A Birthday Message to Donald Lynden-Bell

On Friday being the second Friday of the month of April I went up to London for the regular Open Meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society and afterwards to dinner with the RAS Club. Unusually for club dinners, we were provided with champagne before the toasts but it was a while before I realized why. A distinguished member and indeed former President of the club, Prof. Donald Lynden-Bell, had recently celebrated his eightieth birthday and we were all invited to drink his health.

Donald is an amazing character, not least because he hasn’t changed a bit since I first met him over thirty years ago when he was lecturer for one of the courses I took in the first year. His research has spanned an enormous breadth of subjects, from theoretical topics in classical and quantum physics to astrophysics and cosmology, including data analysis. Anyway, it was great that he was there to receive the toast in person. I’ll take the opportunity here to say a more public Happy Birthday!

On the way home I posted on Facebook that Donald had just celebrated his eightieth birthday. One of my astronomer friends, Manuela Magliocchetti, posted a charming comment about him that I’m sharing here (below) publicly in a slightly edited form, with her permission. By the way, in the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that I subsequently had the honour to be the External Examiner for Manuela’s PhD…


I just learnt that today from Peter there were celebrations at the RAS Dining Club for the 80th birthday of Professor Donald Lynden-Bell. Since I basically owe my scientific carrier to him, I thought I’d  thank him publicly now.

It was summer 1995 and I had pestered my undergraduate supervisor to send me to Cambridge to attend the conference on Gravitational Dynamics that had been organized for the 60th birthday of Donald (gee, already 20 years ago!), since all my undergrad thesis was on some evidence of a phenomenon (gravothermal catastrophe) that he first theorized in a breakthrough paper published in 1968 that by then I knew by heart. So he definitely was my scientific hero.

At the end of the conference I knocked at his office door to ask him whether it was possible for me to apply for a PhD position at Cambridge. He let me in, but did not even allow me to start talking. Instead he started asking me about the thesis work I had done, since in Italy everyone in Physics has to produce some original work in order to be awarded the undegraduate degree. He had me writing on his blackboard for about an hour (which felt like centuries to me) about all my results, asking genuinely interested questions, discussing, and in some bits  criticizing my work. He was very pushy (as I learned later, this  was his style) and was talking oh-so-very fast.

I was soo unsettled and scared and not even sure I was understanding all his points correctly: my English was so basic… After all this torture, he suddently stopped and, with his slightly squeaky voice, went:” So, why are you here?” I very humbly answered that it was to have information on how to apply to Cambridge for a PhD position. He then looked at me, then at the blackboard, then at me again and told me what I wrote on the blackboard indeed was PhD work. I answered that no, it was just undergraduate work. At that point he jumped off his chair, grabbed my arm and dragged me to the secretary of the Isaac Newton Scholarship, introducing me to her and telling her that I would be applying for both a PhD position at the Institute of Astronomy at University of Cambridge and for the scholarship. So I did apply, and in the end got both and found myself thrown in that fantastically stimulating environment which is Cambridge and the IoA.

Thank you so much Donald! Forever grateful. Without you all this and what happened next, including my present job and career and even my kids, since I met their (astronomer) dad over there, would not have been possible!


8 Responses to “A Birthday Message to Donald Lynden-Bell”

  1. The honor of having you as my (very tough) external examiner was all mine! If just my viva had lasted a little less than the 4 hours (or was it even longer?) it did, it would have been wonderful! 😉

  2. Phillip Helbig Says:

    If Donald gave a speech, I’m sure that no microphone was necessary!

    • telescoper Says:

      I should say that when I did Manuela’s PhD viva examination (with George Efstathiou) it was in the office next door to Donald’s in the Observatory building at the IOA. I remember one could not only hear his voice through the wall but also the sound of him writing on the blackboard, which was like a machine gun firing…

  3. Adrian Burd Says:

    I took a course from him for the Part III and it was very inspiring, and I remember it and those few personal interactions I had with him very fondly. I do recall that he had quite some difficulty in operating the venetian blinds that adorned the windows of the lecture room!!

  4. Shantanu Says:

    Btw one story, I have heard is that one of Lynden-Bell’s students had come up with the idea of looking for micro-lensing before Paczynski’s 1986 paper, but she was dissuaded from publishing it
    or submitting it to a journal, so it is only in her thesis. However later on he regretted it and always sends a copy of that thesis to authors of various microlensing experiments so that the thesis gets cited. I believe the name of the student is M. Petrou and her thesis was in 1981 (Of course I have not read the thesis, so don’t exactly know how they match with Paczynski’s paper).
    Assuming this story is true, it shows that even master astrophysicists sometimes get it wrong when risky new ideas get presented.
    Avi Loeb has many more examples in

    Click to access 1405.2954.pdf

    • Phillip Helbig Says:

      The first to suggest microlensing per se were Chang and Refsdal.

      Another similar story: Peter Young did some work on gravitational lensing, but switched fields when his office mate convinced him that the field wasn’t promising enough. The office mate was Roger Blandford, who went on to write several papers on gravitational lensing.

  5. […] of his 80th birthday, a friend and former student of Donald’s, Manuela Magliocchetti, wrote an open letter to him on here. Many of his former students have posted similar messages on social media. The sense of loss is […]

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