Cultural Artefact: Physics and Physicists


The teaching of tertiary physics in Tasmania commenced at the newly established University of Tasmania with the appointment in 1893 of Alexander McAulay (1863-1931). He became Foundation Professor of Mathematics and Physics in 1896. McAulay had studied engineering at Manchester and mathematics at Cambridge, and lectured at Ormond College, Melbourne before moving to Tasmania. He made important contributions to the mathematical description of the multi-dimensional physical world, conducted a magnetic survey of Tasmania in 1900-01, and produced a pocket set of logarithm tables that was widely used for the next fifty years. McAulay was instrumental in the development of hydro-electric power in Tasmania, which he advocated as early as 1905.

His son, Alexander Leicester McAulay (1895-1969) studied at Cambridge and Manchester and was appointed lecturer at the University of Tasmania in 1922, and Foundation Professor of Physics in 1927. Physics staffing was augmented in 1930 with the appointment of FD Cruickshank, noted for his development of the theory of lens design. During the Second World War, McAulay and EN Waterworth established an optical industry in Hobart, supplying lenses and prisms for military use. In the late 40s and 50s the Department expanded with the appointment of new staff. Following further expansion in the next 25 years, it became one of the largest in the University. After AL McAulay's retirement, GRA Ellis became Professor of Physics, 1960-82, and R Delbourgo was appointed to a second Chair from 1976 to 2000. More recent professorships were held by PA Hamilton and PM McCulloch.

During the AL McAulay period, the Department became active in a number of fields of research, including optical design, cosmic radiation, and biophysics. Subsequently Ellis, Hamilton and McCulloch set up a strong research team in radioastronomy, and the spectrum of astronomical studies was broadened to include optical and X-ray astronomy. Delbourgo established an active group researching aspects of theoretical physics.

Graduates from the Department spread widely within Australia and around the world, many assuming senior positions in other universities, research establishments and industry. Distinguished among the early graduates was FP Bowden (1903-68) who headed the CSIR Tribophysics Laboratory in Melbourne, later becoming Professor of Surface Physics at the University of Cambridge, and Fellow of the Royal Society.

The Department has declined in strength in recent years, following changes in course structures within the University, and as students chose studies leading to more immediate professional qualifications. In 2001 the Departments of Mathematics and Physics were amalgamated, and L Forbes was appointed Professor of Mathematics and Physics, thus reverting to the situation which had applied a century earlier.

>BIH Scott

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