Interviews with Australian scientists

Professor Lawrence Lyons (1922-2010)
Physical chemist

Lawrence Lyons was born in 1922, in Sydney. He began studying at the University of Sydney when he was 16 years old. In 1942 he completed an honours degree researching the effects of nitrogen and carbon monoxide on the photolysis of acetone. He received a PhD (1952) and a DSc (1964) from the University of London. During the war years, he worked as a chemist at GE Crane and Sons in Sydney and was in the Air Force from 1943 to 1945. From 1945 to 1963 Lyons was at University of Sydney as a lecturer, senior lecturer and reader in chemistry. While at the University of Sydney, he investigated the physico-chemical properties of solids. In 1963 Lyons became the first professor of physical chemistry at the University of Queensland. From 1970 to 1973 he was head of chemistry. He remained at the University of Queensland until his retirement and appointment as emeritus professor in 1987.

Interviewed by Professor John White in 2008.

Contents

Early years
Wartime work
Lecturing at the University of Sydney
A one-man delegation to China
Experiences in Japan
Developments at the University of Queensland
Intriguing and rewarding aspects of science
Nurturing student hostels in Sydney
Progressing to new university colleges
Issues for university education
Retirement projects

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Early years

I am talking to Professor Lawrence Ernest Lyons at his home in Moggill Road, Kenmore, near Brisbane. We are going to talk about not only his work but also the things that come to mind in a conversation that will be of interest to me, in the first instance.

Thank you, Lawrie, for agreeing to talk. Perhaps we should begin with your early life, and especially your years as a student at Sydney University.

Sydney University saw me first as a boy of 16, and I turned 17 in the middle of my first year there. When I went to the university I didn't know whether I wanted to do medicine or science, and so I did (in science) the four subjects common to both.

My honours year was in 1942, with Thomas Iredale. We studied the photolysis of acetone and the effect on it of two gases, nitrogen and carbon monoxide – those two having been chosen by Thomas Iredale because they had similar masses and electronic structure but one had a dipole moment and the other did not. In the end, the results turned out to be identical.

As there was no workshop, I had to do everything myself, making my own glassware – not flasks or things like that, of course, but the gas microburet examination system and the irradiation set-up. I had to learn to work with soda glass, because there wasn't any Pyrex.

I remember that myself, Lawrie, when I worked with Thomas Iredale – making soda glass vacuum lines.

Yes. They're tricky; trickier than Pyrex. But, anyhow, that went off all right.

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Wartime work

By that time, World War II was under way. I'd like to hear about the work you did during the war, as that's something you haven't mentioned in your biography.

All students had to do an army camp with the Sydney University Regiment, and mine was in 1940. After the war I had a letter that told me I was discharged from the Army Reserve – and I did not know that I had been in it.

My lecturer in first-year botany was Eric Ashby (later Sir Eric Ashby), who was professor of botany at the University of Sydney. But during the war he was made scientific liaison officer for Australia. He had all the science students in the university out onto the area in Science Road – there was no lecture theatre big enough for everybody – and he stood on a platform with a microphone and told us Australia had to make a start on various industries. Whereas before the war all things in various categories had been imported, Australians now had to make things like aluminium alloy because they could no longer import them. And it was our duty to go to some industrial place when we finished our first degree at Sydney and become part of the team to set up the necessary industries.

How was that organised, Lawrie? Who chose which place you went?

You chose it yourself, from advertisements that were made by the places. I was selected by GE Crane and Sons to go to their place at Concord, in Sydney, where they had a big factory site. They had been in the habit of making brass and copper things for plumbing: taps, cocks of various kinds, pipes and so on.

So, at the beginning of November 1942 – the year having been chopped off at the university – I went to join Crane's. That company, in the war, was the first to make aluminium in Australia, and it had contracts to turn out aluminium alloy sheet for making aircraft. I went there because the results of the previous chemist had been unsatisfactory. In the end we put in a method of British Aluminium and everything went well. GE Crane and Company were the first people to have made the duralumin sheet metal, which is largely aluminium but has certain other elements in it as well. The alloys made in Sydney were sent to Melbourne and used to make aeroplanes.

I was at Crane's as a chemist. There was a staff of six assistants in the laboratory, and others in the office. The metal alloys were made in large heated vats in the factory.

I stayed till, after about seven or eight months, I realised I'd done everything I could do there; everything was going smoothly. I then applied to join the Air Force, and I was accepted. But then they did nothing for about eight months! They had too many people, enrolling in air crew. I'd enlisted and that was that, but I couldn't do anything – I had to stay at Crane's until I was actually called up. And it took the Air Force eight months to do that. I realised that indicated something cumbersome about the system, but one couldn't do anything about it.

What did you do in the Air Force?

I was in the Air Force from 1943 to 1945. I ended up as a trainee navigator, without having done anything useful. I'd done a lot of training, but also a lot of waiting around in various cities. I did a bit of flying, as everybody did, but they decided I was a better navigator than I would be a pilot, I think. [laughs]

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Lecturing at the University of Sydney

So you came to Sydney University then, as a lecturer!

Yes. I got out of the Air Force just before the war ended, and I went straight into a lectureship at Sydney – they were wanting people, and so, fortunately, I didn't have an awfully long wait to get appointed; it was all done quickly, and I was still in uniform when I arrived there.

And you lectured first-year and a whole series of courses?

Oh yes. There were a lot of students enrolling at the end of the war. That's why the university needed more staff.

What about the research possibilities? Electrochemistry must have been one of them, surely. I'd love to know about the work you were doing then, because when I first came to know you, you were doing spectroscopy and electrical conductivity of organic solids. I remember very clearly, also, the time when you were constructing the book on organic superconductors known as Gutmann and Lyons, and I was very proud to receive a copy of that when you visited us in Oxford.

Well, I'd done the research with Tom Iredale, and then I started up various things. That's all listed in the papers, for anyone who is interested to see.

And later you went to University College, didn't you?

Yes, to do a PhD with Dr Harry Poole and Professor David Craig. As for the book with Felix Gutmann, the first volume appeared in 1967. It was later reprinted, and the Russians translated it for a 696 page volume published by Mir, Moscow. There were more than 2000 references. A second volume with again more than 2000 references and another co-author Hendrik Keyser appeared in 1983

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A one-man delegation to China

There is something else besides the war thing that I particularly want to tell you about, because this is also not in my biography.

In 1965 I was invited to become a delegate to China, on a one-man delegation. There were political goings-on around the place, and I think that with Christiansen in engineering being a supporter of Communist China, he had something to do with the invitation. So off I went.

The Americans weren't there, nobody else was there. There weren't tourists very much to China in that year. They took me to four cities, where I was accompanied by a man who was a minder, a translator, a guide – and a friend, really. A very decent fellow. He was with me for all the 16 days.

What was the purpose of your visit to China?

The purpose of it, from my point of view, was to find out something about the country and its universities and so on. I lectured in Beijing (then Peking).

You gave a lecture of an hour or so, and then you had lunch all together with the committee. After lunch there was a question session in which you answered their questions for an hour or so. It took three hours from beginning to end of the lecture itself and the questions – and, the night before, another hour with the translator getting familiar with the vocabulary, the technical words.

So you talked in English and someone translated while you were talking, is that right?

Yes. I visited four cities, and in every city there was a political fellow with you, and a group of them met with you at the beginning of the visit to the city. Then there was a similar thing at the end.

I quite got to like the Chinese, because – quite different from the Japanese – they'd grasp your hand or your arm and slap you on the back. And a typical farewell from the political fellow who stage-managed the whole meal, the whole conversation, was, 'Oh, we must be very good friends, because only good friends could differ so much!' (My political opinions weren't Communist.) [laughs]

What was your impression of the place at that time? I think it was an extremely interesting period.

Well, the first thing I was shown was the 'friendship with Vietnam' commune, which was more of a factory, where a lot of young women sat around on the floor and filled grenades with explosives. That was the first thing they showed me, so I knew where I stood: different from where they stood. They were hoping to get a sympathiser, I suppose, but I don't think they ever succeeded in doing that – although, later on, a party showed up in Brisbane that I was asked to show around Australia as a return, as it were, for my visit there. And the same translator came with that party as had been with me.

He had started his career in a bank, but he left while still very young and did a four-year course, learning Russian. Then the Russian business collapsed in China, so he went to another institute and did four years of learning English. And then he came to the work such as looking after me. I remember once meeting the rector of Tsinghua University, in Beijing, who had just come back from Korea. He told me horror stories about how the Americans in Korea were supposed to have attached ropes to a man's two arms, tied one to the back of a truck and the other to the back of an opposing truck, and then driven off and pulled him to bits. This was to the embarrassment of my translator-guide friend, and I didn't have much to do with that rector of the university after that.

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Experiences in Japan

Weren't you also in Japan, some time after that?

Oh, I went to Japan several times later on, yes.

You have had quite close scientific activity there, have you not?

Yes. I was the Leverhulme Senior Fellow in the University of Tokyo. The person of greatest contact was Professor Hideo Akamatsu, who ran the laboratory. (It had previously been under Professor Mizushima, who was some royal relative, in Tokyo University.) I was part of his research group of about 12 while I was there. I gave lectures and so on.

What was the work about?

They were working on organic conductors, semiconductors, photoconductors, and they did what I think was the first doping of an anthracene-like substance with electronically active dopants that conveyed a very high conductivity upon the solid. Akamatsu was at the beginning of all that, and hasn't really been recognised. There have been Nobel prizes given to some Americans in that field, but without acknowledging the Japanese work which was the first. Anyhow, we had a great time.

Another man there was Hiroo Inokuchi, who had been the Japanese Ramsay Fellow at University College – the Ramsay fellowships having been named after a one-time professor and the discoverer of inert gas elements at University College. I'd also been a (British) Ramsay Fellow in Britain, so Inokuchi and I had this in common. He was a right-hand man to Akamatsu and later became a professor at Okazaki National Research Institutes, in the Molecular Science Institute.

I seem to remember that he did some work on big dye molecules, very coloured material.

Yes, he did that, I think. Another very decent fellow.

In Tokyo we had an apartment that the university provided. My wife and two young boys were there. They travelled around, and went to a school owned by a Miss Matsukata, the Nishimachi School. This was a private school where the staff was 50 per cent Japanese, 50 per cent 'other', half the students being Japanese, the other half foreigners.

Sounds like an excellent education for youngsters.

Miss Matsukata was enlightened. The school had a tremendous library, and fostered intellectual activity.

And your children enjoyed that?

Very much. Andrew was elected class captain, I remember. That pleased the Tokyo people who had come good as referees, even though they thought we were poking our necks out (not that they ever would have said this) when we put children down for this school. It was highly selective and you didn't want to make a mess of things. They were very relieved, anyhow.

They didn't lose any face?

They didn't lose any face at all. One of the most interesting phenomena while I was on that visit, however, was that Akamatsu – and his wife, most unusually – attended a dinner that Akamatsu invited me and my wife to attend. His wife was there because my wife was there. But the rest of the people were all staff members, and they didn't bring their wives. Mrs Akamatsu didn't speak any English, which was a bit restrictive, but all the same he was very good in English.

This was at a specially hired place in a restaurant in the city, and Akamatsu was seated facing the door. We were seated near him and his wife, and then other places were down the two sides, away from Akamatsu. His staff came in, one at a time, in strict order of seniority. And when the first man comes in, he bows, he kneels, and then he puts his forehead on the ground. I said to Alison, 'Why don't we start that in Brisbane?'

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Developments at the University of Queensland

Your mention of Brisbane brings us back to your career in Australia. You'd had an excellent career in Sydney, but you took the leap to come to a university like the University of Queensland. At least, that's my impression of it. And you built a new building. Could you tell us a bit about your experiences in Brisbane?

Oh well, I was the first person they'd had in a chair of physical chemistry. And TGH Jones was the very university-active person who had been head of the department for a good number of years. (At the age of 45 he gave up research, after being very, very active in it, and then he was on the senate and every other committee around the university and so on.)

Originally the University of Queensland had been downtown, where the University of Technology now is, and when it moved to the St Lucia site a new building for the Chemistry Department had been put up there. In fact, part of the original stonework was used for the chemistry building. But, on its rectangular-shaped block, one quarter was omitted, still blank. The idea in TGH Jones' mind was that we would build physical chemistry in that quarter to match the rest of the building. That aroused such antagonism amongst all the other staff – you know, 'This new fellow's getting a new thing and we've got this old thing,' – that in the end I said to him, 'Why don't we try to get a complete new building?' He thought, 'Why don't we?' and in one interview he brought it off! So we got a new building entirely, for everybody, not just for the new physical chemist.

TGH Jones was still the head at that time. We set up the thing with three sections. Eventually I became head of the department, in rotation. I didn't want ever to do it again!

The change in the University of Queensland since then has been enormous, not just in the buildings but also, I think, in its international reputation.

It's improved steadily all the time, yes. Recently there have been two research institutes, one from ANU (Australian National University) and one from Melbourne University that have been bought up and transferred holus-bolus into Brisbane. And I see that John Mattick, who was head of the Institute for Molecular Bioscience, was elected to the Academy of Science just the other day. I've never met him, but I wrote to him with my congratulations and said that it was long, long overdue. He wrote an appreciative note back.

It's a great thing to see the university so strong.

Well, under John Hay's vice-chancellorship there was tremendous growth in research funds, and a lot from outside any governments. A man called Feeney has given hundreds of millions and a lot of that was fed into molecular bioscience, all that side of things.

It shows much to the advantage of the state of Queensland, in my view.

Yes. I have always felt that the Academy's method of electing fellows showed terrible state discrimination, year after year. One year I got Peter Beattie, the then premier of Queensland, to write to the Academy officers about it. It resulted in five Queensland places that year, compared with the average of one in four years.

But all meritorious, I trust.

Oh, they were meritorious – of course they were. But there is still state weighting of selection committees in favour of Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne. I had the statisticians work it all out. There is an enormous correlation between state representation on the selection committee and the states of those elected. I would have liked to see an experiment in which state weighting was set aside for one year, to see what happened.

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Intriguing and rewarding aspects of science

What do you think was your most interesting scientific work – the things which gave you joy?

When I was in Harvard one year I published a paper on how you explain electronic properties of organic solids, the whole clutch of effects. For someone that worked in inorganic materials like silicon or the inorganic semiconductors, where you can use one-electron functions for quantum mechanics – the trouble with organic materials is that there you just can't do that. Any functions are mixed up. And it's beyond calculus.

Why did that particular work give you joy?

Well, it hadn't been done for any organic materials. It's just the whole range of effects: photoelectric thresholds of molecules and crystals, photoconduction thresholds, conductivity thresholds, molecular affinities, crystal electron affinities and so on. It wraps it all up. What you're doing is using certain experiments on molecules to get the answers to the quantum mechanics. But nobody has ever, I think, even to today, worked it out from absolute scratch. The functions are too complicated.

You were involved with Bill Moffitt at that time, weren't you?

Yes. He gave me shelter, in a way. He didn't want to get involved in the work, or in the publication, even though I asked him if he would like to. But before long he died on a squash court, at the age of 33.

When I was a young don in Oxford and you came to visit me, you were working on photo cells, were you not?

Oh yes, there was work on photo cells. We went into cadmium telluride after the organics. And we showed that cadmium telluride was the most terribly sensitive substance on Earth in picking up impurities. None of the published analyses could be relied on. You bought material as 10-6 purity, and it wasn't. None of it was anything like that. You couldn't rely on purchased levels of impurity.

You couldn't touch the cadmium telluride with glass. It sucked whatever had got into the glass holes out of it into the cadmium telluride.

So that changed the electrical properties enormously?

Yes. Ultimately we bought SIMS [secondary ion mass spectrometry] and Auger analysis equipment and so on, and proved the point. Pure silica was a good material. It didn't have such hosts of impurities that glass – Pyrex – had. And Teflon was all right. You had to watch the surfaces to protect the cadmium telluride. Put in glass, it was hopeless. For a long while we didn't know what was going on, until we found we could increase the purity dramatically by avoiding glass surfaces all the way.

You mean even beakers and things of that kind?

Yes. If you bought the cadmium telluride as 5N standard or whatever, it wasn't.

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Nurturing student hostels in Sydney

To change the subject: I am sure I remember that when I was a student with you, you and your wife Alison used to have competitions to see who could get the most letters into the Sydney Morning Herald. Is that true?

[laughs] Yes – at one time. Alison was really the best.

For me as a young person it was enormously interesting that there could be an intellectual interest which was competitive in that way.

That must have been the time also when you were thinking about university hostels and colleges. I suppose you did that, to some extent, as a team with Alison. We all know how much our wives help us in these matters.

Well, after being at University College to the year 1953 I came back from England with the idea that we ought to have a church college in Sydney – in addition to St Paul's College in the University of Sydney. But the warden of that college, Felix Arnott, because of churchmanship ideas, didn't want an evangelical Anglican college put in. He had ground to put in a women's college, and we put that to him and put it to the university. Bickerton Blackburn (Sir Charles Bickerton Blackburn) was the chancellor of the university and he said he didn't see why we shouldn't have a college, but at a meeting which included Stephen Roberts [Sir Stephen Roberts], the vice-chancellor, it was made clear that the university didn't want it.

On university land, do you mean?

Yes. Oh, there was plenty of church land. The university could have talked the church into selling them a parcel of land quite easily when the Glebe 99-year leases fell up. Glebe had got out of the control of the church, though it still owned the land, because it had no say over the tenants – people who owned this bit or that, and let it off to somebody else. The University Hotel was a base for prostitutes, and so on.

But you converted that into a university hostel, didn't you?

Yes, we did that in the end, when the university wouldn't play ball nor would they help. Margaret Telfer, the registrar, was trying to get a Presbyterian thing off the ground at the same time and we had a joint application, I think with a third party, to try and get new Glebe land, but it didn't work. The church wouldn't do it.

Anyhow, we found that the lease for the University Hotel had finished and so the church had regained control of the building. Broughton Knox and I and Ron Winton – who was the editor of the Medical Journal of Australia and worked in a publishing building just across Parramatta Road from the University of Sydney site – approached the church to let us start a hostel in the University Hotel. They agreed. Broughton said, 'We'll pay the church. For every student night that a student is here, we'll pay them one shilling,' and they accepted that. There were about 40 students in the end there. So the church got £2 a night, which in those days was not as ridiculous as it might sound now.

Huh! That was a good deal.

We let the students order their own food, do their own cooking; we just rented them a room – at first. After a while they got tired of that and we had to, with the committee, employ somebody in the kitchens and so on. We now had a men's hostel going, and instead of University Hotel we called it University Hall.

Then we had a women's hostel in the Kentish Hotel, not far away. And then somebody wanted us to take over an existing student hostel at Petersham, 'Arleston', which we did. We sent Bishop Clive Kerle around to the bank to borrow $11,000, on the security of the property at Petersham. He came back with the money, gave it to the Arleston people, and we had another hostel. We called it Latimer House. So we had three hostels going.

Alison and I took a pair of scales to weigh how much restaurants provided when they gave you the meal with roast beef and potatoes and peas and so on – to find out how many peas, potatoes and so on people served in a commercial establishment might reasonably have. Consequently we knew what we had to buy to feed people. We had terrible trouble with cooks, who always had 'sentiments', and then we found that students didn't like lamb's fry, though it gave a very good tick to various entries in their proper diet. Oh, we had lots of fun.

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Progressing to new university colleges

How did the University of New South Wales enterprise start?

I went to see Philip Baxter, the vice-chancellor, one day. And I said we'd like to start a college of the Church of England – Anglican Church – at the University of New South Wales. He said, 'That's very good. We're delighted to have you.' So after 20 minutes I went back to my committee and surprised them by saying, 'He's agreed, already!' The Roman Catholics wanted to do the same thing, and I think he had them in mind also. Anyhow, we were partners with them; they got their bit and we got our bit.

At first Philip Baxter wanted to put us out at Long Bay, saying that we had mentioned we wanted playing fields. Well yes, after we'd been to St Paul's College we had said, 'There's a great playing field there. We could go over the other side of that and be right next to the playing field.' And that sort of story had been said to Philip Baxter also. But when he told me, 'Oh, we've got plenty of land out at Long Bay for playing fields,' I said we also wanted to be near the university. I said, 'Why don't you move your playing field from Anzac Parade frontage out to Long Bay?' He replied that he didn't know if they could do that, but in the end he did move it a bit. He moved the playing field away from Anzac Parade so we got buildings on Anzac Parade and the playing field at the back; the Anglican site was next to the entrance from Anzac Parade. So that became New College.

That's a very successful enterprise.

Yes. Only the other day I was talking to the present master, Professor Trevor Cairney. He's got a $30 million 'New College Village' going up across Anzac Parade for a graduate college, with authority from the university.

Would you like to say some more about the founding of New College?

We called ourselves the New University Colleges Council (NUCC). My wife Alison was also on NUCC. The council doesn't exist now, but it did exist for a long while. First it founded New College, at the University of New South Wales. That was mixed – men and women. It also started the Robert Menzies College, at Macquarie University. Those two colleges were started with university help and blessing. We sold our hostels and got some money from that. Arleston had given us a vacant block as part of the total area they had there, and that was sold separately.

Did you have the freehold at University Hall, or did you sell it as a leasehold property?

We were running University Hall as an entity that leased the property from the Sydney church. It was run by the New University Colleges Council, a separate body which was not under any bishop – an independent church body, but with sympathies with the church leaders.

And it was a legal entity, was it?

Oh yes, it was a legal entity all right. So we got the two colleges, replacing the three hostels, but in the end. I left Sydney in '63 to come to Brisbane, and at that time we had the land for New College and we had the architect appointed, Bob Woodward. He was the one that designed the El Alamein fountain on one of the corners at Kings Cross.

With the water jets?

Yes. It wasn't an original design, he wasn't the first in the world to do that, but he was quite well known. And he had done all sorts of drawings and plans (and costings) for us, to help us talk to various people. We used the staircase principle as in Oxbridge.

I don't know what the two colleges are worth in present-day terms – perhaps $100 million if we include the New College Village – but in those days it was very much less. And there were subsidies. The federal government subsidised college construction, and that was a great help.

I left Sydney before the Macquarie proposal started up. John Hawke became secretary of the New University Colleges Council. He hadn't been on it before; he was then put on it and he was the one that did all the dealings with Macquarie University. And so that went along, all by itself.

Oh, there were all sorts of committee arguments and things about the church wanting more control and so on. Anyhow, Trevor Cairney recently has come out with the third big scheme, the graduate college across Anzac Parade, in partnership with the university. He has a way of financing it, I think, but you should talk to him about that.

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Issues for university education

What do you think are the important issues at the moment for university education?

I think university education needs an integrated intellectual approach that covers both religion and science, and technology and everything modern. And I think Alister McGrath, in Oxford, is the man to do it. He's done much of it already. He started as a molecular bioscientist doing research at Oxford. He is a prodigious writer. His Dogmatics is still undone – it's going to be a three-volume thing – but he already has a three-volume work, Scientific Theology. In the 1st century AD the Christians had Plato and his philosophy; in the mediaeval period they had Aristotle and his. (Aquinas used Aristotle in his outlook.) Well, McGrath is seeking to displace Plato and Aristotle, in providing McGrath.

I hope he has the weight.

He has tremendous weight. He has a most excellent mind and is a prodigious worker. When he gave a lecture here, 700 people turned up to it. In fact, 200 had to be turned away without a seat.

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Retirement projects

In your retirement years you have put your ideas about an integrated approach to religion and science and technology into effect by founding the ISCAST, the Institute for the Study of Christianity in an Age of Science and Technology, and you were its first president. Are you still active in ISCAST?

Well, for Queensland I'm still acting secretary and acting treasurer. But when Ross McKenzie was appointed as the chairman of 'ISCAST Queensland', I did send a note to those on the Queensland mailing list asking for some donations to start his reign off with a bit of cash, and we collected $1500 from that.

I see that you have a long list of things here with you. Would you tell me about those?

Since I retired, I have started what I call for myself 'projects'.

The one at the top of the page says, 'Climate change, John Houghton'. As I go down the list I notice 'Postmodernism; Gospel of Judas; Islam and War; Waves,' and so on. Don't these projects intersect in some way or other?

Oh, only by my mind holding them at the same time, such as 'Energy' and 'The Units”. Most of them get a number; the latest is No. 325. Some of them are little one-day things, others go on for years and aren't finished – there's no uniformity in them.

Lawrie, have you followed the recent discussion about climate change? There are some people who take rather a strong view against the ideas of the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change].

I have, yes. Also I quoted Sir John Houghton. I drew to his attention that a certain Roy Spencer had come out with the claim that the link between carbon dioxide concentration and warming – as measured by the satellites Terra and, more recently, Aqua – didn't exist. I asked him, 'What do you say to that, John Houghton?' And he said that it was impossible to believe there was no correlation.

The question was whether there had been a cooling of the climate since 1998. Well, 1998 was a very odd year. Everybody seems to agree it was pretty much in excess; it had the highest rise in temperature in any year since a very long time ago.

I had come onto this by reading a Jennifer Marohasy, who lives in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales and is employed by the Institute of Public Affairs, a right-wing think tank in Melbourne. She had written articles, and had been to the great meeting of 500 climatologists in America where Roy Spencer had propounded all his views.

I wrote to her, saying that Sir John Houghton (who had been an Oxford professor of atmospheric physics in his twenties and later head of the British Meteorological Office) had just told me that what Spencer was saying was rubbish and of no consequence. She wrote back, 'Roy Spencer is a professor' – of something or other – 'at Alabama University.' Well, that didn't rock the world, in my mind, but she also said, 'He has received two things. He has received a NASA Medal for Exceptional Scientific Achievement, and he has been given the American Meteorological Society's Special Award for very fine work. And, leaving qualifications aside, we have the data.'

She went on to say, 'If you take 1998 as the reference point – or 2000 if you prefer to miss '98 – and look at what has happened since, this Aqua satellite has produced Earth temperature measurements of a kind that hadn't been done before.' Don't ask me what the temperature of the Earth is; it's something measured at a number of points so much above the surface. I don't know all the detail, but it is a well-recognised thing.

Now, John Houghton has drawn attention to the Assessment Report No. 4, in 2007, put out by Working Group I of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. There are six or so of these working groups, and they have their books and their specialties. They give maps and so on, and a five-year rolling average of the temperature data. I can't rule, myself, on what's right.

But you think there's an argument to be had?

There is certainly a very sound argument to be had. And Jennifer's even-handed in the way she looks at the data. I admire that.

It so happens that the Institute of Public Affairs is staging a lecture in Brisbane in the near future by a Professor Aynsley Kellow. He is professor of government in the University of Tasmania, head of the School of Government, and he is apparently a local authority on Earth temperatures. Jennifer and another woman are coming up to Brisbane for the lecture, and I have asked Jennifer to help me obtain a copy of some pages from that assessment report which John Houghton says I should take notice of. (My computer is unable to download them at present.) So I will go with my son Andrew to hear this Professor Kellow, and get those pages so that I can study them for myself.

Lawrie, thank you very much for talking about all these things today.

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