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May, Sir Robert

sydney biology theoretical physics

(1936–) Australian theoretical physicist, zoologist and ecologist.

May was educated at Sydney Boys’ High School, where he was taught chemistry by a man whose products include six FRSs and a Nobel Laureate. He encouraged May to study chemical engineering at Sydney, but May’s interest moved towards physics and maths and his doctorate was in theoretical physics. He later held a chair in that field at Sydney from 1969. Soon however he applied this expertise to ecological problems: he devised mathematical models for calculating how many similar species can share a habitat but retain their individuality; and he worked on the conditions leading to stability, or to chaos, in ecosystems generally.

At Princeton as professor of biology from 1973–88 he extended these interests to modelling the population biology of infectious diseases in both marine and human communities. From 1995 he served as a well-regarded Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK government while also holding chairs in zoology at Oxford and at Imperial College, in the period when BSE and GM food both provided difficult problems, lacking traditional well-defined solutions.

Mayday at 40,000 Feet! [next] [back] Maxwell, James Clerk

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