William Albert RACHINGER (1927 - 2023)

Professor of Experimental Physics  (1972  -  1992)

Bill Rachinger

Emeritus Professor William “Bill” Rachinger, who has died aged 95, was an international figure in solid state physics who also left an important legacy in the field of physics education.

In collaboration with the Department of Materials Engineering, Rachinger, a former Chair of Experimental Physics, developed innovative courses in Material Science within Monash that crossed disciplinary frontiers, merging concepts and methods from engineering and physics that ranged from theory and practice to research and industry.

He integrated innovative teaching materials into secondary schools across Victoria and designed diagnostic tests that became the precursor for ‘active learning,’ a process where students engage in problem-solving exercises that provide valuable insight through on-going feedback. Along with colleagues, he established Experilearn, a hands-on science space in the Museum of Victoria which was a precursor to Scienceworks.

To further ensure students’ understanding, Rachinger played an active role as Monash’s representative on the Victorian Universities School and Examinations Board (VUSEB) and in integrating the Physical Science Study Committee (PSSC) course teaching materials into every secondary school across Victoria.

His prominent scientific contribution was the Rachinger Correction (for the measurement of widths of X-ray diffraction lines) and the development of processes for thinning ceramics for transmission electron microscopy which led into studies of the ultrastructure of human and marsupial dental enamel.

Rachinger joined Monash University as senior lecturer in 1961. When he arrived at the newly-built university, the physics department was housed in a room within a builder’s hut on the muddy grounds of the Vice-Chancellor’s house. Vehicles constantly became stuck in the campus’ unpaved car parks and, on top of designing lecture and laboratory courses, many of his early days at the university were spent pushing cars.

He was promoted to Associate Professor in 1965, appointed Chair of Experimental Physics in 1972 and Emeritus Professor in 1993 following his retirement. Along the way he was a member of many university committees. He was renowned for his sense of humour and his love of a joke. As a lecturer, Bill proved to be creative and approachable, never turning away any student who knocked on his door with an idea to share.

William (Bill) Rachinger was born on 28 June, 1927 in Red Cliffs, Victoria, and grew up in a family of pioneers. His great-grandfather had ventured into Daylesford in the 1850s as a storekeeper during the gold rush era, feeding countless hungry gold-seekers who had come to try their luck. On returning from World War I, Bill’s resourceful father set to work clearing bushland and establishing a vineyard at Red Cliffs, determined to build his family a brand-new home.

Drawn to the world of physics by a book recommendation from his high school English teacher (Eddington’s The Nature of the Physical World), Rachinger studied science at the University of Melbourne. Whilst there, he also undertook an internship at the CSIR Division of Aeronautics (later the Aeronautical Research Laboratories). On finishing up, a throwaway line from his boss, Horace Wills, a clever forecaster, stayed in his mind: ‘Keep a lookout for an opening in metal physics’. He decided to take his chances and follow Wills’ advice.

Rachinger graduated with a B.Sc. in Physics (1947), an M.Sc. (1949) and a PhD (1952), becoming one of the first students to be awarded a PhD at Melbourne. He returned to work with Wills again as Scientific Officer at the Aeronautical Research Laboratories.

In 1954, he moved to the UK as part of a research team at the University of Birmingham’s Department of Physical Metallurgy with Professor Alan Cottrell (who was later knighted and became England’s Chief Scientific Adviser), that had ‘potential to break new ground’. The project laid the groundwork for Rachinger’s further studies on super-elastic and memory alloys; materials that have temperature-dependent shape-memory properties and can be used for diverse applications such as joining pipes, building fire-sprinklers, and designing stent grafts.

In 1983 he had the distinction of achieving a Citation Classic in Current Contents based on his work in materials physics. Despite the significant scope of his contributions, Rachinger was not yet content. While Monash had been the perfect ground to propose new projects, his philanthropic heart ached to contribute beyond Australia.

He was given this opportunity through his role as a Basic Sciences Consultant for the International Development Program of Australian Universities and Colleges (1976 - 1991) where he immersed himself in initiatives such as staff and student exchanges and the supply of professional equipment to Indonesia. He visited Australia’s closest neighbour sixteen times, and in an effort to understand and identify the measures that would serve the country best, became fluent in Indonesian, spending his weekends travelling to small villages, meeting his colleagues’ families.

In 2016, the Physics Department initiated the William A. Rachinger Prize for Third Year Students in Experimental Physics in his name.

Always curious, in later life Rachinger enrolled as an opera student at the University of the Third Age. Whilst he put his astonishing career down to chance, his pioneering mindset grasped possibilities and breathed life into a career marked by excellence. Bill took it upon himself to achieve greatness, and returned it all with a joyous laugh.

Published in The Insider,  25 May 2023.