Oral History Transcript — Dr. S. K. Runcorn
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Interview with Dr. S. K. Runcorn
S. K. Runcorn; September 16, 1993
ABSTRACT: In this interview, S. K. Runcorn discusses the history of geophysics. Topics discussed include: Cambridge University; Manchester University; University of Newcastle upon Tyne; paleomagnetism; continental drift; University of Durham; Rice University; Beloit College; Standard Oil; Sperry Gyroscope; dynamo theory. Individuals discussed include: C. P. Snow; John Douglas Cockcroft; Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington; Mark Oliphant; Patrick Maynard Stuart Blackett; Nevill Francis Mott; S. Chandrasekhar; Walter M. Elsasser; Arthur Holmes; Harold Jeffreys; Felix Andries Vening Meinesz; Walter Bucher; Henry Aldrich; Carlyle S. Beals; Sir Lenox Conyngham; Ernest Rutherford; Maurice Ewing; Francis Birch; Harold Urey; Carey Croneis; James Chadwick; Bernard Lovell; Edward Bullard; John Verhoogen; Beno Gutenberg; Father James Bernard Macelwane; Percy Bridgman.
TranscriptSession I | Session II
Doel:If you can say a few words, I'll just make sure that the volume level is about right for us. If you can say just —
Runcorn:Oh, yes, well I'm very glad to have the opportunity to talk about the history of geophysics.
Doel:Okay. And we are set. This is Ron Doel, and this is an interview with S. Keith Runcorn, and today's date is the 17th of September, 1993. [Note: On the beginning of Tape 4, Side A of this interview, Ron Doel makes the correction that the beginning of this interview was actually on the 16th of September.] And I know that you were born on November 19th, 1922 in Southport Lancashire [?], but I don't really know much about your family or about your early life. Who were your parents and what did they do?
Runcorn:Well, my father was a builder, and my mother came from Hampshire in Lancashire in the south of England. My father in Lancashire. And the town where I was brought up, Southport, had a rather new grammar school, and because it was a fairly wealthy town the grammar school thrived, and the first headmaster had taken the mathematics (???) at Cambridge in the same year as Eddington.
Runcorn:And had come a few you know rounds there. At that time they classified people in the order, and I think Eddington was the third wrangler and the headmaster, George Nowald [?], was the thirteenth, but in a very big class. And so he was a brilliant man, and at that time of course the opportunities for doing research were less, and so in Britain and I suppose in other countries many people who went into teaching in the more advanced schools were really very exceptional people, and so I learned a great deal of mathematics from him.
Doel:Mm-hmm [affirmative]. And this was the King George V [?] School?
Runcorn:That's right. Yes, that's right.
Doel:Great. Mathematics was principally the subject that you learned from?
Runcorn:Well, the physics was very good too, and the subjects I liked best were physics and mathematics, Latin and history, and of course at that time, and even today, the English high school education is very specialized so that the last part of your school career — we call the sixth form — you had to decide at the age of 15 or 16 whether you were going into the science sixth or the arts sixth, and for me it was a very difficult decision, because I was very keen on history. And it was of course the influence of the headmaster which was decisive in my choosing science.
Runcorn:And I guess that for a lot of people in Britain, you know, this year the influence of these really rather exceptionally good school teachers was paramount in deciding the direction of their career.
Doel:I want to ask you a few more questions about the school, but I'm not sure that we got your parents' names.
Doel:I don't know if we had heard the names of your parents when I first asked you —
Runcorn:Oh. William — it's in "Who's Who," you know — William Henry Runcorn and Lily Idina [?] Runcorn.
Doel:No, I don't.
Doel:The descendants of the name did you mean?
Runcorn:I don't understand.
Doel:I wanted to be sure I understood your question when you said do I understand Runcorn.
Runcorn:Oh, you mean where the name came from originally?
Doel:I wasn't sure if that's what you were asking me.
Runcorn:No, no. I was just giving the names of my parents.
Doel:Okay. I misunderstood. I'm curious about the other students that were in your class. Were you close to anyone who also leaned towards mathematics and physics? Did you have a lot of contacts with other students?
Runcorn:Well, yes, but quite a group of us went to Cambridge, and they were mostly of course going to do science or engineering. And I actually did engineering. But at Cambridge it was a very kind of mathematical, theoretical type of engineering, and I didn't find it difficult afterwards in turning to physics. And Tommy Gold [?], who you'll know —
Runcorn:He taught the mechanical sciences — tripulses, it was called — the year before I did. And of course he became a physicist. Now the other people that I was friendly with in my school, one is, I suppose he's just retired as the Director of Westinghouse, and the other, who I was very friendly with here in Ross [?] was Director of the Bell Telephones Laboratory and has just retired. And another one became a Professor of Physics in Liverpool. He died a few years ago. So there'd been, oh, another one who was a good deal elder than me but was a brilliant mathematician was Professor Faust [?] at Brown and then at Stanford in Applied Mathematics, D. H. Lee [?].
Runcorn:So, you know, it wasn't a tremendously large school, but there was this stream of people going to mainly Cambridge. But of course (???) Manchester being close at hand also were popular universities.
Doel:Right. Roughly how many people were in your class at Cambridge?
Runcorn:But at what level, you see.
Doel:It changed as —?
Runcorn:It changed as you go through the school, but typically it was I think 30 in the younger school and then perhaps in the sixth form were perhaps a dozen. But of course the objection to the grammar school system was that it sorted people out at a young age, about 11, into those who were judged capable of having this further academic kind of education and the more practical schooling of other secondary schools. But and so, in the 1950s, 1960s, these schools were largely turned into comprehensive schools, much bigger in numbers, and there's no doubt that this has been a step which has brought our system more closely to yours. But on the (???) these rather specialized academic schools still exist in Germany and Holland, and I think in France.
Doel:Indeed. I'm curious too — did you have much discussion of science at home? Did your parents have an interest in science?
Runcorn:No, no. My parents were not particularly knowledgeable in that area. My father was more interested in political questions. And I did however, I would go when I was quite young to the local astronomical observatory in the park and I did, there were some rather nice scientific journals, you know. Not as advanced as the Scientific American, but as beautifully produced and with diagrams. And I don't know that they exist today, but I can remember the (???) bought them each week and then bound them together, and there are a number of these. But they were really a very high standard, and I think we all learned quite a lot from them. "The World of Wonder" was one of them, and certainly the articles were quite advanced, but they really picked out topics that we would now say, you know, educated people would want to know about, such as what causes thunderstorms. But there were a set of books, which I don't know if there's any modern parallel to, but directed at school children and brought out weekly you see.
Doel:And these ranged across the sciences. It was not —
Runcorn:Yes. I think there were one or two of these which were restricted in their coverage, but the one that I am thinking of I think had articles on all the sciences. But the chief thing I remember about them is that they were very beautifully illustrated.
Doel:And did others in your school read them as well, or was it something that —?
Runcorn:Oh yes. Yes, they were very well known publications. I think there was one on the history too of (???), but as I say, I don't recall the publisher, but it was one of the big publishing companies obviously at that time who thought there was a market for this kind of weekly.
Doel:That's quite true. The French still have something similar running, but I think you're right about the situation in Great Britain. Do you recall reading any other books on science as you were growing up?
Runcorn:When I was a boy?
Runcorn:Oh yes, yes. I had a large number and I remember again that the astronomical ones were very well produced. One in particular was written by the daughter of quite an eminent astronomer. I've just forgotten his name, but she —
Doel:That's okay. That could always be added in later.
Runcorn:But, again, it was a beautiful book, with lots of wonderful pictures in, and I think a lot of boys — you know, girls were less interested in science — but I think a lot of school children read these books. Of course this was before TV.
Doel:Mm-hmm [affirmative]. It sounds as if a lot of what you were reading was in astronomy. Is that your recollection?
Runcorn:My recollection was very early I was interested in astronomy. And then of course when you get to the final stages of the school you of course have to sit examinations in physics and chemistry and mathematics, and my interest in astronomy kind of waned when I was preparing for university and when I was at the university.
Doel:Did you have any interest in geology as a subject when you were —?
Runcorn:No. Not at all. And, looking back, I think it rather extraordinary, given (???), and we were near the lake district [?], which was full of important rocks [?] and history of geology, and I don't recall, except peripherally in the geography lesson, and I don't recall being very interested in geology. And again, I don't recall any of my fellow students interested. I think fascination was in physics and mathematics, and I think that in a way effects on the — And of course to some extent astronomy, but that affects the exciting, scientific subjects in the 20s and 30s, nuclear physics and quantum physics. And where of course they'd been taught, the teachers of my school — One of them had taken his degree in Majesty University when Rutherford was there, and he was actually a senior chemistry master, but he used to like to devote (???) chemistry lessons to talking about the nuclear physics and its development, and (???) of course he had been inspired by this thing as an undergraduate to Rutherford (???).
Doel:Who was this by the way, that you're thinking of?
Runcorn:The name of the master? Woodens [?]. And but, there must, there were one or two who had taken their degrees at Majesty University. The physics master had, but I don't recall him talking about Rutherford. He was, perhaps he was a little earlier and he was older than Woodens and might have even been in the physics department before Rutherford came there, which was 1908. Schustow [?] was the professor before. But you asked about geology. I doubt if it was taught as a subject for the higher schools that (???) examination in any but a small handful of schools in Britain, and I think two hours [?] we would have hardly thought of it as an important scientific subject.
Runcorn:Physics and chemistry were emphasized.
Doel:Did you have brothers and sisters?
Runcorn:Yes, a sister.
Doel:Did she have an interest in science?
Runcorn:She teaches. She taught, but she's now a housewife.
Doel:Had she any interest in science when you were growing up?
Doel:You mentioned a number of teachers who influenced you and mentioned that it was a difficult decision to lean towards science. Were there any others who, besides the headmaster, who you felt had a strong influence on —?
Runcorn:Well, the physics and chemistry masters who taught us, and the mathematics masters were really very influential, and they certainly succeeded in generating interest in their subjects among the class. But of course I, after two years at Cambridge, they compressed the courses during the war. I went into radar research.
Runcorn:The direction of labor was very important at England during the war, and I had said I would like to go in the Navy, but C. P. Snow, who you will know, was in charge of putting people into what you would consider the right niche, and I was interviewed by him — as all, amazingly, all science graduates were interviewed by him. And a colleague of his was an Air Force Officer, and so I found myself in October 1943 in this radar establishment in Maulvin [?]. And most of the people there were a few years older than me, and they'd been similarly directed into radar research earlier in the war, many of them in 1938, and of course to listen to their accounts of getting the first radar sets going was very interesting and it was of course there that I really decided that I was more interested in physics than in engineering.
Doel:Mm-hmm [affirmative]. I was wondering. Pardon me, go ahead.
Runcorn:No. Go on.
Doel:I was wondering, you mentioned you had a growing interest in engineering through your early days at Cambridge and strengthened by the —
Runcorn:Well, it had been a little bit of a tradition in my school that you took mathematics and physics you see and chemistry and then you had to decide what subjects to take at Cambridge, and the headmaster again was rather keen on people taking the engineering or mechanical science, tripass [?]. And I think his belief at the time was that there was more opportunity for jobs in engineering than in physics. And I remember when I was saying at the age of 15 that I really wanted to go into the sixth form and study history and other odd subjects, naturally my father saw the headmaster, and — typical of those days — and one of the points that I remember my father saying the headmaster, Mr. Nowald, had impressed on him, was that there was more opportunity for jobs if you did science, if you went from the science side than into the arts. And I'm talking about 1937-38, and so you see then this headmaster was very much concerned with the question of what will his pupils do which will best prepare them for jobs. And I think that was also what influenced him in saying to people, "Well, if you're not absolutely keen on taking mathematics, you might as well take engineering." Because, as I said, it was a highly mathematical form of engineering that was taught at Cambridge at that time.
Doel:Who were your principal instructors during the first two years you were at Cambridge, before you went into the wartime work?
Runcorn:You mean in the university?
Runcorn:Well, the chief professor of engineering was a man called Ingold [?] Inglis, I-n-g-l-i-s, and he was a civil engineer, and he had designed bridges, and he did give very excellent lectures on mechanics which I've all remembered, and the — and again I suppose that they were a little slanted to practical applications, but in fact of course they were sort of lectures which might well have been given in an ordinary physics course — and one of my regrets about Cambridge in 1941-43 was that I never got around to going and hearing Eddington. And that is extraordinary really, but it shows how, by the time one got to the university, particularly with the concentrated course that you had to do during the war, that one's view of science became rather narrowly dictated.
Runcorn:Of course (???) examinations. But it's extraordinary that I didn't, in view of my earlier interest in astronomy, I didn't go and hear Eddington. Of course a lot of the other kind of great people in Cambridge were away at the war, and there weren't too many of the famous people in science left in Cambridge. But I did hear lectures by people outside science. And so in some ways I found more than, more kind of stimulating than Cambridge — you know, from the point of view of the development of my interests in science. And there were of course the developments in radar work; the remarkable Cockroft was the head of the establishment. People I was directly under. A man who went back to Cambridge and (???) nuclear physics there, Shire [?], and another, Ben Porter [?], who'd made the first div(?) analyzer in Manchester, copying the work of Bush [?] in the States.
Doel:Mm-hmm [affirmative]. Indeed. Let me just pause for a —
Doel:One thing I wanted to ask you about the early Cambridge period. You were at Gunville [?] and Heinz [?].
Runcorn:They pronounce it Keyes [?].
Doel:Keyes. Thank you.
Runcorn:That was the original spelling, was K-e-y-s, and then Dr. Keys went to Italy to study and met some (???) Latinized his name.
Doel:Hmm. How did you come to choose that college over others?
Runcorn:Again because there'd been a tradition in my particular high school in going to that college. Links had been forged with the college. Quite typical of the way things were done in Britain at the time.
Doel:During the time that you were in the Radar Research and Development establishment, what were the duties that you had? How did they change between '43 and — it was '46 when you —?
Runcorn:Forty-three to forty-six. Well, I was first of all given the task of, well, the general group that I was with, was concerned with using radar sets to follow aircraft — it was an anti-aircraft establishment — to follow aircraft, and attempts were made to fasten the radar set onto what was known as a predictor which would direct the anti-aircraft guns. Therefore the mathematical problem was given and the data provided by the radar set in following a plane, and of course the data was noisy. You had to predict where the plane would be when the shell exploded. And the predictors had been operated by personnel attending anvils [?], you know, following the plane optically. When radar came along of course the problem arose through the development of radar, how do you automate all this, and there was a kind of mathematical problem of making use of noisy data to predict the position of the plane. And I was a small part of a rather big group doing this kind of work, and I first of all was given the job of making a differential analyzer to solve a differential equation, so I immediately got in contact with Partrie [?] at Cambridge who'd made the first one in Britain. He of course had been interested in numerical methods in understanding atomic spectra, and of course eventually he ended in Cambridge by being quite influential in applying computers to (???) of the more difficult atomic physics problems. And so through my work I was quite influenced by Professor Hartry [?] at Manchester and the mathematician at Sheffield, applied mathematician, who was called in to do some of these, help us under these studies. And so this was the — I wasn't concerned with the electromagnetic problems presented by radar aerials, but that was of course a major activity in this establishment. And I wasn't particularly concerned with experimental problems in sever [?] mechanisms, although sever mechanisms were again an important part of the process by which the radar data was used to position the anti-aircraft guns.
Doel:Was there much discussion after hours?
Runcorn:Oh yes. Many people felt that it was as near the university as you could expect. And I took the initiative — I don't know quite how it came about but — Oh, well, through this work that I was doing I became interested in the operational calculus [?] and quite a few people were interested in this, and I was somehow invited to go lecture after work on operational calculus and I remember I hadn't gone into Cambridge and I remember I read it up in (???)'s book, and I must have managed to keep ahead of the task, not by certainly — And I found it very, I found it was a subject that interested a lot of people but wasn't widely known at the time, the operational methods of solving differential equations was relatively — it was known of course, but it was not so much taught in ordinary undergraduate classes. And we had a thriving branch of the Institute of Physics in Maulvin and people were invited to come and give lectures. And I remember one which must have been just after the war ended, when Professor Oliphant came down with one of his lecturers, Gaulik [?], Gaulik who's concerned with fluorescence and phosphorescence, and he had lectured on the subject, and the end of it Professor Oliphant, now (???), got up and said, "Well, I've enjoyed this evening because when you're a head of a laboratory it's nice to know what your staff have been doing." And I told — I was in Australia earlier this year, and I know Oliphant well — of course he's over 90. And I told him that story, of how almost 50 years ago I first set eyes on him. But, and then immediately after the war was over, Professor Mott in Bristol started a summer school with his own aspect of solid-state physics, and I went to it, and I don't know how long it lasted, probably two or three weeks —
Runcorn:But I remember having my knowledge of physics broadened into solid-state physics which again, you know, certainly wasn't taught in our engineering undergraduate course, and I don't think it would have been taught in ordinary physics courses then. It was relatively new.
Doel:It's quite interesting, yeah. So you had no exposure to solid-state physics up until that point.
Runcorn:And I went and had this summer school and yeah, that was another experience which stimulated my interest in fundamental physics. Again of course I was told not [?] several times (???) those early summer schools were very influential on other young physicists in Britain.
Doel:Was this held at Manchester?
Runcorn:No. He was at Bristol.
Doel:He was at Bristol. Thank you. Okay. Was that the first summer school that you had attended up until then?
Runcorn:Yes, oh yes, oh yes. A great effort was made by people like Blackett and Mott and so on to get back to peacetime fundamental physics, and I don't know the exact reason why Mott had these summer schools, but obviously it was one thing to get his lab talking about fundamental questions, like the photographic process that he was very interested in at that time. And semiconductors, you see.
Doel:Right, right. Before we get too far into the post-war period, there were a few things that I wanted to make sure that we recorded here.
Doel:You received your Bachelor's degree in 1944 officially.
Runcorn:Well, I took the final exam in '43.
Doel:The tripass was in '43, right.
Runcorn:But the actual award of the degree has to be three after you matriculated into the University of Cambridge.
Doel:That's clear, so that you were fully involved in the wartime work and there was no interruption of that. But you also won the John Winbolt [?] Prize.
Runcorn:Yes. I had, well, it was a prize for engineering students and I, having got, having started work and more than by making a (???) might be rather fun to sort of write up my experience as (???) and for this prize which I won. Wasn't an original essay, but it was on a subject of course which was not widely known.
Doel:And this was a major university-wide competition among the engineering students?
Runcorn:Oh yes, yes, yes.
Doel:Yeah. When you were in history in the arts, did you have an interest in writing? Was it one of the things that attracted you to —?
Runcorn:Yes. But I wasn't — I found it hard work. Probably it is always hard to write. But I didn't think of myself as a person who wrote good English easily and —
Doel:How did you come to be assistant lecturer at Manchester that period in forty —?
Runcorn:Assistant lecturer at Manchester?
Runcorn:Well, of course at the end of the war, everyone looked around for their future and careers —
Doel:Did you have a sense of what you wanted to do? Was it clear to you? [phone ringing interruption — tape off, then back on...] …that telephone interruption, we were talking about your decision to go to Manchester in '46 [?].
Runcorn:Yeah. Of course I naturally thought at first of going back to do a Ph.D. in Cambridge, and one of the top people in the, Marvin Oatley [?], had been made reader in Cambridge and was going back to build up a group working electron microscopes, and so he asked me, and I expressed interest. And because I'd got into the establishment late, '43, I wasn't allowed out until '46, and the people that left '45 went back mostly to the universities to take Ph.D.s. But I then began to wonder whether I wasn't really more fitted for physics research, and I had been interested a little bit in cosmic rays, and I saw an advertisement for a fellowship in Manchester University and I just applied for it, and I didn't get it — a man called Adamson who had been working on cosmic rays got it — and so I still thought of going back to Cambridge in the following autumn, and then I got a letter from Lovell who had gone back to Manchester from Maulvin. Not the same establishment, he didn't know me, but he wrote and said that Blackett has asked him to write to me, because he knew all of them, to see if I was interested in applying for assistant lecturer in physics. Of course I hadn't taught physics. Well, I hadn't of course done a course in physics, and so, anyway I applied for it and got it. And I, with the intention of doing cosmic ray research. And I did work as an understudy with Butler [?] and Rochester [?] while they were getting the counter control (???) that Blackett had made before the war —
Runcorn:— back into operation.
Doel:And that was the source of your first published paper.
Runcorn:Yes, that's right. And I found that very interesting. But Blackett then had the speculation about the origin of the earth's magnetic field, and he gave a colloquium [?], and it would have been in November. That is — I arrived in Manchester I suppose end of September — and so everyone was very excited, and so I then thought that — I suppose I thought it would be better to be independent and not just be an understudy of Rochester and Butler, although they were very, very nice, and of course Rochester was telling me just recently that if I had stayed a bit longer you see, with them, I would have then — as well as of course later doing the (???) development of (???) magnetism — I would have also had a stake in the elemental particle scheme. But I remained interested of course in that subject, in cosmic rays, and it was a very good — I suppose I was just with them for three months, but it was a very good insight into experimental physics.
Doel:I was curious what role you played in writing up that publication that (???).
Runcorn:Well, it was a small publication and I'm sure I think we all contributed.
Runcorn:But you see Butler had only recently joined. It was really of course Rochester who had long been working on cosmic rays, knew a great deal about the subject. But it was very interesting that the counter controller cloud chamber was such a successful technique. Then of course it was, the next discoveries in fundamental particles of course came from Powell-Bristol [?] with the photographic emulsion method. And I remember Powell coming down to Manchester and talking about the discovery of the prime [?] easel [?].
Runcorn:So, Manchester and Bristol of course had this close link at the time, and then they were very exciting centers to be involved in. And of course (???) interestingly in geomagnetism in all aspects grew from doing this mine [?] experiment to check Blackett's speculation — which of course in retrospect seems entirely farfetched. But at the time no one knew what the origin of the earth's magnetic field was. I remember when Blackett gave that colloquium. I mean you know his —
Doel:Yes I do. That it was the property of rotating bodies. Yes.
Runcorn:Yes, that's right. And he had been interested in whether cosmic ray — It was a big question of course, "Why are cosmic rays, when they reach the environment of the earth, isotropic?"
Runcorn:"They ought to be concentrated in the galactic plane [?]." And so Blackett would have known — well, I mean I know Blackett knew that, from the point of view of the energetics they had to be deflected within the galaxy and therefore this interested him in whether stars had magnetic fields. And he knew Chandrasekhar well, and Chandrasekhar was the editor of Astrophysical Journal —
Runcorn:And Chandrasekhar had told him that the magnetic field of a star (???) had just been measured by Babcock [?], and Blackett must have, well did know of earlier speculations by H. A. Wilson and Shostatt [?] —
Runcorn:— about the origin of the earth's magnetic field and the possibility of somehow it was a property of rotating matter. And Blackett got very interested and wrote this article in Nature, and undoubtedly one of the influences that he then was under was the general ideas that Einstein had about unified field theory connecting electromagnetism and gravitation. And Blackett's presentation was well, perhaps such a collection between rotating matter and magnetism.
Doel:Do you feel that Blackett was consciously influenced towards reaching that goal?
Runcorn:Yes, yes. I mean, I didn't think, uh, I don't think he would have — You see, there were only three bodies, as magnetism was known. The sun was a type star, and the earth, and I think Blackett put the speculation forward very much in the influence by this general interest aroused by Einstein's ideas. And of course a lot of people even then thought it was, a lot of people were very interested, and a lot of people thought it was nonsense.
Doel:This is in response to the colloquium in November, the —?
Runcorn:Yeah, in response to his article in Nature.
Doel:And the article in Nature.
Runcorn:Yeah. Oh yes. In the colloquium, after the colloquium I remember Rochester, who wasn't a very speculative kind of physicist, and Ganeshay, who was a cosmic ray expert that went to the Advanced Study Institute in Dublin; he was more theoretical than Rochester. But I remember them both dismissing it. But of course they had no — nobody had any alternate even sketchy idea of how the earth's magnetic field was produced. And Elsasser's papers came out in 1946 and '47. They rather emphasized the interpretation of the second variation as being caused by induction from fluid motion in the core, and Blackett couldn't understand Elsasser's papers; nobody could at that stage. Very difficult to understand. And Blackett's view was, well perhaps — and I, I remember Bowog [?] saying the same — "Well, perhaps Elsasser's ideas will explain why the field varies, but you still have to have a fundamental cause" —
Doel:Generate the field.
Runcorn:Yeah. So of course that was how we got started. And the other very relevant point that I was making actually a couple of weeks ago to Henry Frankel is that for physicists, the study of the earth's magnetic field was a closed book. I remember being surprised in Blackett's colloquium hearing the earth's field varied in historical times. I mean, I should have known that from general knowledge of maps. But anyway, people in physics were ignorant about geophysics generally, and in particular about geomagnetism, and we found of course that the only people who could educate us were the people who'd either worked in magnetic observatories or who'd (???) use gravitational methods for geological or oil companies surveying.
Doel:When was the first time that you started having that kind of contact?
Doel:Contact with those groups that the familiarity with technique.
Runcorn:When I decided to work on this mine experiment I had to borrow magnetometers and I think I went both to the geological survey in London and to Professor Brookshire [?] in the physics department of Imperial College, who'd been a bit of a pioneer really in application of physical methods in (???) and by the time I knew him I think his main activities were advising oil companies and doing —
Runcorn:But he was very knowledgeable, and of course there were three people in the survey —
Doel:Very interesting. Did it also have do you think to do with the idea of uniformitarity that one, in geology, one needed the present to be a key to the past?
Runcorn:Yeah, I think so. Of course also I think one should say you see that seems strange now, but nobody knew much about the earth's magnetic field. It was a mystery and the earth had this (???) the magnet pointed to north. You know, the idea that they could change very much, well I said that then when we first started people didn't know very much about the earth's field. And then of course Chapman you see was a great figure in geomagnetism, and he was totally concerned with what we now call solar-terrestrial [?] relations, data variation and magnetic storms particularly. And in his great work, which is wonderful work, with Bartels, there are about five pages devoted to the origin of the main field. You know, not much was known. That was why Blackett's speculation created a lot of interest. And then in Chapman and Bartels is a very interesting chapter called "Magnetism and Geology" and he talks about magnetic surveys for the oil companies, and he talks about the reverse magnetization and the (???), so it was discovered in the late 1930s, and Bartels and Chapman in that — I don't know which of them wrote that chapter, but they didn't dismiss out of had the possibility that the earth's field was reversed, but it's left.
Runcorn:It's left, the discussion of course at that time they couldn't say more than, "This is interesting" and —
Doel:Right, right. That only five pages could be devoted to it in its entirety is telling.
Runcorn:Because there were two big volumes.
Doel:On a practical note, when you were appointed at Durham [?] and you had in mind to develop more in geophysics there in 1956, what resources did you have to draw on? Did you know that you would be able to appoint a number of people for example and —?
Runcorn:Oh yes. That was one of the — they wanted to build up in Newcastle the physics department, and when I went there they agreed to appoint four lecturers, and I appointed Creer [?] and Hide and Perry [?], who had worked with me at Cambridge, and Lowes [?]. And I then was able to appoint Collinson [?]. He was then just a kind of assistant. He later on went and took his Ph.D. and of course he's done very good work and is currently working on the magnetization of meteorites, which (???) — [phone interruption...tape off, then back on...].
Doel:We were talking about Durham before the telephone interruption. How was the funding raised by the university to support these four positions?
Runcorn:Oh. Well, you see, in Britain the support for universities comes from a general grant, from the university grants committee. It is in the process of changing a bit, but in principal the funding of universities through the university grants committee was designed both to support teaching and research, and the role of the research councils was to fund really new developments for research which had reached a particularly exciting stage, and but the research councils really looked to the universities to provide the faculty — we call it academic staff. And so in Newcastle in 1956 the physics department had relative for example to chemistry, was relatively understaffed, and so the university knew that whoever was appointed to the chair they would have to give him permanent positions. And so, now, a little bit later Paul Roberts came back from working with Chandrasekhar and he came on an ICI [?] Fellowship at the time. ICI had been supporting universities with research fellowships.
Runcorn:Yes. In —
Runcorn:The Imperial Chemical Industry.
Doel:Yes, yes, yes.
Runcorn:That was a scheme which ran for quite a long time after the war by which ICI assisted universities in research, and of course I got a grant from what was then the Science Research Council, to get our work going in paleomagnetism. And then of course I'd build up a group in geophysical hydrodynamics, and he got support for that group. But the main people were on the university staff with permanent positions. There wasn't soft money.
Runcorn:And other research went on in the physics department, but the geophysics group was the biggest research activity in the physics department. All the people I mentioned of course taught physics courses. Later on, much later on, we started an undergraduate course in astronomy, because (???) Roberts [?] had worked with Chandrasekhar, and an undergraduate course in geophysics, but closely integrated with the physics teaching. And the reason that those two courses were developed — and they were quite successful — is that although I had once thought that geophysics was to be done as a postgraduate subject, I did find that boys and girls from school being interviewed for places in the department had expressed great interest in the new developments in astronomy and —
Doel:Was the IGY playing a role in this?
Runcorn:Yes, and also of course play [?] tectonics was beginning to emerge. And so I then thought that — because our undergraduate courses as you know are more specialized and we go further than undergraduate courses here, and so I felt that perhaps there was a case for trying to teach physics with a strong component of geophysics, or a strong component of astronomy and astrophysics. And I advocated that, and of course the faculty of science, the body which approves degrees, were first of all reluctant. And I said well, you know, astronomy was the first course we launched, and they said, you know, you are teaching people astronomy, there are very few jobs in astronomy, but my counter to that was, you can teach physics just as well through astronomy as through the traditional laboratory method. And when that was successful, and we got extremely able, dedicated students from school, and we were the first university to teach astronomy as an undergraduate subject —
Doel:This was in the 1960s that you're thinking of now?
Runcorn:Yes. Except the Scottish universities, which traditionally had (???) of astronomy. But then, because it was a success (???) astronomy course, we started one in geophysics. Excuse me for a moment. But you know, we had a, we appointed a Professor Hymarsh [?], who died tragically rather young, but he worked in the — because he was a spectroscoper, so he worked in the now Oxford Observatory, and so of course he was very keen on this astronomy course. And then later on of course you know Paul Davies —
Runcorn:He was appointed Rushbach's [?] successor, and of course he was very interested in this astronomy course.
Doel:Hmm. We're looking at a book, Paul Davies, D-a-v-i-e-s, The New Physics.
Runcorn:I'd like to go on tomorrow morning. But anyway —
Doel:Okay. One question to wrap up for our discussion today, when you were at Durham, did you have contacts with any of the geologists there?
Runcorn:You know that I was really at Newcastle, but for the first, from '56 to '63 Newcastle was part of Durham University, but it was —
Runcorn:— the largest part.
Runcorn:And so there was a physics department at Durham and a geology department at Durham, and a physics department in Newcastle, geology department at Durham. But I had close relations with Durham. Rochester, being appointed a professor there of physics, and I knew the geologists very well, and so the two universities continued to work closely together. The professor of geology, when I first went there, was Dunham [?], who became director of the geological survey, and he was actually, in the development of geophysics, he asked me to go and talk to his department, (???) developments in geophysics, and I think his department was the first geology department I ever talked to. He was — he'd been a student there, and a famous geologist and Arthur Holmes [?].
Doel:I wanted to ask your opinion of Arthur Holmes.
Runcorn:Well, unfortunately I didn't know him well. He introduced himself at a committee meeting in the Royal Society, and I was appointed a member of the national committee and purely a rather formal body, and when I went to the first meeting (???) I suppose a member for some years, and he came up to me and introduced himself. But he was then retired and he was not very well, and he was rather recluse, and unfortunately I never got to know him like I got to know Dunham and — And that was a great pity, because had thought a great deal of course about continental drift. And of course he was alive to the importance of geophysics through radioactive dating. And when I mentioned Rutherford, I think it's important to note that Rutherford was interested in geophysics. I heard that from Chadwick, and again of course it went back to Rutherford's involvement in radioactive dating in the age of the earth.
Doel:Yes indeed. When you think back to that period of time, were there any discussions that were memorable involving Holmes' work and the idea of drift from that time? Female: Do you need to get set up for your class pretty soon?
Doel:I know. We've been talking about that.
Female:You're in Room 406 —
Female:And it's Geology 418 is the number of the course.
Female:And Gail says there's slide projectors right behind her desk, and that's on the fourth floor. So if you come to me before you go, I'll go help you get that all set up in your room, okay?
Runcorn:Yeah, yes, alright. Well, I'll go across at a quarter past. Holmes' book, The Principals of Physical Geology, was quite well known, and the fact that he talks in the book about continental drift and (???) Blackett, and I also knew the book. It was a very good one, readable and very well illustrated. You've probably seen the first edition. Rather better than the second edition, I think. But I often asked, you know, why we didn't get more interested in what of course eventually became sea floor spreading [?]. And because of course in Holmes' book there is a tentative idea of what happens in the ocean basins when the continents move apart, and it really was a forerunner of Hesse's [?] idea of sea floor spreading. But our attention was rather fixed on the paleomagnetism — the paleomagnetic record — in the council [?]. So I don't recall ever — and it's extraordinary now, and with the benefit of hindsight — I don't recall any discussion with Blackett or Baad [?] or my students.
Doel:It just did not come up.
Runcorn:It didn't come up. And I have a vague recollection of wondering what happened to the ocean floor when the continents moved, and I think I — insofar as I thought about it — I kind of thought that the continent just moved however and the — Now, there's a very interesting sentence in Jeffrees' [?] The Earth, which, if I talk to Jeffrees about it, or if we'd analyzed it, we would have undoubtedly got interested in what eventually became sea floor spreading, and Jeffrees' argument against the continental drift of course was partly skepticism about the interpretation of the data, such as the data on the paleoclimatology. But he had a mechanical argument, and in The Earth he says something like this, he said, "If the continents are really moving through the ocean floor, you can make two hypotheses about the ocean floor: either that it is rigid, or that it is plastic. If it is rigid, then the continents can't [?] move, although if they are being pushed against this rigid plate that would explain the mountain, the mountain belts."
Runcorn:So of course he said that Wagner's [?] idea that these mountains were the consequence of continental drift is really saying that the ocean floor is rigid, and therefore the continents can't move. On the other hand, if you take the other hypothesis that the continents are — that the continents are rigid but the ocean floor is plastic, then the continents pushing against this yielding substance wouldn't buckle, and so there'd be no mountains, and the ocean floor would be flat because it couldn't — I mean, I think he was thinking of the ocean ridges — it couldn't support the mountains in the ocean floor.
Runcorn:Now, you know, I've expanded what Jeffrees said, but it's just a few sentences in The Earth, and it's obvious — well, Hesse never mentions this, and I don't think that Arthur Holmes mentions this, but obviously if Jeffrees had been favorable to the hypothesis of continental drift and then had gone on to follow the logic, he'd have got sea floor spreading.
Doel:Yes. That's a very interesting observation.
Runcorn:It is very interesting, and I mean to just write, I've got to write a little account of the controversy about continental drift for the European journal, The European Union of Geosciences. And I thought that I would refer to that, because it is very interesting, and nobody seems to have noticed that there was a tendency after play tectonics developed, there was a tendency among the young people I had, (???) referring to Jeffrees as a silly old fool, and of course most people have I think thought of Jeffrees as being a person who just ceased to be interested in the development of geophysics. But he was more than that. He was a great thinker, even when he was wrong.
Doel:I that's also an interesting observation. Unfortunately, we do need to bring this interview to a close.
Doel:But as we said yesterday, we will of course, and it will be on the tape, not make the tape available to anyone or its transfer without your express knowledge and approval.
Doel:Thank you very much, and we will continue. [tape off, then back on...] We are continuing our interview. It is still the 17th of September, 1993, in Fairbanks, Alaska. We were talking about the mid-1950s earlier this morning, and as you mentioned it was in 1956 that, as you began to develop the paleontology of the electrical data from North America and saw the parallel tracks that you became convinced that what you had evidence for was in fact continental drift, and —
Doel:I was wondering what reactions you heard at that time that you began developing, began leaning towards the drift itself — from either Americans or Europe [?].
Runcorn:(???) did a talk at UCLA. That must have been —
Doel:That preceded —
Runcorn:— very soon after —
Doel:After. Aha. Okay.
Runcorn:— we got those observations.
Doel:So you had already announced at that meeting your acceptance drift itself? That's what I wanted to be sure of.
Runcorn:In the colloquium. Yes, yes, yes.
Runcorn:Yes, because that was, it was interesting you see that while we talked about (???) wandering [?] and of course the track from both Europe and North America, kind of circle around the North Pacific Basin, and people like Walter Bucher for example, or O. T. Jones in England, there was another senior geologist who was sympathetic to what we were doing but wasn't at all a continental drifter, and (???) kind of happy with the idea that somehow the earth had been rotated relative to the axis of rotation, and they found it of course much more appealing than continental drift. And I remember after I had begun to realize that the paleo (???) evidence was providing evidence for continental drift, I began to realize that the assumptions you had to make when you talked about polo [?] wandering, were really the same assumptions about, oh, what we would now call geodata mix [?] —
Runcorn:That you have to make in accepting continental drift. And the two of course are that creep [?], solid-state creep, is important over the long term in materials such as most of the earth's mantle, which are temperatures over half melting temperature that the crust of course being cooler than that does behave like a rigid solid over geological times. So, you have to accept the importance of creep or plasticity as I think many people would have called it then, because to get polar wandering it can only occur if the Equatorial bulge — which of course stabilizes and defines the axis of rotation [?] — if that will re-orientate itself so that — I talk about this a lot in connection with the moon now, because the impact basins, the really big ones, occur near the Equator and they produce a hole. So the axis of maximum moment of inertia after an impact changes a little bit, not much, and then the body wobbles until it settles down to rotating about its new axis of maximum moment of inertia. But then the Equatorial Bulge is now not at 90 degrees to axis of rotation —
Runcorn:And I say, when I'm explaining this, that if the body is rigid nothing further happens and the polar wandering is very small. But if the moon can deform, because the centrifugal forces are trying to reorientate the bulge. Then of course the process continues until the moon is reoriented through about 90 degrees and the basin is at the pole. And so you know I began to realize when we started talking about continental drift that continental drift and polar wandering both relied on the same principal. One was creep and the other of course was some motions inside the earth which redistributed mass.
Doel:When you're talking about your work on the moon involving the distribution of lunar seas, this is more recent research, but not then —
Runcorn:Yes. Yes. I mean, this is the result really of when the moon rocks — Well, we proposed we would study the rock magnetism of the moon rocks. We were surprised and puzzled by the fact that they had (???) magnetization. The moon of course today has no field.
Doel:Has no field.
Runcorn:So the 60,000-dollar question was, what was the origin of the field which magnetized the moon rocks, and there were similar controversies of course over the magnetism of the moon. But I think most people now accept that the moon has a small core that in the very early history — we're talking about 3 billion to 4 billion years ago — the convection in the molten iron core was sufficiently vigorous to produce quite a strong magnetic field which magnetized the lavas which flowed out on the moon and of course preserved the record of this ancient field. So there are many interesting parallels between the development of terrestrial paleomagnetism and the development of lunar paleomagnetism. But, going back to your question, of course I think it is correct to say that geological opinion was reasonably happy with polar wandering. They were less happy with continental drift.
Doel:Yes, yes. I was curious if you had at that time discussion about continental drift with people who were directly involved in the question, like Louis Slichter or Walter Martin [?].
Runcorn:You mean with those geologists —?
Doel:Geologists about drift. Yes. Did it come up? Was that something that you were talking about or soon after that?
Runcorn:Well, I naturally came across geologists who were convinced that continental drift was impossible. There was a book (???). And you know, he'd written a great work in which he tried to deduce the, or distill geological information into a number of laws about the behavior of the earth, and I forget — It was really a book about tectonics and —
Doel:Right. This is from the 1930s, this book.
Runcorn:Yes, yes. It was republished, and he of course gave me a copy and talked to me a lot about it. And he'd come to the rather definite conclusion that the global pattern of geology fitted the ability of continents. But that book of course showed that he thought of the earth globally, which of course many geologists didn't do. He was ahead of his time. And I remember him saying — he was a man quite witty and very good humored — and he said, "Well, look, you're becoming to get evidence that the continents have drifted on the basis of paleomagnetism which involves some steps of logic," and he said, "I have spent my life trying to understand the laws of tectonics and I've gone through the geological records step by step, but I've concluded that the continental drift is impossible." And when one gets into this situation where two people from different vantage points come to opposite conclusions, it's obviously important to go back and trace the steps in one's argument. And then he smiled and said, "And human nature being what it is, I would prefer you to do your reevaluation first." I didn't know many people — I knew the book (???). I didn't know many geologists who strongly advocated continental drift, but Blackett on a visit to Australia — I can't tell you when this was, but it would have been in perhaps the late 50s — met Karay [?] and came back very enthusiastic about Karay's argument's for drift. I remember quite early on the Dutch geologists of course and geophysicists invited me over to talk and —
Doel:Are you thinking particularly of V(???)?
Runcorn:V(???) Miners. And Dutch geology in geophysics was very good at the time and the Shell Company used to have a little meeting every month in their headquarters in (???), and I talked to that several times. And V(???) Miners was — well, they were all very interesting to talk to, but I don't think any of them was an advocate of continental drift, but they were not like some senior geologists and dismissive of the idea. And I remember going to Cologne very early in this history and the professor at Cologne was very interested in paleoclimatology and he was, while not an advocate of continental drift, saw that something had to be, something rather drastic had to be invoked to understand the (???) you know in India —
Runcorn:And so he was quite keen on polar wandering.
Doel:Mm-hmm [affirmative]. Did you talk with V(???) Miners also about convection in the core? That was an interest of his.
Runcorn:Yes. Now, I was going to say that V(???) Miners was quite an influence on me because he had come to the conclusion that convection was occurring in the earth's interior. And there are many paradoxes in this subject, because V(???) Miners you know didn't accept continental drift until perhaps the last year of his life. He was of course very interested in our paleomagnetic work, but he was not convinced of continental drift. He had written a paper quite early on on polar wandering for (???).
Runcorn:I think that his interest in convection arose from the early gravity work that he did which, where he showed this strong departure from isostasy over the deep trenches — in Java and — And he realized — he was an engineer by trade, and he thought of what we now call lithosphere as a plate, you know, which could be bent, and he realized that something had to pull down the plate into the mantle and keep it there against the natural isostatic [?]—
Runcorn:And in one of those early books about the results of gravity at sea, he has arrows north and south of the Java Trench [?] showing what he called the substratum currents pulling down. And then later on, when I knew him, he'd solved the problem, which Jeffrees did too, and later on Chandrasekhar, what cell size would you expect in convection in a spherical shell. And he concluded, and Chandrasekhar of course later did this in a more sophisticated way, but he concluded what all one knew from laboratory experiments on (???) layers that convection cells tend to take a shape which depends on the depth of the fluid, and so when you think about that for the earth's mantle it's not surprising that V(???) Miners found that three cells, four cells or five cells were most probable in the mantle. And expressed in spherical harmonics [?], it means that the third degree harmonic, the fourth, and the fifth were the most likely to settle down.
Runcorn:And V(???) Miners was also aware that it was pointed out in the last century that the continents are antipodal to ocean. And I think only 5 percent of the continents are antipodal to a continent. For example, the opposite of Australia is the North Atlantic. Well, geologists had speculated about the meaning of this in the last century, but what V(???) Miners did was to take some analyses, spheric and harmonic analyses made by Pray [?] in connection with (???) and to cut a long story short, he showed that this distribution of the conference could be well represented by spherical harmonics of the third and fourth and fifth degree. Of course there's the Pacific Hemisphere is antipodal to most of the continents so there's a first degree harmonic coming in as well, but of the others the third, fourth and fifth were important, and so V(???) Miners said that this fundamental process of convection in the mantle fixes the positions of the continents to descending currents. And then he said that he couldn't see any reason why the convection pattern should change, and therefore he used that as an argument against continental drift. He was saying that the positions of the continents are fixed by a fundamental process.
Runcorn:And that was why he — Where the paradox arises of course is that when I visited him he would listen politely to the emerging paleomagnetic evidence for continental drift and then he would say, "Well, now let us turn our attention to the important question of mantle currents," that's what he called convection currents in the mantle, and of course at that time I was not really beginning to think about mantle convection as a cause of continental drift. But it was interesting you see that he was talking about the basic phenomena behind continental drift and yet using it as an argument against continental drift.
Doel:Yes. But that was the particular constellation of ideas that he held. Yeah.
Runcorn:But he was much more of a physicist than Jeffrees. And there was another interesting paradox you probably know, that Jeffrees looked around for an argument in favor of the rigidity of the mental [?], which of course would have been fatal to continental drift, and he became interested in the moon, which has a non-hypesthetic shape, and what you'll find — I think I've referred to this in papers — that in the search for a similar departure from hypesthetic shape of the earth, Jeffrees discovered the long wavelength and dulations of the do-oyd [?], which of course were not believed until the satellites discovered them.
Runcorn:But Jeffrees taught a lot about that, and in my filtrans [?] paper of 1965, I super pose [?] the first satellite gee-oid on Jeffrees' gee-oid based on surface observations, and I say, "Well, this proves that Jeffrees was right," and therefore of course Jeffrees' explanation in terms of the rigidity of the mantle had to be wrong if continental drift occurred, and that of course leads to the argument that convection distorts the body and of course even now it's still being, this difficulty is still in interpreting it, but obviously the gee-oid is telling you about the density differences in the mantle which are driving convection and therefore it ought to be possible in principle to derive the convection pattern in the mantle and relate it to the motions of the plates from the gee-oid. Anyway —
Doel:Once again, frustratingly, we have to stop.
Doel:And we shall continue this certainly at some point ... you indicated was Darwin.
Runcorn:And Charles Darwin's grandson. And he was of course, had been a theoretical physicist, and he used to come to our (???), you know, take part and ask questions.
Doel:He would have been rather elderly by that point, wouldn't he?
Doel:He was rather elderly at that point, wasn't he?
Runcorn:Well, I suppose he was in his late sixties.
Doel:Oh, only that.
Runcorn:He'd come back to Cambridge to retire.
Doel:Did you feel, during the period at Cambridge, in the early and mid-1950s that you were getting sufficient support from the university to do what you wanted to do?
Runcorn:Yes. Although of course what was not going to be possible at Cambridge was to have staff members, because the department of geophysics was very small. So I had a lot of research teams, but there wasn't going to be a possibility at Cambridge of building up the department of geophysics.
Runcorn:And that's of course what I could do when I went to Newcastle.
Doel:Alright. When you talked to Bullard [?], did he talk to you about the reasons that he decided to leave Cambridge for Toronto in the late forties?
Runcorn:Yes. Because they wouldn't make him a professor. He was a reader, and I think he felt that, quite rightly, that Cambridge was rather slow in recognizing — And it was partly of course due to the fact that the department of geophysics was just a small research department and if it had played a bigger role in undergraduate teaching probably there wouldn't have been so much difficulty in getting a chair. There was a tendency to think that the chair should be in teaching, larger teaching departments. As far as I know, Bullard was a little bit restless as a personality and life in Britain the 1940s was a bit grim, you know, and I remember someone saying that they thought that Bullard had left because he thought the country was finished. So, but undoubtedly he felt that opportunities at Toronto would be greater than he had at Cambridge.
Doel:Did he later talk to you about his experience at Toronto?
Runcorn:Oh yes, yes.
Doel:Wilson was there at the time, (???) Wilson.
Runcorn:Yes, (???) Wilson was there. And but too there was Rutherford, the junior at the time, and I think people were pretty happy to have got a person like Bullard to head the department of physics. But Toronto was a rather provincial city and both Terry [?] and his wife I think were a bit disappointed at the kind of society they found themselves in.
Doel:Mm-hmm [affirmative]. When you think back to the early 1950s, were there any courses that were not being offered in geophysics at Cambridge that you thought should be available?
Runcorn:Well, a course was taught by Bullard and then later on by Ben Brown [?] to the final year physicist as an option, like the one we did in Manchester. But as far as I can recall, there was not a course in geophysics offered to the geologists and I remember at one stage making that proposal. I think perhaps a few lectures, you know — not a course, but just a few lectures — were given to the geologists. And I remember advocating and proposing a proper course. And I remember the professor of geology telling me that what I had proposed was very interesting and he would like his students, if they had time, to know about those things. But then he said, with quite a straight face, "But I'm afraid that all the courses we do are essential, see." So I think (???) — well, of course now there is the integrated department, but at that time there were these three separate departments, sedimentary and ontological [?] geology and then petrology and mineralogy, and then geophysics, and the contacts between them were not very close, and really it was not very satisfactory. But it had been — this situation had existed for a long time.
Doel:So it would have been uncommon say for someone in the geology department to come to the colloquia that you had organized in geophysics.
Runcorn:Well, I mean they did come, and I, as the organizer of the colloquia I did try and encourage them, and I had quite good relations with one or two people in mineralogy and petrology. The professor there was a great power in Cambridge University and was regarded as rather dictatorial, but he really was very nice to me. But to his staff he was rather dictatorial — you know, the old style of professor. And but he was encouraging in a way, because he thought that geophysics was a good scientific subject, whereas he looked at the geology department, you know, with a somewhat jaundiced eye. And his two or three people, there was one man called Henry and the other Egrell [?]. Egrell worked on the moon rocks a lot later on. They were always ready to talk, and you know I went over there and talked with them, and they came to our colloquia from time to time. And one of my colleagues in geophysics, Hill, Morris Hill [?], he did work on the ocean floor, and he had fairly good relations with the professor of geology, W. B. R. King [?], because I think King was somewhat interested in what, the new methods of sounding that (???) I think King was particularly interested in the English Channel. So there was interest, but it was not a close collaboration.
Doel:Mm-hmm [affirmative]. That's helpful. That makes that clearer. Were there any really unusually memorable experiences that you recall from the colloquia series where certain new ideas seemed to come together or that people felt quite influenced by discussions?
Runcorn:From the colloquia.
Doel:Yeah, from the ones that you had organized.
Runcorn:Well, we announced our early paleomagnetic results in the colloquia, and at one stage you know we believed that the — well, this was when we only had data from England — we believed that the observations could be explained by the reorientation of the earth relative to the axis of rotation, what was loosely called polar wandering.
Runcorn:And at some stage — perhaps it was a little conference — and Gold [?] had a theory and I had a rather different one, of trying to give a mechanical explanation for this. Gold's idea was published in Nature and created a lot of interest, and the idea was that, I think Gold put it quite graphically by saying that if a fly was walking around on the surface of the earth it would cause the earth to undergo reorientation with respect to the axis of the (???). I gave a similar sort of explanation based upon convection, but I think Gold expressed those views very well, and Gold's paper in Nature was, you know, got quite a lot of, generated quite a lot of interest, and I'm sure that I asked him to talk about it at the colloquia.
Runcorn:Oh, the most memorable meeting I ever addressed in the early days of paleomagnetism, I was reminiscing about it last week, was in the geology department — well I suppose geology at the Institute of Geophysics at UCLA, Slichter. Of course he invited me over to the states [?], in '52, '53. He asked me to talk about some of the early paleomagnetic evidence. And the geologists there were very hostile to the idea of continental drift, and I think it was a group of paleontologists who had concluded from the zonation of fossils that the (???) (???) remained near the present pole so that paleomagnetic work did upset them. And then the people got very upset at that meeting I remember.
Doel:And this was at Louis Slichter's institute, and it involved geologists who had attended as well as the —?
Runcorn:Yes, well, I think they certainly were very numerous in the meeting, and one of them accused me of inventing the results. (???) and it was particularly the results on the (???) seemed to them to be zoned. I wrote to them later — well, there are a few papers about the distribution of (???) in fossils by Stayley [?] and I wrote a reply. But this was in the days you see when first of all many geologists were skeptical (???) rocks recorded faithfully the direction of the (???) magnetic field, and certainly when there was skepticism I think among a lot of people outside geomagnetism, skepticism that the average field of the earth had been a dipole along the axis of rotation throughout time. It was known of course from Osler's [?] work that was the situation in the tertiary [?], but many people who were not convinced with the argument that I presented that this was almost certain to have been so throughout the lifetime of the earth because the same basic dominance of the (???) force [?] of the motion (???) must have existed throughout time. Female: Excuse me. I have to leave to pick up my car. It's getting snow tires on it.
Runcorn:I'm sorry? Female: I have to go pick up my car. Just a couple messages . . . [Secretary speaks to Runcorn for a few minutes about daily business] . . .
Doel:How did Louis Slichter respond to your arguments?
Runcorn:He was very interested, and he was embarrassed by that meeting and said afterwards, you know, geologists are an ignorant lot. Of course you see, he was I suppose a mathematician who had come into geophysics and was a little bit dismissive of geologists because they didn't understand the mathematical and physical arguments. But I remember years after that colloquium being on the beach at Santa Monica swimming, and someone came up to me and said, "You wouldn't remember me, but I was a student and I'd just come from high school and I came to that colloquium you gave and I remembered it ever since because of the hostility which was generated." And then he made a very interesting remark. He said, "You know, I didn't know anything about continental drift, and I came to the lecture and I listened to your presentation, and I couldn't judge whether the evidence in favor of drift was compelling or not, but what amazed me was the emotional response." You see, this was a student from school. He didn't know that scientific (???) sometimes become emotional.
Doel:Indeed. Often they become — When did you first become aware of the idea of continental drift? Was that something that you had acquaintance with from the beginning of your time in geophysics?
Runcorn:That is something that Henry Frankel asked me, and Ted Irving [?] said that he had heard about it and read a lot about it in high school. I told you of course that geology wasn't taught, and Ted said that it was his geography mistress who told them about it, and then I think many people heard about continental drift at school from the geography teacher. I don't recall that, and it's curious that I don't recall it being mentioned in any of these rather popular scientific publications that I talked about. And that may simply reflect the fact that in the 1930s it was viewed as a speculation which had been put forward and never attracted support and was not really science. And, but, and I certainly, as I told you, didn't know very much about geology until I got involved in paleomagnetism, but I think I may have heard about continental drift at a British Association meeting. Because I went to one while I was Manchester to give a talk about the mine experiment, and it was in Brighton, and it would be quite easy to find out when the British Association met in Brighton, somewhere around '48 or '49, and it would be very interesting to know whether they had a symposium on continental drift, because certainly the British Association, rather like your triple S, they kept discussion on continental drift alive in Britain, and I can't tell you how many they had over the years, you know, from the early 20s. It would be very interesting to look up. But there was more of a (???), and Jeffrees says somewhere that he got tired of being asked to go and give the geophysical side and this thing to the biologists, because the biologists were more keen on continental drift than anyone else, and certainly Jeffrees had been asked — he was a keen attender of the British Association, and so he would have been asked. And I think the meeting that I heard a debate about continental drift at the British Association. But the motive in getting interested in paleomagnetism was not to test continental drift but rather to find out how the earth's field read with time, and then of course (???) came up, and then I remember in 1952 in my first visit to the States, going to the Grand Canyon with some friends and thinking, "This will be an ideal place to do paleomagnetic work if results of our work in Britain continue to look promising."
Doel:Right. Did your trip to the States come about because you had in mind to do paleomagnetic work, or was it for other reasons?
Runcorn:To go to the Grand Canyon?
Runcorn:Oh, just sightseeing. But of course I was very much, I had very much in mind that it was important for me to learn a little about the geology of the western states. And of course in those early days we were very worried that in taking a sample of rock if you're in a restricted outcrop it's not very, it's not very difficult to take a sample from a piece of the strata that's moved.
Doel:Mm-hmm [affirmative]. Exactly. Yeah.
Runcorn:That worried — It seems silly now, but it was very worrying that we needed to know that the sample had been in the place that it was when it was magnetized. And so the Grand Canyon has the (???) in Scotland had the great merit in my eyes that you could see very clearly the environment in which you were taking the sample.
Doel:Were there any others in the United States who were becoming interested in paleomagnetism at that time?
Runcorn:Well, Graham, and Louis Slichter was interested but never took the steps to get paleomagnetism going at his institute, but he did do something very helpful, and that was to organize a summer meeting in which I was invited. In fact I really did a lot of the organization for him. And Verhoogen came and Verhoogen began to be interested in paleomagnetism, and I think it was really through Verhoogen that Cox and Doell got interested in the subject.
Doel:Mm-hmm [affirmative]. Was that in 1952 or '53, that meeting that you organized —?
Doel:This was the '54 meeting.
Doel:Was this the symposium that was ultimately sponsored by the AGU, or was that yet another —?
Runcorn:No, the —
Doel:This was separate, I believe.
Runcorn:No, the symposium by the AGU was the previous year, '53.
Doel:Was out of '53, thank you.
Runcorn:And then I took the opportunity of being invited to go over to the Slichter meeting to make the first collection in the Grand Canyon. So that was '54.
Doel:Okay. Was the '53 meeting influential for you in your research at the time?
Runcorn:Yes. Because of course I met a lot of American divasis [?] and —
Doel:Birch was there from Harvard, for example?
Runcorn:Oh yes, yes.
Doel:And Brower [?] ?
Runcorn:And in order to get me over, Walter Bucher, who was president of the AGU and professor of geology at Columbia organized the whole lecture tour, and that was when I first met Maurice Ewing and Birch and — Well I had met Birch I think at the IUGG. But the tour (???) was the first opportunity I had really to draw together some of the different developments that we were engaged in in Cambridge.
Doel:Right. That was specifically focused on the interior of the earth.
Runcorn:Of the core, yeah, yeah. Yes. Bucher's idea was to have someone talk about the mantle, Francis Birch did that, and someone talk about the core. But I think there was someone else.
Doel:There were a number of other speakers. Brower had talked about lunar rotation and the —
Runcorn:Yes, that's right.
Doel:Let me pause for a moment. Did that lead to any sustained contact with people like Birch or Brower or others who were there?
Runcorn:Well, although I didn't work with any of them, Bower was of course interested in the astronomical data concerning the variations in the (???) —
Runcorn:And we recognized that that was important information concerning the interchange of (???) between the core and the mantle, and it still I think remains a very basic piece of evidence for motions in the core — almost a kind of starting point to a discussion of many problems concerning the core. I've even used the arguments about the irregular fluctuations in the length of the day in connection with trying to understand why when the dipole rotates to 180 degrees it seems to prefer two longitudes on the earth through the Americas or 180 degrees away through Australia and Asia.
Doel:Did you have any contact with Rupert Vilch [?] at the time?
Doel:Rupert Vilch, who was working on the interior of the —?
Runcorn:Yes, because Walter Bucher set up this little lecture tour to raise [?] the funds for me to come over —
Runcorn:And Brower [?] lost and he set me up with this lecture at Yale.
Runcorn:And when I got there he said, "There's an interesting astronomer you must meet," and so I think I stayed in the college that Vilch was master of, was he?
Doel:I'm not certain. That could well be.
Runcorn:Anyway, I met him there, and of course I heard about his ideas about the interior of the nature [?] planets. Although at that time of course this seemed very far from my interests, but I don't think anybody then suggested did they that Jupiter would have a magnetic field because it had, according to Vilch it had a metallic hydrogen core. But you know they could have done, someone could have said one of the consequences of this is that we ought to look for a magnetic field in Jupiter before you believe the (???) theory. But that would have I think by most people been considered a wild speculation. It was very much later that they (???) noise from Jupiter provided evidence for a magnetic field.
Runcorn:I don't know much about Vilch. What was his original (???) ? He was an astronomer, of course.
Doel:Mm-hmm [affirmative]. A stellar astronomer who was interested very broadly in his own training in astrochemical aspects of stellar evolution and planetary evolution as a function of that and had worked for example with Henry Norris Russell [?] at Princeton —
Doel:— when he had immigrated, and became interested in planetary atmospheric geochemistry. It's arranged very much across the both areas.
Runcorn:Where did he come from originally?
Doel:I think it was Gottingham [?], but I'm not certain. I think Gottingham. But I'll have to check to be sure.
Doel:Of course we may have to bring this to a close within a few minutes, so that we get done before five.
Doel:And I would like to continue tomorrow morning if we get a chance, for an hour or so.
Runcorn:Well, could it be tomorrow afternoon?
Doel:It's possible. I'll see if I can—
Runcorn:Because I've got this lecture at 11:30. Well, you could come at 9:00 I think.
Doel:Okay. I think an hour might cover things quite well.
Doel:One thing I was very interested about was that about 1955 you had gotten funding from the Geological Society of America and the Museum of Northern Arizona to fund some of the research on paleomagnetism. How did that come about, that the —?
Runcorn:I decided I wanted to collect in the Grand Canyon, and I'd been — Walter Bucher had arranged for me to stay in the headquarters of the Geological Society of America during my visit to New York in 1953. And they introduced me to the executive secretary, whose name I—
Doel:Was that Aldrich at the time?
Runcorn:Aldrich, that's right, Henry Aldrich. And he was a very remarkable man I think, because he had wide interests, and he said to me — well, I suppose I had said that I may want to try next year to collect in the Grand Canyon, and he said, "Well, let me know and I can get a grant for you."
Doel:Hmm. Very interesting.
Runcorn:He was that sort of person you know. "I will tell the Council that they have to give you a grant," you see.
Runcorn:And so the grant for field work became available, and when I arrived, I suppose it was before the Slichter meeting, two months in advance, he said to me, "Have you got a field assistant for your trip?" So I said no, and he said, "Oh, don't go walking in the wilds of Arizona without someone to help you," and so he advised me to write to the chairman of the geology department of the University of Arizona, which I did. It turned out to be John Lance [?] and John Lance died just recently, was quite a remarkable man. He ended up in the NSF. But he had a very great knowledge, breadth, and he'd gone to become the director of research for the summer at the Museum of Northern Arizona, which of course had been set up by Dr. Colson [?] as a, first of all as a museum for his archaeological interests. But then they took off [?] and found that other scientists wanted to come in the summer and equipped it with (???) and lab and — And so Lance told me that he was going to be at the museum in the summer and then I should use that as my base. And of course, that was how I had the association with what has really turned out to be quite a remarkably productive museum. And of course I got the help of a student. And there was a place where there was all this very interesting and lively discussion, and —
Doel:The museum, you mean?
Runcorn:John Lance remembered a lot about the early days of paleomagnetism, (???) going there.
Doel:Did Aldrich play any role in your publishing some of those results in the Bulletin?
Runcorn:Yes. (???) published some of the early papers in the Bulletin of the Geo (???).
Doel:What kind of reaction did you get from those papers? Did it come close to that at that meeting at —?
Runcorn:People were quite interested, and I think the people who had worked in, or were working in paleomagnetism, like Cox and Doell, but not Graham who — John Graham had this rather curious negative attitude and was, ah, I think it's a recognizable type in science, a very quick when presented by an intriguing result to think of ways of explaining it away, you know. But the people who were in paleomagnetism were quite interested, and of course you know if you are not working in the field then you are presented by results which seem to point to some rather conclusion, you of course have a tendency to say, "Well, that's very interesting, but I'd like to see more results. I'd like to see confirmation."
Doel:Mm-hmm [affirmative]. Right.
Runcorn:And that was the attitude. Quite earlier I was asked to go and talk about this, the early work, and I did an APG tour you know.
Doel:Mm-hmm [affirmative]. Yes, yes.
Runcorn:Visited a lot of labs. And people were very interested, and I gave a course of lectures at Cal Tech at a visiting professor in '58. And Frank Press [?] was there, and (???) were quite interested.
Doel:You didn't hear any negative reactions anew from geologists at that point?
Runcorn:Well, a little bit, but as I said, the people were very interested in this new technique, which was (???) tells you about the earth's magnetic field in the past. Those who didn't like continental drift or didn't see how it fitted into their own disciplines were a bit inclined to say, "Oh, this paleomagnetic data is probably telling us something very interesting about the earth's fields in the past and it's rather complex behavior which is giving apparent evidence for continental drift but probably is to be eventually explained in terms of more complex behavior of the field." And you'll see in some of the early papers this question, you know, or this worry had to be met. And I wrote one paper in which I showed that the most plausible kind of complex field couldn't explain the global data.
Runcorn:But now you see people take the dipole model of the mean earth's magnetic field for granted, but at that time it was a really fundamental issue: On what grounds can one say with confidence that this fundamental hypothesis, that the mean magnetic field of the earth's dipole along the axis of rotation can be applied throughout the geological record?
Doel:Mm-hmm [affirmative]. Indeed, indeed.
Runcorn:And the fact that it was so in the tertiary was not at all convincing to some people. Tertiary was rather strange. (???) a lot of volcanism in the (???) traps and —
Doel:Exactly. And the —
Runcorn:You know, it was possible to in those days, for people to say something special about —
Doel:About that, that — Yeah, exactly. There are a lot of things I want to cover after 1956, including your permanent employment at the University at Durham, but two quick questions maybe to end up if we can today. You published a paper on stellar magnetism in 1955 which seemed to be a review of much of the information that had been coming since the forties —
Runcorn:This was in Advances in Physics.
Runcorn:Yes. And you find then in that review that I (???) horns [?] with some of the difficulties people saw accepting the (???).
Doel:Right. I was wondering what kind of a reception that that paper had. Were you in contact with the astronomers who were doing the stellar magnetic work? Did that come about then?
Runcorn:Yes. I think Mott was the editor of Advances in Physics. And he asked me to do this, and I must have said to him that it would be desirable to have one paper on the mineralogy and petrology of the minerals responsible for magnetism, because many people said, "There, that's the key to understanding this subject."
Runcorn:And then I said, "We should ask Nell [?] to write a paper about fundamental physics of the magnetization principles." And then I said, "I will talk about the observational evidence." So that's the genesis of that.
Runcorn:And it was mainly written in '54 of course.
Doel:Right, right. One other interesting appointment that you had was in the spring and summer of 1955 when you were at the Dominion Observatory.
Doel:How did that come about?
Runcorn:Well, Dr. Beals, the Dominion astronomer had in that institute developed a strong geophysics group.
Runcorn:And he had many contacts in Britain, in Cambridge, and he asked me to go there and start paleomagnetism. And I think it was partly that he was wanting anyway to broaden his group of geophysicists, but he was also beginning to get interested in beechrot [?] impact craters —
Runcorn:— and he thought this is another technique besides gravity and seismology which might have relevance to this question. And I got things going there, and then a French Canadian, John Rae [?], continued the work. He died some few years ago, rather young (???). But I remember him saying to me that for quite a while he found Beals very unsympathetic to doing anything except measuring the samples from bore holes in these presumed meteorological craters. So John couldn't for a while get going on the survey of the different, of the magnetization directions of the different geological periods. He had to —
Doel:He had to work on the crater program.
Doel:That's interesting. Of course it was in the late fifties that Beals was doing that first survey of possible craters and was —
Runcorn:Yes. And I remember you see, it was very interesting. He had a very bright group of physicists. When I arrived, they all said to me, "You know, our director is a very distinguished astronomer, but he is rather in his dotage [?] because he got interested and it's almost like a hobby in these meteorite impact craters." They didn't understand the importance. And of course we didn't until later on.
Indeed. Well I'm looking forward to continuing this tomorrow, but we should bring this to an end now, and we will of course — and this should go on the tape — not make the tape available to anyone, or its transcript, without your express knowledge and approval as defined in the permission forms you will receive.
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