Online Sources - YOU CAN READ THE FULL TRANSCRIPT OF THIS INTERVIEW AT
http://www.science.org.au/scientists/bc.htm. I have referred just to the personal items and not to the professional areas his work covered.
Interview with Professor Bill Compston, Isotope geochemist Interviews with Australian scientists, Australian Academy of Science, 2005, Interviewed by Mr David Salt, 2005.
Professor William (Bill) Compston is a renowned geophysicist who began his research career fingerprinting and dating rocks at the University of Western Australia before moving to the Research School of Earth Sciences at the Australian National University. He was a principal investigator dating lunar rock samples that were collected by Apollo 11, but is best known for his work developing the Sensitive High Resolution Ion Micro Probe (SHRIMP).The SHRIMP is a great achievement for Australian geology and was used to identify the world's oldest mineral, found in Western Australia. Bill is a Visiting Fellow at the Australian National University and has received many awards, including the Flinders Medal, the Mawson Medal and the Centenary Medal. He is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science, the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering and the Royal Society of London.
Bill, you were born in 1931 in Western Australia, a state founded on its mineral wealth, and your mother came from the WA goldfields. But I believe your connection to geology and minerals goes back even further.
Well, my mother’s and my father’s antecedents that we know of went to the Victorian goldfields, but with an interest in finding gold rather than studying it. They both arrived in the same year, 1855, and got off the ship at Portland.
Do you have any early memories of living in the west?
Oh, lots of them. As a small child I lived with my mother and father at his butcher’s shop. My schooling was a happy time for me. I always found that I was doing well at school and it didn’t require too much trouble. (I guess I didn’t muck up as much as the other children.) But during the Second World War we had to go to Toodyay, which is about 50 or 60 miles – in the old measure – from Perth, to get away from the military preparations all round Fremantle.
See photograph - A young Bill, pre-kindergarten.
My father died in 1943, after which my mother managed his shop until eventually she couldn’t do so any longer and she sold it. Then we had a holiday visiting relatives in Melbourne. But we were, in effect, trapped in Melbourne, because although we got a train passage out from Perth to Melbourne we couldn’t get one back, on account of the war.
I believe you developed a love of piano playing and music during your school years.
Ah yes. I started learning the piano when I was about seven or eight, still living at my original home. Then it tailed off because I didn’t do my practice, but I took it up again as a Leaving Certificate subject at high school. That was a bit different, and practice used up a couple of hours each day – rather to the resentment, I think, of the people at school who wanted me to play in a sporting team.
You studied for a Bachelor of Science at the University of Western Australia, where you first took up the study of geology. What attracted you to this subject?
Well, I did it rather than do the fourth subject that everyone else did, which was botany or biology, and because my brother had interested me in the topic. When we were in Melbourne during the war he was also there, in the Army. Having a science degree (in geology) from West Australia, he was attached to some ordnance section to defuse hand grenades and things like that. But he took me round to the various geological ‘monuments’ in Melbourne – well-known rock outcrops, mainly fossils – and I found that very interesting.
I enjoyed geology at university. As a qualitative subject it was a matter of remembering all the names of rocks and minerals, for example, which was fairly straightforward. And I enjoyed the field trips and field camps. So I kept doing it.
Do you have fond memories of your undergraduate years, and the people you were with?
Oh yes. All memories tend to get rosy as the time goes on. I made some very good friends and connections as an undergraduate. Unfortunately, the best friends have died, which is upsetting.
Through my wife, who had been to Perth Modern School, I got in with a group of people from there. (She was in the same year as I was at the university, from first year onwards. By coincidence, one of her subjects also was geology.) This was a group of people who liked to do well, and that spurred me on to emulating them. It was very good for all of us, I think. We talked to each other about mutual problems in physics or mathematics – How do you understand this, that or the other?’ – and that’s the best way to learn.
I believe you also played classical music quite loudly.
That’s right! At lunchtimes, a couple of days a week, we would – by permission – use the big music system in Winthrop Hall to play records selected by one of the group who was especially fond of music and knowledgeable about it. We’d turn it up as loud as possible so we couldn’t hear anything else. That was our escape. And that’s what people do in their cars these days, isn’t it?
You gained a Fulbright Scholarship to spend a year across at the California Institute of Technology, didn’t you?
Yes. The Fulbright was a travel scholarship, and at Caltech I was offered a research fellowship because I was in that particular field. There I continued to work on fingerprinting, this time with oxygen isotopes. The carbon and the oxygen isotopes in the hydrological and the atmospheric cycle are all fractionated by the same processes but they all give a slightly different reaction to it, and it is best to have them both present at once if you can.
I should mention that before I left the United States I went across and spent three months in Washington DC at a branch of the Carnegie Institute called the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism (DTM).
A lecturer and researcher in transition
Then it was back to the University of Western Australia, this time as a lecturer in physics
Moving east to the Australian National University and full-time research
You didn’t stay in Perth, however. I gather that Professor Jaeger, the head of the ANU Department of Geophysics, actually came across in the early ’60s and headhunted you for the ANU.
Well, ‘headhunted’ is the modern term; it would have been much more discreet in those days. I think it was our success in the laboratory in Perth that led Professor Jaeger to try to persuade me to come to Canberra and concentrate on research.
Were you keen to take up his invitation?
Yes, I was. ANU was regarded with a bit of awe – people hadn’t yet seen it as a big rival for funding and students. It had a reputation as a great place to go to because it was on the rise. And indeed it was, so there was not much reason for me not to go there.
I believe there were family in Canberra already, including your brother who originally got you interested in geology.
That’s right. I had two brothers and my mother living in Canberra.
Your scientific career has always co-existed with your family life. While you were doing your PhD you married and had a child. That would have made for a very busy PhD.
Yes. I give three points of advice to my graduate students when they first arrive: never marry if you’re doing a PhD; if you do marry, never have children; and never leave the university without actually writing and submitting your thesis. I managed to violate all of those rules! When I went overseas on the Fulbright Scholarship, I had to travel at a certain time in order to get in that year’s batch. But I hadn’t submitted my thesis, so I had to finish it at the California Institute of Technology, semi-surreptitiously, in my spare time. And there wasn’t much spare time, I can tell you.
I tell my graduate students about this and they think it is funny. They can’t see why a person would have wanted to do any of those things anyway, but they discover after three or four years that they are very happy to finish their thesis.
I believe that throughout your career, your wife and family have played an important support role.
Yes, an absolutely fundamental role. My wife was herself a scientist, educated in physics and maths as well as geology, so she could appreciate what we were up against and what we were trying to do. She was very helpful and tolerated the absences from home that were necessary. Stress can destroy marriages, of course. Well, she didn’t let it destroy our marriage, and I’m forever grateful for that.
And my wife is intensely loyal to me. If you were to interview her she would tell you very fervently some 'political' things about my career that I wouldn't want you to hear!
Could you have guessed all this when you were students together?
Oh, I didn’t think that far ahead. I’m not one of those terribly organised people who lay out the career that they are going to have. I wish I were.
Bill, I think that ANU, Australia and the world of geochronology are very fortunate that you have played such an important role in this field. Thank you for giving us your time today to talk about it.