Obituary: Professor Douglas Jones FRS, FRSE, mathematician

Professor Douglas Samuel Jones
Professor Douglas Samuel Jones
Share this article
Have your say

Born: 10 January, 1922, in Corby, Northamptonshire. Died: 29 November, 2013, in Perth, aged 91

Douglas Samuel Jones, one of the most outstanding British mathematicians of his generation, died on 26 November, 2013, at the age of 91.

His deep insight into the theory of electromagnetic waves and his development of new and exceptionally powerful mathematical techniques with which to study them has led to the resolution of problems of both practical and social importance. His work is of fundamental importance to the design and performance of radar antennae in which it is necessary to optimise their receiving and transmitting characteristics. Douglas Jones also investigated the ways in which electromagnetic waves interact with objects having sharp edges.

These studies are basic to the construction of stealth aircraft whose sharp corners are designed to minimise the aircraft’s radar signature. In the mid-1970s, when supersonic airliner capability was realised with the design of Concorde, there was much concern regarding the noise created at take-off and landing and the impact of “sonic boom” on built-up areas.

This prompted an investigation of the noise level experienced on the ground by a moving acoustic source and led Douglas Jones to develop a mathematical theory of noise shielding.

In order to gain insight into these difficult questions, Douglas Jones developed a range of new mathematical techniques and theories. These have become essential tools with which to solve a wide range of problems crucial to understanding wave behaviour.

Douglas Jones’s style and approach to mathematical research is nicely encapsulated by the following remark of Sir James Lighthill relating to the theory of generalised functions made at a conference in 1992 at Dundee University to mark his 70th birthday. It concerns Douglas’s book The Theory of Generalised Functions.

“I have… been overjoyed that my tiny 80-page Introduction to Fourier Analysis and Generalised Functions, which concentrates on functions of just one variable, has proved to be a suitable appetite whetting ‘starter’, as it were, leading up to Douglas’s superbly concocted ‘main dish’ in 540 pages which extends all the results in a comprehensive fashion and includes the corresponding properties of functions of many variables.”

During the 1970s and 1980s mathematicians began to direct attention to the potential of exploiting mathematical ideas to answer long-standing questions in the biological and medical sciences.

This initiative arose, in part, from the development of the ground-breaking work done by Alan Turing on biological pattern formation and carried forward by J D Murray and others.

As a forward-thinking mathematician and scientist, Douglas Jones realised that the new and rapidly evolving subject of “mathematical biology” should be made accessible to undergraduate students.

This led, in 1983, to his co-authored book Differential Equations and Mathematical Biology. Mathematical biology 1 is now recognised as a major field of applied mathematical research and most universities in the UK and worldwide offer courses in this area to students.

Douglas Jones was born in Corby, Northamptonshire, on 10 January, 1922. He won a scholarship to Wolverhampton Grammar School, where he became senior prefect, captain of both chess and cricket as well as vice captain of soccer.

In 1940 he won an open scholarship to Corpus Christi College, Oxford. As was the experience of many young men of that period, Douglas’s university career was interrupted by call-up for war service.

He joined the Royal Air Force and in 1942, as a Signals radar officer with the rank of Flight Lieutenant, led a research unit of about 100 people engaged in designing and commissioning new equipment for night fighter operations.

In recognition of his abilities Douglas was Mentioned in Dispatches in 1943 and awarded an MBE in 1945. In the same year he returned to Oxford, graduating MA in 1947. Following a year as a Commonwealth Fellow at MIT, Douglas was appointed to an assistant lectureship at Manchester University, rising to senior lecturer in 1955.

It was during this period that Douglas made fundamental contributions to diffraction theory and demonstrated his phenomenal abilities as an analyst. In 1957 he moved to the Chair of Mathematics at the University of Keele, where his reputation as a world leader was established with the publication of his monumental book The Theory of Electromagnetism.

In 1965 Douglas was appointed to the Ivory Chair of Applied Mathematics at Queen’s College in the University of St Andrews, to become the University of Dundee in 1967, a position he held with great distinction, serving twice as Head of Department and as Dean of the Faculty of Science. He retired in 1992, at which point he was made Emeritus Professor.

During his career his achievements have been recognised by numerous honours: Fellowship of the Royal Society, Fellowship of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and Honorary D.Sc of the University of Strathclyde.

He was also elected an Honorary Fellow of Corpus Christi College Oxford, recipient of the Naylor Prize and Lectureship of the London Mathematical Society, the Marconi Prize of the Institute of Electrical Engineers, the Balthasar van der Pol Gold Medal of the International Union of Radio Science and the Keith Prize of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

Douglas Jones was a tireless champion and campaigner for the promotion of mathematics and professional mathematicians. He was chairman of the University Grants Committee (UGC) mathematics sub-committee.

In 1981 he published the controversial report on behalf of the UGC entitled Whither Mathematics. The report highlighted the serious problems caused by the bulge in the 35-45 age group of academic staff reflected in the boom in recruitment in the 1960s as a consequence of the Robbins report on university expansion.

With a predicted fall by 36 per cent in mathematically trained students it was recommended that these staff in mid-career be compulsorily retired.

Due to public and academic pressure, no government action was taken.

Within the wider community Douglas was a founding member of the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications (IMA) served on council and was appointed its president in 1988. It was during his presidency that he led the negotiations with the Privy Council which resulted in the IMA being incorporated by Royal Charter and then subsequently granted the right to award Chartered Mathematician status.

Douglas Jones was a very private man, not given to small talk, but once engaged was stimulating and amusing company and always happy to engage in the exchange of ideas. He was an important mentor and guiding light to young staff and research students, many of whom have gone onto distinguished careers.

He and his wife Ivy, who pre-deceased him, were a devoted and mutually supportive team. They were both very active in the work of Tenovus Scotland and the World Wildlife Fund for Nature.

Douglas Jones was a fine man, a friend and mentor and is greatly missed. He is survived by his sisters Dot and Joyce.

Brian Sleeman