Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Hans Buchdahl (1919-2010): his legacy

Hans Buchdahl got me started in theoretical physics. When I was an undergraduate he was the Professor of Theoretical Physics at the Australian National University. He was the supervisor of my honours year project, which led to my first two papers. Buchdahl taught me many things including:
  • theoretical physics is fun, exciting, and hard work
  • the beauty of classical thermodynamics
  • the importance of conceptual rigour
  • high standards
  • that I had something to contribute
This week I learnt of his death, earlier this year. There is a nice Obituary in the Canberra Times and Sydney Morning Herald by John Sandeman and one in General Relativity and Gravitation by Hubert Goenner.

To complement those I should point out a significant legacy that Buchdahl left in terms of the undergraduate students that he inspired and shepherded and have gone onto successful academic careers. Besides myself, a few that I know of who did an honours year project supervised by Buchdahl include:

Professor of Theoretical Physics,
Head of Department of Physics
Queen Mary College London

Simons Professor of Mathematics

Professor of Physics and Mathematics
University of Southern California

Buchdahl was always concerned with what would be best for students and not himself. He strongly encouraged us to go to the best places in the world for our Ph.Ds. I am sure that the letters of reference that he wrote on our behalf helped make that possible.

One more random fact. When Buchdahl retired in 1984 the ANU did not consider that his Chair should be replaced. No doubt to save money they absorbed the Theoretical Physics department into Physics and advertised for a replacement for Buchdahl at the Lecturer level. This position was filled by a young Gerard Milburn. He left after a few years to come to University of Queensland, where he has built a great place to work!

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