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UNSW Challenges

The creation of a new university with a practical emphasis attracted Milner to the Chair of Applied Physics. He believed a fine research establishment was one built on fundamental science with application to industry and this was the remit of the NSW University of Technology. He arrived in 1952 to replace a short-lived appointment to the first Chair and in 1954 he oversaw the re-location of the School of Physics from inadequate conditions for either research or teaching at the Sydney Technical College premises in MaryAnn Street, Ultimo (now part of the Sydney College of TAFE) to what was then the Main Building at Kensington (now the Old Main Building).

"I regarded the most important aim of the Dept of Applied Physics as being to select, encourage and educate physicists whose mental inclination it was to apply what’s already known of physics to useful ends…." CJ Milner

In 1956, a gale lifted UNSW's Main Building’s copper roof right off.

Although activities and staffing levels expanded rapidly, the School of Physics faced an assortment of unforseen challenges. In 1956, a gale lifted the Main Building’s copper roof right off. See figure above (Courtesy, UNSW Archives CN1198-1).

One weekend the following year, probably resulting from leaks and an electrical fault, fire swept through the Physics research laboratories and workshops. See figures above (Courtesy, UNSW Archives CN1198-2 & CN615-1).

Professor CJ Kit Milner, Head of School:

"I remember in particular, that the fire broke out within twelve hours of the launching of the first artificial satellite by the Russians, Sputnik; and cheerful people said it must have been ignited by the backfire of the Russian rocket. For those who were active in research, the frustration must have been tremendous. ….. my own hope for research activities were tremendously set back, in particular the construction of the solar furnace…." Courtesy, UNSW Archives

Amid the devastation, there was an unexpected windfall. Milner had fortunately completed a comprehensive catalogue of all equipment within the laboratories. Although the edges of the catalogue cards were charred and wet, the records enabled a significant insurance claim allowing every item of equipment to be replaced with new, up-to-date pieces.

Milner served as the first Dean of the Faculty of Science in 1956 when it separated from the University’s founding Faculty of Applied Science. He surprised colleagues by choosing to step down after one term (1956-59) so as to concentrate his energies on his School. He said this proved you didn’t have to be dead to be an ex-Dean (Deanship at that time was considered almost an appointment for life). He served again as Acting Dean in the 1960s, somewhat reluctantly.

The School flourished, particularly in experimental research, and by 1967 it had grown to become a separate School of Physics and a School of Applied Physics & Optometry with Milner as its Head. When he retired in 1976, Optometry became an independent School and Applied Physics re-amalgamated with Physics. Milner developed a strong commitment to Optometry as a wonderful example of the application of physics to the improvement of human welfare. In 1963 he was admitted to Honorary Life Membership of the Australian Optometrical Association (NSW Division), which he prized greatly.

His scientific publications and patents span 1935-1997, encompassing a very diverse range of subjects. When he retired from UNSW, his links continued with appointment as Emeritus Professor which he said freed him at last from ‘administrivia’ to focus on his own research. He taught himself FORTRAN, an earl programming language, which allowed him to continue his work using his home computer until a few days before his death in 1998, at aged 85.

Ten years later in 2008 he must have enjoyed having a posthumous article published on the physics of resonance in bathrooms, entitled ‘The Dimensions of Song: Designing a better bathroom’. It described the ideal bathroom accoustics for singing and once again reminds us of the scientific thinker whose curiosity was satisfied with good humour. A range of other more technical papers remained incomplete at his death, mostly relating to his research into automated cars and collision avoidance.

CJ Milner’s collection of personal and scientific research papers along with an oral history interview are held in the University Archives.