Archive for Donald Lynden-Bell

R.I.P. Donald Lynden-Bell (1935-2018)

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , on February 6, 2018 by telescoper

I woke this morning to the very sad news that we have lost one of our great astrophysicists, Donald Lynden-Bell (above). He had suffered a stroke before Christmas but despite the best efforts of the medical staff at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge, he never fully recovered. He passed away peacefully, at home, yesterday at the age of 82. The Cambridge University announcement of his death can be found here.

I saw Donald qjust a few months ago at the RAS Club where he seemed in good health. I was lucky enough to sit with him for dinner and he was excellent company, as he always was on such occasions. It’s very sad that he is no more. Sincere condolences to his family, friends and colleagues and especially to his wife Ruth (herself a distinguished chemist).

Donald is probably best known for his theoretical work on the idea that galaxies contain massive black holes at their centre, and that such black holes are the principal source of energy in quasars. He was also a member of a group of astronomers that became known as the ‘Seven Samurai’ who postulated the existence of the Great Attractor, a concentration of matter that might explain the observed peculiar motion of the Local Group of galaxies. What was most remarkable about him, however, was the creativity he brought to a huge range of disparate topics, from data analysis to telescope design, and from thermodynamics to general relativity. Donald refused to be pigeonholed, and worked on whatever took his fancy. He brought unique imagination and insight to everything he did.

I first encountered Donald Lynden-Bell when I was an undergraduate at Cambridge. He taught a first year Mathematics course for Natural Sciences students on how to solve Ordinary Differential Equations. I wouldn’t say he was the most organized lecturer I’ve ever had, but he was enormously entertaining and his remarkably loud voice meant you could never doze off! That was in 1983. I remember being terrified to see he was in the audience when I gave a talk at a conference in Cambridge as a PhD student a few years later, in 1987. He asked a question at the end that completely wrong-footed me, but I soon realised that he had a habit of doing that and it wasn’t at all malicious: he just had an unexpectedly different way of looking at things. It was quite extraordinary in that he stayed that way all through his career. It’s also remarkable how little he seemed to change in the thirty-odd years I knew him. In fact, in pictures of him taken in the 1960 he looks much the same as he did last year. I think that’s at least partly why his death was such a shock. He seemed timeless. One assumed he would live forever.

At first I found Donald Lynden-Bell intellectually intimidating but it didn’t take long to find that, inside, he was actually a very amiable and kind-hearted character who was extremely generous with his time, especially with early career researchers. A couple of years ago in the occasion 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 everywhere.

I find then when I know someone a bit personally, no matter how much I admire them as a scientist, it’s often other things about them that I remember better than their scientific work. My most vivid memory of Donald is from a visit to India over twenty years ago. I ended up playing croquet with him on the lawn of the Director’s House at the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics in Pune (where I visited last year). Donald seemed entirely unconcerned with his own progress in the game but concentrated fiercely on sending his opponents’ balls into the shrubbery whenever the rules allowed. That is, of course, a major part of the game but I didn’t expect a distinguished Cambridge Professor to take such impish delight. The game was a blast, but had to be called off in the deepening twilight, with bats circling overhead, as we could no longer see well enough to continue but I’ll remember Donald’s constant laughter. A very serious and brilliant scientist he may have been, but he also had an intensely human capacity for having a bit of fun.

Rest in peace, Donald Lynden-Bell (1935-2018).


A Birthday Message to Donald Lynden-Bell

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , on April 12, 2015 by telescoper

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!


Astronomy Look-alikes, No. 9

Posted in Astronomy Lookalikes with tags , , on January 10, 2010 by telescoper

It’s probably impolite to draw visual parallels between  Professor Donald Lynden-Bell, winner of the inaugural Kavli Prize for Astrophysics in 2008, and Montgomery Burns from the Simpsons.