Norman Alexander was a distinguished physicist who was instrumental in the establishment of many of the modern Commonwealth universities, including our own Ahmadu Bello University Zaria, the Universities of the West Indies, the South Pacific and Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland.
Alexander was born in Mangapiko, New Zealand, one of eight children of second- generation immigrant farmers from England, Scotland and Denmark. Like all farm children of pre-electricity, pre-tractor days, he worked barefoot on his allotted farm tasks, developing the personal resilience, the practical approach to problems and the understanding and respect for Maori and other cultures that marked his career.
President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania (Left), first Vice Chancellor of Ahmadu Bello University, Professor Norman Alexander (middle), and Sir Ahmadu Bello, the Sardauna of Sokoto and Premier of Northern Nigeria, when the president visited the University in 1962
A brilliant scholar from his days at the village school, Norman Alexander graduated from Auckland University with first class honours in physics in 1927, and came to Cambridge in 1930 on a two-year scholarship to the Cavendish Laboratory under his compatriot Ernest Rutherford. When this scholarship expired he funded the rest of his PhD through a post as Demonstrator in Physics at King’s College, London.
In 1936, newly married to a fellow PhD student Elizabeth Caldwell, Norman Alexander moved to Raffles College in Singapore as Professor of Physics. There, one of his extra-curricular projects was to develop, for the Royal Navy, his own method and tools for plotting the projections they needed in setting up a chain of radio direction-finding stations.
Once launched on the work, he set about designing and making a machine that would draw great circle bearings plotted on Mercator charts, the method the Navy preferred: until his intervention this had involved solving thousands of spherical triangles, a formidable task in the days before calculators.
Such skills received further honing first in Changi Gaol and later in the notorious Sime Road internment camp, after the fall of Singapore to Japan in 1942. Fellow prisoners remember Alexander’s lectures in physics, his sharp intellect, his scientific thinking, ingenious practicality, humour and scrupulously fair humanity. His daily argument with a cell mate was set up for the express purpose of intellectual survival under brutalising conditions.
It was in Changi too that he worked with fellow prisoners in building a salt evaporation plant, from materials permitted to be scrounged from immediately outside Changi’s walls or made by the ingenuity and skills of fellow inmates.
Before he was moved to Sime Road, their small industrial plant was providing the camp hospital with surgical spirit (fermented from fungi found to grow on rice and then distilled) and other products including forms of the antacid Milk of Magnesia and “Milton” sterilising fluid.
He returned to Singapore after his release as soon as his health permitted, to join his colleagues in restarting teaching at Raffles College. Enterance examinations had to be set but nobody could be sure what students had been able to study during the occupation.
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