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John Henry Carver (1926–2004)

by James Williams and Robert W. Crompton

John Carver, by ANU Phorographic Services, n.d.

John Carver, by ANU Phorographic Services, n.d.

ANU Archives, ANUA 579-471

The physicist John Henry Carver, who died in Canberra at 78, was Director of the Research School of Physical Sciences at The Australian National University from 1978 until his retirement in 1992. It was, he once said, ‘the best job in physics in Australia’.

The Sydney-born scientist’s career took off early. He was appointed Elder Professor of Physics at the University of Adelaide at the tender age (for a professor) of 34, prompting Rupert Murdoch’s News to welcome him with: ‘Professor John Carver … is very much in the order of modern scientists. He is a nuclear specialist, alert, dedicated—and very young.’ In collaboration with colleagues from the nearby Weapons Research Establishment, the young professor and his university team built and launched the first Australian-made satellite for scientific purposes, making Australia only the third country to have successfully launched its own satellite from its own site.

In 1970, three years after the successful launch, Carver was elected Chairman of the UN scientific and technical sub-committee on the peaceful uses of outer space, a post he held for the next 26 years.

Carver was born in Homebush to John Fawdington Carver and his second wife, Flora. He was educated at Homebush (Junior) High School and Fort Street Boys’ High.

Carver was not entirely sure what drew him into a career in science, but he had always been fascinated by it. His grandfather (who presciently always called him ‘professor’) had an electrical shop in Rose Bay and as a boy John spent much time in the workshop at the back of the store. Radio fascinated him, as did law, which he seriously considered as a career. At Fort Street it had been customary for the school-leavers to go into law, but by his time many of the bright people were opting for science. The war was on and physics was a very important and glamorous subject. So physics prevailed.

Having obtained a first-class honours degree in physics from the University of Sydney in 1947, Carver was awarded a Commonwealth Research Studentship, which enabled him to proceed to an MSc degree, then to win one of the new Australian National University scholarships.

This allowed him to join the group of Australia’s most able young graduates in a pilgrimage to Britain to seek higher degrees. For him the destination was Cambridge, to research nuclear physics.

He joined the group of Dr (later Sir) Denys Wilkinson, whom he once described as ‘only a few years older than I was, but already beginning to be a bit of a name’. His chosen field of research was entirely appropriate, for the initial focus of Professor Sir Mark Oliphant’s newly established research school at the ANU was to be nuclear and particle physics.

Four years later, in 1953, he was awarded his PhD for a thesis titled ‘Nuclear Photodisintegration’. He went on to study the photodisintegration of heavier nuclei and to make other experimental studies in nuclear spectroscopy. Some 20 years later, he was to be awarded a Doctor of Science from Cambridge in recognition of his research in physics. But by then his interests had broadened well beyond his initial speciality of experimental nuclear physics.

Carver returned to the ANU to take up an appointment as a Research Fellow in the new Department of Nuclear Physics, headed by Professor (later Sir) Ernest Titterton. Eight years later, by which time Carver held a tenured position as a senior fellow, Oliphant suggested he apply for the Elder Chair of Physics at the University of Adelaide.

He may have been very young, but Carver was well up to the task. Showing the same leadership he was to bring later, with such distinction, to the ANU, he set about building on the solid foundations laid by his predecessor Professor (later Sir) Leonard Huxley. The heavy investment required meant that pursuing research in experimental nuclear physics in his new department was not really an option, so he seized the opportunity to switch fields to atmospheric physics. He explored the use of rockets and—more ambitious still—satellites to sample the atmosphere.

The dream of launching an Australian-made satellite for scientific purposes was realised in the remarkably short period of six years. The university-based team built the instruments for the satellite and tested it in a large vacuum chamber designed for the purpose. When all was ready, it was successfully launched by a Redstone rocket at Woomera and produced a wealth of data over a number of years on the absorption of solar ultraviolet radiation in the upper atmosphere.

In 1978, Carver was appointed Director of the Research School of Physical Sciences at the ANU. While the directorship took up most of his time and effort, he was still actively involved in research. Together with colleagues he brought from Adelaide, he established a small research unit whose progress he followed with keen interest.

He also became interested in the theoretical modelling of planetary atmospheres and of ‘palaeoatmospheres’, or the study of the evolution of the Earth’s atmosphere. His work on this topic with a colleague continued right up to his death. It provided interesting insights into the causes of glaciation and led him to challenge the forecasts of those who predicted global warming as a result of the greenhouse effect.

Carver wanted the research school to become much more than the nation’s leader in basic research in physical sciences: he saw untapped potential for it to apply and exploit its research in practical ways that could benefit industry and the nation. With great skill, acumen and foresight, he steadily remodelled and expanded it at a time when academic physics throughout Australia had begun to come under great pressure.

He saw that the defence of his discipline was best achieved by demonstrating that physics had its part to play in the real world through its link with technology and engineering. So he renamed his school the Research School of Physical Sciences and Engineering and, almost a decade ahead of the ICT revolution, established two new departments (systems engineering in 1982 and electronic materials engineering in 1988) that emphasised information and communications technology.

He consolidated several smaller research efforts into larger departments, closed down some activities and separated two areas of the school, astronomy and astrophysics, and mathematics, into new entities.

He was immensely proud of the school’s first spin-off company in the mid-1980s, Australian Optical Fibre Research. Carver believed that this type of spin-off (commercial) activity should be an important part of the school’s future. There are now three such companies, with others emerging.

Carver taught subsequent directors of his school a very important lesson: always have a range of proposals in your drawer—you never know when and in what form funding opportunities will become available. Such opportunism is how the school obtained funding for several of its important initiatives during Carver’s time. His belief that more should be done to exploit the commercial benefits of research was the motivation for his lead role in 1986 in founding ANUTech, the commercial arm of the ANU of which he later became a director.

Two things reflect the effectiveness and distinction of his directorship of the school. The first is the length of his occupancy. His appointment was twice extended beyond its initial five years. The second, standing as a permanent memorial to his directorship, is the John Carver Building, opened in 1994. It is clear that the ANU and the school’s success and international standing owe much to Carver’s leadership and vision.

After his retirement as director in 1992, Carver’s service to the University continued. For two years he served as acting Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Director of the Institute of Advanced Studies. Finally, he pursued his own scientific interests as a Visiting Fellow in his old school.

Carver’s years in Canberra from 1978 saw him playing an increasingly influential role nationally, while continuing his important UN commitments. Among his other appointments, he was a member of the Prime Minister’s Science & Technology Council from 1979 to 1986, serving as Deputy Chairman from 1981, and Chairman of both the Anglo-Australian Telescope Board and the Radio Research Board. He was also Chairman of the Academy’s national committees for space research and solar, terrestrial and space research, and a member of the Australian Space Board.

Australia recognised his achievements and service by conferring on him membership of the Order of Australia in 1986, while the scientific and technological communities elected him to fellowships of the Australian Academy of Science, the Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering, and of the British and Australian Institutes of Physics.

Carver faced a serious illness over the last years of his life with courage and equanimity. He never lost his sense of humour or his mental acuity. He will be remembered as an able leader with a warm and friendly personality, a smile that one could easily kindle and a knack of getting his own way through logic, patience and tact. As a distinguished scientist and academic administrator, and as an extremely able international scientific diplomat, he made an outstanding contribution to his country.

Carver is survived by his wife, Dr Mary Carver, sons John and Robert, daughters Jane and Mary Ann, and 16 grandchildren.

* Originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 25 February 2005.

Additional Resources

Citation details

James Williams and Robert W. Crompton, 'Carver, John Henry (1926–2004)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 20 June 2024.

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