is related to molecular vibrations which spread over the whole steroid skeleton. That gives a pattern of absorption which is very complicated and which is different for every molecule. We referred to that as the ‘fingerprint region’ of the molecular spectrum. We could use the fingerprint to identify a specific compound and we could use the specific group vibrations to identify parts of the molecular structure in the molecule. That was how it worked.

Were you already making a contribution in terms of the development of instruments at that time?

Yes. The instrumentation fundamentally was based on PerkinElmer spectrometers. By virtue of my experience in Oxford with the reflecting microscope, we designed and had constructed in Ottawa a new reflecting microscope for infra-red work. That allowed us to use, again, extremely small quantities of some compounds which were hard to obtain. We could get spectra on one or two micrograms of material, which were the equivalent of the spectra that we could obtain on very a much larger few milligrams of material in a normal infra-red spectrometer. That was really the extent of the instrumental development that I did at that time. Later I went on to the design and construction of very much higher resolution instruments.

Perth via London

At this stage, Bayliss chose to bring you back to Western Australia, a process that he used a number of times to make sure that he got good people back.
The position he generated to bring you back was interesting; how was it funded?

While I was working in Ottawa, Noel Bayliss came there on study leave from the University of Western Australia. As part of his overseas study, he worked at Florida State University in Tallahassee. He came to Ottawa to see me to say that he was organising or trying to organise a Nuffield Research Grant to set up an infra-red lab back in the University of Western Australia and he asked if I would be interested in returning there as a Nuffield Fellow to establish this lab.

At the end of 1952, when I finished my spell in Ottawa, I arranged for the construction of an infra-red spectrometer to bring back to Perth. There was a restriction at that time on spending money outside the ‘sterling area’, so I had to spend the money on the spectrometer in England rather than in America. I might have preferred to buy a PerkinElmer spectrometer, which I had been using, but it was made in America. Anyway, the best spectrometer in England was made by the Grubb Parsons Company. When we put in the order for that spectrometer, they said that they couldn’t fill the order for six months. So I arranged with Bayliss that I would take up the appointment on the Nuffield Fellowship but spend six months in London and then come back to Western Australia when the spectrometer was ready.

I went from Ottawa to London and, in order to do some scientific work there, I needed to get access to an infra-red spectrometer. Luckily, one of the PhD students from Tommy Thompson’s lab in Oxford had graduated and was working in a lab in London. This was a chap called Desmond Orr and he had an infra-red spectrometer, which he allowed me to use. So I spent six months in London, working partly with him.

Some of the compounds I worked on were triterpenoid compounds being studied by Professor Barton in London, a subsequent Nobel Prize winner. He gave me access to quite a lot of triterpenoid compounds which he had available there. They were different from the ones being studied by Doug White in Perth; but it meant that, while I was waiting for this spectrometer to be established, I was able to do some infra-red work on triterpenoids with Derek Barton.

When the spectrometer was ready, I returned to Perth and took up the rest of this Nuffield Fellowship. I was appointed with the status of a senior lecturer in the chemistry department. I established this lab; I was able to supervise one or two honours students and eventually one or two PhD students in the Nuffield lab that I established. I did that work with Doug White and his group in Perth on the triterpenoids for 2½ years, by which time I felt that I had been away from other centres of spectroscopic work for long enough and I really needed to catch up with some other work. Bayliss kindly arranged with the university that the time I had spent as a Nuffield Fellow should be counted towards study leave from the university. I was appointed to the academic staff in 1955 and I would then become eligible for study leave at the end of 1958, rather than having to wait for three more years.

You were a great influence on younger people around the place, such as me, who were heading into honours degrees and postgraduate experiences eventually, but you weren’t a member of the staff; those appointments are massively important in a university.

Yes, I think they are. That’s why I mentioned earlier the importance of postdoctoral appointments. But the chemistry department in UWA at that time was fairly small; everyone knew everyone else and I interacted with the students even though, at the beginning, I wasn’t on the teaching staff.

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A teacher after all

For most of your career to this stage, you were, to some extent, solving problems agreed by a supervisor or a sponsor. When you became a senior lecturer at University of Western Australia, you were able to dictate what research you did. What were you aiming to do in research at that time?

I suppose that one of my aims was to establish my own research group as a member of staff where I would be free to follow other forms of investigation. But I was lucky to some extent as just at that time Robin Stokes, who had been on the chemistry staff for a few years, was appointed to the chair of chemistry at the University of New England in New South Wales; that left a vacancy on the Physical Chemistry staff and I was invited by the university to take that post. By being appointed to the teaching staff, I was following an earlier inclination to become a science teacher. I became a science teacher in Western Australia, albeit at tertiary level rather than at secondary level. I have never told the Minister for Education that he really owes me the money that I paid back on my government university exhibition, because here I was now a science teacher in Western Australia. I don’t intend to tell him that, because I gained so many advantages from my education in the state primary section, at Perth Modern School, at the free University of Western Australia and with the Hackett Studentship to go from that university to Oxford. I owe so much to the state of Western Australia in my education that I don’t feel at all badly about that part of my career involving the exhibition.

I became a member of the Physical Chemistry staff and I lectured at first­year level and also at third­year level on applications of spectroscopy to physical chemistry. I began more supervision of honours students and even of PhD students. I also made the decision that I should alter my main line of research away from direct application to organic chemistry structures. By this stage, I had trained quite a number of the organic chemistry research students in the techniques of infra-red spectroscopy and we began to collect other instruments which they could use in the Department of Organic Chemistry. I didn’t need to run spectra for them; I took part sometimes in the interpretation of the spectra but, in general, they could make their own infra-red measurements.

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Determining structures of small molecules in fortresses of steel

As a long­term project I decided that I should go back into the physical applications of infra-red spectroscopy related to the molecular structures of small molecules, rotational fine structures – the detail leading to molecular structures. This aspect involved the development of instruments suitable for high­level, high­resolution spectra in the infra-red.

In terms of the ambitions that you had for your research, how far had you progressed when you took your first study leave?

The answer to that question depends to some extent on equipment. I had adapted the equipment that we obtained under the Nuffield grant to more physical measurements for experiments where I needed higher resolution. Going back to the time I spent in London at the beginning of my Nuffield Fellowship, I had met at that time a Dr Sayce at the National Physical Lab at Teddington, where he had developed a new method of producing diffraction gratings for spectroscopy. Gratings were capable of giving higher dispersion and higher resolution to the spectrum, particularly when I wanted to study gases. However he had no facilities in the National Physical Lab at that time for testing the gratings that he was making, so I undertook to bring a few of his diffraction gratings back to Perth, incorporate them in the spectrometer that I had from Grubb Parsons and report back to him on the degree of higher resolution that we could obtain with them. This meant that, when I gave up the majority of that organic chemistry work, I had available in my spectrometer some of these gratings and I undertook the study of a number of small gas molecules where I needed the higher resolution to look at the rotational fine structure.

One of those I went back to was glyoxal, which I had studied in Oxford. Some of the vibrations of glyoxal were lower in frequency than we could study at that time. I could adapt the spectrometer in Perth to the study of low-frequency vibrations using these gratings from the National Physical Lab at long-wavelength infra-red. At the same time, Lloyd Rees and his people in Chemical Physics in Melbourne had begun making larger gratings for this same purpose and I was able to borrow and then to keep a few diffraction gratings from him for this higher resolution work. So that worked out quite nicely. The university agreed that the time I had spent on the Nuffield Fellowship should be taken into account in qualifying me for study leave and, at the end of 1958, they gave me study leave for a year.

That was to go and work with Dick Lord at MIT?

That’s right. I wrote to a number of spectroscopy labs, but the major one I was interested in was at MIT in Boston. Dick Lord had developed the techniques of far infra-red spectroscopy which I had become interested in and I went to work for him for the best part of a year learning the techniques of far infra-red spectroscopy. The amount of energy from the infra-red source in the far infra-red was extremely small and it was a difficult region to work in; it was also a region where water vapour had significant absorption. I came to the conclusion, working there, that I had to get rid of the water vapour inside the spectrometer, not because it related to the fogging of rock salt crystals, but to get rid of the water vapour absorption itself in order to facilitate the study of the absorption of other compounds in the far infra-red.

So in the end, as I recall, your instruments became fortresses; you had to evacuate large volumes in those days.

We designed a far infra-red spectrometer completely enclosed in a steel case which could be evacuated; that solved the water vapour problem. We also designed a very high resolution infra-red instrument for the near infra-red, again, in a vacuum chamber.

This not only placed demands on your ingenuity in design, but there was a lot of very intricate tooling and technical work that had to be done.

That’s very true. The design of the spectrometers themselves were not complicated, but luckily we had in the chemistry workshop a number of people, specifically Graham Reece – one of the machinists, who was extremely skilled in making detailed physical equipment of this sort. He studied publications in the literature describing instruments in this part of the infra-red and he took it upon himself to do everything from the design that I gave him to the full construction of the completely evacuated high­resolution spectrometers for our lab.

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IUPAC infra-red book

This period of your science – firstly with Tommy Thompson, who was a bit of an ‘international entrepreneur’, then into NRC with Herzberg, who I guess was the father of the area to some extent, and then back to Dick Lord – and the work you chose to do, greatly increased your international standing because you’d done that work in three different countries. You were then elected or invited to participate in the work of the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry and to work on the Commission on Molecular Structure and Spectroscopy. What were you doing then?

That was a commission that was responsible for the development of standards in measurements in physical chemistry. Dick Lord
and Norman Jones were members of it and they arranged for me to join it. That meant that I could go to a meeting in Europe or America almost every year with fares being paid. It had two advantages: firstly, that I took part in their specific work; and, secondly, while
I was away, I could spend a month or two in another lab, usually
in Canada or North America, participating in work that they were doing there.

The specific work that I undertook with that commission was the publication of a manual on accurate calibration of infra-red spectrometers. There were plenty of spectra which were suitable
as calibrants and were available in the literature, but gathering them together, getting all the numerical data of the wavelengths or the wave numbers of the absorption lines and getting diagrams to publish in this book was quite a major task, and I undertook that publication on behalf of IUPAC.
That came out in the late 1970s and was widely used for many years.

As part of the visits overseas, I joined with Don Ramsay in Herzberg’s lab into a further study of that glyoxal molecule. Don Ramsay had undertaken a high­resolution investigation of the visible absorption of glyoxal and, in order to expand my interests, I joined him in that investigation. I could photograph an absorption band of glyoxal itself in the visible spectrum, or in addition, study mono-dutero or di-dutero glyoxal in the infra-red. Ramsey was also substituting isotopes of oxygen and carbon into the molecule so that we could get a large number of experimental values. If we wanted to solve the total molecular structure of glyoxal involving all the bond lengths and all the bond angles, we needed more physical information in the form of measurements than we had in the examination of just pure glyoxal itself. So I participated in that program. I could bring back the measurements to Perth, use one or two of my research students for the full analysis of the visible absorption bands and then send that information back to Don Ramsay in Ottawa and he could use it with his measurements for the total solution of the problem.

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Deconvoluting spectra with clever mathematics

You had been committed to the use of instruments that improved the resolution. In addition, you used your mathematics to get better information from overlapping data – ‘deconvolution’, I think you called it. What was all that about?

Deconvolution is a numerical process where, after you have recorded the fine structure of an absorption band, you can improve the resolution mathematically by feeding into the process the contour of an individual absorption line.

An idealised contour?

A symmetrical contour, not so much idealised; that sounds a little artificial. It was the measured contour of an isolated absorption line. The absorption line had the characteristics of line width, half bandwidth and so on which could be used mathematically to improve the line structure of a complex band. In that line structure, some lines were not fully resolved; they appeared as shoulders on the sides of other lines, and this deconvolution process resolved them into sharper individual lines where you could measure the peaks more accurately. It sounds a bit artificial, but the process is real.

I’m sure that it is. It was just that most of us didn’t know that it was real at that time and thought you were probably doing some tricks on the rest of the world.

No, I assure you that we were not. The same process could be used in two dimensions to increase the resolution in photographs; so it had many, many applications. But, of course, it depended on the development of fairly large computers. When I started infra-red work, we had no computers. We had very few electrical recorders and our amplifiers were rather crude and had a fairly high noise level. During my career, there were enormous advances in computing, in the development of better electronics and in the development of liquid air cooled detectors with low noise levels. All of these things enabled us to get better spectra. The deconvolution process didn’t produce artificial results out of poor measurements; it produced excellent results out of good measurements.

I can remember that we gave up our cynicism when, as you improved your resolution, it agreed with the previous results that you had got from your mathematical methods. So you verified the truth of it all.

Yes, that’s quite true. Another advance I think I should mention while we are talking about instruments is that, some years after the periods that I have been talking about, there was a development in high­resolution spectroscopy related to interferometry. A Michelson interferometer is a piece of equipment where you split the light into two beams and then reunite the beams, having altered the path length of one of them; so you generate an interference pattern. That interference pattern can be treated in a computer by a process known as a Fourier Transform. This Fourier Transform will turn the measurement of change of light intensity, as you change the path length in the interferometer, to a change of light intensity, as you change the wavelength of the light, which is an absorption spectrum. These interferometers were capable of very much higher resolution than the grating spectrometers that I was using.

Towards the end of my active career, I thought of obtaining one of these interferometers, but the costs were very high, some hundreds of thousands of dollars, and I couldn’t really justify getting that equipment in the department in Perth if I was on the point of retirement and I wasn’t sure whether anyone else would be appointed to use it. But Don Ramsay in Ottawa and Dr Guelachvili in Paris had access to these higher resolution instruments, so I was able to collaborate with them and get the results from the new interferometers without having to set one up in Perth. On some of my trips overseas, I then undertook some further measurements with Don Ramsay on the vibration spectrum of glyoxal and on ethane and deuterated ethanes using that sort of equipment in Ottawa rather than having to set it up here.

A later development under the IUPAC commission was that Dr Guelachvili was commissioned to publish a new calibration manual at very much higher resolution than I had gathered together in the manual that I produced some 20 years earlier. I took part in that collaboration with about 20 other spectroscopists around the world, and he produced a new manual at this very high interferometric resolution.

The techniques that you brought into infra-red spectroscopy had broad applications because I can remember two of your outstanding students, Andy Green and Frank Honey, who became well known themselves. Frank Honey is an inventor, which to some extent must have been one of your influences. They finished up in space measurements and used the techniques of deconvolution to unscramble the results that were coming back from satellites in earth observation.

Yes. They both went into CSIRO to use deconvolution and other infra-red techniques in the analysis of remote sensing measurements, either from aeroplanes or from satellites. The remote sensing enabled them to analyse the light reflected from the earth for purposes of mineral exploration and other purposes related to vegetation and possibly to the study of air pollution. I remember Frank Honey discovered a cloud of pollutants coming down on Western Australia from Indonesia after one of the volcanic eruptions several years ago.

That was the one that nearly caused the British Airways 747 to crash into the sea.

That’s right. This ash in the cloud interfered with the jet engines of aeroplanes in much the same way as that recent episode in Iceland did in Europe.

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Profitable scientific friendships

At this time, you were working in the most isolated university in the world; the nearest university to us was the University of Adelaide. This tyranny of distance made scientific contact with people quite difficult for those in Western Australia. The IUPAC connections expanded the range of scientific contact that you had. It enabled you to make contacts when other people at the University of Western Australia were still isolated. How important was your natural collegiality and your capacity to get on well with colleagues in the work that you did and in your achievements?

I think it was most important. As I mentioned earlier, I was able to use a spectrometer in London which was being run by one of the ex-students from Tommy Thompson’s lab in Oxford. After I had had study leave at MIT, I was able to collaborate, on various periods of sabbatical leave and on other trips, with people I had known in Dick Lord’s lab in MIT. One of those went to the Bureau of Standards – this is Walt Lafferty; and one of them went to the University of South Carolina – that was Jim Durig. I retained contacts with people like that throughout my career and I collaborated with them. I don’t think forming enemies ever arose in my career; but I certainly formed friendships, and those friendships were extremely profitable in scientific work and I certainly tried to foster them. Most of the people I met at one university I followed to somewhere else. One of the students with Dick Lord was a Japanese chap named Ichiro Nakagawa; I later visited him and spent time in Tokyo under his wing. It was a very important part of my career.

I think we all, even those that were not in your field, benefited from the association with many of your friends who came here. I think an important part of that hospitality was Jack Mann and the ‘red wine’ aspect of life.

Yes. Many of the people I mentioned as being collaborators overseas have, in fact, visited me in Perth and we always like to entertain them. Walt Lafferty, Jim Durig, Don Ramsay and many others have been here.

Amongst those people with whom you worked closely, how would you seed them in terms of, say, the first six scientists in order of merit?

I don’t want to insult anyone by leaving them out, but the people at the top of the list are pretty easy to classify: Gerhard Herzberg in Ottawa, I suppose, was the king of the lot; and Dick Lord at MIT, Don Ramsay, Tommy Thompson and Norman Jones were all internationally known spectroscopists. I have put them in that order, but the order is just a little bit arbitrary. I think I should mention among this sort of group some of my own research students. We’ve touched on Andy Green and Frank Honey and we should also include a few of the names of the research students and postdocs who worked with me. I would like to mention especially George Osborne and Doris Braund, PhD students in our department; and Bob Pulfrey, John Cugley and Mike Heise, who came here as postdoc researchers under research grants given to us by the ARGC federal government grants.

You talked about leaving organic chemistry to some extent when you had your own path to choose and it was largely because the instruments that you provided had become commercially available; that is precisely what happened again with areas like NMR and X-ray crystallography. How do you see that?

Yes, that’s quite true. Instruments in those fields were developed in physics labs but eventually were taken over by chemists as routine molecular structure instruments.

Your research career and your achievements were, if you like, in two areas: one was as a technologist making instruments; and the other was your science. One depended upon the other. Which of the two aspects, the inventing or the science, gave you the best experiences and pleasure?

I think I would have to say the science, but it is a case of necessity; in order to do the science, we had to get the instruments. The instruments I have described were not available commercially, so it was a matter of designing them, having them made, testing them and then carrying out the science. I think I would have to conclude that the science was more important, but I did enjoy the instrumental development as well.

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Family, fun and games

Your personal life is important: your wife, Ursula, and three very successful young people in their own areas. How important was that family life to the achievement of your scientific success?

It certainly has been an important part of my life. Ursula, before we were married, was the secretary to Noel Bayliss as head of the Chemistry Department. So she had a great appreciation of the life and work of very many academics and researchers and could always appreciate quite well the sorts of stresses that I put on the family due to my own life and work.

In the case of our children, we have two daughters and one son. The two daughters went into medicine and they have both been pretty successful. Judy is a specialist dermatologist; Cathy is a specialist oncologist dealing with children’s cancer and haematology. Cathy, incidentally, has just recently been appointed as Professor of Paediatric Oncology and Haematology in the UWA Medical School, which we’re very pleased about.

My son made an interesting comment when he was finishing at high school. He had seen the pressure that the girls had been under, in taking a six­year course in medicine, and I used to hammer them all about the necessity to study chemistry properly. As he finished his high school exams, he said to me, ‘Well, Dad, I know that I want to go to university; I am not sure what
I want to study though. But there are two things that I know I don’t want to study; one is medicine and the other is chemistry.’ He eventually went into engineering and he’s been very successful as a consulting engineer since then, working principally nowadays in the fields of oil and gas engineering.

Andy, you also had a very successful sporting career. How was that important in your life throughout this scientific period?

It has been important to me for relaxation. I played A grade cricket and hockey; I was captain of both of those at Modern School. Later in life I took up golf, but I haven’t been quite as successful at golf as I was with cricket and hockey. Going back to hockey, I was selected in the Combined Australian Universities Hockey Team after an intervarsity competition, although that particular team didn’t play any other team. In cricket, I suppose that I might have aimed at something like interstate cricket. But, at the time I was finishing at the university and going to Oxford, I virtually gave up Australian cricket. As it happened, I played cricket in Canada and played for Ontario in the Canadian Interprovincial Tournament.

I have also applied my scientific knowledge to an aspect of golf.
As you know, golf courses are rated in terms of difficulty of individual holes in connection with the handicap system, determining at which holes a player on a particular handicap will get one or two extra strokes. The method by which these holes are graded is a bit arbitrary. The committee usually asks one or two of the best golfers to grade the holes in order of difficulty. It’s quite clear to many golfers that the order of difficulty of holes on a golf course is not the same for a professional or a very good golfer as for the rather poor golfers on long handicaps.

So I decided, partly on the basis of having studied statistical mathematics, that what we should do is to take a very large number of golf scorecards, feed them into the computer and carry out a statistical examination which would show which was the most difficult hole for people on a handicap of one, which was the second­most difficult hole for people on two and which was the third most difficult hole for the people on three, all the way down to which was the 18th most difficult hole – that is, the easiest – for people on 18 and follow onto those people who are on handicaps higher than 18, to grade the holes up to a total of 32 or 36 or whatever the maximum handicap happened to be at the time. This produced a very much better stroke index for the golf course than the arbitrary method of asking the good players for their order of difficulty. That system has been used quite a bit around Australia. I publicised it a bit with the big golf clubs in each capital city. Places like the Royal Sydney Golf Club, the New South Wales Golf Club, Lake Karrinyup Golf Club, the Royal Perth and the Royal Fremantle have all used it in addition to Cottesloe Golf Club, which is next door to my home, where I play.

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Teaching and administration

At this time, teaching was a very important part of the responsibilities of a professor. How important was it to you to be involved in teaching and what do you think of the position today where many professors don’t teach undergraduate disciplines at all?

I think teaching is a very important part of university life and I always enjoyed teaching. I was always a little worried throughout my career that nearly all promotions within the university, particularly in science, were based on research rather than on teaching. We had some very fine lecturers in the university who deserved more promotion, just as much as the fine researchers did. I think some universities now are looking at teaching prowess a little more closely than they used to and I think that’s most important.

Perhaps I can insert another little anecdote here. For many years, in what they called ‘Orientation Week’ at the university, the Faculty of Science used to recruit some second-year students to act as guides to show new students around the campus and through some of the buildings. One of our staff members, Jack Cannon, reported to us at morning tea one day that he had heard a remark by a second­year student showing a group of new students one of the lecture theatres in Chemistry. The guide said, ‘This is where you’ll have your chemistry lectures. Your lecturer will be a chap named Cole; he’s pretty old, but he seems to know what he’s talking about.’

I don’t think you were that old then, Andy; if you were teaching now, it would be relevant. But your contribution as a teacher was great. There are other important aspects of a professorial career; you not only had your research, but there was administration and planning. To what extent did you participate in those responsibilities in the University of Western Australia?

I became head of the Department of Physical and Inorganic Chemistry and Chairman of the School of Chemistry, both of which involved possibly too much administration but certainly quite a lot. Apart from that, I was Dean of the Faculty of Science for two years, which took me into fairly close contact with parts of the university administration. But one other major task I undertook was thrust upon me shortly after I had been promoted to a personal professorship. Before that time, most departments had one professor who was automatically Head of Department virtually for all his tenure. When they appointed one or two of us as personal professors, the university didn’t quite know what to do with us – because there we were, on the professorial board with the rank of professor but not having a personal department.

So the university asked me to carry out a planning task. It was just after the development of Murdoch University and there was some uncertainty among the governing boards of these universities just how the two should develop in relation to one another: should each university cover all disciplines; should they run in competition with one another, and so on? So I was asked to carry out this task and to draw up some sort of planning document for our university. I spent a year on that task interviewing the staffs of virtually all faculties and all departments, and I laid out a number of suggestions. I won’t go into detail here, but it covered such things as whether each university should develop some of its own specialties and exclude others which were covered adequately in the other university.

One of the things I was proud of recommending was an expansion of the crystallography centre, which you mentioned earlier; that was stationed in physics but its applications applied to chemistry. That certainly was expanded and it has been prospering ever since. It is now solving enormous problems on molecular structures and is now stationed as much in Chemistry instead of in Physics where it began.

Other than that, I don’t think I really got overwhelmed with administration in the university. Some of the suggestions I made in that task were taken up in other universities, as they were established around Western Australia.

This impacted on the two of us because I’d already started to take an interest in university administration. In that sense, I can remember that you wrote a lot about devolution of responsibility away from the centre. It was certainly something that I believed passionately in and we finished up, when we restructured WAIT in those first six months after I went there, constituting what I think was probably our attitude – but your published attitude – to devolution.

Yes. I think that is an important aspect. One of the things that I recommended was that the budgets should be broken down into large grants given to the deans of faculties rather than being administered in detail by the central university administration; I think that’s happened fairly well.

Okay, Andrew, that’s it. It has been a very great pleasure to be part of this.

I want to thank you particularly for taking part in this project and doing it so well.

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