Interviews with Australian scientists

Lord Robert May

Lord Robert May

Physicist and Ecologist

Robert McCredie May was born on 8 January 1938, in Sydney, Australia. He spent a solitary childhood playing puzzles and problem solving games. May attended Woollahra Primary School and Sydney Boys High School (1948–1952). There he became a champion in the school debating team and was greatly influenced by several excellent teachers, especially in science.

After topping his class and dismissing potential careers in law and medicine, May decided to pursue a degree in Chemical Engineering at The University of Sydney (1953). He divided his time between playing chess and snooker, and occasionally studying for chemistry, mathematics and physics exams, which he considered to be ‘interesting games’. Despite this approach he achieved incredible success, winning prizes in chemistry and physics. Contrary to advice received, he defied even more odds by successfully navigating a grueling undergraduate combination of chemical engineering and physics in his second year. In his third year he forsook chemical engineering, simultaneously majoring in pure mathematics, applied mathematics, and physics (again despite contrary advice) and topping all three. After successfully completing his honours year in physics (1956), May decided on a career in science, and never looked back.

May’s PhD in physics at the University of Sydney focused on superconductivity. His supervisor, Robbie Schafroth, had shown that an ideal gas of charged bosons would be a superconductor, thus redefining the problem. May’s thesis aimed to show how one might get effectively bound pairs of electrons (which would be bosons). Bardeen, Cooper and Schrieffer outpaced the Sydney group in this quest, winning them the Nobel Prize. 

After completing his thesis in 1959, May left Australia for a postdoctoral position in the Division of Engineering and Applied Physics at Harvard University, as Gordon MacKay Lecturer in Applied Mathematics (1959–61). During this time he met his wife, Judith, an event which he regards as the most important in his life.   

May returned to Sydney University in Australia as a Senior Lecturer in the Physics Department at the end of 1961. In 1964 he was appointed Reader and in 1969 received one of the two first “Personal Professorships” established at Sydney University. Around this time, partly as a result of involvement in the newly-formed movement on “Social Responsibility in Science”, he developed an interest in animal population dynamics and the relationship between complexity and stability in natural communities. He further developed these interests during an 18-month sabbatical, first in the UK (at the Culham Plasma Physics Laboratories and the Imperial College Field Station at Silwood Park) and then at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. 

In 1973 May moved to take up a Professorship in the Biology Department at Princeton University. Here he used his skills as a theoretical physicist to make major advances in the field of population biology. Over the next three decades these tools were further extended to the study of infectious diseases and of biodiversity. 

In 1988 May moved to Britain, taking up a post as Royal Society Research Professor at Oxford University. He served as the Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government and head of its Office of Science and Technology between 1995 and 2000, and was President of the Royal Society between 2000 and 2005.

Lord May has received numerous accolades, including Knight Bachelor in 1996, Companion of the Order of Australia in 1998, and the Order of Merit in 2002. His Fellowships include the Royal Society in 1979, Corresponding Member of the Australian Academy of Science in 1991, Foreign Member of the United States National Academy of Sciences in 1992, Academia Europaea in 1994, and Fellow of the Royal Society of New South Wales in 2010. He has received honorary degrees from Uppsala (1990), Yale (1993), Sydney (1995), Princeton (1996), the ETH Zürich (2003), Harvard (2013), Oxford (2004), and several other UK universities. His honours include the Weldon Memorial Prize by the University of Oxford (1980), the American Ecological Society MacArthur Award (1984), the Medal of the Linnean Society of London (1991), the Frink Medal of the Zoological Society of London (1995), the Royal Swedish Academy’s Crafoord Prize (1996), the Swiss-Italian Balzan Prize (1998), the Japanese Blue Planet Prize (2001) and the Royal Society’s Copley Medal (2007), its oldest and most prestigious award.

He is now an Emeritus Professor at Oxford University and a Fellow of Merton College, Oxford.  

Interviewed by Professor Robyn Williams in July 2008.

Contents

R-selected ‘ologist
Solitary child and a brilliant chemistry teacher
Debating a degree in Chemical Engineering
Accidental physicist
Twists of luck towards Harvard
Nexus of romances
Accidental ecologist
Impressing Princeton
Committee man
Making sense of the chaos
Politics of ecology and deciding to move to Oxford
Accidental civil servant
Tackling the climate critics
President of the Royal Society
On the tail end of the ‘luck distribution’ curve
Taking maths to the banks

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R-selected ‘ologist

One thing puzzles me, Bob, of all the “ologists” – physicist, chemical engineer, chemist and mathematician – what kind of “ologist” are you?

I would say that I am a scientist with a short attention span. To put it in more ecological terms, I think there are different kinds of people in science, not just theoreticians and experimentalists but people who like to pick on one problem and devote their life to it, and people who accidentally stumble across various things. There is a rough rather glib analogy with a distinction ecologists use between species that are weedy species, often called “R selected” and species that are “K selected”, “K” for carrying capacity. R selected means that rapid growth rate is all important: they find an empty space and swarm into it. As distinct from “K selected” organisms that are more skilled in competitive, crowded situations where they are one of the mob. I am an “early stage”, R-selected person. I like to get in early when you can do nice, simple things that are important. Then, as the field grows and it becomes more a matter of important and systematic elaboration, I find that less congenial. Perhaps that is over-interpreting it.

But my career is as much “accident” as anything else. It is not that I go around deliberately thinking of what is a different thing to do. It is just that my scientific career has been a sequence of accidents, from the fact that it even exists onwards.

What is the essential ingredient that has been the secret of it all? Is it maths?

I wouldn’t say that it is mathematics, to put a label on it, but it is mathematics in the sense of: “What is mathematics?” Mathematics is ultimately no more but no less than thinking very clearly about something. I like puzzles, so I am a mathematician. I am not a pure mathematician’s mathematician because I don’t like abstract, formal problems. I like tricks and devices. I am essentially a mathematician but in the sense that I like thinking about complicated things, asking what are potential simplicities hidden in them and expressing that tentative thought in mathematical terms and seeing where it leads me in testable ways.

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Solitary child and a brilliant chemistry teacher

Robert May, aged 1, Randwick,
NSW, 1937

In many ways, what you describe seem to be the kinds of qualities a child has. Did you have that kind of interest when you were very small?

I don’t remember how I thought when I was very small. But I can tell you that I was a fairly solitary child. I really did enjoy mathematical puzzles and puzzles of other kinds from when I was fairly young. I have always enjoyed puzzles and games, and I think there is a connection.

What about the family influence? Your mother, your father?

My family influence is slightly complicated and I won’t go into it in detail. My father’s family moved from Northern Ireland, they were Protestants. My father’s father was involved with the Orangemen and they got out because some IRA people turned up and said that, if the family didn’t clear out within the week, they would come back and kill them. A week later, they were on a boat to Australia and my father went from middle-class prosperity to living initially in a place in Newcastle with a dirt floor. I think it marked him. I never knew him. The last time I was in Australia, Michael Kirby very kindly brought together some people who had known my father. Michael Kirby, himself, had known him because Michael’s law firm had engaged my father as a mentor. In his middle and late twenties, my father was seen as one of the brightest people at the bar, a rival of Garfield Barwick’s. But by his early thirties, he had collapsed in alcoholic ruin.

In the other bar.

Bob May (aged two) with his mother
on Bronte beach, 1938

Yes. You couldn’t hire him because you didn’t know whether he would turn up. My mother divorced him when I was seven and I essentially never saw him after that. This was an era when good, middle-class people didn’t get divorced. I saw him only a couple of times in my teens, the last time when I was 17. In retrospect, I regret that. It wasn’t realised as clearly then as it is now that alcoholism is not necessarily a character fault. It is a disease. It is the reason that I am a teetotaller – not because I have any disapproval of it, but I look very like him, and there is probably a genetic component to alcoholism. I have his gift of the gab, which ran in my father’s family.

My mother, on the other hand – her own father was an engineer. If you go back to her grandfather, my great-grandfather, he was one of four brothers from Stranraer in Scotland who built the Queen’s University Lanyon Building in Belfast. They were then the stonemasons and the quarry masters. When they had finished that, the four brothers emigrated to Australia and built the GPO and Customs House in Sydney. They now owned a quarry down at Moruya and they were very prosperous. Although that money had faded away by the time it got two generations down the line. So that was my mother’s background. I grew up from the age of seven with my grandparents. My mother and my younger brother and I went to Sydney High. Sydney Boys High, third generation: my grandfather, my mother went to Sydney Girls High and one of my great uncles was the architect for the school.

I have always heard that Sydney High was supposed to be one of the really great schools, was it?

Bob May (right) with his mother and
younger brother, Botanic Gardens,
Sydney, circa 1948

It is. My wife, Judith, who grew up in Manhattan, is of the opinion that every other Australian she meets went to Sydney Boys High. That is based simply on empirical facts. It was in the era of grammar schools, where the top schools in Sydney were unambiguously the state schools. Sydney Boys High drew its intake from the eastern suburbs, and that is also where the Jewish diaspora out of Shanghai ended up. It had a lot of really bright people and it had superb teachers. The teachers I had in high school were uniformly excellent. One of the really formative influences on my life was the chemistry teacher, a chap called Lenny Basser. He now has a federal prize in Australia named after him. The education minister a few years ago wrote to various Australians asking for stories about their teachers and he found that a Nobel Laureate and the President of the Royal Society mentioned the same person. When you look into it, this teacher taught eight Fellows of the Royal Society, and he taught us by not teaching us. He said, ‘You people are going on to university. I’m not going to give you notes for a syllabus for the honours course. Here’s a list of the syllabus topics. Write me some essays on some of them. Here are books in the laboratory library of previous students who have done this’, and he would tell us stories about these people.

But this is a very strange deductive method. What if you got blocked?

I think it was brilliant. He would tell us stories about the stockmarket. As you can imagine, half the class loathed him because he didn’t give them a nice well-indexed set of things to learn for the exam. But then there were people like myself and my two particular friends in school. One of my friends was the state high jump champion. He and I both thought Lenny was wonderful. The other friend was a more scholarly person, who found him a pain in the neck. Lenny also coached the track team at Sydney Boys High. For 28 of the 33 years that he coached it, the team won the state Schools Athletic Championship. It was unbelievable. It was not that he coached them by making them work too hard, but he was ahead of the wave in new techniques and motivating people.

I just wonder: doing that for the very bright boys, letting them get on with it – did that leave the rest of the class behind?

Well, he got very good results, let’s put it that way. He never became the head of the science section at Sydney High because, to do that you had to move to another school, and he liked being at Sydney High.

I keep wondering whether some of those successes of the old days couldn’t even get to first base now, because none of it would be allowed.

Yes. I think it would be different. You wouldn’t have it quite the way it was. In each subject, the classes were streamed. I mean, people are mixed by different things. Even at Sydney High, the most esteemed characters were the sporting stars. I think that is really healthy. It is a great mixture because you rarely get someone who is both the top sportsperson and the top scholar.

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Debating a degree in Chemical Engineering

Back to that question of what kind of “ologist” you are, was it chemical engineering at the University of Sydney?

I chose chemical engineering. The consistent advice to me from the career adviser at the school and from anybody I spoke to, with the exception of Lenny Basser, was that I should go into law. The school had a wonderful tradition of debating. It debated both in the consortium of the first eight “Great Public Schools” in Sydney – of which the other seven were all fee-paying private schools – and also in the state schools competition. Murray Gleeson was in our cohort. We had a good rivalry with St Joseph’s. They had Murray and we had both Hal Sperling and me, we were rather good. Hal was better than me. That was the main thing I did at school. We were really good.

University of Sydney debating team
(left-right) John Hamilton,Tony Macken and
Robert May, winners of the Intervarsity
Competition, Armidale, 1958

I went back to it only once after I had left school. In my second year of graduate school, in 1958, I thought, ‘What the hell. Just for a lark, I’ll try out for the Sydney University team’. Not only did I make the team but we won intervarsity. I and the leader of the Sydney team were chosen for the combined Australian universities’ team, which that year didn’t get a trip to Britain.

Oh dear!

Debating skills were the main thing I took away from school. I believe that it is an undervalued talent in science. Not only am I reasonably good at doing the things I do, but also I am reasonably good at presenting them in ways that people find engaging.

Scientists don’t necessarily practise speaking like that, do they?

My students do. This debating thing is so different in Australia and the UK from the way it is in the United States. Here, you are given the topic 10 minutes or maybe half an hour beforehand and you toss a coin for which side you get. It is great training for being Chief Scientist.

Back to chemical engineering, how come?

I didn’t want to do law. Firstly, because it would have upset my mother, who brought a lot of baggage to it. And, secondly, because I felt that law is about humanity’s imperfections and do you really want to spend your life doing that? On my mother’s side of the family, there were quite a few cousins who were doctors. So the uniform advice from my mother and most of the family was ‘do medicine’. But I didn’t feel like doing that either. I talked with Lenny Basser about it and he said ‘Why not do chemistry?’ I thought, ‘chemical engineering’. So I went and talked with Rolf Prince at Sydney University, who was the newly appointed Professor of Chemical Engineering. He arranged for me to go and visit the Colonial Sugar Refinery to get an idea of what chemical engineers did. Some of my friends were also doing it and it seemed like a good thing to do, and it sure worked for me.

I had a wonderful time. I had lived at home and had been a relatively solitary younger child. Very luckily, going to university, I had a cohort of friends who had many of my own characteristics –very oddly, in retrospect. Essentially none of us drank and most of us didn’t go out with girls – we hadn’t worked out how you did it, as it were. We were a very close-knit set of people who did things together. I spent roughly half my university years playing chess or snooker in the union and just having a good time. I did not do my second-year laboratory chemistry very conscientiously, because it was too time consuming. I used various tricks and devices to abbreviate the time, which I think required more scientific insight than actually doing it honestly.

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Accidental physicist

Presumably you did pretty well at that, but at what point did that key element, physics, come into it?

It was the first of the many lucky accidents that shaped my life. I have always been good at sitting exams. But, even when I was in school, I realised that being good at exams doesn’t have much to do with later life. It is a trick. It is like solving puzzles. It is a party trick almost, but I was very good at that party trick. I topped Sydney High in every subject I took. I got 794 out of 800 for the trial Leaving Certificate examination. The kid who came second was 100 points behind. It never occurred to me that this meant anything other than that I was better at this party trick.
When I went to university, I thought I would be one of the various types of engineers. You could do a pass or honours in different subjects. I decided to do chemical engineering, but in the first year all the engineers did the same courses. The first-year course involved chemistry, mathematics and physics, and I did honours mathematics, honours chemistry and pass physics.

But I sat in the honours class in physics because my mates were doing that. It was the last exam. We were going out to have a party after the last exam, so I turned up to wait. I thought, ‘I like taking exams. It’s an interesting game. I’ll take the exam, even though I haven’t swotted for it’. So I sat in on it and I ended up getting a prize that was awarded for chemistry and physics. The prize was worth a fair amount of money and my family was not at all well off – I used to walk from the railway station up to the university to save the tuppence on the fare. But taking the prize was contingent on my doing second­year physics in addition to chemical engineering.  Chemical engineering had a high failure rate and I was advised against doing this but I got permission. In my second­year I did chemical engineering plus physics, in order that I could take the prize. I continued to do well, and I came to the attention of Harry Messel. This was the second hugely lucky accident.

Harry Messel had been brought into a rather moribund physics department at Sydney University, to be honest. He had brought with him the outside world and, in particular, he had brought together a world­class trio of theoretical physicists. My intellectual grandfathers are three of the resonant names of physics of the golden age. My thesis supervisor was Robbie Schafroth, himself a student and then assistant of Wolfgang Pauli. Then there was Stuart Butler, who got his PhD in that golden group around Rudolph Peierls. Peierls was in Birmingham after the war with Freeman Dyson and so many other great people, such as Sam Edwards and Brian Flowers. And John Blatt, who had just written, with his thesis supervisor, Vicki Weisskopf, his generation’s definitive text on nuclear physics. Vicki Weisskopf was the first director of CERN. It was a wonderful group of people and Harry had brought them together. Harry was so good in getting good people and letting them get on with it. In fact, there is an adage in Australia: the reason that the physics department at Sydney was better than that at Australian National University was because Titterton never appointed anyone who was better than him and Harry never appointed anyone who wasn’t better than him.

Tell us about Harry Messel.

He was, and still is, hugely energetic. It is amazing how vital he still is at 80. I think he came, first to Adelaide and then to Sydney, because he saw it as an opportunity. The things he did are really almost beyond imagination. It was a different world. Nobody went looking for private foundations to fund things. Nobody went headhunting with the aggressive zeal with which he did, so he brought in a bunch of really distinguished people. He also brought in pots of money and then he simply gave it to people to get on with it. Unlike many people who bring in money and then want to control how it’s spent. I never knew him to say he would do something that he didn’t do. I am just hugely grateful to him because my life would have been entirely different had it not been for that accident.

Theoretical physicists (left-right) John Blatt,
Robbie Schafroth, Harry Messel and
Stuart Butler, 1952

From my second-year results and then my third­year results, it was clear – Messel, in fact, phoned me. We had played a prank on one of our fellow students in first year by putting up a fake notice signed by Harry. So when I picked up the phone and heard Harry’s voice, I believed that it was my friend who was a mimic pretending to be Harry and saying that he wanted me to come in and see him. I said, ‘Yeah; come on. You can pull that on other people, but you can’t pull that on me’, and slowly it dawned on me that it was Harry.

Engineering was a four­year course. If you wanted to do honours in engineering, you usually took an extra year. You would take the third year out to do science so that you completed a BSc. Then you ended up doing a five­year course to get a bachelor of engineering and bachelor of science. With a Commonwealth scholarship paying for all of that and giving me a living allowance, I decided that I would do that and see how the third year went. In the third year you could major in pure mathematics, applied mathematics or physics, and against all advice, I majored in all three. I can remember John Blatt telling me, ‘This is crazy’. I said, ‘But I think I can do it and I’d like to do it. I just enjoy the subjects’. He said, ‘Well, you should be left to your folly’. And indeed I topped all three. Then I had a decision to make: ‘Am I going to go on and do physics honours and think about a life in academia, or am I going to go back to engineering and think about a life doing something down to earth and much more focused?’

Robert May graduating from the
University of Sydney with a BSc (Hons)
and the University Medal in Physics, 1957

Practical.

To a degree that I think too many graduate students these days don’t appreciate. At that time I was 19 but I recognised that there is no recipe for being a successful creative scientist. It is much easier to be a good, useful, professional, employable engineer than to embark on this journey into the unknown. Perhaps it is an unkind observation but I also saw that science is a profession that makes tough judgements about you and has clear hierarchies. So you are going into something where you have no guarantee of success and it is not all that well paid. On the other hand, it was clear to me that Blatt, Butler and Schafroth were having a good time. In the honours year you would have coffee with them and so on, and I decided that it was worth a shot. I thought about it again after I got the honours degree, but I decided that I would give science a shot and I have never looked back.

My thesis was on superconductivity. Robbie Schafroth, my supervisor, had had the critical insight that a charged gas of bosons would be a superconductor. He thought of this before anyone else – this is an unambiguous matter of record. That redefined the problem to: how do you get pairs of electrons, which are fermions, to be effectively bound to be bosons?’ The Sydney group had an idea of how you could do that. They wrote it up and sent it out for review. Bardeen, of Bardeen, Cooper and Schrieffer, sat on the paper and delayed its decision for 18 months and then rejected it. My thesis was to work on that, and it turned out that the idea wasn’t good anyway. So, during the second year of my thesis, Bardeen, Cooper and Schrieffer produced the explanation. In my view, had Robbie Schafroth lived, the Nobel Prize should have gone three ways, one to Bardeen, one to Cooper or Schrieffer and the third one had to be Robbie Schafroth.

Bob Bardeen ended up getting two Nobel Prizes, didn’t he?

Yes, he did. He was much more skilled in academic politics than Schafroth. I think, if Schafroth had lived, Bardeen would not have shared it. So I did bits and bobs around that.

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Twists of luck towards Harvard

One of the things that again I can’t see as other than being lucky for me – because my life would have been different otherwise – was that I had done my PhD thesis in pretty short time. I also like to think that Robbie Schafroth was a huge influence on me because he was a wonderful human being.

Bob and Judith May on the balcony of their
first flat in Sydney, shortly after
they were married, 1962

Towards the middle of the third year, I was getting ready to go with him at the end of the year when he would take up the foundation chair in theoretical physics in Geneva. I was learning French again – I had learned it in school, ha, ha. But he was killed in a small plane accident – he, his wife and the pilot. Schafroth was going back to Switzerland from Australia sooner than he thought, and one of Harry’s grazier friends had said, ‘Let me show you some of the inland,’ and the plane crashed. My mother came in and showed me the paper and said, ‘I’ve got some bad news for you’. I just decided that I wanted to get out of Sydney as soon as I could after that.

It was arranged that I would go to the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. But then Stuart Butler thought of Max Krook, who was at Harvard. Krook was one of Butler’s contemporaries from his days in Birmingham with Rudy Peierls. Butler thought Harvard might be a more exciting place because Princeton is a little bit isolated, and that’s what I did. Again, moving there was a lucky accident. First of all, because Max Krook was a wonderful human being and, secondly, with his wife, his house was an open house for his postdocs. In particular, he was kind to me and had my friends over and so on.

Judith and Bob May climbing from Argentrière
to the Blue Lake, France, 1997

Also, it was in my second year at Harvard that on a blind double date I met Judith, who is now my wife. I regard Judith as the luckiest of all the lucky things in my life. Amongst much else, Judith is so many of the things that are necessary for a good career and that I am not. Things like organised, focused, willing to bother, willing to move to Australia and thinking that it would be exciting to move from Australia to America and from America to Britain. Whereas I thought, ‘Oh God, we’ve got to sell the house. What a pain’. I don’t think I would have ever left Australia if it had been with somebody else.

I can imagine. Okay, here is a boy from Sydney, not necessarily with worldly qualities, landing in a place like Harvard. Harvard is not only a great centre of scholarly achievement but also, in terms of social activities, fairly demanding. How did you get on?

First of all, I did discover going out with girls, sort of slowly and clumsily. But also, I fell in with a very happy small group of friends. I was in the Division of Engineering and Applied Physics, which is where Max Krook was. The faculty was chaired by a person called George Carrier. He was a very distinguished applied mathematician. There were also a couple of other people, such as Bernie Budiansky, a civil engineer, and we were in the habit of all going out together at lunch. So that was one very nice, warm but professionally advantageous thing. I had done a rather good thesis and gave some seminars at Chicago and Duke shortly after I arrived and I was offered a couple of assistant professorships. I was actually offered an assistant professorship at Harvard fairly early on and I said, ‘No. I’m determined to go back to Sydney’. But they gave me a lectureship and I did teach courses.

Secondly, I had this group of graduate student friends – they were more my age than the faculty people. In particular, a chap called Gerald Guralnik. Two years ago, the American Physical Society gave its major Physics award to Gerald, along with Tom Kibble, Higgs of the Higgs boson, and three others. It was given essentially for the ideas of the Higgs boson, which were simultaneously arrived at by three different groups. The first of which was not Higgs but Kibble, Guralnik and Hagen. The other two groups proved the result – to be technical – in a special ‘gauge’. Kibble, Guralnik and Hagen had done it in that special gauge two years earlier. But Kibble is a really modest, meticulous person and he said, ‘We’re not publishing it until we’ve proved it with gauge generality’.

Laura Kreitman and Bob May – mixed doubles
tennis champions! Princeton, 1988

It is an unusual situation for six people to share the American Physical Society prize but for a Nobel, it may go to no more than three. If you go to the website of the discussion by people comparing this, you get the question ‘Well, if it’s going to go to only three, which three’. So that was someone whom I liked a lot, and that was good. Another thing that I never discussed with Gerald Guralnik when we were together was this ‘gauge’ thing. I thought he was doing elementary particle physics and I don’t know anything about that. But I had generalised the Bardeen-Cooper-Schrieffer (BCS) microscopic theory of superconductivity result from the special gauge, which they used, to a general gauge. So I was seen as reasonably good and that is why I was offered an assistant professorship at Harvard.

Another person with whom I was friendly I met through playing tennis. He was much better than me, being the Louisiana state junior champion, and also the US debating champion at school. His name was John Bahcall, the famous astrophysicist. Sadly he died recently while rather young. But I had this very small group of close friends and it was, for me, a growing-up experience

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Nexus of romances

Okay. What was Judith doing at this time?

I met Judith, as I mentioned earlier, on a blind double date with Gerald Guralnik, who was dating Judith’s best friend. Judith and her best friend were both undergraduates at Brandeis on the outskirts of Boston. Brandeis is a relatively unusual example of a newly created university that is of notable distinction. We went on this date, at the end of which I was rather taken with Judith. I asked her whether she would like to go to the Harvard-Yale football game on Saturday, for which I happened to have a spare ticket. But she had promised to play tennis with one of her acquaintances from school who was visiting. She gave me what seemed to me to be an excessively circumstantial reason that she couldn’t and left me with the impression that she didn’t want to go out with me again, which rather upset me. Later in the week Judith’s friend told Gerald that Gerald should tell me that Judith would like it if I called her back. Within not a long time after that, I was going back to Australia. It was over that period of about six months that we got to know each other.

We both became convinced that we would like to get married. Judith felt that we should go ahead and do so. Our backgrounds were very different and Judith was quite a bit younger than me. The day I met her she was 17 and I would have been 24. She is six or seven years younger than me, depending on the day, and her background couldn’t have been more different. She grew up in Manhattan. She went to the New York High School of Music and Art. Her parents were Jewish. Her mother was the first woman professor at City University. Judith’s friend Joan – the same person from the blind double date – didn’t marry Gerald.

The first page of "Stability in Multispecies Community Models", by Lord May.

Gerald married Judith’s roommate and Joan married another of my small group of friends. They are all still married, which is sort of epsilon cubed! Interestingly, Joan had no idea at that time, back in the early sixties, that women had academic careers. It was encountering Judith’s mother that motivated her. In fact, Joan has just retired from the University of Maryland, where she ran the women’s studies program. They named an annual lecture after Joan Korenman. It is an interesting nexus of stuff.

On the other hand, I did feel that mine and Judith’s backgrounds were so different and Judith was that much younger. I thought that what ought to happen was that I go back to Australia and leave it alone for six months and then see if we still wanted to do it. Judith thought this was a dreadful idea, but we did it. After six months, I wrote and said, ‘I hope you still want to do it’, and she did. Her mother came out with her and Judith and I got married. It is the best and single most happy accident that ever happened to me.

Now she is Lady May. Who’d have thought?

Yes, that is right. We both regard our subsequent life as highly improbable.

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Accidental ecologist

You have written so many seminal papers. Which was the very first that made the mark?

It wasn’t any of the things that I did in physics, although I did do one or two cute things. My favourite is the first thing I ever did in physics, which was in my first year as a graduate student. This thing is really rather startling although it was completely uninteresting until very recently. At morning coffee at Sydney, somebody mentioned, ‘You know, there can’t be two-dimensional superconductors, because the two-dimensional Bose gas doesn’t condense, and that is a critical phenomenon for getting superconductivity’. I thought, ‘That’s amusing. I’ll have a look at that’. I went home and I discovered that, indeed, it didn’t condense. But it only just didn’t and you couldn’t tell the difference. I came back and told my supervisor Robbie Schafroth this, and he was interested. I also told Pauli.

Then I thought more generally about two-dimensional ideal gases and I proved an amazing and wonderful theorem. It is not very interesting but really cute. In two dimensions, the specific heat of a two-dimensional Fermi gas is identical as a function of temperature with the ideal Bose gas. This is crazy, because the specific heat is determined by just the surface electrons in a Fermi gas and by everything in a Bose gas. But it is true and it is now an exercise in books. Now that we have two-dimensional grapheme, maybe you can actually do an elegant experimental check. I have talked to the people at Manchester about this. But I would never have got elected to the Royal Society for what I did in physics.

A few years after I returned from Harvard to Sydney, I accidentally got interested in problems in ecology. This was very much encouraged by Harry Messel. He said, ‘If you want to do that, by all means stay in the physics department. If you want to go somewhere else, you should do it’. But Harry had been telling me for quite a few years when I came back that I ought to get into bringing physics into biology. So he was very pleased when I did. The first thing I did in ecology is one of the most important things I have done.

What’s that?

Professor Charles Birch was head of biology at Sydney and a wonderful man. He was one of the founders of Social Responsibility in Science in Australia, and involved in all these “1998 things”. Also, in the Vietnam War, he was a willing source of counselling for people who wanted to not be caught up in it – in a very un-ego-gratifying way. In discovering what I was being conscience stricken and socially responsible about, I read a book by Ken Watt on “Ecology and Resource Management”. In it, was a clear articulation of an emerging theoretical notion in ecology. You have got to understand that ecology is a very young discipline. The word is only 100 years old. The oldest professional society, the British Ecological Society, is just about to celebrate its centenary. Its first half century was largely descriptive but with a little bit of theory.

At that time there was a belief articulated by one of the founding fathers of theoretical ecology, Evelyn Hutchinson at Yale. He was building on ideas by Elton and later work by Robert MacArthur at Princeton. The idea was that complicated ecosystems – ecosystems with more species and more interactions among them – would, by virtue of that complexity, be more stable. Hutchinson had formally asserted this as one of the fundamental principles. Ken Watt set that out. Then, very commonsensically, he said, ‘It’s pretty contrary to common experience’. As I read that that evening, I said, ‘Actually that’s right’. Elton gave a series of arguments. One was that mathematical models for two­species systems are characteristically unstable. I thought, ‘That’s not an argument. That’s only half an argument. Let me look at not “one predator one prey”. Let me look at “N predator N prey” ’. I immediately could see that the corresponding system would be less stable.

Reprinted from a paper in Mathematical Biosciences by Robert M. May. ‘Stability in multispecies community models’, 12(1): 59-79, © 1971, with permission from Elsevier.



To cut a long story short, I proved a rather nice theorem. That is, a generalisation of a physics theorem due to Wigner. I am delighted that my name is now coupled – it is the May-Wigner theorem. He proved it for special kinds of symmetrical matrices. But I said, ‘Let’s imagine an ecosystem in which each species by itself would be stable. So, I’ll put minus one down the diagonal to say that in unit time, left alone, each species would recover from a disturbance. Now I’ll start connecting them at random and putting other elements in the matrix. I’ll put plus or minus to give predator­prey, competitors or mutualists. I’ll let them be of different strengths but, on average, some strength – let’s call it alpha’. I proved an interesting generalisation of Wigner’s theorem that said: ‘Such a system will remain stable, stabilised by the intraspecific effects, provided that the average number of species a species is connected to, times the square on the strength, is less than one. One is the normalising time to recover. Otherwise the system will collapse, if “N” is big’. That turns the whole thing on its head and resets the agenda for ecology. I was connecting at random, and ecosystems are the winnowed product of evolution and are not random. So it says: ‘In the real world we see a lot of complicated systems. What are the special, non-random structures that they have, to reconcile exploiting more niches, having more species and being more complicated, with robustness against disturbance?’ We are still working on that, although we have made a lot of progress, particularly with the experimentalists. That was the first thing I did, which was one of the most important, the centrepiece of the monograph on “Stability and complexity in model ecosystems”.

The implication of your theorem is that, if you have a very big, complex population and you reduce it, even if it’s the loss of little creatures you can’t see or elements that you don’t take any notice of, if you reduce it too much, the whole system can break down.

According to what I’m saying, you don’t know what the hells’ going to happen! There has been a lot of subsequent work by some very able younger people too. There are interesting things going on as we speak. But yes, that is a good one sentence summary.

What was Professor Charles Birch’s reaction to that?

When I had this insight about stability and complexity, I immediately went to Professor Charles Birch because he was the co-author of what was then the world-leading text on ecology – Andrewartha and Birch. But he identified with the view that there is no place for mathematics in ecology – it is all about looking at nature. The wonderful thing about Charles was that I told him what I had done and he said, ‘You know that I think mathematics doesn’t have much to say about ecology, but who knows who’s right? My friend Ken Watt, whose book you’ve just read, would really love that. You write it up and send it to him and come and give a seminar in biology’. So I did all that and I had a nice letter from Ken Watt, who wrote ‘this is a milestone in ecology’.

I had already arranged later that year to go off on a roughly 18­month sabbatical at the Plasma Physics Research Laboratories at Culham in Britain and then across to the Institute for Advanced Study to do some astrophysics things with my friend John Bahcall. But I was interested in these ecology things. So Charles wrote to Richard Southwood, who was the head of a very interesting group of people at Imperial College field station out near Virginia Water. He also wrote to Robert MacArthur in Princeton. He said, ‘There’s this physicist person. You might be interested in talking to him’. During the roughly eight or nine months that I was at Culham, I read more ecology and I did some more things. The chap who is currently the Secretary-General of the Third World Academy of Sciences, Mohamed Hassan, a lovely bloke, was there on sabbatical also. He remembers my saying, ‘This is probably going to be the last physics seminar I ever give’. So I did some stuff there, but I mainly did ecological things and met Dick.

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Impressing Princeton

Then, when I went to Princeton, I went to talk with Robert MacArthur. After we had been chatting for about 10 minutes, Henry Horn, one of Robert’s colleagues, came in and called Robert away to the phone. He explained to me later that MacArthur at this point had quite recently been diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer and told he had probably less than a year to live. So he had said to Henry Horn, ‘There’s some physicist person that Professor Charles Birch thinks might be interesting. I’ll give him 10 minutes, but I don’t have that much time to waste, so come and call me away’. But he came back and we talked for another hour and a half. This is a true but amazing story. I don’t think it couldn’t happen today, even at Princeton. At the end of that, he said, ‘You do know that I’m going to be extinct in about a year and I’m very keen to find my successor’. This was the person who was seen as Hutchinson’s heir and the person who was at that time already the pre-eminent architect of theoretical ecology in the States and maybe anywhere. He said, ‘The person I really wanted to get was Jared Diamond, but he’s wedded to the west coast. Would you be interested in coming here to take my professorship?’

Wow.

Robert May lecturing in physics at the
University of Sydney, 5 January 1966

I said, ‘That’s gobsmacking, but I really like Australia and I’m happy in physics. I’m going to go back there’. He said, ‘Give a departmental seminar so that people know you,’ so I gave a departmental seminar. One of the things we had talked about was a problem that he had been thinking about. He wasn’t much of a mathematician but I could instantly see the solution. So we published a paper on that and I gave a departmental seminar, which went down well. The chairman, John Bonner, more formally offered me the position and I more formally declined it. I went back to Australia and wrote the monograph on stability and complexity in model ecosystems. I am not into citations, but I happened to look it up the other day and it has about 5,000, which is not bad for a monograph in ecology.

Robert MacArthur also said to me, ‘Write all this up as a Princeton monograph’. It was the fourth in a series that he had started that has been hugely influential. In later years, after I had moved to Princeton, my wife was the commissioning editor for the series. She ended up knowing more of the community than I did.

I went back to Sydney and it was becoming increasingly clear to me that mathematical ecology was what I was going to do now. After all I am an R selected, weedy species. I had stumbled into something for which my particular talents in some ways were suited. Like the thirties in physics. I had stumbled into ecology in its golden age for theory and I seized that. But then Ralph Slatyer in Canberra said, ‘Why don’t you move to Canberra and join the ecology group there?’ It was Judith who said, ‘If we’re going to move, wouldn’t it make more sense to move to Princeton? It’s a more central place’. I would never have had the energy to do that.

Bob May with wife Judith and daughter
Naomi outside their home in Princeton, 1977

Packing up and doing all those boring things.

Yes, that’s right. It wasn’t just because we would be nearer to her parents – she just thought of it as sensible. It was her behind our moving to Britain too. So I picked up the phone and rang the chairman, John Bonner. I said, ‘Have you fixed on Robert’s successor or are you still looking?’ I said, ‘I’ve changed my mind. I’d like to do it’. He said, ‘Great’. That was our negotiation. I swear this is true, it couldn’t happen today. Later on, when I was the Vice-President for Research at Princeton, I would spend hours putting together packages to attract people, dickering about retirement things and so on. But then I never even asked about the salary. I moved there. It was a wonderful place. The ecology group was very small but consistently ranked as one of the top six in ecology in the country, and still is today. But at that time it was one or two orders of magnitude smaller than anywhere else. There were only four faculty members.

By the way, is that the John Bonner who is the expert on slime moulds, Dictyostelium?

He was the chairman of the department and a wonderful person. He is not a member of the ecology group but a developmental biologist using Dictyostelium as a tool. The ecology department was Robert MacArthur, me, Henry Horn and John Terborgh. John was a very romantic person who worked in dense tropics and the founder of Manu National Park in Peruvian Amazonia. There was also a third, younger person who ended up, after a few rotations, being Dan Rubenstein. He is currently the chairman. During the 16 years that I was there, it was very small. We had a total of 48 graduate students and they were nearly all rather good. Today the department is still excellent, but it is much bigger and it has a standing crop of 48 graduate students and something like 60 postdocs. It is much bigger but still excellent.

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Committee man

After I had been there for a few years, while I was on sabbatical, the GM thing all erupted. Genetically modified organisms, gene splicing and all the fuss at Harvard, where the council forbade the laboratories to work on this subject because it might be dangerous. Gerald Guralnik’s former thesis supervisor had to come across to the real Cambridge to do his work, because you couldn’t do it in Cambridge Massachusetts. While I was on sabbatical, I was put in charge of the committee in Princeton that was to look after the GM issues. All my life, I have avoided being a chairman of a department and I hadn’t had much experience of chairing things. That was my first experience. Judith remembers my coming home after the first meeting of this rather contentious committee, sitting on the stairs in our house and saying, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to do this’. I thought about it and I talked with people and it ended up with the whole thing going rather well. When I was asked to do it, the first thing that I said to the president, Bill Bowen, was, ‘I would like some citizens on the committee’, and he said, ‘We don’t do that’. Towards the end he realised that I was right and he was wrong, and we did engage with the township. In short, I was seen to do it rather well.

But then I thought, ‘If I’m going to do non-research work, I don’t want to be doing this committee. For not much more work, I’d like to do the thing that is the next step up’. It was very much part time at Princeton. So for the last 11 years that I was there, 1977 to 1988, I was ‘Chairman of the University Research Board’, which anywhere else would have been vice president for research. But unlike in England, where being the vice-chancellor or pro vice-chancellor of research means sitting on endless committees all day every day, at Princeton it was a day-and-a-half a week job. And my predecessors were very distinguished scientists, some of them were Nobel laureates. The role goes way back to post-World War II, when Princeton was ahead of the game in Henry DeWolf Smythe. He was the person responsible for civilian, rather than military, control of nuclear energy in the US. He came back to the university and said, ‘There’s going to be a lot more public money on the campus and we ought to have strict rules about what we do with it’.

It was an interesting job – a day and a half a week. The half day was Wednesday afternoon. The provost, who was the chief academic and financial officer, would meet with the dean of the graduate school, the dean of the faculty, the dean of undergraduates and the chairman of the research board. They would think about specific things in the university, what was wrong and what was right, who wanted to see us and so on. The rest were a couple of committees, but nothing like the corresponding job at most UK universities, which typically is much more administratively intensive. To the contrary, at Princeton, those 11 years, while I was doing that, were among the most productive of my scientific life.

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Making sense of the chaos

Which brings me to chaos. How come?

Well, some of the things I dealt with administratively were, indeed, chaotic – a poor joke. Apart from that fact, one of the things I stumbled upon fairly early on, but not right at the beginning, concerned some of the very simple equations for populations of animals that had discrete non-overlapping generations. For example, relating the number of fish born this year in spring and the knapweed gall-flies hatched this year in Wytham Wood, with the same number next year. How is the number this year, T plus one, related to the number last year, T. You don’t treat time as continuous, unlike nearly all of the physical sciences. You use much neglected difference equations. I got interested in trying to understand what happened when the equations could give you stable solutions. Where the population tended to grow when it was at low density and decline if it was at too high a density (and ate itself out of house and home). So there would be some balance point, such that, if you fluctuated above or below, you would come back to that same point. What happened if the boom and bustiness got too steep so that that point wasn’t stable and, instead of it being like a ball at the bottom of the cup, it was like a ball on top of a billiard cue? What I could see was at first you would start getting the thing going in deterministic cycles – up, down, up, down. Then they would bifurcate to give you up down, different up, different down, up down. I could see this cascade of period-doubling bifurcations coming to a point where it just went bonkers and it just looked like random noise. I wanted to write a paper on it, but first I wanted to know what happened in the noisy-looking region.

By sheer good luck again, I happened to be giving a seminar at Maryland, where there was a chap called Jim Yorke. He is the person who gave us the word ‘chaos’. Jim Yorke was a mathematician’s mathematician from Berkeley. He hadn’t stumbled on this cascade of period doublings. He had been working in what we now call the ‘chaotic regime’. He had proved, with a student, a remarkable result, which he called Period Three Implies Chaos. So he gave us the word ‘chaos’. He was a very quiet man and he didn’t get enough recognition early. But he did end up getting the Japan Prize, along with Benoit Mandelbrot, for complexity. So I gave this seminar and I had written up on the blackboard outside my office in Princeton, ‘If anybody knows what happens beyond this, please tell me’. He said, ‘I know what goes on there, but I didn’t know that this went there’. I didn’t know the second bit and he didn’t know the first, period-doubling bit.

I then pursued that further and I wrote a review paper which I sent to Nature. The recommendation of the person who looked at it was, ‘This is too mathematical. No­one’s interested’. But one of the senior editors, Miranda Robertson, whom I had come to know a little bit because I was already writing ‘News and Views’ things for Nature, said, ‘Let me have a look at it’. She looked at it and said, ‘Send it to John Maynard Smith because I think it looks interesting’. JMS wrote a note to Miranda that she said looked ‘as if my mother had written it’, and they published it. It is my second­most cited paper. It has almost 4,000 citations.

This kind of basis, this way of looking numerically at that change of populations, of diseases, AIDS, you name it. It has huge ramifications.

Mind you, nothing obeys an equation as simple as that one-dimensional difference equation. Next year’s population is some humpy curve related to this year’s – increasing at low density and decreasing at high density. But it is a metaphor for more complicated things. Simple though that equation is, it has many implications. One of them is the flip side. If I look at something that looks random now, like marginal rates of Treasury bonds, algorithmic trading means that maybe part of it is a deterministic signal.

One of the characteristics of chaos is that not only does it look random, even though it is being generated from something that is completely known, but also it is so sensitive to the starting point that you can’t make predictions beyond a few time steps. On the other hand, it does open a window to a new way of making short-term predictions. For example, in a paper I wrote, we showed a technique for doing that. I wrote it with one of my ex-students, a very creative American chap, George Sugihara. In particular, the random number generator that Von Neumann and Ulam used for generating random numbers for the first computer built was that particular equation. The computer was called the MANIAC and was built at the Institute for Advanced Study in 1948. The equation they used wouldn’t have been called the ‘quadratic map’ then and no­one would have thought of it being chaos. But to generate their random numbers, they used that, being the chaotic regime. If you test their random number generator with any conventional test, it says they are random numbers. But George and I, with our technique, could tell you the next two or three or four random numbers to high precision, but we couldn’t go much beyond that. George parleyed that into running Deutsche Bank Securities (USA) for four or five years, making eight figures in bonuses. Then – typical George – having done it for four or five years, he decided that that was more money than he was ever going to need in this or any other lifetime and he liked being in a university better, so he is back working on fisheries in UCSD.

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Politics of ecology and deciding to move to Oxford

Here is the puzzle: you are wonderfully set up at Princeton, getting on famously – why would you ever want to leave?

Bear in mind, when I first got interested in ecology, before I had even talked to MacArthur, I was at Culham at the UK’s Plasma Physics Laboratories. And I had met Richard Southwood, the Director of Imperial College’s Ecological Research Laboratories at Silwood Park, who had also invited me down to talk.

By the way, you know ‘FRS’ – we are in ‘Royal Society’ – means ‘friend of Richard Southwood’. You knew that, didn’t you?

That’s a digression and it’s an interesting one. The society does a pretty good job of electing people, but you can get from time to time cliques forming or even anti-cliques. In the years leading up to the early seventies, there were a lot of insect physiologists but only three ecologists who were fellows. Two of them were not interested in promoting other ecologists. They were very solipsistic people, Elton and Lack, and they didn’t speak to each other. Interestingly, they locked the door between their offices in the long corridor of their building and told their students not to talk to each other – brilliant people, but! The third, E.B. Ford, was an appalling person who actually wanted to preserve the singularity of his distinction and keep people out. So hugely distinguished people were years and years too late in being elected. Not only Dick Southwood but also John Maynard Smith and John Harper, the best plant biologist of his generation. Once Dick had got in with John Maynard Smith, he saw to it that other ecologists got their fair share – and I don’t think that just being a friend of Richard Southwood was quite enough! But Richard had been very good to me.

Imperial College of Science, Technology and
Medicine, Silwood Park, Ascot, Berkshire

Also, I met Gordon Conway, who at that time had recently joined Imperial College but still had connections with the Ford Foundation. Later he ran the Ford Foundation in Asia, came back to be Vice-Chancellor at the University of Sussex and then went on to run the Rockefeller – the first non-American to do it. The first summer I was at Princeton Gordon had money to bring people across, and I did that for a month. I took to spending a month or six weeks every summer, while I was at Princeton, at Silwood, often with my daughter while Judith was still working. So I knew Britain fairly well. When Dick moved to Oxford, he kept trying to persuade me to come to Oxford in the summer. But my collaborations were more with Michael Hassell and other people, and Bill Hamilton was still there, so I used to go to Silwood. Nonetheless, why did we leave Princeton? I do believe – rather chauvinistically believe – that Princeton is simply the best place to be a faculty member or student of any university that I can think of. It has a very strong faculty, which is also fairly small. It doesn’t have the distraction of any professional school – no medical school, law school or business school – and everyone teaches undergraduates. It is not a status symbol, even if you wanted it to be, not to teach undergraduates. You are not allowed not to. It was probably my most productive time of life.

John Krebs and Bob May running the Oxford
Half-Marathon,1992

Nonetheless, Judith and I felt that, having been there for 16 years, we should really think about doing something different. We should do it while we still had the energy and while people would still want to hire us. We thought quite hard about going back to Australia, where there were some interesting opportunities. We thought quite hard about going to Berkeley, where I had in George Oster a particular friend but also other friends. And by that time, her family – her parents, cousins and sister – were living in the Bay Area. We thought about coming to Britain, where we had our friends. We decided, on the whole, that Britain would be the most different. I said to George Oster, ‘At the end of the day, Britain seems more different’, and he said, ‘At the end of the day, there is no place more different than Berkeley’.

Never mind.

But we moved. Again, I would never have had the energy to do it. I would have thought, ‘Maybe it’s a good idea, but we’ve got to close up the house and sell it’. But Judith did that with good cheer and, the year before we moved, she quit Princeton University Press and moved to Oxford University Press and she commuted back and forth to New York every day. We came across here into the department headed by Dick, itself a very strong and interesting department.

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Accidental civil servant

Robert May 1996
Robert May, trustee of the Natural History
Museum, South ensington, England, 1996

Okay. You have got a very successful academic career and have even been running a big team of researchers. What made you think that was a good preparation for doing something as difficult as being a chief scientist in the bureaucracy?

Let me first just amplify what you have said. I am inclined to say that my friends fell into two categories at the time: those who were absolutely gobsmacked that the civil service would choose me to do this; and others for whom it confirmed their belief that the civil service didn’t have a clue about what it was doing. But I myself never felt that it was all that astonishing. It is true that I had spent a life essentially avoiding any form of engagement with administration. I never saw ‘Vice President for Research’ at Princeton as other than a very interesting and unusual minor supplement to my academic work. That would have been something that you couldn’t have felt at any other place. So I didn’t have the background for being Chief Scientific Adviser. It came out of the blue to me when the headhunters got in touch with me. It is true that, when I first came here, I had an acquaintance with other things. I was already one of the trustees of the Natural History Museum and then Chairman. Bill Stewart, my predecessor as Chief Scientist, had been instrumental in appointing me to the Joint Nature Conservancy Commission. Bill was a very nice man who went on to be President of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and headed up the Health Protection Agency for the Department of Health. When they split the Nature Conservancy into the four country agencies, people suddenly realised that there were some things that were international. I had had an acquaintance with this sort of committee work. But, even so, the invitation to apply was gobsmackingly out of the blue. But the headhunters rang me and it was Saxton Bampfylde, which is one of the priciest and, I myself think, one of the best. Saxton himself interviewed me to tell me what he thought it was about and why he thought I might do it. He said to me in the interview – which I thought was rather strange – ‘I’ve looked at all the people who are eligible and I think you’re the best’.

Robert May as Chief Scientific Adviser to the
UK Government at a ‘Carnegie Group’ meeting,
France, 1997

There is no question that you have got the intellect. But did you, Robert May, have the diplomacy?

I never did and I don’t.

How did Tony Blair and the other ministers react to that?

First of all, the committee that appointed me was an interesting one. It was Robin Butler – then the permanent secretary in the Cabinet Office, the chief ‘Sir Humphrey’ – and two external advisers. One of them was one of Margaret Thatcher’s much more informal chief scientific advisers, Robin Nicholson. The other was somebody who had been Chief Scientific Adviser to the Ministry of Defence and then Director of Imperial College, Ron Oxburgh. One of the questions put to me by Robin Butler was, ‘If you do this, you’ll be called upon to defend government things that you disagree with. Do you think you could do that?’ and I said, ‘It would depend. I would not ever misrepresent the science, because my job would be to speak truth to power and I would do so if I disagreed about the science. On the other hand, if it was strictly a policy thing that I could set in context, I said: ‘After all, if I go way back to my youth, my debating career was to be given a topic 10 minutes beforehand, arbitrarily be given a side and make a case for it. So I do have the skills, if they are needed and only if I think it is appropriate to use them’.

A good lawyer.

That’s right. Robin himself is an astonishing person. He was the top scholar and the top sportsperson at Harrow. It was clear that I liked playing games. I think Robin was a flanker (UK for breakaway) in rugby. He looked like a sportsperson and I don’t. He walked me to the lift and he said, ‘What are your sports?’ and I had to explain that they were wimpy things like tennis. But, again, I was lucky. Robin was wonderful. I found him so helpful. I was lucky that the job even existed. Part of the Labour Party manifesto under Kinnock was a proposal to create an office adequately staffed with 100 or so people, bring the research councils under its aegis and make the person a permanent-secretary-level appointment. This was instead of a sort of ad hoc, ad personam chief scientific adviser with a staff of two or three. When Kinnock lost the election, William Waldegrave persuaded John Major to implement it. So I was the first appointed that way. I had a lot of help from Robin. I had a lot of good luck in that John Major was the minister and that William Waldegrave at that point too was the Treasury secretary, much responsible for budget things. Indeed, we even conspired on some things about ways he wanted me and him to combine in helping to persuade his colleagues – but in a way where we weren’t seeming to combine.

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Tackling the climate critics

Many of your friends, when they heard that you had been appointed, imagined that you would go to Whitehall and tell them that they were all talking crap. So how did they react to that kind of bluntness?

Bob May and Family Buckingham Palace 1996
Sir Robert May’s investiture at Buckingham Palace,
pictured with his wife Judith and daughter Naomi,
1996. (Image by Charles Green Photography.)

I did on rare occasions. I didn’t so much say they were crap. I may say that more recently as that is more British. I was inclined at that stage still to be saying, ‘That’s bullshit’. I do remember a meeting in the big Cabinet conference room in the Cabinet Office where I said, ‘That’s absolute bullshit’. As we went out, William Waldegrave said to me, ‘I suspect that’s the first time that anyone has ever said “bullshit” in the Cabinet Office, but it shouldn’t be the last’.

He was a minister who was very much pro-science. In fact, I seem to remember that at one stage he offered a bottle of champagne to the person who could ‘describe what a Higgs boson is or might be in two minutes’.

He was also the person who, at the annual British Science Association meeting in September, introduced the idea of having a special week in March to be themed around science and gave grant money to the British Science Association to run it. He said, ‘If you make a success of it, we’ll build on it’. That is something that has gone from a few hundred events to close to 5,000 or more.

If I remember rightly, I remember seeing something in Hansard where Lord Waldegrave was actually speaking critically of climate change. This was a bit puzzling for someone who had been a science minister. He seemed to be quite strong and not to go with the political tides. Did you find that many people go with the political tides?

I am very surprised at that. One of the things I did quite early on, when I was in the Lords, was to put forward a debate for climate change. Thursdays are reserved typically for two debates and they are typically 2½ hours each. There are various ways that you can put things forward and there is a competitive process. I put forward one for climate change, this is before the legislation, and so many people signed up to it that it was given the whole five hours. There were some of the naysayers, like Nigel Lawson. William Waldegrave spoke and made a comment critical of Nigel Lawson. He said, ‘You don’t really understand what you’re talking about, whereas many of the people whom you are criticising do’.

What do you make of someone like Lord Nigel Lawson, with whom you sit in the House of Lords, who for many years having been Chancellor of the Exchequer, a brilliant man yet nonetheless talks about climate change consistently over the years as if it’s highly questionable? What do you say to him?

What has been particularly amazing more recently is Andrew Turnbull, whom I always thought of as a very sensible person. He was the Cabinet Secretary, a civil servant and not a politician, and his career was taking advice from people who knew more about it than him – and he is right up there as a denier. Polly Toynbee wrote an extraordinarily cruel thing about him. I do find it puzzling, but I do have one, perhaps unsound, potential explanation. These people are all economists and I realise this subject is very largely sort of faith based. I don’t mean this in a sarcastic way, more recently I have come to learn a little bit more about economics. It is just a statement – that economics is sort of faith based. It doesn’t have much in the way of testable hypotheses. It does have things in the way of simple models, but they tend to be grounded on beliefs. And the discussions they have would have been more familiar in Socrates’ Athens than in today’s scientific colloquium. So, just as you may believe in perfect markets, general equilibrium or hidden hands, I have some sympathy that you could have a belief that the climate ‘can’t do that’. But that is a charitable explanation. There are less charitable ones, such as that it ultimately derives from other kinds of motives.

In fact, I have a message for you from Professor Jonathan Haskel at Imperial College, where he is an economist doing great research on the effectiveness of science funding, showing that there is a connection between the money you put in and the creation of wealth quite quickly. He was bemoaning the fact that he has heard you say that economists don’t really contribute much. You have downplayed their performance – but he says that some of them are doing quite well.
Okay. So what happens when you go into the bar – in your case, drinking orange juice – and talk to people like Lawson who have been critical of what you know is the effective science. What do you say to them?

On the subject of, as it were, drinking orange juice – Nigel Lawson is a very nice and interesting person to talk to about other things. He is a very bright person and a really sociable person. There is no sort of animus there, as I see it. Despite the fact that he can say very unkind things in a very graceful and forceful way. What do I say? I simply try to explain to people that here are the facts upon which this is based. Here is a community, surely you can’t believe that you have got 10,000 or more people signed up to some secret pledge to misrepresent the evidence? And that essentially 99 per cent of the people who work in the subject recognise uncertainties about time scales and other details but have unanimity in that putting a million years worth of fossil fuel carbon back into the atmosphere each year is thickening the greenhouse gas blanket and is going to make a difference. You should listen to them.

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President of the Royal Society

When you were here at the Royal Society as president, you took a somewhat more belligerent role, did you not, where you thought you should meet the critics of science up front?

I felt that the Royal Society should be more involved in public affairs. The people who were in favour of my being president expected this but not everybody approved of it. One of the very first things I did when I was Chief Scientist was I persuaded Tony Blair and the Cabinet Secretary on the best way to have an inquiry into mad cow disease. I suggested they get some scientific peer who had not been involved to get a group of scientific experts to give an analysis of lessons to be learned. They agreed temporarily to that. Until it was borne in upon them by the permanent secretaries in the relevant ministries that maybe there would be law cases coming out of it and it would be much better to have a legalistic inquiry that would go on for years until everybody was safely retired. Although I don’t think they actually uttered that argument. So we had the Phillips inquiry. It went for several years, cost something like 30 million and produced a shelf of books. It was a good inquiry and it re-endorsed the guidelines that said ‘admit uncertainties when you have them’. It gave a beautiful example of the difficulty in doing that, in that its own report asserted unequivocally that the rogue prion had come as a spontaneous mutation. That is a controversial idea that is probably not right but was held by one of the three people on the committee.

(left-right) Judith May, HRH Prince Philip, HRH Queen Elizabeth II, Sir Aaron Klug, Liebe Klug and Sir Robert May, Anniversary Day, Royal Society, 30 November 2000


Coming back then to the more general question. When I became President of the Royal Society it was at the time we had foot­and­mouth. One of the first things I did was have the Royal Society put together a committee – at the government’s request, but one had solicited the request. It was a small committee chaired by Brian Follett. It produced a report in a little less than 12 months, if my memory is correct. It cost one per cent of the Phillips inquiry and it produced a very nice and effective report. Before it even convened, it recognised that, if it were to recognise vaccination as being used more next time, it would be a good idea to have the EU export rules changed. To that end, before it began, it met with the relevant people in the EU and had an EU observer sit with it and, as the report was published, the EU rules were changed. That was an example of aggressive engagement to be useful to government. Not everybody had a clear conscience about that aggressive engagement, but I think it was useful. And not everybody was happy with the sometimes quite in-your-face comments that the Royal Society or its president made. Comments made particularly by the head of the press office, Bob Ward, whom I found immensely valuable, although other people didn’t care for him so much. He had the knack of being able to capture my voice, so that he could write things that I got the credit for without having to do the work. I think the kinds of things that we did were entirely appropriate.

Indeed.

It was in contrast with the US National Academy of Sciences and made for some friction between us, because they are in an awkward position. They have a vast secretariat of about 1300 people. They produce a report roughly every working day. They are very good reports. Allegedly, they are asked for by government but, more often than not, they are solicited to keep all these people employed. There is a legitimate worry that, if they annoyed a President like Bush, it would have dire consequences. So they are in a trickier and more difficult position. The moral there is never to become too dependent on government.

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On the tail end of the ‘luck distribution’ curve

A final word about something that has come up again and again about your life and your career, and that is “luck”. Wasn’t it Pasteur who said that ‘fortune favours the prepared mind’? In other words, you have to be in a good situation mentally to take advantage of luck. So you weren’t just lucky, were you?

No. I would rephrase it. The French are good at this. That is a good way of putting it, but I like not the sequence of one then the other. I like simply the conjunction from Jacques Monod’s Chance and Necessity. I see my life, liberally interpreting that, as extraordinarily lucky, unusually lucky and right out there in the tail of the distribution. But, yes, you also need to be able to perceive the opportunity that is being offered and have the equipment to follow it. And the ability to recognise something that might be a chance, but where you don’t have the techniques and the equipment to follow it. I don’t, on the other hand, see it as being prepared to look for luck. I see it as happenstance.

Sometimes you are asked for advice for young scientists, and I look at some of the interesting classic things. Peter Medawar and The Art of the Soluble said ‘Don’t do anything unless you can be sure it’s going to work out’. I am rather unkindly in the habit of saying, ‘What boring advice. What a dreary way to go’. Jim Watson said ‘avoid stupid people’. A great idea, but how do you do it? It is not useful advice. Mine is equally useless – it is ‘be lucky’.

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Taking maths to the banks

Going back to somebody you mentioned before: George, who had been in Deutsche Bank for four to five years, with a lovely flash car and lots of money, has gone back to doing the maths of fishing and fish shoals. You have followed this example of taking maths to the bank to help them take on some of the impenetrable problems they have had in recent times. How has that worked out?

Another happy accident. In 2006, long before anything bad had happened, in a very prescient way the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and the US National Academy of Sciences put together a study group. They recognised that, with the increasingly elaborate things that banks were doing, no­one was thinking about what effects they might have on the system as a whole. These things looked good for each individual institution but what about the system as a whole? In putting it together, they thought, ‘Maybe there’ll be some read-across from ecology, from infectious diseases, from the electricity grid’. It turns out that the electricity grid is completely useless because that is completely designed and we understand it. They brought in people such as George Sugihara, who was a natural. He worked on ecosystems and networks and, for four or five years, in a bank. George involved me in it.

When the report was issued, George and I, along with Simon Levin, who had also been involved in the thing at Princeton, wrote a short note about it in ‘News and Views’ in Nature. Then came 2008 and all of a sudden this wasn’t an academic think tank issue. While I was Chief Scientist and Mervyn King was Deputy Governor of the Bank of England, I had accidentally become acquainted with him. We got on together and took to having lunch together. The next time I had lunch with Mervyn, I said, ‘Why don’t we have a little seminar? We’ll bring George Sugihara across from Scripps and a couple of other of my graduate students who work on interesting things. I’ve been doing some little things, too, modelling the banking system and so on’. We did that. We put it together. By that time, I and a postdoc student, Nim Arinaminpathy – a very able second-generation Sri Lankan living in this country – had already written a paper on ‘our’ little model. Nim was doing the computing because I like someone else to do that. I then met Andrew Haldane, who is the director of systemic risk at the Bank of England, and, to cut a long story short, I have been working on that. Systemic risk is the main thing I have been doing for the last couple of years. I have been working with people at the Bank of England and most of the things are co-authored.

By this time we had formed one of these wonderful nexuses. It consisted of Nim, Sujit Kapadia, Nim’s friend from undergraduate physics in Cambridge, who by sheer coincidence, was now at the bank, and another collaborator, a chap called Gai, who is at ANU and who has done things with Kapadia. And we had done quite a few things bringing read-across from ecosystems. But the read-across is very different. In ecosystems, the node in a web is a species and it either eats other species or other species eat it. Here the node in the web is a bank, and banks are much more complicated. They have stuff coming in from outside, stuff coming in from borrowing off other banks, stuff going out to the outside and stuff going out to other banks. But, even so, there is a certain amount of read-across and a certain amount of general conclusion that helps buttress what common-sense alone could tell you. That is, that big banks ought to have relatively bigger capital reserves because the risk to the system of them going wrong is greater. They are like super spreaders of infection. Equally, the opposite has been the practice lately.

To let the money run down because you will make more.

Yes. The big banks say that they have got bigger reserves and they want all the money working. So they will have relatively smaller reserves because they are absolutely bigger. Another thing that has happened lately: in boom times, people ran down their capital reserves, so all the money was working. Now, in bust times, they are hoarding liquidity and charging exorbitant rates to lend or are not lending. What you ought to be doing is the exact opposite. In boom times, when you are taking bigger risks, you should have bigger reserves. In bust times, you should let the reserves run down to free up the system. That is what the Independent Commission on Banking, which I also have some engagement with through John Vickers, has recommended. And that is what the bankers are stubbornly going to resist. The bankers chant meaningless mantras like ‘just let equilibrium reassert itself’ and ‘let the invisible hand work’. Joe Stiglitz sums it up beautifully: ‘Why is the invisible hand invisible?’ Because it isn’t there.

Do you think, Bob May, you could help prevent the next Global Financial Crisis?

I would not go so far as to say that. I would not have the hubris to do that for one split second.

But if you wanted to help?

I would have the hubris to say that I believe common sense, helpfully illustrated by toy models, can point you in the direction that many others are pointing in. They can point you in ways which will not prevent bad things happening but will make them less likely.

And they are taking notice, are they? You said that the bankers aren’t. Are the other economists?

The Bank of England is. The banks in the United States are. The banking system that thinks about the system as a whole is. Perhaps some bankers think about the way the profits of their own individual banks are hinged on the increased leverage they have. A very interesting essay by a chap called Benjamin Friedman was just published in the Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. It documents a more than three­fold increase in the relative cost of running the system from the profits being taken out of it, not for shareholders but for the bankers themselves.

It is a long way from chemical engineering, but it does make sense, doesn’t it?

Yes. Science and mathematics are really no more but no less than a way of thinking clearly. There is a lot of read-across.

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