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Radar Personalities

Robert Hanbury Brown 1916 - 2002

Robert Hanbury Brown's obituary in the Guardian is reproduced below:

One of Britain's outstanding scientists, he pioneered the development of radar and radio astronomy at Jodrell Bank

Anthony Tucker
Friday January 18, 2002
The Guardian

The name of the physicist and astronomer Robert Hanbury Brown, who has died aged 85, is synonymous with the pioneering of radar and the development of radio astronomy. Among his many inventions, the most outstanding was, perhaps, the intensity interferometer, which he achieved despite assurances from mathematicians and physicists alike that it was impossible.

The world of science and technology has cause to be grateful that he forsook an early plan for a future as a classics scholar to become an engineer instead. He gave a stirring account of his life in his autobiography, Boffin: A Personal Story Of The Early Days Of Radar, Radio Astronomy And Quantum Optics (1991). It is a fascinating insight into the second world war quest for an effective radar, and of the early days at the Jodrell Bank radio observatory in Cheshire, as well as the highly entertaining story of a man who lived and breathed science, with all its excitement, interest and difficulty.

Sir Bernard Lovell once said that had Hanbury Brown not sought a research fellowship at Manchester University after the war, the Jodrell Bank radio telescope might never have been built. Characteristically, Hanbury Brown dismissed this notion with an embarrassed shake of the head. But his recruitment to Sir Bernard's pioneering team in 1949, and his subsequent emergence as professor of radio astronomy at Manchester in 1960, took a substantial load off Lovell during the period when he most needed time and energy to fight the battles for money and sound construction of the radio telescope.

Hanbury Brown, who took a BSc from London University in 1935 after attending Tonbridge school, was one of the very bright young engineers who were whisked away to work, under great secrecy, with Sir Robert Watson-Watt on radar development at the Air Ministry research station at Bawdsey (1936-42). Because of his knowledge and experience, in 1942 he was seconded, as assistant head of the combined research group, to the US naval research laboratory in Washington, to work - under equally high security - on the rapidly expanding US airborne radar programme.

When he emerged from government work in 1947, Hanbury Brown spent a period as an engineering consultant in partnership with Watson-Watt (1947-49). By then, he was one of Britain's most experienced electronic engineers but, because of secrecy, he had published nothing. It was thus not possible for him to apply formally for one of the few research fellowships then available. But Hanbury Brown's appeal to Manchester for a post was passed to Lovell, who remembered him from his own radar days. They met on Goostrey station on May 19 1949, ICI provided a fellowship, and the rest became scientific history.

During his period at Manchester, Hanbury Brown devised ways of minimising the background noise that plagued early radio astronomy, and subsequently designed an extremely elegant, but complex, intensity interferometer enabling radio telescopes to measure the diameters of distant radio sources. Then, it was thought that radio stars, like their visible equivalents, would be mere points in the sky.

It turned out that the powerful radio emissions then being detected in association with visible objects, such as the spiral nebula in Andromeda, covered vast regions, rather than points. Simpler techniques could be used to map them. Hanbury Brown's technique, which eliminates the effects of frequency variations, and which he had initially investigated at optical wavelengths (through mirror image superimposition, using a pair of old searchlight reflectors), turned out to have its greatest value in classical optical astronomy.

In 1963, with Jodrell Bank up and running, Hanbury Brown jumped at the offer of the chair of astronomy at Sydney University, for with it came an opportunity to build a large mirror intensity interferometer of his own design. This was set up at Narrabri, in the outback, some 250 miles northwest of Sydney, where the only conditions that could be described as good were those for night-sky viewing. Hanbury Brown intended to stay only a year or so, but, over two decades, he and his researchers compiled a catalogue of measurements of the southern sky whose precision is unequalled.

It is sometimes said that Hanbury Brown's decision to stay with his large mirror interferometer at Narrabri robbed him of a major career in radio astronomy, and even condemned him to a minor tributary of optical astronomy. But it was characteristic of his drive toward pure classical astronomy, and his creative enthusiasm for devising novel, often complex and unconventional equipment, which had to be made to work, that he opted for the new challenge. If he was trapped at all, it was by his own enthusiasm.

Narrabri was demanding, but he found the wide horizons of life in Australia, at the university - and especially as seen with his family from a house overlooking Sydney harbour - more satisfying than those of either the UK or the Americas. He would sometimes carry visitors to Narrabri back to his house at high speed in his dusty car, explaining the virtues of life as he dodged the traffic and frightened them out of their wits.

But this bursting enthusiasm was only one side of his personality. His sense of history and mystery in astronomy was poured into a beautiful short book, Man And The Stars (1978). His sense of family and his love of the sea were expressed at Sydney. Yet, strangely, many who knew him remember him for the care and skill he expressed when pruning roses. Sir Bernard Lovell recalls that, at one research station where he was often to be seen in a brown lab coat and busy with secateurs, Hanbury Brown was mistaken by visitors for the gardener.

It was not surprising that, in his mid-70s, he and his wife returned to England and to life in a Hampshire village. Highly critical of the modern emphases on mysticism in astronomy and high energy physics, Hanbury Brown settled down to writing about his own experiences in science and technology, such as his years with Watson-Watt.

Whatever he undertook, and whatever its scale or difficulty, Hanbury Brown carried it through superlatively well. To the end, he was a highly original engineer, a natural astronomer and a dreamer, who sometimes made the dream come true. One sadness is that the world will never know the full extent of his technical contributions to the success of airborne radar, although, without airborne radar, the second world war would certainly have been longer, and - like the Jodrell Bank proposals - the outcome might have been different.

He is survived by his wife Heather, and their twin sons and a daughter.

Professor Rodney Davies writes: As one of the many young physicists at Jodrell Bank who came under Hanbury Brown's influence in the years leading up to the completion of the 250ft Lovell telescope, I am greatly indebted to him for inspiring a search for an understanding of the mysterious radio sky that we were challenged by at that time. He encouraged us to develop innovative receiver systems to map these faint radio objects, which always seemed at the limits of detection.

His particular invention, along with Richard Twiss, was the intensity interferometer, which clarified contemporary understanding of the dual nature of light (and radio waves). This led to a new way of measuring the diameter of the stars.

The fond respect in which he was held by the worldwide astronomical community was evident at last year's general assembly of the International Astronomical Union, of which he was a former president.

· Robert Hanbury Brown, physicist and astronomer, born August 31 1916; died January 16 2002.


EducationGuardian.co.uk © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002

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Updated 24/02/2002

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