Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Vale Peter Pockley

Peter Pockley

Peter Pockley (pointing) during preparations at CSIRO's Parkes radiotelescope for the Our World global telecast in 1967 – the first global television broadcast. Source: CSIRO

Australia's longest-serving science journalist, and long-time columnist for Australasian Science, has passed away.

Australasian Science is mourning the loss of Dr Peter Pockley, who passed away peacefully at home on 11 August 2013 at the age of 78.

Pockley was a key contributor to the magazine and its predecessor, Search, for more than 20 years, and an important and much valued mentor. His most recent contribution to the magazine was a series of three blogs in May 2013 that published Freedom of Information documents detailing the appointment of tobacco lobbyist Donna Staunton as CSIRO's Director of Communications.

Pockley completed a Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Melbourne, and obtained first-class Honours in chemistry. After a Diploma of Education (first-class Honours) he taught science at Melbourne Grammar School before completing a PhD in Geology at Oxford.

In 1964 he became the first scientist to work full-time as a science reporter and producer in the Australian media, and became founding Head of Science Programs at the ABC, where set up the Science Unit for TV and Radio. His first regular program, Insight, continues today under the title Ockham's Razor while the weekly program The World Tomorrow was the predecessor of The Science Show.

He was Producer and On-Air Host of the ABC's extensive radio broadcasts
 of all of the Apollo missions. His broadcast of the Moon landing can still be heard online.

In 2009 was invited to return to the Honeysuckle Creek tracking station near Canberra to attend the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon walk. He had already committed to a reunion of ABC staff but in a message to the Honeysuckle Creek gathering he wrote:

A significant part of my life in broadcasting was devoted to bringing the dramas of the Apollo missions, minute-by-minute, second-by-second, to a large audience of Australians nationwide and internationally through Radio Australia. From relatively small beginnings with Apollos 8 and 9 we extended our sources of original audio with Apollo 10 and further still with Apollo 11 when we mounted probably the most complex “live” broadcasts in ABC experience at the time. While the TV links ultimately took centre-stage, and rightly so, radio provided a flexibility, depth and extent that TV could not rival. With the experience of Apollo 11 under our belt, radio became king of media coverage of the near-disaster with Apollo 13.

After leaving the ABC in 1973 he was appointed Head of the Public Affairs Unit at the University of New South Wales until 1989, when he took up as a position as Science and Education Columnist with The Sun-Herald.

As a freelance journalist Pockley wrote for most of Australia’s major newspapers and many overseas, including Nature as Australia’s correspondent. He also wrote for the ANZAAS journal Search, continuing with it after its merger with Australasian Science in 1998.

Pockley established the Centre for Science Communication at the University of Technology, Sydney, where he ran science journalism courses, and recorded in-depth interviews with the luminaries of Australian science for the Oral History program of the National Library of Australia.

He was a Visiting Fellow at the National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science in the Australian National University from 1996-2006, and has been a Council Member of the National Science and Technology Centre (Questacon).

Pockley's contribution to science journalism was recognised beyond our shores. In 1994 he was made the only Australian Life Member of the American National Association of Science Writers, and in 2007 he was inducted into the Science Journalism Laureates Program at Purdue University.

In 2010 he was awarded the Australian Academy of Science Medal, which is awarded to a person who is not an Academy Fellow but has significantly advanced the cause of science and technology in Australia. Pockley was only the seventh winner in its 20-year history, and the only journalist.

He was a life member of Australian Science Communicators, and is survived by his wife Jenny (whom he'd met while covering an ANZAAS Congress in New Zealand for the ABC), daughter Kate, and three grandchildren.

In a eulogy at Pockley's funeral, ABC broadcaster Robyn Williams concluded: "I’ll always treasure Peter’s steadfastness, his loyalty, his unswerving love of family and friends, his talent and pioneering spirit. It was a brave and significant life."

A further tribute will be published in the October 2013 edition of Australasian Science.