In Memoriam: Dr Michael Bishop

Dr. Michael Bishop, one of my high school teachers, passed away last Wednesday, December 9.

I don’t know the circumstances — last I saw him, in July, he was in great health and full of his usual enthusiasm. I realise that sbseminar might not be the best place for an obituary, but I hope you’ll bear with me for a moment.

I owe a lot to Michael, and several of my fellow students who I’ve talked to in the last few days feel the same way. My decision to study physics and mathematics at university — well, maybe that was a foregone conclusion, but it was certainly strongly influenced by him! Perhaps the quickest way I can say what I need to say is that even as a high school student, he treated me, and my fellow students, as intellectual peers, and we enjoyed an experience with him much more like university (perhaps even grad school).

His “day job” was teaching chemistry, but he had little patience for the exam curriculum (indeed, he advocated that the school withdraw from the state examination system, something that was actually considered for a while during a particularly depressing curriculum revision), and where he really got going was as “Master in charge of academic extension”. For years he very successfully trained students for the International Chemistry Olympiad. He also put together “Kaleidoscope Eyes”, a magazine published in the school for all the various extension projects going on. At some point I got interested in the tautochrone and brachistochrone problems, and Mike suggested I go read Volume 2, Chapter 19 of the Feynman lectures in order to learn the calculus of variations, and I wrote a long and rambling piece about my experience solving these problems. The highpoint of “Kaleidoscope Eyes” was, for me, a piece written by two students about Hittite grammar — illustrated with a beautifully chosen extract of the Hittite legal code, and titled “Bestiality in the Ancient World“.

He also taught some extra classes — he decided that the best response to the state physics curriculum being lame was to finish teaching it a term early, and then do something fun. Thus, we got courses on Lagrangian dynamics, on special relativity, and on quantum mechanics. The quantum mechanics course was a triumph — teaching to students who’d never met a matrix or solved a differential equation, he managed to get us to the point we could successfully estimate the first ionisation energy of H_2^+ (the molecule H_2^+ is just a hydrogen molecule with only one electron: the ionisation energy is the gap between the lowest and second lowest eigenvalues)! I’m still impressed by that one. (Hints: you can estimate eigenvalues by optimising parameters in a test function, you can use bezier splines to translate “qualitative” knowledge about eigenstates into test functions, and you can guess that the second eigenstate must be antisymmetric, by orthogonality.)

I was in Australia in July and I stopped by the school one afternoon and found Michael, and we went down to Bill and Tony’s to have a coffee. He told me about his latest adventures — he’d been playing “viking chess” with some students. The rules are not well attested, so they’d decided to try to reconstruct the rules by playing variations and seeing what worked best. Experimental paleoludology!

Thank you Michael, for all you did! I suspect there’s a whole crowd of young Australian scientists out there who’ll miss you as much as I will.

6 thoughts on “In Memoriam: Dr Michael Bishop

  1. Great piece Scott, thanks for putting into words something that I’m finding difficult to do presently. As a teacher and lately as a colleague Michael was simply amazing, and you’ve touched on exactly why. RIP mate.

  2. RIP teacher, mentor, friend.

    Dr. Bishop taught me Chemistry, a subject in which I scored very well but didn’t choose a career in. But what I really learned from him was the self-discipline to improve myself and the confidence to become an adult.

    I envy you Scott, I kept putting off dropping by to say hello again until it was too late.

    There are many occasions I will never forget, but the most memorable was during the HSC chemistry exam that he oversaw. I was so confident in my ability to ace the exam that when one of the experiments called for me to mix two compounds, I just took the flask of one and poured it right into the other. The resulting reaction flared up until it was JUST about to overflow the container, hung there for a second, and finally started to deflate. I looked up to see a rather startled expression on his face. I suspect the surprise was not that when you mix two chemicals which react with each other that the process can be violent, but rather than I would be so stupid to do so.

    I guess it just goes to show you that no matter how much theory you know, you can still make simple mistakes!

  3. Scott,

    Thank you for writing this. I only just found out about it and I am very saddened by Michael’s passing. I feel especially bad for not catching up with him recently. He was the one that spurred my interest in maths and science beyond the curriculum by being such an inspirational and dedicated teacher. He spent so much of his own time outside of class to help me learn more. And even though I have subsequently deviated from a scientific career, I will never forget him.

    -Suhas

  4. A very good summation Scott. Like Suhas, I’m sad that I didn’t call in on Dr Bishop to say hello as well. Though I never had a real aptitude for maths or science, what I appreciated about Dr Bishop was his intellectual enthusiasm and energy – something that he passed down even to mathematical dullards like myself. And who will forget our Australia 2010 adventure?! Shaun.

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