Professor Ron Brown (1927-2008), chemist

Professor Ron Brown. Interview sponsored by Monash University.

Ron Brown studied at the University of Melbourne, where he received a BSc in 1946. He completed a PhD at Kings College, University of London, in 1952. He then was an assistant lecturer in chemistry at University College London from 1952 to 1953. In 1953 Brown returned to the University of Melbourne as a senior lecturer in general chemistry and in 1959 became a reader in theoretical chemistry. In that same year he became foundation professor of chemistry at Monash University and remained in this position until his retirement in 1992. Over a long career, Brown worked in many areas of chemistry including spectroscopy, theoretical chemistry, astronomy, molecules and life in space. Among other things he discovered the tricarbon monoxide molecule and another called propadienone, which was kinked when it had been predicted to be straight.

Interviewed by Professor John Swan in July 2008.


A developing interest in science and marriage

I have been asked to interview Professor Ron Brown, a fellow chemist, a friend and a former colleague at Monash University. Ron, what drew you to a career in science, and especially chemistry, physics and mathematics? Was it family, a friend, a schoolteacher or something else?

Ah, it was not anything very specific. It was more or less accidental. All those long years ago I borrowed some astronomy books from, I think, the very good library at the school we were attending, Scotch College (we had been moved from my own school, Wesley College) and that got me interested in astronomy. Also, because I was one of those who could cope with mathematics and physics, I became interested in science in general. That's where it all started, not with chemistry – although, before I had finished secondary education, I had set up a home chemistry set in the laundry of my mother's house, much to her apprehension, shall we say.

Did your family understand your interest in science? Was there any scientific background among your parents or grandparents?

Not a scientific background but, funnily enough, I think it was my grandparents more than anyone else who influenced me. We were living in Prahran, in what is now inner Melbourne. In the summer in particular, having no air-conditioning or anything like that, like many households in Melbourne we used to go out into the front garden of our home in the evening, sit on a rug (on the lawn, in our case), and generally chat. When we were lying back on the rug and looking up at the sky, my grandparents used to ask me questions like, 'Well, now, you're studying these things at school' – which we weren't – 'what are those stars? Does anyone know what they are?' et cetera. And by the accident of having borrowed a book on astronomy I started to answer their questions, if I could. Mostly I couldn't, but I was stimulated to try to find out the answers that I couldn't give them, and so I studied astronomy by means of popular astronomy books out of the school library.

I well remember that when I was an undergraduate at Monash with you, you had quite exceptional talents in mathematics and physics, in addition to chemistry. Did all those various abilities contribute to your later research?

I think they were really bound together by the structure of educational systems. When you approached senior levels of your schooling you had the choice between geography and chemistry or history and physics. I chose chemistry and physics, partly because I wasn't so interested in geography and history but also because I noticed that I was getting better results in chemistry and physics than in an arts-type subject. So I focused on those. But, in my school days and early university days, my star subject was physics – in fact, I think I got the Exhibition in physics in my year 12 exams, for Melbourne University – and people thought, I suppose, that when I was at the university I would go on in physics. They were rather surprised that, although I had even better results in first-year physics than in first-year chemistry, I enrolled for second-year chemistry rather than following physics. Indeed, one of the senior staff members of Melbourne's physics department chose to come over and find me in the chemistry department to ask why, when I got such excellent results in physics, did I not go ahead and major in physics? Well, as it turned out, I actually finished my chemistry major and then informally did third-year physics, without sitting for the exam, and also third-year maths. So I ended up with what amounts to major-type studies in chemistry and physics and maths.

I recall giving a lecture some years ago at a very highly-regarded secondary school for girls where I found your wife Mary was the senior teacher in physics, a scientific discipline that attracted you both.

Yes, indeed. I met Mary at Melbourne University. She was, I think from memory, two years behind me. I met her in the table tennis club, of all places. I had been slow to attend a meeting of the club and, as people know, if you're late to attend a meeting you find you've been appointed to one of the least attractive jobs – in this case, as treasurer. One day in the table tennis club the door opened and two very attractive girls came in. I thought, 'Well, I've got to talk to them as treasurer,' and the treasurer's job didn't seem so bad after all! One of the girls was just a gorgeous creature, and now she is my wife and the mother of our three children.

Mary was doing a physics degree, and I think one of the reasons I went along to study final-year physics and maths was that she was doing the final-year physics. This was, if you like, the accidental way in which I finished a major in physics.

The unexpected foundations of a scientific career

When you and I graduated at Melbourne, there was no PhD program. Where did you go for further higher degree study? Who did you work with?

I did go on to a masters, but by the time I finished that and graduated there was, as you say, nowhere in Australia to turn for a PhD. You would have to go overseas. I did not have any immediate intention of going overseas, because we didn't have the money to do it. I therefore had an arrangement with Melbourne University that I would stay on as a very junior teacher, and I assumed that ultimately, years away, I would have enough publications to get a doctorate.

But then I was fortunate enough to get a scholarship in the physical sciences, offered by the freshly generated ANU, Australian National University. (There was one scholarship in the physical sciences and one in the humanities.) That created quite a problem, however, because once it all had been publicised that I was going off on this fellowship to study in England for a PhD and would then return to ANU, the university suddenly pointed out that they had no future for chemists or anything except physicists or certain branches of the humanities. For a day or so, I was devastated by this news.

Then Sir Leslie Martin, the head of physics at Melbourne, called me and said, 'Brown, there's a bit of a tangle over this fellowship, but I've discussed it with ANU and they've agreed that you can have the fellowship as long as you agree not to hold them to employing you, if and when you come back to Australia.' So I got what amounted to a non-existent fellowship to go to England to do my PhD – which I did at Kings College in London.

After your success at Kings College and University College, what brought you back to Australia?

I was away for several years. I had to stay at Kings for 18 months, long enough to be eligible to submit my thesis for a PhD, which was based largely on work that I'd done even before I left Melbourne. Then I was fortunate enough to get a junior lectureship appointment at University College, in the famous department that Sir Christopher Ingold headed. At that stage I thought I was going to continue my career indefinitely in England or in Europe, but quite out of the blue I received an urgent cable from Melbourne University to say that the opening of the academic year was fast approaching and they had no-one to teach first year medical students. They offered me a very senior appointment, as long as I would catch an aircraft to Australia – this was at a time, remember, when people travelled by ship, not by plane – in time for the start of academic term. They would give me this senior appointment and, since we'd bought a house in London, they'd pay all the costs of moving out of the house and back to Australia.

I was unsure about this, but I noticed that my wife, in particular, was rather homesick; she missed her family, especially her father. So she and I decided we would return to Australia. When I went along to Sir Christopher Ingold to see if he would release me from my appointment before the end of the academic year, he very generously said, 'Brown, if you really want to go back to Australia, I will be content to terminate your appointment, though we shall miss you,' and I thanked him very much. Then he said, 'But remember, if you go back to Australia, it'll be the end of your scientific career.' Thus I headed back to 'end my scientific career' in Australia.

Theoretical chemistry and microwave spectroscopy

Perhaps, Ron, we could now hear something about the research and discoveries which made you so well known not only in chemistry but also in physics and astronomy, especially in theoretical chemistry and in microwave spectroscopy and radio astronomy.

Looking back, I think it is amusing how many of the things that you have mentioned cropped up by accident. For example, when I was, I think, in my final undergraduate year, we were encouraged to think of the various scholarly societies. And because I seemed to be a bit more interested in physical chemistry – although not entirely physical – someone encouraged me to join the Faraday Society, a society in England. I joined and had to pay an annual fee (a junior fee, I think). Then I found that there were journals coming, and I felt I had to read them because it was my money that I'd spent on them and I couldn't just cast them aside, even though most of them were rather meaningless to me. But one paper by a couple of scientists, Coulson and Longuet-Higgins, had a lot of mathematics in it which, to my surprise, I could follow. More or less just for the hell of it, I tried to reproduce the results that they had published and I found I could. I became rather swollen-headed about this and thought, 'I'm as good as they are.'

I started to do other calculations of that ilk and then realised that I could write a paper and send it to the Faraday Society. Because I was a member, I suppose, they looked kindly on me and they published these papers. So I was rather rapidly thought of as a theoretical chemist, although, having no-one in Melbourne who knew anything about theoretical chemistry and chemical quantum mechanics, I had to buy books instead. I can clearly remember that there were two books on chemical quantum mechanics which I bought – I had to import them from America during the war – and struggled through as they were quite difficult reading. By the time I'd got through them I knew a bit about chemical quantum mechanics, so I thought, 'I'm now going to be a theoretical chemist.' That was phase one In fact, the first decade of my career, roughly, was focused on theoretical chemistry: chemistry plus mathematics, you might say.

Then I found that most of the things we were predicting about molecules, which was what theoretical chemistry in its early days used to do, were very difficult to test against direct experiments. You had to make a rather tortuous connection. Through dipole moments, which indicate how unbalanced the electric charges in a molecule are, these unbalanced charges could be measured and calculated. That was all very well, but the things I was working on had very low values of dipole moments, and the traditional methods of chemists measuring dipole moments didn't work at all well. I hunted about and – again by accident – came across a book on microwave spectroscopy, written by physicists rather than chemists, which showed that you could measure these very small dipole moments. While I was in Melbourne, however, I couldn't do anything more than read about it.

When I went to London I found, first at Kings and then at University College, no interest at all in these sorts of chemical measurements, except that a colleague at University College, Jim Millen, had decided to build for himself a microwave spectrometer. I thought, 'Well, if I can get it going, with him, he may let me do some measurements that I'd like to do.' I had no thought of being a specialist in microwave spectroscopy but just of getting these measurements. So I helped him for the best part of a year to assemble this spectrometer. It was something you had to build for yourself; you couldn't buy a commercial one – there was no such thing.

But, of course, I left London to come back to Melbourne, where it seemed that no-one knew anything about microwave spectroscopy nor wished to become involved in it. When the opportunity to join a new university and set up a new department of chemistry sprang up, however, I thought, 'I will seize this opportunity, if I can, because then I may be able to marshal enough resources to build my own microwave spectrometer.' And indeed, with a lot of struggle, we managed to do that.

Moving on to radio astronomy

So you have told me about working in theoretical chemistry and microwave spectroscopy. What caused you to move on to radio astronomy?

The next phase, of moving from microwave spectroscopy, in which we ultimately specialised, to radio astronomy was again a total accident. One day the phone rang in my room and the call was from a scientist, a radio astronomer, from Harvard in Massachusetts, United States. He said, 'Professor Brown, I understand that you have equipment to make certain measurements. I've found you are the only person on Earth who can work in that particular frequency range, and we want some measurements made for our radio telescopes. Would you agree to make them?' And he said, 'It's a very competitive thing, so would you mind transmitting the results that you get to me by telephone? It's too urgent to wait for you to write.' So I said, 'Well, yes, we have the equipment and I think I can find someone who will make the effort to make the measurements.' We did this and sent the information overseas.

After we'd done this a while, I thought, 'I know essentially how a radio telescope operates. It's just a very large radio set, with an antenna that costs millions of dollars to build. It's gigantic and it picks up radio signals from space, but the frequency of those signals is in the range nowadays used by television rather than by radio; it's in the centimetre wavelength range. So that's the easy part.' To tune the telescope to the particular frequency is rather like tuning in to what in those days was 3AR or 3LO. If you knew the frequency of 3AR, you could tune your radio set to it and you got the signal. It's like that with molecules in space. The molecules emit radio signals. If you know the right frequency, you can tune in and, hence, detect a particular molecule in space. For example, suppose you have a little amino acid. If you know the frequencies that it transmits, you can tune your radio telescope to those frequencies and see if there are any molecules of it out there. Now, the difficult part is to measure the frequencies. Once you've got them, then the radio astronomy part, apart from the complexities of the actual telescope – which tends to be run by radio engineers rather than scientists, anyhow – is trivial. You tune it in and see if there is a signal or not. So I thought, 'Well, we can do that.'

After lengthy negotiations with CSIRO, it was agreed that we could jointly do this work using the Parkes radio telescope. I went up to Parkes to join in the observations to search for molecules in space and, over the years of doing it, I became sufficiently au fait with the telescope that I was one of the few people to be allowed on odd occasions to operate it myself rather than leaving it to the engineers. But that work was done mainly because I had a very clever and able colleague, Dr Peter Godfrey, who was a first-rate physical scientist and knew about radio waves and centimetre waves.

That's how we got into radio astronomy. And radio astronomy was dealing with molecules, like amino acids and others, because radio astronomers were looking for the first elementary building blocks of life – to see whether the building blocks of life could be detected out in space rather than just down here on Earth.

So, you see, those apparently quite disparate fields within my career were all linked together by accidental connections – apart from the microwave spectroscopy, which I decided I wanted to get into because of theoretical chemistry. It is a weird story when I look back on it.

Pioneering chemistry at Monash University

You have briefly mentioned Monash University. Perhaps you could now say a few words about your very significant role as one of the foundation professors at Monash to create an entire new, vibrant chemistry department from scratch.

Well, John, it started when the government decided to have a second university in Melbourne. Very soon you recommended that the university, sensibly, be named after Sir John Monash, and the positions of the first group of office bearers, shall we say – the vice-chancellor, the registrar, the librarian and four professors of science, because science was going to be the first set of subjects that were taught – were advertised. I inquired and was encouraged to apply. After a good deal of being interviewed and talked to by various people, I was offered and accepted the chair. So I happened to become, again by accident, the first professor appointed to Monash University.

At that stage, when you went out to Monash what you saw was the remains of the Talbot Epileptic Colony. It was a big plot of land on high ground – it turned out to be high ground consisting of clay – and what amounted to a farm and a few buildings. We had to demolish a lot of the remains of the colony and start putting up new buildings. In doing so, we quickly discovered that we were on deep clay, because we dug a trench for the underground plant room under the science buildings but over the first Easter, when everyone had gone away for the holiday, there was heavy rain. When we came back, the brickwork of the long trench for the underground part of the central science building had fallen in, and a morass of clay slip and bricks had to be got out by hand as you couldn't get earthmoving equipment into a place which was deep, wet clay. That was an interesting experience. (The builders were very good, in that they recovered the time that was lost in all this digging out and rebuilding, and finished the buildings on time to open the university as scheduled.)

So I was in on the construction of a university. Every building that was built in those early years I wandered over, wearing Wellington boots because of the clay and protective clothing because it was a messy thing. And I saw it from that start. I had to start a department from scratch, which again I found was a daunting job because you discover that you have nothing on campus except what you order. Every chemist would remember to order test tubes and beakers and flasks. But they don't remember that, if you want a nut and bolt to bolt something together, or a piece of wood to use as a stand or to prop something up, you've got to go and buy it. So that early year or two was spent trying to remember all the fiddly little bits and pieces that you assume are present in a flourishing chemistry department. They are only going to be present if you go and buy them.

All of that, together with appointing staff from scratch, was a very exciting time. There was no time for research; it was all just pressing on with getting the university, and the chemistry department, open. Then, getting such a tiny little chemistry department operating – I had two other staff members and myself in the first year – was quite a challenge. Bringing the spirit of a chemistry department alive is a great challenge which all new university departments have to face, but I don't think many people had thought just how difficult that job would be.

Anyhow, that led me to fight very hard to make us a respectable chemistry department. Indeed, some of the things I did in my career were done not through particular self-interest in this or that bit of chemistry but in the hope that it would say to others, 'Here we have a respectable chemistry department.' For example, we had the first NMR machine in Australia, for nuclear magnetic resonance – which everyone knows about now because it is used in hospitals to scan people but in those days was a tool that organic chemists particularly wanted to use. I spent some personal time getting that activity going within the department, not because I had any intention of following it on but so that a junior staff member would be encouraged to run with it. Yes, exciting times. I had to be a jack-of-all-trades to get the department going.

Highlights of a diverse scientific life

Ron, would you like to sum up some of the highlights of your life in science?

It's difficult to pick things out, because I seem to have done a motley array of things, but in retrospect I suppose I am proudest that I achieved competence in theoretical chemistry unassisted. I was a sort of 'solo job' – whereas other people had relied on being linked to older scientists who had got involved in quantum mechanics and so on, I had to do it just from books. So that's one little highlight.

To get microwave spectroscopy going was another highlight because, again, we were on our own in Australia. There was no-one we could turn to and say, 'Could we look at your spectrometer?' We had to work it out for ourselves. We ultimately were working in ranges that no-one else was. We were using an insignificant-looking little gadget called a klystron, which generates very short wavelength microwaves, millimetre waves. The waves have to come out of the output cavity through a rectangular hole, and their wavelength therefore has to be small enough to go through that very little hole. With klystrons of this sort – and we had a whole range of them to cover all different frequencies – we could cover the millimetre and centimetre range very completely, and that made us very versatile.

I am rather proud of that and some of the highlights in that area, such as that we were able to identify another oxide of carbon. It's perhaps rather trendy to mention that achievement now, when everyone is concerned about carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Another two other oxides of carbon were known, carbon monoxide and carbon suboxide, but we managed to add a fourth molecule to that little 'triumvirate', as you might say: C3O, three carbon atoms and one oxygen. It is a very unstable oxide. You can't put it in a bottle and store it on a shelf to show people. We would expect it to be colourless, so you wouldn't see much. And it's a gas, as far as we know, at room temperature. For me it was a highlight to identify that by microwaves, to show that it is definitely C3O and to know its shape – atoms in a line.

One of the little 'holy grails' in microwave spectroscopy was to get the spectrum of an amino acid. All the different microwave groups wanted to get the frequencies that are transmitted by an amino acid in space – so they can hunt for it, of course. After much trying, we finally succeeded in getting the first signals from any amino acid: the simplest one, glycine. While we were trying, I visited various microwave groups around the world and several of them confessed to me that they'd tried in vain and had given up; it was beyond them to do it. But we managed to do it and feel rather proud of that.

There are several other molecules that we were pleased to identify this way. One that chemists know but other people wouldn't is benzyne. (That is not 'benzene' badly pronounced; it's a different molecule with less hydrogen in it than benzene.) We were able to get the microwave spectrum of benzyne, to identify it; in other words, to show conclusively that benzyne existed as a six­membered ring, with six carbons in a ring and four hydrogens. That was a triumph for us – and in saying so I use the plural because all of this work is done with a team. The team at that stage had an extremely able post-doctoral fellow who came out from Switzerland to work with us. Thanks to his skill and persistence, apart from anything else, I think, he managed to succeed in doing that.

Another molecule that I am rather proud we produced is hydrogen isocyanide. Everyone who reads Agatha Christie knows that all respectable murderers who are going to poison someone use hydrogen cyanide, HCN. But you can rearrange the hydrogen, the carbon and the nitrogen so that the nitrogen is in the middle, the hydrogen at one end and the carbon at the other. That is a different molecule from hydrogen cyanide. We were able to generate that in the lab in a way that no-one had used before – very simply, in fact, just by heating hydrogen cyanide, except that you have to heat it to about 1,000 degrees centigrade and you have to spray it out of little nozzles so that it's chilled by supersonic expansion, and then you can detect its spectrum. We not only did that but went to radio telescopes and identified the different isotopic forms of carbon isocyanide. So that was another highlight.

Satisfying personal and family pastimes

It's interesting to see you sitting there as the suffering interviewee being filmed, because I happen to know just how good you yourself are at photography, and at film making generally. Would you like to talk about that and perhaps your other hobbies?

Once again, when I look back on my life, I'm amazed at how many things seemed to have happened by accident. I was a moderately keen amateur photographer, having been given a Box Brownie very early in my life, as many of us were – although in general not everyone had cameras in those days. I took family photos, and this led on to the point where, because Mary and I were to be married the day before we were leaving on a ship to sail to England, I said to her, 'This is a great occasion in our lives, so we ought to record it.' And I persuaded her to spend some princely sum – £20 or something – to buy a cinecamera. For me that was the start of making cinefilms, travel-type family cinefilms. I managed ultimately to get very good equipment which was, essentially, often used by professionals. I obtained very good quality in the cinefilm, not because of any skill of my own but rather because I was fortunate in having very good equipment. I made many, many reels of 16-millimetre film and even, on one occasion, showed the film in a full-scale cine theatre in South London, so I know that the quality of the images produced by my camera was very good. And that is how I came to have such a camera around.

Back in Melbourne, then, after we'd been in England for some years, I was working with a colleague, Tom O'Donnell, who was very, very skilled with semi-microscale equipment. It had been decided we'd teach all the students semi-micromanipulations, but – think about it! – showing a class of 200 how to manipulate minute little bits of equipment is not a trivial task. I had the idea that my camera could do close-ups superbly, so how about if we made a little instructional film? So we made an instructional film and distributed it to several different international universities as well as a few other places around Australia. A rather battered old copy of that film still exists, but the semi-micro technique seems to me to have vanished from the chemistry syllabus.

You haven't mentioned skiing, sailing, camping, travel or badminton.

I suppose I'd have to say that those started because I happened to have a father who was a famous athlete. He was the John Landy of his era, pre-First World War. He was Australasian champion in the one mile – in those days it was 'Australasia': Australia and New Zealand – and he was cross-country champion at a number of distances. I think I was his great disappointment when, at school, I showed that I was not suited for long distance running, mainly because I got asthma very readily. But I was enough encouraged, especially in athletics, that I did finally manage to do sprinting and hurdles, and long jump and hop, step and jump.

Ron Brown competing in hop, step and jump for St Stephens Harriers. Olympic Park, Melbourne. 1946.
Ron Brown competing in hop, step and jump for St Stephens Harriers. Olympic Park, Melbourne, 1946.

My mother got me interested in tennis – and she was rather ashamed of the fact that I played left-handed, saying things like, 'Oh, a gentleman only plays with his right hand,' so I knuckled down and learned to play tennis right-handed. Then everyone around the little community I lived in noticed that I had a pretty good eye for ballgames, and I was encouraged to play cricket. With the Second World War, however, athletics, cricket et cetera rather faded from the scene, and it was only after the war that I resumed sport.

Badminton, the only sport that I really excelled at, was again another accident in my life. My boyhood closest friend said to me, when we were in our early teens, 'How about coming with me up to the local church hall?' I looked astonished, because neither of us were church attendees, and he said, 'Oh, you get the birds up there.' When I asked how, he said, 'Well, there's a thing that they play in the church hall – badminton, they call it – and it's girls playing much more than boys. They're really good to meet.' So he dragged me off to badminton and I fairly soon found that I was pretty adept at it.

The local church hall wasn't strong enough competition for me, really, but my one and only aunt pointed

out that in her girlhood she had played badminton at St Stephens in Richmond, which she said had a better class of badminton. And so they did. Somehow I was persuaded to go over there, and I managed to advance through the ranks. By the time I got to London, I was good enough to be in the London University and the Kings College badminton teams. Then, before we left London, I became eligible to play county badminton and I became a member of the Surrey badminton team. I saw a bit of southern England, playing county-level badminton, and when we came back to Australia I continued with the game here. In fact, just as Monash was starting I was elected president of the Victorian Badminton Association. So I have been heavily involved in badminton over the years.

I should mention that one rather different highlight of my life is that we used skiing as a very satisfying relaxation from science. All my family – two boys and a girl, and my wife and I – became capable skiers and enjoyed many interesting holidays on the slopes, including places in the United States like Aspen and Vail and other places in Colorado and elsewhere. That was one of our pastimes.

These days, having almost retired – I say 'almost' because I still go out to Monash about once a week and join in a little bit of continuing research – I tend to spend my time playing tennis. I don't play very well, I'm no star on the tennis court, but it keeps me physically active and brings me into contact with a number of very good friends, and that's the way I pass my time.

Ron, I am really very honoured to be able to sit here and interview you, to hear of such an extraordinary and interesting career. Thank you very much.

Thank you, John, for being such a kindly and helpful interviewer.

Back to top

© 2023 Australian Academy of Science