Professor John de Laeter dies, aged 77

TRIBUTES have poured in from around the world to honour the man who has inspired generations of scientists across Australia and internationally.

Emeritus Professor John de Laeter died in the early hours of Monday morning after a lifetime dedicated to science teaching, research and science advocacy.

Prof. de Laeter achieved acclaim in many areas of science and was regarded as a visionary and elder statesmen of science in Western Australia.

He was the driving force behind the establishment of many science institutions including Scitech, Technology Park and the Gravity Discovery Centre at Gingin.

Professor John de Laeter was one of the state’s most influential and accomplished scientists.

Yet he virtually became a research scientist by accident.

De Laeter was teaching at Bunbury High School in the late 1950s, when he attended a science teachers’ conference in Sydney.

“I heard two of the world’s experts battling it out on how the universe began – the Big Bang Theory versus Steady State Cosmology,” Prof. de Laeter recalled in an interview a few years ago.

“It inspired me and I decided there and then to go back to university and do a PhD in physics and get involved in these astrophysical questions.”

It sparked a stellar career that embraced nuclear physics, atomic weights, geochronology, mass spectrometry, astrophysics, education and business.

In the late 1960s, Prof. De Laeter arrived back in Australia after researching nuclear physics in Canada.

He returned as inaugural head of the Department of Physics at Curtin University (then the West Australian Institute of Technology).

He later became Deputy Vice Chancellor of Curtin University and still holds a special place in the Curtin community.

The university has honoured his work with the naming of the John de Laeter Centre, a joint venture with the University of WA, the CSIRO and the Geological Survey of WA involved in minerals and petroleum research.

“John de Laeter was a giant of Australian science, a man responsible, more than any other, for continually championing science education and research at Curtin and more broadly in WA,” said Professor Jeanette Hacket, Vice-Chancellor of Curtin University.

“Throughout his career he lead groundbreaking research, including measuring the atomic weight of 12 elements, mapping the geological ages of many regions of Western Australia, and demonstrated the potential of an African rock outcrop to contain radioactive material and hence store nuclear waste.

”John was arguably the first person to put WA science on the map. He was the first Western Australian to be on the CSIRO executive and he played a role in the development of the Cooperative Research Centres program.”

Prof. De Laeter was also a passionate advocate for science fundraising and education, and was the driving force behind Scitech Discovery Centre.

“I believed in the importance of inspiring young people into science and that was one way to do it,” is how he explained his passion for science.

“Whatever has taken my fancy, if you like, or challenged me or what I see can be done better – mainly for the good of the State of Western Australia and the good of young people – then I tended to follow it whether it was a popular idea or not.”

Alan Brien, the CEO of Scitech, this week paid tribute to Prof. de Laeter:

“There is no overstating Prof. de Laeter’s contribution to the Western Australian scientific and academic communities,” he said.

“His devotion to furthering the public’s understanding of science and his warm personality made him one of the State’s most treasured spokesmen for science.

“Prof. de Laeter founded Scitech Discovery Centre, instilling in the organisation his commitment to communicating science in an engaging and interesting way.

“In the last 22 years, Scitech has grown to be the State’s most popular and recognisable educational organisation – a testament to his vision.

“Prof. de Laeter’s vision and passion have enriched the cultural and academic landscape of Western Australia. His passing saddens us all, and serves as a reminder of how much this State and its inhabitants have benefited from the influence of this wonderful man.”

The chairman of the John de Laeter Centre, Dr Jim Ross, worked with Prof. de Laeter for some 25 years. He described him as an inspirational person.

“John was a man of outstanding integrity and humility with a complete lack of pretentiousness,” Dr Ross said.

“He was a true leader, because he saw the big picture very clearly and was very decisive and determined about achieving the objectives without compromising any of his qualities.

“He was a doer, not a talker, he really achieved so much.”

Prof. de Laeter was also a keen sportsman. He was captain of an Australian veterans hockey team and played tennis up to a month or two before his death.

His legacy will live on in the science community, and even in the skies above. In recognition of his work in astrophysics, a minor planet was named after him in 1996.

Minor Planet ‘de Laeter 3893’ is a main belt asteroid orbiting between Mars and Jupiter – and is a permanent homage to the science visionary and educator.