Professor Anton. L. Hales (1911 - 2006)

Professor Anton. L. Hales
Professor Anton. L. Hales (1911 - 2006)

Professor Anton Hales is a scientist whose career has spanned three continents and covered nearly nine decades. He was born in South Africa in 1911, and his early career, with the exception of a few years in Britain and his war service in east and north Africa, was in South Africa. Then, in 1962, he moved to the United States, and in 1973 he moved to Australia. He would call himself a geophysicist, someone who uses physics and mathematics to understand the structure and workings of the Earth. But his contributions cover a broader spectrum of the Earth sciences. His legacy is that he has created vital research institutions on three continents, institutions that advanced Earth sciences in each of the three countries in which he worked. The last of these was the Research School of Earth Sciences at the Australian National University, where he was the foundation Director. Professor Hales was elected a Fellow to the Australian Academy of Science in 1976 in recognition of his contributions to science in general and to Australian Earth science in particular.

Lured to Australia

Anton, I am interested that when you were already 62 and had only recently overseen the establishment of the geophysics program at the Southwest Center for Advanced Studies, in Dallas, Texas, you came to the Australian National University and made a fresh start as Director at RSES, the Research School of Earth Sciences. What possessed you to take up such a challenge when others might have been planning their retirement? The short answer is Ted Ringwood, whom I had known for quite a number of years, but the explanation involves John Jaeger as well. In late 1972, Jaeger wrote to me that Ted Ringwood was in the United States at that time and could visit Dallas to talk to me about the directorship at ANU, because Jaeger had noted that I had not expressed any interest in it despite the letters which the Vice-Chancellor had sent to me – to which I had replied, but not expressing any personal interest in a directorship. He wondered whether Ted could come and talk to me in Dallas. I said, 'Oh yes, of course, provided he gives a seminar.' And so, after the seminar, my wife Denise, Ted and I went off to dinner. Now, Ted Ringwood was very good at picking up points that he could use to his advantage, not directly on the job that he was trying to sell you but on the sideways support that might cause you to consider the proposition more carefully. He asked Denise about the children and where she took them for holidays, and her explanation – that one place was a beach near Galveston and the other was a national park near the US–Mexico border – seemed to be just what Ted had wanted. In fact, I suspect he had planned it that way, because he then started to tell Denise that it was only 90 kilometres to the sea from Canberra and the same distance to the Snowy Mountains, where there was snow every winter. It sounds a very familiar technique. He tried it on me, actually! In the end, we arranged that I would come out for the first week of '73. That had to be it, because in the period before the Christmas holidays the university was busy with end-of-the-year examinations and could not organise a time when all the people who were involved in the discussions would be free. I landed in Canberra and spent time with Ted and also with Jaeger – all in all, I talked to a lot of people. And the visiting committee, at a pleasant meeting, agreed that they would recommend my appointment, I said that I would accept the appointment if I were offered it, and that was that.

Recollections of some great Earth scientists

Professors John Jaeger and Ted Ringwood would be two of the giants of Earth sciences in Australia. Can you share with us any personal recollections of them? Well, Ted was a man who liked doing things himself. He didn't organise teams to do the things he wanted done; his two technicians, Alan Major and Hibberson, did all the things he wanted. The only thing that I did for Ted in my time was to arrange that he should become the Director for a spell after I finished. Ted liked having his own way but I thought he had better get used to the idea that he was going to have a turn. And in the end he did, but with, I think, considerable reluctance. And what about Jaeger? I met John Jaeger when I was Professor of Applied Mathematics at Cape Town University. He came to South Africa on a world tour in which his first stop was at the BPI, the Bernard Price Institute of Geophysical Research, to talk to Eric Simpson (the Professor of Geology there) for the day and to me at dinner in the evening. That was how I met Jaeger. We talked about the BPI's program, and I think Jaeger's program was influenced to some extent by what he saw in Johannesburg, particularly geochronology. Jaeger was good at organising things, and he was easy to get on with. Rather than doing things himself in geophysics – about which he did, looking back from these years, relatively little – he was good at seeing what should be done and getting people to do it. He built up a damn good geophysics group for its time and its reputation is one reason why, later on, it was easy for the geophysics world in general to accept that there was a Research School of Earth Sciences there: the competence in the geophysics field was well established in Jaeger's day. Much earlier, in the 1930s, having begun your university studies at Cape Town University you went to Cambridge, where you got to know two great geophysicists, Sir Harold Jeffreys and Keith Bullen. What can you tell us about them? I knew Bullen well, even before I had much contact with Harold Jeffreys – a shy man, although his wife-to-be, the future Lady Jeffreys, could talk easily to people. But Harold's lectures were interesting because he could break off and give his own personal view, rather than a lecture note, on a particular topic. These views were most illuminating but I had to write them down that same afternoon, to remember the sequence of events. I was for a good deal of the time the only student in a course with Harold – he didn't have many students, probably a dozen all told in the whole of his long career – and I got on well with him. He was very kind. Cambridge in those years would have been very different from the Cambridge that we know today. What did you think about the university community? I thought it was a stupid community. Having to put on a gown to run around the streets at night struck me as being a bit of silly nonsense!

Fruitful links: reflection seismology, palaeomagnetism and continental drift

In the early '50s you became Director of the Bernard Price Institute, in Johannesburg, South Africa. You worked there initially in geomagnetism rather than in seismology. Why was that? The main reason I changed over to palaeomagnetism was that the Deputy Director of the BPI, Philip Gane, was doing the seismology and I didn't want to take it over from him. And so I picked up Ken Graham from Eric Simpson's department, where he had just done an honours, as a PhD candidate. But within six months or a year Philip Gane took a post in industry and I got the seismology dropped in my lap again. That was a most exciting time, because Gane and Selwyn Sachs had started on a project for generating a signal in the ground mechanically, and then using it as the source for reflection seismology. The first thing was about 2 feet high and it would go 100 feet, but Sachs worked it up so that it went up 2000 or 3000 feet. Then we built a bigger one that went to 10,000 feet or thereabouts, and a still bigger one of a slightly different design which went for 10 or more kilometres. We did take out a patent on this, but we were unable to get oil industry support to continue. To go back to the palaeomagnetism: if I remember correctly, you produced some of the very first numbers that established the magnetic pole path from South Africa. That was the time when the idea of continental drift was beginning to gain support, despite some opposition from your former mentor Jeffreys, and I think your work led to your conversion from a 'fixist' to a 'drifter' – reluctantly convinced that continental drift was a reality. Well, it came about because of Ted Irving. While he was out at sea, nearly to Australia to take up an ANU appointment, he found he had failed his PhD. So Jaeger wrote to me, asking me to support the case for leaving Irving with a research fellowship when he hadn't got his PhD. By that time we had already obtained a copy of this thesis and I had read it, so I quite cheerfully wrote a letter to say that in my view the thesis was worthy of a PhD. And the university did agree, somewhat to my surprise, to let Irving – without a PhD – have a research fellowship in Jaeger's department. I am doubtful whether such a thing would be possible today, but Jaeger had a very smooth tongue and he was good at getting his own way. Anyway, the University of Cambridge did Irving proud, because they awarded him a DSc on his book on palaeomagnetism, which was published in 1964. He went on to become a Fellow of the Royal Society.

Going for the ion probe

Eventually you came from Dallas to Australia, but after your interview for the ANU appointment you had a discussion in Sydney that set the scene for one of the great success stories of the Research School of Earth Sciences. Yes. I went back to Dallas, but Glen Riley – who was part of the CSIRO team – and Ken McCracken phoned to ask me whether I could come to Sydney an hour or two early, to discuss something that Glen was particularly anxious about. That turned out to be the ion probe. I had talked about it with James Carter, in Dallas, some two or three years earlier when I was asking him whether we needed to replace the geochemical probe we had. He said no, but that we should give consideration to the ion probe, which he thought was one of the instruments of the future. I asked the price, he said $400,000, and I had to say, 'Well, that's not possible at this time.' The Southwest Center had become by then the University of Texas at Dallas, and so getting equipment of that order would be some way down the road. When I talked to Glen Riley, he gave me a half-hour lecture which made two main points: it had to be high-precision and it had to be high-sensitivity. Without that, it could not fulfil the role that he thought that the ion probe ought to have. I thought then that this might be a joint project, but that idea didn't seem to get a great deal of support from people in the research school – some thought the ion probe should not even be started, because it would cost too much money and take too much time. However, in the end the faculty board agreed that we should go for the ion probe. Bill Compston was involved, and Glen had emphasised that Steve Clement, who had been a student of Bowie's and had done the ion optics of one of their instruments, should be involved.

Seismology achievements and prospects

That returns us to your arrival at the ANU, and the seismology program which you set about building up. How did the program get on? Well, because of a partly political problem we never published some of the early work. You see, the BMR, the Bureau of Mineral Resources as it was then, had a similar idea of building up seismology to do regional surveys and so one had to be a little cautious about that. I have mentioned some of the people who were involved in the research school. Another was Muirhead, and also we had John Cleary, who had done a PhD on surface waves. It may not have been a particularly important seismological approach, but it was done neatly and well. Cleary had spent about three years in Dallas, and at least one of his kids was born there. As Director of RSES you set up a lot of the portable networks, you collected a lot of data, and you established a lot of new information on the upper mantle structure beneath the Australian continent. How would you view that today? Looking back, I would say that we probably should have done more and done it better. Really, worldwide, there isn't enough known about the crust of the Earth in most areas. The United States may be the best, perhaps, but the BMR has done a fair amount here. On an area for area comparison, it might well turn out that they have done more than has been done in the States – or have done it more systematically. Where do you think seismology is heading now? That is a difficult question. I think that systematic surveying will be carried out which may add detailed, more uniformly spread information, and that it will be possible to do experiments which look in more detail into particular sections than has so far been done. But my view at the moment is that it is the surface wave data that will give the broadest overall view, because it doesn't sample only where you put the instruments. It can be used to derive information for paths in inaccessible places. For instance, you see, it is very difficult to get body wave data in the range of 100° arc distance because of the instrument distribution and the data sources. To get the overall picture you are dependent largely on surface wave data. Certainly ocean bottom instrumentation is essential, but you do want surface wave data in more places than they have it at present.

Answering questions and doing things: drive, enjoyment and inspiration

Interviews of this kind tend to focus on the science, and the great and glorious battles fought and won, rather than saying much about the person. What is it that has driven you three times to create outstanding research institutions, something that few others achieve even once? Oh, just the idea that if there is a question to be answered, it is worthwhile to try and answer it. If I see something which I can do, I like to do it. Do you think anything special about your early childhood may have shaped you towards perseverance to carry on your long career? I suspect it came from my mother, more than anyone else. She worked for about 18 years for a biscuit company in Dundee, and when she went to South Africa to be married they gave her an engraved silver dish. She had, I think, a brain that would have been mathematical if mathematics had been fashionable then. That is probably where I got it from, because from the age of 15 she ran the administrative things of that company in Dundee. I don't think anyone could work for a company for so long as the chief administrator, keeping records of everything, without having some brains. Anton, you and Jaeger were both mathematicians who finished up as professors of geophysics. You were a mathematician in Cape Town, and you went to Cambridge for further study at a time when most activity in the physical sciences was in quantum mechanics, in nuclear physics. So why did you become a geophysicist? Was it because the queue at Cambridge was less for geophysics than for quantum mechanics? No, there was a more substantial reason: Sir Basil Schonland. Schonland was the senior lecturer in physics at Cape Town, teaching the second-year physics when I did my BSc degree. He met me after my MSc examination results were out, and knowing that I had one of the two scholarships offered to the bachelors degree candidates to go overseas, he asked me what I was going to do in Cambridge for Schedule B. (That is the part that you choose to study from a whole list of subjects.) When I said I was thinking of doing quantum dynamics and then returning to South Africa, he said, 'Well then, that's a wrong choice, because the work in that field is done and is talked about in Europe for six months or more before the printed version arrives in South Africa. You've got to do something where you have your own observations, like in geophysics.' He himself was working on the electric field in the atmosphere, and on lightning. Have you regretted the decision to turn to geophysics instead of quantum mechanics? I haven't regretted it. Several times I have wondered how I would have gone in that highly competitive field, and it is possible that Schonland was quite right and it would have been disastrous. At Cape Town University, I must say, Schonland in physics and the people in mathematics helped me and left lasting impressions on me. They were all a good lot. And on the path that you have been down since then, you have not been alone. Who are some of the people who have helped you most? Well, John Cleary in one kind of seismology – I know he did some nice things when he was in Dallas – and Muirhead in another kind. Certainly he has done some nice things here.

Speaking from experience

The framework within which research is carried out has changed very much over the decades, but you have remained a very close observer of what is going on. Supposing, for argument's sake, that a politician or a bureaucrat would listen, what advice would you offer on how science should be carried out in Australia? I don't know whether I would regard this as advice, but I believe a good way of making sure that you get the right kind of people into the system is to get youngsters involved, early on, in thinking about problems to which the answer is not obvious. How you do so is not very clear, though. Anton, there is so much for us to discuss, but this is perhaps a good point at which to call a halt for now. Thank you very much.