PerspectiveRetrospective

Lord Robert May (1936–2020)

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Science  12 Jun 2020:
Vol. 368, Issue 6496, pp. 1189
DOI: 10.1126/science.abc7800

Lord Robert May, groundbreaking ecologist, died in Oxford, England, on 28 April. He was 84. In addition to ecology, Bob made substantial contributions to a wide variety of fields, including epidemiology and economics. A towering figure in British and international scientific life, he served as both chief scientific adviser for the United Kingdom and president of the Royal Society. Slight of build with a formidable intellect, Bob changed the way we investigate the dynamics of the living world.

Born in Sydney, Australia, on 8 January 1936, Bob attended Sydney Boys High School, where he excelled both academically and athletically. In 1956, he received his bachelor's degree in physics from the University of Sydney. He stayed on to earn his Ph.D. in superconductivity in 1959 and then conducted further research in theoretical physics as a faculty member.

In the late 1960s, Bob learned of a movement in ecology, associated with George Evelyn Hutchinson and Robert MacArthur, that aimed to put the subject on a more rigorous and quantitative footing. At the time, some of the simplest models in ecology, such as those describing predator-prey dynamics, were often unstable, leading to predictions of the extinction of some or all of the modeled species. It was tacitly assumed that when these simple systems were embedded in more complex ecosystems, stability would inevitably emerge, but there was no way to assess this assumption. In his 1973 monograph, Stability and Complexity in Model Ecosystems, Bob showed that stability was not inevitable. He introduced new mathematical techniques to ecology and initiated a research program that to this day continues to investigate what aspects of natural communities allow their persistence. So impressive were Bob's immediate contributions to ecology that, upon MacArthur's tragic and untimely death in 1972, Bob was offered his position in ecology at Princeton University.

Models of a single species competing for access to food often predict a transition from stable to cyclic population dynamics as birth rate increases. Bob studied these models and found that as birth rate continues to increase, more complicated patterns of cycles occur, culminating in what is now called chaotic dynamics. The ecological difference equation models that Bob studied, together with the differential equations that meteorologist Edward Norton Lorenz had previously analyzed, spurred the mathematical development of chaos theory and placed limits on our ability to make predictions about systems governed by non linear dynamics. At his Princeton going-away party in 1988, the celebrants serenaded Bob with a song called “Kid Chaos,” composed by his colleague Henry Horn. Bob was quietly proud of this song and enjoyed Henry's reprise at Bob's 70th birthday celebration at the University of Oxford.


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Through most of the 1970s and 1980s, Bob spent his summers at Imperial College London's Silwood Park campus near Windsor, England. There, he initiated a series of long-term collaborations with far-reaching consequences. For example, he and epidemiologist Roy Anderson transformed the field of epidemiological dynamics, and with biologist Michael Hassell he reshaped insect predator-prey dynamics. Summers at Silwood Park were characterized by intense work with a large and changing cast of collaborators, punctuated by equally intense competitive sport in which winning was more important than strict adherence to the rules. The order of authorship for several papers was decided by the outcome of croquet games played on a lawn sculpted by the local rabbits, whose effect on the game only Bob really understood.

After taking a position at the University of Oxford in 1988, Bob quickly became influential in U.K. scientific life and in 1995 was appointed government chief scientific adviser (GCSA). Among Bob's many achievements as GCSA was codifying the role of science advisers, a move that remains critically important today during the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. In this role and later as president of the Royal Society, Bob worked actively, and often behind the scenes, to promote greater inclusivity and encourage early career scientists.

Throughout his life, Bob remained a proud Australian and would often play up to the image of the plain-spoken Aussie. He claimed that his favorite film was the Australian classic Mad Max. A British civil servant once tried to summarize Bob's dismissal of a daft idea by saying he “expressed himself in a somewhat…‘Australian way’!”

Bob was a master of the witty put-down. With a smile, he once told a very senior botanist, “In my experience, the intellectual capability of any biologist is directly proportional to the speed of locomotion of the organisms with which they work.” In scientific debate, he could be cutting, although always with reason. He was immensely kind and loyal to friends and colleagues and enormously encouraging to people at the start of their careers, something we both experienced personally as young academics at Imperial College London and the University of Oxford.

Bob loved being in the wild. For nearly 50 years, he organized an annual hiking trip with colleagues, and he spent most of his holidays walking with his wife, Judith. At the end of one hiking trip, just before the final descent, Bob asked the rest of us to go on ahead so he could have a final moment alone to soak in the mountain ambience. It was this deep attachment to the natural world that we believe motivated his great concern for the future of the environment.

Bob May was knighted, awarded the Order of Merit, and made a peer in the U.K. House of Lords as well as a Companion of the Order of Australia. He received the Crafoord Prize, the Balzan Prize, and many other prizes and honors for his scientific research. He is survived by his wife, Judith, and their daughter, Naomi. Bob leaves the field of ecology stronger and more rigorous than it was when he joined it in the early 1970s, a transformation in great part due to the combined force of his leadership and his intellect.

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