Keith van Rijsbergen interviewed by Alan Macfarlane 15th July 2009

0:09:07 Born near Rotterdam in Holland in 1943; my memory kicks in at the end of the War; I remember my family parading in the street celebrating, although whether it was a memory given to me by my mother or I actually remembered, I have no idea; my father had quite a bad war; he was an engineer and he was on the run from the Germans; they wanted him to build things to do with their defences, and he refused; he was finally caught and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp on the Polish-East German border; some years ago when the wall came down I went and visited the place but the camp was gone; our life after the war was quite complicated as my father travelled a lot as an engineer and took the family with him; we left Holland for the first time about 1949 and we went to Indonesia; between 1945 and 1949 he had done some major construction work on the harbours in Rotterdam which I have records of; my brother, sister, and I, with our mother followed my father to Indonesia three months after, and settled in Jakarta; father doing work on the harbour; we lived right in the centre of Jakarta very close to a famous river called the Kali, and our neighbour was Sukarno; he lived in a huge house and we lived in something like a hotel; I went to school there; about ten years ago I met a fellow computer scientist, a Dutch man, and found that we had been in the same primary school in Jakarta; my father stayed in Indonesia for about three or four years; during that time we moved around and spent time in Surabaya, also in Java, some time in Borneo, and also Sumatra; in all these places I went to school and learnt to speak Indonesian as did my brother and sister; we conversed in the language but some years after we had left, completely forgot the language; the memory of that time is still strong because it was like an adventure; I was completely free to roam around in and out of the jungle, so a very happy memory; I have never been back although I have wanted to

6:33:03 My father was a quiet type; occasionally he would lose his temper and hit us, but not in a severe way; most people would say I was not very close to him but he looms because it was his activities that determined where we went and what we did; my mother was an extremely nervous person; she almost had a nervous breakdown having to follow my father to Indonesia; this was displayed in huge arguments with her children; as the youngest I was more of an observer but she certainly upset the others; however, the relationship between my mother and myself was actually quite close; she was always at home, my father worked twelve hours a day, so she was quite influential in many ways; she always gave us, particularly me, a lot of freedom to do what we wanted, providing we told her what we were doing and when we would be back; none of the family actually finished school or were academically inclined; my mother only went to primary school, father only had three years of high school and my brother and sister similarly; I was the only one who was academically inclined and my parents did not understand this and tried to encourage me just to get a job

9:47:09 I start to remember things about school from the age of about fourteen-fifteen, prior to that I have virtually no memory of school, certainly not Indonesia; I can recall going to school and leaving it, and doing things out of school, but have no memory of anything in it; realized I was quite good at mathematics when I was going to high school but there were no signs of this before; after Indonesia we went back to Holland; this was a recurring pattern; the next contract was in Western Australia and we lived on the outskirts of Perth; I went to a normal primary school and have a bit more memory of this as it was there that I learned to speak English; when I first arrived at the school the teacher told another boy to take me outside and teach me the alphabet; that is the only thing that I remember about learning English, the rest was by a sort of osmosis; my parents attitude was that wherever we were, the children should go to the local school, whatever the language, and just get on with it; I don't remember anything traumatic about not being able to speak English; at that school they discovered that I was quite good at maths and science; after about a year and a half they pushed me on and I was put into first year high school a year before I should have been; however it didn't help much as we soon after left to go back to Holland; I have some minor memories of living in Perth, a little of school, but more of biking to the beach and spending time swimming; in winter I would spend time walking in the bush with a friend; a lot of my time was spent outside; I did read a lot but it didn't interfere with my outdoor life; the school was Hilton Park Primary School and I remember a teacher by the name of Simpson; many years later I bumped into him in Fremantle although he didn't remember me; I think I remember him for his kindness and not for being a good teacher; at that stage I don't have much of a memory of teachers being good or bad; I remember them being more or less violent as they still caned people, but he was rather a kind person; while we were in Western Australia the Queen visited, probably in 1953, and came to the school, and I remember that as a big occasion, but the strongest memory I have is of swimming

16:00:00 Our walks in the bush were not systematic; we were not collecting things but pretending to be Cowboys and Indians; the bush was on the edge of where we lived so I only had to cross the road to it; it was not particularly dangerous and we went barefoot; we then left Australia and again went back to Holland; from a school point of view this was quite a critical moment; I think we may have lived with my grandmother for a while; because I had just gone to the high school in Fremantle I was then put into a high school in Dordrecht; it was called the MULO which is a school which teaches children useful things so they can go into commerce; at that school they discovered that I was quite bright academically; it was recommended to my parents that I be sent to the HBS which is like a Gymnasium and streams children for university; that is where my interest in science and mathematics took off; I had to get some extra coaching in mathematics to catch up; I realized that I was rather good at physics as well; we went back to live in the place where I was born; that was where I grew to love going to the cinema, read a lot but mostly light stuff, and continued swimming

19:56:01 Started to wear glasses in Australia just before going to high school; I remember feeling quite shy at having to wear them but don't remember it persisting; I was not a keen games player, but my favourite sport was swimming; always felt other games were constraining; I was not a great team player; I was quite rebellious; in Holland I was actually suspended from school for a few days but can't remember why; I probably was slightly resentful of authority, not being allowed to do the things that I wanted to do, and this led me into trouble; in Australia I used to go around pinching fruit from orchards; back in Holland in what I thought was a reasonable education system, I was also taught French and German; the Dutch system in those days was very extensive; I think I had about seventeen subjects, and they were done to quite a reasonable standard; one of my memories of that period is that I went to the World Exhibition in Brussels, in about 1957; just before that the Sputnik had been put into space and the Russians had a display model at the exhibition; there were also displays of, what were then, modern technologies; I remember seeing the first colour television set in the American pavilion; we had family in Brussels and used to visit them quite regularly; my father came from a very large family and some of his brothers lived in Belgium; my mother came from quite a small family and her father was a market gardener; she had a brother and sister; she did not keep up much contact with her family; I still have contact with my father's family, but not in Holland

25:47:19 The next stage in my father's career was to go to what was then called South West Africa, Namibia; this was the last three years of high school; we lived in a town called Walvis Bay on the coast; the school was in Swakopmund about forty miles away; I travelled there every day by bus; although the school was Afrikaans and English a lot of the kids were German, so I learned to speak German simply by osmosis; I read a lot in German and Swakopmund had a very good bookshop; one of the books that influenced me in the direction of science was Fred Hoyle's book 'The Frontiers of Astronomy' which I read in German; that was when I started to look a books that had serious scientific content; I read Rutherford on the atom and Eddington's 'Nature of the Physical World'; I was also reading literature including Dostoyevsky; I saw myself as part of the beatnik generation though probably all it meant was wearing a floppy sweater; it was the time that academic-type reading became more important; I continued to swim despite a cold current which comes up from the Antarctic along the west coast of Namibia which makes the water very cold; there is a pier in Swakopmund that goes out into the sea and I used to swim around it every day; again, a lot of my memories are of things I did outside school; in my holidays I worked on a fishing boat; in the summer the boat would function as a trawler and I worked as a deckhand, sorting fish; in winter it was converted to catch pilchards by net, and that was a night activity; another thing I remember well was going up-country, hunting with a friend whose parents had a farm; I spent quite a lot of time walking round the desert near where we lived; in terms of friends, in Namibia at Swakopmund I made a very good friend whom I remained in contact with for quite a few years afterwards; the friends I made before that I did not keep in contact with for long; as a family we also went on vacation in South Africa; we had a Land Rover so would drive down to Cape Town and Durban, so we saw quite a lot of the country; towards the end of our stay in Namibia I was in a major train crash; I was on the way to visit my brother in Durban and there was a head-on collision with another train; I was in the front coach; the engine went straight through the coach and smashed its way through until it got to my compartment; all those in front were killed; I crawled out of the wreckage virtually unharmed; I had the presence of mind to take photographs and then walked off to the nearest road, hitched a ride and continued my journey

34:41:24 On religious background, my parents inherited their parents' religion which was fairly protestant Calvinist; there was a moment when I was six or seven that they said that I didn't have to say grace before a meal if I didn't want to; I think that they had lost their religion; I think I decided I was not religious about the age of fourteen; I had no desire to go to church and didn't personally think that I believed in God; Martin Rees once said that he was a non-believing Christian and I think that that is quite close to what I am; I understand and accept the culture that we have has come out of Christianity, but that doesn't mean to say that I also have to believe in God; when I was a teenager in Namibia I read a lot of Spinoza and that must have had an impact on me as well; there were things I read that made me become more sceptical about religion; my wife is the daughter of an Anglican Vicar and that made me take an intellectual interest in theology; I am not like Richard Dawkins, I don't feel antagonistic towards religion; if people want to believe that is fine; I actually enjoy having proper theological arguments; the other thing that happened in Namibia was that I stayed on for my last year of school, on my own; my parents went back to Holland but they arranged for me to be accommodated in a maternity home which had rooms that were rented out; when I had first arrived in Namibia my parents had enquired about an appropriate school for me; the headmaster determined that as I did not speak Afrikaans I would have to learn it; they decided that I should go into a hostel at the school; unfortunately I was not very popular because I had made a lot of English/German friends and there was antagonism between them and the Afrikaners; every few days I would have a fight on my hands having to defend myself; eventually I got fed up; I rang my mother and told her I was coming home; they must have realized that it was serious; the school decided I could stay although I had not really learned enough Afrikaans; at the end of my time at that school you had to take not only your leaving certificate but also a certificate in English and Afrikaans; I decided that the mathematics at school was poor and I explained this to my parents; they suggested that I signed up for a Dutch correspondence course, which I did, and this brought my mathematics up to a standard that went beyond what was offered by the school; I think that from going to school there I got my love of languages and literature; languages, especially English literature, was taught to quite a high standard and we were expected to read quite a lot; the English literature teacher was one of the people that I remember very well, and I liked; he was a rather unusual person who would invite me to his house and I would play chess with him; I think he must have realized that I was academically inclined because he always encouraged me

43:48:10 I had enrolled to go to university in Natal to study mathematics and had got a scholarship to do that; my parents then wrote to me to say that they were going back to Australia and were coming to collect me on their way; we met in Durban where my brother was; my sister had already gone back to Australia; with them and my brother we went by a cargo vessel to Australia; I was again moved to another education system and it was not as straightforward as they had said it would be; it turned out that the University of Western Australia didn't recognise my qualifications; they agreed to let me start provisionally while trying to get my qualifications accredited; about two-thirds of the way through my first year they agreed finally that I could stay; I wanted to do physics and philosophy as well as mathematics; the University would not allow philosophy so I started to do physics, chemistry, pure mathematics and applied mathematics; I felt this a bit of a compromise as I wanted more than just pure science; I had quite a lot of catching up to do in some aspects; no sooner had I started my course than my parents left and went to the east coast of Australia; once again I was left on my own; I learned that I left South Africa at the same time as David King, in 1962; he left for political reasons and I realize that in my three months in Durban I was becoming politically aware; up to that point although I was aware of Apartheid and that it was questionable, it was not a big issue; when I was in Durban I got to meet some of the students and they were fairly political; I went to some of Athol Fugard's plays, one I remember clearly was 'Blood Knot' which was closed down almost as soon as I had seen it; I started to get concerned so maybe it was quite a good thing that I was leaving South Africa; talking to David, although he was more advanced in his thinking at that time, we were struggling with the same thing

49:14:24 My mother at that stage had calmed down; one of the things that had happened in Indonesia which was perhaps one of the reasons she was extremely nervous, was that my father was nearly murdered twice; he was in charge of people on the engineering site and for some reason they decided to run him over with a truck and left him for dead; he recovered, but no sooner was he out of hospital than they tried to kill him again, with knives; at that time there was a lot of tension between the Dutch and Indonesians because the latter was becoming independent and the Dutch were the old colonial masters; my mother just didn't believe that my father was going to die so she stayed with him in hospital and he recovered; when we were back in South Africa and took the boat to Australia I remember her as being quite calm and at ease with herself; when studying I met my wife, Juliet; we met in the mathematics lecture theatre and because we were both short-sighted we had to sit in the front; we went through our first degree together and married in 1965 at about the time we graduated; I did not like the formal education that I was getting, and resented the canned, limited and boring way in which they presented stuff to us; I thus spent a lot of my time getting books out of the library and reading around subjects; I would take notes in lectures but would burn them at the end of the year as quite useless; I seemed to have an approach to science that I had to get the story in my head that at other times I could think about the stuff; it was not enough to just have the proof; in mathematics they would, for example, give a lecture on the Hahn-Banach theorem, then meticulously go through the proof on the blackboard; this did not work for my and I found it totally uninteresting; I had to go away and read about the Hahn-Banach theorem, and how it fitted into other bits of mathematics; maybe even read about the people involved, so for me always my interest in science was added to by knowing about the people who were doing it; before I came to university I had already read and understood the special theory of relativity, but at the same time I had found out a lot about Einstein; I wanted to do theoretical physics because of this; the physics department in Western Australia had a strong experimental component and I found it boring; you had to stand doing experiments in the afternoon, and they would take three hours; at that stage suffered very badly from migraines, particularly when standing for long periods; this wiped out the rest of the day; I told the Professor of Physics and asked if I could do just theoretical physics; he said I couldn't do just theoretical physics so suggested I focussed on applied mathematics; that is what I did; it was a strange period because I think the University worked their students very hard but I felt they did not instil any excitement about the subject during the lectures, and did not motivate us well; the dropout rate in mathematics was very high so although I started with a large cohort, by the time I got to the end very few were left; I thought I was not going to make it because when I was tested by a psychologist in my first year he said that I was totally unsuited for university work; I think it may have had something to do with my command of English at that point as I had been speaking German or Afrikaans; the thing that I remember most about university is finding these wonderful things to read in the library; that is how I learned a lot of stuff I had to learn, lectures just didn't work for me; my wife seems to think I did the right thing as she just concentrated on the lecture notes and now retains nothing of that stuff, whereas I have retained the story