Tuesday, August 25, 2015

My Dad

Colin Stewart Lindsay Keay
02/02/1930 to 25/08/2015

Dad died peacefully on Tuesday morning (25th August) with my sister Andra holding his hand and mum and I nearby at St Andrews War Memorial hospital in Brisbane. When he died he was listening to Vivaldi and Beethoven's 9th Symphony. Dad had been on palliative care since the previous Friday and had been calm and comfortable. His last few days were spent with family around him, listening to his favourite composers, and blissfully free of most of the Parkinsons' tremors.

Colin was born on 2nd February, 1930, in Timaru, South Island, New Zealand, the elder of two sons to William and Ruby Keay. His brother Alister was born three years later.  Dad was dux of Papanui High School in 1947 and a founding member of the Canterbury Astronomical Society. He received his BSc and MSc from the University of New Zealand (Canterbury) and joined Clifton Ellyett's Radar Meteor Astronomy group.

His mettle was sorely tested as a young child, spending time in an orphanage and boarding away from home due to his mother's poor health and then fighting off tuberculosis during his undergraduate studies. He spent almost two years in Cashmere Sanitorium and endured two major operations in 1956-57 to remove part of both lungs.  The scars on his back looked like a singlet, but it was hard to notice any reduction in his lung capacity for the energy and drive he brought to his life and work.

Dad married Mum in 1958 in Christchurch. He was awarded his PhD in Physics in Meteor Astronomy at the University of Canterbury in 1964 and was also awarded the Michaelis Gold Medal in Astronomy from the University of Otago.  He also received an MA in Astronomy from University of Toronto in 1965 and near the end of his career was distinguished with a DSc from University of Canterbury in 1997.

Mum and Dad moved to Australia in 1965 for Colin to take up a senior lecturer position in Physics at The University of Newcastle, NSW, where he worked until his "retirement" in 1993.  Both Mum and Dad kept so busy in retirement some of us wondered how they ever found time to work!

There were a number of firsts in Dad's long career. He created a new branch of science called geophysical electrophonics, "the production of audible noises of various kinds through direct conversion by transduction of very low frequency electromagnetic energy generated by a number of geophysical phenomena". Within 24 hours of the launching of the first satellite (the Russian Sputnik in 1957) Dad was the first to calculate that it would be visible over NZ. This led to Dad and Dick Anderson publishing the first two papers on observing a satellite. He also published the first papers on high resolution infra-red maps of Jupiter and was President of Commission 22 of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) and inaugural chairman of the IAU working group on the prevention of interplanetary pollution (space junk). In 1997 Minor Planet 5007 was named after Dad in recognition of his services to astronomy.

As a pioneering science communicator, as well as numerous public talks, Dad wrote monthly newspaper columns, first for the Christchurch Press and then for The Newcastle Morning Herald where his Sky and Space notes were regularly published for more than 30 years. As a press correspondent he covered some of the launches of NASA's space missions.

Away from science Dad was active in the community being the founding president of the Hunter Skeptics (1987), President of the Newcastle Cycleways Movement (always lobbying for more bikeways), founding president of the Newcastle Astronomical Society (1993) and a member of University of Newcastle council representing staff, amongst many other notable activities.

But what did Dad mean to me? A friend of mine decribed losing a parent as like a ship losing its anchor.  Even in your 40s you can fall back on the knowledge that if all fails you can always move back in with your parents and then, one day, that's not true. Certainly, as someone resistant to growing up as I am, this is very confronting.

Dad loved seeing and understanding the world. As he got older he took pleasure in simple things, a walk around the block with the dog, watching a sunset, identifying the planes passing overhead. 

When I was young Mum tells me that I woke up needing a bottle at least once a night until I was two years old. Apparently Dad used to get up and give me a bottle and then go back to bed and wake up the next morning having no recollection of ever having gotten up. At night Dad would often read me books (his favourite was Richard Scary) and give me back rubs so I could go to sleep. He would reassure me that there were no spiders in my bed while also refusing to remove the huntsman spiders that frequented our house on the basis that they were not harmful. He was less tolerant with the funnel web spiders that visited and would kill them with scientific precision (and a brick).

He would take me to the baths - the Lambton swimming pool, where he taught me how to dive. He would jump off the towers and was happy to be ignored while I played with friends, which was just as well because he insisted on wearing leopard print swim trunks, foam thongs, a towelling bucket cap and an orange and brown animal print towelling robe.

His crimes against fashion were many and varied and he pursued those crimes with relentless determination, every day matching a Singaporean dragon shirt with a Maori tiki bolo tie, long shorts in various shades of brown or khaki and teamed off with cream socks and brown leather sandals. His eyebrows were long, white and shaggy.  As my best friend Vicki used to remark, "he looks like Julius Sumner Miller” (the scientist on the cadbury ads - "a glass a half of full cream milk in every block"). I think he enjoyed looking like a scientist, the group he most identified with.

Dad got out his telescope to show all my school friends the Halley’s comet when it went past. He was always pointing out the constellations in the night sky and we would often have satellite spotting competitions (my record - 9 in one night). Dad had a knack of appearing at the same time as a satellite, claiming first sighting and then disappearing back inside before reappearing to claim another sighting. It took us a while to discern that he was calculating the time and position of each satellite pass over. I had my revenge however. Dad enjoyed the odd glass of wine and considered himself a reasonable connoisseur. He was quite proud when I would join him with observations about the wine paired for dinner, without realising I was acquiring all my information from the description on the back label of each bottle. I could have kept that harmless deception going for years.

Dad loved travel and visited many cities while mum always made an effort to make sure we kids got there too. As well as travel Dad loved hosting visitors from other countries, assuring mum that "it was no extra work". It was not uncommon for us to have someone from Russia living with us for 6 months at a time, the house always seemed full and was seldom dull as I was growing up and I learned to appreciate other cultures.

One of my favourite memories of dad was our time visiting his parents at Sumner in New Zealand. We would walk together in the early evening after dinner along the shore at Sumner, climbing Cave Rock, walking through the cave at Cave Rock, in the years that the cave was accessible, and walking down to the red cliffs of Scarborough.  As anyone who knows Dad can attest this was never a relaxing evening stroll though, more of a power walk. Visits to New Zealand were always a special time I remember driving to Akaroa - ancestoral home to the Curry family, special lunches at The Sign of the Takahe on Cashmere Hill and visiting Vern Shadbolt’s deer farm at French Farm on Banks peninsula.

For much of his life Dad was a creature of habit. While his schedule may have changed in later years I can recite what it was in the mornings when I lived at home:

6:30am out of bed
7:00am listen to news on radio while reading the newspaper and enjoying a cup of white tea (no sugar). For breakfast he would eat two weetbix topped with hot water and full cream milk and with a sprinkling of brown sugar (pre-mixed with raw sugar), then finishing off with two pieces of wholemeal toast spread with margarine, one slice topped with creamed honey and the other slice with red jam.

He would always read the Newcastle Morning Herald where for more than 30 years he published a monthly column on astronomy describing what people could see in the night sky until the 1990s when a new editor of the Newcastle Morning Herald decided to ditch Dad’s astronomy column for an astrology column. He never read that paper again.

Dad loved science and never lost his inquistive mind. He could be irascible and hard to live with but he was my dad and I believe his greatest achievement was instilling a sense of questioning in all those he influenced paired with wonder for the world around us and all the beauty it holds.

Colin Keay DSc FRASNZ FAAAS FInstP FASA, Husband to Myra, Brother to Alister, Father to Andra, Lindsay and Sue, Father-in-law to Michael and Mark, Grandfather to Ilyan, Rob, Miranda, Zoe, Sarah and Sammy. He will be greatly missed but what an amazing 85 years it was.

A slide show of Dad's life can be seen here.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. My deepest sympathies to you and the whole family. A great person who contributed in so many ways.

  3. A man of great respect, always ready at our meetings of the Newcastle Astronomical Society to answer curly questions and have a story of his own experience.
    He is the first Honorary Life Member of that NAS, (and there is not yet a second !)
    George Barnes (past President of NAS)

  4. Sue,
    The stargazing Guinness Book of Records attempt happening now reminded me to look up your dad...and I found this lovely post. I hadn't realised he had passed away, so my condolences to you and the family x

    1. Thanks Kellie. He was 85 so had a good innings. Hope your family is all good.