Professor John Lovering, geologist


John Francis Lovering was born in Sydney in 1930. After finishing at Canterbury Boys High School, Lovering accepted a New South Wales cadetship at the Australian Museum to attend the University of Sydney. He graduated in 1951 with a BSc (Hons) and began work as assistant curator of Mineralogy and Petrology at the Australian Museum (1951-55). Meanwhile, Lovering completed an MSc (1953) at the University of Sydney. In 1953 Lovering went to work at Caltech in the USA. While here, Lovering worked towards his PhD which was awarded in 1956.

Lovering returned to Australia to take up a position as research fellow (1956-60), then fellow (1960-64) and finally senior fellow (1964-69) in Geophysics and Geochemistry at the Australian National University. In 1969 he became professor of geology (1969-87) and head of the School of Earth Sciences (1975-87) at the University of Melbourne. During this time he also served as dean of the Faculty of Science (1983-85) and deputy vice-chancellor (research) (1985-87), as well as being a member of the Australian Antarctic Research Expeditions in 1978 and 1987. In 1987 Lovering was made emeritus professor at the University of Melbourne and moved to Adelaide to become vice-chancellor and professor of geology at Flinders University (1987-95).

Selected audio from this interview is available from ABC Radio National's The Science Show website Australian scientific superstars No.2 - John Lovering

Interviewed by Professor Robyn Williams 20 July 2010.


This is an interview with Professor John Lovering about his work in geology, his time as Dean of Science at the University of Melbourne and as Vice-Chancellor at Flinders University in Adelaide.

Father and Mother

John, you grew up in Sydney; was it a scientific household?

My father was in the Post-Master General Department and very much involved with the telephone sections. He also worked with the early ABC as a technician and could tell some wonderful stories about what they did in those early days. There was a bit of electronics and science around the house but not overly so. It was only as I went through school and got older that I started to get interested in scientific things.

But did you have any practical inspiration from your father’s work? Did he introduce you to machines and tell you how they worked and prepare you for all that IT cleverness?

The answer to that is: no, he wouldn’t let me. He was a bit of an obsessive person with regard to his own equipment. That was a pity, because I could have learnt a lot from him, I’m sure. He was very much involved in amateur radio in those very early days – we are talking about the twenties and thirties – and he did a lot of work in radio transmission technologies.

What about your mother?

My mother was a very fine mother and looked after the family – including my eldest sister and youngest sister. She didn’t have any great formal training, but she was a great mother.

You would be amazed at how many other Fellows say exactly the same thing.

I am glad to hear it.

Terrible and terrific teachers

What was the crisis about your primary school, of all things?

I was five years old and it was time to go to school. The local school was Ashbury Public School in Sydney. Ashbury is now an inner suburb but in those days, it was a bit far to the west. So off I went with my mother in hand – or at least I was in her hand – and was put into the kindergarten class. The teacher who ran that class – I won’t say what her name was – had actually taught my mother at a previous school elsewhere in Sydney, when my mother was a child. I think the problem was that I was the first child of a child that she had taught, and I think she started to realise time was getting on a little bit for her and she seemed to take it out on me in some way. She certainly didn’t take to me as a human being and I hated school, I hated going to kindergarten. There are many stories that my elder sister tells about me being dragged off to school and carrying on very badly and not enjoying it at all. It was a terrible time; I remember it well.

Isn’t it amazing that you remember it after all these years?

Oh, yes; and I will never forgive that woman for the way she treated me. But luckily I finally got out of kinder and went to first class, as it was known in those days. The teacher there was a Mrs Vera Lyons and she was just marvellous. She really cared about the young kids she had and, for some reason, she took a great shine to me. I blossomed under Mrs Lyons’s tutelage and I think she gave me the great love that I have for knowledge and education in general. I really think she is the most wonderful teacher that I had in those early days. Without her, I don’t know what would have happened, quite frankly. I think, if I had been under my kindergarten teacher for a while, I could have been quite a different person.

Isn’t it interesting that a person, such as Mrs Lyons, can reveal to you the kind of potential that you might have?

I don’t know how they work it out, but she did. There was a wonderful opportunity, after I had been over in America, done my PhD and come back to the ANU. I heard from my eldest sister, Beryl, who had gone back to a reunion day at the school, that Mrs Lyons was there and she had asked about me. She had said, ‘Where is my John?’ Beryl had told her that I was now in Canberra. She said, ‘Get him to come in and see me next time he’s in Sydney,’ and I did that with my wife and young family. It was wonderful to see her again and I will never forget that afternoon we spent with her; it was terrific.

Did you ever tell her what she meant to you?

Oh, yes. I did, and I think she liked me telling her that.

Then it was off to Canterbury Boys High. Did you meet John Howard there?

John Howard came after me, so I can’t say that I did. But high school was the time when I started to become interested in science. I had been given a chemistry set for a birthday at one stage by my father. I really enjoyed the experiments and I started to get fascinated by chemistry. Sure enough, along came a chance to start to do chemistry at high school and I really blossomed in that too; that was just terrific.

Any particular teachers?

To be honest, I can’t remember their names now, but there was one that I did have quite a bit of a relationship with. Some that I didn’t – and I remember quite specifically the ones that I didn’t. But, by and large, they were all good. Canterbury High was a very good school in those days – it probably still is, but it certainly was then – and they had very good teachers. It was during the war and they were very dedicated people. There were a lot of interactions between the boys that were there too, and there was competition and it was all good fun; it bolsters up one’s growth.

Was it a strain trying to keep up at all?

No. I have always liked competition, as a matter of fact. A certain amount of it is always good; it stirs up the blood and keeps the brain moving. It can be a bit wearing but, if you are going to play in the competitive game you have got to play it well.

Back to top

From ornithology to geology

Then you wanted to go on to higher things at university. How did birds become so pivotal in this story?

While I was at high school, I became interested not just in chemistry but also in natural sciences in general – ‘natural history’, as it was called in those days. I am not quite sure how the connection was made but, through radio, there was a man called Crosby Morrison who ran a magazine called Wildlife. He had these radio programs about Australian natural history – birds, animals and plants. He was a fascinating broadcaster and I used to listen to his program every Saturday night at a quarter past seven. I really got caught up in it all, and I would save my money and buy his magazine once a month. I was listening to him speak on birds as part of this as well as my chemical side of interest too.

My family was not particularly rich and they could not afford to send me to university. But there were exhibitions in those days that allowed you to get a certain amount of money to go to the university, depending on your leaving certificate exam results. I got an exhibition, but it was not enough to keep you going. It paid for your books and it paid for your tuition but nothing else. I noted in the newspaper an advertisement for the Australian Museum in Sydney calling for cadets and there was a cadetship in ornithology. The idea was that they would pay your way through university and give you a salary of 30 shillings a week and you would work with the Museum in the holidays. Then, when you got your degree, you would become a member of staff. I thought, ‘Oh, this sounds pretty good to me,’ so I applied.

We had to do a formal examination. There was this room in Sydney and we all went and did the exam. There were lots and lots of people in it – lots of ex-servicemen because it was just after the war. It was a general exam on knowledge, science and whatever; it was not specifically on birds, thank goodness, because I did not know a great deal about birds. As for the results, I didn’t hear anything for a while. Then finally, we got a phone call from the Museum saying, ‘I am sorry. You didn’t get the ornithology post, because the chap that got it is an ex-serviceman and has been working on birds for many, many years. He is really quite an expert in his own right. But we thought, looking at your history, that you might be interested in one in geology – in mineralogy and petrology.’ I was not quite sure what geology was in those days. I had a quick look in the dictionary to see what it was about and said, ‘Yeah that sounds interesting. I think I’ll think about that,’ and I came back the next week and said, ‘Yes, I think I’d like to do it.’ I went to the Museum and had a look at the gallery. It did look fascinating, so I said, ‘Okay, we’ll go along with that,’ and I became a cadet in mineralogy and petrology for my term at the University of Sydney, doing my honours degree in geology and in chemistry.

What if they had said ‘herpetology’ or ‘botany’ instead?

Good question, Robyn! I do not know. In some ways I wish they had said, ‘We’re going to start you working in fundamental biology,’ and maybe I would have become much more relevant these days than I am now. I mean, here I am, a physical scientist, and very few people want to be physical scientists any more. It is all biology and the exciting stuff there. I have never done anything in that area at all; I am totally ignorant on that. That is a terrible thing, but there it is.

Isn’t it a paradox, given Australia’s history, that half the geology departments around the country have been closed down in recent times?

There were not many students going into geology, and the geology departments have become amalgamated with all sorts of other departments in various universities. I think Melbourne, my old department there, is still the only one that is mainly geology, but even it is now combined with meteorology. This is probably not a bad thing, because it is all part of the science of the Earth as a whole. As long as there is a good connection, that is not so bad. And, as long as the training in solid Earth geology is still strong, I think we can cope with the changes. But it is a bit sad to see the old geology departments closing down; and that very few of the old professorships of geology exist any more.

When you were training, were you a reductionist, looking only at the chemistry? Or were you a rock chopper out on the mountainside? And how did meteorites come into all of this?

Well, perhaps I will back step a tiny bit and say how I first really started to get interested in the possibility of geology, before I really knew what it was, before I went to Canterbury Boys High School. In those days, as a young kid, we used to play out in the street in Sydney; it was quite safe to do so. All the kids in the street would play together on the roadway. There was only a small part in the middle of the road that was sealed and on either side there was just crushed rock. That crushed rock was dolerite from Prospect Hill in Sydney. I remember one day I picked up a piece of rock and looked at it – I think I was going to throw it at somebody because we used to throw rocks at each other. There was this white vein running through the rock and sticking out of the white vein were these cubes of what looked like gold. I said, ‘Look, I’ve found gold!’ All the kids came running and we looked at this, and it did look like gold. I took it into class the next day and showed it to my science teacher and he said, ‘No, it’s not gold; it’s fool’s gold.’ It was iron pyrites. But that was something that really started to trigger off an interest in geology, even before I became a geologist.

Back to top

Speedy PhD at Caltech

What about the University of Sydney; how did that proceed?

I was certainly much more interested in the chemical side of geology, the solid rock side, and certainly not into palaeontology or even in soft rock geology. My main interest was the evolution of the Earth as a whole, the solid Earth and the hard rock side of things. My honours degree was based on a petrological problem down in Marulan in New South Wales. When I finished my honours degree and came to work with the Museum, I decided that I would like to do a bit more work. But I wanted to move into another area and that was into stratigraphy, starting to look now at soft rocks. So I had come from hard rocks to soft rocks. I did a part-time masters degree on the stratigraphy of the Wianamatta Group, that is the topmost Triassic rocks around the Sydney Basin. That study was the first time that the new stratigraphic code, the new way of classifying sedimentary rocks into sedimentary sequences, was used in Australia.

At the Museum, I was learning lots about mineralogy and at the same time going into the field and collecting mineral samples, where appropriate, and dealing with the public on questions about material that they would bring in. Then correspondence came in from Harrison Brown, who was Professor of Geochemistry at Caltech (the California Institute of Technology) and one of the early pioneers in this field. He wanted some pieces of iron meteorite to do trace element studies. He was looking at the evolution of iron meteorites, which you could see from their trace element contents. I was asked by my boss in the Museum to go and cut samples off the iron meteorites for this work. As I was doing that, I thought, ‘I don’t know why this fellow is going to do this work; I’d quite like to do this.’ So I wrote him a letter and said, ‘I’m preparing these samples for you and I’d quite like to come over and work on them,’ and he said, ‘That’s a good idea; I’ll get you a scholarship,’ which he did. So over I went – originally just to work on the samples and not to do a PhD. I had not really thought about a PhD, because PhDs were not common in those days; we are talking about 1952 or 1953.

I got there and I started working. I used emission spectrography to look at the trace elements, gallium and germanium, in iron meteorites, which is a particularly interesting assemblage. I spent a year essentially working on that and doing a few undergraduate courses at the same time. At the end of the year, he said, ‘Your work is going so well, I think you’ve got to stay and do a PhD.’ I said, ‘Oh, that’s good,’ so I stayed. Luckily, because I had had that masters training in Sydney, I came to Caltech with extra experience in geology. Things went very well with the analytical work and that allowed me to finish a PhD in essentially two years. Afterwards, I came back to the Museum and it wasn’t long after that that I was inveigled into the new Department of Geophysics at the Australian National University in Canberra.

Caltech is a really amazing place. Some people have said that it’s so elite that even the people in security have Nobel Prizes. In fact, a friend of mine went there and had a really miserable time. How did you get on?

Certainly competitive but, as I have mentioned, I don’t mind being competitive. I found it a most wonderful place to be; it was so exciting. We are talking 1953; I was there until the end of 1955.

Was that before the jet propulsion lab was set up?

Oh, no. The jet propulsion lab was there then.

It wasn’t concerned with outer space then?

No, it wasn’t. Then, it was a jet propulsion lab. That was what they were working on: the physics and engineering of jet propulsion. It was the most stimulating place for a young geologist from Australia. In Australia there had been a tendency in one’s university life not to argue the toss with your mentors and the staff of your department. They were sort of semi-gods to some extent; in those days they were thought to be anyway. Then I went straight into this environment where there was lots of competition and argument between students and the staff. People didn’t take everything from their lecturers as being God-given.

Did you meet any of the superstars at Caltech, like Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling?

All of them; and Feynman was just a terrific character.

Tell me.

When I finally decided that I was going to do a PhD, I had to do some more graduate study work, including some courses, and there was one course where I had to write a term paper. From my iron meteorite work, I had got some ideas on how iron meteorites may well have evolved in a common source. So I went along to Harrison Brown and said, ‘I need someone to talk to me about the physics of crystallisation of iron nickel-rich melts,’ and he said, ‘Well, I don’t know about that, but there’s Feynman in physics, who knows everything about everything.’ I said, ‘I’ll go and see him.’ He was a fascinating man to talk with. He didn’t know anything about meteorites or iron-rich melts and crystallisation; but, with knowing the basic and solid state physics of what was going on, he could certainly make a contribution. I got a lot out of those discussions. As a grad student, you could go and talk to Feynman and Linus Pauling. Beno Gutenberg, the great geophysicist, was there too and you could talk with him. It was just the most fantastic place.

I don’t suppose Murray Gell-Mann was there yet?

No, he wasn’t.

Back to top

Broadcasting the lunar landing

Moving forward to 1969 and those fantastic moon shots, with Apollo 11 flying to the moon and landing there, how did you come to be chosen to be in the live studio for the commentary with Peter Pockley at that time?

First of all, how did I get to be chosen? When the NASA program for the lunar exploration got some publicity, I thought ‘this is fantastic stuff’. Having worked on and with meteorites at ANU, the next logical thing would be to look at any rocks coming back from the moon. So I wrote to the people I knew in NASA, I happened to know some people there, and said, ‘When you’re looking for people to work on the lunar rocks, I’d like to be considered.’ At the appropriate time, when we were getting closer to the first launch of Apollo 11, there was a formal call around the world for people who were interested in working on the lunar rocks to put in proposals. This was another very competitive thing: everybody who was in any sort of vague business of looking at meteorites and anything exciting with lunar rocks or any rocks of any sort wanted to be in it. We had the technologies. I had been working at ANU on the use of electron microprobes. The microprobes could go in and analyse micron or micrometre sized particles in rocks or meteorites to determine the chemical composition of their minerals in great detail. So obviously I had the technology to start working on these things; we had one of the most innovative electron microprobe labs in the world.

There was some publicity about me getting chosen as a principal investigator for the samples, so, come the time for the launch of Apollo 11, it was reasonable for the ABC to think, ‘Well, here’s the character that’s going to work on them; get him in.’ I was one of about four people that were there. There we were, the landing time was the middle of the day. We were all sitting in the studio in Sydney and watching things starting to happen and hearing the voices coming back and seeing them getting out of the vehicle – oh, it was just mind blowing stuff – and then trying to interpret what they were seeing. It was not always easy, because I think they were pretty excited themselves, reasonably enough. It was exciting to be part of it all.

Some people thought that, when they landed on the moon, they would sink into the dust and disappear. Were you surprised by what happened?

That was the Tommy Gold theory. He had come up with this theory that the ‘seas’ on the moon were these great unstable dust holes and you would sink down forever. Actually, we did know a little bit better than that from some of the unmanned landers, which showed that it wasn’t quite like that. By that stage, we knew that they weren’t going to really disappear, but I guess you’re never too sure what is going to happen on the moon.

There you are, sitting in the live studio, a geologist with no necessary background in broadcasting. How did you know what to say about the rocks that they were picking up?

That is a very good question, Robyn. I am not sure that what I said at the time was particularly accurate, from what we know subsequently. But I really don’t think that that mattered. The important thing was the interaction between the people there, all of them being very interested in what was going on and excited by the prospect of this incredible situation of a human being walking around on the moon.

Who was in the studio; was Peter Pockley there?

Peter Pockley and Earle Hackett, the chap from Western Australia, the medical guy that you often use on your program.

The late Earle Hackett now.

He was there. There was a bloke from our NASA people here in Australia talking about the engineering side of things. It was great fun; it really was. It was just terrific.

I have often thought back to how cynical we were about Apollo and the moon shots, thinking, ‘The military is involved.’ and it was all very naff. But, my God, it really was exciting, wasn’t it?

Those of us who were there and experienced it will never forget it. I know that many years later, when I was Vice-Chancellor at Flinders University in South Australia, I did some first-year lecturing in geology to keep a hand on real teaching – so that the academics couldn’t tell me that I was too far above that now. Anyway, I was talking about the lunar experience and the work and I remember in class one day, getting into the actual landing and what was found. I looked around the room and said, ‘How many of you saw this or were there when it happened?’ One person had; it was an older student. The rest of them had no idea of what I was talking about; the excitement of that period and the wonder of it all. No-one will ever have it, unless they were there.

Moon rock analysis

Back to top

So you were getting back material from the moon and examining it; what exactly were you looking for?

Actually getting the material was exciting too because I had to go across and pick up the first samples from Apollo 11 myself. They didn’t want to send it by any other process. I went over there; we went to the lunar lab in Houston and Cape Canaveral and they brought me into this room and brought out these samples of moon rock. We couldn’t touch them at the time, but you could have them in their containers. Remember, they put it into quarantine for a couple of weeks, until they decided that it wasn’t going to give us all some terrible disease. When I actually saw the stuff and handled it, they had just got it out of quarantine. Suddenly, you could see, ‘God, it’s basalt; it’s nothing.’ There were breccias as well, broken-up rock; but the really fresh stuff was this wonderful lunar basalt. Like anything you could have seen on earth. At least in a hand specimen it looked like the basalt you get all around Melbourne. There was nothing exciting, until you started to look in detail and then you could see all the differences of a lunar environment. But just seeing that thing was quite unbelievable.

Even the chemistry of these rocks was different, wasn’t it?

The basic chemistry was just like a basaltic rock on Earth, but there were differences. One of the major ones was that they were very high in titanium, so there were lots of ilmenite and titanium minerals in the basalts. But we did a lot of work, as did a lot of other people, on the chemistry of the lunar rocks, the mineralogy and the detail of it all. We know a great deal about the detail of it and how it all fits together in many ways. But, in some ways, we knew it all then anyway; we knew more about it than we did about the Earth, in some respects.

One interesting thing was that two minerals were found on the moon, just moon minerals, and one we found in our group here in Australia; this was a mineral that we called tranquillityite, after the Sea of Tranquillity. There was another little competitive bit here that you might be interested in. We used to have these lunar conferences where once a year we would all get together in Houston and everybody would give talks on all the stuff they had found the year before. These were people from all over the world, all of the groups involved in this stuff. Everybody was trying to show how clever they were with all the clever things they had found. There was this mineral—little tiny things that were no more than 50 micrometres long and sort of 20 wide, tiny grains tucked away interstitially between the major mineral grains in the basalts. There was this little phase we found. I won’t go into the detail of how we found it, but we analysed it in great detail. We got CSIRO people to come in with us. They managed to pick out these little tiny grains and we were able to determine the structure of it all in great detail.

We went across to the moon rock conferences and started to listen to what was going on. A lot of people there found this mineral, but they didn’t know what it was. They had the chemistry, they had some good analyses of it, but nobody had done the structure, except for our group, through CSIRO people. We were able to beat the lot of them in terms of knowing all about it and characterising it. So we got to name it and the American groups got quite irritated; nevertheless, we had the data. We all joined together on a paper—I think there were something like 20­odd people on this paper—but we were the lead authors and we got to name ‘tranquillityite’.

It just so happens that I was at the ANU, with Ross Taylor – I hope I don’t put him in the poo – and I’ve actually held some moon rock in my hand.

I went to Melbourne with my group. Ross Taylor, Bill Compston and Ted Ringwood were the groups that stayed here in Canberra and did a great deal of work on the lunar rocks.

And Ted Ringwood had a theory, which he published in Nature, about the origins of the moon. He suggested that some mighty great impact way back at the beginning, blasted something into space, which then became the moon. Do you go along with that theory?

I’m not really in the game much any more, but I think that’s the current view again – that it’s a piece torn off the Earth by an early stage impact.

You were involved with many of the Apollo missions right through.

Right to the end, yes. In fact, for Apollo 17 launch, I was in America on a Fulbright and I was invited to come down and watch Apollo 17 go.


That was the one that had the geologist on board, Harrison ‘Jack’ Schmitt, who was actually at Caltech when I was there. He had been an undergraduate student there, whereas I was a graduate student. My family was with me, three young kids and my wife. I was with NASA in Maryland, and we drove down to see it go off, which was again another one of these incredible experiences that I will never forget. We were sitting five kilometres away from the firing site. It was the only night launch of an Apollo and five kilometres away there was this little rocket sitting, all bathed in lights. We were waiting for it to go off; there were lots of delays, with one thing and another. But, finally it was going to go.

We were sitting on top of a bus so that we would get a good view and we were looking across the flat territory to where it was. The next thing you knew, the engines had fired and there was this huge light flash that just about blinded you with its strength. We didn’t hear anything yet; it was too far away for us to hear anything. Then we heard this incredible sound. Like a whole lot of fire crackers going off. On television it doesn’t sound quite the same at all; you don’t hear the ‘crack, crack, crack’ noise of the engines. Then slowly this rocket started to rise up and, as it was going up, there were flames going everywhere and there was sound. Then the shock waves hit us. We were on this bus and the whole thing was sort of rocking backwards and forwards. It was the total experience, believe me. Then you would think, ‘Poor old Jack Schmitt is going off on the top of this thing.’ There it was and, in the next couple of days, we could see him doing his geology on the moon. It was just marvellous.

Back to top

Dean of Science

Then you went to the University of Melbourne and became Dean of Science. Did you manage to retain a little bit of work at the bench?

I did. I went to Melbourne in 1969 as Professor of Geology. It was a great time to go because that was when money was starting to be put into the university system. Certainly my connections with the lunar program helped us to get a lot of research money. I was able to get an electron probe laboratory set up of our own, which was a really first-class laboratory; it was the leader in the world in its day. It was the first totally computer driven electron microprobe in the world. We were able to create a department in this new sort of geology, this new system of chemical–geophysical activity, where you are not just mapping rocks. Sure, mapping rocks is important, but you have to understand the detail of what’s going on; so you need to know a lot about what they are made of and how they got that way. We developed an exciting program in that activity and a whole lot of other things spawned off from that.

Then being a dean: what was it like?

In 1985 I was still hands on as well as running the department. 1969 to 1985 were my most productive years, I guess, after I left ANU, although that was a productive time too. I was asked by the Vice-Chancellor at Melbourne, who at that stage was David Caro, if I would become Dean of Science. They were having a problem; they were moving to a new system in which the faculties were going to handle the budgets for the various departments. The central money would go to the faculties and then the faculties would carve it up to the constituent departments of those faculties. They needed somebody who was going to be able to control the faculty in a way that the deans had not been able to in the past. They wanted someone who was in a position to be able to do that and with some sort of experience. He was a very persuasive man and he was one of many people that I really have a great deal of respect for,
so I accepted that job.

That was the beginning of the end for me in research, in as much as my groups kept working and I had only a marginal connection with them and what was going on, which was a bit sad in some ways. But that’s the way you go, you know. I had been in bench research activity for – I don’t know – 30­odd years and you’ve got to grow with these things. Generally, when the occasion has arisen and things have come before me, I have taken them and not run away from them.

But could you keep up with the science while all that was going on?

I could keep up with what was going on, but I wasn’t doing it myself any more; everybody else was – my students were. That was and still is, to some extent, irritating, but I had other things that came out of the administrative side. Having spent two years as Dean of Science, I was asked whether I would take on the new role of Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Research, running research in the structure of the university. I did that for another couple of years and enjoyed that in its way. Melbourne University is a great university and I really did enjoy my time there.

Vice Chancellor of Flinders

Then another opportunity arose. You can’t help yourself with some of these things; you’ve got to keep moving on. The option came of becoming Vice-Chancellor at Flinders University in South Australia, which was and is a very good research university, one of the younger ones. That happened in 1987. Then from 1987 until 1995, I was Vice-Chancellor at Flinders and developed that institution with a whole lot of new faculties and growth. It was a great growth period in many ways, although it was also a difficult time because it was the time of the Dawkins’s university changes with amalgamations and whatever, and I didn’t enjoy all that sort of activity. But, never mind, that did have to happen.

Way back, when I first went to Flinders University, I was taken straight to the Vice-Chancellor’s offices because at that time they were being occupied by student rebels who had occupied the entire admin building. Were they still rambunctious and rebellious when you turned up?

That Vice-Chancellor was the second Vice-Chancellor of Flinders. The first one was Peter Karmel, a great man in Australian tertiary higher education. The second one was Roger Russel and he had a terrible time. It was in the sixties and there was all that sixties turbulence that struck all the universities to some extent. But Flinders was one of the new ones; it only started in 1966. It was a very difficult time for him. I really do feel for that man.

I had troubles during my time with some student activity but nothing serious. Why did it change? The whole system seemed to slow up at the end of the sixties, didn’t it? You were part of that, Robyn, and you can tell me too why it changed. But it did change and, for whatever reason, students became much more focused on their own needs for education and getting a job, and competition for them became important too. I mean, it is such a competitive business now with the young, which really didn’t happen in my day. I was one of the lucky generations born in the 1930s, in the Great Depression, when there weren’t a lot of us. So that our group was being buoyed up by all the young ones coming underneath us and it was so much easier for us and the competition was nothing like it is now.

It was the Dawkins revolution. John Dawkins, when he was Minister for Education in Hawke’s government, turned over the universities and the colleges of education more than almost any other single force in generations. How did you cope with that?

It was an extremely difficult time. There I was, a new Vice-Chancellor, coming into Flinders University about two weeks before the Dawkins green paper came out with this whole new restructuring of the universities and the pressure on amalgamations between various constituent parts of the system. Suddenly, before I had time to establish myself within the university, we were forced into looking for amalgamations with other institutions in Adelaide in a way that I thought was just crazy; but you were pushed into it.

I think it did a lot of damage to the system, quite frankly. We had quite a good system at that stage. We had a higher education system of universities that were largely research oriented systems; we had the colleges of advanced education, which were very strong teaching institutions and doing a first rate job at that; and we had the technological institutions, which were very fine organisations training people in those sorts of technological skills. The system worked perfectly well. But, for all sorts of reasons, there were pressures on him, as the minister, to up the status of each of these or at least certainly the colleges and the institutes of technology. There were certain pressures on him to up their status in the system.

So that everyone is equal.

The fact is that they were equal but they were different; they were different but equal. For whatever reasons, people felt that they were not ‘equal’ or that there were various grades of ‘equalness’. I can see the pressures that were on him, but I think it was a pity. He could have raised the status of all the institutions within their own specialties in the way they were operating instead of trying to make everybody the same, that is, research universities. I think that has been not a terribly successful operation. Now it is ironing itself out, but certainly at the time, it was extremely difficult to try to manage it all and it caused a lot of angst. And, in terms of the individuals that were there at the time as part of it all, it was very stressful.

Do you think we’ve come out of that and things have settled down and we’ve adjusted?

I think it has. I have really been out of the university cut and thrust since 1994 or 1995. After getting involved in natural resources management activity, I’ve really been out of university politics, so I’m not sure how settled down it really is. Certainly the older established universities are still trying to stake their claim for pre-eminence in various ways and everybody else is still trying to get up there too; it’s still going on, I think.

Let me ask you a John Dawkins type question. He always felt that the really bright young people who are committed to science – people like you, John – will do it anyway because they have to. But what about all the others? What about the rest of us, the 50 per cent of the population who might do it? Have we lost them or managed to succeed with them?

I think that is what did happen before, where the colleges of advanced education taught the various sciences in that way and the institutes of technology did it in their way. You had a selection there, as a young person, as a student, to say, ‘Am I going to go in this direction or am I going to go in this other direction and go into the more academic side of higher education?’ The ability was there, I believe, to do it. I think the problem was that the status was not there in each of these areas, and people do concern themselves with status. I think that does happen, whether you like it or not, whether they should or not. I do feel that Dawkins missed an opportunity to raise the status of each of these parts of the system without trying to push them all together.

And with science, you can’t just do it with a pencil and paper; you need equipment, infrastructure and special staff. Is that what spread everything so thin?

It certainly went a long way to causing troubles. Everybody wanted to be doing research in their field, whatever it was – science, social sciences or anything else – and everybody needed all the support structures that could allow them to do that, and that costs huge amounts of money. I think it was a mistake to try to do that.

But they did say that some of the universities would do only teaching and wouldn’t do research. How did that work out?

Everybody now is still supposed to do research as well. If you want to be seen as a university of the highest quality, you have to have a research profile as well.

Back to top

Worthy organisations

Okay, that was in the nineties. Since then, you have been involved in any number of committees and worthy organisations; how has that panned out?

When I was in Adelaide as Vice-Chancellor at Flinders, I was asked by the Premier to chair a body that had all the heads of all the departments concerned with natural resources management in the state. This body was to argue out issues within that group and then come back to government and say, ‘This is what we think we want to do. We have all had the discussions and we have come up with a way that we think is the way you want to handle ‘water,’ or ‘this issue’ or whatever in natural resources management—animal protection, biology, biodiversity and so on. They needed somebody who could come in from outside the Public Service system. They asked me if I would chair that body. I thought, ‘That sounds interesting.’ This again is my belief: you should always take on things that people ask you to do and see how you go with them. So I did it.

I had the heads of all the departments. There were people trying to preserve natural resources of one sort or another and there were people who could be accused of trying to ‘rape and pillage’ it. It was a very fascinating group of people and they were all there to do their best for their own departments. We would have very frank and full discussions at our meetings. They were all professionals so they all would come up with their points of view; they would argue them out and I would keep order in all of this and make sure that everybody had the opportunity to present what they believed was important. Then we would usually come up with a consensus answer for whatever the issue was that we could get general agreement on. I could go back to the government then and say, ‘Well, in this issue, which is a controversial one, the departments are prepared to go this way or that way.’ This worked really very well. It worked well for the Premier and the politicians, because they didn’t have to argue the matter out in their own cabinet; we sort of argued it out for them and they just got a fait accompli. They had to put their own stamp on it all but they didn’t have to have the basic arguments. So they rather liked that.

Were you a pragmatist or were you more of a greeny?

Oh, Robyn, how I could define myself as that, I don’t know! As you would remember, going back to where I began, I had always had an interest in the natural world and, if you have an interest in the natural world, you do care about all the various parts of it. Even though I had never done a biological subject in my life and still haven’t for that matter, one still has an understanding that we are part of this fantastic system of life and it’s something that we all want to continue. For all sorts of reasons, we want to see it keep on going, and it is an exciting thing to be part of. So my view was: sure, we have got to mine materials to keep the material wealth of the country progressing, but we have also got to do all of these things remembering that we have to preserve the importance of what the environment means to us. That is not always easy to do and sometimes you have to make compromises. But that’s what we have to do, because people aren’t going to stop doing each of these things. Provided that you can argue out the issues, you can usually come around to an outcome that people can accept; they may not always like it, but they can accept it. Which, after all, is what we are supposed to be doing within the way we govern ourselves? But often it seems to be hard to do, for all sorts of reasons that I don’t understand.

But, just use your own words, people who ‘rape and pillage’ were there; how did you manage them?

That is an interesting thing, and it came up again when I was President of the Murray Darling Basin Commission; there was a similar situation there. As I said, we had all the heads of the department in this committee in South Australia. They were all professional managers and they all understood that they had to compromise on some issues. You have to give and take a little bit on these things. That’s the way that you can work it, provided that you have the right environment where people do not feel threatened. Rather than an environment where they feel that they have to be acting in a machismo sort of way. Part of that,
I found, was to keep a certain lightness of touch at our meetings. Where there was an opportunity to add even a little bit of semi-levity, sometimes it would help to break up some situations. I have found that to be a very useful procedure in many activities that I have been involved in.

You found that most of the people involved could be reasonable?

They could, yes, because they were professionals.

What sorts of activities are you still maintaining at the moment?

Not a large number of things now. I finally finished my activities with being President of the Murray Darling Basin Commission, as I was for five years, and then on the board of one of our major rural water companies in Victoria. All I do now really is that I’m back in my old department in Melbourne. We moved from Adelaide back to our old house in Melbourne.

You kept it on, did you?

Oh, my word, and very sensibly too. I would never have got back in again if I had sold it. I have an appointment at the university still and I have a room next to my old offices in the department. I run some committees for the university, things where they want somebody who is independent now and not a member of any faculty and who knows, from their experience in the University, where ‘the bodies are buried’!

I have been in Melbourne since 1969, apart from my period away in Adelaide for eight years, so it’s like being back home again. They use me when they have some problems where they need that sort of person, and I am very happy to do it. I chair their Office for Environmental Programs, which is the very exciting program they have for all their environmental graduate studies in Melbourne, which has been really successful. That is really all I do these days in terms of work in that sense. I also do a few things for the academies, but not a lot.

Back to top


The world has changed dramatically since those early days when you began. At that stage, most of the science of the world was overseas. We now do two per cent of it, which seems large compared to what it was like. How do you view the situation of science in Australia now, in 2010?

I have said that I like a bit of competition, and I do; but it is now a very competitive world in every issue that you can be involved in. Also, there are no barriers between timing and there are no barriers between where you are at any given time. You are totally immersed in the world as a whole. How young people cope with all of this I really don’t understand, and I often feel sorry for them. Certainly, when you have to add to it all the activities that you’re supposed to do through things like Twitter and Facebook—and I’ve no idea why this is necessary; but it appears to be extremely necessary for people to have this social media.

The boundaries between the sciences are largely disappearing, which is great, because it means that there are no boundaries to how you can now look at your own subject. If you have the ability and the time to move on to other areas, you can. All of that is exciting. Lots of advances are made by people who cross their boundaries and bring into this new area a whole new way of looking at things. The ability to do great things is there now, in a way that perhaps we did not have. I look back and see what seems to be now, the rather amateurish way that we carried on our research, to some extent. Now it is a different world. I do read some of the international geological journals now and I wonder at the abilities that they have to do things that we could never ever dream of doing. They are now normal technologies that everybody uses! As I say, these are the things that make you a little jealous and you wish that you were starting off again.

What about some of the controversies in science like climate change, which I know you have tried to avoid being involved in the public discussion? But of some of those controversies over the years, which ones have struck you as the most significant?

The major activity that I was ever involved in on a side issue, as I recall, was the whole business of continental drift and ocean floor spreading. It is something that I think a lot of people find interesting. When I was a student, the idea of the continents drifting was one that had been put up by Alfred Wegener back in the late twenties. He was taken by the way that the continents could be pushed together in a mosaic, and this was interesting. But most people thought he was mad. There was no mechanism for this to happen; there was no way that this could happen. The early geophysicists said, ‘There’s no way that you can do this and the whole thing is nonsense.’

When I was a student, we were taught that continental drift was this semi-crazy suggestion of this German geologist many years ago, and that was that. Mind you, the Southern Hemisphere geologists did tend to think, ‘No, there’s something more in this than you think. When we look at our paleontological evidence across boundaries, we can see that there are animals that were in this continent similar to those in that continent at this time of geological evolution.’ The Southern Hemisphere people tended to think, ‘There must be something in this continental drift.’ I remember when I was at Caltech Sam Carey from Tasmania turned up one day and they got him to give a talk. Right from the early days he was a great continental drift man.

He believed that the Earth is expanding.

That was later on. That was where he was wrong. But he certainly believed in the drifting before it became popular. He gave this talk and the Caltech guys rubbished him. I was terribly embarrassed about it. It didn’t seem to worry Sam terribly much. It was a typical Caltech thing, somebody would come in and you had to knock them down. I got quite irritated at all of this. I was the only Australian geologist around the place and I got the full brunt of it as well. But that didn’t matter; I was not in the game. This was in 1953, and the Americans and most of the Europeans rubbished continental drift.

The next thing you know, people suddenly started getting this paleomagnetic evidence that showed that something funny was going on between the continents. When you plotted the polar wandering paths from various continents, they were all different; but, when you put the things together, they all came together. Lots of British geophysicists were involved in this paleomagnetic field – Blackett and so on. Then, they started looking at the oceans. We had the ability to start to look to the depths of the ocean floors and the sorts of rocks that were there. The evolution of the oceans became incredibly important where you could see these mid oceanic ridges, where volcanic activity and seismic activity was evidenced. You had the boundaries of the oceans where there was more seismic activity but of a different sort. When they started to date these rocks in the ocean floor, you could suddenly see that the oceans were expanding from the middle and then being subducted around the edges.

The whole thing of continental drift and ocean floors all came together in this wonderful piece of integration of evolution of the Earth’s surface and ocean crust. Up until then, as a student, I had always found it difficult to see what geology was all about; because it was all lots of little descriptive things, but none had ever come together in one integrative manner. Suddenly, the thing that people said could never happen – that is continents drifting – could happen and there was a mechanism for it to happen. This is the worry that I have now when people say, ‘We know what’s going on; the science is all settled.’ We thought the science was settled when we said that continents could not drift, but we were wrong.

What about Professor Sam Carey in Tasmania and his amazing theory of the expanding Earth. Is there any truth in that at all?

I don’t believe there is and I could never understand why Sam went along with it so strongly. When I was at Melbourne, I got Sam to come across and give a talk about it at one stage because I really wanted to try to find out what he was on about. He was also trying to say that there was evidence in the other parts of the solar system about planets expanding, and I didn’t see where he had got that from at all.

So Sam came over and gave a talk. I remember it very well. It was a Geological Society talk that I organised. If you knew Sam, you would know that he was a very interesting guy, a very dynamic speaker and a great character. Sam was going on about the expanding Earth and about subduction. He did not believe in subduction; he thought that it was nonsense. He suddenly got up and said, ‘I defy anybody in this room to say that subduction is a process that’s going on.’ Everybody was looking around and no­one was game to do anything, including me, I have to say. Sam was just wonderful in that sort of thing.

But the fact is, we have really good evidence that subduction does go on; you can actually see it happening in the seismic data. One has two dimensional data of these things dipping down beneath these subduction areas in the Earth. If anything was self-evident I thought that was about it. Now, that is in a general sense and I will not go into the detail. Why Sam never saw that I really do not know, but it was a pity because he was a great champion of continental drift in the days when it was totally unpopular all over the world.

Then there is Tommy Gold; you mentioned his name a little while ago. Tommy Gold believed that, as far down as you would like to go, kilometres upon kilometres, you will still find bacteria and they are producing oil. Now, that is another wild idea; what do you make of that?

Yes, I remember that. I knew Tommy Gold when I was at Caltech as a student. He used to come over there quite often and we used to have lunch at the Athenaeum Club, which was a staff club. It was really fantastic. There you were, as a little lowly graduate student, and you could come and have lunch on these little roundtables, which would sit about six people. You would have Tommy Gold and you would have a Nobel Prize winner from somewhere. It was just a fantastic place to be. I remember Tommy being there and going on about this stuff.

I could never understand why you needed to go into these inorganic origins of oil given that we knew the biological evidence of the origin of oil. I think there is no doubt that a lot of the surface oil or petroleum in the Earth is biological in origin; I think you can see it through a lot of isotopic evidence and other things. But I often wonder whether some of this very deep seated oil, which they are now starting to find, could be stuff that has come from deeper down. I don’t know. All I know is that there are very complex organic compounds that have been inorganically formed. We have done quite a bit of work on the building blocks of our solar system that we see represented in the carbonation chondrites. If that was indeed the material from which the Earth evolved, then maybe there is some hydrocarbon material coming from depth. I really don’t know, Robyn. I just wonder whether there is a possibility of two origins for some of the petroleum deposits in the world – the more surficial ones that may be biologically oriented and some of the deeper ones that people now are starting to find. But I really don’t know.

But there is no doubt that there are bugs all the way down?

I would have thought there were, but I just don’t know. It is not my area and I haven’t really spent any time on it. But these days I do think, ‘I’ve got to keep my mind open on a few things,’ because surprises keep coming up all the time in science. You think you have it all handled and you don’t.

Back to top

Mr Stripes in Antarctica

Now, John, is it true that they call you the ‘Silver Fox’?

That was when I was at the university in Melbourne. Yes, they did indeed. ‘Mr Stripes’ was another name they gave me. I used to wear stripy shirts and the students used to call me ‘Mr Stripes’ as well.

So you are the original Silver Fox?

Bob [Prime Minister Bob Hawke] and I are the same age, so we may have been called that at the same time.

I know that you have done lots and lots of research on Antarctica, but did you actually go there?

Yes. I had two trips there as part of the Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions; one was in 1978 and the other one was in 1987. When I was at Melbourne, I had had a visit from Bob Tingey from the Bureau of Mineral Resources here in Canberra. He was the Bureau’s person looking at Antarctic geology and he had spent quite a bit of time down there. The Bureau used to handle most of the geological work for the Antarctic Division. He came and gave us a talk at Melbourne and I got quite excited about it. I had not really known much about Antarctica; geologists by and large don’t, because it’s mostly covered in ice. But there are outcrops around the coast and in the mountains, and they had done a lot of work on them. It was just fascinating, this whole environment.

It seemed to me, looking for new areas for us to get into at Melbourne, that here was an opportunity to develop a program looking at Antarctic science, in particular the geological aspects. Also, we had students available to get involved in Antarctic research in a way that the Bureau did not. I set up a program in the University, trying also to bring in biologists as well to handle biological programs down there, and we set up our geological ones. The first of the two trips I had down there were really to get acquainted with what we could do geologically, what the limitations were and what things we could actually contribute to. Quite a bit of work was done in that regard. That was the first one, where the entire expedition was all in the Australian areas, Mawson’s hut, for example. We had a great time looking at the area where Mawson did all his geology and all his exploration and then, later on, at the rest of the Australian bases around the coast.

Overall I got to see all the Australian bases as well as Heard Island and Macquarie Island. Heard Island was an exciting experience because it is the only Australian volcano. Australians reckon that we own Heard Island and there is this great volcano on Heard Island. It is the only one that we have in Australia territory that is active. I remember when we went there, we arrived and we couldn’t see a thing, it was all under cloud. They said, ‘You’ll never see the volcano; forget about it.’ So we spent the day there. We spent some time whizzing around in a helicopter, trying to collect rocks and do some things. Then we came back to the ship to leave that evening. Just as we were about to go, the cloud drifted away and there was this volcano that started at sea level and went up to 10,000 feet or something. It is just huge. If you had turned around suddenly to see it, you wouldn’t have believed it, because it just came straight up out of the sea. It was just marvellous.

We set up this geological program, which was carried on largely by Professor Chris Wilson at Melbourne and his students. He had a lot of students down there and they have done a great deal of really first-class geological work. He has just retired recently, so I hope it is not going to come to an end; but it may have reached its end for a whole lot of other reasons.

We had the Bureau of Mineral Resources doing some geological work. They were doing great work, but there was only a limited number of them. And I thought ‘Why not bring in all the other universities we could and get them to contribute to this?’ That was an exciting time to start to bring in other institutions as well as the Antarctic Division people themselves, which it was my idea to do. There are all these resources out there and people are fascinated by Antarctica, so why don’t we use them? I put this to Barry Jones, who at the time was the Minister for Science and was responsible for Antarctic activity. They agreed to set up an Antarctic Science Advisory Committee, which would provide research funds to help these other institutions to do research down there.

The first chair of that was David Caro actually, my old boss at Melbourne. He did it for a couple of years and then, when he retired, they asked me to do it. I then spent quite a bit of time setting up in more detail that ability for the all of the universities in Australia to contribute to Antarctic science. That was a great outcome for Antarctic science. Australia made a major contribution as a result of that money that we were able to prise out of the Antarctic Division’s budget, which they were never very happy about, I have to say. But still, in all good grace, they did make it available.

There was some discussion back in the eighties that maybe Antarctica should be exploited for oil; I think Phillip Law was even proposing some of this. Were you involved in that?

Not really, except that I certainly used it as a lever to get support. I have to say that this is being a bit naughty here; this is being a bit of a ‘raper and pillager’. It allowed me to get some support to do some of our research down there. There is the Lambert Graben, which runs down from the continent to the ocean. It is a great dropped part of the earth’s crust and it is very likely that was quite a big sedimentary basin in its time. It could easily have some interesting deposits down there. So I used the possibilities of that to get support for our activities in the Lambert Graben.

But I have to say that it would be a great tragedy in all sorts of ways to start mining in that environment. You would certainly be very concerned about doing that these days and it probably would have been even worse in those days. Luckily, cool heads prevailed and everybody decided to put a moratorium on exploration for economic deposits down there, and I think that was very wise.

Back to top

Family life

We haven’t mentioned your wife, also a geologist, and three kids.

My wife, Kerry, was at Sydney University when I was doing my honours year. She was a bright young first year and I thought she looked rather interesting and we got together. When I went to Caltech in 1953, she was doing her honours degree in geology. She finished her honours degree while I was over there and then she thought she would like to come to America too. She got a scholarship to do a masters degree in geology at UCLA, which was fairly close to Caltech although not all that close. So she came over and we got married in America. That was pretty adventurous, when I think about it, considering that I didn’t have a lot of money and was on a scholarship; and neither did she and she was on a scholarship too. But we did and she used to commute to UCLA every day from Pasadena. She did her masters and I did my PhD.

When I was writing up my PhD, she did a bus trip right around America all by herself. For the month that I was writing it all up, or the major period when I was writing it up. She just went off all by herself and did this trip. I don’t know whether you can do it now, but you could do it then – in Greyhound buses all the way around America.

You have been married now for more than half a century.

Yes, 56 years now. One of my daughters, Erin, did a PhD in immunology at Melbourne and now works with CSL. My eldest son, Matthew, is a film and television man and has done various things for the ABC. And my youngest son, Adam, is a barrister. So they are a mixed scrum. I have three grandchildren now, two girls and a little boy, and it’s an exciting time.

Matthew has gone back to where your father began.

He has in many ways. He has lots of similarities to my father but even more to his maternal grandfather. Kerry’s father was RD FitzGerald, the Australian poet, and Matthew has a lot of Bob FitzGerald in him too, which is fascinating. He is very much that sort of writer, creative person.

It sounds like a wonderfully fulfilled life with no hiccups along the way.

We have had hiccups. We had a stillborn child at one stage of the game; it was a difficult time for us both. But, by and large, we have been very lucky. As I said earlier on, we were the lucky generation, that generation born in the thirties. We were not old enough to go to the Second World War and we were too old to go to the Korean War or were committed to other things by then and didn’t have to go. So we missed all of that side of things.

With all the expansions that took place in universities and the economic expansion of Australia and of the world in general, the affluence started to push you along. After those difficult days in the thirties, when we were kids and you didn’t have much at all, suddenly everybody has everything – more than they would want, it would seem. They don’t really realise the way it can be and the way it was back in those days. Still, we had a great life; even then it wasn’t all that bad.

Back to top

Surprises for the future?

A final question: given all the surprises that you have alluded to during this long interview, do you think there will be as many surprises for young people, especially young people in science, in the future?

I think there will be. When you look back in history you can see that so many surprises have come up, not just the ones we have talked about from a geological point of view. The universe is an amazing place and we still don’t know a lot about it. There is so much still to find out about the details of how the human body works. Certainly at my time of life, when you are looking at all the things that can go wrong, you find what an amazing thing the body is. People are finding more and more of the detail of what goes on, and that detail is again sort of unbelievable. How can science evolve to this detail, where the mechanisms that operate within your body can keep you alive for 80 years or more? It’s just amazing. How that’s all going to evolve, I’m sure I don’t know. But, in my lifetime, it has all evolved in a way that you can now expect to live for 80 years, which just 20, 30, 40 years ago you couldn’t.

And you look 50.


Back to top

© 2024 Australian Academy of Science