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October 2011 Issue
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Farewell to a physics great

 Obituary

John Russell Prescott, affectionately known to colleagues and students as "Prof", was born in Cairo, Egypt on 31 May 1924.

Soon after John's birth, his father was appointed Director of the Waite Agricultural Research Institute and the family moved to Adelaide.

John attended Scotch College, and in 1942 entered the University of Adelaide to study Physics. He graduated in 1945 with the degree of BSc (Honours) and in the same year became engaged to Josephine Elizabeth Wylde. He moved to Melbourne to undertake a PhD, and he and Jo were married in 1947.

In 1948 John was elected Associate of the Institute of Physics, and in 1949 was awarded his PhD for his work on cosmic ray showers and bursts.

Although he had received his PhD, John was persuaded that an Oxford doctorate could always "come in handy", and received a scholarship from that University. During his time in England he took his family on a trip through Europe, and could not resist repeating Galileo's famous experiment at the Leaning Tower of Pisa. He received his D.Phil. from Christchurch College, Oxford, in 1953.

In 1956 he was appointed Lecturer at the University of British Columbia, Canada, moving in 1960 to the University of Calgary where he remained for 11 years. During this time, in addition to giving dynamic lectures, he sang in choirs, played cricket, explored the Rockies, skated, skied, and culminated a hockey career of 40 years by qualifying as a grass hockey umpire and umpiring in the 1976 Pan Am games.

In 1971 John became Professor of Physics at the University of Adelaide and in 1982 was appointed Elder Professor of Physics.

John was passionate about teaching, and enjoyed performing entertaining experiments, such as cooking eggs in liquid nitrogen. His yellow Volvo with its sticker "Physics is Phun" will be fondly remembered.

His main research interest was in cosmic rays, and he founded the cosmic ray research group at the University of Adelaide. He also played a major role in raising awareness of employment opportunities in physics, and found time to build a harpsichord.

While helping excavate at Roonka on the Murray, he decided to apply his knowledge of physics to archaeology, using the new technique of thermoluminescence dating. He set up a laboratory and luminescence soon began to dominate his academic research, particularly after his notional retirement in 1990.

His fieldwork included Lake Mungo, the Flinders Ranges and other sites in Australia, China and Thailand. At the same time his interest in cosmic rays did not diminish and his paper on cosmic ray penetration in sediments is one of the most cited in the luminescence literature.

John was an active member of the Glenunga Croquet Club and of the Field Geology Club of South Australia, and a regular contributor to the The Advertiser newspaper.

He received many scientific awards, including the 2002 Royal Society of South Australia Verco Medal. In 2004 a special conference and celebratory dinner were held at the University of Adelaide in honour of John's 80th birthday.

John's outstanding service to the University of Adelaide included periods as Dean of Science, Chairman of Physics and later Physics and Mathematical Physics, and also Chairman of the Education Committee.

He was a wonderful colleague and friend, held in highest esteem by the Cosmic Ray and Luminescence Groups, which he founded, by his colleagues in Physics, Geology and Geography, and by the worldwide communities in those disciplines.

A gifted and caring teacher, mentor and supervisor, he always put his students and their welfare above all else, giving generously of his time, knowledge and expertise. Although he was a strict disciplinarian, his heart was of gold. Often a colleague would find on their desk a cluster of delicious peaches or other garden produce for, among his many other talents, he was a dedicated gardener and delighted in sharing the results.

His kindness and generosity, sense of humour, love of jokes, deep love of science, breadth of knowledge and intellectual curiosity were, and will continue to be, an inspiration to us. He will be sorely missed.

He is survived by his wife Jo and children James, Ann and Kate.

Contributed by Nigel Spooner, Frances Williams and Martin Williams

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John Russell Prescott
Physicist
Born: 31 May 1924; Cairo, Egypt
Died: 1 September 2011; Adelaide

John Russell Prescott
Physicist
Born: 31 May 1924; Cairo, Egypt
Died: 1 September 2011; Adelaide

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