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Alfred Edward (Ted) Ringwood (1930–1993)

by Ann Moyal

This article was published:

Alfred Edward (Ted) Ringwood (1930–1993), geochemist and earth scientist, was born on 19 April 1930 at Kew, Melbourne, only child of Australian-born parents Ena, née Robertson, and her husband Alfred Edward Ringwood, traveller. His father fought in World War I and, his health affected, was largely unemployed during the Depression. Supported by his clerically skilled mother and the extended family, Ted gravitated towards geology and earth sciences partly ‘as a way of getting rich’ (Ringwood quoted in Moyal 1994, 125). His early interest in science was stirred by his paternal grandfather, a self-educated man who enjoyed building radio sets and owned a ten-volume set of inorganic chemistry texts that young Ted liked to browse. He was educated at Hawthorn West Central School and, after winning a scholarship, Geelong Church of England Grammar School.

The recipient of a Commonwealth scholarship and a Trinity College resident scholarship, Ringwood attended the University of Melbourne (BSc, 1951; MSc, 1953; PhD, 1956). He began his doctoral research in economic geology, examining the origin of metalliferous ore deposits. However, steered by a young lecturer, Arthur Gaskin, to the foundational geochemical work of V. M. Goldschmidt, he changed his topic, applying geochemistry to elucidate the structure of the Earth’s mantle, not then considered accessible scientific territory. He developed a method for examining the Earth’s interior using thermodynamics based on crystal chemical concepts in his doctoral thesis. In 1957 and 1958 he undertook postdoctoral research at Harvard University, working under Francis Birch in the development of high-pressure equipment. He returned to Australia the next year, after being invited by John Jaeger to join the fledging department of geophysics at the Research School of Physical Sciences at the Australian National University (ANU). Appointed to a personal chair in 1963, he became professor of geochemistry in 1967.

Ringwood’s research objectives initially focused on the nature and properties of the Earth’s interior, particularly the unknown transition zone, for which he constructed a Bridgman-anvil high-pressure apparatus in his new laboratory. He also developed an interest in the chemical composition and evolution of the solar system with special emphasis on the nature and significance of different classes of meteorites. His insights on the various suites of differentiated meteorites were summarised in key papers in the 1950s and 1960s. This work, which emphasised the importance of different oxidation states in accounting for differing densities between Venus, Earth, and Mars, led to an invitation, along with two other world centres, to study lunar samples recovered by the Apollo missions in the early 1970s.

Combining deep theoretical knowledge, creative experimental skills, and technology, Ringwood’s distinctive pattern of work was to focus intensively on themes in pure science, using robust data on which multiple hypotheses might be built, until experiments or other observations rendered them untenable or in need of a revised synthesis. He preferred to lead the rejection of an earlier idea and the acceptance of a new one. A prolific and skilled writer, he published two influential books, Composition and Petrology of the Earth’s Mantle (1975) and Origin of the Earth and Moon (1979), and more than three hundred papers. He also developed and patented an ultra-hard cutting-tool material based on diamond aggregates and cubic boron nitride.

An articulate enthusiast for Australian science and deeply committed to a leadership role in research for the ANU, Ringwood led a campaign in the late 1960s for a Research School of Earth Sciences (RSES), which was established in 1972. Director from 1978 until 1983, he supported the introduction of geophysical fluid dynamics and environmental geochemistry as central activities and added mineral physics, seismology, and geodynamics. An important venture concerned the disposal of high-level radioactive wastes from nuclear power reactors. Drawing on his geochemical and mineralogical knowledge, he produced and patented SYNROC (synthetic rock), an engineered mineral assemblage whose longevity could be guaranteed in diverse geological environments. Despite the support of two Commonwealth grants and the cooperation of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, SYNROC was not taken up as part of the world nuclear industry’s program. Nevertheless, Ringwood’s innovative approach, spelled out in some thirty-five papers, book chapters, a monograph, and patents issued in Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States of America, Japan, Canada, and Europe, was judged by his colleague David Green as one of his ‘fundamental contributions leading into the 21st century’ (1993, 4) along with his contributions in earth science and in the science of very hard materials.

Ringwood’s outstanding career placed Australia at the world centre of earth science and geochemistry. The long list of medals, awards, and other honours bestowed by international and Australian universities and major scientific and geochemical societies marked him as Australia’s most internationally renowned earth scientist: these included fellow of the Australian Academy of Science (1966); fellow of the Royal Society, London (1972); the Bowie medal, American Geophysical Union (1974); honorary DSc, University of Göttingen  (1987); the V. M. Goldschmidt award, Geochemical Society (1991); and the Feltrinelli International prize, National Academy of Italy (1991). Upon receiving the latter award, he declared: ‘This has been an exhilarating period to have been an Earth scientist’ (Green 1993, 4).

On 26 August 1960 Ringwood had married Gun Ivor Carlson in Sweden. A short, lively man of boundless energy and enthusiasm, he was a creative, stimulating, and approachable leader. He supervised fewer PhD students than he would have liked, a reflection of working in fields in which there was little undergraduate teaching. Survived by his wife, son, and daughter, he died of lymphoma on 12 November 1993 in Canberra and was cremated. In appreciation of his contribution to earth sciences, RSES established a postgraduate scholarship in his name; the mineral ringwoodite is also named after him.

Research edited by Rani Kerin

Select Bibliography

  • Canberra Times. ‘Professor A. E. Ringwood.’ 13 November 1993, 4
  • Candela, Andrea. ‘Sorting Out Nuclear Concerns: The Australian Uranium Debate from Jervis Bay to Ringwood’s Synroc.’ Earth Science History 36, no. 1 (2017): 116–41
  • Green, D. H. ‘Alfred Edward Ringwood 1930–1993.’ Historical Records of Australian Science 12, no. 2 (1998): 247–66
  • Green, David. ‘Professor A. E. (Ted) Ringwood.’ ANU Reporter Supplement, 24 November 1993, 4
  • Moyal, Ann. ‘Professor Alfred Edward (Ted) Ringwood.’ In Portraits in Science, compiled and introduced by Ann Moyal, 123–34. Canberra, ACT: National Library of Australia, 1994
  • Ringwood, Alfred Edward. Interview by Ann Moyal, 11 March 1993. National Library of Australia
  • Sun Herald (Sydney). ‘Scientist Leaves a Lasting Legacy.’ 21 November 1993, 44

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Citation details

Ann Moyal, 'Ringwood, Alfred Edward (Ted) (1930–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2018, accessed online 18 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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