Professors of Natural Philosophy at the Universities of Aberdeen *

Reginald Victor Jones CH CB CBE FRS FRSE 29 Sep 1911 – 17 Dec 1997

R V Jones began his academic life at Oxford, graduating in 1932, obtaining his DPhil in 1934 and taking up a post-doctoral studentship at Balliol College. His research involved developing infra-red detectors, a subject that would have relevance during the war and which he continued with for many years into his Aberdeen appointment. In 1936 he was recruited to the Air Ministry to promote this work. The intervening decade would be the most momentous in Jones’ life, for he was seconded as science adviser to the Air Ministry at the beginning of World War II and rose to become scientific intelligence adviser to the Cabinet, with the ear of Winston Churchill, particularly supplying crucial information relevant to the Air Force. He was appointed Professor of Natural Philosophy in 1946 but his wartime experiences never faded and he would introduce them in lectures and later wrote about them until his retirement, and beyond.

It was traditional in Scottish Universities for the Head of Department to lecture to the large first-year classes that contained many students who were taking physics simply to support a degree in another subject. Jones kept up this tradition for the whole of his tenure. His end of term lecture became famous in the 1950s and early 60s, involving the use of live ammunition in demonstrations that would have modern health and safety advisers blanching in their seats. His researches occupied most of his time, carried on with a large team of technical support, particularly in his last 15 years. He initiated in the late 1940s with Arthern Jones a pioneering program of growing artificial crystals, particularly of pure and doped halides, which expanded to almost an industrial scale. Spin-off work by other staff involved investigating solid state properties of the grown crystals but a substantial amount of the output was supplied to laboratories around the world.

Probably stemming from his efforts to devise ever more sensitive infra-red detectors, particularly bolometers for the far infra-red, he developed over the years a suite of instruments that pushed the limits of sensitivity as fa as the laws of physics allowed. He applied these to seismometers, tiltmeters and ultra-micrometres, and to a number of instruments of his own design to investigate the speed of light in moving media. All this development was supported by a large mechanical workshop employing more than a dozen technicians who produced some of the most accurately made precision equipment in the country. Also in support were an electronics workshop, an optical workshop, a graphite workshop (making parts for the crystal-growing furnaces), a wood workshop and an excellent technical drawing office. For a fullerCovering his whole life, Jones' Royal Society obituary runs to 12 pages and his independent RSE obituary is also extensive. He left an oral archive in the University of Aberdeen but still abbreviated account of his Aberdeen years, see The Scientific Tourist.

R V JonesR V Jones post retirement, from a photograph in the Natural Philosophy Collection of the University of Aberdeen

When Jones began, the department was still located at Marischal College. It expanded in the 1950s and spun off Medical Physics into an independent department. There was increased expansion over the 1960s and early 1970s.  New staff bought new interests in radio-astronomy, noctilucent clouds, the aurora and upper atmosphere aeronomy, diffuse X-ray scattering, Mössbauer scattering, electronic, optical and mechanical instrument design, geomagnetism, computational physics and theoretical physics.  This wide range of expertise provided a strong background for the Honours courses and a complement to wide-ranging student interests. Most of the staff designed and built their apparatus, drawing on the high-grade skills of the various workshops.  In 1963 the Department moved from Marischal College to the new Natural Philosophy building that R V Jones had had a significant hand in designing.  A quarter-century later it was re-christened the Fraser Noble Building after a retired University Principal, which seemed at the time to be one of the many moves during Professor Marr’s tenure to reduce the status of Natural Philosophy.

Jones had a strong sense of hierachy when it came to dealings with academic staff. He regarded the department as 'his' department and in keeping with the habit of earlier times generally addressed staff directly by their surnames. In truth he was more at ease with the technical and secretarial staff than with most lecturing staff. The net result of this, however, was that the entire department, cleaners, storekeeper, workshops staff, secretaries, lecturing and laboratory assistants, research students and research staff, junior and senior academics operated almost as 'family'. Social events were inclusive; secretaries, research students, research staff and all academics shared the departmental tea-room in mornings and afternoons, at least in the Natural Philosophy building. Technical staff with earlier hours had earlier breaks. This engendered an atmosphere of mutual respect and support. Jones, himself, though, largely left academics to their own devices, taking it that one should have the wit and knowledge to run one's own research, behave responsibly, make up and deliver appropriate lectures and supervise research students intelligently, He did not involve himself in the research interests of most other staff. A few staff did collaborative work with him but over his 35 years in post, he had few research students. Although the department had a generally friendly atmosphere, in later years Jones became increasingly distant from most of the academic staff, mainly because of his perceived reluctance to share decision making and resources or sponsor promotions. He retired some months before his 70th birthday.

Photograph of the Natural Philosophy Department on 22nd May 1981 outside the Natural Philosophy building, courtesy Dr George Murray. R V Jones is front centre; academic staff and secretaries occupy the front row, technical staff the back row, various staff including cleaners and other support staff the centre row. Staff away on the occasion were academics John S. Reid, Michael Gadsden, John Richards, Alistair Duncanson and Cyril Henderson; technician James Anderson and research students Brian Robertson and James Lamb.


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John S. Reid

Dec. 2017