Experimental physics on the pedestal: Professor Peter Hannaford receives Order of Australia AC 2023

Victorian Professor Emeritus Peter Hannaford has received the Companion of the Order of Australia (AC) in the 2023 honours list in recognition of his “eminent service to science, particularly to experimental physics, as an academic and researcher, to professional institutions, and as a role model for young scientists.”

Speaking with Cosmos, Hannaford says the award “has come as a big surprise” and is “an honour.” The whirlwind announcement caught the Distinguished Professor off-guard, and he says he “hasn’t had much time to think about it,” but Hannaford is happy “that scientists are well represented in the awards.”

Hannaford has been a leading light in Australian experimental laser spectroscopy and atomic physics for decades. He started his academic journey around 60 years ago at the University of Melbourne where he completed his Bachelors, Masters and Doctorate degrees.

While holding an honorary professorship at the University of Melbourne, Hannaford was a Chief Research Scientist at the CSIRO, before moving to Melbourne’s Swinburne University of Technology in 2001.

At CSIRO’s then Chemical Physics division, Hannaford says he worked in a “very good group headed by Sir Alan Walsh who was one of the most distinguished scientists in the country at the time.” Walsh revolutionised chemical analysis by inventing the atomic absorption method of spectral analysis.

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Hannaford and his team took this work forward, developing a method of spectrometry which didn’t require putting solids into a solution and spraying them into a flame. Instead, Hannaford’s method enabled scientists to analyse solids directly, bombarding the sample with ions to produce an atomic vapour from which the absorption could be measured. The development of this method coincided with the development of tunable lasers in the 1970s which saw another leap forward in atomic analysis.

A laboratory high-resolution microwave plasma atomic emission spectrometer (MPAES) device for elemental property analysis of material sample in all areas of industry. Credit: SlavkoSereda / iStock / Getty Images Plus.

At CSIRO, Hannaford and his team were able to use tunable lasers “to essentially look at the spectroscopic properties of atoms of almost any element in the periodic table. It was just amazing how little was known about the spectroscopic properties of atoms at that point in time. So, it’s opened up a whole new field.”

Such discoveries have helped in many fields from geology, biochemistry, astronomy, medicine, to experimental physics. Such spectroscopic analysis has proven crucial in understanding what the universe is made of – sometimes many light years away.

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Hannaford’s team was able to us lasers to produce the seemingly magical quantum mechanical Bose-Einstein condensates by cooling atoms to less than a millionth of a degree of absolute zero.

Such was Hannaford’s expertise that his team was among the first in the world, in the 1990s, to be approached by mining companies to try and develop an atom interferometer to measure gravitational deviations which might detect large mineral deposits and for use in underwater navigation. This is an ongoing endeavour around the world.

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