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Butler, Stuart Thomas (1926–1982)

by Arthur Pryor

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Stuart Thomas Butler (1926-1982), nuclear scientist, was born on 4 July 1926 at Naracoorte, South Australia, son of Welsh-born Ernest Butler, schoolteacher, and his wife Amy Victoria, née Wytkin, who was born in South Australia. Educated at Murray Bridge and Gumeracha primary schools and Bird-wood High School, Stuart graduated from the University of Adelaide (B.Sc., 1945; B.Sc. Hons, 1947; M.Sc., 1948) achieving first-class honours in physics in 1947 and studying neurophysiology for his master’s degree. He married Miriam Stella Silver, a trainee nurse and later a librarian, on 11 December 1948 at Holy Trinity Church of England, Adelaide.

Receiving a travelling scholarship from the Australian National University, Canberra, in 1949, Butler studied in England at the University of Birmingham (Ph.D., 1951) under the famous theoretical physicist (Sir) Rudolph Peierls. After two years (1951-53) in the United States of America at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, he returned to the ANU as a senior research fellow (1953-54) in the department of theoretical physics, Research School of Physical Sciences. In 1954 he was appointed reader in physics at the University of Sydney, where he was to spend most of his career, becoming professor of theoretical physics in 1959. He was dean of the faculty of science (1970-73), and a member of the senate (1970-77, 1979-82) and its finance committee (1972-77, 1979-82), and of the council of Women’s College (1970-79). The ANU had awarded him a D.Sc. in 1961. Having been elected a fellow of the Australian Academy of Science in 1969, he served on its council in 1970-73.

Butler published about fifty-five scientific papers. His thirty-one articles on nuclear physics were principally devoted to the theory of direct nuclear reactions, the so-called stripping reactions. The award of the (Sir Thomas) Lyle medal by the Australian Academy of Science in 1966 and the Tom W. Bonner prize in nuclear physics by the American Physical Society in 1977 recognised his eminence in this field. In addition to his work in nuclear physics he published nine papers on the theory of superfluidity and superconductivity, and fifteen on plasma physics, stellar physics and atmospheric tides.

Butler was also involved in secondary education in New South Wales, serving as chairman (1966-77) of the science syllabus and science examination committees. He wrote physics textbooks and chaired a team of physicists who produced the Senior Science for High School Students texts (1966-67). He also published a large body of popular science for young audiences. Between 1960 and 1977 he edited and co-authored about twenty books or pamphlets arising from the vacation science schools for high-school students that he organised with Professor Harry Messel.

Believing that scientists have a responsibility to inform the general public, Butler acted as science correspondent for the Daily Telegraph (1958-61) and the Sydney Morning Herald (1972-74). He initiated and supplied the scientific information for a serial strip cartoon, `Frontiers of Science’, written by Robert Raymond and illustrated by Andrea Bresciani, which was printed from 1961 to 1979 in some Australian newspapers, syndicated widely overseas, and published in booklets. Uranium on Trial (1977), co-authored with Robert Raymond and Charles Watson-Munro, contributed to the vigorous contemporary debate about uranium. It was a tribute to his industry that he could do so much, but also to his modesty and his social conscience that he was willing to devote time to tasks that were intellectually humble.

In 1977 Butler became head of the nuclear science and technology branch of the Australian Atomic Energy Commission at Lucas Heights; his position was soon renamed director, research establishment. He wanted to broaden the research to all fields of energy. When a review committee recommended in 1979 that the AAEC be empowered to undertake non-nuclear research and development, he appeared to have succeeded. But in 1981, in what must have seemed like a governmental rebuff to the AAEC management, the research establishment at Lucas Heights was split, with some AAEC resources going to a new Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization institute which would conduct non-nuclear energy research. While still director, research establishment, he was appointed chief executive officer of the AAEC in January 1982.

Butler was an accomplished pianist in his youth, a keen player of games ranging from football to bridge, and an enthusiast for all outdoor activities. Full of vitality, he was a genial and sociable man. Survived by his wife, and their two sons and daughter, he died of a cerebrovascular accident on 15 May 1982 at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Camperdown, and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australian Science, vol 5, no 4, 1983, p 83
  • Australian Playboy, May 1981, p 33
  • University of Sydney News, 1 June 1982, p 86
  • H. de Berg, interview with S. T. Butler (transcript, 1972, National Library of Australia)
  • private information and personal knowledge.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Arthur Pryor, 'Butler, Stuart Thomas (1926–1982)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/butler-stuart-thomas-12275/text22037, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 19 December 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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