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Vale Lord Robert May

6 May 2020
The Sydney scientist who brought chaos theory to life
Following the recent passing of Lord Robert May, the University of Sydney pays tribute to one of the most accomplished scientists who has helped the world understand a range of complex matters from ecological systems to pandemics.

Vice-Chancellor and Principal Dr Michael Spence AC paid tribute to the late Lord Robert May – a champion for science who was dubbed one of the fathers of chaos theory: “Lord Robert May’s contribution to chaos theory has helped us better understand the reproduction of disease and pandemic management – something unequivocally invaluable in the global fight against COVID-19. His life-time dedication to scientific inquiry and his desire to see the world flourish through the lens of mathematics embodies the Sydney spirit.”

“We are incredibly honoured to call him one of our own.”

Lord Robert May in a lecture

Lord Robert May giving a lecture (Sydney Alumni Magazine 2008). Header image source: University of Sydney archives (G77_1_2433).

Early career and time at Sydney

Born and raised in Sydney, Lord Robert May – affectionately known by most as ‘Bob’, graduated from a Bachelor of Science with the University Medal in Physics at the University of Sydney in 1957. He also completed a PhD in theoretical physics in 1960 under the supervision of Robbie Schafroth, working alongside renowned physicist and educator Harry Messel, who was then heading up the School of Physics. Lord Robert May recounted in an interview Sydney Alumni Magazine (SAM) in 2008 that the reason he chose theoretical physics was because “Harry and his mates” looked like they were having a lot of fun.

Later on, Lord Robert May was known for his metamorphosis into biology through his mathematical investigation of the relation between stability and complexity in natural communities.

During his time at the University of Sydney, ‘Bob’ was an avid chess and snooker player. “I spent roughly half my university years playing chess or snooker in the union and just having a good time. I did not do my second-year laboratory chemistry very conscientiously, because it was too time consuming. I used various tricks and devices to abbreviate the time, which I think required more scientific insight than actually doing it honestly,” he said in an interview with the Australian Academy of Science in 2008.

Lord Robert May was a brilliant debater in high school and revisited his love for debating at the University:

“In my second year of graduate school, in 1958, I thought, ‘What the hell. Just for a lark, I’ll try out for the Sydney University team’. Not only did I make the team but we won intervarsity,” he said in the same interview.

Throughout his career, Lord Robert May taught at the University of Sydney for 10 years as a Professor of Theoretical Physics and in various positions at Harvard University, Princeton University and Oxford University before becoming the Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK government in 1995.

Lord Robert May in a lecture

Lord Robert May in a lecture (SAM 2008)

Remembering Lord Robert May’s achievements

Lord Robert May was awarded a Doctor of Science (honoris causa) by the University in 1995 for his significant contribution to science. The then Vice-Chancellor and Principal Professor Donald McNicol said, “Professor May has a record of outstanding achievement in two very different fields of science - theoretical physics and population biology.”

A knight, lord, baron, professor, president and chief advisor, Lord Robert May’s countless awards and achievements include his appointment as a Companion of the Order of Australia in 1998.

Despite his many titles and impressive accolades, Lord Robert May remained a true Aussie through-and-through, he was most notably known as the first person to record a swear word in The Royal Society UK’s minutes.

Lord Robert May

Lord Robert May (SAM 2008)

Lord Robert May’s contributions to science

Lord Robert May introduced a logistic process to describe the dynamics of insect populations, which led to chaos theory. Chaos theory is a branch of mathematics that states a simple, seemingly random chaotic system can have patterns and repetition. Combining mathematics and biology – Lord Robert May translated complex ecological processes into simple mathematics.

A world-leading theoretical population biologist, Lord Robert May used scientific research as a vehicle to solve pressing social concerns. A man with a true heart for humanity, he applied his work to everything from ecological systems, stability of banking systems during the GFC in 2008 to the epidemiology of AIDS and infectious disease control.

His work on the basic reproductive number of a disease (R0) and disease modelling methods have been key in the current global effort to control COVID-19.

Lord Robert May’s zeal for science and curiosity led to an incredibly accomplished career and life – but always with great humour and humility. When asked why he chose a career in science in an interview with Sydney Alumni Magazine (SAM), Lord Robert May recounted that it was equal parts defiance (careers advisors and family preferred medicine or law), practicality, and, to a boy who could top classes he didn’t study for – a “fun” game to sit the same exams as his friends.

Lord Robert May sadly passed away on 28 April 2020 at the age of 84.

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