Brown, R. Hanbury (Robert Hanbury)

Alternative names
Dates:
Birth 1916-08-31
Death 2002-01-16
Britons
English

Biographical notes:

Physicist. Brown (1916- ) was Professor of Physics (Astronomy), University of Sydney, Australia 1964-1981 and earlier Professor of Radio Astronomy, Manchester University 1949-1964.

From the description of Oral history interview, ca. 1972. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 155006163

From the description of Records, 1957-1983. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 155006152

Robert T. Brown earned his undergraduate and graduate degrees in botany from the University of Wisconsin - Madison before joining the forestry faculty at the Michigan College of Mining and Technology (now Michigan Technological University) in Houghton, Michigan. He was instrumental in establishing the Department of Biological Sciences in 1962. He received the Medal of Forestry from Finland for his research on conifer growth rates, and three Fulbright Fellowships: to Turkey, Finland, and Trinidad. In addition, he served as an educational consultant in India, courtesy of the Agency for International Development. Robert and his wife, Viola, shared a love of nature and the environment and together worked to protect it. The Keweenaw Land Trust awarded Robert and Viola the organization's Heart and Hand Award in 2000 for their years of work in promoting peace, justice, and environmental stewardship. In 2002, the Michigan Nature Association dedicated its recently acquired Perrault Bog as the Dr. Robert Brown Teaching Sanctuary in honor of Brown who often took his classes there to learn about wetland ecology. Professor Emeritus Robert Brown passed away in August of 2002 (excerpted from "On These Foundations," http://www.engr.wisc.edu/che/newsletter/2008_winter/cbe_summer2004.pdf, a publication for alumni and friends of UW-Madison's Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, accessed May 2011)

From the description of Robert T. Brown Papers, Circa 1951-Circa 1983. (Michigan Technological University). WorldCat record id: 728657149

Professor Robert Hanbury Brown was born in 1916 and attended Tonbridge school. He took a BSc from London University in 1935 and was immediately asked to work with Sir Robert Watson-Watt (1892-1973) on radar development. From 1936 to 1942 he was based at the Air Ministry research station at Bawdsey and was then seconded to a US naval research laboratory in Washington. Working under great secrecy, he made an important contribution to the development of the US airborne radar programme. After the war he worked as an engineering consultant in partnership with Watson-Watt before taking up a research fellowship at Manchester University in 1949. Here he worked with Sir Bernard Lovell on the Jodrell Bank radio telescope and his pioneering design of an intensity interferometer contributed directly to its success. Hanbury Brown was appointed professor of radio astronomy in 1960 but in 1963 left Manchester to take up the chair of astronomy in Sydney. In Australia his work with radio telescopes enabled him to compile an unequalled catalogue of measurements of the southern sky. Hanbury Brown returned to England in his mid-70s to settle in Hampshire and to write his autobiography Boffin: A Personal Story of the Early Days of Radar, Radio Astronomy and Quantum Optics (1991). A highly respected scientist, an outstanding and original thinker, and something of a dreamer, Hanbury Brown died in 2002 aged 85.

From the guide to the Records relating to Sir Robert Alexander Watson-Watt, 1912-1993, (University of Dundee)

Robert Hanbury Brown was born on 31 August 1916 in Aruvankadu, South India, where his father was in charge of a cordite factory. Hanbury Brown was sent to England to be educated and attended Cottesmore Preparatory School in Hove, Sussex, from the age of eight to fourteen. In 1930 he entered Tonbridge School in Kent, switching to Brighton Technical College after only two years. The decision was partly the product of strained family finances - but Hanbury Brown had long shown an active interest in technological matters. His grandfather (the irrigation engineer Sir Robert Hanbury Brown) was one of the early pioneers of radio, and his legal guardian after his parents' divorce was a consulting radio engineer. At Brighton Technical College he studied for an external degree in the University of London, graduating BSc with first class honours in electrical engineering at the age of nineteen. At this time appeared also his first publication (with his student friend Vic Tyler), on 'Lamp polar curves on the cathode-ray oscillograph'. With a grant from East Sussex County Council he then embarked on a postgraduate course in advanced studies on telegraphy and telephony at City & Guilds of London Institute, then part of Imperial College. At the time he hoped to complete a doctorate in radio engineering and to pursue a career that would combine his interest in radio with flying.

Hanbury Brown's involvement both with the new University of London Air Squadron and with cathode-ray tubes drew the interest of the Rector of Imperial College, Henry Tizard. Tizard chaired a committee that had recently been set up by the Air Ministry to find ways of protecting Britain from possible attack from enemy aircraft. Through Tizard's intervention Hanbury Brown came to be recruited into an experimental project instigated by Robert Watson-Watt, to develop a system of radio-location using pulse/echo technique for aircraft detection. In August 1936 Hanbury Brown joined what would grow into the Telecommunications Research Establishment (TRE) and helped develop Chain Home, an air surveillance system of ground stations along the East and South Coasts that proved vital in the 1940 Battle of Britain. From the autumn of 1937 he worked in the airborne radar group under E. G. Bowen, which transferred to the USA in 1942 for a joint British-American mission on air defence. Returning three years later Hanbury Brown rejoined TRE, helping the Air Historical Branch of the Air Ministry write an account of airborne radar and working on the application of the pulsed navigational aid GEE to civil aviation. A research consultancy set up by Watson-Watt in 1947 offered more interesting prospects for the conversion of wartime developments into peacetime technologies. He allowed himself to be recruited and worked as a consulting engineer until Watson-Watt decided to move the firm to Canada. After pondering a number of career possibilities, Hanbury Brown returned to academia in the autumn of 1949, when he started as a PhD student in radio astronomy at the University of Manchester.

His impact at Jodrell Bank, where Manchester's radio astronomy group was based, was instantaneous. The development for which he achieved his greatest distinction lay in interferometry, indeed in showing how the principle of the intensity interferometer could be applied to optical interferometry. In 1956, he and the mathematician R.Q. Twiss showed on the basis of a laboratory experiment that the time of arrival of photons at two separate detectors was correlated (Hanbury Brown-Twiss effect). Physicists struggled with the idea, photon correlation being inconceivable from a quantum theoretical perspective; yet Hanbury Brown and Twiss proceeded to demonstrate on the example of the star Sirius how the phenomenon could be used in an interferometer to measure the apparent angular diameter of bright visual stars. Their work earned them a Michelson Medal for opening up the subject of quantum optics. With the controversy over the Hanbury Brown-Twiss effect in full swing, Hanbury Brown proposed a large optical interferometer to measure the diameters of other main sequence stars. The Department of Scientific and Industrial Research agreed to fund the initial design costs and a large part of the eventual construction costs for an instrument consisting of two reflectors, mounted on a circular railway track 188 metres in diameter. The instrument was manufactured in Britain and Italy, but built in the Australian bush near Narrabri in New South Wales. The construction of the Narrabri Stellar Intensity Interferometer (NSII) at a fairly remote site was a heroic task, which kept Hanbury Brown full-time in Australia. In 1964, two years into the mission, he resigned from the personal chair which the University of Manchester had created for him in 1960, and accepted an appointment as Professor of Physics (Astronomy) at the University of Sydney. Despite tempting offers to go elsewhere after the NSII was decommissioned in 1974, he stayed on to explore a next generation instrument. This was not to be another intensity interferometer, but a modernised Michelson interferometer, the Sydney University Stellar Interferometer (SUSI). The SUSI became the project of his colleague John Davis and it finally opened in 1991, ten years after Hanbury Brown officially retired.

Hanbury Brown's commitments to science manifested beyond the instruments and institutions with which he was most visibly affiliated. His involvements in such ventures of the 1970s as the Anglo-Australian-Telescope (AAT) or the Science Task Force both illustrate in their way how he envisaged future science. For instance, he used a job interview for the directorship of the new AAT to criticize centralist tendencies in Australian science funding, pleading for greater equality of the state universities vis-�is the flagship of Australian academia, the Australian National University. Likewise, as a member of the Science Task Force, a consultative committee of the Royal Commission on Australian Government Administration, he expressed his concerns over changes in the scientific ethos under government funding, which had become the norm after World War II. The now classic report of the Task Force, Towards Diversity and Adaptability (1975), was imbued with the ideal of scientific autonomy.

Over the years Hanbury Brown also developed his dimension as a public scientist in his writings and his lectures. He became an interpreter of science who explained to non-expert audiences his particular science, interferometry, as well as his views on the scientific enterprise more broadly. His broadcasts and other public performances bear this out, as do such monographs as his account of The Intensity Interferometer (1974) or the more philosophical Man and the Stars (1978) and The Wisdom of Science (1986). In his last publication, There are no Dinosaurs in the Bible, which he had written for his grandchildren and which appeared posthumously, Hanbury Brown returned to a theme that had occupied him over a number of decades, the relations between science and religion. Another subject close to his heart were his wartime experiences. His friendships from the radar days lasted a lifetime, and he continued to explore the history of radar with younger radar buffs, through reunions and celebratory occasions, and in television programmes and sound recordings.

Hanbury Brown accumulated many honours during his long career. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1960. In 1986, he was made a Companion of the Order of Australia. He was also rumoured to have been the prototype prompting the expression 'boffin' (for a technological expert). He married Heather Hilda Chesterman in 1952. They had one daughter and two sons (twins). He died on 16 January 2002.

From the guide to the Papers and correspondence of Robert Hanbury Brown, 1911-2007, (The Royal Society)

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Subjects:

  • Radar
  • Interferometers
  • Forestry schools and education
  • Biology--Research
  • Narrabri Stellar Intensity Interferometer
  • Wetland ecology
  • Astronomical observatories
  • Astronomy

Occupations:

  • Astronomers
  • Physicists

Places:

  • Apostle Islands National Lakeshore (Wis.) (as recorded)
  • Finland (as recorded)
  • Upper Peninsula (Mich.) (as recorded)
  • Isle Royale (Mich.) (as recorded)
  • Michigan--Upper Peninsula (as recorded)