Ken Le Couteur

Ken Le Couteur, foundation head of Theoretical Physics

The origins of a Department of Theoretical Physics within the Research School of Physical Sciences (as the School was until 1991) are somewhat obscure. The early academic appointments were to the School rather than to departments. The first ANU Report to Parliament (by the Interim Council, covering the period 1/8/1946 - 31/12/1949) refers to a Department of Nuclear Physics, to be headed by Professor E. W. Titterton (his appointment was as Professor of Physics). The second Report (1/1/1950 - 30/6/1951) mentions a Department of Geophysics (Professor J. C. Jaeger was appointed to the Chair of Geophysics from 1/1/1952). The third Report (by Council, 1/7/1951 - 31/12/1951) adds a Department of Astronomy, although Mt Stromlo Observatory was not formally transferred to The Australian National University until 1957. Professor R. v. d. R. Woolley, Commonwealth Astronomer, was appointed to an Honorary Chair of Astronomy from 5/7/1950. This Report also mentions that Dr F. C. Barker was appointed to work in the field of theoretical physics. The next Report (1/1/1952 - 31/12/1952) adds Departments of Particle Physics and Radiochemistry. The first mention of a Department of Theoretical Physics as such is in the Report for 1953, with three staff (Visiting Professor Dr E. E. Salpeter, Senior Research Fellow Dr. S. T. Butler and Research Fellow Dr. F. C. Barker). The intention to have such a Department had, however, existed much earlier - on returning to Birmingham after a visit to Canberra in mid-1949, Jack Blamey said that the plans for the Physics School included a Mathematical Physics section with one Professor, one Reader and one or two Fellows. Indeed, the intention apparently existed from the "beginning" of the School, which Dr H. C. Coombs, in his book "Trial Balance" (p.199), attributes to Dr Woolley: Woolley (in 1945) "was critical of the idea of a research university with no involvement in the natural sciences". He argued that the unique opportunities to observe the southern skies would "attract astronomers and cosmologists from round the world but that it was necessary to balance their observational work with that of theoretical physicists. These physicists would, he thought, be pure theorists - needing little more than a room, pencils and paper".

The first award or appointment that could be linked with Theoretical Physics was the offer of an ANU Scholarship to Stuart Butler (from Adelaide) on 14/5/1948. He commenced duty as a Scholar on 10/2/1949, working in the Department of Mathematical Physics in the University of Birmingham under Professor R. E. Peierls. His two-year Scholarship was later extended for a further year, to January, 1952. Two other awards of Scholarships to theoretical physicists were to C. A. Hurst (Melbourne) commencing 15/3/1950 for work in Cambridge, and to M. J. Buckingham (Perth) commencing 22/7/1950 for work in Bristol. Of the 56 ANU Scholarships awarded up to the end of 1949, all but four were taken up in the UK. The Scholarships were awarded on the understanding that a scholar who had gone overseas under a scholarship would return to a post in Australia (not necessarily at the ANU) after the expiry of the term of the scholarship. The Information for Applicants for Scholarships for 1949, under Fields of Research, says "The Research School of Physical Sciences will initially be engaged in research in modern nuclear physics, and preference will be given to scholars who wish to pursue studies in the related fields". The Scholarship living allowance was then &A450 p.a. for unmarried scholars and &A550 for married (while the scholars were in the UK, the allowances were &450 and &600, respectively, payable in sterling, with &1 sterling = 25/- Australian).

Fred Barker

Fred Barker

The first academic appointment of a theoretical physicist followed an application for a scholarship by Fred Barker in April, 1949. He was originally from Melbourne but was then in Peierls department in Birmingham. As the closing date for scholarships was 15/3/1949, he was not awarded a scholarship but was offered a Junior Fellowship in the Research School of Physical Sciences, to start 1/10/1949 (the title was changed to Research Fellow before that date). The appointment was for three years, extendable to five years. Salary was &A750 p.a., payable in sterling until return to Austalia. The first two years were spent in Birmingham and in the Niels Bohr Institute for Theoretical Physics in Copenhagen. Barker came to Canberra in October, 1951. The Australian National University Report for 1951 says that he would work closely with the Department of Nuclear Physics. Up to that stage, Barker had worked mainly on the nucleon-nucleon interaction, but Professor Titterton suggested to him soon after his arrival in Canberra that he should become familiar with work on light-element nuclear reactions, as the experimentalists would probably be going on with them for ten years, even if the big machine got going. Barker continued working in this field for over 50 years.

At the end of 1951, the population of Canberra was about 20000. The suburb of O'Connor was being developed (it was known as South Yass); the Barkers occupied the third house completed north of MacArthur Avenue, and access to this was often blocked by floods in Miller Street. Construction at The Australian National University was hampered by a lack of building materials and labour. There were other shortages - the Physics School was pleased to buy a manual typewriter that the Barkers had brought from England. One of Barker's early extramural activities, with others from the School, was to help fight (?) the bushfire that burnt out the workshop at Mt Stromlo Observatory in February 1952.

Prior to Barker's appointment, there had been 11 academic appointments made by the ANU, four of these in the Research School of Physical Sciences (all four were Australians, but only one of them came to Canberra, L. U. Hibbard in 1954).

Office accommodation in 1951 was in the Old Hospital Buildings, for RSPhysS staff and for all other ANU academic staff. Barker shared an office with M. P. (Jimmy) Edwards (Senior Technical Officer). In addition to a table and chair, a calculating machine (Facit) was provided, but even this was on a tenuous basis, as it was borrowed each evening by Professor Jaeger and returned the following lunchtime, until he got a new Facit. The Australian National University News for July 1950 (the fourth issue) describes the Old Hospital Buildings as "solid pre-war frame and fibre construction... blessed with steam heating", though on occasions the heating didn't work and Barker had to go to the HT building to get warm. This building had been started at the end of 1950 in order to house the 1.2 MV Cockcroft-Walton accelerator, and was completed late 1951. As reported in the September 1952 ANU News, the first permanent building of the University, the Research School of Physical Sciences, was opened on 5/9/1952 by Sir John Cockcroft. Barker and other members of the School moved into offices in this building later that month. This became known as the Cockcroft Building.

The September 1952 ANU News also reported that Council had granted leave for the filling of the new position of Professor of Theoretical Physics, but an advertisement for this post did not appear until 1955. In the meantime, the May 1953 ANU News announced that applications had been invited for Research Fellows and Senior Research Fellows in the Department of Theoretical Physics.

Stuart Butler was appointed Senior Research Fellow in Theoretical Physics, commencing on 1/8/1953 (although the July and September 1953 issues of The Australian National University News both said that his appointment was in the Department of Nuclear Physics). After his ANU Scholarship, he had been a Research Associate at Cornell University before his return to Australia. Professor E. E. Salpeter, Associate Professor of Physics in Cornell University, arrived on 3/9/1953 as Visiting Professor in Theoretical Physics. He acted as head of the Department during his visit, and worked mainly on thermonuclear reactions in the interiors of stars and related astrophysical problems. Stuart Butler was interested mainly in angular distributions in deuteron stripping reactions. In May 1954, the Department moved into offices in the newly-completed physics building, called originally the Chifley Building and later the Oliphant Building, with good views over the racecourse. While Salpeter and Butler were in Canberra, members of the School and of the Sydney University School of Physics, which was headed by Professor Harry Messel, held three joint meetings in Sydney and Canberra, with the talks given mainly by theorists. Salpeter left Canberra to return to Cornell on 21/6/1954. Butler resigned on 30/6/1954 to take up a position in the School of Physics at the University of Sydney. Barker's Research Fellowship had been extended for two years until 30/9/1954. He then left for a year in the Theoretical Physics Division at AERE, Harwell, on the understanding that he would return to The Australian National University as a Fellow in the Department of Theoretical Physics, which he did on 1/11/1955.

The first research students in the School to work in Canberra were A. Przybylski and C. E. Gum, who commenced their Ph.D. courses in the Department of Astronomy at the beginning of 1951. Later that year, scholarships were advertised for research students to work in Canberra in the Departments of Nuclear Physics, Geophysics and Astronomy (closing date 30/9/1951), and the first scholars were A. E. Beck (Geophysics) and E. Kondaiah (Nuclear Physics). The Australian National University News for May 1954 announced the award of a scholarship in Theoretical Physics to K. C. Hines of the University of Melbourne, but the July issue reported that he had declined the offer.

In January 1955, an advertisement invited applications for the positions of Professor of Theoretical Physics (salary &A3000 p.a.), Reader in Theoretical Physics, Senior Fellow, Fellow, Senior Research Fellows and Research Fellows, with the closing date 30/6/1955. In September, the Chair was offered to Dr K. J. Le Couteur from the University of Liverpool, who had worked on the statistical model for nuclear reactions, and whose regenerative beam deflector had greatly increased the intensity of the beam extracted from the Liverpool cyclotron. He took up the position from 1/4/1956, arriving in Canberra the following month.

During 1956 and 1957, an introductory course in Russian for scientists was given by Mr Lojkine, a librarian from Mt Stromlo Observatory.

Dr L. J. Tassie from the University of Melbourne commenced his Research Fellowship in the Department in November 1956, working on the scattering of high-energy electrons by nuclei.

The 1956 ANU Annual Report lists A. Nicholson as Research Student in the Department (but to work in the University of Birmingham) - he completed his course in Birmingham in October 1957, and took up an appointment with the Department of Supply (keeping in close touch with the Department of Theoretical Physics since then).

The Australian National University Annual Report for 1957 says that courses on quantum mechanics were presented in the Department of Nuclear Physics by staff members of the Department of Theoretical Physics. The Australian National University News for August 1957 says that Dr D. M. Brink of the University of Oxford (originally from Tasmania) had been appointed a Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Theoretical Physics, and that he hoped to take up his appointment in July 1958 (but he didn't).

In August 1957, Brenda Rees started work in the Department, to assist with computing (using a Monroe electric calculating machine) and with typing (electric typewriter). She continued in 1958 as Mrs Nerdal, although The Australian National University Annual Reports first list a full-time female Research or Departmental Assistant in 1959. Barker's contribution to the 1957 Annual Report was submitted on 20/12/1957. In 2001, the comparable date was 9/10/2001.

In 1958, Dr D. C. Peaslee of Purdue University was a Fulbright Visitor to the Department from March to December. One of his first activities was to present a talk on the topic "Decay of V-particles" at a Nuclear Physics Conference in Canberra, organised by the Departments of Nuclear Physics and Theoretical Physics, from 6-8 March 1959. He was appointed Reader in the Department of Theoretical Physics from 24/10/1959.

Two students commenced Ph.D. courses in the Department in 1958 - D. W. Lang and P. W. Seymour. The first female student in the Department (and in the School), Elizabeth Bradford, commenced in 1959, as did B. A. Faithfull.

Visitors to the Department included Dr T. H. R. Skyrme (AERE) in 1959, and Profs. L. Rosenfeld (NORDITA, Copenhagen) and R. H. Dalitz (University of Chicago) in 1960.


Brian Robson at the console of the IBM 1620 computer (1962)

Dr B. A. Robson from the University of Melbourne was appointed Research Fellow in the Department from 4/4/1960, and Dr K. Kumar from the Tata Institute, Bombay, was a Visiting Fellow from 2/9/1960. Barker was promoted to Senior Fellow from 1/7/1960, along with several others in the School - W. Buscombe (Astronomy), G. A. Joplin, E. Irving and A. E. Ringwood (Geophysics), J. H. Carver and P. B. Treacy (Nuclear Physics), and E. K. Inall (Particle Physics). Soon after (5/7/1960), the two top floors of the Cockcroft Building were destroyed by fire.

During 1959 and 1960, Prof. Le Couteur was on Study Leave at CERN and AERE. In 1959, Lindsay Tassie had a Weizmann fellowship in Israel, and in 1960 he took one year's leave at Argonne National Laboratory on a Fulbright Travel Grant. In August 1960, Barker left on Study Leave for one year at MIT.

In 1957, some numerical computations had been carried out on the CSIRAC computer in the University of Melbourne, and in 1959 on SILLIAC in the University of Sydney. In 1960, an agreement was made to rent an IBM1620 computer from August 1961, to be operated by the Department of Theoretical Physics and to be the first computer in The Australian National University that could store a program (Mt Stromlo had an IBM610 from 1960). The IBM1620 arrived on 2/1/1962.

Don Lang became the first student of the Department to graduate Ph.D. on 12/5/1961 (Thesis title: Some aspects of statistical theory in nuclear reactions), followed by Pat Seymour on 12/4/1962 (Temperature and stability properties of a radially constricted steady-state plasma between electrodes) and Elizabeth Bradford on 13/7/1962 (Selected proton reactions in light nuclei). The next were Rodney Baxter and Reiner Dreizler in April 1965.

Emeritus Professor Fred Barker - 8/3/2002

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