John Robert de Laeter
|Born||3 May 1933|
South Perth, Western Australia
|Died||16 August 2010 (aged 77)|
|Residence||Perth, Western Australia|
|Alma mater||University of Western Australia|
|Known for||determination of atomic weights|
geochronology of Western Australian geology
|Awards||ANZAAS Medal (1992)|
|Fields||Nuclear physics, Cosmochemistry, Geochronology, Isotope geochemistry|
|Institutions||Curtin University of Technology|
|Doctoral advisor||Peter M Jeffery|
John Robert de Laeter, AO, FTSE, FAIP (3 May 1933 – 16 August 2010) was an Australian scientist with a distinguished career across several fields in nuclear physics, cosmochemistry, geochronology, isotope geochemistry. He was also a prominent administrator and promoter who oversaw the establishment of several scientific research and education centres in Western Australia.
John Robert de Laeter was born on 3 May 1933 in South Perth, Western Australia. He attended South Perth Primary School on Forrest Street and then won a scholarship to Perth Modern School in Subiaco. At the University of Western Australia he achieved first class honours in physics and education to start a career as a science teacher.
De Laeter began teaching in 1957 at the Perth Technical College. While teaching at Bunbury High School in the late 1950s, de Laeter attended a science teachers' conference in Sydney, where he described the following:
Further University studies culminated in a thesis on the isotopic composition of terrestrial and meteoritic tin and a PhD in 1966. After researching nuclear physics at McMaster University in Canada on a National Research Council of Canada Fellowship, de Laeter returned to Australia in 1968 as inaugural head of the Department of Physics at West Australian Institute of Technology (the predecessor of Curtin University).
De Laeter's scientific interests were broad, but centred on the application of mass spectrometry techniques in cosmochemistry and nuclear physics. He is credited with refining the isotopic composition and atomic weight measurements of elements, including antimony, barium, tin and ytterbium. This work also lead to mass spectrometric investigations of the Oklo natural nuclear reactor to better understand the diffusion and retentivity of various fission products in the context of managing man-made nuclear waste. From 1980, De Laeter was elected in the IUPAC Commission on Isotopic Abundances and Atomic Weights (CIAAW), serving as the Secretary of the Commission from 1984–1987 and as its chairman from 1988–1991. In 1984, he authored the "CIAAW Technical Guidelines" manual, which still serves as a reference for adopting new atomic weight values by the Commission.
Recognising the application of mass spectrometry methods to geology in the 1970s and 1980s, de Laeter also established a series of projects with the Geological Survey of Western Australia and the University of Western Australia to develop geochronology capabilities based on the rubidium–strontium, samarium–neodymium and uranium–lead decay schemes. These projects produced a series of publications that established the geochronological framework of Western Australian geology, for example in the Pilbara Craton and establishing the extreme age of the Narryer Gneiss Terrane of the Yilgarn Craton.
As the West Australian Institute of Technology evolved into Curtin University of Technology, De Laeter became Deputy Vice-Chancellor Research and Development and provided important administrative service and guidance to several major projects including the Technology Park and establishing a SHRIMP Lab in 1994 that became the core of the John de Laeter Centre for Isotope Research. De Laeter's strong interest in the SHRIMP instrument developed by a doctoral colleague, Bill Compston, at the Australian National University is credited for the commercial development of this technology.
The early interest in science education continued with significant leadership of projects establishing the Science and Mathematics Education Centre at Curtin University, the Scitech Discovery Centre and the Gravity Discovery Centre at Gingin. He also contributed to the literature on science education.
De Laeter retired in 1995. A symposium to mark his retirement was notable for one of the last public speeches by Mark Oliphant. This was noted as a very fitting tribute, because Mark Oliphant had given a lecture in 1950 that had inspired Peter M Jeffrey – John de Laeter's PhD supervisor – to begin the pioneering work in mass spectrometry and geochronology in Australia.
De Laeter was made an Officer of the Order of Australia for service to science education in 1992 and received a Centenary Medal for service to Australian society in environmental science and technology.