Oral History Transcript — Dr. S. K. Runcorn
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Interview with Dr. S. K. Runcorn
S. K. Runcorn; September 17, 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.
Session I | Session II
Doel:We need to check once again just to make sure that we are recording properly. I think that sounds good. This is Ron Doel, and this is a continuing interview with Keith Runcorn. Today's date is the 17th of September, 1993. I need to make a correction. I said it was the 17th yesterday, and we advanced ourselves one day. It is the 17th in fact today.
Doel:One question that I wanted to ask you about was your decision to go to the University of Durham in 1956 when you had ended your Cambridge appointment. How did that come about?
Runcorn:Well, I could have stayed at Cambridge as assistant director of research, but I was rather keen to build up a department of my field in geophysics, and the — of course I wasn't in charge of the department at Cambridge, and the head, Ben Brown, didn't envisage of course devoting the whole department to geomagnetism. I mean, he had people working on gravity and Morris Hill of course was expanding work on the expiration of the ocean floor by seismic methods, and so clearly if I wanted to build up a staff, a faculty, and I had to go a physics department. And I did discuss it with Blackett and Bullard, who encouraged me, and I applied for the chair at Newcastle. And obviously was strongly backed by Bullard and Blackett and Chadwick. I was appointed, but this was a rather new departure to a geophysicist who was a professor of physics, and I know there were hesitations at Newcastle.
Doel:Who were the main people at Newcastle at the time in the —?
Runcorn:Well, Professor Rushbrook [?] was professor of theoretical physics, and he was interested in my field. Of course we got on very well when I went there. But I know that there were some people at Newcastle who would have liked — solid-state was the (???) — and in fact they offered the chair to a very distinguished person in Oxford (???) temperature [?] physics, and another person, and they both turned it down, so that's how I got it.
Runcorn:But I make those points because Newcastle was doing something rather novel in appointing a geophysicist to the chair of physics, and of course it illustrates the view which was of course widely held by people like Blackett and Bullard that — and other people — that physics should remain a broad subject so that astronomy and geophysics were proper subjects to be done in physics departments and in mathematics departments. So there wasn't then the view that all geophysics should be united with geology. Now that has become the more popular view today in the States and in Britain, but I think that many geophysicists are now rather regretting that by having these earth science departments the subject loses contact with basic physics and —
Doel:It's been harder to maintain the contacts with the physicists and mathematicians.
Runcorn:Yes, yes, yes.
Runcorn:And so it's relevant I think to the American Institute of Physics of course that something is lost when geophysics and astronomy and astrophysics are regarded as subjects which should be done either in separate departments or in association with other departments like geology which are remote from physics. And I think it weakens geophysics very much, because if one looks back at all the developments in geophysics, they mostly come from physics, and application of physics. And I think to say that kind of cosmic applications and physics should not be taught in physics departments is also fundamentally wrong from the point of view of physics, and one only needs to look at the history of physics to see that that has not been the way physics is developed.
Doel:Mm-hmm [affirmative]. Indeed. When you were indicating [?] at Newcastle you had close contacts with the mathematicians as well?
Runcorn:Yes. And one of my research students, Paul Roberts in Cambridge, when to work with Chandrasekhar, and then he came back to our department in Newcastle, but in due course became professor of applied mathematics. And one of his close collaborators, Andrew Saladez [?], now the head of the applied mathematics department in Newcastle, and from Roberts onwards it's been a very important center of work on the dynamo theory. So relations with mathematics were very close. Oh, thank you very much.
Runcorn:Would you like a tea?
Doel:No, I'm fine, thank you.
Doel:Yeah. Thank you.
Runcorn:Why I emphasize this, is that there has recently been a kind of reorganization of the earth sciences in Britain organized by the University Grants Committee, and they proceeded rather on the basis that there should be combined geophysics and geology departments and this was copying a widespread pattern in the States.
Doel:And this was in the west ten years or so, this —?
Runcorn:(???) within the last, uh, it was about the time I retired from Newcastle five years ago, and I put the (???) view forward which was accepted, but geophysics was an entirely proper subject for research and in physics and mathematics departments and it was fine to have geophysics as part of combined earth science departments, but they shouldn't forget that there was a physics side as well as a geological side to geophysics, and for example I think in Cambridge the welding together of these three separate departments of geophysics, geology and petrology, and has of course resulted in the more fundamental — I would say — the more fundamental physics parts of geophysics being kind of lost, and in fact to address that they've now set up at Cambridge a theoretical geophysics department which really stems from applied mathematics there.
Doel:That's quite interesting.
Runcorn:Yes. I mean I think the relationship of geophysics to applied mathematics, astronomy and geology is a very interesting question, and I said rather jokingly when this discussion was going on that some people, ignorant of the development of geophysics (???) because geology and geophysics both began with geo, they should be in the same department in universities. That was certainly the few of the administrators at Newcastle. And so there is a —
Doel:Did that come about in part because of renewed interest on the part of geologists to (???) geophysics?
Runcorn:Oh yes. Yes. I think you see geologists, particularly after the development of paleomagnetism and the acceptance of continental drift and play tectonics, geologists were made very much more aware that they couldn't neglect geophysics. And I told you of course that I tried to get the professor of geology to introduce a course in geophysics, a proper course, in the geological curriculum, he said it was very interesting and he'd like his students to know about it, but unfortunately there was no room.
Runcorn:And that was the — I think that was a fairly accurate statement of the generally accepted view of geologists, which of course did change very considerably after the development of play tectonics.
Doel:Thinking about this in terms of your visits to UCLA, Slichter's institute, how did the balance between physics and geology seem to you at that time?
Runcorn:Well, of course Slichter was invited to found this institute of geophysics. I think a lot of the enthusiasm came from people like Kaplan. Do you know —?
Runcorn:And he was a rather extrovert man, and he explained that he started the Institute of Geophysics in UCLA and was interim director, and then of course he was in physics and he got Louis Slichter there. Well I don't know the exact details, but certainly he was in Rolomey [?] and I think a lot of the, in the States and elsewhere, a lot of the enthusiasm for setting up geophysics departments came from that direction. And of course people like Kaplan had no real knowledge of geology but felt that geophysics was a subject that could be developed because it obviously was the fundamental basis on which geology rested. And now you've come to ask these questions, I remember you see when the Australian National University was founded. And of course it was founded by Oliphant and Cockroft took a lot of interest, and then the man who, (???), who worked on penicillin (???).
Runcorn:No, he really was a leading light. And I knew (???) very well because he on the fellow of Keyes [?] and he would have known about Jeffrees (???) developing subject of geophysics, and of course so would Oliphant. And so they decided to have a department of geophysics, and I remember Chapman telling me that he had very strongly advised them to appoint an agronomist [?]. I can't remember who it was, but there was of course in Australia, I think mainly in the physics department of Sydney University, work going on and on the ionosphere. And so when Chapman was asked his opinion you see about a professor for that department, of course he envisaged it as the Geophysical Institute (???) envisaged it — mainly as concerned with the ionosphere and the magnetosphere, what we would call now solar terrestrial relationships. So the very strong influence in the early development of departments of geophysics came from that direction. And in the end, Australian of course appointed an applied mathematician, Jaeger, who had no knowledge really of geophysics, and but he was very effective, and his method of developing that department was to go around the world and see what was going on in geophysics, came to Cambridge and saw our work and decided to have paleomagnetism (???) activity. And of course he got Ted Irving, who had just taken his degree with me, and Ted of course built up paleomagnetism there very strongly, and of course on the other, the chemical side of course, Jaeger got Ted Ringwood [?] and they developed geochemistry. Now when you go to Germany of course the earlier geophysics departments like the one in Gottingham, the first director was, first professor was a seismologist.
Runcorn:Weichert. That's right. So I think in the early days, as at Cal Tech and Berkeley and Gottingham seismology was emphasized, and, oh well of course geodesy [?] departments in Germany were — And that developed of course really from the military interests, you know.
Runcorn:Mapping. And but you well can see that later with like Chapman, the solar terrestrial relations became very exciting, and of course Chapman was an early advocate of using rockets to investigate the space outside there. And of course all that is really — pure physics has very little to do with geology. So it's very interesting, the questions you ask about the development of geophysics, and you know the development of the department at Cambridge, do you?
Runcorn:It was a geodesy department, and they set it up. There was another one in Newcastle, there was one in Oxford, and they were set up with a practical purpose — to train severes [?] for India and the colonies.
Doel:Was aided by World War I at that time.
Runcorn:Yes, yes, and the first reader in geodesy at Cambridge was Sir General Lenox-Cynnyngham, who'd worked in the Indian Survey, the Indian Army, (???) the Indian geodesic [?] survey.
Doel:Did you know him when you were —?
Runcorn:Yes, I did.
Doel:What sort of a person was he?
Runcorn:He was a typical English Colonel of the old style. Yes, when I was appointed assistant director of research he invited me to dine at the High Table of Trinity where he was a Fellow, and told me of course about the history of the department and what he was really appointed to teach geodesy to the geographers. And so he was closely in the, it was a separate department but it was really part of the geography department.
Runcorn:And he of course developed research in determination of gravity by pendulum method, and so he had a small lab, which remained, this core pendulum (???) when I was there. But he got a lab boy and then round about 1930 the university gave him a junior appointment to demonstratorship, like an assistant (???)ship, and he appointed Bullard. And it gives you a flavor of the kind of academic life at the time, that he didn't advertise the demonstratorship as we would do now; he told me that he waited until one Sunday evening when Rutherford dined at Trinity, that he waited until he could sit by Rutherford, and so told Rutherford about his work and the fact that he wanted a bright young physicist to be demonstrator, and so Rutherford said, "Why don't you ask Bullard?" And that's how Bullard got into geophysics. And of course the other side of the story, I asked Teddy one day about his disappointment, and he said, "Yes," he said, "I was very dubious indeed about going into geophysics, and so I went to Rutherford and said, 'What would you advise?' and Rutherford said, 'Well I can't think of any other job for you'" — you see, it was the early 1930s, the Depression years. And so that's how Teddy Bullard got into geophysics. And when I went to Cambridge as assistant director of research, I said to Brown, "Well, what do you want me to do?" and he said, "Well, we've never sorted the library out," so of course I got along with my getting geomagnetism going, but I happened to — or perhaps Bullard said that he went to Sir General and said, "What are my duties as demonstrator?" and Sir General said, "Well, you know, we've never sorted out these books." And so of course Bullard was very amused when I told him the same story. They had quite a nice library which, you know, Sir General had got together. And so that was the sort of casual way in which things were done. I suspect the development of the institutes of geodesy and geophysics in Germany was much more professionally organized. But certainly the influence of military needs was very important in the development of geodesy.
Doel:Right, right. Just thinking back to that period of time to the 1950s, what was your impression generally of the American universities that were beginning to develop work in geophysics?
Runcorn:Well, of course they recruited people from England, quite a lot of odd [?] Ph.D.s in Cambridge went to the States. The — I can't tell you when the MIT department started. Of course I knew it very well when Frank Purse [?] went there.
Doel:In the early (???).
Runcorn:But there were a few geologists in the States very well aware of the importance of geophysics, and Walter Bucher, who I talked about —
Runcorn:— was a very scholarly man, and curiously enough on the two great controversies, the continental drift one and the origin of terrestrial meter craters, he kind of took the wrong side. But he was a very — I mean he and Urey were the two — and then to some extent John Wheeler [?] — were the people in America who took a very — and Louis Slichter — who took a very helpful interest in me personally and my research (???) and work. And Morris Ewing said that Walter Bucher was really the chief person who helped him to get Lamont started. I think Walter, he'd been at the University of —
Doel:Cincinnati initially, before Columbia.
Runcorn:Yes. And had gone to Columbia when? Sometime during the war? But anyway, he was a powerful figure in Columbia and in American geoscience by the beginning of the post-war era.
Runcorn:And undoubtedly — well, I remember him talking about what Morris Ewing was doing, and when I went over in '53 Walter Bucher said, you know, "You must spend plenty of time seeing what Morris Ewing and his group are doing." So he was an example I think of one American geologist who did a great deal to get geophysics going in this country. And as I said, you know from the other side it was the solar terrestrial relations which — Francis Birch of course had got into geophysics through Bridgman's influence, but I knew Francis very well, and he was also interested in our work and wanted my research students, two of my research students went to work with him. Hughes and Doser [?]. And but Francis, I remember he told me that our subject, geophysics, would always remain a small subject — to which I rather denied, you see. But his view of geophysics was really very restricted, and so it was a very different attitude from Bucher or Morris Ewing, who saw the tremendous possibilities of geophysics.
Doel:Do you have a feeling for why he saw geophysics in that way compared to Bucher?
Runcorn:Well, he was always rather a lone worker, and moreover, he was not speculative. He collected data on high pressures particularly and tried to interpret it, wrote a very, very important papers of course. The one in 1952 is justly famous. And, but it was certainly he was really, his view of the earth was to understand its constitution using the seismic data and interpreting it in the light of understanding of behavior of materials at high pressures, and the geodynamics, as we think of it now, was kind of outside of his interest. And he was of course strongly opposed to continental drift, and when he invited me to talk at Harvard, which was quite often, he took a rather — I mean, he would have been one who thought that this work in paleomagnetism was probably telling of something very interesting about the earth's field which was generating the core which was a region that he wasn't much interested in. But I always remember him saying to me when I went there on one occasion and was about to lecture and him saying, "What nonsense have you come to tell us today?" you see. And I remember him saying much the same about Urey; that he couldn't see what Urey was trying to do in talking about the other solar system and accretion [?] of planets. That was, for Francis, idle speculation, theology or —
Doel:So this is in the late 50s that —
Doel:This is the late 50s you are thinking about?
Runcorn:Yes, that's right, yes. I think the personality or the view of science held by different people is of course very different. I mean, he took after Bridgman, and as I understand — I met Bridgman once — but, as I understand his papers, Bridgman was not awfully interested in the deeper implications of his work. He just had this high pressure technique and tried to see what interesting results he could obtain from using this technique. And of course he got the Nobel Prize for it. And he tried to philosophize about scientific method and operational method. I don't think anyone takes that very seriously now. Do you?
Doel:I'm not sure. Certainly not a great extent.
Runcorn:Anyway, no, anyway — Now you see the other kind of problems geophysicists like Gutenberg and — they'd all been brought up in seismology, and Gutenberg of course was broader than people like Byerly and the Jesuits who were quite —
Doel:Macelwane for example?
Runcorn:Yes, as Macelwane, you see. They were very strictly concerned with the interpretation of seismological observations. And geophysics was very much divided into the traditional disciplines. And I remember the early IUGGs [?] that I went to. I think I said this yesterday: I was surprised that the geomagneticians just went to what is now a (???), and the seismologists (???). There was —
Doel:It was still in the 50s very difficult to get all these disparate communities together under one tent.
Runcorn:Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Doel:Thinking back to the early 1950s —
Doel:In the early 1950s, Rice University was trying to build up a program in —
Doel:And they were interested I think in having you come there? Carey Croneis had —?
Runcorn:Yes. That's right. And I did go down and give a few lectures. But I think they wanted a — I was vaguely interested. I remember mentioning it to Blackett, and Blackett said, "Well you know Rice University tried to get me to go."
Doel:Is that right?
Runcorn:I think before the war, you know. And I met H. A. Wilson on that occasion, and of course he was a grand (???) man of Rice physics and had come out very early on.
Runcorn:But I think they were interested in getting geoscience started. But they eventually appointed a geologist, didn't they?
Doel:Sargent [?] was there for a time.
Doel:Sargent was there for a time. I'm not certain where their permanent appointment went.
Runcorn:Yes. But I think in the end they had no geology at all I think. That was right, wasn't it? And I think when they asked me to go and lecture, I think the story is that they had no geophysics or geology. They decided to have a department because of the importance of the oil companies. And that they asked Maurice Ewing, because he was a student at Rice, and of course by then he was really getting going in Columbia University, and I seem to recall Maurice saying that he'd actually mentioned me to them, and that was why they asked me to go to see them. But in the end — and I was vaguely interested, although it's unlikely that I expressed to them any real interest in going — and my recollection is that Croneis was then approached.
Doel:Croneis went in fact —
Runcorn:And he went.
Runcorn:And set up a more traditional department. But he then invited me to visit him. He was president of Beloit College —
Doel:Wisconsin? Beloit College?
Runcorn:And he invited me to go and visit him. And I think he was still then interested in my possibly going, but it's unlikely. They never made a definite offer, but it's unlikely that I expressed a great deal of interest. And I thought that Croneis and the geologist who built up geophysics at MIT, Schrock [?] — Because I was young and they were quite important figures then, that I remember thinking that they had ceased to be scientists and were business men concerned with organizing a department. And of course they'd, certainly the MIT one was organized very successfully by Schrock, but he wasn't by the time he took that post then much concerned with personal research. So it's interesting that one can see that the initiative to start important geophysics institutes came from different directions.
Doel:When you were at — I'm sorry. Go ahead.
Runcorn:Sorry. And of course in the University of California then of course once the Institute of Geophysics had got going in UCLA then of course it began to develop these branches in La Jolla and — But I mentioned yesterday that celebrated colloquium that Slichter organized. I mean he was obviously then not really thinking of his department as a part of a geoscience department. He was very much thinking of geophysics as an activity that physicists and mathematicians should primarily do.
Doel:When you were visiting there, did you see much work being done in exploration geophysics, the petroleum side of things?
Runcorn:No, hardly at all. His institute was fundamental geophysics, and everyone realized the importance of developing physical methods for oil exploration and there were kind of links between these departments and of course the links were the oil companies, and they looked to the oil companies for support. But quite rightly people like Slichter would regard their activities as being in fundamental geophysics and they would have said well, "That is what we were doing will be applicable to the research for oil, but we are concerned with fundamental geophysics." Slichter introduced me to the director of the Standard Oil Company of California. They had a laboratory in La Habra, and what was the man's name? I'll think of it in a moment. But he was, the oil companies were at that time developing their own research labs, and I visited the one at, the Shell [?] Lab, Houston.
Doel:Were you at King Hubert's facility?
Runcorn:Yes, I met him, but I was asked many times, well several times, to go and lecture at the Shell Oil Company Research Labs in Houston, and at this one in La Habra, and so they were developing their research laboratories, and they were interested in quite fundamental geophysics. And then later on the oil companies asked the question, "Are these research labs really producing results which are helpful in the search for oil?" and sometime in the 1960s the role of these research laboratories was moved away from more fundamental aspects to more practical aspects. And (???) rather regretted that, because when I used to visit the Shell Company they were doing a lot of very interesting fundamental work, and then they (???).
Doel:Was that particularly an American, or also the European divisions of the oil company in their own research?
Runcorn:I think it was general, yes.
Doel:Hmmm. That's interesting.
Runcorn:They were willing in the 1950s to put a lot of investment into fundamental geophysics and they reckoned eventually that it wasn't paying them and it changed very much direction.
Doel:That's very interesting. I was curious when you were —
Runcorn:You see —
Runcorn:You see they started, most of these companies started paleomagnetic groups but they didn't really produce very much.
Doel:Then it was aborted before it developed into a full-fledged program.
Runcorn:Mm-hmm [affirmative]. Paleomagnetism of sediments, you know, was developed by the oil companies in the 1930s, and a few papers were published, but they viewed the subject as a tool for the orientation of drill cores.
Runcorn:And you see that was a very important problem for them to orientate a drill core, you know, and then they can see the direction of the structures in the core and deduce important geological information. And they got the idea in the 1930s that the rocks would become magnetized along the earth's field and viewed it as a way of determining the (???). [phone interruption; tape off, then back on] And that was an interesting aspect of that, because many people told me in the early, when we were starting our work in paleomagnetism, "There's no point in doing this, because the oil companies worked on it in the 1930s and if there had been anything in it" —
Doel:Hmmm. Yeah, yeah.
Runcorn:And when Louis Slichter suggested this meeting in 1954, it was at some resort wasn't it, in the —
Doel:I believe so.
Runcorn:Yeah. And Graham came and Verhoogen and, well, I did a lot of the organization for telling him should be invited, and I kept on saying to him, "We should invite these people from the oil companies who are supposed to have worked on this field in the 1930s," and it was very difficult. Of course the oil companies were very reticent about their results. It was very difficult to find out who we should invite. But we did eventually invite a man from the Sperry Gyroscope Company in Long Beach, and they'd got a spino [?] magnetometer, and they did contract work for the oil companies, and I think they were really the pioneers in this technique of orienting bore cores. And the man who came and talked was rather an engineer, a technician, and he gave quite an interesting talk, and afterwards I of course questioned him, and I said to him, "Why is this work tailed off?" and he said, "Oh well, we did a lot of work once with the oil companies, but in the end they said that the results that came from this technique were not sufficiently reliable to make it worth their while to routinely measure magnetization of specimens. And you know I pressed him and I said, "Well, can you give us any idea of how often the method is successful in orienting?" and he said, "Well, perhaps (???) four." Of course oil companies would be looking at tertiary rocks, you see, and many tertiary rocks we'd already known. Many tertiary sediments were unstable and had become magnetized along the present field —
Runcorn:— and but of course if reversals actually occurred, which they did, many rocks would be reversely magnetized. But overprinting [?] in the direction of the present earth's field was (???) uses, but it was what gave them good results, you see. And so it accounted for the fact that this method sometimes worked. And then in the questioning I asked him about whether any examples of strongly magnetized rocks which gave completely mysterious results, and he said yes, there was a red sandstone that the oil companies drilled in Wyoming, and it happened that I had done a lot of work on the (???) Formation in Wyoming, and re-magnetizations [?] pointed just west of south, and they were, the angle of magnetic depth was small. So of course he didn't know what the rocks were, but he said they were red sandstones from Wyoming, so I guess they were. And so I said, "And you found they were magnetized strongly?" and he said, "Yes, the oil company said that our orientations were wildly wrong," and so I said, "Well, what happened?" and he said, "Well, the oil companies finally sent us samples that they'd collected from an outcrop, oriented samples, and we measured them and the magnetizations were quite wrong. They were just west of south, you see.
Runcorn:And it was very interesting, because the people in the oil companies were taking the view of the Sperry Gyroscope Company that magnetizations (???) due north. The geologists in this oil company said this orientation was obviously quite wrong, but no one questioned the possibility that the earth's field had pointed in an entirely different direction in the past. And it seems extraordinary now, but then I kind of tried to explain to this man that we had come to, at that stage, to believe in polar wandering and so on, but he'd been on the job so long that he couldn't understand that the earth's field pointed in any other direction than approximately due north. And it struck me you see that that of course explained why the oil companies had put a lot of effort out on stage but from the limited view of orienting rocks had then given it up when it didn't work.
Runcorn:There was a younger man from, originally from Newcastle who had done mining, a mining engineer, Brookshire [?], who was really in charge of geophysics at the geological survey. And two older geologists, Hallamand [?] and Femester [?], who'd been interested in the 1930s in whether geophysical methods could be useful in geological surveying. And for example Hallamand and his colleague Femester had taken the (???) survey over the (???) in (???) and shown it was reversely magnetized. But of course the meaning of that was beyond them at that time.
Doel:Was it simply regarded as an anomaly, or was it just regarded —?
Runcorn:A fact. Yes. And but their help to us was partly loaning us (???) their (???). And partly of course helping us to understand some of the pitfalls in measuring such small magnetic fields. And you had to, you know, in using these magnetometers you had to make sure that you were carrying no iron. Even small iron objects produced magnetic fields of many gammas. And so on the one hand the work we were doing interested physicists, people like Blackett of course, but also other leading physicists that kind of thought this is very interesting — a new branch of physics is being developed. I mean I remember my friend, I mentioned one person who was professor at Liverpool and he was a friend of mine at school, he was then just taking his Ph.D. at Liverpool, he had been in (???) and I visited him and Chadwick had just come back from the American Atomic Modern [?] Project and of course my friend, Brian College [?], said, "You must meet the great Sir James Chadwick," and I remember it quite clearly at tea, and Chadwick said, "What are you doing?" and so I explained these mine experiments and he listened and he obviously found it very interesting. Because it was new, you know. And there was — I had said to Henry Frankel that the atmosphere in Britain at the time was, you know, the leading physicists were keen that fundamental physics should start again after the war, and were very helpful to anyone who was investigating new directions. And so — and then of course as you know, we began to be interested in the magnetism of rocks.
Runcorn:And again, the primary motive was not as appears now you see to find a method of testing continental drift, but it was simply that we were interested in the origin of the earth's magnetic field and we wanted to know how it changed with the past.
Runcorn:And in particular of course whether the secular variation of the earth's field was characteristic of long periods of time, and of course then the issue of reversals came up — which of course was very relevant to debate about Blackett's ideas. And it's interesting that Blackett never entirely abandoned skepticism about reversals, because of course at first being enthusiastic for this fundamental theory he was very interested in any ideas, such as Nail [?] and Lagata's [?] idea of self-reversal. He was very interested in that as a possible way of reconciling his own theories with the fact of — which was of course more and more examples being found of reverse magnetization.
Doel:I wonder if before we get too far into the mid-1950s, what I was very curious about was what the atmosphere of Manchester was like when you were finishing your degree. Was there a lot of after-evening socializing and discussions going on then too? Do you remember?
Runcorn:People worked late. But of course it was at Provincial [?] University and people went home to the outlying parts of Manchester. But Blackett and his wife were very sociable and there were many parties, but the discussions were usually during the day. But there was a great interest in what everyone was doing. Of course the staff of — I can't tell you now what the staff of the laboratory was, but it wasn't very large. The student numbers were large, because people had come back from the war. And of course I found myself teaching people older than myself. And but it wasn't a big department, but there was the various aspects of cosmic rays going on, and then Vick [?] had developed a small group — but it was only two or three students with him — working on (???) [phone rings] solid-state physics. But it was largely — [phone rings again, tape turned off, then back on] Now of course there were the developments of radio astronomy, but while I was there the level was mainly studying the meteor trails.
Doel:Indeed. Did you have much contact with him?
Doel:Did you have any contact with him, direct contact with him?
Runcorn:No. Only from a friendly standpoint. His group was of course out in the country, so we didn't see much of them, and I think the cosmic ray people were a bit skeptical about radio astronomy and they didn't really think that much would come of it. After all, Beecher Trails [?] didn't sound very exciting — as exciting as looking for fundamental particles. So I think it says a lot for Lovell and Blackett that they were willing to put so much effort into developing radio astronomy. Let me put it another way. I mean I think they couldn't have known the great discoveries which would eventually be made in radio astronomy, but they both kind of felt that radio methods of looking in the sky ought to be developed, because it was just kind of complimentary to optical astronomy, and the techniques were available, and they were prepared to try. But you can understand the skeptical attitude of people in the lab in Manchester who were already getting evidence for new fundamental particles while Lovell was doing —
Doel:And also with unfamiliar technology. Yes.
Doel:Who did you have the most contact with during the time that you finished your Ph.D. in Manchester?
Runcorn:Oh, with Blackett, of course.
Runcorn:Although the other cosmic ray physicists, Rochester, Wilson and Bradick [?] were always very helpful. And Bradick was a very interesting person. He'd done cosmic ray work, and during the war he had worked on bomb sites and bombing, and but he was very keen on experimental physics and I was his understudy in the final honors [?] laboratory, and I learned a great deal of physics from him. We made up apparatus for the students. And later on I said to Bullard that I'd learned a lot of physics from Bradick, and Bullard said, "Well, it's funny you should say that, because so did I. He was a year ahead of me at Cambridge and we were friends." And Bradick was very interesting, because he didn't publish a great deal, but he was a wonderful person to have in a laboratory to talk to, and he had great experience and he always took a problem and reduced it to the basic physics. And of course I remained very friendly with him after I left and went to Cambridge and Newcastle, and he and his wife visited me quite often. And it was always when you talked to him about a new problem, he was always very helpful and very interested. And we always wondered, you know, why he'd not kind of gone much further, and we concluded that, you know, as with many intelligent people, he'd taken the problem, analyzed it in his mind, given his opinion, and then solved it and found something else. But he produced a very excellent book called Experimental Physics and most of the people who knew him spoke very highly of him.
Doel:How was it working with Blackett?
Doel:What was it like working with Blackett (???)?
Runcorn:He was a, very kind of pronounced views on most things, but a very kind man and very helpful person. But to people who didn't know him he always appeared a little forbidding. He was very serious, and unlike Bullard, he wasn't endowed with a great sense of humor. But of course I became very friendly with him and remained so through the rest of his life, and with his wife, too. And in all sorts of ways I know that he was very helpful to other people if they had problems, you know family and so on.
Runcorn:And I think he was a very humane man, very remarkable. As a scientist of course he was very productive and someone often said that he didn't carry a great amount of knowledge with him; he was always — In that way he was very unlike Bradick, but he was capable of course of very quickly reading up a new subject, and when we finally came to develop a program on paleomagnetism — Well, if you read what I said in that memorial meeting (???) Society, you'll see that he read up geology very quickly.
Runcorn:And he'd been accustomed I think to doing that (???). He played a big role in the battle of the Atlantic as an advisor to the admiralty about — And quite a few statistical problems came up there, and he must have — He was, unlike most physicists, he was interested in statistics and knew quite a bit about aerial [?] theory, and in fact he in his first year lectures talked about it, which for a physicist at that time was almost unknown. They were not interest in aerial theory. And so Blackett was very good at reading up sufficient to grasp the fundamentals of a new subject, but you wouldn't call him extremely knowledgeable about — You know, there are some people in a subject who people will turn to because they know that they're likely to be familiar with some arcane paper. Blackett wasn't like that at all.
Doel:One thing I want to be sure of about your academic chronology, the Manchester Ph.D. came in 1949.
Runcorn:Well, yes, you see I took my Ph.D. while I was teaching in the university.
Doel:Right. But you also have a Masters from Cambridge that came in —? How did that come about?
Runcorn:Yes, but you know the M.A. of Cambridge means nothing at all. You got it automatically at three years the term after the B.A. And it only has — It was usual for people to take it. There's a formality. You paid five pounds or something. But it's meaning was that if you were actually in Cambridge and if you got a Bachelor's degree you were still in some sense a student. But when you got your Masterís degree, you have certain rights and privileges at the university.
Doel:Mm-hmm [affirmative]. (???). What kind of contact did you have with people at Cambridge as your interest in geomagnetism developed? For example how did you come in contact with Bullard? Had you already known him from Cambridge?
Runcorn:No. It was only when I started doing geophysical work. And I wrote up the experiments on mines as a fellowship thesis at my college, Keyes, which was a usual thing for people to do if they felt that they'd done something worthy of fellowship. And it just gave you a status and a small salary which you could — They didn't require you to go back to Cambridge, so I got my fellowship in '48 and I'd virtually decided to stay at Manchester, and so this fellowship then would have been a purely honorary affair. But then Bullard left for Toronto and the person who was assistant director of research, Brown, moved up to the head of the department, and Blackett had encouraged us to teach a little geophysics and astronomy as a final year option.
Runcorn:Which was another, you know, Blackett was keen to make physics broad and the physics training in Manchester was quite broad, and well, I taught the geomagnetism part and Brown came down from Cambridge at Blackett's invitation to just teach the other part of this option, and then we got an astronomer from St. Andrews to teach the astronomy part. So Brown sort of saw our work in the mine experiment, and I suppose it was that when this assistant directorship of research that he'd held became vacant, I am pretty certain that he wrote to me and said, "You might like to apply for it," and it would have of course been in his mind that I had already gotten this fellowship at my college. So when I applied and got that position, then it was in my interest at the time to Cambridge.
Doel:Did you have any reservations about doing it?
Runcorn:No. I think I was — The mine experiment had more or less come to an end, and both Blackett and I had read about the work of the Colleague [?] Institute of Washington on magnetism of sediments, and Brookshire had presented a paper about the reverse magnetization of the dike system, the Cleveland Dikes [?] in northern England. And of course in my course I mentioned magnetism of rocks, and so — And then Blackett of course said to me — Well, we had already made a small magnetometer used in the mine experiment and of course he was building this more sensitive magnetometer and of course he said to me if you want to make a replica of my, copy of my magnetometer, go ahead, and that's of course the first thing we did when we got going in rock magnetism at Cambridge. But I was sorry to leave Manchester in many ways, but I was, I think I probably felt that I would like to be entirely independent, and Blackett left you very much to get on with your work, but he had strong feelings about the direction of research in his laboratory and I was I think beginning to feel ready to be entirely an independent worker. But of course we collaborated closely. Not agreeing about the interpretation of reversals, it was very interesting that we rather early decided that the data on reversals, particularly the work (???) was dead was virtually impossible to explain unless the field reversed. Whereas Blackett remained, uh, Blackett remained very influenced by these ideas of Nail and others that self-reversal was possible.
Runcorn:And it was very interesting, you know, just at the moment when people were beginning to be convinced about reversals of the field, the Japanese discovered an example of a rock, a pumice, which had self-reversed you see. It was modern rock you see.
Runcorn:That is all forgotten now, but the self-reversal, it was of course a very interesting example of the theory of the fundamental magnetic properties the anoxides [?]. Had it been developed by Nail, (???) for it. People were very interested, as a possible explanation of the reverse magnetization in rocks.
Doel:Bullard of course came back from Toronto within about a year after the time that he went there went to the National Physics Laboratory.
Doel:Did you have contact with him there?
Runcorn:Yes, but I never kind of collaborated scientifically with him. But we had a lot of interaction. He came to Cambridge and —
Doel:Of course he was interested in coming to Cambridge by then too.
Runcorn:I remember — Yes, and then of course he was, after a while at the National Physics Laboratory he was anxious to come back. But he obviously thought well of me because I remember — I suppose this was before he went to Toronto and I'd been visiting Cambridge, and the person of my college lived next door to Bullard and one day (???) Weller [?] passing me in the college said, "Bullard has been saying that he had the most interesting conversations with you." You know, we must have been discussing the mine experiment.
Runcorn:So, you know — And of course I was very influenced by his work on the dynamo theory.
Doel:Right. Let me turn this and then —
Doel:I was curious, when you were doing the mine experiment in '49, you were already aware of course at that point of Bullard's dynamo theory and the ideas that he was developing.
Doel:You did see that as in some sense a test between the between the two —
Runcorn:Oh yes. Yes. But I suppose by — I mean at that time, even if you didn't, and many people didn't, believe that the dynamo could work, you know, Cauling [?] and — Even if you were very skeptical about the dynamo, you did of course see that the only alternative to Bullard's theory was to find some method of keeping electric current going (???).
Runcorn:And I did toy with the idea that that could be the result of thermoelectric ENFs [?]. But (???) didn't work, but you know it's interesting, people from time to time suggest variance of solid-state physics mechanism for keeping, maintaining the currents and (???) core. There's a paper in the Royal Society a few years ago. So, I mean although I would say it's almost certain that the paleomagnetic fields are due to the dynamo process, the difficulty of the mathematical development, the fact that the dynamo theory never predicted (???) was observed. It didn't predict reversals. And I remember Bullard remaining skeptical about reversals and I think that was of course because he found it not easy to — I mean he worked of course a lot on the dynamo process, and he was concerned with showing the dynamo process could in fact sustain the field, and so I think he wasn't very keen on the idea of having this field reverse. And so he used to say to me that he wasn't convinced about the evidence for reversals, but he wasn't very skeptical like Blackett was. And of course when reversals and particularly the work of Cox and Doell, then a person like Bullard would — I can't remember the exact occasion, but Bullard would have said, "Oh well, it obviously shows that the dynamo can reverse as well as" —
Doel:Mm-hmm [affirmative]. He would adopt his —
Runcorn:— (???) sustaining a field. But of course even now it's very interesting. We had not got any real understanding of the reversal process apart from the new evidence of the French, which convinces me, although it doesn't convince anybody, that the reversal occurs by the dipole rotating through 180 degrees — so that it doesn't become (???) dipole as previously thought.
Doel:Right. That would be interesting. How much contact then did —? When you were going back to Cambridge in 1950, had you already been in touch or contact with Harold Jeffrees for example and others who —?
Runcorn:Well, of course I'd known him from once I got into geophysics I went to the Royal Astronomical Society meetings and Blackett sent me to the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics, which meant for the first time after the war in Oslow in '48. Of course that was the time when I got to know quite well all these people like Al Fan [?] and Toove [?]. And then the Danish and Swedish and Norwegians were particularly good on geomagnetism at the time and they were very helpful to me with the loan of magnetometers for the mine experiment. And you know the particular pitfalls of measuring these small magnetic fields. Well, the people like the Danes who had measured, who had set up magnetic observatories, knew all about that, and it was knowledge that was very useful to us. And of course I met Jeffrees at these meetings. And when I went back to Cambridge he and his wife of course were very hospitable, invited me around. But it was very difficult to talk to Jeffrees, you know. Most of the people I've been talking about you could have a scientific conversation or even argument with them. But with Jeffrees, he would just sit there —
Doel:And not say anything?
Runcorn:And everyone experienced this. He was curious. He thought very deeply about all these questions and had come to very definite views. He was most useful if you had a specific mathematical problem. When I was getting going at Cambridge I wanted to have a group that looked at various aspects of geomagnetism and I thought of the idea of doing experiments, have convection and rotating systems, and I put Hide, who'd come to Cambridge to work with me, onto this problem. And I remember before I did that, you know, talking to Jeffrees about the fact that the (???) convection (???) and what would the motions be like and presence of — And I'd worked out that the coreless [?] force was doubled [?]. And Jeffrees said — you know, having said to him this is what I believe the core is like, connecting in the presence of strong (???) forces. Has anyone ever considered this? And Jeffrees thought for a while and said, "You should look up the paper by Proudman [?]." And it was 30 years before. Proudman showed (???) now it's now associated with the name of G. I. Taylor [?], but Proudman showed that if the (???) forces that (???) return the motions in a rotating system will be always perpendicular to the, the velocity [?] will be perpendicular to the axis of rotation. To that is (???). And I thought that this was very interesting, and this was why I suggested to Hide that he should do experiments. They proved of course to be very fruitful and applicable in meteorology. But the experiments were done really with the idea of trying to provide some answer to the obvious question of, "What are the motions going to be like in the core?"
Doel:This might be a good time to ask you about the competing models of the core that were being proposed in the late forties. Of course William Ramsey had the compressed silicate [?] model at the time.
Runcorn:Of course I knew Ramsey well, and it didn't bother me. That particularly controversy didn't bother me too much, because what the seismologists told us of course was the core a real fluid and that it was so dense that it had to be metallic. So I wasn't particularly — A lot of people were very interested in Ramsey's theory, and I remember Blackett was, but and of course I heard about it from Ramsey, but it didn't seem to me to be very relevant to geomagnetism.
Doel:Was he not as interested in questions of geomagnetism?
Runcorn:He'd been with Bristol with Walsh [?], you know, and that was where I first met him, at the summer school that I was talking about in Bristol. And Ramsey, I don't think he maintained that this theory was particularly relevant to geomagnetism, but he was the sort of person that once he got interested in geophysics through this theory of the core as a (???), he discussed with us geomagnetic topics. You know, in the development of a new subject, which this was, it was very useful. There were people around. I mean like Bradick, who, you know, you could have a good discussion with even though they themselves were not basically interested, well, you know, wouldn't have considered themselves geophysicists, but were very interested in talking about the new subject.
Doel:Of course in late '49 Powell Dury [?] proposed his model of the earth's core forming over time.
Runcorn:Yes. Well that of course was very interesting, and Urey — I ran the colloquia at Cambridge and I asked — Urey was spending a year I think in Oxford and I asked him over to give a colloquium. And that was how I first got to know him, and of course he became very interested in the work that we were doing and was very helpful.
Doel:That was later in the 1950s, wasn't it, when Urey had his time at Oxford? Or was that close to the time that he produced his theory?
Runcorn:I was in Cambridge between 1950 and 1956.
Runcorn:Urey must have come over and lectured in Cambridge, what, in 1952, was it?
Doel:Perhaps it was.
Doel:'52 is when he wrote the book The Planets —
Runcorn:Yes, I know.
Doel:That might have a time when —
Runcorn:I know. But when did he come as (???) professor at Oxford?
Doel:I thought it was later, about '56, but I may be wrong.
Runcorn:Oh well, perhaps so. Well, perhaps he'd come to England.
Doel:I'll check on that.
Runcorn:But it have been quite early, because I remember I came to the States in '52 and '53 and '54 and it was one of those occasions that I was coming to California he asked me to stop off and give a lecture at what is now the Family [?] Institute.
Doel:Mm-hmm [affirmative]. Was that the first time you had direct contact with him then, when you —? It was either meeting him here or —
Runcorn:Yes, yes, yes. And of course he was quite — because he was getting interested in geoscience — he was very keen to get to know people who were working in various fields of geophysics. He wasn't very keen on the geologists, and I think the fact that I was a geophysicist attracted his attention. He didn't — he'd found that the geologists were not very interested in his speculations.
Doel:You learned of his theory soon after it was published, as you recall?
Runcorn:Yes. And —
Doel:How was it received generally by others, either at Cambridge or other geophysicists who were interested in the core?
Runcorn:Well, you see, even in geophysics there was not a lot of interest in the early evolution of the earth. You see Harold Jeffrees' great work, I think there was something about the evolution of the earth in the first edition, and I think he then believed in the theory of Moulton and Chamberlin that material had been dragged out of the sun by a grazing [?] impact. But by the time I knew Harold, he had removed those two chapters from the earth —
Runcorn:Because I think he, I've always felt he had come to dislike that kind of hand-waving. And I think that geophysicists generally hadn't thought much about the evolution of the earth. And insofar as they had thought about it, they just accepted the idea that the earth was dragged out of the sun. Because — Now you're causing me to think back. Brown, who was not another very original man, but he knew the subject well, and when he came to give his lectures at Manchester to the final honor students, he showed me his notes, and I remember the first two pages were if the earth was initially a hot gas, how does it cool and liquefy, and he had some rough calculations showing that that took 10,000 years, and then the solidification of the earth proceeded by convection in the molten mantle. And the accepted view was that it froze at the core boundary and, but of course the core had in such a fluid body (???). And so I think that Urey producing chemical arguments that the earth had formed by (???) was challenging this generally accepted view of the hot origin of the earth. But the geophysicists I don't think really took these early ideas awfully seriously, and so people I know were quite fascinated by Urey's new approach, the chemical side, but they didn't — you know, they weren't hostile to it. They might have been slightly skeptical.
Doel:Who are you thinking of when you say that, your colleagues?
Runcorn:That they weren't hostile?
Doel:Who were you thinking about when you said that about them being somewhat skeptical but not hostile?
Runcorn:Well, you know, people like Bullard and the seismologists like (???), and Harold Jeffrees of course had in his earlier life rather strongly accepted the Moulton-Chamberlin. Harold pursued science very much on his own, and Bullard, who made jokes at times, slightly barbed jokes, said to me once, "Harold hasn't taken a new idea in since 1936." And I think that in a sense that was true; that he'd come to a model of the earth, a mathematical model of the earth, and he tried to keep up to date with new observations, but they didn't shake his basic model.
Doel:Mm-hmm [affirmative]. Yeah.
Runcorn:Which of course was an earth cooling and the shell shrinking and (???) by contraction.
Doel:Contraction, right. It's interesting that Urey's ideas were so well received by certain American geologists and geophysicists that the Rancho-Santa Fe meeting was organized, where discussions were held about that.
Doel:And it seemed to convince many Americans that the earth indeed had formed cold.
Doel:Do you recall hearing about the — Was the arguments at Rancho-Santa Fe something that you heard of at the time?
Runcorn:Yes. And that was the sort of thing that Urey talked about when he came and lectured in England. And I think his ideas were taken quite seriously.
Doel:One thing that — Get this all back together here — At the time that you were going into and starting up at Cambridge, who did you have the most contacts with? Who would you work with most regularly among those in the extended circle of the university?
Runcorn:My research students. And of course the ones who later on became very well known, like Raymond Hide, and Irving, Ted Irving, (???), (???). These were all people that I was regularly discussing subject with of course.
Doel:How important were the meetings of the Royal Astronomical Society for discussions of these things at the time?
Runcorn:Well, quite important, because for example I supposed I talked about the results of the mine experiment at a meeting of the, geophysical meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society. And I think it was at the same meeting that Bullard first spoke briefly about — Well, he wouldn't then call it the dynamo theory. He suggested that an eddy [?] underneath South Africa explained the strong center of (???) variation there. So he was beginning to think about electromagnetic (???) as an important phenomena in the core. And I think it was the same meeting that I talked about some preliminary results in the mine experiment. And if my recollection is correct, Brookshire talked about the magnetometer surveys of the Cleveland Dikes, which showed they were magnetized. All these talks were given at the Royal Astronomical Society. Now whether it was the same meeting or not, I couldn't be absolutely certain. But geomagnetism topics weren't, you know, perhaps (???) a session on geomagnetism once a year, and of course there were other fields of geomagnetism, like Chapman was interested in. So I think this one probably had those three talks. And I remember back at, um, being interested but of course skeptical about Brookshire's dikes [?].
Doel:Do there seem to be leaders in the Royal Astronomical Society in those kinds of discussions?
Runcorn:No. A lot of different people turned up. I mean, there was this Cambridge group I was very friendly with, Fred Boyle [?], Littleton (???) and Gold [?], and while they were not deeply interested in geomagnetism — you know, they'd come and take part in the discussion — so that one was influenced by the fact that there were people attending these meetings whose comments were interesting and stimulating. And then in our colloquia which we ran at Cambridge these people came very often, and R. A. Fisher came because I interested him in geomagnetism, and of course he provided us with very important statistical (???). But there was quite a lot of interest in this new subject of experimental geophysics. And another person who came — he'd retired from the National Physical Laboratory — was Darwin.
Let me pause right there for a moment.Session I | Session II