Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Immersed in Chemistry

Photo courtesy Prof White

John White in a safety inspection of the drained “swimming pool” of the nuclear reactor at Institut Laue Langevin in Grenoble, France, 1978. Photo courtesy Prof White

By Peter Pockley

Arguably Australia’s most internationally experienced and prominent chemistry researcher, Professor John White continues to produce original research long after normal retirement age, and he is, unshakeably, a committed Christian.

John White had chemistry in his brain from age 8, and his enthusiasm for this fundamental science has never waned throughout his 71 years. His engineer father, George, had given him a chemistry textbook that he kept by his bed in Newcastle, NSW, while he set up “a private lab” in his grandmother’s house to investigate the properties of a new chemical he bought every week from the local pharmacist. He recalls: “Basically, my family was tremendously supportive and fed my interest in the subject”.

He taught himself how to identify the presence of metals in substances, and “guided by Sherwood Taylor’s book I never had an explosion or fire. But, I once sucked up in a pipette mercury nitrate, which is highly poisonous. Taylor told me to swallow the yolk of an egg [as antidote] and, though a revolting experience, I escaped unharmed.”

He did not understand about atoms and molecules being the basis of chemicals and their reactions until he was taught about them at Newcastle High, a selective school with science masters who “were good, and even built their own equipment”. He reflects: “I do tremendously regret that children at school today don’t do interesting experiments [like I did] at school any more”. White’s abiding philosophy of education in science is “learning by doing”. As for priorities, he says: “I’m a teacher and fascinated by research, but I would never do it without teaching”.

Taking a science course at Sydney University he learned: “Chemistry is a subject which allows you to make things and understand how they are made. That combination of skill and understanding is very creative.”

He decided to specialise in physical chemistry which, he says, “is different to physics because there is a qualitative as well as a quantitative aspect. Physical chemistry is concerned with how reactions go and uses instruments to measure what’s going on. It requires some mathematics. All this attracted me”.

Oxford Beckons and Captures
White won the Dixon Prize for topping his year in chemistry, and moved to an Honours year for his first taste of research. While he expected to progress to a PhD in Sydney, his supervisor, Prof Laurie Lyons, pushed him to go overseas instead. This was an era when PhDs in Australia were few and far between and a stint of overseas training was almost mandatory for an academic posting in Australia. He won an 1851 Scholarship, which took him to Oxford University in 1959 to learn under Dr Rex Richards about the new technique of nuclear magnetic resonance being pioneered for chemistry there.

He made his mark with papers published by The Royal Society of London, and, even before finishing his DPhil, he was elected an ICI Fellow in Lincoln College and President of the Middle Common Room (catering for postgraduate students). The privileges of Oxford had begun to capture the young Australian. Soon he was elected a Fellow of St John’s College in 1963 and remained in Oxford for 26 years.

White is “very grateful for the Oxford experience” and is now repaying it by chairing an Australia-based foundation that provides scholarships for Australians to undertake postgraduate study at Oxford.

His research there branched into innovative applications of the phenomenon of neutron scattering to chemistry, which enabled study of the structure and motions of molecules in the incredibly short time frames of chemical reactions in the range of picoseconds (millionths of a millionth of a second) to milliseconds. With his first graduate student, Julia Higgins, White used the power of this technique to “see” small molecules like water moving around inside holes in industrially important compounds like zeolites. Higgins went on to become a Fellow of The Royal Society, like White himself, and a Dame.

Internationalist Emerges
White’s research had achieved such a reputation that, at the relatively tender age of 36, he was asked to become Ajoint Director of the Instiut Laue-Langevin (ILL) in Grenoble, France, in 1974, and to assume the Directorship in 1977. The ILL had been founded in 1967 as one of the first major cooperative ventures between France and Germany under the newly emerging Common Market. Britain joined later, and White’s appointment represented Britain’s first in rotation (Australians then had British citizenship).

The ILL now has 10 more European countries as members, and annually hosts some 1200 researchers from 30 countries (including Australians, like White still) to work with the most intense neutron source in the world, a 57 kW research reactor (Australia’s new OPAL reactor is one-third of this power).

White had accumulated considerable experience in neutron scattering with the research reactor at Harwell near Oxford, and insisted on being allowed to extend his experimental work at Grenoble in parallel with his administrative duties. Armed with only schoolboy French, John and Ailsa White with their children set up work, home and schooling in France.

At the ILL, White appreciated at first-hand that international collaboration with “contestability” in decisions about projects at major facilities is “a good thing”, and that mutual understanding is a vital factor. At Grenoble he learned how to get the best out of leading researchers from differing scientific traditions. The French, he says, argued science “in principle”, the Germans were “meticulous” and the British were “empirical”. For his contributions at the ILL the Queen awarded White the CMG medal in 1981.

Five years after returning to the lectureship that Oxford University had preserved for him, he accepted a professorship in the Research School of Chemistry in the Australian National University in 1985. He has remained there for 23 years and has no plans for leaving.

Elected a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science in 1991, he was its Secretary for Science Policy. He became a champion of establishing “big science” facilities in Australia or sharing access to major facilities overseas, like ILL’s research reactor and the complementary Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in the UK, which produces neutrons by the alternative spallation process of blasting them out of the nucleus with highly accelerated particles. He shared the scientific community’s advocacy to federal and state governments which resulted in the recent building of ANSTO’s OPAL reactor and the Australian Synchrotron in Melbourne.

A fresh strand of his research has been applying X-rays to the study of “soft matter” like biological materials, polymers, emulsions like milk and explosives, which had proved challenging to understand. Building Australia’s first X-ray refractometer in the ANU’s workshops has opened the door to this whole new field of science.

Christian Foundations
John met Ailsa Vise after she also won a research scholarship to Oxford. They married in 1966. They came from practising Christian families (Anglican), carrying this tradition in bringing up their three daughters (Sarah, Catherine and Rachel) and son (David), but “they are finding their own way”. The Whites continue as convinced churchgoers. John led a group of scientists at Oxford “who had to produce a paper every year [on apparent conflicts with religion] and subjected them to rational criticism”. Back in Australia he became a Board Member of the (Anglican) St Mark’s National Theological Centre.

He asserts: “I don’t think science and Christianity are in conflict at all. I make no judgments about the virgin birth or miracles, largely because I wasn’t there. But, I’m prepared to believe they have some important value in what Christ did. I believe in him as a historical character… and in the practical consequences of that belief.” He says faith is his foundation for guiding ethical behaviour and undertaking duty for the public good.

He does not feel isolated as a scientist and a Christian, having been President for 10 years of the (Australian) Institute for the Study of Christianity in an Age of Science and Technology. ISCAST, he explains, “has several hundred adherents and about 50 Fellows who are admitted on the basis of Christian belief and scientific distinction. We publish their refereed studies on theist belief, non-theist points of view and ethics.”

reminiScience draws on extended biographical interviews recorded by Peter Pockley for the Oral History Archives of the National Library of Australia. This article was originally published in Australasian Science's October 2008 edition.