Oral history of British science

Cottrell, Alan (Part 1 of 1). An Oral History of British Science.

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  • Subjects

    Materials Science

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  • Recording locations

    Interviewees home, Cambridge.

  • Interviewees

    Cottrell, Alan, 1919-2012 (speaker, male)

  • Interviewers

    Lean, Thomas (speaker, male)

  • Abstract

    Part 1: Remarks on youth: inheritances from parents; being a dreamy child at school but winning prizes; hobbies, including Meccano, models, chemistry and electrical sets; 1936 scholarship to Birmingham University, persuaded into metallurgy by Professor Hanson; interests at University, sports, exercise, bridge, music; graduation in 1939. [02:45] Remarks on: parents, father interested in engineering, mother interested in music, keen on education, father property manager; interest in Meccano; anecdote about his dreamy nature almost getting him into trouble at school; being advised against physics at university by a school master; limited knowledge of metallurgy, before being persuaded into it by Professor Hanson; university; [07:00] tried to join army at start of war, but sent back to university. Discussion about wartime research: description of how arc welding made tank armour brittle; AC becoming an expert welder; description of armour experiments; feelings about being a scientists in wartime, feeling he owed something to country; colleagues; work on Admiralty bronzes and on Merlin engine cylinders; indirect contact with military. [13:55] Remarks on: hobbies outside work, bridge, music, hill walking; Professor Hanson asking him to form a new lecture course on atomic science of metals; difference between atomic science of metals and previous approaches to metallurgy. [17:20] Remarks on postwar work on plastic properties of metals: crystal dislocations; working with Cambridge researcher Robert Cahn, whose experimental work tied in with AC's theoretical work; election to Royal Society in 1955 for work on dislocations in steel; primitive laboratory facilities at Birmingham, laboratory workshops. [21:16] Remarks on: meeting wife Jean at Birmingham Iron and Steel institute, marrying in 1944; son Geoffrey, a scientist at Culham, and adopted daughter Johanna, a nurse. [22:55] Comments on Atomic Energy Research Establishment Harwell: invited to join in 1955; description of a problem he discovered with the Magnox nuclear reactor design; description of experiment, irradiating a spring on a fishing wire and measuring via a theodolite; views on nuclear power; [26:55] AC forming a research group to investigate if Magnox reactors could have similar problems to those which caused 1957 Windscale Fire; experimental arrangements to ascertain safety of Magnox reactors; freedom to think; [30:23] differences between being being a government and academic scientist, finding Harwell tougher atmosphere than Birmingham, but work satisfying; small team; national importance of work; invited to join AERE by Monty Finniston. [33:25] Comments on Cambridge: invited to chair of metallurgy in 1958; need to modernise department; teaching from atomic perspective; new staff, [Anthony] Kelly, Robin Nicholson, Jim Charles; electron microscope, with support from Atomic Energy Agency and Electricity Generating Board; electron microscopy, worked on by Robin Nicholson, use in seeing dislocations; superconductivity research. [38:22] Fibre strengthening work with Anthony Kelly, basic theory of strong fibres leading to materials such as Carbon Fibre; anecdote about advising Edward Heath to use carbon fibre on his boat; connection of academic work with applications of it, importance of Jim Charles' industrial background; relevance of understanding metals from atomic point of view, with reference to high temperature alloys in jet engines; colleagues, such as Bruce Bilby at Sheffield; becoming more of a theoretician over the years, link of theory and experimental work; happiest parts of work; enjoying teaching; [45:00] other head of department duties; remaining on various government scientific advisory committees, such as board of AEA. [46:40] Remarks on Whitehall: feeling British industry needed more scientific input; Sir Solly Zuckerman and Lord Louis Mountbatten inviting him to Whitehall; work on Denis Healey defence review, with reference to East of Suez and aircraft carriers; AC becoming Zuckerman's deputy when he became Chief Scientific Advisor [CSA]; overview of issues worked on, including brain drain, space research, Concorde, Advanced Passenger Train, Torrey Canyon disaster; AC becoming CSA after Zuckerman's retirement; complications of overlap of CSA responsibility with Victor Rothschild's Central Policy Review Staff [CPRS]; difficulties between Government research councils and Rothschild, AC's suggested solution leading to customer-contractor principle. [52:35] Remarks on: benefits of customer contractor principle, maintaining independence of research councils, important to attract bright scientists; returning to Cambridge in 1974 as master of Jesus College. [54:10] Further remarks on time in Whitehall: anecdote about Mountbatten approaching him at a Cambridge feast; believing industry needed more scientific management to keep up with foreign competition; realising that Harold Wilson was just using the White Hot Technological Revolution as political capital; AC relations with Zuckerman; Zuckerman's anti-nuclear weapons stance; hopes to switch funding from defence to civil research, which were thwarted by Treasury; [58:40] AC opposition to campaign for a Minister for Science; chief scientific advisor duties; AC opposed to uneconomic 'glamorous' projects such as space research and Concorde, but losing to Tony Benn on Concorde; AC opposition to rocketry in favour of communication satellites, reactions of industry; [1:03:10] Travelling abroad frequently, such as for NATO science committee; working life; difficulties with Rothschild; links with Lord Jellicoe; helping Margaret Thatcher with speeches on science; views of public understanding of science, working with classically educated civil servants who were fearful of science. [1:07:30] Further remarks on reorganisation of scientific civil service, AC in favour of research council independence. Remarks on politicians and science: Dennis Healey's good understanding of scientific matters, Harold Wilson, Edward Heath, Margaret Thatcher, Tony Benn. [1:11:20] Remarks on: believing in importance of economic purpose of science; high quality of pharmaceutical industry; contrast of academic and government science; frustrations of working in Whitehall. [1:14:50] Remarks on return to Cambridge: wife Jean enjoying college life; duties revising college statutes and preparing for admission of women, Lisa Jardine first female fellow; retirement research interests in metal plasticity and creep, after earlier work by Professor Andrade. [1:17:50] Remarks on: postwar material science, importance of electronic materials, changes in equipment; admission of Prince Edward as an undergraduate; enjoying undergraduate student activities; becoming Vice Chancellor of Cambridge in 1977, role mainly solving small disputes and official entertaining, such as of chancellor Prince Philip; university and government advisory committees, working with Rolls Royce. [1:23:05] Remarks on: students, John Knott, later supervisor of Julia King, and Trevor Churchman; being happiest doing academic work; mix of university and non-university roles, benefits in broadening outlook and developing contacts; approaching retirement, returning to research work in metallurgy; hobbies, enjoying music, playing the piano, until he became deaf, trout fishing; religion; [1:29:00] politics, being slightly right of centre; regarding work at Harwell and establishing reality of dislocations as his most important work; reasons for enjoying theoretical side of work most; current research work on a plasticity problem; [1:32:40] thoughts on interview; enjoying reading ancient history and modern physics; considering himself a physicist in some respects.

  • Description

    Interview with Sir Alan Cottrell, Metallurgist, Physicist and Chief Scientific Adviser to HM Government (1971 - 1974).

  • Related transcripts

    Sir Alan Cottrell interviewed by Tom Lean: full transcript of the interview

  • Related links

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

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