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Physics at The University of Hong Kong – an anecdotal history
Lecturer 1970-1988, Reader 1988-2000
Department of Physics, University of Hong Kong
In this short essay I will try to outline the development, history would be too grandiose a description, of teaching and research in physics in The University of Hong Kong, and attempt to cast some light on the personalities involved. For half a century it will basically coincide with the history of physics in Hong Kong itself – the only other physics related work being done at the Hong Kong (Royal) Observatory. In the University, some theoretical physics was taught, and still is taught, as part of the Applied Mathematics programmes in the Mathematics Department, and while we will make some attempt to acknowledge these contributions, no attempt at a systematic profiling of the relevant staff members from that department will be made. Rather than pepper the text with them, the Chinese form of all names of members of the teaching staff, where known, is given in a biographical appendix.
There is little mention of physics in published accounts of the University yet the subject has been with the University from the first day – of course – in fact the first lecturer appointed in the University was in physics and there was an endowed chair of physics in the Engineering Faculty as far back as 1914. It is helpful to think of the evolution of physics in the University in four phases. These are, the early establishment phase, the period from about 1925 until the closure of the University brought about by war in 1941, the postwar recovery phase up to the early sixties and the modern period thereafter.
Physics - the early days
Physics was taught in the Hong Kong College of Medicine, which had been in existence since 1887 and which merged with the new University on its foundation. The University opened in March 1912, and physics was one of the foundation subjects available when teaching started in October of that year, with a position in both the Faculties of Engineering and Medicine, positions it held until the mid-1950s. Of the teachers in the Hong Kong College of Medicine before the merger, most of whom were part time, thirteen transferred to the University Faculty of Medicine. There was a Lecturer in Physics in the College, an Irishman W B A Moore, and although the teacher of chemistry transferred he did not. He was a Medical Officer of Health in the Government and did, however, later serve in the University, at different times as a lecturer in Clinical Obstetrics and as a lecturer in Medical Jurisprudence. It was probably less his obvious versatility than an unfamiliarity with physics in an engineering environment, an important subject in the constitution of the new university, that led to his being overlooked in the transfer. Of the only two full-time member of teaching staff appointed by the University in its first year, one was a Lecturer in Physics, T H Matthewman (M.Eng., AMIEE) – occupying the position in both the Engineering and Medical Faculties – the other was the foundation (Taikoo) Professor of Engineering. In September of 1912 it appears that Matthewman was passing through Hong Kong, having resigned from a position in Nanyang College, Shanghai (the forerunner of Jiaotong University) when he was offered the post.
Physics was also a subject in the Faculty of Arts when that faculty began teaching in the autumn of 1913, and it was this connection which was to prove the more enduring. The Professor of Engineering, referred to above, was C A Middleton Smith, who, in 1913 with A G Warren, then a lecturer in Engineering at Aston Technical School in England, published what is almost certainly the first publication with a University of Hong Kong byline, (Fig.1), The New Steam Tables – together with their Derivation and Application (London: Constable & Co., 1913). The same A G Warren (B.Sc.(Eng.) London, AMIEE) in the same year, 1913, was appointed Lecturer in Physics in both the Faculties of Arts and Medicine, and simultaneously Lecturer in Machine Design in the Engineering Faculty, Matthewman remaining as the Lecturer in Physics in the Engineering Faculty in 1913/14.i, although other reports have him promoted to the Chair. Whichever was the case, this arrangement lasted for only a year, for by the beginning of the 1914/15 academic year Warren was promoted to Professor of Physics in both the Arts and Medical Faculties, and moved from his lectureship in Machine Design to an endowed Chair, Ellis Kadoorie Professor of Physics, in the Engineering Faculty, where Matthewman had transferred to Professor of Electrical Engineering. For all of the first thirty years of the University’s existence its financial position was always precarious, sometimes verging on complete bankruptcy. Presumably for this reason (later Sir) Ellis Kadoorie underwrote a `lectureship’ in physics for four years to a tune of $15000 – though why he choose physics over another subject is not knownii.
Warren retained his three chairs of physics until 1918, in that year, on Matthewman’s resignation, transferring to the Chair of Electrical Engineering (but he continued to act as Professor of Physics in the three Faculties until the arrival of a new professor in early 1920). Matthewman, after some service in the First World War, seems to have had a chequered career in academia, he was Professor of Electrical Engineering in Belfast, but from there, moved to Lahore and later became Principal of an Engineering College in Trivandrum.
In 1921, Warren left to do research in the British Military Arsenal at Woolwich. He worked on X-ray photography of metals, and by 1930 he was a Fellow of the Institute of Physics. In 1939 he published a substantial textbook, Mathematics Applied to Electrical Engineering, in a series of monographs on electrical engineering. It appears to have been quite successful, passing through six impressions followed by a second edition (London: Chapman & Hall, 1958).
The only physics staff in the Engineering Faculty for at least part of the 1919/20 academic year was a new ‘Demonstrator in Physics and Chemistry’, one Chan Wing To. No formal qualifications are listed for him, and he had been a demonstrator without portfolio in the Faculty as far back as 1913, also acting as honorary secretary of the HKU Union in the early days. He appears to have remained in the position for two years.
As is seen from their qualifications, these early physics teachers were basically electrical engineers – not totally inappropriately in view of the central role of electricity and magnetism in the culture of physics at that time, and the fact that any advanced
teaching of physics they would be required to do was in the Engineering Faculty. But, by the 1920s momentous changes were taking place in the history and culture of physics, and, indeed, Einstein himself paid a visit to Hong Kong in 1922 en route to Japan. An opportunity for the University to become a, small-time, player on the stage arose with the new professor, in all three faculties, D C H Florance (M.A., M.Sc.), who arrived in February 1920. Florance, had been a front line participant in the new physics. Originally from New Zealand, he had published an important paper on gamma-ray interactions in matter in Phil. Mag. in 1910, a paper for which a search in today’s Science Citation Index will still not yield a zero return, (Fig. 2, a 1998 citation). Before the First World War he studied with Rutherford at Manchester, where he was a Demonstrator and Lecturer. In that laboratory, he was one of the illustrious group of workers under Rutherford’s wing, which also included Andrade, Geiger, Marsden, Mosley and others. He may not have been the most distinguished member of this group but the following extract from I B N Evan’s biography of Rutherford, Man of Power, (London: The Scientific Book Club, n.d.) gives an indication of the importance of his work:
… Guy and Florance examined the gamma-ray scattering from lead and provided from their results the first slight indication of the Compton effect.
We can certainly say that he brought with him to Hong Kong a familiarity with developments in physics well in advance of anyone else around. One doubts that he could have expected to undertake serious experimental research here at the time, something that would have been confirmed on his arrival, and his taking up the post must be seen as a stepping-stone on his eventual return to New Zealand. This he did within a few years, in 1924 becoming Professor of Physics at Victoria University College, Wellington - he had already been somewhat removed from frontline research having volunteered and served four years in the army in the First World Wariii. As mentioned, Einstein briefly visited Hong Kong in 1922 on his way to Japan, but it seems that his only contact with people here was with members of the Jewish community, and there is no evidence that Florance, or anyone else in the University met him at that time.
Far more important for the long-term development of physics in the University than Florance’s sojourn was the appointment in 1920 of two Demonstrators in Physics and Chemistry in the Engineering Faculty, Chan Chau Lam and Un Po. Chan Chau Lam, or Chan Chak Lam as it appears in several issues of the Calendar and presumably is the same person, became specifically Demonstrator in Chemistry in 1928, from which same year Un Po’s demonstration duties were confined to physics, but now in both the Faculties of Arts and Engineering. Un Po was an Engineering graduate of the University, the first alumnus to be employed, and was to play a pivotal role in the teaching of physics, serving at a later stage as Head of Department. He was in the first intake class into the University, the start of an association that would last on and off for 47 years until his death in 1959. He graduated in 1918 after a lapse of an academic year due to ill health, and taught briefly at Queen’s College before becoming the first graduate to be appointed to the teaching staff of his alma mater. Florance’s departure marks the end of the first phase of the history of the Department.
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