5. Inst. and Queen’s

“For the mind does not require filling like a bottle, but rather, like wood, it only requires kindling to create in it an impulse to think independently and an ardent desire for the truth.”
– Plutarch, Moralia : De Auditu.

Jim entered the Royal Belfast Academical Institution, commonly known as ‘Inst.’ in the summer of 1930. By this time, not yet 13 years old, he was already full-grown, being six feet tall. Between school terms he’d spend some time in the west, where he would help Bertie Boyd and others with farm work at Tullaghcullion. Bertie and he were about the same age and they remained lifelong friends. Also he would take cycling trips, and swim from some of the many good strands around Donegal. He was fit and his body had filled out.

The ‘Inst.’ referred to in this text is not to be confused with the Royal Belfast Academy or any other place. Inst. was first founded in 1810 and in its first 30 or so years it acted as a sort of University College. It had a considerable reputation for mathematics and science. In the early years there was a Professor Thomson who was a professor of mathematics there. He was the father of Lord Kelvin (William Thomson) and of the other Professor Thomson (a physicist). Some time after the Thomson father left (when Kelvin was small) the place gradually changed until it became an ordinary school. The Queen’s University was established in 1849 so there would have been a clash anyway : Inst. took to school teaching.

Jim later said that, while he was there, it was equivalent to a place like Manchester Grammar School : a largish school, all boys, all masters and working at a fairly high level of ability. The pupils were either from Belfast or from commuting distance – 20 or 30 miles around about – and they were mostly middle-class because the parents had all to pay fees. As in many schools, Inst. was sub-divided into ‘houses’. These sub-divisions didn’t necessarily mean very much : they were mostly for the purpose of intra-school sport. Jim recalled that two of the four houses at Inst. were called Kelvin and Larmor. Larmor was named after Joseph Larmor who had been a boy at the school and later became a professor in Cambridge, the predecessor of Paul Dirac. Jim was in Larmor house, this was the house for pupils who lived outside the Belfast City boundary (Cregagh was just outside) and the other three houses were for people who lived in various quarters of the city.

Jim was very content at the new school : “For once, now, I was in a place where what the masters said seemed to make sense – it was quite a change from the previous place.” Also he was ‘second generation’ : in the first day or so he was there he met an old master who had known Jim’s uncle James Mackay, one of the school’s brightest pupils from that time. In Jim’s time, his impression was that the school had a very good standard in most subjects but particularly in mathematics and science. He later commented, in the 1990s, that the sort of men he had as school-masters in the 1930s would likely be employed in university departments more recently. School-teaching nowadays could not be judged by what it was then. Jim’s surviving school reports from Inst. bear out his recollection as to how he responded to the place : he does not appear to have had a weakness in any subject and his mathematics teacher’s comments were always ‘Very Good’ or ‘Excellent’.

At the age of 14 or 15, Jim would take really quite long bicycle rides. On one occasion he had cycled most of the length of Ireland, from Donegal to Kerry. He observed that it had always been windy on that journey, rarely a tail-wind and his own motion conspiring to make a side-wind as difficult to cycle into as would be a head-wind. There was also a time when he went with some others to an island off the west coast of Mayo (probably this was Clare Island) and the group were marooned there for three days due to bad weather. There was nothing much to do, but his companions had many stories about other places they had visited and Jim recalled that there was a plentiful supply of eggs and bacon.

Mass-production of bicycles during the early 20th century brought many benefits to the people of the west. Until that time walking was the only method of travel for most people; many would be used to walking long distances. Now from Killybegs one could easily get to Donegal town to use the shops there. At weekend, it was now easier for a young man to get to the nearest social gathering (it would be into the second half of the century before motor cars became affordable to a few people – Willie Boyd recalls an early ride to the dance at Inver with 14 people in one car. There were 3 in the boot also).

The rough roads, many still un-metalled, often caused punctures and many a man would be seen pushing his bike along. But if one did not have a repair kit, there were also ingenious ways to continue for a short distance at least. Jim later described how people who had stuffed the deflated tyre with grass would leave a green trail down the road. The bicycle came in handy for day trips too, enabling Jim to reach places, maybe twenty or thirty miles away, which had been beyond his reach hitherto. Bundoran was a favoured place to swim and he would visit the long strand there to enjoy the prospect of safer swimming, away from the worst of the rocks and currents prevalent around much of Ireland‘s western coastline. Even at Bundoran the currents could be dangerous and Jim took the cautions of his elders seriously. He would try, if at all possible, to find a place where others were swimming. On one occasion at Bundoran, when he was maybe 16, Jim encountered a group of four or five young men about to take to the surf and asked them if he could join their group. A few years older than Jim, they welcomed him and in the security of numbers they all enjoyed a good long swim. Jim was already a strong swimmer, one needed to be in the Atlantic, and this must have been noticeable to the other men. They had seemed to take to him and were friendly. Back on the strand, as they dried themselves and dressed, one of the group said that they were members of the IRA and was Jim serious about joining them ? Jim delicately defused the misunderstanding, he regarded the IRA as an unpredictable force.

It was illuminating for the listener to later hear Jim explain this encounter in such a way. Jim had not declined the offer to join the IRA through any sense that he was on the ‘other side’ of the religious divide. He had already eschewed the notion that men were separated by religion.

The normal course at Inst. was 5 years : 3 years before what was called the Junior Certificate in Northern Ireland in those days and 2 more years for the Senior Certificate (which corresponded to ‘A’ levels, and which was sufficient to get you into university). Certainly the various universities were quite willing to accept people with good Senior Certificates. There was the possibility of staying on to the Upper Sixth – to spend a sixth year in the school – and this was done by boys who wanted to get university scholarships or who for some other reason wanted to stay longer at school before moving on.

Jim didn’t stay to the upper sixth because he didn’t need to : he had got a County Scholarship for Queen’s University on the basis of his Senior Certificate examination. So he went straight to university partly because this saved his family money and partly because he had the feeling that he’d probably learned more or less most of what he would learn at Inst., and was enthusiastic to advance to the next level. It was normal to go from Inst. – if you were going to university – to Queen’s University, Belfast; to Trinity College, Dublin; or to St. Andrews or another Scottish university. The connections with Scotland were not as strong as they may have been in the time of the Thomsons and it was Trinity College, Dublin which was now a favoured place for the bright people to go. However Queen’s University in the 1930s was very good for mathematics and the physical sciences and it was there that Jim enrolled as an undergraduate in 1935.

Jim did the Pure Mathematics full course and the Mathematical Physics course and two years of the Experimental Physics course but wasn’t allowed, for examination purposes, to do the third year of Experimental Physics : “There was some sort of an objection, as it were, to people doing more than two triposes at the same time.”

In the Mathematical Physics courses, Harrie Massey was arranging and giving a lot of these courses himself – he had very little assistance at that time – and he was giving courses which Jim found out later were very much the same as would be given in Cambridge in those years. Massey did his Ph.D. at the Cavendish Laboratory under Ernest Rutherford from 1929-32 (his thesis was ‘The Collision of Material Matter’), before moving to Belfast in 1933. Massey’s lectures were of very high quality and were said to attract many students to Mathematical Physics.

In Experimental Physics, the professor was Karl Emeléus. There were two Emeléuses : one was Harry Julius Emeléus, an Inorganic Chemist who was a professor at Cambridge for a while and the other was Karl. Karl Emeléus, like Massey, had worked at the Cavendish Laboratory before moving to Queen’s University in 1927, where he was promoted to professor in 1933. Jim thought that Emeléus was a remarkably good lecturer : “He was also very interested in the theories which were then current – the Relativity Theory, Wave Mechanics and Quantum Mechanics – even Matrix Mechanics.” The third year of this course contained a good deal of Quantum Theory, which Jim much appreciated. These were indeed current theories : Max Planck had proposed the ‘quantum hypothesis’ in 1900; Albert Einstein had proposed his relativity theory in 1905; Niels Bohr had applied the quantum concept to the structure of the atom in 1913; Werner Heisenberg’s matrix mechanics dated from 1925; and Erwin Schrödinger’s wave mechanics from 1926.

On the Pure Mathematics side there was Bill McCrea, the astrophysicist who had succeeded John (Jack) Semple as professor in 1936 and gained a reputation for excellent teaching. McCrae had gained two first class degrees from Trinity College, Cambridge and London University simultaneously before spending a year (1928-9) at the University of Göttingen, a place of huge reputation for mathematics. In 1929 he followed up the work of Payne and Unsöld to establish conclusively that far from being composed of iron (as had been previously believed), the sun was predominantly hydrogen and helium. McCrea worked to provide simple derivations of the expanding universe models of general relativity, yet rather contentiously he would also later give credence to the steady-state theory developed by Hoyle, Gold and Bondi (the theory proposed that the universe is eternal and essentially unchanging) and showed how the theory might be compatible with Relativity Theory. Although the evidence in support of the ‘Big Bang’ would eventually submerge steady-state theory, McCrae was never entirely convinced.

Jim recalled that there was also “a very clever function theorist” on the pure mathematics staff, a man called Gillis. Staff records at Queen’s show that Joseph Gillis, another mathematics graduate from Trinity, Cambridge, was working on the Pure Mathematics staff as an assistant, then a lecturer, around 1945. During the war Gillis made a significant contribution to code breaking at Bletchley Park – it seems likely that he is the man Jim referred to.

During the three years of his undergraduate courses it would have become clear to Jim’s lecturers that he had a great deal of ability, and he was advised of the possibility of staying on at Queen’s in order to pursue post-graduate research. In those days, if you were going to do research, you had to get some prize or exhibition to tide you over the first year or two years because nobody else seemed to be willing to fund you in any way. There were exhibitions at Queen’s and prizes which one could get. Some of them were awarded on the basis of one’s honours examination marks, others by sitting further examinations and still again others were awarded simply at the discretion of an academic council.

Jim had become friendly with two fellow students, David Bates and Joe Unwin. David had also been at Inst., though a year or maybe two years ahead of Jim at school, he had opted for the sixth year in order to obtain a scholarship to Queen’s. Unwin, clever at mathematics and physics, had also achieved a scholarship to Queen’s and was a close friend of Bates. All three had aspirations to pursue post-graduate research. Jim recalled one occasion in 1938 when Bates and Unwin both came and visited him in Larne. The purpose of the visit was to have a discussion between the three of them as to which of the different fellowships which were available at Queen’s (for postgraduate people) they should each apply for. “It would have been foolish if we knocked each other out because of some lack of a bit of forethought.” It was pointed out that Jim already had one substantial prize (the Purser) for Pure Mathematics which would be sufficient to support him for a year and that he would be the likely winner of any contest between the three of them for another prize. Would Jim refrain from applying for some other prize (the Dunhill) ? He thought this over : the Dunhill would however support him for two years and he really could do with this support for the second year. There was some very friendly discussion but Jim politely stated that he felt he should apply. There was an exam for this award and Jim achieved the best results. He later remarked “It [the Dunhill] turned out to be even more useful than I had earlier thought, since I stayed around at Queen’s for a time.” Jim’s stance does not appear to have caused ill-feeling : he remained friends with both Bates and Unwin. Many years later David Bates became godfather to Jim’s third child, Patrick.

Jim achieved a double first in Mathematics and Mathematical Physics, receiving his B.Sc. in July 1938. Immediately he joined a research group, which included his friend Bates, under Harrie Massey. He submitted a thesis in 1939 and was awarded his M.Sc. in October. There was some confusion at this time : Massey had accepted a professorship at University College, London in the latter part of 1938 and had made provision for taking some people with him the following year as research students. Jim was one of those Massey had planned to take, but owing to the outbreak of World War II, much of UCL’s work was suspended.

In the autumn of 1939, with his plans to follow Massey to London disrupted but having prudently sought financial support for two years research, Jim stayed on at Queen’s. During the previous four years his ability had been recognised and a role was now found for him as an assistant lecturer. This was Jim’s introduction to teaching and the experience would prove valuable in later years.

With Massey departed, Paul Ewald was appointed the new Professor of Mathematical Physics at Queen’s. Ewald, born in Berlin, had studied for a year at Cambridge before going to Göttingen for the years 1906-7 as an “Ausarbeiter” for David Hilbert. The University of Göttingen at that time was without parallel in mathematics. Klein, Hilbert and Minkowski were known as the “Three Mandarins of Göttingen.” From there Ewald had gone to Munich, under Arnold Sommerfeld, and carried out X-ray crystallography work which had set the table for Max von Laue’s successful diffraction of X-rays. During World War I he served as an X-ray technician in the German army, and at the end of the war he returned to Munich as an assistant to Sommerfeld, before establishing himself at Stuttgart.

In 1933, with the Nazi takeover of Germany, Ewald was pressured to resign his Rectorship at Stuttgart and eventually to leave altogether. This was despite his service in the same army as Gefreiter Hitler only fifteen years earlier. He fled Germany in 1937 and spent two years lecturing at Cambridge prior to moving to Belfast. Jim would later recall that conditions within 1930s Germany were sometimes discussed by émigré lecturers and that these discussions made a deep impression on him. In 1939 Jim became an research assistant under Ewald at Queen’s.

There is well documented evidence of persecution of Jews in Germany from before 1933 even. Elisabeth Heisenberg recalled that her husband Werner had in 1922 been invited to attend a lecture in Leipzig by Albert Einstein. When entering the hall where Einstein was to speak, a leaflet had been pushed into his hand. Werner Heisenberg was shocked to discover that “it [the leaflet] polemicized against the ‘Jew’ Einstein in an inflammatory manner, stating that he was warping the laws of simple, classical physics with his consumptive, alien speculations.” Werner Heisenberg later learned that the originator of the leaflet was Philipp Lenard, himself a Nobel Prize winner, who joined the NSDAP in the 1920s and became one of the leading representatives of ‘aryan’ physics.

A paper ‘The Low Temperature Properties of Gaseous Helium’ was published in October 1941 from a collaboration between Jim, Massey and Buckingham (Proc. Roy. Soc. A 179, p.103). Buckingham had been a research student of Massey’s and they had two previous collaborations published in 1938. It had been over two years since Massey had taken his new position at UCL, but it seems likely that the manuscript had still to be completed at the time of his departure from Queen’s. Communications between Belfast and London may have been slow at times after September 1939. The publication process itself also appears to have been slower, the manuscript was received almost a full year before the date of publication.

The writer needed to look twice at the paper. It discusses helium in its gaseous state, but in a range of temperatures between 1.64 and 11°K. Gaseous helium at temperatures just above absolute zero ? The paper deals with the ‘second virial coefficient’ which defines the equation of state at low densities, and the viscosity coefficient.

Grandma Mackay died in November 1941, aged 78. She looked older than that, no doubt due to having lived a difficult life. About 6 months previously, on the occasion of one of the big air raids on Belfast, what sounded like 50 or more German bombers making a very considerable noise had passed directly over the house in Larne, heading for Belfast. It was easy for the bombers to identify their approach to Belfast from this direction as Larne harbour projects eastward away from the coast. It occurred to the family that they were possibly in some danger. Grandma Mackay’s response was to ask Joe to kindly go and fetch her teeth, as she said “It would be better in case anything happened.” Otherwise she had not been worried. This seems to have been typical of her.


Heisenberg, E., Inner Exile : Recollections of a life with Werner Heisenberg, Birkhäuser 1984