Obituary: Professor John Brown OBE, Astronomer Royal for Scotland who used magic tricks to share wonder of the cosmos

Professor John Brown, OBE, astronomer. Born: 4 February, 1947 in Dumbarton. Died: 16 November, 2019 on Skye, aged 72

Astronomer Royal for Scotland Professor John Brown has died at the age of 72
Astronomer Royal for Scotland Professor John Brown has died at the age of 72
Astronomer Royal for Scotland Professor John Brown has died at the age of 72

With his box of magic trick accoutrements Professor John Brown, the 10th Astronomer Royal for Scotland, could stride onto any stage – be it an august academic setting, an inner-city school or a village hall in the Scottish Highlands and islands and use sleight of hand conjuring tricks to mesmerise and entrance his audience as he illustrated a host of scientific concepts from black holes to solar flares.

On occasion, as a thrilling grande finale, he would “behead” a colleague or friend, leaving everyone roaring with laughter.

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Prof Brown held no truck with formality, but instead wanted to inspire everyone with his love of astronomy.

Prof Brown, who died suddenly at his home on Skye on 16 November, aged 72, was a renowned world-class scientist. His main research interests were theoretical astrophysics, particularly relating to solar and cosmic plasmas and particle beams. He was a key figure in Nasa’s Rhessi mission.

He was born in Dumbarton in the west of Scotland into an ordinary family where his father John was an engineer and his mother, Jean, a housewife who created a warm and welcoming home.

His older brother Jimmy completed a PhD in mechanical engineering and later carried out research.

But the spark which inspired the future direction of Prof Brown’s life was reading a science fiction story at the age of eight, which he believed was by astronomer Patrick Moore.

Two years later Sputnik was launched, Jodrell Bank opened and his Uncle Joe showed him Comet Arend-Roland through binoculars.

Prof Brown told The Scotsman in 2010 how aged 10 he built his own telescope from an old spectacle lens and a magnifying glass taped on opposite ends of two cardboard tubes and pointed it towards the Moon.

“The first thing I saw through that telescope were the craters of the Moon. I was amazed by what I was seeing and the sense of wonder has never left me. If anything it’s got stronger. I still get the same thrill as when I was a wee boy. There had been talk of rockets going into space and I wanted to be part of that world.”

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By the age of 16 Prof Brown had started the school astronomy club at Dumbarton Academy. Hearing that Coats Observatory in Paisley was running evening classes the teenage Brown started attending – taking a bus from Dumbarton to Yoker, then the Renfrew Ferry across the River Clyde, before getting another bus to Paisley.

Arthur Jones, a close friend of Prof Brown at Dumbarton Academy, and who sometimes went to the lectures, recalls a private joke between the two.

“Mike Ovenden was explaining a scientific concept and some chap, who had obviously missed the point, piped up in a posh-sounding voice and asked ‘does that mean rays go right through the Moon then?’

“Years later, after a few drinks John would enjoy imitating him and we’d have a real laugh together.”

Prof Brown attended the University of Glasgow and while an undergraduate he was offered a combined doctorate and teaching post. After years of research and overseas fellowships he was appointed professor of astrophysics in 1984, at the age of 37.

Professor Declan Diver of the university’s department of physics and astronomy, recalled talking to Prof Brown when struggling to get research papers published early in his career and being invited to the Aragon pub in the city’s Byres Road to commiserate.

“A typical phrase he used was ‘I’m not as mathematical as most, but…’ Then followed an insightful and precise analysis.”

“In 2010 he helped organise the National Astronomy Meeting at the university, an international conference. Then the Icelandic volcano ash cloud happened, potentially trapping delegates in Glasgow. John sorted out travel arrangements which even saw one academic taking a train to the Channel Tunnel and hiring a taxi to Lisbon where he was met by a civic reception.”

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Prof Brown received a host of honours throughout his career. Perhaps the one he was most proud of was being appointed Astronomer Royal for Scotland in February 1995.

Other honours include being elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1984, the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 2012. In 2016 he was awarded an OBE for services to the promotion of astronomy education.

However, despite all the glittering prizes he always said he owed it all to his wife Margaret, whom he met at a party when they were both students. He said it was she who had given him the confidence and support to succeed.

He was also tremendously proud of son Stuart, a jazz musician, and daughter Lorna, a researcher, and grandsons Oscar and Elliott.

Robert Massey, deputy director of the Royal Astronomical Society, who worked with Prof Brown at the Royal Observatory Greenwich, said: “He was a larger than life character, a force for good. He was always happy to ask the tough questions at meetings and challenge ‘received wisdom’. He wasn’t someone who was afraid to speak his mind, but was always courteous if you didn’t agree.”

Prof Brown was what in Scotland is called a “Bonnie Fechter” – someone willing to stand up for people and fight for a good cause.

In the months before he died Prof Brown launched a battle against proposals by Chivas Brothers, the global whisky giant, to build a “24/7” whisky bothy in the midst of the world’s most northerly gold-tier status International Dark Sky Park in the Cairngorms. He was also about to call for a boycott of Chivas products.

But as well as being a scientist, Prof Brown loved the arts and music, from jazz to Jimi Hendrix, Iain Banks novels to Jack Vettriano paintings.

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Over the past few years along with his friend Rab Wilson, the poet who writes in the Scots language, Prof Brown wrote ‘Oor Big Braw Cosmos’ – a book combining his astronomy writing with works by Rab showing how science is interlinked with the beauty of the cosmos. Prof Brown also included a number of photos by amateur astronomers.

Wilson said: “John was a great patriot. He wanted the book to have a Scottish slant, so with me writing in Scots it was the ideal ingredient and I was signed up.

“One of the great joys of my life was to have met John Brown and to have worked with him. That book remains as a monument.”

Wilson’s poem ‘The Auld Professor’ is a whimsical tribute to John – as he asked everyone to call him.

It imagines John, up in Skye with a dram of his favourite Talisker whisky in his hand, watching the Perseid meteor shower and ‘catching’ them in his glass.

The last verse reads:

“He clamps a haund doun oan the gless,

Luiks round tae speir that nane hae seen this daftness,

Then steikin baith his een, taks aff his dram;

An’ drinks the perfect fire o the cosmos.”