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Trevor Ophel (1934–2000)

by G. D. Dracoulis

The ANU and the nuclear physics community lost one of their stalwarts with the sudden death of Trevor Ophel, at his Broulee property, on 17 June. At the time of his death, he was Emeritus Professor and Visiting Fellow in the Department of Nuclear Physics. When he officially retired at the end of 1999, he was then the longest-serving member of the Research School of Physical Sciences and Engineering.

Trevor Ophel was born in Adelaide on 7 September 1934 and started his career in physics with an honours degree in Science from the University of Adelaide and a stint at the "Radio School" in Ballarat during National Service in the Air Force. He joined the ANU as a postgraduate student in the fledgeling Nuclear Physics Department in 1955, one of the first few students in a Department that began formally in 1952. His thesis on "Scintillation Counter Studies of Photoproton Reactions", was completed in 1958 (at the young age of 23) and conferred in May the following year, making him an early PhD from the Institute of Advanced Studies.

After a period as a Research Fellow at the Cyclotron Laboratory in Harvard his return to the ANU in 1959 was engineered by the foundation Head of Nuclear Physics, Professor (later Sir) Ernest Titterton. Ophel went on to play a central role in the development of research facilities fulfilling, to some extent, the role Ernie later envisaged for him as "Resident Physicist with the Tandem Generator". In the early days, experimental nuclear physics research was centred on a 1.2MV Cockcroft-Walton accelerator, but this was just the first of a series of accelerators that were developed to support basic research. The "EN Tandem" installed in 1960 was part of a new generation of facilities for which Trevor accepted increasing responsibility as his experience grew.

He developed a profound understanding of particle detectors and accelerators of all varieties, as well as an understanding of the logistics of running a large experimental facility. It was this background that allowed him to contribute over many years to innovations in experimental research, basic and applied, and to foster the development of the Department. In his own research he built an international reputation in nuclear spectroscopy, particularly through the elucidation of the quantum levels and structure of light nuclei, studies which remain definitive today.

As this research was in progress, Titterton had foreseen a shift in the emphasis of Nuclear Physics and he set the course in the late 1960s for a redirection of the laboratory into the exploitation of accelerated heavy ion beams as probes of nuclear structure and reactions. One tactic was the appointment of a new head in Professor John Newton, who was a world-expert in this area. The other was to enhance the experimental facilities. The 14UD, housed in the imposing five-storey tower at the south-western end of the campus, was installed in the early 1970s and became part of a suite of accelerators. These included the EN Tandem which was operational until 1977, a 23 MeV cyclotron, a 2MV Van de Graaff and the 14UD itself, much of which Trevor was responsible for, at least informally. The ethos of excellence and community responsibility that grew between the technical and academic staff and students, resulted in accelerator operations that were unmatched elsewhere and owes much of its genesis to Trevor Ophel's contributions and attitudes. Despite the continuing frustrations with proposals for the funding of new facilities, this spirit continued with the installation and commissioning of a superconducting linear accelerator, to boost the beam energies, in the mid-1990s.

As well as his efforts in the prosecution and management of basic research, Trevor (somewhat reluctantly in this case but with a little encouragement from the Director at the time, Professor John Carver) initiated the Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (AMS) program which now services diverse applications. It was successfully introduced and has flourished because of his expertise in both heavy ion detectors and accelerators. At the time of his death he was intimately involved in the development of a new elemental analysis program based on Heavy Ion Elastic Recoil Detection. This was driven by the scientific interests of a number of collaborators but it is another application whose success rests heavily on Trevor's ingenuity.

During his career, Trevor Ophel rose through the ranks to become Professorial Fellow in 1982 and he served for lengthy periods as Acting/Deputy Head during both Titterton and Newton's tenure. He was formally Head of the Department between July 1988 and July 1992, as well as being acting Director of the Research School on numerous occasions. In the wider scientific community he served in various capacities, particularly with the Australian Institute of Nuclear Science and Engineering (AINSE) acting on its specialist groups, its council, and as its President from 1997 to 1999.

While he took great pride in the emergence of the Heavy Ion Accelerator Facility as a recognised and competitive international laboratory, he took particular pride in its training of PhD graduates over nearly five decades. His student days as a resident of University House exposed him to the realities of postgraduate student life experienced by both displaced Australian and foreign students. He carried this sensitivity throughout his tenure, involving students in regular informal discussion sessions at his home, and rescuing those at a loose end during the festive seasons. This was part of his commitment to the ANU and his concern for the well-being of the Department. 

He was also a keen historian and a natural archivist, never throwing anything out. He was therefore a natural choice to write a history of the Research School of Physical Sciences, which he did with John Jenkin of LaTrobe University, also an ex-Nuclear Physics graduate turned historian. The result, Fire in the Belly, published in 1996 on the occasion of the ANU's 50th anniversary, was a celebration of one of the Foundation Schools and was dedicated to its founder, Sir Mark Oliphant.

Trevor followed this in 1998 with a history of the Department of Nuclear Physics itself, entitled A Tower of Strength, which he dedicated to the memory of Sir Ernest Titterton. Both dedications mention the drive, energy and enthusiasm of these pioneers of Australian science, qualities which Trevor admired and that he possessed himself.

It is apparent from these histories that while he overlapped with the pioneers, he was neither one of the old school, nor one of the new guard. Overseas physicists (with whom he worked as a regular visitor to laboratories in the USA or to whom he played host in their visits to the ANU) probably saw him as the archetypal Australian — weatherbeaten, wiry, pragmatic — crouched on his haunches smoking a cigarette and wearing sandals, whatever the season.

Trevor would not have regretted the suddenness of his passing but he would have appreciated the magnitude of the loss of such a profound "corporate" memory. That loss has already been keenly felt in the Department and nuclear physics community.

He is survived by his wife of 42 years, Joan, children Margaret, John, Cathy, Susan and Greg, and nine grandchildren.

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Citation details

G. D. Dracoulis, 'Ophel, Trevor (1934–2000)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 22 July 2024.

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