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Alexander (Alex) Rodgers (1932–1997)

Alex Rodgers was born in Newcastle on 24 May 1932, and grew up close to the BHP steelworks where his father worked. His adult life was devoted to the study of the discipline that he loved, astronomy, and to the promotion of the Observatory at Mount Stromlo, and of The Australian National University. He died in Canberra on 10 October 1997, just weeks short of his scheduled retirement date.

Alex developed an interest in astronomy at an early age, and studied science at Armidale when it was still a college of the University of Sydney. He graduated with honours in 1953, and was awarded the H C Russell Prize in astronomy. He then won an ANU Scholarship to study at Stromlo, and embarked on his PhD there, in spite of the fact that the (then) Commonwealth Observatory's transfer to the ANU was still a few years off. He obtained his doctorate in 1958 with a thesis entitled "A Photometric Study of the Southern Coalsack". Following a period of three years as a Carnegie Research Fellow at Mount Wilson and Palomar Observatories, and a Fulbright Scholar at the Royal Greenwich Observatory, he returned to Mount Stromlo where he remained for the rest of his career. He was, successively, a Fellow, Senior Fellow, Professorial Fellow, and Professor. In 1987 he became the Observatories' sixth Director, serving until 1992.

Alex's mentor during his PhD studies was the then Director (and later Astronomer Royal) Richard Woolley, for whom he had a lifelong affection and admiration.

Over his career, Alex Rodgers made an unequalled contribution to the development and the life of the Observatories. This culminated in the highly successful MACHO project, which has been called one of the great physics experiments of the decade. The project itself is a bi-national experiment being conducted at Stromlo to seek to establish what it is that constitutes the 90 per cent of the mass in the Universe that is currently unseen. The MACHO experiment is designed to detect such objects in the halo regions of our Milky Way Galaxy — hence the acronym Massive Astronomical Compact Halo Objects. The success of this particular experiment is now widely acclaimed.

Alex's own scientific interests were in stellar astronomy, particularly the variable stars, on which he was a great expert. He is famous for his related studies of the motions of globular clusters and of a particular kind of hot star (the Rodgers metal-rich A stars), from which he inferred that smaller galaxies have fallen into our galaxy during its more recent history.

Alex was responsible for the Observatories' instrumentation for most of his career. His first instrumental project was building a spectrophotometer for the 50-inch telescope in the late 1960s. The 74-inch Telescope (installed by Woolley in the last years of his Directorship) was his favourite: it was Australia's major spectroscopic research tool until the 2.3m Anglo-Australian Telescope at Siding Spring in the 1970s.

He believed equally strongly that Australia should build its next-generation large telescope in Australia. Here he parted company with most of the Australian astronomical community, who want to go offshore where the skies are better. Although these disagreements were intense, they were always amicable, and Alex continued to argue his point till the end of his life.

Alex had a great love for Stromlo and the ANU. There was no question that the interests of Stromlo always came first in his plans and ideas. His attachment to the ANU was equally strong: he was at Stromlo when the observatory moved from the Commonwealth Department of the Interior to the ANU, so his association with the ANU was about as long as it was possible to be. He took great pride in the role that his father-in-law, John Dedman, played in establishing the University.

Alex served several terms as a member of the ANU Council, which gave him tremendous pleasure. Despite his poor health, he was determined to attend the September meeting of Council — that he managed to do so gave him great satisfaction.

Although Alex's death was not unexpected given his recent illness, the suddenness with which it came took everyone at the Observatories by surprise.

Original publication

Citation details

'Rodgers, Alexander (Alex) (1932–1997)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 22 May 2024.

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