Professor Alfred Edward Ringwood (1930 - 1993)

Professor Alfred Edward Ringwood
Professor Alfred Edward Ringwood (1930 - 1993).
Photo credit: Australian Academy of Science.

Professor Ted Ringwood's legacy is in his publications, their continuing relevance and the insight which they offer. It is also in the institution, the Research School of Earth Sciences at the Australian National University , where he worked for almost 35 years. His legacy is also in people with whom he worked, and with whom he debated and competed as a creative, proactive and articulate enthusiast for this science.

Ted Ringwood grew up in suburban Melbourne , an only child during the Great Depression. His parents and some dedicated teachers, encouraged his clear academic ability through Hawthron Central School , through a scholarship at age 13 to become a boarder at Geelong Grammar School (one of Australia 's best known private schools) and then to Melbourne University . Between 1948 and 1956 he obtained his BSc (Hons), MSc and PhD from Melbourne University . It was indicative of his resourcefulness and determination, and of this awareness of the fact that there is no science without funds, that during his MSc studies on granites and acid volcanics in difficult terrain in northeastern Victoria , he required a packhorse to cart hand picked galena from a disused silver mine, to sell for lead shot manufacture in Melbourne .

For his PhD studies he turned from applied and field geology to the new geochemical concepts of V.M. Goldschmidt and applied them to magmatic crystallization, to evolution of the solar system and to prediction of new high pressure mineral structures which should be stabilized by the very high pressures and temperatures of the Earth's mantle. The essential foundation of his research was laid at that time – a strong theoretical basis, 'real earth' observations, and the seeking out of experimental or testable predictions for models or hypotheses.

His PhD research led to a postdoctoral position at Harvard University 1957-1958 under the guidance of Frances Birch, and then to recruitment by John Jaeger in the fledging Department of Geophysics at the Australian National University. He initiated high pressure work, initially with the simple squeezer and from 1962, with the piston-cylkinder apparatus and later with multi-anvil and diamond anvil devices.

He was appointed to the personal chair in 1963 and , as Professor Geochemistry, in 1967 he led efforts to create the new Research School of Earth Sciences from the then Department of Geophysics and Geochemistry and was the school's second Director, following Anton Hales from 1978 – 1983. He was intensely committed to the ideal of the Australian National University as a distinctively Australia centre of international leadership in research and his own work did much to achieve the standing in the fields of Earth Sciences.

His published work was prolific, including over 300 papers and two books “The Composition and Petrology of the Earth's Mantle” (1975) and “The origin of the Earth and Moon” (1979). These have been very influential texts. His major research topics were mineral transformation and reactions at high pressures and processes within the Earth's mantle; the nature of the Earth's core; the chemical evolution of the planets and meteorites; the origins of magmas and the composition and origin of the moon. These are areas of pure science but it is also important to note that he undertook projects of applied and fundamental science side-by-side in the same laboratory. He turned his knowledge and insights in mineral chemistry to an issue of global concern – the safe disposal of nuclear waste. He devised and demonstrated the “SYNROC” concept of using engineered mineral assemblages to contain radioactive elements in stable, leach-resistant mineralogies. He also developed and patented ultra-hard cutting tool materials based on diamond aggregates and cubic boron nitride.

While a strong defender of the need to fund basic research on the basis of excellence and individual leadership, he also took very seriously the responsibility of such researchers to maintain awareness of global and local problems for which scientific researched was required. He demonstrated by example, that the pursuit of excellence in basic research was necessary and fruitful in the solution of practical problems and the creation of new opportunities. In his research, his mixture of conservative and speculative approaches was held together by his strength in seeking points at which models would be tested – either by real earth data or by experiment.

He was the most internationally honoured of Australian earth scientists and his awards included the AGU's Browie Medial in 1974 and the Mess Medal in 1993 along with The Goldschmidt Medal of The Geochemical Society and the Jaeger Medal of the Australian Academy of Science. He was an international leader in science, consistently leading and challenging his colleagues with new data, new ideas and new vision.

The Ringwood legacy is to strive to maintain excellence and integrity in basic research, to communicate that research effectively, and to ensure that as earth scientists, we are responsive to the issues of global or local concern relevant to our disciplines.