University of Aberdeen Astronomers


Why, what, who

Since the 1600s, astronomy has been part of the subject of Physics and of the older and slightly broader topic of Natural Philosophy. Although we have no specialist degree in astronomy at Aberdeen, for a long time (over three centuries!) astronomy has been part of a student's course in Natural Philosophy. Indeed, Astronomy was a designated subject in the Foundation Charter of Aberdeen's second university (Marishcal College), dating from 1593. Nowadays it can be studied here by a wide range of students specializing in many subjects. I've created this web page to provide a link between today's teaching and past students and staff at Aberdeen whose careers have included astronomy. If you are or have been a student at the University of Aberdeen, our heritage is your heritage.

Astronomy as a subject has changed over the centuries. Prior to the 17th century interest in the 'heavens' was mainly astrological, with its focus on the 5 known planets and the Sun and the Moon. The stars were pinpricks of light in the night sky, some of which were useful for determining latitude for travellers. The slow loss of faith in the validity of astrology in the 17th century, at least among the educated, was replaced by an increasing interest in understanding what laws underlay the motion of the planets and their positions in the sky, and by more sophisticated use of the stars for navigation. The improvement of stellar navigation was the main driving force in astronomy in the 18th and 19th centuries, responsible for the establishment of astronomical observatories in many countries. Astronomers may not have known much about stars but they could say that their subject was largely a practical one. The 20th century astronomer was a different person. The 20th century was the century of enlarging our horizons about the universe, about exploring the apparently ever wider range of objects that inhabit the universe, about understanding how stars work in enough detail to explain the ordinary and the extraordinary. The 20th century was about seeing our solar system for what it really is and realising that the star on our doorstep, the Sun, is both a window into general stellar behaviour and the controller of life on Earth that must be understood. Solar physics became a sizeable area of astronomy. The 21st century has brought astronomy even closer to home by including in astronomy extra-terrestrial influences on the Earth - meteorites and 'space weather', which affects all satellites in orbit and our upper atmosphere. Astronomy merges in the upper atmosphere with Geophysics and Meteorology. In short, all modern astronomers don't look at the stars. At the other end of the distance scale, cosmologists aren't interested in individual stars either, just the structure of the universe at large. The interests of the 21st century astronomer are hugely different from those of the 17th century astronomer.

My selection below is personal, though I have been influenced by those who have been Fellows of the Royal Astronomical Society, a major professional body for astronmers since 1820. You will find here a past President, a Vice-President, a Secretary, four Council Member, three journal editors, two gold medal winners and plain 'Fellows' of the RAS. There is a small overlap with my web page Aberdeen's Local Astronomical History, though that page contains mainly pointers to information sources and no images. I should add that a good many other staff not featured here have been Fellows of the Royal Astronomical Society. I personally know of staff in Mathematics, Engineering, Physics and Geology. No doubt there are and have been others. Aberdonian David Gregory (1659-1709), nephew of James Gregory and another Marischal College pupil, has an entry in The Biographical Encyclodaedia of Astronomers as a theorest, as does Colin Maclaurin (1698-1746), who was Professor of Mathematics at Marischal College. Also Professor at Marischal College was James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879), whose work on elucidating the nature of Saturn's rings is very well known and whose work on the kinetic theory of gases is highly relevant to stellar atmospheres. The same encyclopaedia includes G P Thomson (1892-1975), professor of Natural Philosophy at the University in the 1920s and Nobel Prize winner. These four were all eminent scientists but I doubt if any would have written astronomer on their CV.

James Gregory John Pringle Nichol Robert Grant courtesy University of Glasgow David Gill
James Gregory FRS (1638 – 1675) was born and brought up in Durris, west of Aberdeen, and was a student of Marischal College for 4 years, graduating with his AM degree in 1657. Gregory was a gifted mathematician and indulged in independant scholarship, writing his first book Optica Promota (Optics Advanced) taking up Johannes Kepler's theme of laying out the foundations of optical imaging. There is a translation of Optica Promota on the web from Latin into English by an Aberdeen Natural Philosophy (Physics) graduate. In the book Gregory described the design of the first reflecting telescope (the 'Gregorian Telescope') that later became the most common astronomical telescope design. He also described how to measure the scale of the solar system and the distance to nearby stars.

Gregory spent 4 years at the University of Padua as a student not long before being appointed in 1668 as the first Regius Professor of Mathematics at St Andrews University, where he established an astronomical observatory. This included some fine instruments, still in possession of the University. After 6 years he moved to Edinburgh University to become the first professor of mathematics there but died of a stroke after only one year, at the age of 36. For more on Gregory see our pages in the Scientific Tourist.

John Pringle Nichol FRSE (1804 - 1859) was born near Brechin and enrolled as a King's College Aberdeen student from 1818 to 1822. Like many contemporaries he didn't pay to graduate but the College awarded him an Honorary AM in October 1856, by which time he already had an honorary doctorate from the University of Glasgow where he had been Professor of Practical Astronomy since 1836. Writing and teaching were Nichol's forte. Prior to being appointed Regius Professor he was a school teacher. His lectures both within the University and to large audiences of the public were described as 'inspiring'. A year after his appointment he published his most popular book Views of the Architecture of the Heavens, in a series of letters to a lady. Browsing my copy of the first edition, it is no closely reasoned astronomy textbook but a book illustrated with the best drawings of the day of galaxies and star clusters, arguing that astronomy's high point is what it tells us about the structure and evolution of the universe. The volume ran to seven editions. He authored other books, including in 1848 The Stellar Universe and in 1857, with assistance, A Cylopaedia of the Physical Sciences. The preparation of the second edition of 1860 on my shelves was interrupted in 1859 by his death but it still runs to over 900 pages of small print. While Professor at Glasgow he organised and equipped a new, better situated, observatory but in spite of living there for some years was never known for his observational results. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1858 and might have anticipated 20 more years in post but it was not to be. Nichol was succeeded in the Glasgow chair by another King's College scholar, Robert Grant. Robert Grant FRS (1814 – 1892) attended King's College Aberdeen from 1839 - 1840. In 1854 the College awarded him an Hon. AM degree and in 1865 the University of Aberdeen a doctorate. In the 1840s Grant largely taught himself about astronomy and wrote a compendious and highly praised book History of Physical Astronomy form the Early Ages to the Middle of the Nineteenth Century published in 1852. He had become a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1850 and was to serve on their Council from 1852 - 1860 and edit their journal 'Monthly Notices' for much of that time. His book earned him the Gold Medal of the Society in 1856. Having spent some time in the Greenwich Observatory, in 1858 he was appointed to the Regius Chair of Practical Astronomy at the University of Glasgow. At Glasgow he published observations on comets, meteors, double-stars and other phenomena but is best known for his extensive positional astronomy observations that resulted in a star catalogue published by the government. In his capacity as Professor of Astronomy he also delivered lecture courses on astronomy in both Glasgow and London. A longer account of his achievements can be found in his obituary in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. Sir David Gill FRS (1843 - 1914) was an Aberdonian and student at Marischal College from 1858 - 1860 where he attended Clerk Maxwell's lectures, among others. He assisted Professor David Thomson at King's College from 1862 - 1867 setting up the Cromwell Tower observatory as a working concern. This turned out to be the start of David Gill's astronomical career. In 1872 he was appointed the first Director of the Dunecht Observatory where he established himself as a superb organiser and an observer with an intimate working knowledge of astronomical instruments. In 1879 he was appointed Her Majesty's Astronomer at the Cape of Good Hope. There he became one of the world's most respected astronomers. He turned the Cape Observatory into the best and most productive observatory in the Southern hemisphere. His speciality was precision astrometrics, which led to an accurate determination of the size of the solar system, to reliable distances of nearby stars and to a measure of the motion of stars in our galaxy. Gill was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1900, was twice awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society and became their President in his retirement from the Cape. In fact he received many other honours. David Gill's grave is in St Machars churchyard in Old Aberdeen. I have written more on David Gill's astronomical career.
John Carroll in 1931, courtesy of his daughter Flora McBain at her wedding in 1954 Michael Gadsden Hillbrae radio telescope
Sir John A. Carroll (1899 - 1974) was Professor of Natural Philosophy in the University of Aberdeen from 1930 to 1945, though not knighted until 1953. He had graduated from Cambridge in 1922, worked at Imperial College, London, and for almost 2 years at Caltec and at Mount Wilson Observatory in the States, specializing in spectroscopy. He returned to Cambridge to a lectureship in astrophysics and post as assistant to the Director of the Solar Physics Laboratory. His interests remained in spectroscopy and in particular in solar physics. With this combination he became particularly interested in the motion of the solar corona. The corona could be studied in detail during total eclipses of the Sun and before coming to Aberdeen he had been on eclipse expeditions in 1923, 1927 and 1929. At Aberdeen he joined the Cambridge expedition of 1932 and in 1936 organised an Aberdeen expedition to Omsk in Siberia, a major undertaking. By this time Carroll was as much involved in instrument development as in observations. He had become a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1925, served on their Council for 6 years and editor of their publication The Observatory for 5 years. During WWII he was seconded to the Admiralty, becoming Assistant Director of Scientific Research and later Chief Scientist and did not return to his Professorship at Aberdeen. After retirement in 1964 he was appointed Gresham Professor in Astronomy in London. See also our pages in the Scientific Tourist and Carroll's obituary . Flora McBain (1912 - 2000) was an Aberdonian and student at the University who gained an Honours degree in Natural Philosophy and Mathematics in 1934, when John Carroll was professor. In 1935 she gained experience at the Nautical Almanac Office (NAO), little knowing that 19 years later she would marry its next Director, Donald Saddler (shown above at their wedding in 1954). In 1936 she was part of John Carroll's eclipse expedition party to Omsk. She was briefly on the staff at Aberdeen before moving to the NAO in 1937 where she specialized in astronomically related calculations. In 1938 she became a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) and 10 years later editor of their prestigious journal Monthly Notices. In 1948 she became Secretary of the RAS, a post she held until 1954. From 1955 to 1964 she was Secretary to the Commission of the General Assemblies of the International Union of Astronomy dealing with the motion of the Moon. Although not an observing astronomer she became well-known in astronomical circles. Her husband was elected President of the Royal Astronomical Society from 1967 - 1969. The Saddlers retired to the South Coast of England but some years after her husband's death she moved back to Aberdeen. Michael Gadsden (1933 - 2003) was a Senior Lecturer in Natural Philosophy at the University of Aberdeen from 1970 until he took retirement in 1997. He became the most internationally known member of the department and has an asteroid named after him, courtesy of the International Astronomical Union. Michael graduated with Honours in Physics and a PhD from Imperial College, London, with a special interest in optics. From 1957 to 1963 he worked in New Zealand with the Dominion Physical Laboratory studying the aurora australis and other upper atmosphere emissions both optically and with radar. From 1963 to 1970 he worked in the States at the Central Radio Propagation Laboratory in Boulder where, amongst other responsibilities, he was Director of the Fritz Peak Observatory. His spectroscopic work on the upper atmosphere took him to the Antarctica on several occasions, and to eclipse expeditions in Mexico and the Cook Islands. Michael specialized at Aberdeen in the imaging, measurement and interpretation of noctilucent clouds. This resulted in him co-authoring the definitive monograph on this topic. For 20 years he was on the Executive of the International Association for Geomagnetism and Aeronomy (IAGA), serving as their Secretary for a record 12 years. Michael Gadsden became a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1958, Council Member (1979-80 and 1991-93), Vice-President in 1981 and Harold Jeffreys Lecturer in 1985. He was a member of several other bodies including the American Geophysical Union from 1964 where he was made Life Member in 1990. Michael was also a Fellow of the Royal Meteorological Society and was responsible for initializing our popular course on Meteorology and Astronomy in the early 1990s. He was an excellent raconteur and brought this skill to his lectures. More details in his BAA obituary and a personal obituary. This is a portfolio entry. The Aberdeen radio astronomy group was formed in the 1960s, the first radio astronomy research group in Scotland.  As pioneers, they had to do everything themselves.  An entry level parabolic dish about 1.8 m in diameter was mounted on a converted German searchlight base; a sensitive GHz twin-channel receiver designed and built in-house and the telescope set up on the roof of the Natural Philosophy Department on the Fraser Noble building.  A good signal from the Crab Nebula convinced them that radio astronomy was viable with modest means.  Over the next 15 years Alistair Flett, Pat Foster, Cyril Henderson, Dave Thornton, Ian Howie, Stephen Drake and James Lamb engaged in a program of instrument design and observations using increasingly large parabolic dishes.  By 1971 they had set-up a 4.5 m, zinc-coated, fibreglass paraboloid at Hillbrae Farm, 10 miles north of Aberdeen.  The telescope was mounted on a modified Bofurs gun turret and can be seen in the image above.  With their own receiver, it was used in particular to measure the radio emission at 9 mm wavelength (33.5 GHz) from the supernova remnant in the Crab Nebula.  The group also examined the emission from the solar corona during the 1971 eclipse.  Later in the decade they used the 25 m Chilbolton steerable radio telescope in Hampshire with their own receiver to map a range of sources and measure the polarisation of radio emission from sources including planets.  The work continued into the 1980s and Alistair Flett was appointed Cruickshank Lecturer in Astronomy.  With the retirement of staff, the group’s final work was the design and build by Sye (AG) Murray of a sub-millimetre polarimeter for use on the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii. At the end of its life, the Hillbrae telescope dish and mounting were acquired by the National Museum of Scotland.
Myfanwy Lloyd James Lamb Clare Watt
Myfanwy Bryce (m. Lloyd) graduated in Physics at Aberdeen in 1989 and after taking a PhD in Astrophysics at the University of Manchester has spent much of her career at the Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics, School of Physics & Astronomy, University of Manchester.  The illustration shows Myfanwy in front of the Jodrell Bank radio telescope dish.  Myfanwy’s career has reflected the way modern astronomy works.  As an observing astronomer she has had telescope time on large international facilities in 5 continents, including the VLT in Chile, the South African Astronomical Observatory, the Anglo-Australian telescope and telescopes in Mexico and La Palma.  Using both optical and radio observations, Myfanwy has a long-standing interest in understanding the wide range of features found in planetary nebula, one of the outcomes of stellar evolution that can be produced towards the end of a star’s life.  Since the days have long passed when astronomy was carried on by men in padded coats peering all night through a telescope eyepiece, she has been keen to spend some of her career pointing out that astronomy is now as feasible and interesting a career for women as for men.  Raising a family is no longer an impediment to a life in astronomy. Through her teaching, public lectures and work with professional bodies she has encouraged women into astronomy.  Myfanwy was on the Council of the Royal Astronomical Society and has been a member of the International Astronomical Union and Institute of Physics for about 25 years. James W. Lamb is an Aberdonian and graduate who has spent his working life at observatories, notably radio astronomy observatories.  He has been on the staff that makes modern astronomy possible through his expertise in designing antenna arrays and in designing, building and operating specialist receivers. His family emigrated from Aberdeen to New Zealand when he was young and he received his BSc (Hons) in Physics at the University of Canterbury. James returned to Aberdeen in 1976 to the Department of Physics for an MSc in Instrument Design followed by a PhD developing Josephson junction mixers for the radio astronomy group (see above). His career from then on is typical of how experience is built up in specialist technology. He spent a year as a Foreign Scholar at the Helsinki University of Technology working on cryogenic receivers and optics for the Metsähovi Telescope. At Queen Mary College in London as a Research Assistant, he worked on the design of the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope, to be built in Hawaii, before taking a position as a Senior Electronic Engineer at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Tucson, Arizona, where they operated a 12-metre diameter mm-wave antenna.

Later, as leader of the Antenna Group for the proposed US Millimeter Array (MMA), James Lamb worked on the design and analysis of precision antenna structures. Uprooting the family again, he moved to Grenoble as Leader of the Frontend Group at the Institute de Radioastronomy Millimétrique in Grenoble. This observatory operates a millimetre-wave array in the French Alps and a 30-metre antenna in Grenada, Spain. The focus was still on low-noise mm-wave receivers, optics, antennas and preliminary work on the planned European Large Southern Array (LSA). In 1996, he returned to the US to work at Caltech's Owens Valley Radio Observatory (OVRO). In addition to developing instrumentation for its millimetre array, he contributed to design and reviews for the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), now operational in Chile. James is currently (2017) the OVRO Site Director.

Without technologists, astronomy would not be a fundamental science.

Clare E J Watt came to the University of Aberdeen from Mackie Academy in Stonehaven and graduated with Honours in Mathematics-Physics in 1998.  She joined the Upper Atmospheric Sciences group of the British Antarctic Survey to investigate near-Earth processes responsible for the linking of the solar and terrestrial magnetic fields.  This linking is a key process in creating the aurora and the radiation belts that surround the Earth.  It was only in the second half of the 20th century that the complex properties of the magnetosphere around the Earth began to be investigated.  This region controls the behaviour of charged particles coming from the Sun, particles responsible for the more damaging effects of ‘space weather’ that are increasingly commercially relevant.  Since the Sun is a common type of star, what is discovered about the Sun’s extended environment applies to a great many other stars too.  Clare has gained a considerable reputation in the field of magnetospheric modelling and the interpretation of observations, developing mathematical models that are solved computationally to tease out the behaviour of plasmas flows with their accompanying radiation.  After obtaining her doctorate at Cambridge, she spent 11 years at the University of Alberta working particularly on magnetospheric electron flow and radiation before moving to become a lecturer in space environment physics in the Department of Meteorology at the University of Reading.  She is now Associate Professor.

The meteorologists’ particular interest in the magnetosphere is a 21st century development, highlighting the changing astronomy/meteorology boundary.  Clare became a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1999 and a Council Member in 2017.  She is also the Magnetospheric Phenomena Division Chair of IAGA.  As Associate Professor, she has to balance undergraduate teaching, postgraduate supervision, research, administration, organising and attending off-campus meetings and outreach activities.  There is seldom a dull moment.


Autobiographical postscript

John S. Reid at the Cromwell Tower Observatory

I rather flatter myself by including an autobiographical note in this page but on the grounds that at least 2000 students have had me as their lecturer on astronomiy and I have put many pages on the web relevant to astronomy I’ll include a paragraph on the pretext of being a part-time academic astronomer. 

I wasn't born in Aberdeen but I went to primary and secondary school in the city and graduated from the University of Aberdeen in ‘Natural Philosophy’ in 1964.  As someone who liked the city and had family in the area I ‘stayed behind’, obtaining a PhD in solid state physics, followed by a lectureship in ‘Experimental Natural Philosophy’, aka experimental physics.  Although astronomy was part of the Natural Philosophy course in the early 1960s (taught by R V Jones), my biggest inspiration was reading Fred Hoyle’s Frontiers of Astronomy as a teenager. Astronomy remained just an interest until in the 1980s I became more professionally involved in the history of astronomy.  That in a way was a good place to start, for it put the modern astronomical knowledge I particularly acquired in the 1990s into perspective when I took over the astronomy and meteorology lectures from Michael Gadsden.  I had become a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1981 and a Fellow of the Royal Meteorological Society in 1975.  In a changing educational environment, with a different background I was able to rewrite the astronomy and meteorology courses and, later, write a new level 2 course on cosmology and stellar evolution.  In 2002 I was appointed to the historical post of Cruickshank Lecturer in Astronomy, Meteorology and Navigation alongside my other commitments that included Head of Physics.  I was able to equip our historic Cromwell Tower Observatory with a modern reflector but unfortunately for most of the time since then the observatory has had persistent problems with a leaking roof and was made even less usable by the installation of floodlighting at King’s College – an example close to home that dark skies are an increasing rarity.  I retired from lecturing in 2008 but have kept in touch with the courses and my successors since then.

Content: John S. Reid, updated February 2018.