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Giovanelli, Ronald Gordon (1915–1984)

by W. R. Blevin

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

Ronald Gordon Giovanelli (1915-1984), physicist and solar researcher, was born on 30 April 1915 at Grafton, New South Wales, only child of Irwin Wilfred Giovanelli, schoolteacher, and his wife Gertrude May, née Gordon, both born in New South Wales. Ronald attended Fort Street Boys’ High School in Sydney and the University of Sydney (B.Sc., 1937; M.Sc., 1939; D.Sc., 1950), graduating with first-class honours in physics. His earliest appointments were as a research fellow (1937-39) at the Commonwealth Solar Observatory at Mount Stromlo, Canberra, and as a physics teacher (1939-40) at Sydney Technical College.

In 1938 the Commonwealth government had decided to create within the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization) a National Standards Laboratory with responsibility for establishing Australia’s national standards of measurement. Giovanelli was one of nine scientists recruited to develop the NSL, their first assignment being to work at the British National Physical Laboratory to gain experience in standards. He sailed in February 1940 for London, where he specialised in optics, light and photometry.

On his return in April 1941 to the newly constructed NSL building at the University of Sydney, Giovanelli was at first engaged in commissioning equipment purchased while abroad and in training staff. World War II soon diverted NSL to urgent defence projects. Giovanelli welcomed this opportunity to provide direct support to the war effort. His contributions included developing special goggles to protect anti-aircraft spotters from eye damage by the sun; designing an illumination system for aircraft instrument panels that did not impair the `dark adaptation’ of pilots and gunners; and helping to establish an Australian capability to manufacture high-grade optical glass. In 1945 the NSL sections became full divisions of CSIR. Giovanelli married Katherine Hazel Gordon, one of his laboratory assistants and a talented painter, on 8 February 1947 at St Michael’s Church of England, Vaucluse.

After the war Giovanelli returned to his standards work and in addition undertook applied projects on diverse topics such as retroreflectors for road signs and vehicles, colorimetric measurement of haemoglobin, and the reflective properties of diffusing media. With the encouragement of the chief of the physics division, G. H. Briggs, he also started a program of solar physics research, initially theoretical and mainly concerned with solar flares and radiative transfer of energy in the solar atmosphere. The excellence of his solar research was soon widely recognised. The Royal Society of New South Wales awarded him the 1948 Edgeworth David medal and the Australian Academy of Science elected him a fellow in 1962.

In 1958 Giovanelli had become chief of the CSIRO division of physics. This job brought a heavy administrative load and an obligation to serve on external bodies including the National Standards Commission (1959-76). He was a stern yet likeable leader, encouraging his staff to attain world standards throughout their wide range of scientific programs. In solar physics research Giovanelli developed a strong support team but also continued to make important personal contributions. He published widely and gained further international acclaim for his advances in such fields as radiative transfer in the absence of thermodynamic equilibrium, the origin and effects of solar magnetic fields, and the solar magnetic cycle. To underpin their theoretical work, he and his colleagues established three solar observatories in succession, equipping them with novel and sophisticated optical instruments that enabled previously inaccessible parameters of the sun to be measured. Despite his workload Giovanelli made time to provide university lecture courses in physics and astronomy, and to work with postgraduate students in astronomy. A foundation councillor of the Astronomical Society of Australia in 1966 (president 1968-69), he was also active in the International Astronomical Union and a fellow (1940) of the Royal Astronomical Society. He received and accepted many invitations from solar observatories in North America, Europe and Asia to give lectures and serve as a visiting scientist.

Unwell and increasingly frustrated by the inroads that his administrative duties made on his time, Giovanelli resigned from his position as chief in 1974 to become a full-time solar researcher, as a CSIRO senior research fellow until 1976 and then as an honorary research fellow. Despite his illness, he continued to travel and work overseas and wrote a monograph, Secrets of the Sun (1984), which was published posthumously. Survived by his wife and their daughter and son, he died of fibrosis of the lung on 27 January 1984 at Camperdown and was cremated. Commemorative workshops and colloquia were held in Brisbane, Sydney and Tucson, Arizona.

Select Bibliography

  • D. P. Mellor, The Role of Science and Industry (1958)
  • J. F. H. Wright, Measurement in Australia 1938-1988 (1988)
  • R. Bhathal, Australian Astronomers (1996)
  • Historical Records of Australian Science, vol 6, no 2, 1985, p 223
  • Giovanelli papers (Australian Academy of Science Library, Canberra).

Citation details

W. R. Blevin, 'Giovanelli, Ronald Gordon (1915–1984)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/giovanelli-ronald-gordon-12543/text22577, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 27 May 2018.

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

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