Professor Brian Anderson was born in Sydney, Australia in 1941. He attended the University Sydney graduating with a degree in both engineering and mathematics. Professor Anderson received a PhD from Stanford University in the mid–1960s and stayed on as a faculty member before returning to Australia in 1967. He worked as a Professor of Electrical Engineering at the University of Newcastle until 1982 when he moved to the Australian National University in Canberra to found a new Department of Systems Engineering within the Research School of Physical Sciences and Engineering. In 1994 Professor Anderson oversaw the establishment of the Research School of Information Sciences and Engineering and was the School’s Director until 2002. Between 1998 and 2002, Professor Anderson was President of the Australian Academy of Science. From 2003–06, he was Chief Scientist of the organisation National Information Communication Technology Australia (NICTA). Professor Anderson continues his passion for research in his role as Distinguished Professor at the Australian National University.
Interviewed by Professor Neville Fletcher in 2008.
Brian, it's great to be talking with you, to explore your career in science. You were a Sydney boy, I believe. Is Sydney where your family came from?
I was born in Sydney, as were my grandparents and, I think, a number of their parents also. I'm not sure when my ancestors first came to Australia. My father was born in Sydney; my mother was born in Mexico of Australian parents, when her father was working there as a mining engineer.
So the engineering goes back in your family a long way?
It certainly does. I think there were engineers even before my grandfather.
Did your school days lead you to a career in science and engineering?
Well, most of my schooling was in Sydney, with a little bit in London. In my primary school we were challenged with arithmetic and even some algebra, and I enjoyed that very much.
The high school I went to was Shore School, at North Sydney – Sydney Church of England Grammar School – where we had some excellent mathematics teachers, including the headmaster, who taught Leaving Certificate Honours mathematics and nothing else. And also physics was very good at that school.
I had two school friends whose fathers were electrical engineers, and with them I engaged in what you might call scientific and engineering sorts of hobbies. I admired their fathers, and I think that had something to do with directing me.
Did you have some hobbies related to what you decided to do?
Ahh, yes. With the school friends I mentioned, especially, I was involved in things like Meccano sets and electric trains. I was also interested in music, and played in the school orchestra and did some band work. And I was always reading. I enjoyed that very much too.
What instruments did you play?
I started by learning the piano for several years, and like many young children, I suppose, I rebelled a bit. But then it became possible to learn the viola and subsequently the violin, to fill holes in the school orchestra, so I took that opportunity too. The stringed instruments I abandoned when I went to the United States to do graduate work – for practical reasons, not because I disliked them – but I have kept up the piano since.
You then went to the University of Sydney and did degrees in both engineering and mathematics. Was that university experience a good one?
Well, I went into engineering, with a major in electrical engineering planned downstream. To do an honours degree in electrical engineering you had first to complete at least a pass science degree, and you did that by doing two years of engineering and then a third year of mathematics and physics. I did that, and the mathematics was great. I got a CSIRO award, something like a graduate student stipend, for a fourth (honours) year which I did in pure maths, and after that I went back to electrical engineering. The professor at that time was David Myers, the father of one of my school friends, and he took a great interest in me.
Was electrical engineering your first choice, rather than mechanical or one of the other sorts?
Yes, it was. I think that came from my high school experiences, including hobbies. Also, I'd formed the view that electrical appeared to use mathematics (and probably physics) in a much more sophisticated way than did other areas of engineering, and so there was never any doubt in my mind that I wanted to do it. I was actually turned off by factory roof trusses and gearbox design and how to purify water, and by the iron-carbon equilibrium diagram – I am sure they are important, but they just didn't stimulate me.
Computers weren't really around then, were they?
Not really. SILLIAC was the only computer on campus. I remember that we typed a long program into a teletype and got some punched tape; we marched across campus to SILLIAC; we gave the tape to a gentleman wearing a white coat, who ran the tape into the computer and gave us a tape in return; we walked back to electrical engineering, fed that tape through the teletype, and found that 11 plus 5 was 16! [laugh] To tell the truth, I thought, 'This is crazy. Who wants to waste time doing this sort of stuff?' So that for me was actually a turn-off from computers.
While you were at the University of Sydney you had some experience of being in the air force. Did that influence your future career?
Ahh, that's true. For most of the time I was an undergraduate there was some form of national service, and as soon as I went to university I volunteered to join the Air Force Reserve. That kept me out of the army, and it gave me some wonderful technical experiences and also management experiences, really, because I became an officer after two years and I worked with electronic systems on aircraft – and with the technicians who were directly servicing them. I learnt a lot, and I found it very interesting. I'm very glad I had that experience.
Did you get some flying in, even if not as a pilot?
Yes, I did – in Australia, of course, but also I went to Malaysia (or Malaya, as it then was) and Singapore and the Philippines on different occasions, on deployments that were about a month long.
That must have been very interesting, particularly in those days when people didn't travel so much.
That's right. Mind you, we didn't travel in a 707, the predecessor of a 747, but in a Hercules, where we sat on collapsing plastic web seats. Our ears rang for hours afterwards, because Hercules are incredibly noisy inside. You couldn't extend your arms in front of yourself, because there was an engine in front of you and above you; if you raised your leg you'd probably hit the engine. And to go to the toilet you had to climb along the tops of the seats. It wasn't particularly comfortable! [laugh]
How did the opportunity to go on to Stanford University, in California, come about?
Well, I was following some advice from Professor David Myers, who by the time I graduated had moved to be dean at the University of British Columbia. He was someone whose advice I took seriously, and he advised me not to go to the UK but to consider MIT, Berkeley, Stanford or Caltech. The staff at Sydney university helped write references, and then one of them said to me one day, 'I think I've got you a research assistantship at Stanford.' He had met a visiting Fulbright professor from Stanford and had, I suppose, delivered a sales pitch on my behalf. So I met the Stanford person, he told me a problem, I solved the problem fairly quickly, I think – maybe in a week or something like that – and I got a research assistantship for the period of my PhD. I was just very fortunate.
What was the experience of a PhD like at Stanford? It must be even now quite different from a PhD in Australia.
Yes, and incredibly different from what a PhD in Australia would have been in the mid-1960s. Electrical engineering was the biggest department at Stanford. It had 600 graduate students, and it had about 45 or 50 full professors, most of whom were stars and many of whom I had heard of as an undergraduate before I went to Stanford because they had written books. It was very, very much a research university, and so I found the environment incredibly stimulating. It had a major effect in shaping me and giving me scholarly values and proper training.
Did you get to travel around America much at that time?
A fair bit, I suppose. I went to the east coast once or twice. And then after I graduated I was a faculty member at Stanford and I travelled during that time. Also, while I was still a student I started a part-time job with a company and I kept that on when I was a faculty member, so that gave me some more broadening opportunities.
Incidentally, just a small number of years ago I made contact again with the boss that I had in those years. He is a fellow of the National Academy of Engineering in the United States, and when I was elected a foreign associate I got a lovely email from him, reflecting on the time I spent in the company. He told me that the thing I worked on had made a big difference at the time.
What was 'the thing you worked on' at that time?
The company was engaged in putting telemetering on rockets and missiles, and the requirements would differ between different rockets and missiles. Part of the associated circuitry, therefore, was specific to the order, and they were taking many months to do the design – they didn't have a systematic methodology, and they were using slide rules and such things. So I did a systematic methodology. I didn't program it, because in those days you had a programmer who interacted with a service bureau. But it enabled the company to receive an order in the morning, feed this into the program and get a printout for the factory as to how to do the product, and they had that within 24 hours. That was the main thing I did.
In 1967 you came back to Australia to be professor of electrical engineering at Newcastle. How did you come to pick the University of Newcastle?
Newcastle picked me. I was interacting with a number of Australian universities, under some obligation to return to Australia because of other support that I'd had when I went to the United States. So I was generally writing round and in negotiation with several universities, and when I wrote to Newcastle they wrote back and said they had a vacant professorship, and would I apply. (I had of course sent my résumé.) I did so, but heard nothing more until I got a cable one day offering me the position – without having had an interview.
Very flattering, isn't it?
Well, yes, or very foolish on the side of Newcastle. But there was an explanation: the appointment committee included members of another appointment committee with whom I had dealt. So in retrospect it perhaps wasn't quite so surprising.
You had quite a long time at Newcastle. What sorts of things happened while you were there?
I was there for 15 years, and it was great. I was able to appoint a number of people, many of whom became famous – I think several became fellows of this Academy, many are IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] fellows and at least one is a fellow of the Royal Society. The philosophy was that we could build strength in a subdisciplinary area by saying to people, 'Come and work in the same area as us if you are good, but bear in mind you are going to have to teach any undergraduate course we ask you to teach.' And that seemed to work. I think we were all very proud of what we were able to do at Newcastle.
It remains a flourishing engineering university, doesn't it?
I'm very pleased that it does, yes.
In 1981 you moved from Newcastle to the Australian National University (ANU), in Canberra, to found a new Department of Systems Engineering within the Research School of Physical Sciences and Engineering. How did that come about?
About two or three years prior to that I'd had some discussion with the ANU about a position which they were filling in the research school and for which I think I was quite unsuited. At that time I made an almost casual remark to the then director, John Carver, 'Look, if you ever had something closer to my interests, I'd very much like to look at it,' because I was getting a bit frustrated at the Newcastle approach of not being selective in giving more funds to the better people – everybody had to be treated equally.
With John Carver I was a member of the Australian Science and Technology Council, and in about April or May '81 I was at a meeting in Canberra where John Carver said, 'We had a conversation a couple of years ago. I think I might be able to do something about that. I'll tell you more at lunchtime.' At lunchtime he laid out the fact that he'd been given money to develop engineering. It was limited but it had the backing of the university, and would I please think about the possibility of accepting an appointment if I was offered it – no advertisement or anything like that.
Well, things moved very, very fast, and I was signed up within a couple of months and started on 1 January 1982.
That was to be a different sort of engineering from the bit that was already going on at that school, wasn't it? There were some things about solar energy, a solar generator and so on.
Yes. There was a department called engineering physics – not engineering, but engineering physics – which was a bit of a grab-bag. It included, I think, a rail gun and maybe plasmas, a number of separate activities like that, and a number of the people doing these things were hard-core physicists, not engineers. So it was very different, and I didn't have a great disciplinary affinity for that sort of activity.
Were there many staff people attracted to your branch of engineering?
When the move to set up systems engineering was put to me by John Carver, he indicated that it was with the support of the central part of the university. What he didn't say was that there were many people in the school who thought this was a crazy idea, because there was a semi-tradition that physics was a superior discipline to engineering, and maybe engineering just belonged in a technical college – and also a feeling that, 'If we got engineers, there'd be less money for us more important people, the physicists.'
I remember that I had to give an inaugural lecture, and did so. There was a far larger audience than had been anticipated, with many, many people having to stand, and as is normal there were questions. But these were what I'd call '60-Minutes' questions, rather than the style of questions you are now putting to me!
So, how many staff members? I can remember them at morning tea and so on, because I was part of that.
I am guessing a little bit, but I think there were maybe 80-odd staff members in the school overall. In systems engineering we had about five or six, I think. I should say that after a number of years there, I think there was a lot of acceptance of our activity.
During the 1980s you were involved in several new initiatives in the way engineering was organised at the Australian National University. One of them was the foundation of an undergraduate Faculty of Engineering. Tell us about that.
That went from the creation of a new department in the Faculty of Science to a separate Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology. One of the deputy vice-chancellors at the time, Ian Ross (a past fellow of this Academy) had for a long time believed that the university ought to be doing something in engineering – the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology is the Swiss national university and focuses on engineering – and so he asked me to draft a proposal.
The proposal didn't look like what was the convention in Australia at that time. Indeed, according to the Institution of Engineers, it was unaccreditable. According to Sir Bruce Williams, who was at that time conducting a review of engineering in Australia, it was wonderful, and the Institution of Engineers would be in trouble if they didn't accredit it. The institution changed their opinion, and it got accredited and started. The guy who initially headed up the operation came from systems engineering.
The new department later became part of the Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology, and is now part of the College of Engineering and Computer Science at the ANU.
Has the faculty maintained a balance similar to the one you started it with? Or has it become more conventional?
Of course it's not identical with what was originally planned, but even so it does not offer a degree in electrical or mechanical or chemical or civil. The degree is called systems engineering, which is indicative of a broader degree that picks things from electrical and mechanical, principally, with some materials stuff and supportive subjects of management style, or law or economics, something like that.
Does that make it different from, essentially, all other engineering faculties in Australia, or have others have followed that model?
There are others that are a bit closer to that now. But the older schools, I think, have stuck with the traditional names, most of which were instituted around the start of the 20th century and, as a result, became the basis for accreditation requirements. The existence of those names or divisions probably inhibited experimentation in engineering programs.
The Research School of Physical Sciences, over the years, has 'given birth' to several new research schools – the Research School of Earth Sciences, the Research School of Astronomy (a good bit later) and then, during your time, the Research School of Information Sciences and Engineering. What made that one happen?
I've mentioned the name of John Carver. When I'd been at the ANU about 10 years, John became a deputy vice-chancellor. And in, I think, my 11th year John said to me, 'Brian, I think you should work on a proposal for a Research School of Information Sciences and Engineering.' He said I should take into it systems engineering, which is where I was, and computer science, which was another, more recent addition to physical sciences. John nominated also a sort of floating centre in the university called Centre for Information Sciences Research, saying, 'We may be able to find some money for telecommunications as well.'
So I generated a proposal, and it was necessary to sell that proposal and actually get a majority vote from the collection of research school directors and also a broader body called the Board of the Institute of Advanced Studies.
The research school directors were torn, because they saw the Institute of Advanced Studies budget as being fixed in size and therefore a zero sum game principle was applied. On the other hand, the institute had been very severely criticised in a previous review for not being able to show that they could move funds around, and for being still 'frozen' in the style and format that prevailed at the time of the institute's formation. Another review was coming up, and they were terrified that they would be stabbed, perhaps even fatally, by the reviewers if change wasn't demonstrated. So they opted for change with minimum cost. [laugh] They agreed, and then the Board of the Institute of Advanced Studies agreed, and the new school was established on 1 January 1994.
On the campus, the new school is physically about as far away from the Research School of Physical Sciences as it can be, and very close to the undergraduate Faculty of Engineering. Would you say that is consistent with a continuing move toward integration between graduate schools and undergraduate?
Well, yes. It makes sense. But I should say that when the new school was formed, its four components were in four different buildings. That was thoroughly unsatisfactory. There was also a space problem and some of the buildings were themselves unsatisfactory. For example, rats would die under the floor of an office and regularly the office would have to be vacated while the problem was fixed up! So it wasn't hard to persuade the university that the new building was needed – and a single building. The location then fell into place, in terms of proximity to the undergraduate activity and Anutech, and availability of space and so on.
And the research school has flourished, with a quite large staff filling this building?
Yes. I don't know how many there are now, but it flourished. And a few years ago it helped give birth to National ICT Australia.
The founding of NICTA is perhaps the most significant of your interactions with industry, and the organisation is now very important and successful. Can you tell us about it?
Well, I had formed the impression that the people in Australia were likely to miss out on many benefits from the information technology (IT) revolution. Many millennia ago there was an agricultural revolution, and maybe biotechnology is giving us another one. We had the industrial revolution a couple of centuries ago. But we've really been sitting through this new revolution, the IT revolution.
We've had only one big indigenous company in this area, Telstra. We've had many big companies from abroad trying to sell us things. We have indigenous Australian companies that are very, very small and so find it very hard to market well. We've had purchasing mistakes worth massive amounts, hundreds of millions of dollars, caused by poor knowledge. We had a situation where the Australian Research Council were funding, I think, 2½ times as many postdocs in history and anthropology as they were in information and communication technology (ICT). We had Australian authored papers in ICT about 23 per cent less popular, on a normal metric, than the world average, whereas most areas of Australian science are within ±5 per cent.
I thought it was a mess, and a number of other people were of a similar opinion, especially the Department of Communications, IT and the Arts, under Senator Alston at the time. So I was asked to do a report for the Prime Minister's Science [Engineering and Innovation] Council on the R&D base in ICT, and that report then made a series of recommendations. And very shortly after it was completed, a package of measures announced by the Federal Government – Backing Australia's Ability I – included a provision for an ICT Centre of Excellence.
There was a competition to set up the new organisation, and I was the leader of the bid team for four partners: the University of New South Wales, ANU, the ACT Government, and the Government of New South Wales. (There were some supporting entities, like the University of Sydney, but those were the four principal partners.) And we won. The idea was to set up an organisation which would do some basic research, certainly, because there was seen to be poor performance in that area, and would participate in graduate education, doing this on what you might call the French or German model, in cooperation with universities. But it would also focus on getting the ideas out and provide thoroughly professional support for the commercialisation side of this activity, rather than the sometimes amateurish support that you have in Australian universities.
NICTA is now in Queensland, Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne, with minor activities in Adelaide and even, I think, in Western Australia – very minor there.
Apart from getting it going, you were very much involved in actually running it for some years, weren't you?
Because I led the bid team, to have credibility I said I would be the initial president. But from the start I limited that to one year, because I didn't really care for that sort of activity, and it was made worse by the fact that the headquarters had to be in Sydney and I don't handle that sort of travel particularly gracefully.
After that year as president, during which they recruited someone else, I became chief scientist, the person legally in charge of the research program, and I did that for a bit over three years. Then I stopped when I saw that there were now enough skills for that to be done, including in the person who by that time was CEO. I stopped also because it was taking a huge amount of time and I was frustrated that I wasn't doing enough research: believe it or not, Neville, although we've been having this discussion about organisational things, research is my first love!
Actually, getting so many things done at an organisational level has not kept you from being heavily involved in research covering a lot of areas of information science. Could you tell us a bit about the sorts of things you've worked on?
I've done many things, because I've been in this for a long time. The areas in which I have worked have been largely control systems and signal processing, with some telecommunications. And occasionally that's spilled over into mathematical topics in random processes or linear algebra or something like that. Many of the problems have had their origins in industrial needs or applications domains.
For example, Boeing were taking several hundred person years to design the flight control systems for their commercial aircraft. That was because they were using trial and error methods; they did not have a systematic methodology. The only systematic methodologies that existed gave them extremely complicated control systems on paper, which would just worry a manager to implement and so were deemed unusable. My particular research in that area was all about how to take a design of a very complicated control system and say how to systematically simplify it. 'Systematically' means that you don't do trial and error and you've got good computer programs; also, you needed to be able to simplify it to a level that a manager was happy with. So I did that, and it gave rise to commercial software and a book, because it's a big topic.
Another thing that I worked on a few years ago came from DSTO, the Defence Science and Technology Organisation. Submarines, when their motors are on, give off periodic sound signals that travel through the water. Other people who are listening are receiving an extremely noisy signal with many harmonic components. The question was: how can you best process that noisy signal and infer an underlying periodic signal, and get some sense for the relative magnitude of the harmonic components? That can, of course, fingerprint the motor you're listening to.
The thing that's got me really hooked at the moment is largely related to formations of unmanned airborne vehicles and, less obviously, to sensor networks. You could imagine maybe 100 vehicles flying in a formation in the air – not that we are doing this yet – and ask: if you're going to maintain the shape of this three-dimensional formation, then who looks at who and what do they measure, and what do they make sure they keep constant? And, by the way, what if one of the sensors goes down, or they're supposed to be joined by someone or they want to detach someone? That's the sort of problem I'm working on now. Some of this is with DSTO but some of it is more long-range.
Have you ever been approached by biologists to apply those techniques to the flying of flocks of birds or bats or something of that sort?
No, not really. I have talked to biologists about this sort of thing, but there's a limit to what you can do. And I'm just happy doing my stuff. I wouldn't want to suggest that it is unimportant to mix ideas of biology and engineering. I think it's marvellous that many people, including some of my colleagues, are getting involved in that, because it's an area where there are simultaneously very challenging scientific problems and great applications potential – that is, potential to do good things for people.
The particular research topics that you have talked about have been quite largely related to aircraft and defence, almost linking back to your undergraduate days in the air force. What about some of your significant industry experiences?
I was a member of a scientific and technology advisory board of CRA, which later became RTZ, for many years – in fact, up till the time RTZ took it over – and I was a director of Cochlear Limited (which makes implantable 'bionic' ears) from the time that it was formed. For a number of years before that I was a director of Telectronics, which made implantable pacemakers. So these were high-tech areas.
Also, a few years ago a consortium of companies was interested in developing or studying the case for making a high-level nuclear waste repository in Australia. It would make Australia a lot of money. You'd have this repository in an area that was incredibly geologically stable and where it hadn't rained for millennia. There are, naturally, issues of safety and proof of concept, so they were using a scientific and technical board to direct the consultants and their own internal work, and I was involved in that.
Those are just some examples of the rich array of experiences I've had outside my immediate specialty.
You have had research collaborations with lots of people around the world. Would you tell us about some of those?
One of the privileges of being an academic is the potential – not always used – to establish international links with clever people, and as a by-product you get exposed to their cultures. (I find other cultures very, very interesting.) My first experiences along those lines were, of course, going to the United States, initially as a graduate student, when the United States was unquestionably the leader in ICT matters. It is perhaps still the leader, but by nowhere near as big a margin as it used to be.
My later experiences came not so much from going to the UK, although of course I have been there, but to continental Europe and to Asia. In continental Europe I probably put in more time in Vienna, Switzerland and Belgium than elsewhere; and in Asia, in Japan and, to a lesser extent, China. A huge amount of what I have written has been with foreign authors, and I have had students from these places. I have incredibly enjoyed the cultural aspects – that is, things other than the immediate scientific aspect. I just feel they have enriched me as a person, and given me greater understanding of some big questions of life.
When I was having my first contacts with China and Japan, China was still very much a place where people wore Mao suits and if you visited there you were under police supervision, and anybody that came to this country was told to expect an example of workers being exploited by the capitalists. There was very limited English, and really a very low scientific standard because they had been set back from a not very high standard by the policies of Mao.
When I first went to Japan, it was very intimidating from a linguistic point of view. And when I first had something to do with Japanese people, their average English standard was far lower than it is now. There have been transformations in both countries – in Japan, particularly in the notion that to plug in internationally they need to get linguistically competent in English. The rules for the Japanese national meeting in control systems require papers entirely in English now.
China hasn't gone quite as far as that, but of course the political constraints have been largely removed so it is much more easy for the Chinese to travel, it is a pleasure to visit there and so on. Many of them are very clever and very highly trained, fully at world level. So it's been very interesting to see that transition. They embarked upon it some years after the Europeans, many of whom would have been set back scientifically by World War II but had been strong beforehand, so it wasn't hard for them to pick up.
In your continued scientific collaboration with some of these people, is there a sort of balance in which, for example, you do theory and they experiment?
No, there is no balance like that. A number of the problems I have worked on are motivated by applications. I have a visitor from Vienna right at the moment, and since what I have in common with him is modelling, we are working on some econometric modelling problems that are of interest to the Federal Reserve Bank in the US. Its chairman, Ben Bernanke, is one of the authors of a paper we have looked at. And I met a European Central Bank person in Vienna last year. Also, I've got a Japanese visitor arriving in March, and an American visitor arriving in April; I'm going to Belgium later in the year; I'm in Korea and Japan later in the year, and so on.
You were president of the International Federation of Automatic Control in the early 1990s, and then you became – more importantly, I guess, from our present perspective – president of the Australian Academy of Science, from 1998 to 2002. Could you tell us about that? How did it come about, and what sorts of things did you want to achieve and actually achieve during your time as president?
Well, what brought me into it was a phone call one day from Gus Nossal, who said, 'Brian, I'd like to come and see you in your office.' And then, in my office, he said, 'The council would like you to consider becoming the next president.' I was surprised. That's not false modesty; it's more a reflection of the fact that I am an engineer and to some scientists that is still, I think, a slightly lesser form of life. This is, after all, an academy of science, and while it's fine that there are engineers in it, they're not quite the core sort of scientists that some people think would be required. I did wonder whether the bulk of the fellowship would believe it was acceptable to have an engineer, so I asked a couple of people. They reassured me, and apparently it was all right.
What did I do as president? To look first outside this Academy: at that stage the university part of the research sector had taken a real hammering – which continues even now – and because it was such a big hammering it was obvious to a lot of people, including important people. So I joined a group of important people who saw it as their job to persuade the government that they needed to change. We were successful to the extent that we got Backing Australia's Ability I, which included doubling the budget of the Australian Research Council (ARC). That is a pretty fair-sized increase, but it was just indicative of how far behind things had slipped. So I did see my 'outside' task primarily as one of engaging the government.
I concluded, by the way, that the first thing you have got to do is get people to trust you. You must be absolutely straight and reliable. And you need to build up this relationship with the senior bureaucrats, the minister's staff and the minister – and there are different groups – and always be ready to help and so on. That's an important thing.
Within this Academy, I suppose every president makes changes. One of the things I wanted to do, and I guess did, was to introduce a program for new fellows which had every new fellow presenting a seminar of between 10 and 15 minutes on their research, in language that a child could understand, or at least that many children could understand.
That's great, isn't it – having a biologist speak in such a way that a physicist can understand!
Yes. And to me that is the most enjoyable side, technically, of this Academy. I think a number of other people find that also.
We had a great gift from John Shine and a big gift from the Commonwealth government, which enabled a long overdue refurbishment program resulting in the present Shine Dome.
Our management of our financial capital resources – shares and so on – was amateurish to the extent that we only looked at it once every three months. We had good people looking at it but once every three months wasn't adequate, so we professionalised that management.
We created a new officer position as a secretary for education. The outreach to schools has always been a strong point of this Academy, and something that's not typically reflected in the work programs of like academies elsewhere. Our own executive secretary had bravely and effectively borne the torch, but he told me in the midstream (of my presidency) that he wanted to retire, and as part of the adjustments the council agreed that we should get a new officer position for the education area. And we did.
Also, I was concerned that we make the process of electing fellows more rigorous, in the sense of being completely fair and eliminating too much lobbying or self-interest or conflict of interest – and, at the same time, enable ourselves not only to recognise quality but at the margin to allow something for the underrepresented gender, people from locations which weren't well represented in this Academy, young people, and people from fields that weren't well represented. I think we got a robust process that was effective in terms of women coming in and so on.
Yes, I think this Academy has become more balanced, and certainly it's prospering well these days.
While all this has been going on, of course, you've had a family, with kids growing up and all sorts of things. Would you like to tell us something about this?
Well, it started when I married my wife, about 40 years and 10 days ago [laugh] in Newcastle. I count that as a very fortunate thing in my life. We had three daughters, who are all married or have been married or are somewhere along that route, because I have two ex-son-in-laws. We have six grandchildren. Only one of the daughters is following in a sort of academic style of activity; she's a PhD student in Sanskrit at the University of Queensland. It's interesting that she displays many of the same characteristics that I think I display: passion for a subject and interest in what other people are doing. And she gets a great charge out of going to a conference and so on
My wife has not been an academic, although she did very well at school. She was trained as a high school music teacher and did some teaching in the school system, at both private and
public schools. She's done a lot of charity work. She was president of the faculty wives at Newcastle University, and a similar thing here, and she sits on the committees of some organisations like the Eisteddfod Society, the Women's International Club and so on.
It seems that music runs in your family. Do you still keep up your music?
Ahh, yes, I do, but I wouldn't say I was particularly systematic about it. It's only the piano, and sometimes it's duets with my wife, which gives us both a huge charge. At other times I'll go back to a Haydn or a Mozart or a Beethoven sonata or something like that, or Schubert, and try to work my way through it, recognising that my skill levels have certainly decayed! I listen a lot to music. If I walk down the street, I'll take my iPod. People look at me, because no-one older than 21 is supposed to wear an iPod, I think! [laugh] But I'm just listening to some nice Mozart opera or symphony when I do that.
I find music an amazingly uplifting, almost spiritual dimension of my life.
Have you managed to keep on with any hobbies? Did you learn to play golf, or something like that?
No, not golf. But we all should keep ourselves fit at our age, and I enjoy that. I swim 50 lengths of my pool each day for about seven months of the year, and for the other five months I walk every morning – at least if I'm at home. And I sometimes climb Mount Ainslie and so on at the weekend.
I still enjoy reading, both fiction and non-fiction, and English- and non-English-originating books. And occasionally I play computer games, but not what I call the shoot 'em up ones. There are some which require you to solve puzzles, and I find them fun.
After your experience of life, do you have any good advice for people contemplating a career in science or engineering?
Ahh, there's a couple of principles that I'd suggest people keep in mind. (They may conflict at times.) One is to be passionate about what you're doing, or choose what you're doing on the basis of your passions. The other is to understand what your strengths are, and try to play to those strengths. If you find it difficult dealing with people, and you're not prepared to work on that problem with some form of training, don't become a boss. If you find it very hard to produce research results, don't plan to be a research engineer; plan to be some other kind of engineer – in
management or a sales engineer or something like that.
As another, subsidiary principle, I think differentiated experiences are very helpful. I have found it very interesting, while I've had a university position, to have been in other countries, to have worked for companies in Australia and round the world, to have done work for the Australian government – and, once, the Chilean government, and another time the Austrian government – and I found those activities made me wiser. If you're wiser, presumably you do a better day job as a result.
Engineering probably has as many if not more outward paths from the day you get your bachelor's degree than does, say, Sanskrit, and so for people who aren't sure about what they're going to do, that's a way of keeping your options open – at least if you like maths and physics and technical things.
Brian, thank you very much for sharing your experience in science and engineering with us.
© 2023 Australian Academy of Science