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Michael Andrew (Mike) Dopita (1946–2018)

by Lisa Kewley, Ralph Sutherland and Matthew Colless

Mike Dopita, by Peter Quiddington, 1986

Mike Dopita, by Peter Quiddington, 1986

ANU Archives, ANUA 225-332

Mike [Michael Andrew] Dopita was born 28 October 1946, in Kraslice, Czechoslovakia. He did his undergraduate degree at Wadham College, Oxford, and moved to Manchester to work with Professor John Meaburn for his PhD, completed in 1973. After a postdoc in Manchester he moved to Australia to work with the new Anglo-Australian Telescope. In 1975 he joined The Australian National University (ANU) as a Research Fellow at Mount Stromlo Observatory, now the Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics, where he remained for the rest of his life. He became a Professor at ANU in 1994 and was awarded one of the inaugural ARC Federation Fellowships in 2001. After retiring in 2007, he continued to hold an ANU emeritus position, remaining highly active throughout his retirement and even during his final illness.

Mike is known for his work in atomic and interstellar astrophysics. He applied his models on plasma diagnostics to an extraordinary variety of topics, including galaxies, planetary nebulæ, supernova remnants, active galactic nuclei and radio jets. He wrote over 400 papers in refereed journals. In his research he was utterly brilliant, always able to pick out the important questions in whatever topic he was studying. He was internationally recognised as a leading authority in interstellar astrophysics, with an extraordinarily broad range of achievements. Indeed, his interests went far beyond theoretical models: he was also a consummate observer with both ground- and space-based telescopes. Mike was influential in the design of major astronomical instruments such as the Wide Field Camera 3 for the Hubble Space Telescope and the FUSE and Endeavour UV Space Telescopes. He was also responsible for the WiFeS integral field spectrograph, which remains in use on the ANU 2.3-metre telescope to this day. Together with Ralph Sutherland, Mike wrote a graduate-level textbook, Astrophysics of the Diffuse Universe. From 2006 to 2014 he was editor-in-chief of the journal Astrophysics and Space Science. His wider interests showed in also being an editor of a book on renewable energy in Australia. Over the course of his career he supervised 30 research students (including two of the authors, Lisa Kewley and Ralph Sutherland) and mentored many other researchers (including one of the authors, Matthew Colless), through whom his legacy of research and teaching lives on.

Over the years Mike was awarded many honours for his research, including the Pawsey Medal of the Australian Academy of Science in 1983, an ISI Citation Laureate in 2001 and an Australian Centenary Medal in 2003. In 2013 he was made a Member of the Order of Australia for services to astronomy and astrophysics. Perhaps Mike was proudest of being elected a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science in 1996, in recognition of his fundamental contributions to research in astrophysics ranging from star formation to active galactic nuclei and radio jets. He was certainly very active in the Academy, where he served as a member of the Academy’s Council for nine years and as treasurer for six years; and in the International Astronomical Union, where he was president of Division VI for three years. Mike was passionate about science and left a substantial legacy to the Australian Academy of Sciences.

Mike was also a wine connoisseur. During an IAU Symposium on planetary nebulæ held at the Shine Dome in 2001, he co-hosted a wine-tasting event with Brian Schmidt. He was an amusing and knowledgeable co-host and certainly knew and enjoyed his wine. Mike had a great sense of humour and was a remarkable imitator of certain sketches from Monty Python, and his infectious laugh was sure to follow. One interesting aspect of his character was his profound interest in the stock market; his investing strategies were demonstrated to the benefit of the Australian Academy of Science during his time as treasurer.

In April 2018, Mike’s scientific career was honoured in a meeting, entitled ‘A Star Was Born’, that was held in Tuscany. The meeting was highly deserved, and the breadth of the topics covered highlighted the extraordinary diversity of Mike’s research interests. Just eight months later, his star went out.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Lisa Kewley, Ralph Sutherland and Matthew Colless, 'Dopita, Michael Andrew (Mike) (1946–2018)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 21 July 2024.

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