The Department of 'Applied Mathematics' within the Research School of Physical Sciences began in 1970 with the appointment of its foundation professor, Barry Ninham. The Director at the time was Ernest Titterton, a nuclear physicist who pressed the button that set off the first nuclear bomb in New Mexico. He had been the student of the eminent Australian physicist Mark Oliphant, founder of the Research School and of the Institute of Advanced Studies, who retired to take up an office in the Department and was its mentor. Oliphant who contributed to the bomb and to radar, turned bitterly against nuclear power later. Titterton fought hard for the appointment of Ninham over extreme politically-motivated opposition from the then Vice Chancellor, Sir John Crawford. The Department was supposed to be small, with 3-4 academics and a few support staff, to complement the existing Department of (pure) Mathematics.

The research fields chosen by Ninham had nothing much to do with classical Applied Mathematics. He chose two complementary research themes, one in Optical Physics and Vision research and hired Allan Snyder to lead that group. That group grew, was hugely successful and split off after about 15 years to form a separate department. But the main theme was to be Colloid and Surface Chemistry, a branch of Physical Chemistry. The motivations were several.

Colloid and Surface Science underlies all of soil science, water treatment, mineral processing, electrochemistry, and biology. These fields remain as areas of key Australian national interest. Colloid and surface chemistry was emerging as a separate central discipline of modern science, drawing from other fields of physics, chemistry, mathematics, biology and chemical engineering, in much the same way as solid state physics physics took form several decades earlier. It has now been relabelled by the fashionable term 'nanoscience'.

In the late 1970s nuclear waste disposal via the Synroc process invented by Ted Ringwood of the School's distinguished Department of Geophysics and Geochemistry, held great potential for solving that problem. (That Department split off shortly after to become the Research School of Earth Sciences, as did both Astronomy and Mathematics to form separate Schools). A key issue with Synroc was how to control molecular forces in solution to achieve compaction of the artificial radioactive ceramic. This is a problem in colloid and surface science. After many years work on molecular forces it is on the way to a solution.

But the prime motivation was this: The molecular biology revolution was still new, progressing by leaps and bounds. Yet the physical and biological sciences sat in splendid disjunction. The physical chemists were the marines in the army of physical scientists attempting to build bridges to biology. The early founders of the cell theory in biology had insisted that progress in their science and in physiology had to depend on advances in Colloid science. There had been little progress in building bridges.

The Department expanded very rapidly and appointed Jacob Israelachvili to lead an experimental group. This was made possible by the generosity of Professors Adrian Horridge of Vision Research, Research School of Biological Sciences, and Bob Crompton of Physical Sciences. For over a decade the Department attracted more than 10 percent of the Nation's top QEII and CSIRO Postdocs, and became the world's leading center for Colloid and Surface science. The Department attracted and trained a very large number of overseas professors, research fellows, and scholars; it continues to do so.

The Department of Applied Maths became, and remains, an eclectic international interdisciplinary mix of basic and applied sciences, both theoretical and experimental. During the 1980s and 90s the Department chemistried and physicked and mathematized hard. It theorised and experimented and measured and invented, and sold new equipment to measure molecular forces. It made pioneering progress in understanding self assembly of lipids and proteins, colloids and their interactions. It learnt a lot about the exquisite sensitivity of molecular interactions. It did much other basic, applied, and developmental work.

Barry Ninham and Steve Hyde

By all standard measures the Department was and remains hugely successful. Fifty or sixty or so of its research fellows or students became full professors in various fields in Australia and overseas. More than 10 became members of the Australian Academy of Sciences. It has lost count of the number of PhDs produced.

But after a long time, it became clear that despite this progress, the original problem remained: That is, why have the physical sciences contributed little conceptually to the new biology? Not that the biologists do not use the tools of the physical sciences, X-rays, neutrons, NMR, microscopies and so on. They do, and biologists would be nowhere without them. But theories that ought to provide a predictive intuition are absent.

The Department evolved, and, 25 years later the conceptual locks that inhibited progress emerged. Fundamental flaws were identified:

  • In theories of molecular forces: specific ion effects, now coming under control, and vitally important to molecular recognition in biomolecules.
  • In studies of self assembly and bicontinuous structures where a new language of shape that requires non Euclidean geometry has taken form.
  • In understanding long range 'hydrophobic' forces.
  • In a role for dissolved atmospheric gas, previously ignored in chemistry.
  • In understanding and characterising porous media, from oil bearing rocks, coal, and bone, to self assembled organelles in cell and membrane biology.

These matters are as important in the scheme of things as Mendel's work was in genetics. They affect matters as fundamental as pH, buffers, pKas, ion binding to membranes and proteins, photon transfer, and mechanisms and energetics of enzyme action. (And provide insights into how to deal with matters like Synroc.)

The new theories and experimental programs under way amount to a paradigm shift in full swing. Some of the classical theories of 150 years standing have been unquestioned previously. As the defects identified in standard theories are repaired, the original goals of the Department start to fall into place.

The story is not complete, but now the new theories can be better used predictively both in biology, and in areas from enhanced oil recovery to minerals beneficiation. They impact even on quantum electrodynamics. The way ahead for the Department is clear. The new paradigms do work and after 35 years the books have to be rewritten.

The Department's philosophy in research was stated in one of its first annual reports. It believes that it has held steadfast to that which it once believed to be valid, and by so doing it has laid its successors under an obligation. In more down-to-earth language:

It would be pointless to put a man on the moon using the Ptolemaic theory of the planets. We had to have the Newtonian theory first.
Or: if you get the basics right, the rest will follow.

So too for harnessing modern science. The present pressures on, and claims by scientists to do 'useful' directed research exclusively are folly.

B.W Ninham, Emeritus Professor
Department of Applied Mathematics
August 3 , 2006

Barry Ninham

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