Scoop Review of Books

Woman. Rocks. Science.

Book Review
Rocks, radio and radar: the extraordinary scientific, social and military life of Elizabeth Alexander
 by Mary Harris (World Scientific Press, 595 pages. $148, or e-book $29.95)
Reviewed by Simon Nathan

alexander1Elizabeth Alexander (1908-58) was a pioneering scientist who undertook research on widely different topics in England, Singapore, New Zealand and Nigeria, but sadly died before her 50th birthday. Her extraordinary story has been documented by her daughter, Mary Harris. While my initial interest in this book was for its New Zealand content, it is an intriguing case-study of a capable woman scientist who fitted her life around family commitments, urgent wartime research, and the career choices of her husband.

Born in 1908 to parents who were university graduates, Elizabeth Caldwell spent her early years in India, where her father was Principal of Patna Science College. She became a ‘colonial orphan’ when she and her siblings were sent back to England for their education. Elizabeth was clearly an outstanding student, winning a scholarship to study natural sciences at Newnham College, Cambridge. Originally interested in physics, she subsequently decided to specialize in geology, and graduated with a PhD on the Aymestry Limestone. In Cambridge she met Norman Alexander, an Auckland scientist studying for his PhD in the Cavendish Laboratory. They were married in 1935, and almost immediately set off for Singapore where Norman had been appointed Professor of Physics at Raffles College.

While raising her three children, Elizabeth continued her geological work with a study of rock weathering under tropical conditions, including burying samples to assess the speed of rock decay. The outbreak of war in Europe led to a move to the Naval Intelligence Service where she worked on radio direction finding at the Singapore naval base. At the time the term ‘radio direction finding’ was also being used as the cover name for the different and very secret technologies of radar.

At the beginning of 1942 she was ordered to take her children to the safety of her husband’s family in New Zealand and return with specialist radio direction finding  equipment. The sudden fall of Singapore to the Japanese in February 1942 meant that she was stranded in New Zealand with three small children, little money, and no idea of what had happened to her husband. Because of her expertise, already known to Ernest Marsden, then head of the DSIR, she was offered a job in charge of the Operational Research section of the Radio Development Laboratory in Wellington – in a converted building in Majoribanks Street, Mt Victoria, just a few hundred metres from where I live.

Vice-regal visit to the Radar Development Laboratory, about 1944. From left, Dr Ernest Marsden, Sir Cyril Newall (Governor-General), Dr Elizabeth Alexander, I.D.Stevenson (Director, RDL), and the governor-general’s aide-de-camp.

Vice-regal visit to the Radar Development Laboratory, about 1944. From left, Dr Ernest Marsden, Sir Cyril Newall (Governor-General), Dr Elizabeth Alexander, I.D. Stevenson (Director, RDL), and the governor-general’s aide-de-camp.

Elizabeth kept a diary of her life in New Zealand from 1942-45 for Norman. An official account of the activities of the laboratory was produced after the war, and the author has skilfully woven these two narratives together along with her own childhood memories to produce a fascinating account of a wartime research group working under high pressure,  with constantly changing priorities and difficulties in reconciling the needs of military authorities. At that time it was unusual to have a woman scientist in a senior position – she was the right person for the job, better qualified and experienced than anyone else available.

Anomalies in radar propagation, first noticed by Elizabeth became known as the ‘Norfolk Island effect’, due to solar radiation. It was the beginning of radio-astronomy in the region, but she could not follow it up as it came when her wartime job was coming to an end.

After the Japanese surrender, Norman Alexander was released from prison in Singapore, and returned to New Zealand on leave where he was reunited with Elizabeth and his family. He was determined to get the Physics and Chemistry Departments at Raffles College up and running again, so returned to Singapore as soon as he could. Elizabeth was left to tidy up affairs in New Zealand, travelling to England where she left the children with her sister, and returned to Singapore. Over the next two years both she and Norman played important roles in the reconstruction of Raffles College, and its subsequent incorporation in the University of Malaya, and Elizabeth undertook an important role as acting registrar of the new university.

Signing the first statutes of the University of Malaya. From left, Elizabeth Alexander (temporary registrar), Malcolm Macdonald (Chancellor) and G.V. Aitken (Vice Chancellor).

Signing the first statutes of the University of Malaya. From left, Elizabeth Alexander (temporary registrar), Malcolm Macdonald (Chancellor) and G.V. Aitken (Vice Chancellor)

Elizabeth was keen to continue her geological work but never had a formal position. She was, however the only geologist then living in the island of Singapore, and was asked by the government to survey the island for sources of granite for reconstruction. Using soil resistivity equipment devised by Norman and herself, she was able to take her pre-war research into tropical weathering to deeper levels and to identify for the government both new sources of building stone and safe locations for future high-rise buildings. Her work also extended into advising on water supplies. Elizabeth was starting to make her name as an authority on Singapore geology, but her career was interrupted by Norman’s appointment as Professor of Physics at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria.

Once again it was necessary to pack up, and make a fresh start. In a different tropical country, it was possible to continue her research on rock weathering, but it was done without any official support although she obtained a junior position lecturing in the agriculture department. Elizabeth continued to be the expert on Singapore geology, but her advice was sought and given by airmail. She campaigned for the setting up of a geology department, but it did not come to fruition until after her sudden death from a brain aneurism in 1958. Her major paper on tropical rock weathering was completed by Norman, and submitted for publication a year after her death.

This is an interesting and bittersweet biography. Elizabeth Alexander was a capable and energetic scientist, but circumstances meant that she was never able to settle down and develop her scientific career. The three years she spent in charge of the Operational Research Section of the Radar Development Laboratory in New Zealand was the only time that Elizabeth held a position of responsibility, and is a clear indication that, had she lived 50 years later, she would have been an effective science leader.

This is a long book (and I easily read the e-book version) — the product of over a decade of research by Mary Harris, covering a huge range a sources from the different places and disciplines where Elizabeth worked. It outlines the career of a remarkable scientist, and is a significant contribution to the history of several different areas of science.