Australian Biography

Phillip Law - full interview transcript

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Just a couple of things about Melbourne's Teachers' College I forgot to mention. On the sporting side, I played football for the college, again did not play tennis, although I played a few games of tennis during the year. I entered for the university boxing championships and I won the novice championship and then went on to win the open championship in the light weight division. At the same time of course I won the Teachers' College boxing championships in the light weight division. And because I'd won the open championship, I was a member of the inter-varsity team, which went to Sydney to box against the other university. And I met a chap from Sydney University, who was the state lightweight champ ... amateur champion and I was quite outclassed. I remember trying to just somehow defend myself and keep out of trouble and put up some sort of a show, but in the third round he caught up with me and hammered me and the referee stopped the fight. I was terribly disappointed to find I didn't get a half-blue because I found out later that blues at universities are only awarded to winning teams and winning people. [INTERRUPTION - PLANE - SLATE]

Still on the boxing theme, I remember being quite terrified in Sydney because I didn't sleep the night before the event and all of us were terribly nervous. I remember playing the saxophone to the boxing team the night before, just to try and create a bit of a diversion to keep our minds off what was going to happen the next day. But I found the contest was in the main Rushcutter Bay Stadium in Sydney - this huge place was where all the professional fights were held and the man who was referee was the professional referee from boxing fights I'd seen, a great portly bloke called Wallace I think. And when I stepped into the ring and sat on my little stool in the corner they swung out a spittoon type thing like you have at a dentist's, with running water in it. You know these round thing. Do they today, in dentist, have it?

Yes.

A round thing with water running in the thing. And I took one look at that and thought, Oh, that's in case you have a tooth knocked out or something. And then they swing that out of the way and they swing your seat out of the way and they say, 'Seconds out of the ring', and you have to move forward against an adversary and you suddenly realise that you're absolutely alone. There's no-one in the world that can help you and there's that bloke and he wants to kill you, so it's just up to you. It's you and he. And this is the most alone feeling you can get that I know. And it's not like other sports where you get beaten you're just beaten. In boxing if you're beaten, you take a hiding as well. You're up for physical disfigurement even unless you can really handle yourself properly. And all my boxing career I was always so nervous in the first round but I just fought automatically according to what I'd learnt in the gym. Not cerebrating at all, I didn't really start cerebrating or thinking it out until the second round. It's all very scary in a way and I'll come back to that again later because I want to say what I did in 1936, but I'll do that later in the tape.

Do you love the combat in the boxing?

I like the skill element particularly. It's a wonderful skill of sport. And it depends essentially on a very fast reaction time. And that's why even at this age, I'm still a good tennis player because I've got such fast reaction times that I can still intercept things at the net that very few people of my age can do, and that's just the genetic talent I inherited that made me a good boxer.

Although boxing is much more brutal than say tennis or ...?

Oh yes, that's so. But strangely enough you don't feel brutal when you're inflicting your punishment on the other fellow. As a matter of fact, often I'd be far from brutal. I'd decide that if I felt superior that I wouldn't like to cut him about and I'd like to end if pretty quickly rather than just pick him off and finish up in a bloody mess. So I'd tried to hit him hard in the solar plexus or somewhere, where it didn't show much, to stop the fight. But then you have this strange business of developing sort of brotherhood and there's this strange relationship between anyone whom you'd fought in the boxing ring. Sort of blood brothers in a sense. It's quite peculiar.

It's a sort of bonding is it?

It's a very definite bonding, yes. Anyway, I'll leave boxing and come back because some years later I won the inter-varsity championship and I'd like to talk about that later. But while we're on this first year at university, there were three blokes in the Teachers' College, who actually resided in the residential part of the Teachers' College. I didn't. As a sort of outsider coming down from Ballarat, I had to try and find lodging in Carlton. So I'd lodged in a boarding house in Drummond Street, which my father remembered because he had lodged there at one stage, and it was run by two elderly spinsters. And it housed two or three teachers and a couple of bank clerks, a couple of girl clerks, and it was pretty primitive in a terrace house in Drummond Street that badly ventilated and smelt of boiled cabbage. And you had a bath once a week - you put your sixpence in the heater, and I used to go down to the Teachers' College and get baths there. Borrow somebody's room and use the showers there. But I formed a friendship with three other Part One people: Arthur Wilcox, who was doing geology, Bob Hill, who was doing physics with me, and Reg Jacobsen, who was doing geology. And Arthur Wilcox became important years later, when I was in the Antarctic. I got him onto the place-names committee for Antarctic names, which was a Federal Committee. Bob Hill, the physicist, had a profound influence on me. First, he was the first real scholar I'd ever met. When I saw the way he approached physics and his voluminous knowledge of the subject, and his studious philosophical attitude to it, I was just a child by comparison. And that ...

Was it his academic training that you were seeing?

Yes, his complete academic standard. I realised years later that he had a very fine mind and was a very fine physicist. He later became professor of physics at Chicago University. Sorry, Illinois, Illinois University. And I visited him only last year in America. Talked our heads off all night about physics and modern science and various things.

At that stage, when you were ... when you were young, as the time you're talking about, when you met people like that, did you wished to yourself that you'd had a smoother academic path? [INTERRUPTION]

I had no continuity in my studies. For example, when I did Part One science at Melbourne university, I'd been out of the game for two years because I'd been a junior teacher. And when I came back to do Part Two physics, I'd been out of the game for another two years, while I was in the country, and you can't afford in the modern competitive science race to have these blocks and drops. Quite apart from making it very much more difficult to pick it up, you lose an immense amount in that break in continuity.

And yet one of the ironies of your life, I suppose, is you miss that and you gain something else?

Yes, well, this is the fascinating thing to my friends that I miss out on the academic thing, and because of that, I gather the reward of the Antarctic thing. It's fascinating. But the Bob Hill experience is important, because for the first time in my life I realised what real scholarship is, what real academic work is. And the other two are just as good, Wilcox and Jacobson, but Hill was outstanding, and still is. He later became a an expert employed in a big research development corporation in Santa Barbara, where they had Government contracts for re-entry problems of rockets coming in through the atmosphere, and he's one of the chief physicists on lots of secret work. And he's now one of the world experts on lightning, and the effect of lightning on the beginnings of human life, because in the primordial ooze ... [INTERRUPTION]

I was really interested to read about when you were at university and war broke out and you put all you administrative skills into practise by doing, arranging social service work with you and other students.

That was an interesting development. When the war broke out I was doing my Master's Degree and I was persuaded to finish that before I did anything more active, and in any case it was a phoney war so it didn't seem to matter much whether I was fighting or not. But as soon as I finished my Master's Degree I enlisted in the RAAF and I duly went and did all sorts of tests and I was finally appointed a pilot officer, in brackets, navigation, for air crew and asked to turn up at Point Cook at a certain time. I went down to Point Cook and along with a lot of others we were ushered through and told what the score was and where we were to live and what kit we'd be given and all the preliminaries. And late that afternoon I had a note from the Commandant of the area, asking me to come and see him. So I went and saw him and he said, 'I'm sorry Law, but you'll have to go back to the University. Your professor has invoked manpower regulations and he's involved in war work and he doesn't want to lose staff like you'. And this was ...

What did you think of that?

Well I was very angry because of two things. First, I'd resigned all my appointments as tutor at Newman College and various things and private tutoring and others at Melbourne University, and I'd told everyone I was going to join the Air Force and people had given me send-off parties and things. And I was going back a few days later and having to hear everyone say, 'Ah didn't you go to the war?' you know. Highly embarrassing. But apart from that I resented Professor Laby's attitude. I had gone to him and asked him, 'Was it all right for me to enlist?' and his precise words were imprinted indelibly on my mind. They were, 'Law, it is not the policy of this department to stand in the way of any person who wishes to serve his country in a more active capacity'. So with this rather sonorous speech I went off with his blessing, and having then changed his mind and brought me back was due, I could see later, to the fact that he'd already lost one chap, who joined the Air Force, and then to have me join might set off a domino effect, and if he had to lose another three or four, well then, his war effort in the university would suffer.

So instead you decided to do your own form of war effort really, didn't you?

That's right. So we were all really frustrated ... frustrated because of the phoney war. Menzies was the Prime Minister and he kept saying, 'Students we don't want you to do anything. You just go on and finish your degrees, that's the best thing you can do', and meanwhile, there's a war overseas and people are enlisting and the Seventh Division off and all this sort of thing, and students were very frustrated. So I decided that we'd do our own patriotic work and I set up an organisation called University National Service. And I gathered some friends round me to promote this and called a big meeting of students in the Union Theatre. It was packed. And I gave a speech. I wish I had a copy of it. I never kept a copy of that one, and it wasn't reported by Farrago because Farrago was antagonistic to what we were doing and wouldn't report it.

Was this your debut public speech?

Yes. Yes. And for the first time in my life I had this wonderful feeling of being able to sway a group of people with words, to be able to stand and talk and see the impact on people, to arouse the enthusiasm. And it went like wildfire. We arranged a simplistic model that I had of a Communist Society, in which you have cells and then cells nominate people to attend the higher echelon, and you build up different structures until finally you've got presidium up the top. So we did this. We divided people into groups of twelve and we had a sort of leader of each twelve, and they would elect another committee and then another committee and then finally it would finish up with an executive committee of about six at the top. And one of the top members of the committee with me, at that time, whom I depended quite a lot was Alf Butcher, who later became very prominent in Victoria - first as head of the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, and then as President of the Zoo and a member of the ... a very effective member and then secretary I think, of the Academy of Technological Sciences, and a very well-known scientist in Victoria.

Did it ever occur to you to become a pacifist like so many of the students did, who were writing in Farrago and so on?

No, the pacifist element in those days was very small. There was a communist element, of course, that was anti-war, but they didn't hold anything like the power that they came to have later. It was nothing like the communist development in the 1960s, with the Vietnamese War and the peace movement and all this sort of thing. So most of the students were behind the UNS as it was called: University National Service. And it was interesting to see the sort of things we did. One of the things we started was newspaper collection. It was the first time anyone had collected spare newspapers and tried to make money out of it. Seeing that that's a national programme these days, that's interesting. We of course had a Savings Certificate Programme encouraging students to invest in the national savings certificates. We ran physical fitness classes and social service classes in the poorer suburbs, for disadvantaged kids. And then in the fruit picking season, when so many people had left Shepparton to go to war, I arranged a camp for men and Kate Fitzpatrick ran a camp for girls and the university chaps and girls - the men did the fruit picking, tomatoes mainly but a bit of fruit, and the women went into the canning factory and canned peaches and apricots and things.

What do you think was your motivation? Was it patriotism, or social conscience or personal desire to test yourself? [INTERRUPTION - SLATE]

So what do you think your motivation was at that time? Was it patriotism or social conscience or just a desire to feel yourself as leader?

No it was patriotism. Very definitely. I'd felt I'd been edged out of the active service and I wanted to do something concrete and effective. And I also ... also felt that university students themselves wanted to do something more and I'd like to help promote that idea.

But you felt something in yourself. It felt natural to become the leader of that movement?

I don't know if there was that sort of feeling of being natural to be a leader. I ... I felt that I could do it and I'd already had this up-rush of enthusiasm from people as a result. It was fun having these groups working and the whole thing was an exciting atmosphere of creative effort from all sorts of people. When we got to Shepparton, that was wonderful. Three weeks of all sorts of interesting things happening: arguments with fruit growers, the people in the cannery trying to bash down the women to slave type labour. Kate Fitzpatrick ... Kath Fitzpatrick fighting tooth and claw to prevent it and so on. All this I've left records of in the archives of Melbourne University. So, what upset me tremendously was, as part of our Saving Certificate Scheme, we asked Menzies up to open the Saving Certificate Scheme in Wilson Hall, and he came up and he poured cold water onto the whole UNS system. He said, 'Oh, you're wasting your time doing all these frivolous things. You're job is to do your degrees. You don't have to do other things'. I've never been so disgusted with a persons negativism: when there was this tremendous fountain of enthusiastic young people desiring to do something and they just get put down. [INTERRUPTION - SLATE]

We invited Menzies up to launch this Saving Certificate Campaign and I've never been so disappointed in a person. Instead of encouraging us or stimulating the students, he poured cold water over the whole idea, 'You students have to go on with what you're doing - doing your degrees. We'll look after the country. Don't worry about it. Everything's fine'. So, we all finished up at the end of that thrown almost out of school. However ...

It must have been infuriating after all the work you've done?

Yes and I learnt something that's remained with me all my life: the hatred of negativism, the hatred of cynicism, the hatred of people who block off enthusiasm, in a world where you need people to encourage enthusiasts and drive them on and make use of their energy to have someone to just dampen them down. And I ran into that later on with certain members of the Dept of External Affairs, who would try to squash out my enthusiasm and my ideas about Antarctica. Some I said. Most were very supportive but there were one or two, who really infuriated me with this sort of attitude.

And so, before too long you were actually sent to New Guinea, were you?

Well that arose from another whole period of my life. The patriotic work, which the university Physics Department was involved in, was optical munitions. Early in the piece we found we didn't have enough gun sights, binoculars, range finders, da da da, fighting optical instruments. And we tried to purchase them from England and they said, 'No. We need them all here following Dunkirk', and, so there was no option but for Australia to start making her own, and that started a whole new industry in Australia for optical instruments, starting with the manufacture of optical glass largely under Professor Hartung at the Chemistry Department of the Melbourne University. It was a fascinating time for me because I learnt a lot about industry because we were working hand and glove with the factories. I learnt a lot about precision instrument making, workshop practice, the science of metrology - fine measurements down to the thousands of millimetres or something. And I also had my first real chance to do administration because I became assistant secretary to the Optical Munitions Panel of which Professor Laby was the chairman, and the secretary was the senior lecturer at Melbourne University called Doctor Rogers. And Rogers was a very fine administrator. He later became the man in charge of the Shepparton Branch of Melbourne University just after the war, and I learnt a tremendous amount about administration by working under him. And towards the end of ... towards the end of the war, he went over to America on an urgent mission related to optical munitions and for six months I was acting secretary in charge of the administration of this very complex system. And that couldn't have been better preparation for my leadership over the Antarctic Division later. But I still resented the fact that I had not been on active service because of the RAAF disappointment, so I was determined to get up in the fighting area somehow and I'd been working with the Botany Department at Melbourne University on tropic proofing instruments. We found that instruments in New Guinea would all get glogged up with fungus which would grow over the optical components so that finally you couldn't see through, and it involved all sorts of problems and we tried all sorts of attacks on these problems. And I devised a series of field tests, which could only be done really in the jungles of New Guinea. At the same time I persuaded the army that I should write a report on their instrument workshops along the battlefronts, because there was obviously something that needed doing there, because binoculars, for example, were coming in and forming huge piles around these instrument workshops which they were managing to fix up at only three or four a day. There'd be twenty or thirty a day coming in for repair. So, I persuaded the government, the Australian Army to send me as a scientist to New Guinea on a project involving those two things: the testing of the experiments and the report on the workshops.

So that was the first time you'd left Victoria, was it?

Yes. Apart from, oh, I'd been to Sydney once, I'd been to Brisbane once and I'd been to Adelaide once. I'd never been anywhere else. Certainly it was the first time for me to leave Victoria during the war. And the interesting part of it was that I went up as a civilian. They tried to give me rank of some sort and put me in uniform and I insisted on going as a civilian, and it was fortunate that I did, because later on when I wrote a report about my visit, before I left New Guinea, the general commanding of the New Guinea force demanded to see my report before I went so that they could censor it. And I refused and I said, 'It's nothing to do with you. I'm reporting to headquarters in Melbourne', and as a civilian there was nothing he could do about it. Had I been in uniform and under his command I wouldn't have had the same ability to produce an objective critical report.

But how did you find it in New Guinea?

Anyway I got to New Guinea and had a remarkable experience because I saw more of New Guinea than many of the fighting men. I started at Port Moresby and down to Milne Bay and over to Goodenough Island, where the RAAF had an establishment, and back to Buna and Gona and Lae and Finschaf ... Finschafen and Nadzab. And each place, I was up, just one line behind the fighting troops. I was never under fire. I missed a bomb attack at Goodenough Island by one night but no one was killed in that or wounded.

How did you cope with the heat?

The heat was appalling. [INTERRUPTION - SLATE]

The heat was appalling and in the jungles of New Guinea, at sea level, I think the climate is probably one of the worst of the world. It's unequalled in most other tropical places because they don't have a wet season and a dry season. They have an almost constant level of around ninety degrees temperature, and ninety degrees humidity, which is about as bad as you can get. And to lie in a native grass hut in absolute still air at night, with the stench of fungus on everything: the sheets and the mattress and the pillow and the tent and the mosquito netting. And the mosquito netting makes you feel more oppressive. Not that pushing it aside creates a draft but just to feel yourself encompassed makes it feel worse, and you just lie there in a pool ... naked in a pool of sweat all night just tossing around.

It must be the complete opposite to the Antarctic?

Oh, yes. I remember one frightening episode where at Port Moresby I had to fly to Milne Bay the next day and we went out to the airport to sleep for the night waiting to leave at dawn the next day. And it rained heavily and at about at eleven o'clock at night we heard ... we could hear a Flying Fortress flying around overhead and it reverberating around overhead for over two hours, obviously trying to find someway down, someway of landing in this storm. And then suddenly this violent explosion - realising that it had crashed. At dawn the next morning we went out in a jeep and saw the remains of this scattered over the hillsides and nothing, except an odd arm or a leg here and there, of any human occupants. Almost no bits of the plane except a few of the engine box and then knowing that we had to get up in a plane two hours later and go down in weather that didn't seem very much better, had a very demoralising effect on us, I must say.

It would be quite scary?

Yes.

So what was it about New Guinea that ... what did New Guinea teach you?

Only an exciting experience I guess. It taught me a lot about the army and the way it runs things. It taught me a lot about troops and their amazing courage. I had the opportunity to examine the Sattleberg battlefield a very short time after a pretty gruesome battle there and see the ravines that our men had to cross in order to attack the Japanese. It's incredible stuff. It taught me a lot about inefficiency, about bureaucracy, about poor leadership and good leadership. It was quite an experience and I was delighted, of course, to have least been able to say I'd been somewhere near the edge of war.

And then you went back to the university?

Yes and then went back ... [INTERRUPTION] Yes, the main research involved putting numerous binoculars out into different patches in the jungle. These telescopes, having been treated with a special mercury compound that was supposed to inhibit fungus developing inside them, and then collecting them at the end of my trip. I suppose I was away for about six or eight weeks and bringing them back to the botany department in Melbourne to be examined. And my rather critical report on the inadequacies of the instrument workshops I presented to an interesting meeting of top brass of the army and air force at Victoria Barracks, who were highly embarrassed and started off by saying, 'Of course Law you realise how difficult it is for us and the secrecy of this. We don't want criticism', and 'What do you intend to do with this report?' Obviously they were aware that as an academic I might want to publish it. And I just said, 'Look you sent me up on a mission. You asked me to do a report. There's the report. It's yours. Do what you like with it. I have no further interest', and the sort of sigh of relief all the way around the table that there'd be no further publicity on this matter. Then I went back to the University and started research again, this time in classical physics as in the thermal conductivity ... heat conductivity of gasses at very low temperatures - minus 150 and minus 200 degrees, that sort of thing. And after getting through that, Professor Martin, my professor, came up to me and suggested I should undertake a PhD, which had just been introduced. Prior to that, a Master's Degree that I had was the highest thing you could get. And after the introduction of the PhD, Martin said, 'Look in the world of the future, if you don't have a PhD you won't be able to get anywhere, so you'd better enrol'. I said, 'Well can I count the two years of research I've done on heat'. He said, 'No, that PhD won't allow you to take anything that's done previously'. So, I started up from scratch on cosmic rays and the interesting part of this was that, because Martin later suggested that cosmic rays be part of the newly formed Antarctic Division, I found myself immediately in the research arena of preparing for the Antarctic expedition.

What is the study of cosmic rays?

Cosmic rays are strange atomic particles that come in from outer space, and some come from the sun itself. They're these streams of particles that strike the upper atmosphere and then produce all sorts of cascade effects down through the atmosphere of knock-on particles and knock-on x-rays and other radiation, so that what you get at sea-level is a mismatch of all sorts of different particles and radiations ... wavelength radiations, which you have to try and trace back and find what caused them at the top of the atmosphere, and then try and find out whether they came from the sun itself or whether they came from outer space and so on.

[end of tape]

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