50 Years of the Astronomy Centre at the University of Sussex

On Saturday (15th October) I was back in Brighton for the first time since I left my job there at the end of July. The occasion was a very nice lunch party to celebrate 50 years of the Astronomy Centre at the University of Sussex, which started properly in 1966. It was a pleasant occasion, and great to have the chance to catch up with some people I haven’t seen for far too long. I had two stints in the Astronomy Centre: once as a student then postdoc from 1985 to 1990, and the other from 2013 to 2016 when I was Head of the School of which the Astronomy Centre is part. I had a lot more time to do research in the first incarnation than in the second!

Quite a few people present hadn’t realised I was no longer working at Sussex, which led to one or two slightly awkward conversations, but I was thankfully very far from being the centre of attention.

After the lunch itself we had short speeches from various alumni of the Astronomy Centre: esteemed science writer John Gribbbin (who was one of its first MSc students in 1966); Lord Martin Rees (who was briefly a Professor at Sussex, before he returned to Cambridge to take up the Plumian Professorship); John Barrow (who was my supervisor while I was there); Carlos Frenk (who was a postdoctoral researcher when I arrived in September 1985, but who left to take up a lectureship in Durham at the end of that year so we overlapped only for a short time); Andrew Liddle (who arrived near the end of my stay and was there for 22 years altogether, leaving at the end of 2012 to take up a post in Edinburgh); and Peter Thomas (current Director of the Astronomy Centre).

When I arrived in 1985 there were only four permanent faculty in the Astronomy Centre itself – Roger Tayler, Leon Mestel, John Barrow and Robert Smith – but research there was thriving and it was a great environment to work in. I count myself very lucky at having made such a good choice of a place to do my PhD DPhil. Leon and Robert both worked on stellar astrophysics, but after Leon’s retirement the centre increasingly focussed on cosmology and extragalactic astrophysics, which remains the case today. Roger Tayler sadly passed away in 1997, but Leon is still around: he is 89 years old and now lives in Cambridge.

Those present at the lunch were given a booklet featuring around 50 academic papers or other research “highlights”(e.g. the launch of Planck), approximately one for each year of the Astronomy Centre, chosen to be the “best” of that year. Each page was also shown as a slide during the lunch. I was thrilled to see that two of my papers (from 1987 and 1991 respectively) made it into the collection. The second one was published after I’d left Sussex, but I definitely did the work on it and submitted it while an employee of the Astronomy Centre. Andrew Liddle and John Barrow have the largest number of “greatest hits”, but the most famous paper is probably the classic “DEFW” which won Carlos Frenk and his collaborators the Gruber Prize about five years ago.

The book also contains various bits of interesting bibliometric information, such as this, which shows that the variation in the productivity of the Astronomy Centre over time.


Anyway, for those who are interested, the whole collection of slides can be viewed here:

Thanks to Seb Oliver and the rest of the Astronomy Centre for organizing this very enjoyable event – and for sending me the slides! Here’s to the next 50 years of Astronomy at the University of Sussex!


12 Responses to “50 Years of the Astronomy Centre at the University of Sussex”

  1. Adrian Burd Says:

    Congratulations to Sussex. I wish had been able to take the time off to attend. I have very fond memories of the time I spent there. Many of us are in far flung places, but I try to keep up with folks as best I can. When I was in Texas I was able to catch up with Jaime Stein-Schabes (who was working in industry) and Richard Fitzpatrick (at UT Austin). Jim Skea is in Brazil and I had hoped to catch up with him down there a couple of years ago down but timing didn’t work out, but I’ll have another chance next year I hope.

  2. Small world. Came across Leon Mestel’s name via a completely different path, the 1970s/80s chess exploits of his son, the mathematician (and chess Grandmaster) Jonathan (AJ) Mestel.

  3. Peter, Since Chandrasekhar limit is mentioned on first slides,
    what are your views on research done by Mike Nauenberger from UCSC who has argued that the limit calculation, for which Chandra is given credit was done in entirety by Stoner (from Univ. of Leeds)
    Here is a talk by Nauenberger about it.

    • telescoper Says:

      I don’t know anything about that!

      Incidentally, Donald Lynden-Bell’s paper from 1966 basically generalises Chandrasekhar’s calculation to include rotation. Angular momentum changes the criterion for collapse somewhat.

    • Werner Israel mentions Stoner, Anderson, and so on in his article in the famous 300 Years of Gravitation. I think that this is well known, among historians of science if not among scientists.

      This doesn’t seem to be a case similar to that of the Hubble constant. As Gale Christianson points out in Mariner of the Nebulae, Hubble, like Jesus and Goethe before him, seems to have systematically engineered his own fame. Hubble famously used other people’s data without citing them and so on. He seems to have been something of an egomaniac. Not that he wasn’t any good; he definitely did some good work. But the relationship between good work and fame, at least in Hubble’s case, was very non-linear and resembles an exponential. 😐

      Chandrasekhar cites Stoner. So it’s not a case of Chandra trying to stand on the shoulders of, if not giants, then normal folks (which still makes one look taller). Rather, Chandrasekhar achieved the definitive solution. All such derivations are based on assumptions, so none are completely realistic, but there is a point where the assumptions are close enough to reality that refining them doesn’t appreciably affect the end result, and Chandra was the first to cross that threshold. And he did it at 19 on a boat. 🙂

  4. Bryn Jones Says:

    My personal view is that recording the history of mid- and late-twentieth century astronomical research groups is very important, particularly while many of the participants are still with us. It’s a little concerning that we do not see more attention to doing this.

    It’s nice to see this event at the University of Sussex making some attempt at collating material about the Astronomy Centre’s recent history. I hope print outs of presentations and other material will have been deposited in the university archives.

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