Oral History Transcript — Dr. J. Tuzo Wilson
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J. Tuzo Wilson; February 16, 1993
ABSTRACT: Early experiences in forestry with the Ottawa Field Naturalist Club; study of physics and geology at the University of Toronto (1926-1930, B.A. 1930), influence of Satterly; Massey fellowship to Cambridge University (1930-1932, M.A. 1932), contact with Jeffreys; work at Princeton in geology (1932-1936, Ph.D.), contacts with A. Einstein, L. Infeld, Scheidegger, and Field. U.S. Geological Survey, (1936-1938). World War II involvement with British Sappers in Dover (1940). Director of Operational Research, Canadian Airborne (1943). Professor of Physics, University of Toronto (1946-1967). International Union of Geology and Geophysics involvement. National Research Council involvement. Scientific contacts with Communist countries, and political implications. Collaboration with G. Kuiper on The Earth as a Planet. President of Erindale College (1967-1974) Collaboration with J. Jacobs and R. Russell on Physics and Geology. Religious beliefs. Discussion of geophysics and its relation to physics and geology.
Doel:This is Ron Doel, and this is an interview with John Tuzo Wilson. Let me first mention that there are two other oral history interviews with you: one by William Glen, a second by Andrea Rutty. The first is available at the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics, the second at the University of Toronto. We are also aware of your Killam lecture, where you offered an extensive autobiographical statement. For these reasons I will not repeat earlier questions about your childhood and early schooling. Perhaps, to begin, I would like to ask you about your experiences at Cambridge University between 1930 and 1932. You have mentioned in several places that you attended the lectures of Harold Jeffreys. I wonder if you recall any particular discussions about geophysics with others at Cambridge? Does anything stand out in your mind as an exceptionally important experience?
You must remember that I backed into geophysics rather accidentally. I had had field work as a small boy through my family knowing the Rosamundís, who were wool merchants in Almonte -- itís a Mexican word -- Ontario, near Ottawa. I think because my motherís brother -- Jack Tuzo killed in World War I -- had been to school or college in England with Archie or maybe Alec (there were two brothers) Rosamund. They had a cousin or some connection -- MacIntosh Bell -- who at the tail end of the cobalt sewer rush in Ontario had been owner or manager or part-owner of the Kealy[??] silver mine not in cobalt, but in that vicinity.
He had a couple of sons and through this connection I went underground and visited the Kealy silver mine and swallowed geology. That was an early connection and another one was through the fact my uncle -- my motherís brother, Jack Tuzo -- who was killed in World War I. He was himself a mining engineer, railway engineer in British Columbia for most of his lifeÖ and worked on the Kettle Valley Railway as a railway engineer, but also as a mining engineer. Mining was not unknown to me and at that time there was no university in Ottawa. There are two now. There were some colleges, but they were chiefly to turn out priests and they didnít teach much of any science. On the other hand there were quite a few scientists in the government service. They ran, very successfully, Ottawa Field Naturalists Club (or Society) which particularly on a Saturday afternoon -- especially in the spring, but to some extent in the autumn -- ran excursions for interested people.
Doel:Who would tend to go on these excursions? Would they tend to be school children mostly?
I donít really know. I remember some of the people who ran them. Dr. H. Ami, who was French or French Canadian -- I am not sure which -- and lived in a large house with considerable money in a wealthy part of Ottawa. Itís now the Centre Universitaire -- his house -- of the University of Ottawa. He was at one time Director of the Geological Survey, I believe. Certainly he was a paleontologist. He had no children of his own and therefore was interested in children. He liked fossils. Fossils to be found around Ottawa were either Paleozoic in the limestones which lapped onto the pre-Cambrian at Ottawa -- pre-Cambrian on one side of the river and the Paleozoic on the other -- or there were Pleistocene in concretions in the mud of the clays ?? of postglacial age. They were quite big fish in some concretions -- not most -- but some. We went on excursions to look for fossils and look at minerals and pre-Cambrian rocks and the folding, which was quite conspicuous at a rapid called Hogís Back which can be reached by streetcar from Ottawa, and streetcar was the way we traveled, of course in the l920s.
They also looked at frogs and snakes and ponds and newts and salamanders and birds and flowers and all sorts of things -- natural history. They were great fun. I think a lot of young adults went also -- friends and family of scientists. Certainly it was quite a popular and well known society. They even published some sort of a journal in those days and I think itís still going -- the Ottawa Field Naturalist Society. I got out and saw some of these rocks at an early age. Through my father and MacIntosh Bell I was employed in prospecting north of Lake Superior. I went on a foresting excursion in 1924 when I was still in high school. I went to the Chalk River, which later became the headquarters for the nuclear energy program in Canada. It was then the divisional point on one of the railways west from Ottawa -- the first divisional point out of Ottawa, one hundred and some miles away. Some farm land there had turned out to be no good; it was a sand plain. At the close of glaciation a great flood swept down the Ottawa valley where Lake Temiskarming and Lake Oyibway Barlow south of Hudson Bay drained a great flood poured down the old river and left sand bars and swamps all the way down the Ottawa river valley, which formed swamps like the Albert peat bog and Mian Bleu(?) sand plains, which were conspicuous as islands in the Ottawa river and sand pits around Ottawa.
We went up the Ottawa valley to this place where these farms, which had been built on sand, were abandoned. They had been bought up by the Canadian Forestry Service in 1921. They decided for the first time that they should do some experimental work in forestry, which was a major industry, of course, because the White Pine -- close to civilization and the main rivers and the main routes of access -- were all being cut down. They suddenly realized maybe they should think about how forests grew and that they should replace them in some way. A lot of this land which they tried to farm turned out to be useless. At a farm house they had established an experimental station in forestry in 1924. I went there.
Doel:Was this one of the first Canadian centers for conservation?
The subject they studied particularly was how do trees propagate -- particularly White Pine in that vicinity and other trees also -- and how long did it take them to propagate, how far did the seed blow, how was the seed carried, which direction did the seed go, would the seeds take root by themselves, how long did it take, how fast did they grow, what things grew with them, what impeded it, what handicapped, what advantages and so on. They had a lot of plots there which they were laying out -- had laid out and were laying out -- which varied from a foot two square in which they planted seeds, up to one hundred square feet or so which would be planted by windblown seeds various distances from existing stands in various directions. They would find out what was going on naturally and what could be done artificially.
Our job, as small boys -- Jimmy Craig and myself who were about fifteen or sixteen at the time and not yet in college -- was to crawl out in the underbrush among the mosquitoes and count the seedling trees which we were taught to recognize. They were about one inch high in these places and also there were larger ones, but mostly very small. We were to find out how many propagated and how well they survived from year to year and so on, and also to go to other places where the trees stood in the forest and measure the height -- which we did measuring the angles in the distance from the base -- and also the diameter, chiefly chest height. We would also occasionally cut a tree down and measure it at intervals all the way up. We saw how the trees were growing. This occupied me all that summer.
We were under canvas most of the time in various parts of this large domain, which had been set aside as a military range at Petawawa for artillery and so on, though that part was not being used for artillery. It was probably government preserve so they could do what they liked and they had this forestry camp at one end. I spent the summer there, a mile or two from the station at Chalk River, with Jimmy Craig and under the supervision of some foresters. It was very good training. We had to work six days a week; we got a dollar a day and our board. We went swimming in the evening and had a pleasant time. We did nothing very much except exercise. I saved a hundred dollars over the summer. Fortunately a friend of my fatherís, who was trying to impress my father who was also in the government, had given me a tip of ten dollars which was an unheard of large sum then. That provided me pocket money for the summer. Most things a small boy wanted, like chocolate bars or Coke (or the equivalent of a Coke -- whatever it was then) were five cents. A dollar would go a long way. I got used to the woods very early and paddling around and walking and backpacking because there were no roads that would carry a truck. We came in by wagons on corduroy paths or else by canoe.
Doel:Youíd mentioned in your Killam lecture that you had a great deal of field experience in the summers when you were growing up.
Wilson:Every summer from 1924 until 1939 I either went to the field -- except for the two I went to Europe -- and I would spend a hundred days mostly under canvas or out in the open, in the latter part of the summer when the weather was fine. I became very experienced therefore in handling canoes and swimming and building fires and putting them out and camp life in general, and also walking through the woods. I still have the ability to walk around and not fear falling. Most people are afraid of falling. I donít mind falling at all. I stepped on so many large logs that had rotten bark that slipped off or so many pieces of rock that had moss on them and slipped off that I had habitually fallen down in the woods unavoidably, sometimes when carrying a canoe or something like a big backpack. One learnt to fall gently. Not that I stopped myself, but just to sort of roll over as I fell. I never, all of my life, never worried about falling down. I just fall down and pick myself up and go on again. It surprises people.
Doel:That would be a good metaphor in general terms. I am just concerned to make sure that we have enough time this afternoon to get to some of the main issues that you were involved in.
Wilson:That was the forestry. The next year I went to Europe alone and traveled widely around Europe where I had a number of great uncles and aunts and relatives of one sort or another and a couple of grandmothers. I went and stayed with them and started studying the cathedral. I went over to England when I was nine months, when I was four years, when I was twelve years, when I was sixteen. I went to Cambridge when I was twenty, I suppose, at the end of the war by liner, steamship or cattle boat. I knew the ocean. I saw whales on the ocean and sailing ships and things. I was fairly accustomed to travel and I didnít get seasick.
Doel:You have discussed your experiences at the University of Toronto as an undergraduate in detail in some of the published and other oral history reminiscences that you have already recorded. One matter I did want to touch on concerns the end of your career at the University of Toronto. When you were finishing your undergraduate work, were there other places that you considered for further training besides Cambridge?
I wanted to write in a vague sort of daze. My mother had brought back a friend of hers who was not a professional, but a friend of hers, somewhat younger and had tutored us young. When I went to school at the age of seven I had pretty well been through primary school already and I knew a lot about geography and history of Europe. I was well in advance of my years, of course, and I slipped back all through school. I was still quite young when I went to college -- not the youngest in the class. Life was rather easy because I had been taught to work hard. When Tavy, as we called this lady -- Miss Travers -- said to work we worked. I understood about working which is a great advantage. Then one could go out and play. We only worked in the mornings. Since only my sister and myself were involved -- no other children -- it was very concentrated and I learned a great deal of mental arithmetic, which I could do much better than most girls with computers even today. Then I went to collegiate for a year and was growing up at that time. I was young and shy and I had never been part of my age group at school, which I didnít find to be a great handicap.
I was always the youngest and smallest in the class; I was occasionally beaten up and bullied to a certain amount. On the other hand I was not regarded as a swat in particular because the other students knew that I didnít work any harder than they did, but I just got more done because of this early training. Obviously it was a great advantage. The early training helped -- not what I learned, but the fact I learned how to learn. I got on tolerably well with my classmates. They got interested in girls and grownup activities and games in a way that I did not because I always got sat on in games. I matured later than they did and was younger. When I went to college it was suddenly a blossoming because one came into a much wider variety of people, many of whom were also fairly advanced for their years in school, whereas Ashbury had been sort of built as a school for the bad boys of wealthy parents and was chiefly a boarding school for boys from Montreal and the Maritimes and wealthy connections. And we were not, so I was used to being poorer than the majority of my -- my sister seemed to suffer from this but it didnít really affect her life, in general.
We did have moderate and happy lives and I found college a great opening; a blossoming. I became very active in a great number of societies. I was president of several societies in my last year, including the student council for the University of Toronto. I debated for the university. I was president of the literary society in Trinity, head of the science club and the geologist club, and I organized the intercollegiate ???. I took after my mother in that I seemed naturally to fall heir to jobs which I found quite easy to do.
Doel:What sort of activities did you do in the geologist club or the science club?
Wilson:Arranged lectures mostly.
Doel:Were you one of the people -- or the person -- who contacted potential lecturers? How did you decide who to invite?
Wilson:The whole thing was much more arbitrary and a much smaller scale. I was a member of the science club at Trinity and you tried to find somebody, usually in the university already, who would be able to give a popular lecture that would appeal to other students and ourselves. They were not particularly professional classes -- they were undergraduate affairs. I was quite active at Hart House, which was the studentís union and I was on the library committee there. We had to choose books to put in the library; books that students might want to read. I knew the warden of Hart House -- an interesting man, Bickersteth, whose father had been dean at the cathedral at Canterbury and had very good connections with a friend of Masseyís. I think itís probably through him that I got a Massey fellowship. When I got around Christmas time in my last year and wondered what to do but hadnít decided in any way, I was given a scholarship to go to Cambridge for two years to do anything I liked -- or to go anywhere I liked. The practice was to usually go to Oxford, but I went to Cambridge and so did one or two others and one or two maybe went to Paris.
Doel:What was it that made you decide to go to Cambridge as opposed to Oxford?
Wilson:By this time having come to the University of Toronto and enrolled in physics, which included mathematics and chemistry and a little astronomy and very little else -- it was very much an honor course, very much specialized already in first year not unlike a major in todayís courses at university. Having got good marks -- obviously or I wouldnít have gotten the scholarship -- or reasonable marks anyway, I think they rather envisioned it somewhat like a Rhodes Scholarship so they took other things into account. They must have because I was not the best scholar but I was a good scholar. I had found that very dull. The first year physics in 1926 was extremely well taught at Toronto. Everybody would agree to that. Satterly was a great lecturer; very popular with the public. He had huge crowds. He turned away a thousand people to a public lecture on subjects like liquid air and so on, which were very new in those days on the expanding universe and those things.
Doel:Was that one way in which you were hearing of developments in other sciences -- through his lectures?
Yes and speaking to other students and through the science club which other people had run before me. I had some connection with that. Also through traveling abroad -- I was fairly used to it here. I was on the library committee which had nothing to do with the science library. It was just a general library. The students came from a variety of places from Toronto; mostly Ontario, but not entirely. My mother had been around the world -- through Canada and around Europe. In her youth they were well-to-do. She traveled a lot. My fatherís father was Russian vice council in Dundee, though he was not a native Russian. He traded with the Russians and helped the Russians out. He was an honorary vice council.
A great number of aunts and uncles worked all over the British empire so I was quite familiar with the idea of travel and other sciences and so on. Motherís father -- as I mentioned -- was probably the first doctor in the state of Washington when it was still Canadian territory. Most Americans donít seem to be aware of the fact that so recently the Americans moved the border north. What happened is that the British were interested in the fur trade and being on good terms with the Indians. The Americans were interested in settling and therefore had to get rid of a lot of Indians. The outlook was very different and the British fur trade didnít want a lot of settlers. People were pouring into California and a year or two later north into other states. The Oregon trail and so on were bringing people in.
Eventually they decided they would move the boundary north. My grandfather had to move after three years at Fort Vancouver in the state of Washington to Fort Victoria at the time when there were two provinces out there -- British Columbia and Vancouver Island, which were joined by a great uncle of mine. He was on the commission that arranged the tying of them together. Both mother and my great uncle and my uncle all had mountains and things named after them. They were early settlers, undoubtedly. I was aware of this vaguely; only very vaguely. I know more about it now. I knew my American history. The Tuzoís -- the doctor who went out west to Oregon, to Washington -- was aware of the fact his people had been in Virginia. I donít know exactly when, but somewhere around the early 1600s I suppose. Maybe later, but whenever Huguenots went there. Mother was a great climber. She was one of the two most outstanding women climbers, according to all the literature, in the Canadian Rockies before 1910. She chose to climb this mountain which was named after her -- Mount Tuzo. You know that story.
Doel:We are currently looking at the back of a Canadian twenty dollar bill. The mountain that is second to the right on the etching.
Wilson:Yes. It is a conspicuous peak. She did not climb up the face as most people imagined. It was a twenty one and a half hour walk, which she made with a guide. Iíd never been out that long.
Doel:You mentioned that others who had had the same fellowship had tended to go to Oxford. You had chosen to go to Cambridge. What influenced you to do that?
Wilson:John Satterly -- who was a great teacher of physics in first year -- and he also taught a course to me. They had to invent some courses when I went into geophysics because I found geology so interesting and in first year I had found physics so dull because we had archaic instruments and we did nothing but strictly Newtonian physics. That is to say gravity, heat, probably some matter and mechanics. It was rather unpredictable. The instruments had no electronics. They were very imbalanced -- chemical balances. It was all very dull and archaic. We even made thermometers and used them and so on; blew the glass ourselves and so on.
Doel:So you got quite a bit of experience in hands-on work with instruments?
Wilson:Yes, we had labs every afternoon all week; two in chemistry and two in physics -- at least four of them every week which we arranged the apparatus and set it up and connected it and took it down again, getting the results in the meantime. We were there for three hours. Then we wrote laboratory reports on it. There was a lot of very good drilling. Then we were regularly examined. We got a very strong grilling in classical physics. The second year we got into Maxwellian physics -- light and electricity magnetism -- and then into modern physics. I never did much about physics because by that time I had been to the head of the department of geology and to their immense surprise I said I wanted to get out of physics and into geology because physics was so dull. I had got first class honors, so they couldnít say I had failed. I had never had a course in geology, but I had been out with a very charming fellow -- Noel Odell -- who had been a climber on the Everest expedition -- a charming man. He had tried to teach me geology. These people in the Ottawa club had also taught me. I thought that would be a much more fascinating life and so it was.
Doel:Before we move on do you recall discussions either by Satterly or by others over frustration perhaps at not being able to work on other areas of physics other than classical mechanics at Toronto? Do you recall discussions with anyone in that first year?
Wilson:It was obvious that McLennan, who was very ambitious and was head of the department -- Sir John McLennan and a great builder of the campus as well as being a good head of the physics department and a pioneer in a lot of this stuff -- was not probably a great physicist. He was considered pretty well, but he was essentially an organizer. He wanted to go into anything modern, new and sensational. On the other hand, the older professors -- including Gilchrist, the geophysicists and two or three others -- had no interest in this. They were purely classical physics. They just didnít believe that Einstein was right. They thought Newton was right and they didnít understand radioactivity. They couldnít understand spectroscopy and they were too old to learn. They were against the whole thing.
Doel:Do you recall them discussing that? Was that something you knew about right at the time?
Wilson:Oh yes. One had to be very careful in discussing and answering any questions in examination or test or discussion that you get the right version of science to talk to the right professor and wrote it up accordingly, because chemistry at that time was not taught as a branch of physics, more or less, on molecular and nuclear basis. It was taught on thermodynamics. They stayed with thermodynamics and apologized to the chemists that they were doing so rather than do as the physicists had advised them to go into molecular and nuclear ideas about the chemistry because there was so much wrong and inadequate about molecular. They were right because, you see, deuterium had not been discovered by Urey and U235 was not known and they had no mass spectrometer -- they were only invented in the l920s by Aston at Cambridge -- so that they had a very inadequate idea of isotopes. Therefore, their whole basis -- the table was right -- of isotopes were mixed up. They didnít know this scheme was being worked out partly at McGill and later at Cambridge by Rutherford. They didnít like modern physics at all. I remember Satterly, who was one of the more old fashioned ones and a splendid teacher of classical physics, wishing that they still thought of atoms in knots and ether -- if you can imagine that. He didnít teach us that was the case, but on one or two occasions he sort of hinted that he had liked that idea in his youth.
Doel:Thatís very interesting. Do you remember any visitors, other physicists or researchers, who came either to give talks or to visit with other faculty members? Were any of these memorable?
Yes, I remember Lawry[??] lecturing on spectroscopy. I think he had points of light that he transmitted light through crystals and I remember his lecture very well. The University of Toronto probably stood higher in the hierarchy of universities then than now because I remember after I came back in 1946, Gordon who was head of the chemistry department and dean of the graduate school -- part of the fact that there were twelve universities and had research facilities in North America which McGill and Toronto were two and ten were American that had a sort of consortium. Because of McLennanís enterprises -- as well as the fact that he was a bright physicist-ours was the second lab to have a low temperature physics after ?? in Holland had invented it. They also were very advanced in spectroscopy.
In fact, if McLennan being as bright in physics as he was in organizing things might have won two Nobel Prizes -- one for the row of green light which some of his students and he worked out and Kaplan, who was at UCLA, said this. He came and lectured at the university at one time and told us this, that he thought that he really might have deserved one. The other was when two of the graduate students took pictures of the behavior of liquid helium because they had a lab and extraordinary behavior and it had been dismissed as something being wrong. It was not really given credibility. That was far ahead of the other discoveries. Another man, whose name I forget, went to Chicago and found U235 -- a Toronto graduate. He was very much in touch with the American physicists. Most of the professors -- many of them -- had been trained in Europe, in Germany or at Cambridge. The fact they went by ship didnít prevent them traveling over to Europe in the summer time. They got around.
Doel:Were there more coming out of the English tradition at Cambridge and Oxford, than from the German universities?
Wilson:I think it had already, the swing was taking place. The older ones had come from mostly Germany. We were still taught scientific German and scientific French because of the papers published in those languages, but somewhat younger ones were coming from Cambridge.
Doel:When you say you were taught scientific German and French --
Wilson:I knew French already, but I wasnít taught scientific French at the university. I already knew French before that. I was taught scientific German.
Doel:Was this something that students would be quizzed on? How was it evaluated?
Wilson:It was regulated; subject to examination. You had to be able to read (?).
Doel:Interesting. When you were in geology do you also remember lectures, people who came in?
Wilson:I am awful sharp when you get into geology. I took my first course and lecture in geology and I thought, ďMy god, is this science!Ē I didnít really believe it. It was a mixture. Paleontology was really a branch of biology and was very well taught by Parks and people, stratigraphy and then the other hand was mineralogy and that was really a subject in physics Ė- crystallography -- and that was well taught. They had some good instruments -- ?? and so on -- and one had to know about the mineral ?? too. The rest of it was mostly hearsay or opinions as denounced by some dominant figure and his belief.
Doel:Do you recall any texts that you were reading which were considered to be the standard?
Wilson:I think Coleman and Parks was the standard textbook in geology. They were two professors at Toronto.
Doel:Did you also read texts, for example, Schuchert and Dunbar, any by Knopf?
I was certainly aware of those books and I met those men, but I donít know if we used them excessively. I knew Flint quite well on glacial geology and Lindgren was a standard textbook which we used on ore deposits in the fourth year geology. The ones you mentioned -- I knew Adams who wrote a history of science. F. D. Adams of the Royal Society was at McGill. He was a very good geologist and he was a member of the original Research Council and one-time president of the Canadian Research Council. You must remember that geology had a sad history. Until 1850 or thereabouts geology was the dominant science in many ways. Darwin, according to a biography of him written in Scientific American, regarded himself as a geologist. He certainly was a geologist and did a lot on volcanic islands, on paleontology and uplift of the coasts and so on. Geology was very valuable and highly regarded. People like Rogers brothers and J. D. Dana, John J. Halls in New York state; one of the Rogers brothers founded MIT and Silliman earlier, the mineralogist. Later, perhaps Gilbert -- these men were dominant figures and of course, Powell, director of the Geological Survey, in Colorado.
These men were all very dominant figures. They were among the founders of the academy. They founded the American Journal of Science -- Silliman did -- or Journal of Geology. They founded journals, they founded societies and they founded academies, and they founded universities. They were dominant figures and the same was true in England where Murcheson and Lyell; in France, Couveae (Couviet??) was a permanent secretary of the Institute de France and so was one of his predecessors -- DeMorey[??] and another fellow whose name began with a ďB.Ē Anyway, they sorted out fossils and they had a good argument with Werner and so on. These were all very well-known scientists and there were great arguments, of course, and again about the origin of species and this sort of thing; paleontology and that sort of thing. Then they went downhill and this puzzled the geologists because they didnít do anything wrong. They just carried on what they were doing and they got neglected. What swept ahead was the chemists and eventually the discovery of the annalin ?? dyes in the German chemical industry and so on. I think what happened was that the sciences were first graded on their value and the great value were the things that produced food or material for weapons or tools.
The utilities. This was clearly the biological and geological sciences and they didnít know much physics or chemistry. They knew quite a lot of astronomy, which is all very simple and quantified, so it was sort of as a descriptive subject although it began slowly in physics and chemistry and particularly in astronomy where it was very simple -- because they only looked at one universe or one galaxy -- to quantify it and put it in mathematical terms and analyze it so they could make predictions. The geologists suddenly found that they were being overtaken by the physicists and chemists who had swept ahead and by using mathematical analysis as it came in had been able to develop their subjects into much more than quantitative experience and then they became more important, more dominant. This was not because of the fact that geologists failed to learn mathematics.
Some of them did know mathematics -- like Powell -- and it didnít do them any good. It wasnít that Linnaeus, Darwin and Mendel were stupid -- they just had no method of converting taxonomy into mathematical form and so they couldnít use it as well as the physicists and chemists could. They were gradually left behind and the geologists got into poorer and poorer buildings, and were less highly regarded. They were sort of left out and unhappy. Every department, as I said, between physics and chemistry had its own methods of teaching and its own laws. I remember the head of the Geological Survey saying to me when people criticized his idea that there had been liquid immiscibility in the silicate at the time when M. L. Bowen -- who was a Canadian -- and Griggs -- another Canadian -- and the people at Carnegie were working on silicates under high pressure and high temperature for the first time and decided that they couldnít have silicate immiscible liquids.
Doel:Is this Harrison that youíre speaking of?
Wilson:No, Collins who worked on Sudbury and he thought that Sudburyís explanation the fact that there were two basins there, one within the other, was liquid immiscibility. He said geology is just as good a science as chemistry -- that attitude prevailed. It was partly pride in their science.
Doel:And thatís something you would hear in the department at Toronto?
Wilson:Yes. They didnít discuss it too much because it was too tender a subject; the department just kept to themselves. There was supposed to be, when I went there, a committee to discuss geophysics but there never was a committee.
Wilson:That was in the l940s.
Doel:Thatís interesting, that late.
Wilson:It still goes on, actually, with one exception to what is a nearly seamless web, is geology. You cannot take a geological map and do very much with it mathematically.
Doel:And youíre talking about the recent Physics Today article.
Wilson:There are several of them. There is one by P. W. Anderson and one by this fellow who is president of the American Institute of Physics and then (Bromley??) bears on it. Bromley shows that the emphasis in science has changed. He has six subjects that he regards as key -- science education, computers, modern technology of manufacturing, global change, biotech and something else.
Doel:At Toronto you had mentioned that the department members largely kept to themselves, but I wanted to be sure -- did you say that there were not many other speakers in geology who came to visit? Were there any memorable experiences when you think back on those times? Lectures from others? Anyone who influenced you?
Wilson:There was very much less travel in those days than today. It was slower and more expensive. The universities werenít so wealthy. Physics always had money because McLennan gathered money and chemists also seemed to have connections.
Doel:How did McLennan get money? Where was he getting the funds from?
Wilson:He was a boy from Stratford, Ontario and was just a good money raiser -- an able and aggressive fellow who had graduated with first class honors in physics at Toronto. He got the money to build some of the biggest buildings on the campus today.
Doel:These were with individual wealthy Canadians who were interested or foundations or others?
Wilson:Curiously enough the heads of most of the science departments at the time I was an undergraduate and came back, first, were independent and had independent means -- most of them -- and they were well connected. Gilchrist, who had such an impression on the geophysics in Toronto, was a son of Arcadian settlers on the farm who came from Toronto and very highly respected. His cousins and close friends were stockbrokers, moderators of the Kirk and politicians and members of the board of governors and so on. He knew mining engineers. He was very well connected. When he died he left three houses and three cadillacs, though he was a bachelor, and a great deal of furniture. (Note: Kirk is Scottish for church.)
Wilson:They had independent means, but they didnít spend their money on bringing people, but they were quite well connected and if there was money going they could get it. Chant had been at Harvard and Helen Hogg was his student at Harvard who came up and just died recently. Gilchrist had been at Chicago and worked with the famous Morley --
Wilson:Michelson -- for his thesis. I think he measured the charge on the electron or something like that. McLennan had strong connections with Europe, particularly. During the war he was mixed up with the Admiralty in helping -- this is World War I -- getting helium for balloons and things like that from Canada. I donít know if heíd been to Cambridge -- I doubt it -- but he certainly had strong connections there and he was the sort of fellow whoíd walk into a hall and take charge of things. They had connections in Germany, in the United States and Britain. It was quite cosmopolitan. There were only five universities in Ontario and half of them went to Toronto students. The numbers were small and they were divided between two classes of people. One the children of the wealthy -- it was the social thing to do -- and the other were people who were bright and wanted to raise their standard of living. There wasnít very much scope for a scientist mostly because industry didnít employ many scientists anywhere in those days, but you could become a university professor or a high school teacher or work for the government -- they had some appointments there. I didnít try to tackle any of these problems because my father told me that I wasnít sure whether to be an engineer or a physicist or chemist and took mass physics just sort of by chance at Toronto. I found that interesting. I asked to take geology and when I asked to take geology everybody was very upset about this because the physicist, McLennan, said youíre a good student and youíve done well -- why would you go into something like geology? Why would you leave physics just when itís getting very exciting? I didnít know it was getting exciting because Iíd had nothing but classical physics in my first year. The geologists were reluctant to have a physicist come in for fear they might be found out that they didnít know any mathematics or didnít know any calculus and didnít understand geophysics at all. It was not a popular move, but I made it and I kept the different departments separate. Then I didnít have to think about going to Cambridge because I had a scholarship. Satterly said, ďIf youíre going to go to Cambridge, you should go to Jeffreys.
Doel:Had you read any of Jeffreys already?
Wilson:No. I think the book we chiefly used was R. A. Daly. He was a Canadian at Harvard and heíd written a number of books. A Mobile Earth was one we had.
Doel:How many books of Daly had you read, that you recall?
Wilson:Not very many. I didnít realize heíd written so many until fairly recently.
Doel:So you read the Mobile Earth?
Wilson:Yes, weíd studied that.
Doel:What did people think about it? What were your own views at the time?
Wilson:I donít think as an undergraduate -- I was interested in a great many other things. I donít think I was a very philosophical undergraduate. I had all sorts of activities going and then working in the summers it was quite different again.
Doel:You really learned of Jeffreys after you had gotten the scholarship?
Doel:Did you know of others that you were thinking about at Cambridge that you might work with in your study?
The feeling of the whole thing was quite different then from now. I was told that it would be a good place to go and Satterly said heíd give me an introduction and get me into Johns or any college that Iíd like. He wasnít sure about Trinity, but all the rest he could get me in. He thought I should go to Johns, so he wrote to Johns. There was another thread to this. Sir Gerald Lenox-Conyngham was the director or director general of the Survey of India and I sat with geodesists. Geodesists were very important people in those days because they were laying down the boundaries of states and provinces and countries.
I remember Noel Odell had a big brass plaque in his office which had been probably used by one of his predecessors which had on it, ďHer Botanic Majestyís Dominion Geodesist.Ē When they were laying down the boundary between Alaska and Canada -- the United States and Canada -- the chief geodesist, the Dominion geodesist, was an important position relative to the rest of science. The geodesists were important. Conyngham was a very bright fellow and got to be director of the Survey. His predecessors were people like -- was it airy ?? -- people who climbed Mt. Everest and so on and had mapped India.
They realized the earth was something like a sphere and they wanted to know its shape better so they needed better mathematical training. They had persuaded the Cambridge authorities that this should be done. Thereís a well-known story. They button-holed Sir Ernest Rutherford one day at dinner. They were both fellows or honorary fellows at Trinity and said to Rutherford he wanted a student to help teach this subject. They got Bullard. Bullard had to finish up with Rutherford. That was part of the bargain. During the time I was at Cambridge Bullard hadnít arrived. I only had Jeffreys. The idea was Bullard would teach me, but Bullard wasnít there. So I had to take much of what Iíd taken at Toronto over again, but I took a different set of minerals and a different set of fossils and had a very good time rowing and traveling and learning to fly. I got a pilotís license and had a good time. I wasted my time, in some respects, and in others I broadened my views.
I took Jeffreys next year all right, but I had not been -- in any sense he was -- interested in physics of the earth. The geologists were interested in the nature of rocks, fossils and minerals. The prospectors were interested in instruments and how you prospect. They were three quite different sciences in one. They were all mixed up together. I was going to be a prospector. That is how I got into the subject because Gilchrist told the head of physics and probably told the geologists too, that this was not an unreasonable thing that I was doing -- that Karsher had just discovered seismic prospecting. The U.S. Bureau of Mines and the Canadian Geological Survey were actively pursuing the matter. Companies wanted people, but nobody had ever been trained in exploration geophysics before. It was a respectable subject being practiced in Scandinavia and in Cornwall in the l820s, extensively; also in Canada in Toronto at the 1890s. Most of the greatest experimental physicists are people like Gauss and Humphrey Gilbert (or William Gilbert), Newton and Laplace had all been expert in this and they had contributed to this subject. It wasnít to go into physics of the earth that I studied, but become a prospector. So I was not equipped to deal with Jeffreysí lectures at all especially as he was a very bad lecturer. Heís brilliant, though: his book was very lucid.
Doel:Did you have much contact with Jeffreys out of the classroom?
Wilson:Yes, a lot.
Doel:What kind of interactions did you have with him?
Wilson:I lived for a year on the same staircase with him. Heís a very charming, shy fellow who when asked would speak Geordie because his parents had both been school teachers in Northumberland and that was the local dialect, a sort of Scottish dialect in north England. He was a very pleasant and agreeable shy man -- very shy indeed -- who was a bachelor at the time. He was very pleasant and affable and easygoing who had no space to sit down in his room, which was a large one except his bed because every chair and corner was occupied by piles of one paper or another that he was working on. He wrote a great number of papers. He lived in the college as a bachelor. Late on in life he married Bertha Swirls[??] who was a very dominant professor of mathematics. They got along very well. Isabel knew her and we were entertained by them. They came over to Canada and we drove them over to Niagara Falls and drove them around. I used to go for walks with them in the afternoon and weíd discuss the way trees grew in the Fens (Fenns?) and things like that. He was interested in that because he didnít know any geology.
Doel:Did you talk to him about geology? Did he have a curiosity about what you knew and the kinds of subject?
Wilson:I donít think so, no. He was a mathematician really. He was in the Newton tradition. There had been a number of them. George Darwin -- Charles Darwinís son -- was to whom his books are dedicated and there were others. That was his tradition and it had nothing to do with prospecting.
Doel:I am curious how much you had a chance to talk about any of those issues? I can understand there may not have been much ground to talk about them.
Wilson:I spent a lot of time rowing as well as learning to fly, and traveling in the summers and so on.
Doel:Did you travel to other research centers?
Wilson:No. It didnít occur to me to do that I donít think. I walked up the Rhine with another student and climbed the Zugspitze by myself, when he went home after a bit. I wandered around Europe. I was not a very diligent, scholarly sort of fellow. I had been trained early so if I was given a book and told to read it I would read it and find out what was in it and I could then answer an exam on it, but I was not really a desperately keen scholar.
Doel:Do you recall any particular readings or lectures that influenced you? Over there?
Wilson:I think I was chiefly influenced by the field work and by the fact I won a scholarship to Cambridge and got over there, then I rather wondered what I was doing because I couldnít follow Jeffreys very well. My tutor was not much help in this respect. My tutor had been with Shackleton and lived on the lifeboat there. He was interested in the Arctic and had been to the Canadian Arctic. He loved Arctic books. When we met, which was fairly frequently, we used to discuss the Arctic. He was a geographer, but I didnít get mixed up with the geographers or the Arctic people to any other extent in Cambridge. Then when I was through at Cambridge I hadnít really thought what to do. Mr. Massey wanted me to go into politics and the idea was an anathema to meóabsolutely the last thing.
Doel:You had absolutely no interest at all?
Wilson:No, not the least interest. My parents had belonged to liberal and conservative parties respectively and had never discussed politics. Dad was a civil servant and mother was quite sensible, so they never discussed it though they met a lot of people on both sides -- both parties -- and so on. I was not in the least interested in politics. It was a great disappointment to Mr. Massey that I wouldnít do the things he wanted me to do. He thought he was training young Canadians for positions and so on. I wasnít interested. I came back and the first year I wasnít very sure what to do. Then the Depression was at its height and Collins -- the director of the Survey -- said, ďWe wanted to have you here as a geophysicist, Wilson, but we canít do this under the circumstances because weíre having to cut back and we canít employ anybody else. I recommend you go to the States and take a degree there and get your Ph.D. and then the Depression will probably be largely over by that time and we can employ you then at least as a geologist if not a geophysicist.Ē At this time Dad knew one Cooke, who was professor of physics at Princeton and he was an inventor and worked on aircraft cameras. Through him I became acquainted with Princeton and Cooke said I should come to Princeton. Dad told me this. Cooke I suppose told Field and Field was looking around for people who had some training in both geology and in mass physics or engineering. As I told you, we had got these five people. Hess had graduated in engineering geology and then taken a Ph.D. in mineralogy and petrology; Ewing, you heard in the background, had field work in the summer in geology or exploration geophysics; Skeels was a Rhodes scholar taking geology at Oxford; Woollard was a geological engineer; and I was a geophysicist of sorts. So Field said come and weíll support you at Princeton.
Doel:Before we get right into the Princeton period were you looking at other universities as well?
Wilson:Yes, I wrote to three universities. I wrote to Harvard -- that was Daly. I wrote to MIT -- that was Bratton or some name like that. I wrote to Field. They all said they would accept me in the geology department as a Ph.D. student in geology, but the two other universities said they had no intention of ever teaching geophysics and they wouldnít offer anything in geophysics.
Doel:Is that what you read in a letter, say, from Daly?
Wilson:Daly said that, and so did Bratton. They said they had no intention of teaching geophysics.
Doel:Very interesting statement.
Wilson:And so Princeton was the only choice. Princeton offered me more money than the others because Field really got this scheme going and he wanted to get these people to study ocean basins, so he was keen to get people. The others would take me but I have forgotten the details. I think they would have supported me alright. They had no intention of teaching geophysics. You say why didnít you write somewhere else? I didnít know much about American universities. I had not traveled around. I had not been to meetings at that time in the States. I didnít know anybody. It didnít occur to me that there might be some seismologists in the west coast, which there were.
Doel:I was just going to ask you if you knew of the work that was being done out there? Byerly or Gutenberg?
Wilson:I knew them later. I wrote to Byerly and Gutenberg and knew them all quite well. I saw them at the meetings at the AGU in the 1930s, but that was after I had got to Princeton -- not before. No, I didnít know what they were doing and I donít know that it would have interested me to study earthquakes. I was interested more or less in prospecting. The other people who might have helped were the Jesuits, particularly Macelwane (McIlwain??) in St. Louis, but I didnít know about him at that time. I think Harvard, MIT and Princeton were the three that I thought of and those were the only ones and they didnít do anything -- so I went to Princeton where they immediately said that I hadnít really done any geology that counted and I would start to do my whole Ph.D. in American geology.
Doel:What differences did you notice between the approaches at Toronto and Princeton?
Wilson:I donít know that I really thought about the matter much. There was a large school in geology at Princeton and a great many of them were Canadians.
Doel:There was a long-standing tradition that many Canadian geologists had gone there.
Wilson:Yes, MIT was the same. The reason was easy to see because the demand for geologists to some extent depends on the area of the country and there was a big demand relative to other subjects, for geologists, in Canada. There were more geologists going to the States and getting educated than there would be today because there were jobs. While it was more organized at Princeton -- as I say I noticed very much -- the graduate school I thought was a loss, a sterile place, as far as I was concerned. I donít know about you, but I didnít really find Gillespie who was the chief and had a tea party once a year and a small number of students in turn -- the professors of geology were very kindly though. They were divided into two groups. The larger group entertained students in their homes, particularly on Sunday afternoons and weíd go to tea there and have a pleasant time.
Doel:Who were you thinking of when you say that?
McClintock who was in geomorphology. Field, who had four daughters, but they were younger than we were and that was not the attraction. He had a charming wife, but he was very warm and friendly. Benjamin Franklin Howell, his English wife, and his sonóalso Benjamin Franklin Howell. He is retired now at Pennsylvania. Alexander Hamilton Phillips -- they were descendants of Benjamin Franklin and of Alexander Hamiltonóboth of them. He was mineralogy. They had no children, his wife and he used to entertain students. And Taylor Thom, who was my professor, in economics. He worked for the oil companies a bit and was very secretive about this because professors werenít supposed to make any money in those days. He had had oil experience and he was a very good stratigrapher and very good plane tabler Ė- mapping -- and he knew a lot about structure. He was a very kindly Quaker and charming man. He looked after us well. Hess got married while we were there, but he was more our age. We went round to these people on Sundays and they entertained us. We also met Marquands, certainly through Cooke.
Marquand had been professor of archaeology at Princeton and the Marquand Chapel -- they were a wealthy family -- the young man had died. His widow was there and he had two daughters and a son. The son shot himself, I am sorry to say; I donít know why. He went to Western and didnít meet up to family standards or something. I donít know what happened. Anyway it was sad. Mary I knew quite well. She was older than I was and very nice. I used to go the Marquandís sometimes. I met McGee, who was the Dean -- I suppose he succeeded West -- but I didnít know him very well. I met West -- there was a fellow Eisenstadt who was the dean, too. Perhaps he followed McGee. I didnít know them so well. Generally on Sunday afternoon -- I gave up in graduate school because I found it expensive and not socially equivalent to Cambridge or Trinity which Iíd been in residence in. I didnít find it exciting to live in a boarding house where I stayed for two dollars a week. Phillips had organized one of the chemistry labs and it was the kitchen! We used to cook there. It was the Depression, mind you, and none of us had much money. I and half a dozen other graduate students used to think we could buy the food and cook it. Weíd cook supper and let them eat what they could for breakfast and lunch. It was all very silly. We largely lived around the department.
Doel:You mentioned a moment ago contacts with a few people outside the department. Do you recall getting to know others in the physics department or other departments?
Wilson:I tried, but they were not interested. They were solely interested in atomic physics.
Doel:Are you thinking, for example, of Shenstone?
Wilson:I knew Shenstone but the reason I knew him was that he was a Canadian. He invited me out to dinner once in a while. I didnít really have much contact with him on physics. I did meet Adams, but he didnít want anything to do with geophysics.
Doel:Were there any on the physics faculty who did take any sympathetic interest in geophysics or did they tend to really focus on atomic physics?
They really focused on atomic physics. They were very excited about atomic physics. The only other connection was a strange one and that was this charming fellow Cooke -- who was not a great professor of physics and taught undergraduates at the lowest level and invented cameras and things -- was a beautiful musician. He used to accompany Einstein. When I was at Cambridge, Einstein came through Cambridge and gave a lecture which nobody understood because his accent was appalling. It was very difficult to decipher. He turned up, of course, at Princeton when I was there. He used to spend his time in the Fine library, which was very close to the geology building and was also used by us if we wanted to look up Jeffreys or any book that was mathematical and not in the geology library -- weíd go to the physics library. There we would walk around Einstein, who was sitting in the same easy chair everyday thinking about life and writing things on a piece of paper. He had an amanuensis -- what was his name? I will have to ask my wife. He was a Pole, married to an American and a professor of mathematics who wrote papers with Infeld. He wrote books with Einstein. Why I got to know Infeld I canít imagine, but I did. He later came to Toronto, but I knew him at Princeton too.
I occasionally saw and I used to see Einstein regularly, but I was not a friend of his in any way. I just recognized him and knew who he was. I used to see Infeld. Infeld took more interest than anybody else in geophysics. He later came to Toronto and was in the math department. I think he was head of applied maths here, then he went back to Poland. My wife was on the same train as the Infeldís when they were going back to Poland, on the way to New York. She was taking our family and he was taking his family. Infeld seemed rather sad about the whole thing and said, ďYou know, I am not a very good Communist. My wife she is a good Communist, but I am not a very good Communist!Ē Which may well have been true, but he became head of mathematics in Poland. Before he went, I went to him and he was in the next door building at applied maths at Toronto. I was having a rather sticky time after Gilchrist had retired. He retired when I arrived. Burton, who was there and head of the department, he retired.
Doel:Weíre talking about the mid-1940s.
Wilson:Yes, after the war; 1946 - 1947. Infeld was quite sympathetic and I went to him and said it seemed to me where there was one point where you could tackle the physics of the earth is the island arcs at a lake in England, the geography I had been writing about. I am not sure what kind of arcs they are -- are they really circular arcs or not? Theyíre thought to be circular arcs, but are they circular arcs at places like the Aleutians and so on. He said, ďOf course, thatís a very good problem and we could work on that.Ē I asked if he knew anybody who could work on that. At first he couldnít think of anybody and then he said Scheidegger. He said, ďScheidegger had just completed his thesis on relativity with me, but Scheidegger is a good mathematician and he could tackle these problems.Ē So Scheidegger and I sat down and wrote one or two papers in which I did the geology and picked out the volcanoes and he found out if they were on a circle, on a logarithmic spiral, what sort of curve they were on, and they were on circle. It was a case of conic sections.
Doel:Thatís very interesting.
Wilson:And therefore we decided that the cause was that a cone of some sort was intersecting the surface of the earth and this was the cause of the arcs being circular and it couldnít be anything else. It couldnít be the charts because a dozen arcs seem circular on the globe; thatís not reasonable. Also they straightened out as they got bigger. Some, like the Tonga Kermadec islands, are practically straight because the radius is so large. They dip vertically -- the dip changes -- when itís so small the dip is shallow and this sort of thing happens. We wrote a couple of papers on that.
Doel:How did you actually write the papers? How did you actually do the collaborations on those articles?
Wilson:I really donít know. I have written a great many papers -- not all of them scientific -- lots of encyclopedia articles, newspaper articles. I am trying to get some hold on them. I never kept a very good list of them.
Doel:When you mentioned the contacts with at least some Princeton mathematicians, did you have any other contacts with the department or any other individuals that stand out?
Wilson:I suppose the department centered about the physics department and the Fine Library. The Fine Library I think was the predecessor of the Advanced School of Study at Princeton. At that time advanced study group didnít exist. I was kept busy meeting all the requirements to study polysections and thin sections and learn minerals and learn fossils and learn stratigraphy and make maps and so on, and also plot up the geology that I did in the summer.
Doel:The field work.
Wilson:I did a sort of routine geology Ph.D. of the normal style. I was quite accustomed to this because before and afterwards, chiefly afterwards, I published a dozen maps with my name on them for the Geological Survey of Canada, geological maps. I was a perfectly respectable geologist with a perfectly respectable Ph.D. in geology at Princeton.
Doel:I am curious how the particular dissertation that you did came about? Do you remember how you came to that particular topic?
Wilson:At that time -- it would be in the 1930s --
Doel:You had the Ph.D. in 1936.
Wilson:I had to do my thesis before that, though. I donít know why they got the idea, but a number of people -- including Bucher at Columbia -- wrote the physiography of the United States, east and western North America. Taylor Thom and Field and Rollin Chamberlain of Chicago, who succeeded his father, there seems to be some people in Ohio -- Rich, I think, in Cincinnati.
Doel:Where Bucher had been before?
Wilson:Had he? Anyway, a group like that including those people, got interested in field work and they thought they would set up a field camp in the western states. They were looking for a place to do this and they decided to go to Red Lodge in the Beartooth mountains, just over fifty years ago -- recently, two or three years ago, they celebrated their fiftieth anniversary -- and it was at that time they were looking for it that I got a Ph.D. They knew something about the country, but not very much. There was no camp at Red Lodge or it wasnít very complete anyway. Skeels and I were sent out there to do our Ph.D.s when nobody would supervise us in oceanography. It was a complete switch, but it was Taylor Thom who suggested this -- and Field -- and I was given one hundred eighty dollars to go and buy a car, drive west, spend the summer, drive back to Princeton and I did it! You could do it for one hundred and eighty dollars. We camped out and cooked our own food but we got cars from twenty-four to seventy-five dollars for a second hand car. Gasoline was cheap.
Doel:The train hadnít started?
Wilson:The train? It was something separate. It was for undergraduates who paid to go on this trip.
Doel:Wasnít it already happening at the time you were there?
Wilson:It had happened. Hess had made an impact on Field because of that. Hess had been on one of these trips. I think it was pretty well over by the time I was there. Field had milked the American capitalists and the Pullman company, who built the train to his specifications, as a lecture room and sleeping cabin for these students and then heíd send professors along. I suppose the student paid something to go on this trip. It wasnít a thing for graduate students. It was a tour of pines in Canada and then Field would get the mining managers to wash all the faces down so the students could examine the geology and so on. He was a great fixer, was Field.
Doel:Were the train excursions a chance for people like Field to do any research or was it mostly pedagogical -- the purpose of the trips?
Wilson:I donít think Field did much research really, or what you may call research after he left Harvard -- where heíd written on the sedimentation in part of the valley and ridge province. He became a friend of the son of Agassiz. Agassizís son was a vertebrate paleontologist with a lot of money who traveled chiefly in Indonesia and studied the living invertebrate. Field wrote textbooks of a popular nature, which sold very well indeed -- how to do it sort of books on geology, much to the annoyance of the department who thought he should have been writing scholarly works. He wrote these books that were very successful and all the students used. They were cribs, sort of. That was one of his main occupations. The American Geophysical Union kept him occupied quite a bit. He certainly didnít do any field work on these trips. He didnít go up in the mountains or anything. Mostly it was left to us to do it ourselves because middle-aged men found it difficult to suddenly go from, my thesis area ran from four thousand four hundred feet at Livingstone, I think, to eleven thousand eight hundred feed in Mt. Coran which was in my thesis area and twelve thousand three hundred outside it, which I also climbed. It was eight thousand foot range, starting at four thousand. The upper parts you were required to get climatized a bit. I was given a strip a hundred miles long or fifty miles long and they said go map it. Afterwards somebody came around and looked at some fossils on the roadside at the one end and that was it.
Doel:You were left on your own to learn.
Wilson:I had to learn the techniques of plane tabling even, because there were no maps that were any good. There were no good air photographs at that time of those ranges. The airplanes, they had a few, but the airplanes jogged along at sixteen thousand feet and the peaks came up to twelve thousand and the valleys went down to four thousand, so they were scaled very enormously and the plane was doing this all the time so that the photographs were of very little use. They were very dark and didnít show much features at all.
Doel:So for your dissertation you werenít really using aerial photographs as a tool?
Wilson:Not in Princeton, no. We just made some sort of map. There was a sketch map that had been done by the government, but it was mostly done on locating a few peaks and sketching things in according to how they looked to the experienced topographer, which might or might not be right.
Doel:You mentioned in the Killam lectures, I believe -- and a few moments ago -- that you had doubts about the kind of geology that you were being taught at Princeton. I was wondering if you recall any discussions with other graduate students about that. What was the general perception of your own group of what you were being taught?
Wilson:Most of the others were much more orthodox than I was because they had been geologists and they wanted to be geologists and they did nothing but geology. They hadnít ever studied much physics. My doubts came from having done a great deal of classical physics and doing things such as finding out if an island arc was circular or not which affected geologists. I was talking to Carey the other day, who says that back arc intrusion is why the arcs are circular. I asked him point blank -- I am probably old and rude -- why should intrusions behind arcs be circular when theyíre not circular elsewhere. He said he didnít believe in that so much anymore. He sort of hedged on things. Thereís obviously no reason. I said I donít doubt there was a back arc intrusion, but it seems to be that you get the cart before the horse that are must have come before and the back arc intrusion came in afterwards, otherwise there is no reason why the arc would be circular. Very simple things like that appeal to me, whereas most geologists were quite prepared -- they didnít think in those terms.
Doel:I was just curious if you recall having discussions of any of the people in your group, given that you had the physics background? Did you talk to them about physics?
Wilson:Skeels knew more about these things than I did. He was a Rhodes scholar in mathematics and a fine mathematician. He married a very charming lady with whom I correspond. I used to correspond with him, but heís pretty well given up on correspondence. She maintains it strongly especially on the fact that we both have Huguenot ancestors. Maury was her maiden name; the well-known Mauryís -- the oceanographer and others. She was a charming lady and theyíve been happily married. I rarely see them. They are now retired in Storrs, Connecticut. He joined the Carter Oil Company -- and then Imperial Oil, ESSO. He spent his life -- wasted his life I would think. They asked me when Skeels retired he asked me to come down and lecture to this group. It struck me that his talents had been wasted with an oil company. The boys with whom he worked who were younger, who had been promoted and many of whom were his bosses just didnít understand how good he was. The oil companies really didnít understand research and geology.
Doel:Do you recall discussions with him about that? Did he feel frustrated himself about the role of geophysics?
Wilson:He hadnít got into this when we discussed our theses together, on mountain building and so on, but he hadnít got with the oil companies then.
Doel:I meant later when you were talking with him.
Wilson:Once we separated we rarely saw each other because he was with oil companies and didnít go to meetings very much. I only saw him rarely. I correspond with him once or twice a year; two or three times a year. I see heís taken up painting and things because once you get out of an oil company you are out of an oil company -- not like an academic like myself. His wife is still interested in the Huguenot connection and we had very pleasant times together. Sheís a very smart lady. She sent out one hundred Christmas cards for a dollar. She bought a hundred, one-cent cards -- which were possible then as that was the standard rate in the United Statesóand she made a sketch on the back of each of them and mailed them off.
Wilson:Yes, well thatís the standard of living we had.
Doel:Perhaps itís a good time for us to move on to the late l930s. Again, in the other sources you have already noted a good deal about the work you had done on the Geological Survey when you were part of the Survey from 1936 through 1938. One of the things that we have not really covered well is the time when you were in the Canadian military engineers, beginning in 1939. I wonder how that came about in 1939, that you recall, for this work?
I remember when the war broke out. I was in the northwest territories with five student assistants, mapping the south half of the Indian Lake sheet. One of the boys -- Allen, I guess -- whose father was a professor and one of the original professors at the University of Alberta, professor of geology there, was also in the militia. He warned me that he might be called up if war broke up, but we didnít have any radios or anything and didnít know much about what was going on. We only saw the newspapers once every three weeks or something, if that. I was not greatly surprised when I saw planes circling as though looking for somebody. We got back to camp that night and found that heíd gone.
It was the end of the season and we came out anyway, got back to Ottawa and although I had been hired a little under a year, it never occurred to me that I would join the army. They told me I couldnít join the army because all the Geological Survey was frozen because the minerals were important and we had to find minerals for oil. However, through my father, who was in the government and incidentally had the peculiar experience of being a member of all three armed services, but he was in the militia and the Governor General Footguards, because it was the social thing to do; mother thought it would be a good idea to meet people in Ottawa, and he bought a commission. Through the navy department, he got a job as director of stores and later of assistant deputy minister. In 1918 he saw the naval department to go right down, so he transferred and suggested that they needed some regulations in Canada about flying which they had none of, and training and licensing and so on.
The government said to write a paper on it. He wrote a paper and they told him to write it with a lawyer and an airman, so the three of them wrote an airborne act. They appointed dad to be the first secretary of this airborne. He spent the next thirty years or so in charge of civil Aviation in Canada. He was in touch with surveying air photography, air transports and flying boats, and development of planes, and training and every aspect of this -- and he was in all three services in that way. At one time he was deputy director of the Royal Canadian Air Force while remaining a civilian. Heíd been an assistant deputy of the navy department and a major in the Governor Generalís Footguard. He knew a lot of people, so I knew a lot of people. I knew many of the senior civil servants in Ottawa and the scientists among them. He and mother were respected citizens who lived quietly. They both traveled a lot and knew a lot of people and met a lot of people. Through my father, then, I knew General McNaughton and General Turner who were then busy getting the Canadian army together.
So when they told me I couldnít joint the Canadian army I went to General McNaughton or got in touch with him -- or got daddy in touch with himóand I soon saw Colonel Turner, as he was then, and he said, ďDo you want to be an officer or a Sapper.Ē He said they were forming a secret company and I mustnít say anything about this but weíll get you overseas and then weíll sort it out when we get you over there. Weíd be glad to have you as a geologist -- itís something very useful you could do and weíll have no trouble getting you out of the department. Much to my wifeís astonishment and chagrin I was soon in uniform. I had been -- because of the first World War there was a lot of activity in cadet corps -- so I had been in cadet corp., so I really knew nothing about the military at all except to be a private soldier.
I was first of all with the field company and then they switched me from that to a survey company because I had been a geologist and knew how to survey, so I was in the survey company. This sort of a supernumery sub-lieutenant thing. Then I went overseas with them. Cohn Campbell, who was a politician and a mining engineer, was busy recruiting diamond drillers and geologists and miners to blow up the Siegfried line which was opposite the Maginot line. Because people had gone to the government and said, ďWe were Tunnelers in the first World War in the (chalk??) mine and we used to tunnel underneath their line and blow them up.Ē They said with the modern diamond drilling equipment you could drill horizontally and expand the hole, but explosives could blow them up without going there and it would be much quicker and safer. That was what I was supposed to be doing.
So we went overseas and we soon started to drill holes and the chalk[??] at Aldershot and so on. There were all these people who had no training in the military at all. We worked eight hour shifts and itís a good thing I had some experience in the bush and knew something about handling men because it was a very disorganized operation altogether. They were good men in their field and they got the holes drilled. They blew lines up. I donít know what the British army thought about this, but it was certainly something they hadnít thought about very much themselves. This went on until the Battle of Britain, when we were recruited to make defenses. I was sent down. I watched the Battle of Britain and the closing of the Straits of Dover from Dover Castle, where I was stationed at the time and all the balloons up in the air over Dover and it was great fun. I saw fifty four German airplanes coming over in the afternoon sunlight. They were low-down, relatively speaking, to bomb London. They got the hell kicked out of them coming over in daylight and then they changed to night bombing. We had an interesting experience in the time of Dunkirk and seeing these ships and trying to build defenses to protect the people from the invasion.
Doel:You were traveling quite a bit during the early years of the war?
Wilson:They sent me up to train the British with the idea of this, so I was sent up to take charge of training some British people in doing this which I did but not so effectively because they were not professional diamond drillers -- which we had started withóand they of course didnít.
Doel:When was this that you did the training?
Wilson:The first complete winter of the war. We arrived over in January 1940 so it would be the winter of 1940-1941 that we did the training. Then the Canadians said, ďYouíve got all this going on over there, we donít know what the hell is going on here -- weíre trying to train people to send over to you and we want to know what the hell the Engineers are doing. We hear stories about new explosives and anti-mine devises and about mines and booby traps and new Bailey bridges. We donít know Bailey bridges. Send us some plans and weíll make some Bailey bridges.Ē So they said, ďWilson you go and find out what to do and do it.Ē I got a carte blanche from the office in London of the secretary to go anywhere I wanted and to do anything I liked!
Doel:Not a bad deal.
Wilson:I dressed in camouflage and got to be a great friend of Donald Bailey when he was building his bridge, much to the astonishment of the Canadian railway engineers who only thought of steel bridges as railway bridges and sound foundations built long and ponderously, whereas theirs had to be put up at night on the muddy bank in the dark by pieces that you could handle by two or four men carrying them around.
Doel:Very different tradition.
Wilson:I wrote reports every day and visited these operations on other days.
Doel:Where would the reports go?
Wilson:They went back to Ottawa. I donít know who they went to. I had great arguments with the steel companies. They said this wasnít a proper plan for building a bridge and that you couldnít build a bridge on this. I said Bailey had a test rack and when heís done sketching on an envelope he shows it to his welder and the welder picks up a piece and tests it. They had great arguments about the quality of steel. The key to this was the nuts and bolts that held the Mechanical bits together. They had the stress on them. I didnít know any engineering, really, but most of it was common sense and a little bit of physics and also understanding what itís like to be on a muddy bank in the dark which I had done quite a bit of in geology. I wandered around England attending every sort and kind of operational research, the food they had, the ammunition they had. I was in engineering. Somebody else did the radar. For a while I did chemical engineering and somebody else did artillery. Engineering covered a lot of things.
Doel:What kind of plan did you have in your mind when you selected which places you wanted to visit or operations you wanted to see?
Wilson:I was in London close to the war office and I used to go over and see the fellows who were in staff duties and planning things in the war office so I would know what was going on or what the Canadian army was doing; see the division and operations and see what the hell it was doing. Somebody would have invented a tank that had a mine sweeper on the front of it with big chains on it that would set off the land mines so they didnít blow up the tank. That was one of the things they did. They had shaped charges, so called, which had a hollow in them. They blew a hole into concrete and smashed concrete. They couldnít get enough armored plate steel so they decided they would make it out of flint and tar -- they would make armor out of flint and pitch. The view being bullets would penetrate the pitch very easily and then shatter the flint and shatter itself in the process. That was much lighter than steel, of course, so you could have it thicker. It was not as good as steel, but it was a substitute for some purposes. Plans how you did this had to go back and what kind of camouflage nets and how to use them -- I donít know, all sorts of things.
Doel:It sounds, from what youíre telling me, that there was not much time at all to talk science or research problems with any of the people that you were coming in contact with.
Wilson:I was very much a man of all trades, but I got around a lot and saw an awful lot of establishments in Britain. They had establishments to do this -- a camouflage establishment, a bridging establishment, new explosives establishment, and so on. I would go and visit these places and see how they were getting along and after a bit go back and see them again. They had combined operations establishments. They had combined operations and were trying to figure out what sort of weapons they needed, what sort of food they needed and how it should be packed and how it should be carried -- just the practical applications of new inventions and new ideas.
Doel:Did you find that there were many research scientists?
Wilson:Yes. Burnell was one. I came across him. Recently going over and visiting my cousin I met Solly Zuckerman. He was another of them. They were mixed up with Mountbatten and combined operations. I wasnít in for combined operations, but combined operations are one of the places I used to stop at to see what they were thinking about things. I lived on a diet of straight chocolate for awhile! Not very satisfactory! I got to know a general in the British engineers, the deputy chief engineer. He was going to go to the Mediterranean and find out what went on in the Mediterranean. I went out with him as his staff officer, which was great fun. Great larks. His idea of finding out what was going on was to get the local officers drunk. I had to provide the whiskey, a bottle of whiskey a day! Which in the Mediterranean was not the easiest thing in the world. I found shipís pursers were the best source if I could bribe them. All very entertaining. Eventually Montie said he wouldnít have any generals coming in to visit his island, fighting the Germans in Sicily. They were still in Sicily, but he was at one end and they were at the other. I was allowed in so I went in and saw what the troops were doing in Sicily and reported back to the general. Then on the way back while he played bridge and drank whiskey I wrote a report on what the British engineers were doing in the Mediterranean.
Doel:Did you come in contact in that work with British scientific intelligence? Was that one of the areas that you had any dealings with?
Wilson:No. Morgan said I was appointed because the engineers wanted to know what to do. I donít think they were much concerned with intelligence.
Doel:It was much more the practical facet.
Wilson:They wanted to know what kind of bridges they should be building because they thought they equip their troops with bridges instead of using British bridges because the British were short of bridges, and why shouldnít they make bridges -- they could make bridges at home very easily and ship them over, if somebody would send them the plans. ďWilson, get some plansĒ -- well, there werenít any plans. Because they didnít sit down and plan a bridge. They just sketched it on the back of an envelope, as I say, and made it and tested it. If it worked they tried it a bit more and improved it until they had a bridge. Then they would just copy it. It was very difficult to get plans out of them to send back to a steel company with all the specifications and type of steel you needed and how it was welded and so on. It was better than nothing, at least to tell them what was going on and they could send their own people over if they wanted more details. My wife came over and joined me.
Doel:You were there until 1943?
Wilson:I was there for four years -- from January 1940 to December 1943. I came back in the middle of the winter on the Queen Elizabeth at thirty knots. It was great fun.
Doel:That must have been a fast and furious cruise.
Wilson:Bang! Bang! Imagine driving a liner through huge waves in the middle of the winter at thirty knots. It was quite an experience. We used to take water out of the bows.
Doel:You knew what assignment you had when you came back to Canada Ė- Ottawa -- in 1943?
Wilson:They called me and said they wanted me back in Ottawaóto take my wife and go home.
Doel:Was that a disappointment to you? Would you have preferred to have stayed in Britain?
Wilson:No, I think we were quite happy to go home. We had four years there in England. Isabel had been over there and it was pretty hard on Isabel. She had been in the volunteer corp. all the time and working, and trying to have children and so on. It was high time we came home, I thought. They told me before I left England that I was to be director of operational research. Well, the original director of operational research was Shinland[??] . He was in the army; a south African physicist and a geophysicist incidentally. Then Omand Solandt, who was a Canadian, he was involved in it in some way. Blackett -- he was the naval one. I went to see these fellow to see what they were doing; all sorts of interesting things. They used to sound the alarm in Dover when they saw the flash from the gun because it took a minute for the shell to get across the channel and they had a minute for people to take cover. The people in Dover knew this so they would dive for shelter before the explosion occurred. They had these barrage balloons. Also I came across the people at MIT who were working on operational research.
Doel:Who are you thinking of in particular? We can always put that on transcript later.
Wilson:I had met a number of Americans who were involved in this. By this time the Americans were arriving and I was supplying information, to some extent, to the Americans. I knew Drexler Dana and Arnold -- theyíre West Pointers. They came over in city clothes via Lisbon, in advance of the American contingents when they were still not yet at war. They were neutrals. I used to show them around or take them around with me and go to the U.S. club, which was the old Sassoon Palace in Hyde Park corner. It was great fun and I saw the Americans in the Mediterranean.
Doel:What were the principle responsibilities that you had when you were director of operations research back in Ottawa, in 1943.
Wilson:When I found somebody to report to which I didnít at first understand who to report to. They said, ďWe donít know, youíve been over there and they have operational research over there so do what theyíre doing.Ē
Doel:So you had carte blanche, in some respects, again.
Wilson:Yes. I found that probably the man that was the cause of this was Wally Gilforth. His father had been a famous Canadian missionary and he was an economist. He used to write with a fellow called Gilbert Jackson. The two of them wrote the economic prospect notices for most of the banks in Canada every year; not one bank but lots of banks. They didnít employ their own economists then. They employed Gilbert Jackson and Wally Gilforth[??] wrote the reports, so Gilbert Jackson did the selling I guess. He was a very bright fellow, indeed. He had been in World War I and he was staff duties. This meant staff duties were those things which nobody knew what to do with. Theyíd give it to staff duties to do. I was a sort of technical adjunct to staff duties, in effect. He said there were lots of problems and just tackle some of the problems -- that they could tell me some of them and I could find out more myself. The Sigs complained that they want Signalmen and they get recruits. Somebody sends them out of Signalmen -- recruits. They said they had two kinds of Signalmen -- they want ones that climb trees and put wires up, and others who listen to messages and send messages and listen to messages and to sort things out. How did they separate who goes into which class? They werenít being very successful at it. I consulted a psychologist called Morche[??] and he advised tests very quickly -- not on how well they climbed trees but how well they could listen to Morse code, decode it and write it down or do whatever is necessary. Soon they were quite happy about that. There were some problems like that or a vast variety of problems. And also by being overseas I knew some of the places to go and get more information -- the kinds they wanted. They were busy with Habakkuk -- Magnus Pike who used to be on radio and television; the mad physicist. He wanted to build landing fields in the middle of the Atlantic which were built of ice with a refrigerating plant and to strengthen them they had sawdust in them, as a fiber. He was building them at Pyramid Lake outside Jasper when I went to visit the operation.
Wilson:I wrote reports on this so that one had pretty well folded up. It really didnít work very well I donít think. They had all these extraordinary notions -- some of them very good and some of them very bad. The first thing I did was I thought I better look and see what was going on. I got them to send me from the Aleutians to Mexico and see a lot of places in between. I found out what sort of training they did, what the camps looked like and what their problems were. They were often quite simple and frequently the same as other peopleís problems if they could just be told who to go to. It wasnít all very original. It was sometimes just putting people in touch because they had not been organized a long time. There was a fellow -- whose name I have forgotten -- he was the director of Gulf in the States. Heís Canadian but became the director of Gulf in the States. He is a well known businessman here. Heíd become a major in the first division in charge of administration -- DQMG or something. He said, ďWeíve got some of the brightest young businessman in Canada to try to run this place and the Brits in their division have only a third the number of people. They run it much better. They run the third British division much better than we run ours.Ē Well, of course, they were pros at running an army division and the Canadian businessmen were not pros at running an army division. The Canadians werenít very well organized and they were trying to get themselves organized to solve problems by being in touch with what the Americans did and what the British did and what the Germans did and what anybody else did.
Doel:Did you find that those kinds of liaisons and contacts that you were developing during those years, or others who were working with you, had an influence on the kind or the way that you did science after the war?
Wilson:Indirectly, yes. Because I think that itís very noticeable in museums that people who run museums have no training whatsoever in running museums. If you join the army -- any army -- or the Catholic church or any church or business, there is a sort of ladder or several ladders which people scale at various rates which take you to various places in the organization. They quickly pick out bright young men or women to head to the top in these organizations and train them accordingly. Even if they donít do it deliberately, this happens. Theyíre all busy looking for oil or looking for running a bank better or making paint or whatever it is -- theyíre all doing the same thing in more or less the same way. They all learn the same thing. In the museum you are likely to have one like the ROM [Royal Ontario Museum] which is a mixed museum. You have people doing Egyptology and people studying bugs and people studying Persian carpets. They have not much connection with each other and each is a very small group so you donít have to run into very many people and you know them. Therefore when somebody is appointed to direct it, if they just pick one out of this mob of forty divisions that they have, which are totally unalike, and say, ďYou be the boss and run the whole thingĒ itís obviously very difficult for that person. Having this experience in the army, which is so varied, and then camping out and living with men in various circumstances including you see a lot of workmen who were pretty tough characters -- many of them in the woods and so on -- and also scientists to head a variety of people, I think this was a very good training for subsequent administration. I didnít run either the Erindale College or the Ontario Science Center in any conventional way at all.
Wilson:I did get to know the people, which was much more important. I had the most cordial relations with both organizations.
Doel:Just thinking of the immediate post-war period, of course the president of the National Research Council of Canada was C. J. McKenzie after the war. Was he someone you came into contact with during the war time work that you did or was this something that happened afterward?
Wilson:Indeed I did. He was a very bright fellow and had been a successful officer in the engineers in the first World War, as a young man. He had then gone to be dean of engineering at Saskatchewan and done well there. For some reason they picked him to be president of the Research Council in Canada. The Research Council was started in 1916. One of the early presidents was Adams -- and what they did in those days I donít know very much. Later it was run by Tory. Tory was a strange Canadian. He founded three universities. He founded the Khaki University overseas in World War I. He founded the University of Alberta and he was the first president of Carleton University in Ottawa. He had no children and spent an hour everyday reading serious books. He was a very able and likeable man and well able to run things. I knew him and then he was succeeded by McNaughton because they tried to convert the NRC into military operations. McNaughton was an engineer also. Then when McNaughton got taken up with the army then they put in McKenzie. He was a very able and rather unconventional fellow. He thought that the government -- because Canada is smaller than the states -- should have a dominant place in research. Being an engineer and used to practical things, because that was the only way we could compete with the United States which I can see by Bromleyís feelings and mine, was exactly the wrong attitude, but be that as it may, during the war it worked fine because there were very few people in the Research Council before the war. The war had expanded greatly. The only place they could get people from in Canada was from the universities. The NRC was run like a university and thought like a university and worked like a university, and that was fine. Subsequently it deteriorated because it became a government department and the people who wanted to work like a university left it.
Doel:What period of time were you thinking of?
Wilson:I donít know how long it took.
Doel:Was it after the 1950s?
Wilson:Everybody knows in every country that the government is a very bad place to do fundamental research. It may be alright for applied research, but several of these fellows like McKenzie were engineers and used to applied research. If they had a problem they had to solve the problem. That is the way a businessman thinks. If you think of any big company it is run either by a lawyer or an accountant usually and they have a project where they have to find oil and do it economically and go after it. This is not, according to Bromley, the worst thing you could do. What you want to do is miss out the advance that you might make by approving what is going on now and jump ahead some in you. That is not the way an accountant or lawyer thinks.
Doel:I was thinking of discussions that you may have had with McKenzie when you were thinking of the role geophysics would play in Canada.
This came about because one of the things we were instructed to do in Canada was Arctic work. Therefore we were busy building the Bombardier snowmobiles. Bombardier was a brilliant mechanic -- a garage mechanic in Quebec -- who in the l920s started to convert automobiles into tractors of sorts so the village curates and doctors could get around in snowstorms, which were worse in Quebec than here. During the war, Winston Churchill when his troops were defeated in Norway and thrown out and realizing Hitler had lost out because of the cold -- and Napoleon in turn -- also said we must be prepared for Arctic warfare or cold weather warfare. Itís the cold that defeats people, being inadequately equipped and fed and trying to travel. The Canadians were told to do this in secret. So they had got hold of Bombardier by some stroke of genius, I donít know how.
Bombardier had been tied up with General Motors to build snowmobiles, which are not what you think of as these little tractor things that run around with two people sitting on them. They were big, sort of sedan cars on tractors. That was his original idea. They built light tanks, in effect. These were wonderful vehicles. They were exorbitantly expensive, but boy they would go and would they go anywhere. They would go over rock piles, theyíd go over swamps, theyíd go through water, theyíd go over snow, with a very light square inch weight of track. They were rugged and fluid drive and they were lovely vehicles. We changed them around a bit and organized them and ran this Exercise Musk Ox at the end of the war. So one of the things we were thinking about all the time was cold weather warfare and track vehicles -- and why tanks worked better if they had holes in the tracks instead of plates on the tracks and odd things like that. Which was purely scientific.
I was on the committees on how do you measure snow and ice. Snow today is different today than what it will be in a week. How do you measure snow and ice and how do you quantify it and how do you study it, and also how is the best way to travel over it and how do you deal with it best. Yes, I believe we were in touch with the Americans. The Americans had developed the Weasel as their version. The Weasel was an excellent vehicle, but for a different purpose really. It was a much smaller and lighter vehicle. It had a different arrangement of suspension and it was designed to float and therefore had to be light. The snowmobile would go through about three feet of water, but after that it would get flooded over the top. It was not designed to float and therefore could be more robust. The Weasel, as we had discovered on track test, had this weakness and we knew this. The Americans -- we had observers on this Exercise Musk Ox, three of them.
They were all excellent military officers, experienced and probably West Pointers, but they had no notion of the Arctic whatsoever and they did a thorough job and we got along well with them. The British sent one man, but he had been actually exploring in places like Spitsberg and so on. He was not probably such a good engineer or military man, but he did know something about the Arctic which is really what in this case was needed. But anyway it worked out very well. So we had four observers on. At one time I asked all the attaches in Ottawa to come and look at this operation to make sure they did not think it was a military operation. It wasnít a military operation. My desire, and I think the desire of the Canadian government, was that we should know how to operate in our own country. We were not really planning to go anywhere else and we certainly had no notion of going across the North Pole to the Russians which the Americans might imagine one would do because it was a very bad way to get to Russia! We were merely interested in how to travel in our own country and how to defend our own country.
Doel:Were there conflicts which came up with, say, U.S. officials or with the role that Canada would play in developing that kind of understanding?
No not very much. The Americans got in the war in December 7 -- Pearl Harbor -- and they had of course been around Canada in large numbers. Some fellows flew up from the States and landed in Winnipeg and told the people there that they were taking charge of Winnipeg airport. They wired dad and he had the Americans arrested. They were very persistent about this and so eventually they were held until this could be straightened. They were told they were not running the airport and this upset them no end. I am sure they werenít put in jail, but they were certainly told that they were not running the Winnipeg airport -- that there might be a war on but the Canadians knew there was a war and had been in it for some time and running things fine, thanks. They would be glad to have American help, but they werenít going to have the Americans suddenly tell them what to do.
That caused a little slight altercation, which the Americans never quite forgave. They also decided that they needed, because of the weather, an alternate to Gander Airport which is in Newfoundland because it sometimes got fogged in and they thought it should be at Goose Bay, which had been discovered by surveyors in Canada. There was a good sand plain there and they could build an airport. It was easy access. It was a long arm from the sea and they could get in from the sea, and it was a good place to land and safe. It wasnít fogged in at all. The Americans told the Canadians -- my father, chief of civil aviation and in charge of airfields and things in Canada -- that they were going to -- build this airport at Goose Bay. Because it was very important they were sending up one of Franklin Delano Rooseveltís sons who was the engineer in charge of this and who would get it done in a hurry. But Dad said, ďThatís very nice and weíre glad to have you help, but itís almost finished you know.Ē They said. ďAlmost finished!Ē and he said, ďYes, weíve been building one for some time.Ē They also decided they would have the Crimson Route which went from Winnipeg, The Pas, Churchill, Coral Harbor, Baffin Island, two places in Greenland, Reykjavik, Iceland and Europe. This was going to be a route with all short stages by which they could fly planes Ė- fighters -- over Europe and bring wounded back. They built hospitals and things at these places. Dad told them it was not a good idea. They said, ďWhy not, the distances are short and the planes can easily handle that -- we have things guided and so onĒ and Dad said the flying conditions were not suitable for the time. The Americans just wouldnít believe that and they built this place, these fields. They sent people there and they got lost because the pilot in the fighter plane may have lots of range but if it iced up and so on he was in trouble. The Americans were very great with enthusiasm. They were like the Canadians had been a couple of years earlier really. They hadnít really adjusted to the facts of life. There were some difficulties about that nature. They were really thorough to be minor. I knew the assistant attache in the United States very well and they made me an Officer of the Legion Emeritus; they were fine, the Americans.
Doel:I was thinking in particular of developing research programs after the second World War in geophysics. Clearly in the United States the military was very interested in developing certain kinds of geophysics programs.
Wilson:I donít believe they were interested in prospecting. We were interested in Canada in prospecting.
Doel:It stayed an interest of industrial and mining applications almost exclusively?
Wilson:Oh very definitely. By the end of the war Gilchrist in the physics department knew that he was retiring. He had got Norm Keevil, who later became chairman of a tech corporation -- a very large holding company for many mines -- who was from Saskatchewan and asked me to work for him at one time but I didnít. Arthur Brant, who found steep rock iron deposits in Ontario and later became chief geophysicist for Newmont in Arizona, looking for copper mines there. John Hodgson, whose father and he were both Dominion seismologists in turn, two of themónot Keevil, but Toronto graduates -- Brant had his Ph.D. from Berlin so they knew some geophysics there; Keevil had his in chemistry from Saskatchewan and either Harvard or MIT. They were all keen on metal mining prospecting, which the Americans didnít know much about and the military would not be interested in. The one brush we had was with the radon gas in houses.
Doel:Which we had mentioned off-tape when we were having lunch a while ago, that it was a concern on the part of the local police.
Wilson:Not the local police, no -- the people out of various -- and people and the American Atomic Energy. They thought this was very suspicious, that we were a bunch of commies. We had a mass spectrometer which we had largely built with the help of A. O. Nie at Minnesota. He had been great help. He had Thode[??] who was building a reactor at McMaster. Keevil had started this thing and got it well underway when Gilchrist and he retired. The reason that they all retired was a silly one when looked at now, but it was quite in keeping with the ideas of the time. As I mentioned the heads of the departments in Toronto happened to be fairly, well comfortably, off. During the war the young men had left or gone into research or got diverted from it, so the university was in charge of elderly humanists and a few elderly scientists. They thought it shocking that the scientists would spend their time making money, which the humanists could not do very often, and therefore making money was a bad thing for a professor to do even though it showed that he was useful and certainly not in arts. Though Gilchrist had made a lot of money he devoted it all to scholarships. He was a smart fellow; a smart Scotchman. He used to get mining companies or friends of his in mining companies and say, ďLook, I am a poor man and I just get a little money here. For every dollar I put in you put in ten dollars and weíll make scholarships for the university.Ē Heíd get people to do this.
Wilson:The university decided that they wouldnít promote any of these three fellows because they all made money which is as stupid as you can be, I thought. However I knew very little about this because I was in Ottawa and running around and running exercise Musk Ox and I spent most of the previous winter before I came here in the Arctic. They had invited me to lecture and I had lectured; they eventually invited me to become chair of geophysics. I didnít know what the local situation was at all. If Iíd been in Canada I might have, but having been out of Canada and then in Ottawa and very busy finally organizing this military operation which involved five hundred men and nine airplanes and a lot of snowmobiles up in the Arctic -- to open up and gain the Arctic for Canadians and not particularly for military, but just to make use of the expertise and to traveling in the north which it did in fact do. They wouldnít appoint Keevil or Brandt. I think Brandt was disappointed and I think he should have every right to be. They didnít blame me because they knew I hadnít been there and had nothing to do with the department for the last sixteen years. Iíd been in either graduate school or in the army or at Geological Survey. I made no bones about the fact that I didnít have a Ph.D. in physics. My Ph.D. was in geology and that was well known to everybody.
Doel:Did that particularly affect the people in geology or were other science departments also involved?
Wilson:It was entirely in the physics department. I remember having lunch with Burton, who was head of the physics department and a very sensible fellow. The head of the university was Canon Cody. I think a clergyman and an educator and quite a good fellow, but very reactionary and much over age. Burton said to Cody, ďDonít you agree with me that Wilsonís as good as anybody we could find in the States?Ē There was such a desperate shortage. There was hardly anybody being trained. MIT wouldnít train anybody and I donít know if they knew what went on in California, but they certainly werenít interested in metal mining prospecting. There was just nobody being trained except at McGill and Toronto. McGill had very few people and though they wrote a book or two about it I donít know what happened, but there certainly werenít many. Toronto had very few undergraduates. I was the first and maybe Garland was not the second, but he was one of very few. Heíll tell you more about this than me. He got in when it had been more properly organized. I got in on the spur of the moment. When I went there in the autumn and said I wanted to take geology instead of physics they had to do something about it. It wasnít planned at all. By the time Garland came there they had better plans. They had these other fellows to teach them.
Doel:Were the people in chemistry also doing consulting at the time? Did that policy at the university affect them?
Wilson:No. Lash Miller had lots of money and I think Gordon had lots of money. Gordon was mixed up with the American graduate schools. I donít think that any of them were doing -- of course they now fall into line with other people and they behave in a sensible fashion. The engineers were probably -- that was engineering and not arts and not part of the university problem really. Keevil got the help of Nie and Thode[??] who later became president of McMaster University. They had a mass spectrometer well on the way when all this fell apart and I arrived. I was able to get two or three other people in physics and then Bullard came here for a year and we got the thing going with the help of various people, chiefly Collins who was a graduate student and a very capable fellow who went to the states. So we had one of the first mass spectrometers going.
Doel:You mentioned a moment ago about the suspicions of Alvers and others about what was going on. Did politics enter in anyoneís mind in terms of legitimizing the effort or having suspicions of what work was being done at Toronto? What other issues affected --
Wilson:What do you mean affecting?
Doel:In American universities at times those who had liberal loyalties became suspect because of the change in politics --
Wilson:Oh, the McCarthy affairs.
Doel:Exactly. For example, Shapley at Harvard.
Wilson:I knew his son well. I didnít know Harlow Shapley.
Doel:I was wondering about that when you mentioned politics. Clearly there were internal politics and there were alsoÖ
Wilson:The Canadians didnít have these ďbogey men.Ē They didnít pay much attention to that. I remember coming across it in the Arctic institute. The Arctic institute was half American and half Canadian. I was the first Canadian chairman. It was started by people who had been in the Arctic, including Stefans and himself and Meignan who had been prime minister at the time and various other people. It was decided that the Americans had contributed and had great interest in the Arctic, through Alaska in particular, and through their long range planes. They were already flying from Canadian bases and so on. I went on the first American flight to the North Pole as an observer. There were excellent relations between them. And Greenaway, they would hardly go on a flight without Greenaway, because he was a very good experienced Arctic pilot. The trouble is you get into conditions of perpetual twilight or icing and so on in the Arctic which are very difficult unless you know what to do with it and to avoid them in the first place. No I had no trouble at all with politics. They said the man who pretended to be drunk wore a raincoat one time which I found very entertaining. He was obviously a complete fraud. He sort of looked around -- he was just poking his nose into things. There was no reason for him to worry about our looking into -- we were trying to do age determinations. We were trying to find out if there were three isotopes of radon. It wasnít known there was fluoron and two radons at that time. Things were not very clear. It was only in 1935 that they discovered there was Uranium 235 and the series went very well; it worked out and once you had a mass spectrometer and it was thought that the helium ages and helium was involved in this. Helium and radon and things might produce age determinations in rocks. It was all entirely legitimate and completely innocent. There was no thought of military advantage or spies or atomic bombs at all. I did go to Chalk River because I knew Ian Keyes, but I had no connection with him at that time. Later I was on the Provincial Research Board, but not until later.
Doel:When you came to the University of Toronto in 1946, I wonder if in your discussions with university officials and those in the physics department, you had any plans you wanted to make sure would happen? Did you have discussions particularly about what roles and what desires you had for geophysics at the university? Did you make any demands on the university?
Wilson:No, I am not very good at making demands. I probably could have made much more money if I had. I donít remember that I had any demands. I was glad to go. I had a choice of other places to go. I could have stayed with Geological Survey; they said I should be director. I couldnít be sure they would. They might promise that, but they might not deliver. I thought the Geological Survey was a hell of a dull place to do research. All government departments inevitably in time become poor places to do research because the type of people that remain there want a secure job and long pension. They canít get out once theyíve locked themselves in. Politics will always intervene, if not at the beginning sooner or later. Therefore, they are not very efficient ways of doing research. They do some very good research. Bromley covered the whole thing well. He said there are seven hundred federal institutes and you couldnít imagine a better group, but not worth twenty two billion dollars a year. This has always been the case.
Doel:Were there other offers that you were considering at the time?
Wilson:I could have gone with Keevil. I think I might have gone with Imperial Oil, but I wasnít interested. It seemed terribly dull. They wanted to play bridge and figure out where the arrival stations and gas stations were being put up -- I donít know.
Doel:It wasnít to set up, say, a geophysical laboratory within the company as much as doing applied geophysics?
Wilson:I think eventually most of the research was done in the States or supposed to be done in the States. Imperial Oil did set up a research station for awhile in the west. I knew Cecil Green very well because he came out recruiting which will illustrate to you the great shortage of people because Cecil Green had no connections with Canada and didnít think well of the place really. He thought Toronto was a socialist institution because it was not supported by -- and partly he was right. A university supported solely by the government would be a weak institution, I would think. Toronto is not supported solely by the -- and in any case it is rather difficult to run a university on the more desirable -- the important thing is probably to occasionally have something supported by the government which then reverts to civil operation when they find out, as Mr. Rae is doing at the present time in Ontario, that you just canít make socialism work so heís not going to apply socialism. He was elected to do so, but it just isnít a feasible way to operate.
Doel:Was your first contact with Cecil Green in the mid l940s?
Wilson:Bratt was in exploration geophysics and well known in this field from discovering Steep Rock Mines and so on -- going to meetings I guess -- and he was here through the war and I was not. He was here already. He met Cecil and brought Cecil here because immediately after the war we had two or three people -- Garland was one of them and he will tell you about this -- but they were immediately succeeded by a flock of veterans who thought this was a great thing to get into. They had discovered La Duc oil in 1947 and already there was activity out west and then this was an active field that promised well. It seemed to be expanding in what Canada needed and had been the Tender Valley field since 1924. They flocked into it. We gave seven Ph.D.s in one year in geophysics. There was an enormous flood of people. There was nowhere else they could go. We provided the people who started teaching geophysics at twelve Canadian universities -- UBC, Calgary in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Western Ontario, Queens and I donít know if you count Toronto or not (Gilchrist was a Harvard graduate), Carlton in Ottawa, Dalhousie at Halifax, and Memorial in Newfoundland, and McGill in Montreal. We very well covered the bases. There were two or three, we didnít provide anybody for Saint Francis Xavier and we didnít provide the first man at Victoria. I think he was a geologist from Toronto.
Doel:Toronto clearly played a major role in diffusing academic geophysics.
Wilson:At the same time we also had people who were in charge of the magnetic program at Ottawa, seismic program at Ottawa, and the agronomi?? program in Ottawa.
Doel:Right. These are the people principally at the Dominion Observatory?
Wilson:Yes, they were at the Dominion Observatory. Later when the Geological Survey decided to get into radioactivity we provided the man who did that -- Larry Morley. The industry took a lot also. A lot of them were very successful; Taylor and Inco for example. We were, for a time, practically the sole place and a very large supplier. Cecil came up and did recruit some people from Toronto -- McKenzie the most successful, died young unfortunately. They did recruit others. I realized that Cecil had a poor opinion of Toronto and that he only would provide money to independent institutions like MIT or Harvard or --
Doel:I just want to be sure. This discussion you are thinking about was very soon after you arrived at Toronto?
Wilson:About 1948 -- two or three years. Not immediately. I have known him ever since and as I --
Doel:Later you served on the Visiting Committee?
Wilson:That was a great help to us. We had a meeting only a couple of years ago where I just sent out my latest paper to the members of the Visiting Committee which may interest them because it concerns the very origin of five hundred tons of gold metal in Nevada connected with the plume.
Doel:I am wondering a bit about any discussions you may recall about setting the curriculum in geophysics after you arrived at the University of Toronto. Were you aware, for example, of the writings of Straley and Hubbert in the United States from the late l930s and l940s?
Wilson:I donít remember any connection with Straley, but I knew Hubbert and I had a very high regard for his work.
Doel:Did you know him personally?
Wilson:Yes. Straley -- Iíd forgotten about him. Where is he? Iíve forgotten what the connection is.
Doel:He had worked with Hubbert on a number of committees that addressed the question of geophysics as a curriculum in American universities.
Wilson:I had another interest in coming to Toronto. I was particularly keen at that time of using air photographs because the Canadian shield lent itself very well to showing structure.
Doel:And you had used air photographs during your work on the survey in the late l930s?
Wilson:Yes, thatís right and I wanted to extend that. I did and I was able, by being a member of the committee on tectonic map of Canada, which Derry headed -- there were four of us on that. We collected information from all over Canada. I was chairman of the committee on the upper glacial features of Canada which was an enormous job and never would have got done -- not today -- if it hadnít been for air photographs. You could see glacial features so plainly. They were so complex and so numerous, but they would all be just clear as a bell from air photographs.
Doel:Did you have very close contact after you arrived at Toronto with the Geological Survey in doing the mapping or was this largely concentrated -- your particular work?
Wilson:They told me I was cheating to use air photographs. They wouldnít put diverse dikes on and they wouldnít put foliation on and they wouldnít put glacial strata because these arenít economic use. I knew them. I would go and speak to them at intervals, but they always thought I was a heretic.
Doel:This was not a method that the survey itself took up?
Wilson:It uses them all now, but it took a long time.
Doel:In the late l940s, for example, despite the work that you had done in utilizing air photographs earlier this was not -- in your view -- a widespread practice of the Survey?
Wilson:I published some papers about that time. I used their maps and was on quite good terms with them. I got the survey on the glacial map of Canada. They never produced a glacial map of Canada, but I did. I had the head of their glacial thing as one of the committee members. I wasnít being rude to them. He turned around and naturally produced one of the Geological Surveyís own maps which was the same thing because they were the same photographs he used.
Doel:I am wondering in connection with the work that you were doing on the Canadian shield. Were aware of the efforts that Daly, at Harvard, and others were making to try to mount an expedition to explore the shield?
Wilson:I know he worked on the boundary. His big work as a youth was in the boundary commission. He wrote a large number of books, I found out later, but the Mobile Earth was the one I knew most about. I didnít know that he was working. M.E. Wilson, who is no relation of mine and this was to his chagrin because he had no children and he was always thought to be my father -- which I was quite complimented by that -- and we used to be usually put in the same room. He had done a map of the provinces. He had ignored the boundary between the Grenville and Lake Superior province, which Logan noticed I thought. I thought it was there and put it on my map, but Holmes had already done a map of Africa and that was given in 1948. There were two conferences in England in 1948. No, one was in Norway and one was in England. I went to both. One was in geophysics and one in geology. I met Holmes there and was very impressed by his work. Gill would have read his paper so Gill and I both the next year published a paper on the divisions of the Canadian shield, which we used the same data which had been collected by the Geological Survey. The Geological Survey got into geochemical dating early. Collins was farsighted and he got Elsworth, as a chemist, to come and do chemical analysis of the uraninites or at least give them rough ages. Nier was brought in and then he did some work on his own, quite a bit, because he worked on the shield too in Minnesota. He published papers in 1938. He left Goldstein -- what was his name -- at Minnesota for many years afterwards; carried on the work and a very good isotope man. We were on excellent terms with him. No I havenít been unfortunate. I donít seem to have had many turf wars with anybody. There was always so much to do.
Doel:We are resuming after a brief break. We were talking, as I recall, about the period just after you had arrived at Toronto again in 1946 and the work that you had taken up in organizing research at the department and developing the geophysical curriculum. In 1948 you had written a very detailed summary of some aspects of geophysics in Canada, especially concerning the Canadian shield; and the paper you had written on ďA geophysical look at the oceansĒ which was also published in 1949. It was clear you were considering geophysics in a very broad fashion. How did those papers come about -- what kind of audiences and goals did you have in mind?
Wilson:I donít know. Broad features always interested me. I liked to make a map of the glacial geology of Canada. I liked to be on the tectonic map of Canada and I wrote two volumes on the geology of the ocean islands -- Rotolution?? Islands -- and volcanic islands (hard rock islands) which were a limited number. There were a great many more of the coral islands, but I didnít write on them. I was astonished how little was known of the ocean islands in the l940s or maybe it was in the l960s even. I think it was in the l960s I wrote that. The paper was never published. It was just a sort of reference to the literature which I did one time when I had a cold. I had subscribed to the complete set of bibliography of North America got out by GSA. I sat down with the indexes and read indexes of all of those volumes from the beginning looking for islands. The interesting thing is that unlike a country or a definite mining area or something islands can be indexed in a great many ways. For example, Santa Maria might be in the Azores. It might be Santa Maria, it might be a Portuguese colony, it might be the Atlantic Ocean and so it goes. Therefore unless you read the indexes you may miss some of the islands unless you get a grasp for the way they do things and different editors put them together different ways. I got notes on all these papers which most islands had very little information indeed. At that time nobody was going on expeditions particularly to explore islands and there were very few expeditions. Most of them had been passed on occasion by ships going one way or the other. A few people had gone out like Chubb and explored some islands and Dana, but mostly not.
Doel:When you say Chubb, do you mean the geophysicist-prospector?
Wilson:No, he was much older. He was in the last century. Not the prospector that found the meteorite crater. I think his name was Chubb. Anyway, there was a fellow who wrote about some Pacific islands a long time ago. I think his name was Chubb. These people were rare. It costs a lot of money to take a ship anywhere and very few people had the money to explore islands for what seemed like no particular reason. The exploring expedition of Wilkes was an exception -- an astonishing exception -- when they went to explore Antarctica and they also explored the Pacific islands. There is a wonderful piece of irony there. Dana concluded there that the islands got older from one end to the other, though he didnít know why.
Doel:The Hawaiian islands.
Wilson:And some of the others too. He recognized that and was quite clear on that. He didnít know why. Later, though it was an indication of motion the way it is interpreted now, later he was the man who Jeffreys copied for the contraction hypothesis which was the reverse of motion. It was static, cooling and contracting. It was a source of both pro and con.
Doel:Itís an irony indeed. Thinking again of that paper, ďA Geophysicist Looks at the Oceans,Ē you mentioned much of the postwar work -- Ewingís work, Harry Hessís work, for example. Did you have a lot of contact with these people in the years immediately after the war, or was this knowledge that you had gained from reading their published papers?
Wilson:I donít even remember the paper that Iíd written. It was a long time ago. Harry Hess I knew well and saw him at Princeton occasionally. I have not maintained any great connection with Princeton. I went there immediately after the war. Hess told me that he got his idea on mid-ocean ridges largely from Holmes, though Holmes didnít have it complete at all. Hess had improved on it and he showed me the first edition. Holmes was a very modest fellow and heíd never refer to his own work in any of his own papers so it was very difficult to trace what he did. And he mostly published in journals that seemed to be obscure like that of the Geological Society of Washington, D.C. Itís not an obscure journal, but if youíre looking for studies of oceans it is. I knew Ewing very well and all three wives. When Kelly and I were at Princeton we were sent over to see Ewing at Lehigh, which is a hundred mile drive over very bad roads and mountains, and it got snowed in so that the street cars in Bethlehem spent the winter in the same positions on the streets because they hadnít any method of plowing them out until it thawed but it didnít thaw! So you can see that travel was not easy. It was difficult to work. Weíd go stay with him for a night and work with him for two days and have supper with his first wife and the infant son they had then. He was a very jolly fellow then.
Doel:Do you remember any particular meetings that you had with him when you went up to visit at Lehigh?
Wilson:I remember the visits quite clearly. We used to drink beer in the evening and have supper and chat about things. He would work on instruments with his hands trying to devise better instruments working in the coastal shelf at the time. Kelly and I would work up results that he got by letting off explosions and recording them, which helped him I suppose. He regarded us, he told me one time, as his first two honorary graduate students which Frank Press rather objected to because we were his first real graduate students. Then he had another wife by which he had several children. She was a very charming lady, but she got a little fed up because he was never home and then he married his secretary. She was at the door, but I was allowed in. Ewing and I always got along fine. I didnít see a vast amount of him and didnít bother him much. Hess and Annette were good friends.
Doel:In 1948 you were elected to the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics. How did that come about?
Wilson:Well, we were talking earlier about the National Research Council and my friendship with McKenzie and getting into how to classify snow, which nobody knew how to do and the apparatus that the NRC built to classify snow in various ways and tracked vehicles in snow and tracked vehicles in mud and things, and building research. He had various committees he set up to bring Canadians together from industry, government and universities to discuss these various problems as they arose. I was on several of them. One day he said to me, ďThereís a committee on geophysics in CanadaĒ and I said, ďYes, itís in the lines run by the geodesists.Ē He said, ďThatís true but itís not now primarily concerned with geodesyĒ and these other things we should think of a committee that was more general and should include more people; include the people who exist already, but a lot of them have retired. He said I wish you would put together a committee on geophysics for Canada of the NRC and we would have meetings and the NRC would not pay people to attend, but pay travel expenses and living expenses to come together occasionally at meetings. I asked Keyes to come from McGill and Gilchrist, myself, from industry Lindburgh was a good Swedish prospector with a good reputation. A Swedish physicist and a Canadian. I daresay Keevil, maybe.
Doel:And you were conceiving geophysics in broad terms?
Wilson:Yes, to match the IUGG. It was before I went to the IUGG, but I must have known something about it. We got meteorologists in; there were only two oceanographers. They were both in. Hashey[??] was the only physical oceanographer in the Atlantic and Tulley[??] was the only one in the Pacific. Tulley only had one leg. Hashey was in the army during the war. He went to sea as a lieutenant-colonel because I wouldnít let him go -- I got him in with meóunless they gave him equivalent rank and pay. The navy wouldnít make him a lieutenant commander or commanderówhatever was necessary. So he went to sea as an oceanographer in a lieutenant-colonelís uniform, which we found amusing, but we made it stick. A number of the geodesists were fine men. Miller was the only man who studied gravity in Canada. He had these great big huts in the ?? torsion balance. It took a day to make one reading of the derivative of gravity and pendulums. Lloyd Thompson had the pendulum set eventually and he was involved. Magnetics -- there were several magnetics people. They made magnetic maps of Canada for navigation purposes and putting on maps and so on. The leading one was Madill[??] when he was on. Seismology -- I guess the older Hodgson, E. A. Hodgson and then J. H. Hodgson were on. Oil companies -- somebody from oil companies, but who I donít know.
Doel:How often did the group meet?
Wilson:Once or twice a year or something like that. I started to get out and compile myself a Canadian Geophysical Bulletin which I wrote to various people and said, ďWhat papers do you know in your field that have been published in Canada about thisĒ because nobody knew and there werenít any places you could look it up. We got out once or twice a year or four times a year. Anyway, we got out a bulletin which listed publications by Canadians or about Canada dealing with all the aspects of geophysics -- meteorology, hydrology was also in there. There wasnít much in hydrology because later the Science Council of Canada got me to chair the committee to organize a policy on water in Canada. It was very odd that I should be asked to do that. The chairman of the Science Council of Canada -- Oman Solandt -- said, ďWe canít get any people in the commercial field because theyíll make money at this and we canít get any of the government people because they will hand out contracts in their vested interest and nobody is doing the research in the universities; youíre in the IUGG and you know something about it generally so you be chairman.Ē I wrote the report. I wrote the report twelve times. I resolved I would write a good report. Itís short and succinct and I think readable. As a result of this they set up a water policy in Canada which now is a very big part of global change and all this. At that time I was aware of the fact that there was very little stream flow of data or anything like that or levels of lakes. I tried to get tide gates as a result and tilting results. The geodetic survey never surveyed anything again unless they were sure there was a mistake in the original results. They had no method.
Doel:Data on changes werenít collected?
Wilson:No. There were only a few tide stations of varying dates and quality, but bringing this out in the public has obviously helped get the thing organized. It also brought people together. Then when the IUGG meetings came up in 1948 and subsequently, I was allowed to recommend people to go which is a big bonus. People like Bob Uffen?? was very young and very excited to be sent over to Europe. He was very good; George Garland also and people like that. A lot of them were able to get a trip to Europe. The meetings were generally in Europe. There had been one in Washington, but that was before my time.
Doel:What did you see as the primary goals that you wanted to do within the geophysics section?
Wilson:Just improve the quality and quantity of research that might be useful from the point of view of studying the earth as a whole or studying in practical purposes. We had in mind getting better material for the universities and getting better material of an economic value for industry and helping the government connect their part of the data which was routine, more or less.
Doel:Did you also help in advising, for example, at the NRC on funding for research in geophysics? Was that part of the duties?
Wilson:I was a member of the NRC for six years. Initially the NRC as a whole made grants. There had been granting system. I went to McKenzie when I was still in the army and got four hundred dollars from him to support a student for a summer for four months at one hundred dollars a month, in order to work on my air photographs with me. He gave me four hundred dollars out of his pocket. That was the way it was done. There was no granting system. When one was set up the applications came to the NRC and were vetted by members of the permanent staff of the NRC. Then they were all put before the council and the council decided who got the money. It interested me that I thought somehow that the vetting and the hand of McKenzie and the success of Stacey on the controls was such that universities got money more or less according to population of students.
Doel:It was a democratic distribution.
Wilson:Thatís the trouble. It didnít depend on how good the university was, it depended on how many people it had and whether that would be politically satisfying. I complained to Walter Gordon, who was a member of the cabinet in Ottawa and who had done a survey for the government. He was a chartered accountant of the pay rates in civil service universities and industry to get an equitable system going, which actually favored the government very much. He said, ďI know it -- Ontarioís got lots of money and they donít need any more money in Toronto.Ē He was willing to go along with the political point of view. Not that he wasnít a smart fellow, but he didnít think it worth rocking the boat about I guess. Then they decided there were too many of these applications. They had a number of applications which grew very rapidly after the war. The whole committee of the NRC met for two or three days to decide on the whole thing so they then set up subcommittees in physics, chemistry, earth sciences -- biology and so on -- which vetted them and made recommendations. These were accepted. I was the first chairman of the one on earth sciences. I did have a say in how many were distributed. I served my term. The Geological Survey copied this and they had a committee on the earth sciences in Canada, on what should be done, and I was a member of that.
Doel:And this was extramural funding that came out of the geological survey?
Wilson:No it was like the NRC only it dealt only with earth sciences. The defense people had another one. There were some others; there were lots of them. I served on seemingly unending numbers. I knew Ottawa and everybody knew dad, hence they knew me mostly and my mother. I was a natural target for getting on all these committees. I didnít mind being on committees -- theyíre fun.
Doel:Were there any significant disputes among the different disciplines of the different groups over how funding ought to be distributed or for what kinds of research or was there more consensus on what was needed to be done and what kinds of projects? I am speaking in very broad terms.
Wilson:We didnít determine the budget for the government departments in any way since the letter of the law suggested that we should have some say in how it was distributed to the NRC. If we had tried that it would get the permanent civil service very upset. We didnít do very much of that. What we were concerned with was making grants to universities.
Doel:Thatís what I mean, though, even within the university grants. Do you feel there was more consensus or were there significant groups that argued with one another over the --
Wilson:I donít remember any battles about it because the people changed. They knew if they didnít get it this year they might get it another year. If so and so was on from McMaster University now, somebody ought to be on from McGill next year. It was rotated around. There was no monopoly on this. I think it was done pretty fairly. McKenzie had a great gift for getting good people on Research Council. I remember his interviewing me about Legget who was the head of building research one time. Legget was a very brilliant soil mechanics man from the University of Toronto and on the faculty. I think he was a Liverpool graduate, perhaps; an Englishman anyway and had been here on the civil engineering faculty. He was very highly thought of and wrote a large number of books on bridges, soils, soil testing and all sorts of things. He was in charge of building research when they started the building research and fire research investigation in Canada and everybody had the highest regard for him. Likewise after much negotiation?? he got Herzberg to come. Herzberg had not then won the Nobel Prize but seemed like the person who was most likely to win. We got him there and therefore the NRC had a Nobel Prize winner, which was what McKenzie wanted. Nobody could not say the NRC wasnít a very good scientific place. Hessburg then had money for what he wanted within reason for the rest of his life, which still goes on. Thatís alright, I suppose. I suppose I had been in the army and the bush long enough to realize there is a certain amount of politics and though IÖ it was silly to make too much fuss about minor things.
Doel:I was curious when you raised the point about Gerhard Herzberg coming to head up the institute. Was that a point of policy that people disagreed upon or did people generally feel it was a good idea to set up institutes or at least that particular institute that he came to occupy?
Wilson:I think McKenzie was sufficiently smart so that he got people everybody had a high regard for. There was no reason to object to Herzberg and no reason to appeal to Legget whoever he appointed. On the whole he appointed very good people and if he got a lemon then he sidetracked them. He didnít fire them exactly, but he just had no money and no staff sort of thing.
Doel:He was able to build consensus by having top flight quality people?
Wilson:They certainly went for quality. Whether his criteria for quality was correct or not I donít know, but anyway he was trying hard. The place had started because they recruited from universities that expanded during the war. They thought of themselves as being in a university and they behaved as a university and that was fine. That was a good atmosphere for research, but as time went by the people who wanted to be independent and didnít like coming and being told they should be doing so and so because such and such a company wanted it, they got out and they were left with an increasing number of people who were tied to their pension and liked the peaceful life and being told what to do. That is not good for research. The research quality declined. I donít think this is anything peculiar to Canada or the Research Council. Itís universal.
Doel:One thing we didnít discuss a moment ago is when you got on the staff of the IUGG what did you see as the particular aims that you wanted to bring to the group? What did you perceive to be the main mission?
I went over there as head of the Canadian delegation. They presently elected some officers and they elected people they knew -- people who had been around before and were older men. Then they decided on the finance committee. The finance committee was very tricky because there were at least six constituent organizations -- seismology, meteorology, hydrology and so on, which had been in different countries, had different treasurers and had handled their funds differently -- and the central organization. All of them had been through the war and therefore how would they ever get themselves sorted out. I was put on the finance committee along with an American -- Helding Bay, I think, who was a meteorologist -- and a Peruvian general who couldnít speak either French or English. Nobody else could speak Spanish and Iím not sure (sounds like proudman??)Ö his protege. Anyway, a tide table man from Britain who made tide tables for the British admiralty or something. There was a Frenchman and an American; a Brit. The Frenchman may have been Lachenbruch??, I donít know, and the Peruvian and myself. I looked around the room and the major powers all distrusted each other and the Peruvian couldnít understand them. So they elected me chairman.
Well here I had the case of the Czechs who had buried the gold brick and then sawn it in bits because he wanted some of the profit from the proceeds that accumulated by the increasing value of gold during the war. There were a number of problems like that. I went to McKenzie and said, ďLook hereís a problem -- Iíve got this job and I donít know anything about finance, but I think the problem is probably the sort of thing that people have tackled before. Could you provide me with some funds to get a chartered accountant.Ē He said yes and I got a fellow Ė- Hart -- who was a curious fellow but very capable. I think he had worked with Wally Gilforth and Jackson. Anyway, he sorted out what to do with the gold bricks and the different currencies and the changes in the different rates of value; the changes of currencies. He got a beautiful report all worked out in great detail, which I presented and I said it had been done by Hart, but nobody understood that because they didnít meet him. I got the credit for having produced the judgment of Solomon! Hence I got elected to be vice president and then president.
Doel:As the cold war deepened in the late l940s and early 1950s, did political pressures from the governments of the participants come to interfere with the operation of the IUGG? Did you see that as a growing problem in the functioning?
Wilson:No. Not much. Canadians are very independent of this.
Doel:Of course you had people from the communist nations and the United States.
Wilson:The communists didnít take part in the 1948 one and the 1950 one I think they may have come, but they werenít very evident. In the 1954 meeting they came and had all their papers translated into French, English and Russian and handed them out in great numbers. They gave all their papers in Russian. They found nobody came to them. They couldnít do what the French were trying to do. In fact, the French eventually gave up. They were told they could only speak in French to French, but they eventually had to give that up because nobody listened to them either. Certainly nobody would listen to the Russians. So to make a decision on it they came to settle on English. The Americans had a man called Todd there who used to amuse us. He was clearly from the CIA or something. He wore dark glasses and didnít know much geophysics. He was obviously ?? We just took for granted and found it amusing. There was a weakness for the Americans really. Beloussov was there, but he had a keeper too, but the keeper wasnít much in attendance because the keeper didnít know much geophysics and Beloussov was a very sensible fellow. As Laquerval?? once said to me of Beloussov, ďNobody could speak French so perfectly as Beloussov who hadnít had a French governess when he was young.Ē So you could tell the class of people that Beloussov came from.
Doel:Interesting point. This person who may have been with the national security agency, from the U.S., he was then the U.S. representative in some ways?
Wilson:No, he used to be in attendance there.
Doel:Just as an attendant on the meetings. Was this somewhat limited to the principal protagonists in the Cold War of the U.S. and the Soviet?
Wilson:I had an amusing time. A little fellow -- very frightened little fellow, Rumanian -- came to me when we had the meeting in Toronto and said that he had authority from his government to invite me to go to Rumania and lecture. I said, ďWhat on?Ē and he said, ďAnything you like.Ē
Doel:This was the 1957 meeting that was here?
Wilson:Thatís right. 1951 and 1954 were in Italy and Belgium; 1948 had been in Norway. I said I would be glad to go. It was arranged and I went. I couldnít understand why, but that was their affair. They didnít offer to pay me -- they paid my way, of course -- and I elected to speak on mountain building because it is very difficult to get mountain building into a revolutionary context, but I showed slides and said that I would take all the slides myself. As they covered all parts of the world it carried the point that I was a free agent to travel and make whatever point I wanted to make! So, I talked about mountain building. I have never seen such crowds. You could hardly get into the building -- hardly get onto the campus! I said, ďWhatís all thisĒ and they said, ďTheyíve come to hear you.Ē I wondered why they wanted to hear me on mountain building. They said, ďYou represent the West and we have very little opportunity to show ourselves on solidarity with the West.Ē I had an interpreter there -- a nice young lady -- and then they tried to blackmail me. I went to other universities, too, and they gave me a very good time.
Doel:What do you mean, blackmail?
Wilson:Oh, getting me in bed with a blonde -- various blondes. I found this rather entertaining. I didnít get into bed with blondes. At eleven oíclock at night, having had a large party in the Kalpathien?? with the chief of the Geological Survey and some other people, I was dumped down in a wing of the hotel with this young lady in what we found out were adjacent rooms. The door would not only not lock between the rooms it wouldnít even close properly. Everybody was gone so the whole wing seemed to be completely empty. What do they do at eleven oíclock at night under these circumstances? I had, on arrival in Rumania, reported to the British embassy. There was no Canadian representation there. If there were no Canadians there I generally did report to the British because it might be little peculiar. The British ambassador indicated to me to keep quiet and say nothing, so I didnít. We had had dinner and a nice chat about things. It all went very smoothly. Then he took me up to his study, turned on a noise-maker and sat close to me. We had a conversation that obviously could not be interpreted by anybody because of that racket going on. He said, ďI donít know why youíre here; I donít want to know why youíre here, but I should warn you that you should be very careful.Ē So I was careful and I didnít get into bed with a blonde, not that I was tempted to anyway and she certainly was not enthusiastic about it. I said to her, ďIf I put my suitcase against the door, I donít see anybody around and I donít think theyíre likely to fix the lock tonight.Ē I donít know where I could find anybody and nobody came when I rang the bell. I said if it is alright by you I would put my suitcase against the door to keep it closed and she could go to bed and I could go to bed. I slept peacefully. The next morning they were very annoyed with this, obviously. Not the staff, as it were. The staff of the hotel. They thought they would have us photographed in bed together. They tried this once or twice. I couldnít understand why they wanted to do it.
Doel:Do you know now or suspect why you would have been singled out?
Wilson:Yes, because while I was there they launched the Sputnik. They wanted me to praise the Sputnik. I said to them, when they asked me about this, ďI donít know anything about it. I canít read the Rumanian newspapers. You say you launched Sputnik but I donít know anything about it.Ē They would bring in reams and reams of press material in English for me to read on this. I said, ďThatís very interesting -- what did you expect to happen? Did you think the Russians wouldnít launch a Sputnik?Ē They asked if I didnít think it was wonderful. I said, ďThey said they were going to launch the Sputnik -- they told us that at the last meeting and they launched the Sputnik, so I donít think you should be surprised because surely the communist always do what they say theyíre going to do.Ē
Wilson:It was fun. Then I met various other people who told me they taught primary school in thirty one languages in Rumania, which I found difficult to believe at first. I believe it may be true, with dialect and that. There are a number of languages in Europe and some on the Danube, so all the tanks went up that way and everybody -- the French, Germans and Dutch -- went down that way. They left behind a little enclave. I said when I was going that I had such a good time and had been treated so royally and they had looked after me very well. I had some other interesting things. I had been to manor houses and older peopleís homes that had previously belonged to people who were guiding me around. I didnít know this at the time, but they told me afterwards that it was the only way they could see their grandparentís house or something! I also signed a royals(?) guest book with no signatures in it for seventeen yearsóback when it was King Carol (Karl?) or King Michael. They appreciated the fact I hadnít got anybody into trouble or myself either. I then asked if I could see the chief communist and thank him for the wonderful trip, which I did. He seemed rather surprised. He was wearing his dark glasses and I thanked him profusely. He said you must come back again. I said I would like to do that. He said come back and bring my wife. I said I would and I did! I wrote to them and said Iíd like to come back and visit them again and I took my wife and two daughters back to Rumania, at their expense.
Doel:When did you do that?
Wilson:While I was on sabbatical leave in England in 1965 -- it was about six, seven or eight years later. I didnít stay long. I stayed the night there. I thought the girls might as well see behind the iron curtain and it was a good way to do it.
Doel:Iíd say that worked out rather well.
Wilson:It was great fun. All the strange things I did in life were in the northwest territories and the mines or in the army and so on. Traveling so much one sort of realized what you could do and couldnít do. There were some things that were very unsafe to do and some things were perfectly safe to do. It was all very entertaining.
Doel:There was also a tacit knowledge that many other people canít or donít acquire.
Wilson:Diplomats couldnít possibly do it. I had been a colonel in the Canadian army and had been decorated by the Americans. So it was very hard to label me a communist. As I said, I talked about mountain building. When I got back to the States I talked about the situation in China, but I didnít discuss the politics of the situation in the least or the fact that the Taiwanese and the Chinese were shelling each other, because I hadnít seen it.
Doel:Right. This being, of course, the late 1950s.
Wilson:I remember I could have discussed these things, but I just avoided these things. I talked about things I knew something about. All highly entertaining.
Doel:I was thinking in the mid-1950s I want to ask you about the kind of relationship you had with Carlyle Beals at the Dominion?
Wilson:He and I got along fine. Nice fellow.
Doel:How often would you interact with one another?
Wilson:He was a member of the committee on geophysics for sure.
Doel:So that would be one of the forums or principal forums that you had opportunity to talk?
Wilson:I didnít rush around and see the civil servants. If I was there and I knew some of them -- the geological survey and Dominion Observatory -- but I knew the people under him better. He was an astronomer. He had divisions of magnetism, seismology and gravity. These were my students so I would see them. I wouldnít see him.
Doel:Did you have discussions with him in the 1950s about the crater research?
Wilson:Very much so. I met Chubb and he came to see me and showed me his pictures very early on. I didnít know what it was. I thought it was a diamond pipe or something -- the new crater he found in northern Quebec. I later flew past it. I was interested in that. Dence, who studied them and is now secretary of The Royal Society in Ottawa, was a student at Toronto in geophysics.
Wilson:Right. So I knew him quite well. He was a good pianist.
Doel:Not all geologists accepted the idea in the l950s that these features that Beals and some of the Dominion staff were investigating were, in fact, caused by impact. Do you remember any of the debates or discussions?
Wilson:I remember very clearly in South Africa. I went there and there was a beautiful dome there. I was discussing it with Mel, who was the director of the Geological Survey of South Africa, with him. He didnít believe it, but I did.
Doel:As you recall, looking back, you had favored Bealsí views at that time?
Wilson:When I was in Australia in 1950 I met Grant -- I forget his first name -- who was professor at Adelaide in south Australia. He told me of an occasion when a shooting star had been seen in southern Australia near Adelaide. He had sent out letters to the newspapers and so on. He was astonished at how many people stayed up late in Australia because he had a lot of reports of seeing this star. He asked for the directions and they told him the directions, so he knew roughly where it was. He took a bunch of students and went up for a weekend to look for it. They spent all weekend and just when they were ready to do home on Monday morning they found, under a bush, a hole with a piece of meteorite in it, and fresh. It was in the right area. So they had found the meteorite that had fallen. So the earth was certainly being bombarded, I knew that. I mean shooting stars come in different sizes so thereís no particular reason why they shouldnít be and I went to Boundary crater one time when I was traveling south. I went to get off at Winslow and went and looked at it. It certainly looked as though it had been blasted out. I didnít have any doubt about it. I never thought that was necessarily the only course of the crater because there are certainly volcanic eruptions too. I couldnít see any reason why there couldnít be two kinds of craters. You didnít have to argue that all extinctions were due to meteorite impacts just because craters of some kind seemed to be related, in some cases, to extinctions. I wasnít very sure they were.
Doel:This of course being a more contemporary crater.
Wilson:People got very excited about this, but I donít know why they get so excited because life is complicated. It didnít have to be just -- you found a crater and something got extinct somewhere around that time therefore it must be due to the other. I didnít see that argument.
Doel:At the time did Beals mention to you concern about the reaction of geologists? Certainly some in the Geological Survey in Canada were not enthused about it.
Wilson:Geological surveyors were opposed to most things I did and I guess most things Beals did. We were quite good friends.
Doel:Was this something that he would talk to you about, that he was concerned about the reaction considering that it was a major investment of the observatoryís resources to do this project at the time?
Wilson:The difficulty all along is that the people trained as physicists think in terms of analysis -- they think in mathematical physical terms -- and therefore everything has to be precise. If you hadnít experienced the scientific revolution -- and a lot of them didnít think about scientific revolutions as affecting the earth sciences and before the scientific revolution came on in 1925 -- if Jeffreys had the physics and the maths right about the mantle of the earth then that was the answer. There was no possibility that other people might be right, too, if you look at it a different way. On the other hand, the geologists had never been tied to that because their work was all descriptive and not mathematical. They didnít mind reversing their opinion between breakfast and lunch. They had a totally different way of looking at things. It didnít worry me if everybody didnít agree with Carl Beals or didnít agree with me. I donít think it ever seriously worried me.
Doel:Given the nature of the Dominion Observatory itís possible to imagine he might have felt a little more concerned about possible reaction.
Wilson:Yes, because you see anybody in the government is much more concerned with the politics of it. Somebody might say the Dominion Observatory is talking nonsense -- hereís the Geological Survey all saying he is wrong, so Carl Beals must be wrong.
Doel:That was the sort of thing that I meant -- if that was something that you recall.
Wilson:I donít recall his objecting to that. No, I donít think so. Beals was highly regarded. He was made an FRS the same time as Herzberg.
Doel:In the mid-1950s you were also in contact with Gerard Kuiper at the Yerkes Observatory.
Wilson:Yes, I remember him well and he got me to write a chapter which did me a lot of good because a lot of people read the chapter.
Doel:Yes, for The Earth as a Planet.
Wilson:It may have been all wrong -- it didnít matter.
Doel:Did you ever have any discussions with him about the impact craters or was that another issue again?
Wilson:I donít know that they came in very much did they? I remember the chapter quite well. It concerned island arcs and the possibility that the Appalachians had island arcs in them, but I donít remember anything very much about craters in them.
Doel:Iím thinking too just of in the mid-l950s --
Wilson:A lot of good Dutch people. I knew Umgrove as well as Kuiper. Umgrove was a very good man. There were some othersóthe fellow who went out to Berkeley.
Doel:John Verhoogen. Did you have much contact with him?
Wilson:Not so much with Verhoogen. He was in California and thatís a long way off so I didnít see so much of him. I did know Umgrove who was very sick as a result of the war. He was living on tulip bulbs or something -- not a good diet -- and he was not well. I met him in 1948 I remember and I read his book The Pulse of the Earth with great interest.
Doel:There were terrible times in Holland.
Doel:In the mid-1950s as your program in geophysics was growing at Toronto. I wonder what kind of relationship you were having with W. H. Watson.
Wilson:I got on reasonably well with Wally. The physics department and I never did see eye to eye very well.
Doel:What were the sorts of differences that you had with the Department?
I think fundamentally that they were jealous that I was appointed a full professor at the end of the war, though I had no Ph.D. in physics. My Ph.D. was in geology and what the hell was I doing in the department occupying a place they could have had somebody doing spectroscopy or something. I think fundamentally that was it. I had got there by an easy route. On the other hand I had graduated with first class honors, and the Governor Generalís medal in physics, so they couldnít say I was a bad scientist altogether. They didnít like what I did. They had very set notions which were what either John McLennan or Gerhard Herzberg told them to do, I think. They just kept right on doing it. I had never liked doing anything anybody told me to do. I always wanted to do something different. That didnít make them very happy. They didnít understand and I didnít understand then that the difference between physics and geology was that physics had been converted by the two scientific revolutions in the 1920s into an analytical subject that you could handle mathematically.
You couldnít suddenly go around and say, ďI donít believe thatĒ just because you didnít believe it. Geology was still into the descriptive thing. If you didnít like the way they classified dinosaurs well you just classified dinosaurs a different way. Who was to tell you nay? I didnít realize that you could use the argument that taxonomy was entirely arbitrary and that the main thing anyway was that Linneaus Darwin and Mendle did was taxonomy. They never explained why until Crick and Watson came along. And Linus Pauling?? The basis for discussion was not there really. There was an individual in the university who seemed to have it in for me to some extent, but I think his credentials were not above reproach and so he was a little jealous perhaps. I donít know.
I wrote the department and they said if I came there they would soon make me head of the geology department. The geology department became vacant as was obviously going to happen and they appointed Langford. Well Langford was a very good choice and he did start a lot of water research on the Great Lakes. He was an excellent fellow -- an engineer -- and highly regarded. I had no objection to that. He went later to XXX?? So I was passed over again. Welch was then head of the physics department and he asked to see me. I went to see him and he said, ďWeíre not going to appoint you head of the geology department.Ē I didnít leave or anything because I didnít mind very much. I didnít really want to be head of geology. I was asked to be head of the geography department and I had opportunities to go elsewhere and be president or dean of graduate studies or head of departments of other universities in three countries. I liked working in Toronto and I liked the situation where I had lots of committees and some money and a good supply of students. We got a lot of very good students out of physics. Thatís why we stayed in physics. If I had been sensible when people said, ďReally what youíre doing is geology -- you should be in the geology department, but if we move you over to geology we wouldnít have had access to those students and they wouldnít come to work for us.Ē
Doel:Would you have welcomed the opportunity to have been department chairman of geology or did you feel at the time that --
Wilson:I think I was a little hurt at the time, but it didnít really worry me very much. When Bissell later asked me to be principle of Erindale I told him I didnít want the job.
Doel:This being the president?
Wilson:The president of the university. He took me out to lunch and before lunch I guess we went swimming. We went to Hart House pool which I didnít normally frequent. It was a purely male operation. I was walking around marbled floors or polished floors of the pool and it was a little slippery. I fell down flat on my back. Bissell thought I would have killed myself. I told him I was used to falling and I just picked myself up. He asked if I was hurt and I said no because I knew how to fall I guess. Then we went swimming and I thought it wise not to beat him swimming, so I just kept pace with him. Then he said would I care to go to Erindale. I said I didnít want to go to Erindale. I didnít want to do administration. He asked if Iíd ever been to Erindale. It was fifteen or twenty miles out of town. I said no. He said, ďWhy donít you go -- itís a nice spring day. Go out there and take Isabel and see what she thinks.Ē So I went out and Isabel thought it would be just great to be chatelaine of a lovely estate which is sixty acres of estate and three hundred acres altogether. I was then persuaded to accept the job. I was very glad I did.
Doel:Youíre talking about the l970s?
Wilson:Yes. I didnít really feel that in any the university that oneís stature depended particularly on whether you were head of a department or not. You might have more power, but I seemed to have sufficient handle to lever support as it was.
Doel:Thinking back on the l950s, when you looked out at the different places where geophysical research was strong in Canada what seemed to be the landscape where the principle centers and strengths in geophysics were.
Wilson:I donít know. In UBC they do a lot on subduction these days and this lithoprobe which they copied from the Americans and Cape Corp??
Doel:You mean now in modern times -- recently?
Wilson:Yes, recently. I didnít know too much about BC in the earlier days I donít think and I knew less about Victoria and Simon Fraser.
Doel:Just for example, were there any research centers that became established for geophysics in a broad sense in any of the petroleum companies or industries in Canada? Or was that work largely left to the universities?
Wilson:Thereís no doubt Imperial Oil had a lab, but theyíre in Alberta. They had Scheidegger there for awhile. He quit and went home to a job in Switzerland. He could educate his children better, he thought, in Switzerland. He was a restless fellow. I donít know if the other companies set up in the petroleum business. Mining -- Noranda had a good research thing going, but I think theyíre mostly concerned with metallurgy. They set up a park out there, near Erindale, which had research going there; both Inco and other companies, Atomic Energy had establishments there. We were supposed to cooperate with them. When I went to Erindale College they were 3 miles or so apart. That didnít work out very well because they were doing research and wanted to keep it secret.
Doel:Again thatís the l970s.
Wilson:I was appalled by the low level that I gathered. That a great deal of research in industry was done. That would not be the case with King Hubbert at Shell. I went to the Ford Motor Company and to this day I donít really know if they took me on a ride or if they showed me what they were doing in research. They said it was what they were doing in research which was hard to believe because it was a very practical sort of thing. It wasnít really what youíd call research, I didnít think. Maybe that was what was wrong with the industry.
Doel:Hubbert tended to feel, I believe, that what he had created in Shell was also somewhat unique in the industry.
Wilson:He was a unique fellow -- unusual. I didnít know enough about the details. I did give forty lectures to the Mobile people in Texas, on plate tectonics.
Doel:When was this?
Wilson:I forget. It was later on. They paid me to go down and give forty lectures which I did on plate tectonics and I was glad to do it. Then I went to a lot of other places and delivered more and lectured there and places. On the whole I didnít really stay around. I went to General Dynamics and all sorts of strange places. Beyond the fact they sometimes apologize for the fact that they had admirals and generals on their staff in senior positions. The scientists worried about that a little bit, but it didnít worry me very much.
Doel:Why did it worry him?
Wilson:I feel they just felt it was there to get contracts -- they knew it was there to get contracts -- not because they were particularly brilliant scientists.
Doel:In the 1950s was there a concern on the part of anyone at the university that the geophysical research was connected closely to applied geophysics?
Wilson:That had happened when I came. Thatís why I got appointed rather than the people who were there already who might have been much better.
Doel:As you mentioned, yes, in terms of the amount of fund raising. Did it affect also curricula or discussions about the place of geophysics in the university? I am just wondering if you recall any debates for example in the 1950s or later on that sort of issue.
Wilson:The person with whom I would have discussed it most was Cecil Green. He had always been a good friend of mine and he certainly would have been in favor of the university doing what it wanted to do and not what industry told it to do. The mining companies would certainly today say, ďWell research -- we want a diamond drillĒ and they thought that was research. It didnít really cut much ice because there was no chance that we would investigate diamond drills for them. The basis of what we did was really we stayed in the physics department because they had good courses in physics -- and not geophysics and geology -- to tell them what it was all about. They had good courses in maths and they were well taught in a practical sort of way so they could use these things. We did turn out some people who were very good theoretical mathematicians like Rochester. He was first class and as a university professor in both geology and in physics at Memorial University in Hamilton. He was a very quiet and able fellow. We have had some people like that. Broadly speaking we tried to educate them soundly in sound geophysics, both instrumental and theoretical without being too extreme in any direction. And in some knowledge of geology which I generally provided so they would know it. The trouble is about a lot of geophysicists is that they donít really understand what the Earth is like at all.
Doel:How did you feel that you program at Toronto compared to the emerging programs at MIT or at Stanford or other American universities? Did you have much interaction with their leaders?
Wilson:Oh yes, they were annoyed with me at MIT because I had persuaded Strangway to come back from MIT to Toronto. They didnít think that was the proper thing to do at all.
Doel:When was this that you did that?
Wilson:Oh, sometime. While I was at Erindale, I guess.
Doel:OK, so again in the l970s.
Wilson:That never worried me very much. Out west they mostly did seismology and sometimes they did extraordinary things. A fellow at Stanford wrote an enormous paper in science with a vast amount of computing about a purely imaginary Earth and he was in the Earth Sciences department and this rather surprised me. He was head of the department of geology there, I think. He had been told that the way of the future is mathematics and people kept telling me this. I said it was no use trying to apply the mathematics until you understand what youíre doing. Geologists donít understand what they are doing. They are in the same position as Darwin was. Darwin wasnít stupid; he never applied any mathematics. The reason was that he couldnít put biology in any state that you could apply mathematics to. Ö you have to look in the Earth. They looked at something smaller in biology -- and they got the molecules. They decided that they were looking at a small thing already in astronomy -- one of the galaxies -- and they had to look at the whole universe. They had to look at something bigger in that case. In biology and then physics they had to split the atom and look for something smaller. In the Earth you have to look at the fine, internal structure. This is why I am interested in plumes and convection. You have to look at the internal structure. And whatís the best way to do it? Geologists can tell you quite a lot because of volcanology and things and geochemistry. Mathematicians can tell you some. The physicists arenít very successful because the results are pretty hazy with very large errors when you start doing seismology through the whole Earth. You want to make the best you can out of it and use any approach that will work.
Doel:To change the subject just slightly, I was really curious to know how the collaboration came about between you and John Jacobs and R. D. Russell in writing Physics and Geology published in 1959. Do you recall how the idea of doing the project came about?
Wilson:I donít remember how we started. I donít know if McGraw-Hill asked me to write a book. They said they didnít ask Jacobs or Russell to write the book -- whether it occurred to me to write the book or whether Shrock or somebody asked me to write the book -- I donít know. Anyway, we got the idea of a book. I knew Jacobs because he had been an applied mathematician in England and he taught applied mathematics to the navy during the war. He came to this country and by that time he got his airplane frames -- structured airplane frames -- and he built a geodesic dome called the Bucky Fuller Dome, which covered the pavilion (the British pavilion) in the Worldís Fair that Britain held in 1951. He had designed the structure which was just like Bucky Fullerís dome. He was in the applied maths department. Infeld was in the department. I went to see Infeld as head of the department and I said, ďThereís another problem I have besides the one Scheidegger helped me with -- what about the mathematics of the interior of the Earth?Ē He said, ďWhy donít you get Jacobs -- heís rather at a loose-end because the aircraft industry is not developing to build new designs the way they thought they might develop.Ē So I went to Jacobs and he decided to get into this. He was lecturing on the internal structure of the Earth from a mathematical point of view. I didnít know any geochemistry. Jacobs and I both knew some physics and I knew some geology. What we were obviously lacking was chemistry. Russell was working on the mass spectrometer and that was obviously a good thing in age determination. He knew all about that and was actively publishing so we asked him to join us. We each wrote a few chapters. Jacobs and I wrote most of it. You could tell easily which ones we wrote. We did read over each otherís papers and make them coherent. We didnít rewrite them extensively. We each wrote in our own specialty and then put the thing together and it was successful.
Doel:Am I right in thinking that you had contributed to the chapter on glaciology?
Wilson:I didnít know there was a chapter on glaciology, but I wrote on the ones on the island arcs and geological structures -- Iíve forgotten what all is in there -- ocean floors and things.
Doel:The chapter on glaciology happened to mention recent work that had been done by Ray Littleton and Fred Hoyle on the idea of the periodic movement of the sun.
Wilson:In Jacobs, Russell, and Wilson?
Doel:Yes. I was curious in having read that to know how some of these ideas came to you.
Wilson:I havenít read it for a long time. You have to remember I have been retired from teaching for a long time.
Doel:I certainly understand.
Wilson:Nineteen years in fact.
Doel:This is helpful just to know how the book came about and how you were working in it.
Wilson:I was delinquent. The others got theirs written up faster than I did. They were finding out more about the ocean floors and about mid-ocean ridges and island arcs and so on all the time. It was difficult to keep pace with it. All this time I traveled enormously. I have been to one hundred six countries that I can remember. Most of them many times.
Doel:Including Rumania. I am wondering, in thinking about your work in the IGY, when did you first begin to have contact with people like Joseph Kaplan on the design of the IGY project?
Wilson:I was not a member of the original committee which met at Singerís house in Washington. I was not a member at SARGY??, but I was president of the union and they met in Toronto that year when I became president. It was the largest meeting held during the geophysical year and it was just before they launched Sputnik. There was a very high interest in it and high profile. As a result of this I was asked to Rumania. I guess I had been already to China and Taiwan. The Americans had taken me to Antarctica. I had also cooked up a scheme to visit all the South American republics because I felt they were always getting the long end of the short end of stick and theyíd send people to meetings and the meetings never came to them. This was because of the expense of bringing everybody there. I suggested and organized a committee which was held at Uruguay where UNESCO had some staff at the university in Montevideo on continental drift in the southern hemisphere. I think that is what it was about. I got people there from India and New Zealand and Australia, South Africa and South America. Lots of South Americans could easily go because they could travel around South America if they couldnít go to Europe. That was much appreciated. I also went as a delegate in 1962 to India. I was at various times given trips free by the Japanese government, the German government, the Israeli government, the Indian government, I donít know who all.
Doel:How good a job did Joe Kaplan do in running the IGY, do you feel?
Wilson:He didnít run the IGY -- the IUGG did.
Doel:Kaplan, in terms of the American effort in running his aspect of the IGY. I was just wondering what perception you have of the role he played.
Wilson:I am not even sure what he did. I know Kaplan and heís a good man and I liked him. I wrote to him when he was ill at the end, at various times, but eventually he faded away I guess. We got along fine. I remember the meeting at Berkeley very well. He was a seismologist, wasnít he, or did he work on upper atmosphere?
Doel:He had worked, at least initially, on the upper atmosphere.
Wilson:He worked on that, I know, in Green line and rural route lines and so on. I remember his lecture in Toronto as well as just coming here to give a lecture. Somebody proposed he come.
Doel:Did you have much contact during the IGY years with those who were working in the upper atmosphere, upper air research, like Chapman and Massey, Boyd and others?
Wilson:I knew Chapman and Bartels. They wrote a book on the magnetism. Chapman bicycled from Chicago to Washington to attend the meeting in 1939. I didnít go to the meeting. Boy -- I donít know -- upper atmosphere. I knew Rose. He worked on that. They had a station at Churchill that investigated it. I knew Sir Charles Wright, who was a Canadian, who had gone Sypo?? on an Antarctic expedition as a Boy Scout, as it were. His was a Clarkís?? expedition. He went with Taylor who was actually English or Australian and spent some time in Australia; and glacial lakes, dry lakes, small lakes there in Antarctica. Taylor and Wright lakes are named after them because they are parts of this expedition. They tried to run vehicles there and one thing and another. They didnít go on the final expedition across the pole or they would have been lost. Wright was a Boy Scout and a young fellow with good eyes spotted the skis -- the point tips sticking out of the snow -- when they found the Scott party and dug down and found it as a result of his observing it. Then because the war was coming on shortly afterwards -- he was at Oxford doing physics -- he got into the admiralty and spent his life doing admiralty research. He worked on magmatism and upper atmosphere and auroral effects and radar and things like that. I knew another man -- what was his name? Not Wally Watson but another Watson. He was in radar, too. I knew them and I knew Wright. He and I got along like a house on fire. We got along very well. He went back a number of times with the Americans to continue studies of conjugate points.
Doel:Just thinking back to the IGY period, what role did you feel that you wanted rocketry -- including the rockets for upper air research -- to play? Was there a debate about that?
Wilson:It wasnít something that affected me very much because you donít get any good air pictures from rockets and I wasnít much interested in the upper atmosphere. I had seen splendid aurora in my trips to the northwest territories and sat and gazed at them in wonder at night because they were a gloriously beautiful display. I was there during a geophysical maximum.
Doel:I was just curious in a general way if you recalled any discussions about that -- the kind of roles that the IGY should play, from say the prospective of being president of the IUGG?
Wilson:I think it was better handled by the specialists in the various divisions and various associations. They would know better. They werenít always followed up. Goughís work on his low frequency electromagnetic waves. Clearly it was of great importance, I think. Everything else to do with plumes has been totally neglected by the physicistsóalmost totally neglected. Cogleyís work in geography and Goughís work and Farrar and Dixon -- thereís been quite a lot on some of these things with very little known of the neglected fields which I want to bring out.
Doel:In thinking about your international travels within the context of the Cold War, as you are aware one of the difficulties in the two China problem -- particularly for scientists in the United States -- was the pressures that came from the governments on scientific organizations for using or admitting or contacting one China versus the other. When you made your trips to both Chinas -- communist China and to Formosa -- were you aware of political pressures that were put upon you from any of the western governments on how and what kinds of contacts that you could or should have? Was it an issue that came up?
Wilson:Nobody seemed to give a damn, no. I was a free agent. Thatís why Berkner and Beloussov trusted me and why they sent me. They felt that I was not likely to be called a communist and I was not likely to be hard on the communist -- unnecessarily hard on the Communist -- and that they didnít think Canadians really tried to influence and tell the scientists what to do, which they certainly didnít.
Doel:Did Berkner talk to you about the problems that he was facing in the United States over pressures from the American government on contacting communist Chinese scientists?
Wilson:We were aware of these problems. I remember the Jesuits being so pleased they got some communists from China into Spain under Franco. They got visas and got them there for a meeting of CSAGI before the geophysical year took place. It was in that spirit that I went to these places. I didnít discuss politics or what the Americans or British or Canadians thought about it. The Canadians never gave me any advice about what I should do. The Canadian government -- you know, the passport says you can go anywhere. The Canadians say your passport says you can go anywhere -- Americans donít say you can go anywhere, thereís a place you canít go to and theyíll look after you -- but weíre not going to look after you if you get in trouble, so keep out of trouble. And if weíre not there, and they are in most places, but not everywhere -- report to the British.
Doel:How did your contacts develop with the institute of current world affairs around 1960?
Wilson:Current world affair -- what is that in reference to?
Doel:It was a group that you had become involved in after your first trip to China. It came up in the context of groups like the Ford Foundation being very interested in understanding the development of scientific research in communist China, but not being able to maintain any direct contact on their own. There was a fellow named Oldham.
Wilson:I realize what you are talking about now. The Crane Foundation, I think it was, was in back of this. I think Crane put up the money.
Doel:Perhaps they were the ones.
They were very pleased with themselves because they had persuaded Hazard -- I think his name was -- to study Russian science before Russian science was popular. He knew Russia and he knew Russian science, and was in a position to be of great value. They were looking around at other subjects and they decided -- and I got on to this through the Arctic Institute, very possible, which had American and Canadian members in equal numbers and sort of doubled -- had two headquarters. They had a little trouble with a fellow called Slesniak?? who was suspected to be communist. Whether he was or not I have no idea. On the whole it was a fairly smooth running operation and had people who had been in the Arctic. I had been there and collected some rock samples??. They approached me -- a very nice fellow, but Iíve forgotten his name now -- and said, ďWe want to study Chinese science but we canít send anybody to China. Do you know any Canadians who might be available to go and learn Chinese and study Chinese science. We will pay them as a fellow for some time.Ē I thought about it for a while and I said, ďNo, I donít know any Canadians who would be suitable, but I do know somebody I think who would be very good and that is Geoff Oldham.Ē Geoff Oldham had been at Redding in university in England. He won a Goldsmith and Silversmith overseas scholarship from England, which is an unusual distinction, you have to be a scholar of high repute and Burrard advised him to come to Toronto.
He came here and studied geophysics. He got a good degree here. I got an amazing gravity around Ontario. I gave him a ground meter -- a truck -- and he had just recently got married so he and his wife went off on their honeymoon to measure gravity all around Southern Ontario and it appealed to him enormously. Weíve been close friends ever since. He did a very good job indeed. Heís a very bright fellow. When he got through with that, the reason that I recommended him for this job is that he had graduated with us and because he had a wife and children to support he had joined the Chevron Oil Company and done a survey in South America by which time he knew Spanish, French and English. I therefore realized that he learned Spanish quickly. He hadnít known it before and was a good geophysicist and able to look after himself in South America. I said, ďWhy donít you get OldhamĒ so they contacted Oldham. They sent him to Hong Kong for two years to learn Chinese. It was he who arranged the building of our junk which we got shipped here. He organized that when he was in Hong Kong. I went and visited him there. He and his wife enjoyed this.
While in Hong Kong he became secretary of the National Research Council of Hong Kong or the colonies or research council or whatever it was and from that went on with the various fields which he wanted to study, the organization of science in twenty five southeast Asian countries -- all of them. He wrote reports on this and he learned Chinese. He knew Chinese, Spanish, French and English all fluently and had traveled very widely. He then got a job at the University of Sussex. He clearly had the confidence of the Americans. They didnít want to lose him at all, but he was obviously -- you know how things have their ups and down, and obviously, he didnít tell me, I donít think, but I realized that things were unhappy for various circumstances and he was ready for the change. He made the change and it worked out very well for him. He then went to the University of Sussex where he became a member and then director of their Institute of Social Policy. I am not sure -- wait a minute, he came through here the other day and came to see me.
Doel:Is that right?
Wilson:Oh yes, we know him well. I have been to see him, visit him and he visits us. Weíre great friends. Itís very nice to have this relationship with oneís students, I find, and I have a lot of friends. What the hell is he doing now? He was doing something else for two years. Iím so old and my memory is getting forgetful.
Doel:You mentioned the Crane Foundation was supporting this?
Wilson:That was its original designation. (This sounds like ďeducationĒ but he may have meant ďdesignationĒ??) It had a fancy name. I think it was Crane -- money backing it.
Doel:What else did the foundation do?
Wilson:I think the fellow who ran it was Rogers -- an American.
Doel:I am just wondering what kinds of interests you had for the foundation. Was it principally concerned with some international contacts or was it very broadly based?
Wilson:They wanted him to learn Chinese and be a good scientist so he could deal with issues that arose. Since he was qualified in physics and had been a scholarship winner and knew a lot of geology and traveled a lot and knew three or four languages, that was what they wanted.
Doel:I meant more than Oldham himself. Was this a principal activity of the foundation?
Wilson:As far as I know that is all it did. I donít know what else it did. They normally wouldnít consult me because they could get somebody in the United States or consult somebody in the United States because they were dealing with China where they couldnít send Americans.
Doel:In some ways weíve come --
Doel:Not full circle, but weíve come at least to the early 1960s and in some ways it might be a good point for us to consider breaking. It is already getting fairly late in the evening. I donít want to tax you too much.
Wilson:I normally work all day. I donít know if you want to finish it or leave it till tomorrow -- whatever you say.
Doel:Why donít we finish at least for now. Let me ask you one other question. You have already mentioned a number of convictions about science and your views on the direction and development of contemporary science in the role of physics and geology, but I wonder if you could tell me a little bit more about your religious affiliation or if you have any other strong philosophical convictions that you havenít spoken about here?
My mother was a good Anglican. She was a Canadian, born in Canada, but brought up in England where her father had retired because her mother was a Londoner and didnít like B.C. in the early days or Washington. Her father became a very wealthy banker in New York and the bank manager in New York on Wall Street. He retired very comfortably off. My grandmother then went back to England and spent all the money, but she and this daughter and son had a pleasant time -- daughter anyway -- traveling round. Mother liked to climb mountains so they would either go to the Alps and then go to the festivals in Europe, particularly some of the German ones. They would climb the Alps. They once went to Norway and climbed there, but often they went to B.C. because my uncle was living in B.C. as a mining and railway engineer. They would then stay in the Banff Springs Hotel for weeks or months at a time. Mother became a very proficient climber. I donít know that she had very strong religious convictions. She made sure that we were confirmed and we went to church every Sunday and did everything proper. My father was a Presbyterian. His grandfather had been the second moderator of the Free Church in Scotland, but he went quite happily along to the Anglican church, but he refused to be a church warden there. He was a sidesman and took up the collection, but he wouldnít be a church warden in the Anglican church. Beyond that he went along with mother.
I went to school that had service every day -- a protestant school -- for most of my school career. When I first went to Trinity I was affected by this slightly and I thought for a short time of going into the church. I decided better of that. It was not very serious. It was just the impact of going to college, I suppose. I gradually lost interest. Isabel and I donít go to church. Itís not that I am against it. I support Trinity College, which is an Anglican foundation. I think itís a little more complicated than just religious. It doesnít make much sense from a logical point of view to have a whole lot of little religions all believing slightly different things. Although it may make a good deal of sense, most of them are pretty moral and thatís a good thing, but the actual details of their faith I am not sure that I prefer one over another. I am not the least interested in politics. Mother and dad -- one was a good conservative and the other a good liberal, so they decided never to discuss politics and they never did. Mother ran for city government and was runner-up on the board of control. She was president of the National Council of Women and did a great many things. She was on a lot of committees. I always felt -- I donít know where I got the idea, but a long time ago -- if my mother or my father went into a room full of either women or men that mother would be quite likely to emerge as the chairperson and my father would quite likely emerge as the secretary.
Wilson:Dad was very quiet and very efficient. He got on very well with people. Mother was somewhat more abrasive and very definitely a strong leader. She was a very strong character indeed.
Doel:I want to thank you very much for this long session that we have had today. We will not make the tape available to anyone or its transcript without your express knowledge and approval as defined in the permission forms that you will be receiving from the American Institute of Physics along with the edited transcript.
Wilson:I am glad to hear that. That seems sensible.
Memorial is in St. John's. Nfld. and McMaster is in Hamilton. Moira Arnot, former secretary to JTW.