Oral history of British science

Nye, John (Part 15 of 16). An Oral History of British Science.

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  • Subjects

    Geophysics; Glaciology

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  • Recording locations

    Interviewees home, Bristol

  • Interviewees

    Nye, John, 1923 - (speaker, male)

  • Interviewers

    Merchant, Paul (speaker, male)

  • Abstract

    Part 15: Metro journey to 1986 ‘Refusnik’ seminar, including Professor Harold Baum entertaining waiting audience with ‘Biochemists Songbook’. Description of 1986 ‘Refusnik’ seminar. [2:51] effect of contact between Russian and ‘Western’ science; treatment of Jewish scientists by Nazi Germany and Cold War Russia. [4:13] own role in London group ‘Scientists for the Release of Soviet Refusniks’, including writing of letters on behalf of imprisoned scientists. [5:21] Mentions death of mother, late 1940s; father’s death, 1970s; father’s move to Oxford from Hove; frequent visits to Oxford; brother’s home in Oxford; father’s visits to Bristol. Spanish holiday with wife and father; previous holiday with father, southern France. [9:12] father’s view of JN’s career. [9:37] effect on self of mother’s death; regret at intellectual distance between self and mother; father’s considerable grief at mother’s death. [12:51] relations with brother Peter; brother’s career in soil chemistry. Mentions brother’s recent death; own amendments to second edition of brother’s co-written textbook, ‘Solute Movement in the Rhizosphere’. Mentions own and brother’s FRS. [17:52] IGS discussion of proposal by US university to deposit radioactive material under Antarctic ice sheet. [21:11] history of Swiss interest in advance/retreat of own glaciers; work on standardization of measurements of glacier variation by International Commission on Snow and Ice [ICSI]; lack of interest in climate change, 1960s and 1970s; own work on indirect relations between snowfall and retreat/advance of glaciers. Description of advancing Norwegian glacier seen recently. [27:38] ICSI compilation of inventory of existing glaciers, including use of ERTS satellite images. [29:35] Mentions prediction of movement of Berenden Glacier in relation to copper mine. [30:32] work on ‘glacier outburst’ floods from Vatnajökull ice cap, southern Iceland. IGS visit to erupting Hekla volcano, Iceland, 1970. [35:15] Description of process of filling and emptying of Lake Grimsvotn, damned by weight of Vatnajökull ice cap. work on quantitative theory of process. Discussion of use of equations describing flow through pipes; reasons for particular timing of starting and stopping of ‘glacier outburst’ floods. Helgi Bjornsson’s work at UOB on surveys of the ‘glacier outburst’ floods. Mentions application to other outburst events. [46:29] origin and nature of interest in this work. Mentions paper by Sigurdur Thorarinsson. [50:12] relations between dimensions of glaciers, instability and likelihood of ‘glacier outburst’ floods. [52:31] origin of work on the polar caps of Mars, from 1999. Mentions meetings of space scientists, geomorphologists and glaciologists in places allowing relevant field trips. Mentions three papers, 2000. Description of work of Bill Durham [BD] on creep/mechanical strength of solid carbon dioxide [CO2]. meeting BD leading to mathematical description of ‘weakness’ of theoretical CO2 polar cap. Description of favoured theory: ice cap covered with superficial CO2. [1:02:04] Discussion of invisibility of ice part of Mars’ polar caps. right handed spiral rifts on northern ice cap. [1:04:23] Mentions papers published by JN with BD on ice caps; multiple authorship of papers in planetary physics and connected to CERN (European Council for Nuclear Research). [1:05:40] Description of process of studying a distant process/object, such as Mars’ ice caps, through logic, physics and mathematics. Mentions room in PD, UOB. process of thinking about problems constantly, including in domestic settings; importance of thinking away from the desk. [1:12:30] Mentions use of ball point pen and computer program ‘Mathematica’ at desk. [1:14:09] development of use of computers at UOB, from earliest in computer building, later use of computer room shared with students, to personal computer (PC) on own desk. [1:16:52] use of electric typewriters then word processors by secretaries; early literal cutting and pasting of documents with instructions to secretaries; being discovered secretly using secretary’s word processor to alter punctuation in own papers, 1980s; learning how to word process on first Apple Macintosh [Mac] computer bought; use of AIDJEX modem in 1970s; period of journals’ insistence on ‘camera ready copy’. [1:24:08] suitability of word processing for own style of written composition; consciousness of ordering in effective prose. use of computers for calculations, covering ‘Fortran’, True BASIC, MB’s use of Mathematica, own early impression of Mathematica’s inflexibility, recent exploration of Mathematica in period of relative immobility. [1:31:22] ability of Mathematica to perform algebra. [1:32:27] process of developing new subjects of research, through linking of apparently different processes. Description of application of ‘catastrophe theory’ in very varied fields by Christopher Zeeman. Mentions paper questioning sociological applications of ‘catastrophe theory’. reliable application of catastrophe theory in engineering and optics where there are measurable quantities. [1:41:38] Detailed own motivation for studying aspects of materiality of the world; philosophical implications of consistency and intelligibility of natural world. [1:47:35] development of interest in ‘singularities’/ ‘dislocations’/ ‘catastrophes’; role of accident in science, including theoretical physics; role of discussion with colleagues in development of new fields of interest. [1:51:09] conversation in coffee room, PD, UOB during visit of by Yakir Aharonov and David Bohm, leading to experimentation, MB’s ‘Berry Phase’ and JH’s work on ‘anholonomies’. [1:56:00] Description of everyday examples of ‘anholonomies’.

  • Description

    Life story interview with Professor John Nye, physicist.

  • Related transcripts

    Professor John Nye interviewed by Paul Merchant: full transcript of the interview

  • Related links

    Visit this interviewee's page on the 'Voices of Science' web resource

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