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Peter Mason (1922–1987)

by Anna-Eugenia Binnie

This article was published:

Peter Mason (1922-1987), physicist, educator and science communicator, was born on 25 February 1922 at St Pancras, London, son of Alfred George Mason, chemist, and his wife Winnie, née Wheeldon, both committed pacifists. Peter was educated at Eriva Dene School, Fleet, St Clement’s Mixed and Bournemouth schools, Bournemouth, and Hartley University College, Southampton, University of London (B.Sc., 1943; M.Sc., 1946), where he achieved first-class honours in mathematics and physics.

At the Ministry of Supply from 1943 to 1946 Mason worked on the military applications of quartz crystals and met the physicist John Desmond Bernal, who had a great influence on him. Mason was admitted (1945) as an associate-member of the Institute of Physics. On 7 June 1945 at the Bournemouth register office he married Sheila Mabelle Clegg, a staff member at the Signals Research and Development Establishment. They were both active in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Sheila’s committed membership of the Society of Friends (Quakers), along with his parents’ pacifism, had a profound influence on Mason’s approach to life. Described as ‘a friendly non-Friend of the Society’, he could never ‘take the final leap of faith’ and join the Quakers.

Mason worked at the building research station, Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, in 1946-53 and with the British Rubber Producers’ Research Association in 1953-61. He completed a thesis entitled ‘The Visco-elasticity of Strained Rubber’ for the University of London (Ph.D., 1960; D.Sc., 1979). In 1962 he arrived in Australia to take up a post-doctoral fellowship, studying keratin, at the division of textile physics, Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, Sydney, and subsequently became a principal research officer. In 1965 he was leader of the leather research section, CSIRO division of protein chemistry, Melbourne, and worked on collagen.

Appointed foundation professor of physics at the new Macquarie University, North Ryde, Sydney, in 1966, the following year he gave the first undergraduate lecture. As an educator, he advocated and taught ‘general education’ courses that incorporated strands from history, philosophy and the social sciences and that emphasised the social responsibility of science. Some were jointly presented with other disciplines, for example history, and others were run by the physics department alone. Mason served two terms (1974-77, 1980-86) on the Macquarie University council. Espousing his views against the Vietnam War and proclaiming his interest in education, he stood, unsuccessfully, as an Australian Reform Movement candidate for the Senate in the 1967 Federal election. In his policy statement he raised his concern about the small number of women attending university and the even smaller number studying medicine and science.

Involved with the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science, particularly through his contributions to the youth section, and to the journal Search, Mason was elected a fellow in 1986. Representing Macquarie University, he served on the council of the Australian Institute of Nuclear Science and Engineering in 1966-86 (vice-president 1983-85). He was a founding council-member (1971-77) of Griffith University, Brisbane. A councillor (1971-75) of the Public Library of New South Wales, in 1983-86 he was the convenor of the national advisory council of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. In 1984-87 he served on the minister for science’s Commission for the Future and was active in Scientists Against Nuclear Arms.

In the 1970s Mason had become a science communicator on Australian Broadcasting Commission radio. This process culminated in a series of programs for the ABC’s ‘Science Show’ between 1978 and 1985 and the publication of books related to them. He researched and wrote the scripts and presented the material on air. The programs had an underlying anti-war or social justice theme and each was developed in a historical context: ‘Genesis to Jupiter’ (1978), ‘Cauchu, The Weeping Wood, a History of Rubber’ (1979), ‘The Light Fantastic’ (1982), and ‘Blood and Iron’ (1984) for which Mason shared (with Robyn Williams and Halina Szewczyk) a United Nations media peace prize gold citation in 1985. Half Your Luck, a book on probability, was published in 1986. Over the course of his career he wrote seventy scientific papers, primarily on polymer science and biophysics; he identified cells in the hypothalamus as being the sensors involved in the thermal control mechanisms of the body.

With a sense of humour and a beaming smile, this gentle man was enthusiastic in his approach to life. In his hobby of windsurfing he was able to find an example of applied polymer science. Late in 1985 he could not complete an undergraduate lecture and, following medical tests, was diagnosed with a brain tumour. He demonstrated a scientific approach even towards his illness. He retired from the university in 1986 and was appointed an emeritus professor. Survived by his wife and their son and two daughters, he died on 20 March 1987 at Wahroonga, Sydney, and was cremated. The general education courses involving science were still taught by the physics department at Macquarie University twenty years after his death. The Peter Mason prize is awarded annually for proficiency in one of them.

Select Bibliography

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 23 Mar 1987, p 15, 23 May 1987, p 44
  • Sirius: Macquarie University Convocation Magazine, 1987, p 10
  • Mason papers (Macquarie University Archives, Sydney)
  • private information.

Citation details

Anna-Eugenia Binnie, 'Mason, Peter (1922–1987)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 17 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

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