OBITUARY: Dr Colin Keay

Retired professor of physics Colin Keay combined an inquiring mind with a vast amount of energy. Picture: Stefan MooreOBITUARY

Dr Colin Keay, 1930 – 2015

WHEN former University of Newcastle physics professor Dr Colin Keay died peacefully last week, he was holding his daughter Andra’s hand and listening to Vivaldi and Beethoven’s 9th Symphony at St Andrew’s War Memorial Hospital in Brisbane.

His wife Myra, and myself, Sue, were also there.

Dad had been on palliative care and had been calm and comfortable.

His last few days were spent with family around him, listening to his favourite composers, and blissfully free of most of the Parkinson’s tremors.

Colin was born on February 2, 1930, in Timaru, in the South Island of New Zealand, the elder of two sons to William and Ruby Keay. His brother Alister was born three years later.

Dad was dux of Papanui High School in 1947 and a founding member of the Canterbury Astronomical Society.

He received his BSc and MSc from the University of New Zealand (Canterbury) and joined Cliff Ellyett’s Radar Meteor Astronomy group.

His mettle was sorely tested as a young child, spending time in an orphanage and boarding away from home due to his mother’s poor health and then fighting off tuberculosis during his undergraduate studies. He spent almost two years in Cashmere sanatorium and endured two major operations in 1956-57 to remove part of both lungs. The scars on his back looked like a singlet, but it was hard to notice any reduction in his lung capacity for the energy and drive he brought to his life and work.

Dad married Mum in 1958 in Christchurch. He was awarded his PhD in physics in meteor astronomy at the University of Canterbury in 1964 and was also awarded the Mechaelis Gold Medal in astronomy from the University of Otago. He also received an MA in astronomy from University of Toronto in 1965 and, near the end of his career, was distinguished with a DSc from University of Canterbury in 1997.

Mum and Dad moved to Australia in 1965 for Colin to take up a senior lecturer position in physics at the University of Newcastle where he worked until his ‘‘retirement’’ in 1993. Both Mum and Dad kept so busy in retirement that some of us wondered how they ever found time to work.

There were a number of firsts in Dad’s long career. He created a new branch of science called geophysical electrophonics – ‘‘theproduction of audible noises of various kinds through direct conversion by transduction of very low-frequency electromagnetic energy generated by a number of geophysical phenomena’’.

Within 24hours of the launching of the first satellite (the Russian Sputnik in 1957), Dad was the first to calculate that it would be visible over New Zealand. This led to Dad and Dick Anderson publishing the first two papers on observing a satellite.

He also published the first papers on high resolution infrared maps of Jupiter and was president of Commission 22 of the International Astronomical Union and inaugural chairman of its working group on the prevention of interplanetary pollution (space junk). In 1997, Minor Planet 5007 was named after Dad in recognition of his services to astronomy.

As a pioneering science communicator, as well as numerous public talks, Dad wrote monthly newspaper columns, first for the Christchurch Press and then for The Newcastle Morning Herald, which regularly published his Sky and Space notes for more than 30years.

As a press correspondent, he covered some of the launches of NASA’s space missions.

Away from science, Dad was active in the community, being the founding president of the Hunter Skeptics (1987), president of the Newcastle Cycleways Movement (always lobbying for more bikeways), founding president of the Newcastle Astronomical Society (1993), and a member of University of Newcastle council representing staff, among many other notable activities.

Colin Keay, DSc FRASNZ FAAAS FInstP FASA, was husband to Myra, brother to Alister, father to Andra, Lindsay and Sue, father-in-law to Michael and Mark, grandfather to Ilyan, Rob, Miranda, Zoe, Sarah and Sammy. He will be greatly missed but what an amazing 85years it was.

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