Professors Bruce McKellar and Sam Berkovic, both associated with the University of Melbourne, received the nation's highest honour when they were appointed Companions in the General Division of the Order of Australia.

McKellar, a theoretical physicist, says the honour for his "eminent service to science, particularly the study of theoretical physics" came as a "surprise".

However it highlights a remarkable journey from a NSW bush school playground to the hallways of Switzerland's Large Hadron Collider.

"One of the things that is very nice about me getting this award is the fact I went to a bush school with 50 students and one teacher," he says.

That one teacher at Budgeregong Public School near Forbes in NSW also happened to be his father.

"In part it is to he that I owe my appreciation of mathematics and various forms of science," he says.

Although officially retired, the 72-year-old will later this year become the first Australian and first southern hemisphere president of the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics.

The prestigious position comes at a time when science - most notably climate and immunisation science - is under attack in western societies.

"The basic denial is the denial that science has done anything for us," says McKellar.

"I think part of the problem is not that we are denying science but that we've become so used to it and the idea that it really is the basis of all our lifestyle."

He cites the example of basic radio astronomy research to analyse radio signals from the universe that led to the development of mobile phones.