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National Academy of Engineering Memorial Tributes: National Academy of Engineering, Volume 10
Membership Directory
PublisherNational Academies Press
Copyright2002
ISBN978-0-309-08457-4
Memorial Tributes: National Academy of Engineering, Volume 10

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  • JOHN R.PHILIP
    
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             JOHN R.PHILIP                                            195
    
                               JOHN R.PHILIP
    
    
                                      1927–1999
    
                                BY SHLOMO P.NEUMAN
    
                JOHN ROBERT PHILIP, Australia’s most distinguished environmental
            physicist and mathematician, was struck by a car and killed in Amsterdam on
            June 26, 1999. The accident happened while John was on his way to deliver a
            series of scientific lectures in the United States, following a two-week sojourn at
            the Centre for Mathematics and Computer Science in Amsterdam and an earlier
            visit to Ben Gurion University in Israel.
                John was born at Ballarat in rural Victoria on January 18, 1927. His father
            was a dairy inspector and his mother a teacher and Methodist lay preacher. From
            his father he drew a passionate enthusiasm for Australian Rule football and
            cricket; from his mother, a lifelong love of learning and a knowledge of the
            Bible. Yet at age thirteen, John rose and left an evangelical service, declaring
            himself agnostic. He was supported in this act of defiance by Frances Julia Long,
            his wife-to-be.
                John displayed prodigious mathematical talent at an early age and won an
            open scholarship to Scotch College (high school) in Melbourne, his ticket out of
            depression era rural poverty. There he was encouraged to write poetry, which
            remained a life-time avocation and appeared in numerous literary publications as
            well as the standard collection of Australian verse. John matriculated at fifteen to
            enter Queens College at the University of Melbourne. At nineteen he received a
            bachelor’s degree in civil
    
    
                 
    
    
             JOHN R.PHILIP                                            196
    
             engineering, an experience he described later as “very ordinary indeed,” its “take
            home” message having been that “all things are understood, and all a young
            engineer needs to know is what handbook to use.”
                John was appointed by the university as graduate assistant in agricultural
            engineering and was seconded to the Common-wealth Scientific and Industrial
            Research (later to become Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research
            Organization [CSIRO]) Irrigation Research Station in Griffith. Here he
            discovered that, to agricultural scientists struggling to deal with the hydraulics of
            furrow irrigation, all things were not understood and there was no handbook with
            ready answers. It was up to John to deploy a then-limited armory of
            mathematical tools, coupled with his acute physical insight, to start identifying
            and eventually solving a vast array of unresolved problems concerning the
            movement of water, energy, solutes, and gases through the natural environment
            of soils, plants, and the atmosphere. In John’s recent words, “I blundered into a
            line of work that has turned out, over the past fifty years, to be more fun than
            work.”
                John’s funding ran out after a year and he joined the Queensland Water
            Supply Commission as an engineer responsible for design of irrigation supply
            canals. At that time he married Frances and, together with her, developed strong
            links to the world of art and ideas. When he left the commission, a letter of
            reference extolled John’s engineering talents but cautioned about his bohemian
            appearance and behavior. Despite this cautionary note, the impact of John’s work
            earned him a research contract at the CSIRO Division of Plant Industry at
            Deniliquin, New South Wales. He took up his position in 1951. Due to an acute
            postwar housing shortage, the newlyweds had to live in a tent on the banks of the
            Edwards River. John’s time in Deniliquin was remarkably creative and set the
            scene for much of his future work.
                At age twenty-six, John proposed to the CSIRO a major and unique initiative
            in integrated land and water research, for which there was no parallel elsewhere.
            It took the organization more than forty years to partially implement this
            remarkably farsighted vision.
    
    
                 
    
    
             JOHN R.PHILIP                                            197
    
                A month after John joined CSIRO, Otto Frankel (later Sir Otto), a
            distinguished plant geneticist, was charged with revitalizing the then-somewhat
            moribund division. On the advice of Professors John Jaeger and Pat Moran of the
            Australian National University, Otto freed John to pursue independent research in
            agricultural physics. John set out to develop a mathematically rigorous theory of
            water movement and heat flow in shallow agricultural soils. One of his first and
            most important achievements was the development of an equation for the rate at
            which water seeps into a partially saturated soil, now widely known as the Philip
            infiltration model. This and related work earned him a D.Sc. in physics from the
            University of Melbourne in 1960, followed by an honorary D.Eng.
                In 1959 John became head of the Agricultural Physics Section of Plant
            Industry and moved to Canberra in 1964. There he assembled a team of
            researchers to work on fluid mechanics of porous media, micrometeorology,
            plant physical ecology, and soil physics. A bequest to the CSIRO provided funds
            for the F.C. Pye Laboratory, designed by Ken Woolley, whose frugal elegance
            fosters scientific interaction and accommodates a multiplicity of functions. The
            group became the Division of Environmental Mechanics in 1970, with John
            Philip as chief. He occupied this position for twenty years. He took on additional
            administrative responsibilities as director of the CSIRO Institute of Physical
            Sciences. In a report drafted to the Royal Commission on Australian Government
            Administration, John championed scientific autonomy by describing the
            necessary environment for effective and creative scientific research. It is now a
            minor classic in the field.
                Though he retired to become the first CSIRO fellow emeritus in 1992, John
            continued to do full-time research at CSIRO Land and Water in Canberra,
            producing a substantial body of new work each year.
                John’s rich scientific oeuvre includes major contributions to the
            understanding and analysis of multiphase flow and energy transport in porous
            media. He laid the mathematical foundations for the physics of water flow and
            heat transfer in unsaturated soils. He developed seminal theories and engineering
            ap
    
    
                 
    
    
             JOHN R.PHILIP                                            198
    
             proximations for water infiltration into unsaturated soils, thermally induced water
             movement in porous media, flow and volume change in swelling soils, mechanics
             of electrical double layers, hydrodynamic stability of fluid interfaces, capillary
             condensation and physical absorption, flow of non-Newtonian liquids in porous
             media, pollution of groundwater by hydrocarbons, and water flow around
             subterranean cavities. John pioneered the concept of soil-plant-atmosphere as a
             thermodynamic continuum for water transfer and developed theories of heat and
             mass transfer within vegetation canopies, dynamics of osmotic cells, and
             diffusion of tissue turgor in physiology. In addition, he studied diurnal and
             annual water cycles as well as annual cycles of carbon dioxide sublimation and
             condensation on Mars. His contributions are summarized in more than 300
             skillfully crafted scientific papers that are models of brevity and precision. In
             some, the gap between two equations represents many days of work. Editors and
             reviewers who had the temerity to recommend changes received short shrift.
             Those who could not follow his mathematics were beyond the pale.
                John’s prolific solutions to a wide range of fundamental and applied
            problems of environmental science have made him a world-renowned and
            honoured authority on porous media and the soil-plant-atmosphere system. The
            powerful influence and great originality of John’s work are reflected in more than
            4,500 citations at his death.
                John was a fellow of the Australian Academy of Science, the Royal Society
            of London, the Royal Meteorological Society, and the Soil Science Society of
            America. He was a foreign member of the All-Union (now Russian) Academy of
            Agricultural Sciences, and the second Australian foreign associate of the U.S.
            National Academy of Engineering. He was the recipient of the 1995 International
            Hydrology Prize. In 1998 he was made an officer of the Order of Australia for
            “services to the science of hydrology.” One prize he appreciated enormously was
            the Jaeger Medal of the Australian Academy of Science, awarded to him in April
            1999. John Jaeger was John’s only and highly influential scientific mentor.
    
    
                 
    
    
             JOHN R.PHILIP                                            199
    
                John Philip is survived by his wife, Frances, a notable Australian painter;
            their adult sons, Peregrine and Julian; and daughter, Candida.
                This memorial draws freely on obituaries written by Stephen J.Burges
            (Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Washington,
            Seattle), Phillip W.Ford (CSIRO Land and Water, Canberra, Australia), and Ian
            White (Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies, Australian National
            University, Canberra, Australia).
    
    
                 
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