Featured Fellow—Brian Anderson

Mount Tianmen, Tianmen Mountain National Park, China, near where Avatar was filmed (2007)

Electric trains to engineer

Electrical engineer Brian Anderson is past president of the Academy. His career spans more than 40 years in leadership roles in academia, industry and government agencies in Australia and around the world. His research interests include circuits, signal processing, and control of complex systems.

Why did you choose maths and engineering?

It was a combination of great school teachers, having two close school friends whose fathers were both electrical engineers and whom I admired as people, the pleasure at seeing that mathematics was used in very nontrivial ways by electrical engineering, and enjoying playing with meccano sets and electric trains as a school boy. On the other hand, physics was badly taught at university and I was turned off it; I was lucky that this experience did not dissuade me from electrical engineering.

What is the most exciting thing you’ve done in science?

Discovering things with young people. Working with others always increases the excitement, and discovering new things is forever exciting, especially when there is an ‘aha!’ moment. The impact of the successful idea is secondary in terms of the excitement level. The process and surprise and collegiality of it are what is important for me.

What are your memories of science at high school?

My best memories were of mathematics and physics (physics did not get messed up for me till university); chemistry was pleasant, but not as inspiring. Of course, inspiration came from the teachers as much as the content of the material. I took honours courses in all of physics, chemistry and mathematics, and was intellectually challenged. I even read about Fermat’s Last Theorem, and asked my final year mathematics teacher (who had a First Class Honours degree from Oxford University) how to prove it, without saying how famous and challenging it was — in fact it was unsolved.

Who inspires you and why?

Lots of people: my students, my family, ace researchers who are also decent people, top musicians, top sportsmen who behave decently. Achieving exceptionally while retaining one’s humanity is attractive.

Brian Anderson at 2007 annual Academy dinner at Parliament House

Where will your science be in 50 years?

No idea, and I wouldn’t believe anyone who claimed they could forecast either. I would have given the same answer 47 years ago when I wrote my first paper too.

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