UWA physicist leaves behind stellar legacy

13/08/2020 | 3 mins

The University of Western Australia has paid tribute to UWA Adjunct Professor and physicist Brian O’Brien, who died last week at the age of 86.

Professor O’Brien was fascinated by science and his lifelong passion for lunar research has changed our understanding of the Moon, aided global space exploration and was pivotal to some of the successes of NASA.

Best known for his research into lunar dust and the challenges it presents for exploration of the Moon, Professor O’Brien highlighted how hazardous it was for astronauts and their equipment.

Professor O’Brien was involved in Antarctic expeditions where he undertook studies of the Aurora Australis, otherwise known as the Southern Lights. He taught and collaborated with NASA astronauts such as Buzz Aldrin and Gene Cernan and had a passion for cave exploration, his curiosity even leading to an incident in his youth where he was lost in a cave for three days and survived.

Physics Professor Ian McArthur, formerly UWA Head of Physics, has fond memories of Professor O’Brien’s contribution to UWA. Professor O’Brien joined the UWA School of Physics in 2009 as an Adjunct Professor.

“We first met when he approached UWA with a proposal to read data he had on old magnetic tapes from his pioneering work on lunar dust,” Professor McArthur said.

“Brian was convinced that lunar dust posed the greatest problem for the return of humans to the Moon, which was the focus of his research at UWA. 

“His ingeniously simple, match-box-sized dust detectors were deployed on multiple moon landings, including the first, Apollo 11.

“He has been active raising awareness of this in the light of the Artemis program which aims to land a woman and a man on the Moon in 2024.”

Professor McArthur said Professor O’Brien had an infectious enthusiasm for applying physics to solve real-world problems, and was a great intellect, able to focus quickly on the heart of a problem. He was made a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering in 1993.

Jay Jay Jegathesan from the UWA Graduate Research School and former Manager in the School of Physics also worked with Professor O’Brien, who he says played a big role mentoring UWA Physics students.

"Brian was extremely passionate about passing on his knowledge and sharing it with the next generation and he volunteered a lot of his time mentoring students,” Mr Jegathesan said.

“His research focused on some of the most challenging questions facing humanity, yet he was such a humble, kind and inspiring man.”

Media references

Jess Reid, UWA Media & PR Adviser, 08 6488 6876

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