Obituary: Prof Vincent Reddish OBE

FORMER Astronomer Royal for Scotland and director of the Royal Observatory Edinburgh

Prof Vincent Reddish OBE. Picture: Contributed

Professor Vincent Cartledge Reddish OBE, former Astronomer Royal for Scotland.

Born: 28 April, 1926, in Leigh, Lancashire.

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Died: 2 January, 2015, in Livingston, West Lothian, aged 88.

Vincent Reddish was a key figure in the modernisation of British astronomy from the Fifties to the Seventies, leading the creation of several facilities of world significance – the Galaxy machine, the UK Schmidt telescope in Australia (commissioned in 1973 and run until 1988 by the Royal Observatory Edinburgh), and the UK Infrared Telescope in Hawaii, which opened in 1979 and was the second largest of its kind in the world.

He was also a scientist of considerable stature in his own right, studying the distribution of very faint galaxies, and wrote several excellent textbooks. He was always happiest when working on the science and technology, rather than the politics and administration into which his eventual seniority led him.

In the late 1970s he took the brave decision to retire into private life while still at the peak of his career. Thereafter he established a self-catering business and undertook his own independent (and sometimes controversial) scientific investigations.

Vincent Cartledge Reddish was born in 1926 in the town of Leigh, then in Lancashire. His family moved to Culcheth and Vincent attended the local grammar school, which he left in 1941.

In the next few years he worked at a bank, joined the Navy, then went to Wigan Technical College to obtain a degree in physics. Finally in 1952 his astronomical career began, when he was accepted for a PhD at University College London, producing a thesis on “Star clusters in relation to stellar evolution” under CW Allen in 1954. Following this, he began his long connection with Edinburgh, becoming a lecturer at the university.

Soon after, he began working with Bernard Lovell at Jodrell Bank, and became a lecturer at Manchester University in 1959. In 1962, he returned to Edinburgh as Principal Scientific Officer at the Royal Observatory. In 1968 he was awarded a Doctorate of Science by the Senate of London University.

Before the 1950s, observational astronomy in the UK was a fairly modest enterprise, and British astronomy was dominated by theoretical work. This changed dramatically with the development of radio astronomy in Manchester and Cambridge; as well as being observational and practical, radio astronomy was driven by technology. Reddish returned to Edinburgh with an ambition to make observational optical astronomy similarly modern and technology-driven.

This fitted perfectly with the ambitions of Hermann Bruck, who in 1957 had taken over as director of the Royal Observatory Edinburgh. Bruck was particularly keen on the idea of automation.

Reddish took up the reins, setting up the observatory’s technology division, which laid the foundations for its reputation for instrument building and ultimately for today’s UK Astronomy Technology Centre.

In particular he collaborated with technical wizard Peter Fellgett to create Galaxy, a machine which automatically scanned photographic plates to produce a digital version of the data. Galaxy became Cosmos in 1975, and (after Reddish’s time) SuperCosmos in 1993, producing digital sky survey data which today anybody can download from the web.

Reddish was put in charge of the 16-inch Schmidt telescope in Edinburgh, and a new telescope in Frascati, but he soon realised the limitations of both.

His dream was a wide field survey telescope similar to the famous Palomar Schmidt in California, followed by a new world-beating giant 240-inch telescope.

The “giant telescope” idea went through various mutations, but the survey telescope was pushed steadily along by Reddish, until finally the 48-inch UK Schmidt Telescope started work in Australia in 1973, producing a complete survey of the southern sky to match the northern sky survey produced by the Palomar Schmidt.

The plates from the new telescope were scanned by the Galaxy machine in Edinburgh, and very soon used by Reddish for his own research on the distribution of faint galaxies.

In 1975, Bruck retired, and Reddish was appointed to the so-called “Triple Crown” position (Astronomer Royal for Scotland, director of the Royal Observatory Edinburgh and Regius Professor at the University of Edinburgh). He continued in a leadership role what he had already started in a technical and scientific role – the completion and operation of the plate measuring machines, the UK Schmidt, and the growing collaboration with the new Anglo-Australian 150-inch telescope. However, he also led the ROE in its new grand project – the construction of a radically new facility, a four-metre class infra-red specialised telescope, to be built on the Mauna Kea peak in Hawaii – the UK Infrared Telescope (UKIRT). This world beating new telescope began construction in 1973, and started operations in 1979, shortly before Reddish retired.

Having accomplished so much – writing several textbooks and many scientific papers, as well as leading the completion of such impressive large-scale projects – Reddish had strong disagreements with the new Swindon-based management of UK astronomy.

Together with health issues, this made him decide to resign from his high profile position. In 1980 he moved to his holiday home near Loch Rannoch in Perthshire – a move that some astronomers jokingly but fondly called the “Reddish Shift”, in reference to the well-known cosmological red shift effect.

He and his ever supportive wife Betty bought the nearby Croiscrag Lodge with a view to establishing a self-catering holiday business. They undertook the necessary extensive renovations and alterations themselves, with some help from other members of the family, learning all the necessary skills and revelling in the process. In addition to running his business, Reddish was a governor of Rannoch School from 1981 to 1997.

In 1988 Reddish sold Croiscrag Lodge, retired and returned to Edinburgh, moving to Livingston in 1998. This gave him time to apply his scientific skills to a more thorough investigation of two matters that had first interested him while at Rannoch – the design of Chinese junk sails and claims of water dowsing.

The former arose from a long-term love of sailing as a hobby, and the efficiency and ease of handling of the “Reddish rig’’ enabled him to sail single-handed around Ireland in 1993. His investigations into the possible physics behind dowsing resulted in papers in the Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, two books, and presentations to the Institute of Physics in Edinburgh and Aberdeen.

Professor Reddish is survived by his wife Elizabeth, sons John and Andrew and grandchildren Alison and Calum.