In memory

Vale Professor Bob Dewar

Publication date
Monday, 8 Apr 2024


bob dewar


It is with deep regret that we pass on the news that Em/Prof. Robert (Bob) Leith Dewar, FAA, FAPS, FAIP, passed away on April 5 in Cambridge UK following a stroke.

Bob was a giant in the field of theoretical plasma physics, with important contributions in Magnetohydrodymanics (MHD) and in dynamical systems. These include MHD equilibrium and stability, MHD ballooning modes, Taylor relaxation and Hamiltonian maps. Bob worked closely with computer simulation and with experimentalists and has made important contributions to magnetic fusion research and to astrophysics. Recently he has been instrumental in the development of a multiple region relaxed MHD model to describe general stellarator fields, and he was presently working on a generalisation of such models to systems that preserve magnetic helicity with a weak ideal Ohm’s law constraint.

Bob was a graduate (BSc, MSc) of the University of Melbourne, and obtained a PhD in 1970 from Princeton University.  He was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Maryland (1970-71), a staff scientist of Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (1971-73, 1977-82), and an academic of the ANU (1974-1977, 1982-2011), with Emeritus Professor status at the ANUfrom 2011 to the present.  He initiated several major collaborations across physics and mathematics, including the National Plasma Fusion Research Facility, the Australian Research Council Complex Open Systems Research Network, and led the ANU’s plasma theory and modelling group until retirement in 2011.  Perhaps most importantly, he has left a legacy in both research and teaching, spanning 5 postdocs, 16 PhD, and many Masters and Honours students.  Many of these now hold prominent positions in the field. 

Bob was undertaking a 6-month sabbatical at the Isaac Newton Institute (INI) for Mathematical Sciences, where he was an active participant in the programme on Anti-Diffusive Dynamics, interacting with colleagues from a broad range of research areas. He recently celebrated his 80th birthday.  Colleagues and staff at INI are deeply saddened by his sudden death.

Bob is survived by his daughter Sophie Dewar and granddaughter Dara, his son-in-law Brendan, and his sisters Jenny and Shona Dewar.  He will be deeply missed by friends and colleagues of the ANU and international community.  We will announce an opportunity to celebrate Bob’s life at a later date.  Messages of condolence could be sent to his daughter Sophie at, 10 Service Basin Rd, Yackandandah Victoria 3749, Australia.

Yours Sincerely, 

Matthew Hole, Boyd Blackwell, Rod Boswell, Henry Gardner, Stuart Hudson, Amitava Bhattacharjee, Zhisong Qu, Adelle Wright, Steve Cowley.



Live Stream Service

“In lieu of flowers guests may wish to make a donation to one of the charities Bob supported.  These include the Red Cross, Oxfam, the Fred Hollows Foundation, and the Salvation Army.”

(Memorial pictures courtesy Andrew Prentice.)



Academic siblings.

By Steve Cowley, Princeton

Bob's passing has affected many people around the world. He was a giant in his field and a gentle, modest man. Bob's thesis on the propagation of hydromagnetic waves was supervised by Russell Kulsrud. He was Russell's first student. Bob's early papers already displayed the characteristic blend of physical insight and mathematical sophistication that marked his best work. By the time I became a student of Russell's over a decade later, Bob was a leader in Princeton's theory group. Russell always spoke proudly of Bob—in fact, he expressed his admiration just a couple of days ago. We will miss Bob, but his beautiful contributions to plasma physics will continue to inspire us and future generations.

Cherishing Bob: A Lifeline in Physics and Friendships

By Jim Strachan (retired from PPPL)

Like many of you, I have so many fond memories of the friendship and brilliance of Bob. When I arrived at the ANU in 72, Bob was my lifeline to understanding tokamak physics. And I used him. I would take experimental data to him (a theorist, no less), and he would have impressive insight. I recall when we were mapping runaway electron drift surfaces that I brought the data to him and he recognized that the runaways were experiencing a diffusion. He immediately wrote out an equation which later became known as the magnetic diffusion coefficient when it was reinvented by Rechester and Rosenbluth. All that R&R did was insert the electron thermal velocity for "c" which Bob used for the speed of the runaways. R&R referenced the LT-3 work in their early drafts but not in the final PRL, so Bob received no credit for his brilliance. Typical of the Bob that I knew, he was unperturbed by that turn of events. He seemed to be without an ego.

One year, Margo and Bob with my family rented a house boat and travelled the Murray River in South Australia. We would stop at vineyards along the way and purchase a bottle or two (or case) and then sample them at night. Bob liked red wines that had high tannin content and he would say "This is a good rough red!". The translation from theorist jargon to English is that the red was "UNdrinkable".

Inspiring leader

By Horst Punzmann

Quote: "I suppose leadership at one time meant muscles; but today it means getting along with people." Mahatma Gandhi
Bob was a great leader and inspiring to all who meet him.

Heart of a community

By Josh Burby

With a whisper, a wry smile, and belly laughter,
Bob brightened the Sun
With insight, vision, and creativity,
His mind shook the Earth
We walked with Bob; he sparkled with ideas
We laughed with Bob; he took the piss out of clowns
We were lucky to know him
Tomorrow's dreary

Thank you

By Naoki Sato

I wanted to express my sincere gratitude to Bob. He not only introduced me to the fascinating world of plasma physics, highlighting some of its most intriguing problems, but also provided continued support and guidance. Thanks to him, my visits at ANU were not only enjoyable but also invaluable learning experiences. He was a true gentleman and a brilliant physicist, and I will always be grateful for his influence.

Remembering Bob: A Tribute to a Quiet yet Profound Mentor

By Arash Tavassoli (Postdoctoral Research Fellow )

I was likely the last person who joined Bob's team at MSI before his passing, and I deeply regret not having had more time to work alongside him. Despite our brief time together, he had a profound impact on me. Unlike anyone I have encountered in my life, he had a very quiet yet immensely impactful presence. As a plasma physicist, his expertise was unmatched, yet he remained non-judgmental and reserved. Bob was also remarkably kind and thoughtful. When I arrived in Australia, he graciously hosted me at his house for several weeks and even extended the offer for me to stay there while he was away in Cambridge. He not only defined my project but also provided invaluable mentorship to help me get started. I will forever be grateful for his guidance and kindness and will miss him a lot.

In loving memory of Leith Dewar: A brilliant mind, a cherished friend, and a lifetime of unforgettable adventures in science and friendship.

By Dr. John Pockett, Adelaide

I am shocked, just now, to read of Leith Dewar's sudden passing. He, I and another boy were best friends right through Melbourne High School (MHS) till he went to Melbourne Uni and I pursued physics at Monash Uni (leading to a career in industrial R&D rather than a life as an academic). We had often got up to mischief that was related to our scientific/engineering interests. We kept in irregular connection over the years, mostly when I came to Canberra or he was travelling to Adelaide. We had lunches and dinners together then with solid discussions whilst we enjoyed excellent wines. Bob, as he called himself in later years, was the one who alerted me to the 50 years reunion at MHS in 2011 where we caught up together with other old classmates. My heart goes out to family and close friends. I will always remember his friendly nature, intellect and the times we had together.

Bob Dewar: My Mentor and Friend

By Amitava Bhattacharjee

I met Bob at Princeton in 1977. I was a first-year graduate student then. I had Jim Strachan, who was once at ANU, as my first-year advisor on an experimental project. He was fun to work for but persuaded me that I was a better theorist than an experimentalist. So, I ended up in the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory Theory Department. For my PhD thesis, I went around talking to several people. Bob impressed me the most---there was an elegance and depth to his thinking that stirred and inspired me throughout the 45 years I had known him. He was truly original in everything he did, even pursuing ideas that did not always work out after years of hard work. I marveled at his ability to hold a problem in his head for decades, chipping away at it relentlessly. He was single-minded, confident in his technical skills, and playful with physics.
Bob was not a traditional mentor. He was profoundly generous but did not write hyperbolic recommendation letters for his students or brazenly promote them. He never practiced self-promotion and was genuinely humble. He led by example. People who knew him knew how good he was and trusted his judgment. It was a badge of honor to be his student.
He was gentle, soft-spoken, and sincere in his affection and warmth. He was self-deprecating and had a mischievous sense of humor, which rubbed off on some of us.
I have many stories to tell and many unfinished conversations with him. The world has lost a great theoretical plasma physicist and human being. I have lost my hero, my teacher, and a dear friend.

A Tribute to Bob: Renowned Plasma Physicist and Beloved Friend

By Jeffrey Harris (Oak Ridge National Laboratory)

Bob was an outstanding plasma physicist recognized around the world a scholar, a gentleman, and good friend to everyone who knew him.

Remembering Bob: A Tribute to a Brilliant Theoretical Physicist and Humble Soul

By Chang-Mo Ryu (Emeritus professor of physics, POSTECH, Korea)

I was shocked and saddened to learn of the sudden passing of Bob, a great theoretical physicist, with open-mind and profound knowledge. His commitment to exploring the complex mathematical world of plasma physics, particularly, in the area of magnetohydrodynamics, has earned him my great respect. I wonder what was the last physics problem on which he was so engrossed while at Cambridge.
Despite Bob's great academic achievements, he was a kind and humble man. I will always miss his calm smile.

Condolences on the Passing of Bob: A Tribute to a Friend

By Martin Storey, Independent Researcher, Plasma Physics

I am very sorry to learn of Bob's deatrh, I share the grief of the community, and present my condolences to his family and relations.
I met Bob on the first night of a recent conference on Plasma Physics in Nagoya, Japan, as he was walking in the streets. We spent several quiet and delightful hours, over the next few days, between the streets, trains and restaurants, discussing his hiking adventures and a wide range of life topics. He also was very supportive of my colleagues' and my current project, without judging the work itself, and was generous with his advice. Since Nagoya, he sent me a couple of friendly and supportive messages too, which I much appreciated. I certainly understand that he would have been a mentor and father figure to generations of scientists.
In some cultures in the Far East, departed people remain with us and continue to be discussed in the present tense. Having met him and shared these few moments with him will help me be part of the community that continues to celebrate his life and contributions.

Reflecting on Shared Moments: A Farewell to Bob

By Chris Smiet (Scientist, EPFL)

I will really miss you Bob. Just a few weeks ago we were walking together through the streets of New York, and you were telling me about how lovely your stay Cambridge was, but that you couldn't find the peace and quiet to work on an important problem. You loved what you did so much, and you have always been an inspiration to me for my whole career.


By Dr Alexander Pletzer

In the realm of plasmas where chaos reigns
Bob sought order whatever the strain
While uncorking a bottle of exquisite wine
His world became alive with helical lines
Through equations vast, he'd nimbly glide
With Hamiltonians as his trusted guide
Inventing new ways to compute Delta-prime
A gentle and humble man, he was still in his prime
A big loss, yet his legacy will continue to shine

Deep sadness

By Masayuki YOKOYAMA, National Institue for Fusion Science, Japan

It is my deep regret to hear the news that Dewar-san passed away. It is needless to say on his huge contributions on evolution of plasma physics. I would emphasize here his gentle and friendly nature, which I have felt since the first meeting with him.
I sincerely wish his soul rests in peace, and I am also sure his friendly smile keeps living in our mind.

Anecdotes of Bob

By David Pfefferlé

I met Bob in 2012 as a fresh PhD student at a barbecue organised by Tony Cooper in Les Diablerets. Bob and his wife were passing through Switzerland, on their way to conferences in Europe. I happened to have been reading his papers on oscillation centres and ponderomotive forces for months, absorbing his wisdom as much as an inexperienced plasma physicist could. He was, of course, wearing his legendary leather jacket that evening. Seeing him in person felt like meeting Mick Jagger. Even though the sausages were overcooked (if not burnt, sorry Tony) and the wine not from Valais, it was a memorable night.

Upon my arrival in Australia in 2018, Bob and Matthew immediately reached out to initiate collaboration. I feel privileged to have felt Bob's support and interest ever since. Bob would never miss our weekly group meetings, even if he were half-way through his bus ride to ANU. In my eyes, he had the status of a legend. He was an inspiring and humbling figure, whose breadth and depth of knowledge in mathematics and physics was outstanding. I had only respect and admiration for him. He will be missed.

Heartfelt goodbye

By Dr Andrew Prentice

It is with much sadness that I have learnt that Bob is no longer with us. Bob and I had been friends for over 60 years, first meeting as undergraduates in science at Melbourne University in the early 1960s. We later commenced our MSc degrees in theoretical physics under Ken Hines in the School of Physics, placed with three other postgraduates in the same large room as the newly appointed senior lecturer Geoff Opat. Bob worked quietly and studiously all the time, but not so the others. All attempts by Geoff, imploring us to follow Bob’s quiet example, came to naught.

Bob was a keen hiker and mountaineer. Duty always came first with Bob. I recall one hiking trip we made together to Lake Tali Karng, in the high country of East Gippsland. Bob said he would put up the tent while I went for a swim. Within a minute I thought he had joined me in the water, only to discover on calling out that it was a tiger snake that had brushed past! Bob was still conscientiously putting up the tent. A few years later, soon after Bob started his postdoc position at the University of Maryland and I at Carnegie-Mellon, our families got together for a white Christmas. What a magical time, with Bob and his irrepressible wife Margot showering us with unbridled hospitality. That warmth and generosity continued after they returned to Australia.

What a true gentleman Bob was. He was the epitome of humility, always showing thoughtfulness and care to those around him. As a theoretical physicist, Bob’s ability to concentrate single-mindedly on a problem, and to burrow to its core, is matched by very few. Without question, Bob was an intellectual colossus of the highest order. Most importantly, he will be remembered for his calm manner, his modesty, and his respect and kindness to us all. He is sorely missed. RIP Bob my friend.