Author Archives: Michael Wills

History of La Trobe’s Physics Department, 1964-2005

La Trobe University was established in 1964 by an Act of the Victorian Parliament, and it took its first students at the Bundoora site early in 1967. The founding fathers had a bold vision, involving a flexible academic structure devoid of departmental boundaries and an extensive college system to which everyone would belong. The founding Act spoke of an institution where students could find “an opportunity of fitting themselves for life as well as becoming learned in a particular branch … of learning”. The University’s motto was chosen carefully: “Qui cherche trouve”, whoever seeks shall find.

There were four founding Schools, each of several integrated disciplines: Humanities, Social Sciences, Biological Sciences and Physical Sciences, the last comprising Chemistry, Mathematics, and Physics. It was anticipated that Medicine, Law and Engineering would soon follow, but steady-state government funding delayed much. Schools of Agriculture, Education, Behavioural Sciences, Economics, and Health Sciences were added before 1990, but the planned academic flexibility and the College System soon failed. Traditional departments emerged, and a piece of land had to be found for an unexpected Union Building.

But some early hopes were fulfilled: a very diverse student body, a pioneering ‘early-leaver scheme’, a strong commitment to quality teaching, which has continued, and high-quality research in many disciplines despite the early difficulties. In the School of Physical Sciences, the founding disciplines became departments, and Geology was added in 1972.

Around 1980, departments of Electronics & Communication Engineering and Computer Science were added to the School of Physical Sciences in lieu of a larger school of engineering, and Statistics was added to Mathematics. In the mid-1980s, a School of Mathematical and information Sciences was separated from the School of Physical Sciences, and departments were unified by the abolition of subgroups (eg pure, applied & stats into mathematics, physical, inorganic & organic into

chemistry, and the divisions into physics). In the mid-1990s, the University converted to a traditional faculty structure, with the Faculty of Science and Technology initially comprising the fourteen existing science departments. Today the Faculty of Science, Technology & Engineering continues, with the Department of Physics now part of the School of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences within the Faculty.


Elwyn Davies was appointed the foundation professor of physics, and he soon added Keith Cole as a second foundation professor and John Liesegang and Robert Leckey as lecturers. Lecture and laboratory classes began in 1967 in rooms in the Library and Glenn College, and continued in the Thomas Cherry Building in 1968. Cole pursued the theoretical space-physics research for which he was already well known, and Leckey and Liesegang began experimental projects. A purpose-built building was soon provided for physics, where it remains to the present day.

From the beginning significant support staff were provided for physics. As well as several secretaries (notably Lyn Hart), there was a Laboratory Manager (Walter Gilbert-Purssey), a Mechanical Workshop (under Kurt Flisikowski), an Electronics Workshop (led by Charles Ducza), and teaching laboratories (under Geoff Newton). Geoff also provided photographic services. Much of the early teaching and research equipment came from these areas and, although much depleted in staff, they still provided essential support.

Further physics lecturing staff arrived rapidly: Ian McLaughlin, John Jenkin, Eric Butcher, Elizabeth Essex, Tom Kalotas, Tony Lee, and then Ron Miller, John Riley, and Peter Dyson, Peter initially as a QEII Research Fellow. This compliment of thirteen academic staff would nurture and sustain the department for 30 years, although the first retirements after 1991 were not soon replaced.

For 20 years, headship of the department rotated between the two professors, but when the University decided that departmental heads could be elected John Jenkin was appointed. It was a time of dramatic change, with the ‘Dawkins Revolution’ greatly increasing the number of Australian universities without any significant increase in funding for each. In physics, recurrent funding declined significantly from 1987 and ludicrously dropped to zero in 1990; academic success and an increased salary bill prejudiced the department’s budget, despite increasing student numbers. After some years of suffering the university forgave the resulting physics debt and some sanity returned.

Over time the majority of academic staff had been promoted to Reader &/or Associate Professor, and three were elevated to personal chairs (Dyson, Leckey and Riley).  These three successively served as head of department from 1994 onwards.


Physics staff photo, 1969

Back row: Leon Fong (postdoc), David Denne (postdoc), Marshall McLean (MWS), Horst Dressel (MWS), Charles Ducza (EWS), Jim Haslam (EWS), Walter Gilbert-Purssey (Lab. Manager), Kurt Flisikowski, (MWS), Terry Polkinghorn (EWS), Arthur Menagella (sp? MWS), Geoff Newton (Student Labs), Henk Neilissen (Storeman).

Front row: David Bedford (postdoc), John Jenkin (A), Betty Butcher (S), John Liesegang (A), Elwyn Davies (A), Ian McLaughlin (A), Robert Leckey (A), Jo Downes (S), Eric Butcher (A), Jeni Neilissen (S).

Absent: Keith Cole (A).

MWS = mechanical workshop, EWS = electronic workshop, A = academic staff, S = secretary


Teaching in lectures, tutorials and laboratories followed a largely traditional pattern: classical, quantum and statistical mechanics, electricity & magnetism and electromagnetic theory, waves and optics, nuclear and particle physics, atomic and solid state physics, thermodynamics, and relativity. In addition, there was some mathematics not provided elsewhere and electronic circuit theory. Particularly at the honours level, the research interests of the department received emphasis (see below). Around 1990, prizes were introduced for the best result in Physics I, II, III and IV (honours): Head of Department’s Prize, K.D. Cole Prize, Andrew Downing Prize, and Kodak Prize respectively.

Other courses were also provided by the department, including Physics IT (a terminal course in maths and physics primarily for students of agriculture, with a few from biological sciences), and Physics IM, IIM and IIIM (a lecture and laboratory course designed to give music students a knowledge of the physical processes relevant to music production and appreciation; before that department was closed). From the late-1990s, when new ‘niche’ degrees were offered by the faculty, there were additional physics subjects for students in engineering (various), environmental science (BEnSc), space science (BSpSc), and astronomy.

During 1990-92, under funding provided by the Victorian Education Foundation and Department of Education and in cooperation with the La Trobe School of Education, two joint course were run to increase the number and quality of school physics teachers: a Graduate Diploma in Physics & Education and a BEd (Physics), the physics components being the responsibility of lecturer Dorothy Smith.

Physics had long been part of the Bendigo CAE when it amalgamated with La Trobe in about 1990, students taking physics in the Engineering and Applied Science programs. In addition, it is now possible to undertake a BSc at Bendigo, with the first two years of a physics major taken there. The teaching load is borne by the lone physics staff member, Dr Katherine Legge, who is also the Faculty’s Associate Dean (Regional) and whose research focus is musical acoustics.


With the initial professorial appointments, it was natural for the research of the department to split into two areas (called Divisions): Theoretical & Space Physics, and Electron Physics. The first involved both a variety of theoretical and experimental projects, many related to solar-terrestrial physics: Cole (theory of the earth’s upper atmosphere, ionosphere and magnetosphere), McLaughlin (statistical mechanics, theory of liquids), Kalotas and Lee (quantum mechanics of molecules, physics of music production); Butcher, Essex, Dyson (experimental investigations of the properties of the ionosphere, magnetosphere and thermosphere using radio and optical techniques, air-glow and auroral physics, solar-terrestrial relationships, etc.). The Division operated a field station north of the University and embraced collaboration with local and overseas agencies. In particular, the notable Russian scientist, Valerie Troitskaya, became an honorary professor in the Division for a number of years. In the late-1990s Dyson was joined by a former PhD student, John Devlin (now Professor of Electronic Engineering) to develop the TIGER radar to investigate ionospheric and auroral phenomena.

In the Division of Electron Physics there was a close-knit collaboration for two decades (Leckey, Liesegang, Jenkin, Riley) in the field of photoelectron spectroscopy. Inspired by early overseas studies of gases and molecules using ultraviolet light and X-rays, the group built a series of increasingly-sophisticated electron spectrometers to study the detailed band structure of solids and surfaces of increasing complexity. There were also fundamental studies of the photoelectric process itself and of the design of electron spectrometers. Miler conducted experiments on atomic reactions with Butcher and Lee. Later Leckey and Riley formed a strong collaboration with the Stuttgart and Erlangen physicist Lothar Ley to run experiments on the Berlin synchrotrons, Liesegang studied the properties of solids and surfaces of interest to chemists and industrialists (as well as a term as Dean of the School), and Jenkin joined the Faculty of Humanities to pursue his interest in the history and philosophy of science.

In both divisions there was substantial success in obtaining research grants, in graduating a long line of excellent MSc and PhD graduates (approx. 125 total to 2005), and in building a fine reputation for La Trobe University Physics, enhanced by local and international conferences held here.

Keith Cole was the most honoured physicist in the department. His theoretical research into the magnetosphere-ionosphere system was fundamental and wide-ranging. He made major contributions to national and international science, as President of both SCOSTEP and IAGA and as a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science and a Foreign Secretary of the Academy. He was honoured with the Appleton Prize and life memberships of a number of scientific organizations.

Paul Pigram joined the department in 1995 and began a research program employing a variety of sophisticated techniques to provide solutions to complex industrial problems. From 2005 onwards the department was able slowly to replace the staff that had been retiring steadily since the early 1990s. A new era was at hand, and the department soon showed that it would continue the proud record established over the first forty years.

By John Jenkin
April 2013

Fernanda Laris

When I decided to go to Australia to do my Master of Business Administration, the last thing I was searching for was “love”.

I was so fed up with Mexican machos and all I wanted was time for myself. I can perfectly remember my first day of classes. I was waiting for the campus bus outside the Graduate School of Management, when a very “friendly” guy said hi and asked why he hadn’t seen me for a while. I was like “mmmm…men and their approaches…I just arrived here 3 days ago!”

We talked for a while and he explained that I looked like a Mexican girl he had met during the previous semester (to be honest, after 5 years of being together, I am still not sure if that was the truth or he just made it up!).

We didn’t see each other much, until we had a lecture together. We teamed up because of a mutual friend and that is when it all started. The “friendly” German turned out to be a very interesting, funny, charming, and good looking man. One night, after drinking tequila (seems like Germans don’t handle as much alcohol as they claim they do), he told me that he had feelings for me… and I had to confess, so did I!

Our time in Melbourne was awesome, but short. He flew back to Germany and I stayed in Australia. He came back in October and we were able to graduate together! That was one of the best days my life! We managed the long distance for a while, and afterwards decided to make Germany our home.

We found love at La Trobe competitionWe had the chance to fly back to Melbourne and visit our beloved La Trobe after winning the Alumni and Advancement Office’s most ‘loved up’ La Trobe couple contest. Being back on campus, meeting teachers and friends was absolutely priceless! I would have never imagined that I would meet a German in Australia, and would end up marrying him. Thanks La Trobe for bringing me together with my soulmate!