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World Year of Physics - William Sutherland at the University of Melbourne


By Prof. R Home

With contributions from Prof B. McKellar and A./Prof D. Jamieson

William Sutherland (1859-1911), worked in the last years of the nineteenth century and the first years of the twentieth and made important contributions to kinetic theory and molecular physics.[1] These days, there is a constant named after him. William Sutherland was born in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1859. When he was still a small child his family emigrated to Australia, eventually settling in Melbourne. Sutherland attended Wesley College and then in 1876 enrolled at the University of Melbourne, from which he graduated BA in 1879 with first class honours in Natural Science. He also completed the coursework for the University's Certificate of Engineering - degrees in Engineering were not yet awarded - but did not undertake the year of supervised practical engineering required under the regulations to complete the certificate. Instead he took ship to England to take up the Gilchrist Scholarship he had been awarded for further study in Science at University College London.

While the PhD degree was well established by this time in the German universities as the outcome of a period of advanced training in research, no system of research-based degrees beyond the Bachelor's degree was yet in place in the universities of the British Empire (which included Australia at the time) to provide a structure for the training of research scientists. Accordingly, when Sutherland arrived in London, he enrolled instead in the BSc course at University College, which he completed in 1881 with first class honours and the scholarship in Experimental Physics.

Sutherland returned to Melbourne in 1882, where a year later the University awarded him an MA degree. Sutherland, who never held a permanent position, lived for many years with his sister Jane, a highly talented artist, at 2 Stawell Street, in the inner Melbourne suburb of Kew, from whence he sent off a steady stream of papers for publication in leading physics journals of the day. The house still exists, only a couple of hundred meters from Kew Junction, one of the busiest intersections in Melbourne; Thomas Laby later lived nearby, at 24 Stawell Street.

Seemingly without ambition for wealth or success, he devoted his life in Melbourne to reading and research. In the three decades until his death in 1911 he published no fewer than 78 scientific papers. These appeared in the leading scientific journals of the day, including the Philosophical Magazine, giving him a high reputation internationally. He lectured at Ormond College for a few years during the 1880s, did some private coaching, and served from time to time as an examiner at the University and at the College of Pharmacy. He also wrote regularly for the Melbourne Age, especially on scientific topics. When the University of Melbourne's professor of natural philosophy, H. M. Andrew, died in 1888, Sutherland applied for the chair, but his application was misfiled and never considered by the London-based selection committee, T. R. Lyle being appointed instead. Meanwhile Sutherland filled in as Lecturer in Natural Philosophy until Lyle arrived to take up the chair. Sutherland served as Acting Professor between Andrew and Lyle, and again ten years later while Lyle was on leave.

Because Sutherland had no access to laboratory facilities, his research was theoretical and often somewhat speculative, though at the same time constrained by experimental data drawn from his wide reading. He worked on the boundary between physics and chemistry, seeking to understand the properties of matter in bulk in terms of its dynamical behaviour at the molecular level. At a time when many scientists still regarded atoms as no more than convenient fictions, Sutherland assumed that they really existed and, moreover, exerted forces on each other in addition to the force of gravity. The idea, though controversial at the time, is now generally accepted: in introducing it, modern texts usually refer to the "Sutherland model" and characterize the force in terms of the "Sutherland potential". His most striking success was to show that such a force could account for an embarrassing discrepancy between theory and experiment in regard to the dependence of the viscosity of a gas on its temperature.

Another problem to which Sutherland applied his dynamical approach was the diffusion of dissolved substances in solution. Sutherland reported his solution to this problem in 1904 in a paper at the Dunedin ANZAAS conference, and published it the following year. His solution was an equation linking the diffusion coefficient to the viscosity of the solution and the diameter of the diffusing molecule. Soon afterwards, in one of the remarkable set of papers he wrote that year, Einstein published the same equation, having arrived at it by exactly the same line of reasoning. Because of its widespread applicability to practical problems, it is one of Einstein's most widely cited results. It would, however, be more appropriately known as the Sutherland-Einstein equation, as emphasized by Abraham Pais in his classic biography of Einstein: "Subtle is the lord, the Science and Life of Albert Einstein".

In 1905 Sutherland was arguably already famous, for his ideas on viscosity, molecular interactions, and the solid-liquid phase transitions, certainly more so than Einstein who was almost unknown in that year. In fact the invitation list for the 1905 Boltzman festschriff (special conference in honour of Boltzman's birthday) included only two people from outside of Europe. One of these was the American scientist Josiah Willard Gibbs (of "Gibbs free energy" fame), the other was William Sutherland.

Sutherland is remembered today by the "William Sutherland Prize" arising from a donation made in 1920 by subscribers to a fund to provide a memorial to William Sutherland. The prize is awarded to the student achieving the highest results in second year Physics at the University of Melbourne and who is proceeding to study the subject at third year level. This modest prize commemorates one of Australia's leading Physicists of all time.

[1] Thaddeus J. Trenn, "Sutherland, William," in Charles Coulston Gillispie, Dictionary of Scientific Biography, Vol. XIII (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1976), pp. 155-156; W.A. Osborne, William Sutherland: A Biography (Melbourne: Lothian Book Publishing Co., 1920).

 William Sutherland in his twentieth year.Portait of William Sutherland

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