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Rocks, Radio and Radar: The Extraordinary Scientific, Social and Military Life of Elizabeth Alexander

Harris Rocks Radio RadarElizabeth Who? In this (2019) centenary of the election of the Society’s first female Fellow, we should not need reminding that women are not only under-represented in the history of the geosciences but that some of them have effectively but unjustly ‘been disappeared’ from collective memory. Mary Harris’s engaging and extensively researched account of her mother’s life—extraordinary indeed—is also her own personal quest for the mother who, largely through force of professional circumstance, was absent through much of her children’s formative years. While some of Alexander’s important work on tropical weathering and the geology of Singapore was publicly available, albeit beneath variable depths of overburden, her critically important contribution to the development and use of radar in wartime New Zealand was classified until 1992. That her radar work generated observations (on radio waves from the Sun) that led to the new science of radio astronomy has also been forgotten. Until she started her research for this book, Harris herself was unaware of the existence of extensive unpublished material in her own family’s possession. Some of the most moving passages are direct quotes from Alexander’s wartime diary, written in the form of letters to her husband, who was interned in Changi and Sime Road camps from 1942 to 1945.

If this sounds familiar to readers of Geoscientist, turn back to the November issue for 2017, in which an article by Mary Harris (a preview of this biography) focusses on Alexander’s contribution to the geology of Singapore. Alexander comes across as a hugely energetic scientist, whose enthusiasm was fired initially by her PhD field work in Shropshire (published under her maiden name of Caldwell), but whose abilities went much further than rocks, leading to her unplanned involvement in radio and radar, and later in university administration in Singapore and Ibadan, Nigeria, where anyone expecting the existence of the wife of a Professor to be merely ornamental was in for a disappointment.

The book opens with a preface by Bryan Lovell, whose research on the Hertfordshire Puddingstone has benefited from Alexander’s experimental approach to tropical weathering, and whose father, like both of my own parents, was involved in wartime radar work. Although its subject was primarily a geologist, and there is geology in the book, it is history of science more generally, and of women in science in particular, that is served by this very readable biography.

Reviewed by David G. Smith

ROCKS, RADIO AND RADAR: THE EXTRAORDINARY SCIENTIFIC, SOCIAL AND MILTARY LIFE OF ELIZABETH ALEXANDER, by Mary Harris, 2019. Published by World Scientific (History of Modern Physical Sciences, volume 4), xii + 587 pp. ISBN: 978-1-78634-664-3 (hbk); 978-1-78634-666-7 (ebook). List price: £130.0 (hbk), £29.95 (ebook) W: https://www.worldscientific.com/worldscibooks/10.1142/q0198