Australian Biography

Phillip Law - full interview transcript

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So why do we study cosmic rays? What are they actually for?

It's a very interesting question because I think they illustrate, as well as any other topic, this answer to the question: Why have pure research? Cosmic rays were, I suppose, the purest form of research you could think of. They were a phenomena which existed and no one knew anything about them, and out of sheer scientific curiosity we wanted to look at them and find out more. And yet, although we were not to know it, they ... the study of cosmic rays led on to the study of nuclear physics and particle physics and ultimately much of the information garnered from the cosmic rays acted as a stepping stone to the production of nuclear energy. So here's a great practical outcome from something that was originally utterly pure. And if I might just mention one other example. Back in 1950, I organised the first ozone measurements in any Antarctic or sub-Antarctic region, and we organised this because we were looking for things to study and it looked liked an unknown area and we thought we'd like to do it. We were not to know the ozone hole phenomena now would put such emphasises on this particular branch of study.

So when you were doing cosmic rays, which were a big part of your whole career, it was a really new field?

Yes. Yes. I think my trip to Antarctica with cosmic ray equipment on the Wyatt Earp was the first continuous set of measurements ever done over that stretch of latitude. You know, it was as new as that.

And what was it actually trying to prove? I suppose that's what ...

Not trying to prove anything really. It was just finding what particles they were, and how they behaved and how they interacted, and their relationship to things that might influence them like meteorological conditions and latitude and so on.

And so you were going to do your PhD in this? This is where you were heading?

Yes. I should say now perhaps, that I finished enough work to complete the practical side of the PhD but I was not allowed to finish in two years, which was the normal period, because being a full-time lecturer they demanded that seeing I was only working part-time on the research that I should spend three years on it. So I had to fill in three years in the physics department on cosmic rays before I could present the PhD. And it so happened at the end of two years this Antarctic business cropped up. And I'll speak about that in a moment, but I'll say here, I was able to defer this extra year of study just in case at a later date perhaps the Antarctic thing would fold up and I'd come back and finish it off, because all I had to do was write it up. I hadn't got to do any more experimental work. But it so happened that the Antarctic thing didn't fold up and I continued on and didn't ever get to back to finishing the PhD. [INTERRUPTION - PLANE - SLATE]

So you didn't in the end take out your PhD, although you were very close?

No these PhD regulations demanded that I take three years and although I'd spent two years and done, written up enough scientific papers to get a PhD I hadn't toed the regulatory period needed. And they deferred that in the hope, or in my hope, that if ever the Antarctic thing were to fold up I could come back and put in the extra year and write this stuff up and ... or not even write it up, just present the paper I'd already published in scientific journals. And as it happened I didn't ever go back so I didn't ever take out a PhD.

Well you got quite suddenly side-tracked?

The side-tracking was quite a fantastic bit of Law Luck. I was working on this cosmic ray work and through it I'd learned that this Antarctic Division was about to go off. But I couldn't find any details of how they were getting people for it. And I was on the point of writing to Sir Douglas Mawson, whom I'd heard of but never met, and I knew he was at Adelaide University. And I thought that if anyone knows anything about it he would and I thought I'd write and ask how to get into this because I thought it would be fascinating to get into the Antarctic work. I might say here that part of that reason was the feeling of discovering before, that owing to the broken nature of my scholastic work and my own comparisons of my own intellectual ability with people like Bob Hill, I felt that really an outstanding career in physics was not ahead of me. Further, particularly in my work in the heat, work where I was working in a little cubby hole basement and never seeing anyone, working about fourteen hours a day, just cluttered around with instruments, that's too much of a back room boy situation for me. I was much too extrovert to be too happy about that. I felt that I was lacking community interest and involvement with people. So life of that nature was never going to really satisfy me. So when the Antarctic thing cropped up I thought, Wouldn't it be wonderful to be able to marry my scientific interests with my physical interests - my interests in sport and physical activities generally and my sense of adventure. And so I was walking down the passage with Professor Martin one day and out of the blue he happened to say, 'I've just come back from Canberra'. He was the scientific adviser to the Commonwealth Government and he used to make regular trips to Canberra every three or four weeks. 'I've just come back from Canberra', he said, 'and we can't find someone suitable to be senior scientist of this Antarctic expedition'. I could hardly believe my ears. I said, 'Did you mention my name?' He said, 'Don't be silly Law. You wouldn't be interested in that', and I said, 'I'd give my right arm to get into that'. He said, 'Good gracious me. I'll go and ring up'. So he went and rang up and within three weeks I had an interview, and within a month I was Chief Scientific Officer of the Antarctic Division. It wasn't the Antarctic Division in those days, it was the Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions. And one of the things they were going to do was to send three sets of cosmic ray equipment south: one would go to Macquarie Island, one to Heard Island and I would take the third one on the Wyatt Earp to do a latitude measurement between Australia and Antarctica. So in my appointment as Chief Scientist, I was involved in two things: the one I was engaged in already was being the Chief Co-ordinator of the cosmic ray programme, that is, getting these three sets of instruments working. And its interesting that one of the men working on that was David Caro, who later became Vice Chancellor of Melbourne University. Brilliant electronic scientist. He later built the first cyclotron to be built in Australia. The other aspect of what I had to do, before going to Antarctica, was to co-ordinate the scientific programmes for the various expedition, arising from the various collaborating departments. There was the Bureau of Meteorology, the Bureau of Mineral Resources, the National Mapping Office, the Ionospheric Prediction Service and some botany and zoology departments and universities. And I had to draw up the full programmes of these and what was needed and arrange for the appointments of the scientists and the indoctrination and training and so on. And all this was tremendously pressurised, because I was appointed, I think in August, 1947, and the first expedition went away in December.

A huge amount of organisation there must have been.

So then I went off on my expedition which was on the Wyatt Earp, and the first journey was a shambles. We got halfway down to Antarctica, well south of the latitude of Macquarie Island, and the engine sank and put a bend in the tail shaft, and the tail shaft was in danger of snapping. So we were ordered home by the Naval Board, and we had to crawl back to Melbourne to have it all fixed up. And the result was that by the time we left on the second trip, it was late in the year. By the time we got down south it was mid-February and ice was beginning to form everywhere and the little Wyatt Earp was hopeless in pushing ice, and we were not able to get through to the continent in any way. We managed to do a running survey of the Balleny Islands, which had not been accurately surveyed before that time, although there were rough maps of them. But apart from that we accomplished nothing except my cosmic ray work, which went quite well. I published a paper. When I got back from that, I persuaded the army, with whom I had contacts, as you might remember, to let me get on an army relief ship, going up to pick up troops from Japan following the occupation there. And I took my cosmic ray equipment from Melbourne ... from Sydney to Japan and back to complete the latitude effect measurements. I'd done the southern part and I wanted to go up across the equator.

Just on the Wyatt Earp, that was your first ... the first time you ever saw the Antarctic?

Yes [INTERRUPTION]

David Caro and I drove a utility truck from Melbourne to Adelaide with my wife, Nell, and built the equipment onto the Wyatt Earp over a period of four or five days in Adelaide and then David and Nell drove back to Melbourne while I sailed from Adelaide to Melbourne looking after this equipment. And it was a horrible voyage for me. I was seasick the whole way and yet I had to stand on my feet and keep attending to this equipment, which was going wrong all the time. And we got to Melbourne and Stewart Campbell, who was the leader of the expedition for that first eighteen months, he wanted to ... and the captain of the ship, Commander Ohm, wanted to put me ashore as being incurably seasick, and I had a hell of an argument with them to allow me to proceed. Otherwise my whole Antarctic career would have stopped right then and there. Finally I persuaded them to let me go. But when we left Melbourne on the main trip, we just shot out into Bass Strait through the heads of Port Phillip Bay into a violent south-easterly storm and we were nearly wrecked right then and there. It was one of the worst sea experiences I've ever had. This was little ship rolled 50-60 degrees each side of the vertical with a very fast period of swing. It would do a swing-swang in five seconds. So the things used to get hurled and everything came adrift on the ship. The radio room was a shambles, the typewriters came detached. The radio sets came detached. Everything was on the floor sloshing around in six inches of sea water and if we hadn't been able to pull into the lee of Flinders Island, I think we might well have been wrecked.

Were you frightened?

I don't know if it's a fear, or exasperation, or misery. I was violently seasick of course. The conditions were intolerable. It was quite frightening and it was a mixture of all these sensations, I guess. And in the lee of the island we were able to restore the ship into some sort of order and sail on to Hobart, where we spent a couple of days patching it all up. And then we went off again and everything continued to go wrong. We had troubles with the Gyro compass, we had troubles with the anchor chains, we had troubles with the engine. And, then, as I said, the propeller shaft problem, going back to Melbourne and finally getting away again.

What did you think though when you first saw the Antarctic on that trip, despite the tumult?

The Antarctic was unbelievably wonderful. First of all there was the tremendous relief of going into calm water, out of this turbulence that was so upsetting. Then the magnitude of everything and the unbelievable beauty of certain vistas. I remember one moonlight evening, when the wind had dropped, and we were in amongst the packed ice and icebergs and the sun was low on the horizon so all the light is apricot golden coloured and that lights up everything, so that you've got these tints of crimson and apricot across the icebergs, on the pack ice, on this perfectly mirror-smooth water. And you stand on deck and soak up this glorious beauty. Then there was the Aurora, which I had never seen before. There were the birds, which are quite fascinating: the petrels and the albatrosses and so on. The penguins. Whales. We were seeing blue whales in quite large numbers, which in later years we didn't see at all because they had become practically extinct. We had the terrible ordeal of being short of water throughout the whole voyage, so that apart from drinking water, we were heavily rationed. I had various adventures on board - of accidents of one sort or another. But I had my first taste of naval discipline and navy procedures and how the navy operates. [INTERRUPTION - SLATE]

I think my experience of naval procedures on the ship was invaluable later because afterwards I was to lead expeditions on HMAS Labuan, the LST that relieved Heard and Macquarie Island. So, to be leader of an expedition being run by naval officers and a naval captain and naval crew, it was quite valuable to know how the navy felt about things and how one should work with them. But the Wyatt Earp itself was a dreadful ship. The reason she was chosen, was that when Sir Douglas Mawson proposed the ANARE and this journey to Antarctica, they searched the world, literally, for a suitable ship without being able to find anything suitable. And then he and Captain J.K. Davis, his old captain, recommended that the Wyatt Earp be used. She was a hulk in the River Torrens, Adelaide, and she was being used as the headquarters for Sea Scouts. She had been used by Lincoln Elsworth for four Antarctic voyages. She was a wooden sardine ship from Norway built about 1923, I think, and she was completely made of wood, no bulkheads, with two masts and sails, and an auxiliary engine. So, in preparing her for our use, in Port Adelaide they built the structure forwards further, to produce more accommodation, and they took out the auxiliary engine and put in a heavy diesel engine. And where they'd extended the superstructure forward, they had not caulked the joins where the scuppers used to be, so on the whole of this voyage, the minute the ship rolled, water would come in through cracks and flood the accommodation area. So for most of the voyage, in the open seas, we had six inches of water in the cabins. Icy cold water. That combined with the rapid roll of the ship and the absolute discomfort of trying to sleep and eat and do work on a rolling ship of that nature. The fact that it was underpowered for penetrating ice. It had the wrong shape of hull. It was quite absolutely unsuitable in every way. It was very slow, it could only do about eight knots, and in the following wind it got up to ten once. And so it's very ... there was not enough accommodation for the sort of things we wanted. So one of the things I was interested in upon returning later on was to search out a better ship. And I too failed to find anything around the world. And then I decided the only way to get out of this, was to build a ship in Australia. So I persuaded the government to provide funds, and the chief naval architect of the Australian Shipbuilding Board and I spent two years designing an Antarctic ship. We finished the design completely and we were almost on the point of having the ship built, when I found that there was a ship called the Kista Dan, which had just been built in Denmark and that by taking it, not only would we have more immediate access to a ship, but we would avoid all the problems of crewing with Australian crew and trade unions, and the problem of getting an experienced master and all that sort of thing. [INTERRUPTION - SLATE]

Phil, when did you first experience the ice?

Oh that was when I came down to Melbourne from Clunes in 1935, to take a position as a teacher in physics and maths, science and maths, at Elwood Central School, where I was also sports master. The first year I did some exams in education. When I found my way around I found that I could do a physics Part Two by going to evening practical classes and at lunch time, twelve to one lectures. So I had a little car and I used to rush up from school. I got them to let me off the last period in the morning and I'd drive up to Melbourne University in a hurry from Elwood, go to the twelve to one lecture, eat a sandwich on the way back in my car and be ready to walk in and take the classes in the afternoon. And I used to do practical work on Tuesday evenings, Thursday evenings and Saturday morning. I had intended to be a chemist, but the chemistry department didn't offer any of these night facilities so I switched to physics and not only was I able to do Part Two in that way, but I also did Part Three in the same way. In Part Three there was an added difficulty. Although the lectures were the same, they didn't have the night and Saturday morning practical classes so I had to do practical work by asking the school to let me off on Wednesday afternoons, which was sports afternoons anyway. And so teaching full-time for 1934, sorry, 1935 and 1936, I finished Part Two and Part Three physics. And over that period I became interested in skiing. My early mountaineering had all been in the Grampians and walking around the country one way or another. But my brother decided he'd like to see mount Kosciusko. So in 1936 he arranged for us to go up first to Mount Buffalo and then to Mount Hotham, where we had our first experience of skiing, and then the following Christmas he arranged for us to go up from Geehi to Mount Kosciusko. That was quite an adventurous trip because there was no road beyond Khankoban, so from Khankoban we had to take a pack horse and walk in, fording a river a number of times, 'til we got to the Geehi Hut and from there we spent two days searching for what they call the Hannel Spur, which was cut many years ago as a cattle track but never used because it was too steep. And it was the steepest, longest climb in Australia from literally, the flats of the Murray river, right up to the top of Mount Kosciusko. We did that in the summer of 1936 and we did that once or twice again later, staying in a little refuge hut called the Seaman Hut, which was just nestling below the summit of Kosciusko on the New South Wales side. In 1938, I was transferred from Elwood Central to Melbourne Boys' High school and there there was a young novice skier there called Bruce Osborne, who later became quite well known as one of the leaders of the Wangaratta Ski Club. A very vigorous bush walker and skier. But in 1938 he was a sheer novice and I wasn't much better, and we thought up this crazy idea of being the first people to go up Mount Kosciusko from the Geehi side, in the middle of winter, on skis. It was a very desperate adventure. We were very lucky to come out of it alive and it taught me a lot of lessons, which I later was able to make use of in Antarctica.

What happened on it, on the trip?

Well we were going to do what my brother and I had done before: take a pack horse from Khankoban. So we went up to Khankoban by car, went to a place called Waterfall Farm run by a man called Errol Scamel, and he gave me a horse, a pack horse, but he said, 'You won't be able to go in the ordinary route because all those fords over the river which you'd made [before] are in flood now'. It had been raining steadily for a whole week in Melbourne and up there. So he took us in by a tortuous route over the spurs, high up on the hills, riding horses and leading this pack horse. And he finally took us down to the Geehi flat and we spent the night in the Geehi Hut, and he went off the next morning back to Khankoban, taking the riding horses and the pack horse and just left us there. And we said, 'If we don't come out in a fortnight, you come looking for us'. So the next morning we got up and we had to blond across one of these bridges, which has a wire there and a wire there, and you put your feet on the bottom one and you hang onto the top one. And with the skis and packs, we had a couple of trips to cross weaving backwards and forwards on this thing, and the flooded river under us. And we walked three miles up to where we had to cross back over the river to get onto the mountain. And the river was flowing very fast, the water was icy cold straight off the snow. And Bruce Osborne went in first and he got washed off and I had to chase through the scrub about a quarter of a mile down stream and drag him out. And then we pondered what to do. We were very reluctant to give up at that stage. So I stripped off and half swam and half struggled across with a rope. We managed to get a rope slung across between two trees and with that and undressing and carting stuff over, we stumbled across. The only thing we didn't take off was our boots, because we had to keep our boots on to protect our feet walking across the boulders under water. But we got all this stuff across and we were blue with cold and we ran round madly and towelled ourselves down and tried to get warm and then dressed, and went up to the foot of the mountain. We had expected the snow line to be about 2,000 feet, which is normal. But [with] this very heavy rain in Melbourne and the State, the snow at Kosciusko, and the snow line was right down to the river. We found the Hannell spur track, but it was largely obliterated by snow gum boughs that had been forced down by the weight of snow. We found, that by beating on these with our ski stocks they'd spring back and expose the path, and the path was only about eight feet wide. And at one stage we lost it and couldn't tell where in the jungle the path went, and we noticed little wombat tracks going into this impenetrable wall of leaves so we realised that that must be the track and we beat that and sure enough branches went back. This wombat had been going up and down there in the summer so he knew the way and we followed him a mile or two. This long wombat track would help us out of our problems. But we were having great difficulty. Not only was it steep - we had our skis over our shoulders - but there was a complete tangle of broken down branches under the snow. So we were up to our knees in snow and getting tangled up in branches and things underneath and bashing to get through the branches. And we got soaked to the skin and finally we got out of the tree line and were able to put our skis on but we were very inexperienced. We hadn't heard about skins for climbing and the minute we tried to climb in deep powder snow, we were over our knees in powder snow. We couldn't see our skis and we were of course slipping. So we got rope and wound it round the binding of our skis and made them non-slip, and we were able to push our way up gradually. Very exhausting work, and climb up until we got almost to the top of the Mount Townsend - Mount Kosciusko spur. And from there we would have had to go down a thousand foot valley called the Wilkinsons valley and up onto the top of Kosi and then two miles down to this refuge hut, but when we got to the top of that ridge, we were hit by a blizzard. The wind had turned round again, the wind came up. It started to snow heavily. And we realised that in bad visibility we'd never find our way down, across Wilkinsons Valley or down to the hut. So reluctantly, we decided we'd have to go back. By this stage, it's four o'clock in the afternoon. All our clothing had frozen like armour. And we were just sheathed in ice. So we sheltered behind a boulder in this blizzard and did a very wise thing. We stripped all our clothing off and got fresh woollen underclothing out from our rucksacks and completely redressed ourselves and put our wind proofs back on top of it, and brewed a very little meal of cocoa and a few biscuits over a primus stove and then we headed down again. And going down was worse than coming up. We went down a series of ski traverses across the snow fields. But we couldn't turn. We'd never been in powder snow and powder snow. as I said, was over our knees and we couldn't see the tips of our skis and we were hopeless at doing turns, because we were not very good skiers anyway. So we operated by throwing ourselves over at the end of every traverse. When we'd get to the end we'd throw ourselves over and then climb up and go back and throw ourselves over. The trouble is that when you throw yourself over in deep powder snow, there is no bottom to it, so you fall into a great hole about two or three feet deep in the snow. And when you push down to try to push yourself up, you don't push on anything. Your hand just sinks down into this deep snow. So we found by wangling our skis into a certain position and pushing on those we could get to our feet again, and then do another long traverse. And this again was exhausting and saturating again. So we became saturated with water and frozen up again. We finally, though, got down to the tree line and from the tree line down, it wasn't snow, it was rain. So we went down in pouring rain and got to the bottom and had to strip off again to go through this icy, cold river and then down and climb back over these two wires. And we got back into that hut in pitch darkness about nine o'clock that night. We'd been going since four o'clock in the morning. And the next day it was teaming rain. We lay exhausted in the hut and just slept all day. And the following day it was still raining and we could see there was nothing else to do, so we had to walk fourteen miles back to Waterfall Farm and ford these flooded rivers about five or six times. And when we got to Waterfall Farm we changed into pyjamas which were in our car. They were the only dry and warm things we had left. And drove back to Melbourne.

At this stage, had you read any books about exploration in ice and snow?

No, not at that stage. I'm sorry. Yes. But I just want to mention one more thing. A couple of days later, Bruce Osbourne rang me up and said, 'You know Phil, I was thinking last night what would have happened to us if we'd twisted an ankle or a knee or broken a leg'. And I said, 'You were thinking of that last night. I was thinking of that the whole trip', worrying because you realise with only two, you have this terrible predicament where if you leave your injured companion to get help, it would take two days to get there and back and he'd be dead by then. And on the other hand, if you stayed with him, you'd both be dead. So what do you do? So I made a rule then and there, never would I ever go myself or allow anyone else to go in parties of less than three. But you asked about this snow and ice. In 1936, Geoff and I had done this Mount Buffalo, Mount Hotham trip and then had decided to ski regularly because we were fascinated with it. And becoming skiers you then get interested in snow and ice and you start to read those sorts of books - mountaineering books - and that leads onto Antarctic books. So by 1940 I'd read all about Scott and Shackleton and Amundsen and Mawson, without ever relating it in any way to what I might do in Antarctica.

What did you think of the books?

Oh they were tremendously exciting.

[end of tape]

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