July 31st 2004
Vale Brian Robinson: A great Australian
Magnetic Times received the sad news recently that a great friend of Magnetic Island, a man who lived on the Island with his wife Jill in the winter months of the 1990s, had passed away last week. He was Brian Robinson and, as you will read, he was an exceptional Australian whose astonishing contribution to science cannot be over estimated. In 2000 Magnetic Times produced a Community Close-Up story about Brain and his extraordinary life. In memory of Brian we have reproduced that story.
Brain Robinson: Old Clocks and Radio Telescopes (Community Close-Up story from Magnetic Times, August 2000)
Former Island resident and Magnetic Times Found In Space columnist, Brian Robinson, was recently contacted by Cambridge International Biographical Centre. They were seeking his professional resume. Not perhaps such an unusual request for the 70 year old astrophysicist now more or less retired from a very illustrious career. Nonetheless, this request surprised Brian, as the Centre was preparing a millennium book of the 20th century's 2000 most outstanding scientists in all fields and all countries. This level of recognition was certainly a measure of Brian's standing. Only thing was; he wasn't sure which particular field of his achievements he was to be recognised for.
Brian, whose wizened features happily confirm popular expectations of how an elderly scientist should look, is clearly in the realm of "Living National Treasure" and in this Community Close-Up, we learn of the fascinating world Brian grew up in - starting as the kid who, for years, scraped the academic barrel, coming 118th out of the school year of 120 before "clicking" with trigonometry, from which the sky, literally, became the limit.
Brian was born the day Phar Lap won the 1930 Melbourne Cup, and, of course, in the very darkest days of the Great Depression when almost all of Australia tightened its belt to survive: Brian's family was no exception. In other ways they were, however, quite exceptional. Brian's father was Ray Robinson an investigative journalist and world class cricket writer for the Melbourne Herald. When the Depression struck, the paper's staff agreed to work for half pay so nobody would have to be laid off. "Growing up we ate lots of tripe" said Brian.
With the lively, highly stimulating talk of Ray's journalistic mates, often in the family home, Brian was early exposed to a rich vein of ideas and lots of politics. "I became a great listener" he said.
When Brian was six his grandmother gave him an old clock. Finding the object of considerable fascination he proceeded to pull it entirely apart and put it back together. Amazingly, it still worked!
By the time Brian was eight the family had moved to Sydney, and life became even more interesting. "We moved a great deal and when we moved to Sydney we lived in Bondi Junction. I went to Waverley School on the edge of Paddington, then a slum and notorious for the razor and acid gangs. I realised I was attending school with gangster's children. As a kid from Melbourne I was treated just like the refugee kids arriving from Europe. I wore glasses and got beaten up every day but I made some great friends among the European Jewish kids" said Brian, whose own ancestry includes one of the first Jewish English convicts to arrive in Van Diemen's Land in 1815.
Dad was very open minded and would quite often take me along to parties with Sydney's most notorious free-thinkers and bohemians, 'The Push'". The Push was a group of non-conformists, writers, artists, musicians and academics who detested the deeply conservative and parochial attitudes of mainstream Australia at the time and went to some effort to live as vividly as possible. "Mum didn't go. She disapproved of the overt sexuality of the Push parties which were often held at, Sydney's top journalist, Cyril Pearl's home near Figtree Bridge. I was, then, at the age of about 12, attending very adult parties. There were two Pushes in Sydney at that time, but the other one was more involved in drugs. I can remember one woman in a very revealing neglege walking off with a man to a bedroom to return a little later then disappear with another and so on. I would wander into a room and there would be William Dobell painting away and quite happy to show me how he laid on oil paint. In another room would be Kenneth Slessor reading a poem to a small gathering.
"I think I took a lot of that behaviour for granted but at my age was actually keener to climb down to the water's edge and take Cyril's canoe out on the river and explore under Figtree Bridge."
A little later the Robinsons moved to Lane Cove and lived near Stringybark Creek. "In those days I lived a kind of Huck Finn existence. I spent all of my time after school playing in the bush. Dad was a night worker and mum didn't have much formal education. I wasn't doing homework but I was reading a lot. When I read Huck Finn I saw parallels and it helped my powers of observation of birds, insects and plants and also how to build things."
When he was 14, Brian's mum, Jessie, put her foot down when Ray was offered the job of his life: to run the New York office for the paper. With the many previous moves it would be too much to disrupt young Brian's high school years. They stayed.
Brian, whose hobbies had begun to include chemistry and crystal set radios, was however, well and truly under-achieving at school - with a standard of about 45% in his exams. But it may have had something to do with scarlet fever which resulted in Brian becoming deaf in one ear and prone to constant infections. When Ray eventually found a Viennese ear specialist in Sydney who cured Brian, he began to discover that he could do maths very well. It began with geometry and a maths teacher who discoverd a gifted mind among the plodders and who showed Brian far more interesting problems. "It was as if I already knew the maths, and trigonometry came very naturally too!" said Brain. "There was never any pressure from home either - 'Just do your best!' they'd say."
Funnily enough, Brian didn't get on with his physics master, whose report on Brian read, "Should never take up physics". But that wasn't to hinder Brian's intellectual unleashing. In his third year (Year 10) his marks jumped him from 118th to 5th in the year. The wave of new-found success carried Brian into Sydney University with a scholarship, something his parents could never have afforded. Brian entered engineering and topped all six subjects in his first year, repeating the result in his second. To do honours in engineering he had to do a science degree. He wanted to study both electrical engineering (which required physics) and chemical engineering (which required chemistry). "Somehow I decided to do physics because of my great love of electronics" said Brian. At the end of Physics 3 Brian could have taken a pass degree and returned to engineering but he topped the year instead and continued. "It was just like putting the old clock back together. I loved to write essays about the possibilities of nuclear power to provide cheap clean electricity for the masses!"
Brian picked up an honours degree in physics and, with it, the university medal. His engineering professor urged him to follow a research path and do a masters in physics. Returning to the Physics Department he was greeted enthusiastically and, by the time he'd completed his masters, was contacted by the Commonwealth Scientific Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) to work with them as a radio astronomer. Within three months Brian had made a headline discovery. It was the first detection of gas between stars in galaxies other than the Milky Way. The gases were the material from which stars and planets can form.
The discovery lined Brian up perfectly to then be awarded, in 1953, the Royal Society's Rutherford Scholarship, of which there was only one made available each year throughout the entire British Commonwealth. In 1954 Brian used the scholarship to go to Cambridge University where all the great names in science had been. Incidentally, just before Brian arrived there, Crick and Watson had just discovered DNA and the double helix. "Crick would bend our ears in the pub for hours at a time. It was very stimulating!" said Brian.
In the meantime Brian had met Judith the daughter of the National Librarian, Sir Harold White. Judith was living and studying for a Doctorate in French literature at the Sorbonne in Paris. "We met aboard ship" said Brain. "She was already engaged, but by the time we reached England she wasn't so engaged!" he laughs. The pair were married later at the British Embassy in Paris. Brian continued to study in Cambridge while Judith worked on in Paris until she joined him at Cambridge.
Brain was working now on his PhD on the structure of the lower level of the upper atmosphere or ionosphere. This region was particularly important to radio transmission to satellite technology.
For all the international cooperation in the field, there was still great professional rivalry among even the highest flyers. Brian tells of Nobel Prize winner Professor Martin Ryle who didn't want Brian to join a project team he led. This was because another team in Sydney were working in the same area and Brian suspected Ryle thought Brian might leak information to his mates in Sydney.
As it turned out, the project was finally written up and published. It was a demolition job on the previously held "steady state" theory of Sir Fred Hoyle in which the universe was said to be expanding with galaxies receding and new matter forming in the space they vacated. This was prior to the currently held "big bang" theory emerging. Unfortunately for Ryle, a Sydney astronomer, Bernie Mills had built a radically different instrument to Ryle's team. It showed Ryle's results to be "Completely up the creek" as Brian put it. Mills posted one account of his findings to Ryle and another to Brian via sea mail. Ryle spotted Brian the day after his, faster delivery, arrived and literally began to bash him against the wall of the Cavendish lab. Brian looked up to see the heavily framed portraits of the former science greats and momentarily thought, "What a way to go!"
This was a great time to be an astronomer. "I got in on the ground floor at a time when anything you touched could be a major discovery. There wa almost a discovery a week" said Brian, who claimed that the known universe had expanded 10,000 times in size over the period of his career.
By the start of the sixties Brian was spending a lot of time in Holland. It was the time of the construction of the Parkes Radio Telescope, which was mostly being assembled in Germany. However, the telescope required receivers 100 times more sensitive than those available. Brian devised a new receiver in which the Dutch were very interested. His aim was to have them built into the Parkes' telescope. This was done and Brian soon found himself at Parkes.
"A great thing about Astronomy is that it is archeology in space. If you look out far enough you can see the dinosaurs" says Brian. Whenever we look at a distant object we are seeing light which has just reached us from there, and if the object is millions of light years away then what we are seeing is from the past. When, however, the object is very large and casting off huge amounts of energy it is easy to assume it is fairly close. That was the feeling among astrophysicists about some mysteriously bright objects, but, when the moon was set to pass in front of one of them in 1963, a world-wide effort was coordinated, involving the Parkes Radio Telescope, to use the moon's position to accurately chart the object's location. As Brian puts it, "There were many people involved and nobody had known how to interpret the clear but unexplained data about these objects until Dutchman Maarten Schmidt realised that they were actually enormous objects but a lot further away". What was found was something nobody had dreamed of - a galaxy in its youth, with an incredibly energetic centre comprised of millions of stars. They are found a long way off, at the very furthest reaches of the universe. They were named quasars.
The news impact of quasars was enormous. Nothing so bright had been known before and, because they were so fay away, the very "old" light to reach Earth contained a snapshot of information about what the universe looked like in its earliest stages. Their discovery also ballooned the size of the known universe by huge leaps. "Once the first was found the race was on to find more - which was easy work for the Parkes Radio Telescope" said Brian.
Later in 1963, as leader of the Parkes Research Group, Brian became heavily involved in the discovery of molecules in space. Up until then, observations showed that gases between stars were so thin that the atoms of the gases would be too far apart to ever form molecules. New stars were forming too, and it was fascinating to realise that new stars and planets contained many molecules, including many organic molecules: the basic building blocks of life."
The research at Parkes also threw light on the different way stars die. When a middle-age, slow burning, long-lived star like the sun eventually dies it becomes known as a white dwarf. All the atoms in it become jammed together so closely they begin to share electrons and the material is incredibly dense. White dwarfs are well known. But, back in 1968, when a much bigger, faster burning star came to an end, nobody know what happened. As it turned out, the Parkes' team began to see traces of radio pulses which they ultimately realised were very small and fast spinning objects. "They were incredibly dense, with enormous magnetic fields and we described them as pulsars because of the pulse effect they created," said Brian. The realisation that these were what became of such big stars was another milestone in astronomy and was given very special recognition when our first read-out from a pulse wave was incorporated into the design of the Australian $50 note.
When an even bigger star collapses it becomes a black hole. Black holes come about when even greater densities of matter implode and create a gravitational pull so strong it sucks in all surrounding matter including light. It even bends light that is passing by. Black holes had existed only in theory for many years derived directly from Einstein's theory of relativity but, Brian observed, "In 1968 we found there was something at the centre of our galaxy which had the density of a million suns and behaved just like a black hole".
These were exciting times. "From 1963 until well into the 1970s things were very hot in astronomy" said Brian. "You didn't know what you'd be looking at next week!"
Brian was to remain involved with the Parkes Radio Telescope, directing research from 1963 to 1982 when he became a champion in the lobbying stakes in funding for the new Australia Telescope. "At the time, it was necessary to approach Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser for $50M to get the project up and running. I had to make the scientific case for the new telescope, while Bob Frater showed its relevance to Australia getting up to speed in space-age technology. I pointed out that the last visible supernova was seen by Johannes Kepler in 1604, five years before the telescope was invented. Surely another supernova must be on its way and it would, most likely, be in the southern sky. I argued that we need to build a large precision radio telescope in Australia before the supernova went off.
"Malcolm Fraser funded the Australia Telescope in 1982 as a Bicentennial Project. Planning went ahead and construction began at Narabri as soon as the Senate Public Works Committee approved. The supernova we had been waiting for since 1604 came into view on 24 February 1987, in the far southern sky, and was observed with great precision by the Australia Telescope. Those observations continue. In 1999 we saw the remnant of the 1987 supernova enter a new phase, and the next decade promises more exciting results."
Just as Brian began the case for the telescope to the Senate Committee in old Parliament House, a mighty lightening strike hit a popular just outside the corner window, splitting the old tree in two. The Chair of the Committee was the first to regain his composure, saying, "It is clear Dr Robinson has friends in powerful places!"
In 1992 Brian moved into semi-retirement. But with a seat on a number of international scientific committees and involvement with organisations such as the United Nations Scientific and Cultural Organisation's (UNESCO) International Council for Science, he was hardly putting his feet up. Brian found himself, through this work, at odds with such persuasive entities as the Russian Air force. "I was on a committee which dealt with space research, radio astronomy, and the exploration of Earth itself from space. Global Positioning Systems (GPS) had already been established by the US to guide missiles but the Russians had their own GPS. International UN conventions regulate the use of radio bandwidth. The Russian bandwidth was set at an unacceptable range - a range which was dear to Brian: the crucial range in which radio astronomers looked at molecules in space! Brian travelled to Moscow many times only to hear a repeated "Nyet" (no), the Russians arguing that their bandwidth was only "partially illegitimate". But in a UN meeting in 1992 (where a stalemate had been grinding on for six weeks with the Europeans voting "no change" as a block of 27 countries), Brian demonstrated that Astronomers are, if nothing else, observant. He had noticed that the Russians had removed their earphones for a private chat. In the few moments available Brian put up a proposal which he knew the Europeans would support: to make the Russian GPS system totally illegal. It was passed before the Russians realised what was up. "These activities were strenuous but great fun," said Brian.
Soon afterwards, a gigantic multinational phone company had its sights set on the same precision range of bandwidth. They wanted it for their new satellite phone system. "They played dirty, but the high status we'd achieved with the bandwidth put them on the back foot," said Brian. "At the end of one day of negotiating their top executive took me out to dinner. Their second rung took my deputy out too. At the end of the night he returned very flushed and excited. He'd just been offered a $2M bribe to shut up. He refused to his great credit but it made me wonder if any other members of our committee had been got at! In the end the company put up a low orbit satellite system which ran foul of many counties' permission requirements. The day they launched the system, with great fanfare, a UN dignitary was supposed to ceremonially ring Paris. The satellite phone didn't work inside so he had to stand outside in pouring rain to talk. The system soon failed, losing the company billions".
One of the most outlandish battles Brian fought was, however, over a French proposal to celebrate the centenary of the erection of the Eiffel Tower. To literally go over the top, the French wanted to launch what would become two artificial moons. The idea being that every night would have a full moon. They hadn't bothered to look at the likely ramifications such as the effect on nocturnal animals, bird navigation and coral spawning for example. Fortunately it was only the French who wanted the moons and as they were pretty unpopular it wasn't too hard to build international opposition. In the end the proposal fell over with relative ease.
But by far the most outrageous proposal Brian locked horns with was the ultra crass proposal by MacDonalds to use lasers to project a huge "M" into the sky over Europe. After the two moons experience it wasn't hard to get sufficient international opposition to the proposal.
As a point of interest, Brian notes the importance of his Australian nationality. "In much of the international work I was able to act with great advantage as an Australian. I couldn't have done it if I was an American. It's because nobody sees Australia as a threat to them!"
Brian with his wife Jill
Brian and his second wife Jill are both avid music fans. "Music is very big for us. The (North Queensland) Chamber Music Festival has been a marvellous thing. Jill and I have attended eight out of ten so far and the last one was stupendous" says Brian, who is also a keen jazz buff and plays clarinet. "It began at school, when a whole lot of us got together to avoid scripture. We hid in a room at the back of the school hall and played jazz. It went on for ages but I thought we were done for when the music teacher sprung us. To our surprise he said, "Why hide away when you can come and play on the school's grand piano?' He was a good jazz muso too!" said Brian.
Brian is also keenly interested in visual art. "I've seen most of the world's major galleries and Jill and I have taken up drawing and sculpture. A close friend and nationally recognised artist, Joan Brassil, invited me to help her with sound elements in her work."
From his present perspective, Brian finds great excitement where scientific disciplines overlap. "That is where cross-fertilisation and discoveries take place! The big questions, such as: consciousness and what is the spark of life, are questions in which science needs more insight and imagination. It is obvious that I share 98 percent of my genes with a chimpanzee. But how come I share 42 percent of my genes with a banana?"
Story and Photos: George Hirst