Life Science Pre-eminent Australian scientist Lord Robert May dies, aged 84
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Pre-eminent Australian scientist Lord Robert May dies, aged 84

Physicist, applied mathematician, zoologist and Royal Society president, Lord May of Oxford is invested by the Queen in 2002. Photo: PA
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Robert May kept up the fine Australian tradition of ruffling British establishment feathers as he rose to the top echelons of that nation’s scientific community.

The chaos theory pioneer, who trod in the footsteps of Sir Isaac Newton, has died aged 84.

Born and raised in Sydney, Professor Lord May of Oxford was chief scientific adviser to the UK government from 1995-2000, serving under prime ministers John Major and Tony Blair.

He helped preside over the nation’s first outbreak of foot and mouth disease and drove the debate on genetically modified food.

Once a theoretical physicist, May became a leading figure in the world of mathematics, biology and zoology.

“I am a scientist with a short attention span.” May said in a 2008 interview with the Australian Academy of Science.

“My scientific career has been a sequence of accidents, from the fact that it even exists onwards.”

After graduating from Sydney University, Lord May pursued post-doctoral studies in the US at Harvard and Princeton, where he would later teach, before being offered a position at Oxford in 1988 as professor of zoology.

Following five years in the political sphere, he was granted one of the most esteemed positions in the scientific world as head of the Royal Society.

Britain’s peak scientific body, the 359-year-old institution counts Sir Isaac Newton, Sir Christopher Wren and Sir Joseph Banks among its former heads.

Lord May used the platform to warn of the impacts of global warming and climate change, likening its accompanying extreme weather to weapons of mass destruction.

His mathematical skills were applied to estimate the spread of HIV in sub-Saharan Africa – where he proved to be more accurate than the World Health Organisation – and to modelling the cause of the 2008 global financial crisis.

Knighted in 1996, Lord May topped a lifetime of awards in 2001 by becoming one of the few Australians with the right to sit in the House of Lords.

He died in the UK on April 28, survived by his wife Judith Fiener and their daughter.

-AAP