Eric Vance: scientific leadership and achievement

Those who knew Lou through his secondary school and undergraduate years were very aware of his exceptional scholastic abilities. It was expected, that he would have a brilliant career.

When asked recently by a colleague if he had a photographic memory Lou felt he may have. Margaret was certain he did.

Stawell High School at this time had the wonderful combination of a talented group of senior students, and an extremely dedicated staff led by an outstanding principal Bert Murdoch.

Always a scholar, Lou was also a sportsman, a member of Stawell High School’s cricket and football premiership teams that won Wimmera championships. Lou was considered the Geoff Boycott of the Grampians Cricket Association.

Brian Edwards, fellow form six student in 1959, recalls Lou was not impressed with the scissors method of high jumping current at the time. He thought this through attending to such matters as mass, density, gravity and motion, coming up with an early version of the Fosbury flop, jumping backwards head first over the bar with very good results but horrifying his sports master, Ray Potter.

During residency in Queen’s College for his undergraduate years at the University of Melbourne, he was a member of the Queen’s College golf team that won the intercollegiate championship at Royal Melbourne. Rodney Martin, fellow form six classmate and Lou’s best man, recalls leaving after school as often as possible with Lou to play golf, riding their bikes with golf clubs over their shoulders to Stawell Golf Club.

Until last October Lou was a competitive tennis player. He and wife Jan were also avid duplicate bridge players especially during the long Canadian winters.

Lou’s favourite activity involved his brick barbecue and fire. He would tend the fire as part of his recreation, providing a centre for family and friends to gather. His use of heat in his experiments extended to cooking bacon and eggs for breakfast over a Bunsen burner after a night of working in his laboratory.

After graduating with a PhD in physics from Monash University in 1968, Lou held many research positions around the world, summarised as follows: 1968-1969 AAEC (now ANSTO), Sydney; 1969-1972 University College, London; 1972-1977 Research School of Physical Sciences, Australian National University, Canberra 1977-1978 University College, London; 1978-1979 Georgia State University, Atlanta, Georgia;1979-1982 Pennsylvania State University, State College, Pennsylvania; 1982-1987 Atomic Energy of Canada, Pinawa, Manitoba, Canada; 1987-2019 ANSTO, Sydney; 2007 Lou was awarded the Leverhulme Fellowship to work at Cambridge University in earth sciences, and later made a fellow of Clare Hall.

Lou’s research embraced many different areas of the physics of materials, and included studies of magnetism in metallic alloys, neutron irradiation effects in diamonds and other minerals, properties of glass ceramics and geopolymers. Lou finally settled with his wife, Jan, and their two children, Julia and Michael, in a position with ANSTO (Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation), at Lucas Heights nuclear Plant, Sydney, researching aspects of synroc (synthetic rock), an artificial mineral for safely locking away various radioactive elements, which had been invented at the Australian National University in the 1970s by the late Professor Ted Ringwood.

Drawing on his knowledge of waste-form technology from his research in Canada, and enthusiastically applying this to the synroc program, Lou progressed within ANSTO, being promoted to senior research scientist in 1987 and to chief research scientist in 2001.

He was author or co-author to almost 400 articles in international journals or conference proceedings. He was a fellow of the Australian Institute of Physics, the American Ceramic Society, the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering and the Australian Ceramic Society. Lou was also an academician of the World Academy of Ceramics, a long-time member of the Materials Research Society and a member of the Australian Nuclear Association. He held editorial and advisory board roles for the Journal of the Australian Ceramic Society, the Journal of Nuclear Materials, the Journal of the American Ceramic Society and the Journal of Nuclear Science and Technology.

In 2018, Lou was awarded the prestigious ANSTO CEO Award, jointly with the late Dr Mark Reinhard, for his sustained research contribution. It is a measure of his scientific leadership and achievements within the synroc program, that a commercial-scale synroc processing plant is currently under construction on the ANSTO site. This will allow safe storage of nuclear waste world-wide.

Lou leaves behind a legacy in terms of his science but also his attitude and approach to life. We take his knowledge and his discoveries forward but much more than that, we will forever remember his warmth, his generosity, his humour, and his humility. Lou was not vain, his wife, Jan, stating he never looked in a mirror, always more interested in what he was doing and who he was with.

Lou is survived by his wife of almost 50 years, Jan, daughter Julia, grandchildren Ben and Anna, son Michael and daughter-in-law Kate, grandchildren Lucy and Sophie, sister Margaret, brother-in-law Ken, and children Trevor and Carolyn.

Contributors to this obituary: Dr Brian Edwards (Glenorchy boy, fellow student, form six 1959, Melbourne University, mate); Dr Trevor Finlayson (fellow physicist colleague and friend); Dr Daniel Gregg (fellow physicist colleague and friend) and Graeme K. Lewis (Stawell High School friend).

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