Robert (Bob) Hunter

by Professor James K. Beattie


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More than fifty colleagues, students and friends gathered at Shoal Bay north of Newcastle on 2-3 June to celebrate the colloid science legacy of retired Associate Professor Robert J. Hunter, AM FAA. Attending from The University of Sydney were Don Napper, Greg Warr, James Beattie, Dick O'Brien and Chiara Neto, as well as numerous graduates.

The subtitle of the Hunter Legacy meeting was 'Educating an Entire Field of Science' and it soon became apparent that this was a unifying theme of Bob's professional life: Hunter is, and thinks of himself as, an educator, at many levels.

The man himself began the proceedings with remarks informed by his work in recent years assembling his autobiography, now in the process of being rewritten. His first position was literally that of an educator, as Master of Maths and Science at a secondary boys school in Orange, NSW. After several years with the CSIRO, during which he completed an MSc qualifying course at the University of Sydney, he was awarded a CSIRO scholarship which allowed him to take up a full-time postgraduate research position in the laboratory of "Alex" Alexander in Physical Chemistry at Sydney University. Alexander had a profound influence on Hunter, as a mentor and example. Alex had coauthored a ground-breaking textbook on colloid science as physical chemistry: Bob wrote two as sole author and edited a third. Alex was passionate about secondary education in science; Bob wrote a high-school textbook for Australian students, Chemical Science, coauthored with Peter Simpson and Don Stranks, and published in 1976 by Alex Boden's Science Press; the Junior Chemistry laboratories in the School are named after Boden. Alex was active in promoting science in the wider community; Bob has been a significant leader and spokesperson on many critical issues of public discourse about science and technology.

After completing his PhD research in 1960, Bob joined the CSIRO Division of Soil Science and applied his expertise on clays and clay mineral colloids to the problem of understanding soil development processes and so began to develop his international reputation. In 1964 he was appointed Lecturer at Sydney University, where he was able to further develop his interest in colloids and expand into the adjacent area of electrochemistry. He remained at Sydney until he took early retirement in 1990, having just completed a four-year stint as Head of the School of Chemistry. In those years he was the exemplary tertiary educator - lecturing, demonstrating and supervising at all levels from First Year to advanced postgraduate courses and research. He supervised numerous Honours and postgraduate students, published a large number of significant papers with them, gave seminars and wrote reviews, edited journals and, most importantly, wrote books.

Almost every speaker at the Hunter Legacy meeting emphasised how important the books have been to their own education in colloid science. They began with Zeta Potential in Colloid Science, published in 1981 by Academic Press, now out-of-print and offered used on Amazon for over US$500. After 30 years it remains the definitive treatise on the zeta potential. Zeta potentials have become increasingly easy to measure, not least because of the advances in electroacoustic technology that Bob helped to develop with Colloidal Dynamics Pty. Ltd. Nanoscience very often involves colloidal dispersions with their associated zeta potentials. Despite these major advances in technology and applications, no description or discussion of the zeta potential begins without reference to Hunter's monograph.

Next came the two-volume work Foundations of Colloid Science I & II, published by Oxford University Press in 1987 and 1989. Written in collaboration with thirteen Australian colleagues, it is known colloquially as "Colloid Oz". Hunter was the principal author and coordinating editor, rewriting the submitted chapters to produce a unified and coherent whole work, a monumental task requiring the complete absorption of detail across the entire field of colloid science. By now an accomplished wordsmith, he had to edit disparate styles. It is alleged by one of the authors that the only things left of his contribution were the full-stops, a charge which Hunter claims is grossly exaggerated.

The one-volume second edition of Foundations of Colloid Science, published in 2001, is essentially a new work. Again motivated by the desire to teach more effectively, he felt that as the first edition arose from multiple authors, it was not sufficiently coherent to be a good textbook. So after arranging a 90 lecture graduate course and giving 30 of those lectures whilst a Visiting Professor at the University of Göteborg, he completely revised and transformed the first edition to produce the 800-page volume that is the 'go-to' book on colloid science, to be consulted first before other monographs, review articles and research papers.

Bob's educating legacy has other aspects. He and Tom Healy from Melbourne began the first research student conferences to broaden the perspective and experience of their postgraduate students. These were so successful that they expanded to include colloid and surface science students from across Australia and New Zealand. Usually an overseas visitor or two is invited. The Australian student conference has served as a model for similar ventures in Europe. The next one will be the twenty-eighth in the series, also to be held in the Hunter region of NSW. In time the former students who became too old to participate in the student conferences became jealous and set up their own grown-ups colloid chemistry conference, probably the only time that adult scientists were so inspired by their students.

So Bob's influence spread and multiplied, contributing significantly to the very high international standing of Australian colloid science. This was apparent in the quality and variety of the talks presented at the Hunter Legacy meeting. In addition to acknowledging the many ways in which he had contributed to and affected their research, the speakers presented new and exciting results that reflect the vigorous contemporary state of the subject. He has indeed 'educated an entire field of science'.

Following his early retirement from the University, he was actively involved in the startup company founded by Dick O'Brien to develop electroacoustics technology. Bob served for a number of years as Chairman of the Board, striving to ensure that the cash-poor company didn't trade while insolvent. Importantly, he spent time in the lab running customer samples and learning about their problems, and then using his writing and educating skills, preparing application notes. And with his considerable international reputation he accepted invitations to speak at major conferences about electroacoustics, give seminars around the world and write substantial review articles. The zeta potential gained new life with electroacoustics and his thirty-year-old monograph is of renewed importance.

Bob's compass has been wider than colloid science. Within the University he followed Alexander's example and served in various roles, including President of the Sydney Association of University Teachers, the predecessor to the current union branch. He was Director of the Centre for the Human Aspects of Science and Technology and Sub-Dean and Pro-Dean of the Faculty of Science and staff representative on both the Academic Board and the Senate. Outside of the University he was active in the Australian Society of Soil Science and the Royal Australian Chemical Institute, serving as President of the Electrochemistry Division and twice of the Colloid and Surface Science Division. Since 1982 he has been the leading figure in the organization first known as Scientists Against Nuclear Arms (SANA) and then Scientists for Global Responsibility (SGR). As a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science (FAA) elected in 1986 he has served on various committees and working parties, most recently the Replacement Research Reactor Project Taskforce.

He is a regular contributor to public debate on critical scientific issues such as climate change and radiation exposure. He appears frequently on radio, occasionally on television and as often as he can in the Letters to the Editor of the Sydney Morning Herald. And he is an accomplished thespian, appearing on-stage and working backstage for many years with the Hunters Hill Theatre. His dramatic skills were in superb form at the Legacy meeting when he entertained the conference dinner with his inimitable and hilarious renditions of the brief encounter between M. Le Blanc and the beautiful Mlle Fifi La Bonbon and Tom Lehrer's version of the life and times of the Russian mathematician Nicholai Ivanovich Lobachevsky.

Reflecting on the meeting afterwards, Bob mused that it was as if he had the privilege of attending his own wake, filled with good friends, warmth and humour. Our privilege was that we were able to celebrate his Legacy so far, in his good company.

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