Brian John Robinson 1930–2004

Written by J. B. Whiteoak and H. L. Sim.

In a half-century involvement in radio astronomy, Brian Robinson achieved international recognition and received many honours. During a forty-year career at CSIRO Division of Radiophysics, he undertook leading research, headed the Astrophysics Group, and contributed significantly in the Australia Telescope planning and funding campaign. Internationally, he distinguished himself in radio astronomy committees and negotiations to protect radio astronomy observations from interference from telecommunication transmissions.

Dr Brian Robinson's career spanned several critical periods in Australian radio astronomy. Often with a single-mindedness second to none, he contributed to the pioneering research of the 1950s and 1960s, led CSIRO's radio astronomy group during the 1970s, and played a major role in promoting the Australia Telescope project to the Australian Government in the 1980s. In addition, to ensure a successful future for radio astronomy, for many years he spearheaded national and international moves to protect radio astronomy observations from interfering signals in the frequency bands that are used.

Family information

Brian was born in Melbourne, Victoria, on 4 November 1930; he used to delight in pointing out that this was the day the champion race-horse Phar Lap won the Melbourne Cup. He was the first of two children of Raymond John (Ray) and Ellen Jessie (Jess, née Guernin) Robinson. His father, born in Melbourne in 1905, was a journalist and author; he died in 1982. The Robinsons had first settled in Australia when Brian's great-great-grandfather, William Robinson, arrived in Perth in 1852 on board the ship Palestine. Jess was born in 1901 at Mount Lloyd, Tasmania; she died in 1973. She had the distinction of being the first female conductor on a Melbourne tram, and later became the columnist 'Aunty Sadie' of the Bulletin magazine. The Guernins had arrived in Australia around 1860 when Brian's great-grandfather was given a grant of land in Tasmania.

Brian married twice. On 28 June 1956, at the British Embassy in Paris, he married Judith Ogilvie White, daughter of Sir Harold White (until 1970 the National Librarian in Canberra) and Elizabeth (née Wilson) White. Judith was foundation Professor of French at the University of New South Wales between 1963 and 1974. A son, Anthony Philip Robinson, was born on 4 February 1970. The marriage ended in divorce in 1975 and in 1978 Brian married Jill Miles whom he first met when she applied for a job to care for his shy six- year-old son. Jill had been previously working with people (mostly children) with intellectual disabilities.

The early years

Brian's primary education began in Victorian State schools in Caulfield and Elwood. When he was eight, the family moved to Sydney. Brian recalled: 1

I went to Waverley school on the edge of Paddington, then a slum and notorious for the razor and acid gangs. 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.

A succession of other public schools in various Sydney suburbs followed: Croydon, Rose Bay, Vaucluse, Woollahra and Artarmon. Although his hobbies included chemistry and crystal-set technology, academically he was a consistent underachiever. This may have been the result of ill health: scarlet fever had left him deaf in one ear and prone to constant infections. However, when these problems were overcome, he began to show a penchant for mathematics. His interests in mathematics and chemistry were encouraged during his secondary education at North Sydney Boys' High School. Awarded a scholarship to the University of Sydney in 1948, Brian completed with distinction two years of an engineering degree, and was awarded the J. A. Garnsey Prize. He then transferred to the science faculty, and at the end of 1950 was awarded the Deas-Thompson Scholarship and Walter Burfitt Scholarship for physics and mathematics, respectively. The following year he completed a BSc with first-class honours, sharing the University Medal in Physics. Continuing at the same university, in 1953 he completed an MSc under V. A. Bailey and K. Landecker, with a thesis 'Gyro-interaction of radio waves in the ionosphere'. This year marked the first publication of his scientific research, in collaboration with K. Landecker (1).

As an enthusiastic Honours student, Brian attended the Sydney 1952 Congress of the International Union of Radio Science (URSI). This was a very important international event, because it brought together for the first time many of the world's radio astronomers. Writing in 2001, Brian recalled Sir Edward Appleton's address at the first plenary session. Appleton spoke of the newly discovered 21-cm wavelength radiation emitted by interstellar atomic hydrogen (HI). He highlighted the possible research it opened up and the need to protect the spectral band containing this emission for the benefit of astronomers. These issues were to loom large in Brian's future career.

In 1952, Brian had his first contact with the CSIRO Division of Radiophysics. While completing his MSc, he was located in the Division's Valve Laboratory located within the grounds of the University of Sydney. During May of the following year, he joined J. L. Pawsey's radio astronomy group at the Division as a fixed-term Research Officer. His appointment was timely: the group was starting to study the newly discovered HI emission. Interstellar hydrogen is the main constituent of the molecular gas clouds from which stars form. Its emission was to become the 'workhorse' of radio astronomy, spectacularly revealing the large-scale structure and dynamics of our Galaxy and other galaxies. Brian was put to work with F. J. Kerr and J. V. Hindman at the Potts Hill field station, building a new 36-ft diameter parabolic antenna with which to survey the southern sky for HI signals. These astronomers were to use their results to map the spiral structure of the southern region of our Galaxy for the first time. Brian shared the first detection of HI emission from galaxies other than ours – the Large and Small Clouds of Magellan, our closest neighbours, revealed large extended envelopes of hydrogen gas (2). During 1954 he also assisted W. N. Christiansen in the construction of a radio astronomy interferometer, the Grating Array, beside the Potts Hill reservoir.

In 1953 the Royal Society awarded Brian a Rutherford Memorial Scholarship at Cambridge University, and in 1954 he sailed to the UK to begin a PhD at Trinity College. Supervised by J. A. Radcliffe and K. Weekes, he chose to study the nature of the ionosphere (3, 5, 6). He completed a thesis 'Investigations of the E-layer of the ionosphere' in 1957 and was awarded a PhD during the following year. As part of the thesis he designed and constructed an ionospheric sounder providing a power much higher than available with standard sounders. By comparing his measurements of ionosphere penetration frequencies and group heights with theoretical predictions, he determined scale heights of the atmosphere in the E-region. His results cast some doubts on the reliability of the routine methods of identifying the penetration of the ionospheric E-layer. His analysis of the detailed structure of the E‑layer revealed the presence of more than one ionizing process.

A career with CSIRO Division of Radiophysics, 1953–1992

Following his brief period as a Research Officer with the CSIRO Division of Radiophysics and a further four years undertaking a PhD at Cambridge, in 1958 Brian was reappointed to the Division of Radiophysics. However, instead of returning to Australia, he was immediately seconded to the Netherlands Foundation for Radio Astronomy (NFRA) as a Visiting Scientist. Four years later he returned to the Division headquarters in Sydney and was promoted to Senior Research Scientist. In the ensuing years he moved up the ranks to become a Chief Research Scientist in 1975. Between 1968 and 1979 he took on the roles of Deputy Director of the Australian National Radio Astronomy Observatory (now Parkes Observatory) operated by the Division (1968–1970), Director of Research undertaken at the Observatory (1971–1979), and Leader of the Cosmic Radio Astronomy Group at the Radiophysics Laboratory at Marsfield. Brian remained with the Division until his retirement in 1992, although taking leave in 1972 to spend twelve months at the Max- Planck-Institut für Radioastronomie in Bonn.

Radio astronomy research: 21-cm hydrogen spectroscopy

Brian's four-year secondment to the Leiden Observatory of NFRA was an important move in providing new high-quality observing equipment for CSIRO's 64-m diameter (then known as 210-ft diameter) radio telescope. During this period the telescope was under construction near Parkes in western New South Wales, and would be operated by the Division of Radiophysics (ultimately as a national research facility). The new equipment was not yet available during the first months of telescope commissioning in 1962, and one of us (JBW) recalls having to use simple insensitive crystal-mixer radio receivers resplendent with cat's whiskers, which had to be manually adjusted for best contact with the crystal. On occasion contact failed and so did the observing!

In the Netherlands, radio engineers were busy developing sensitive equipment for their radio astronomers, who were at that time world leaders in HI research. In collaboration with these engineers, Brian developed new types of low-noise microwave amplifiers, working on maser amplifiers at the Kamerlingh Onnes Laboratory in Leiden and on parametric amplifiers at NFRA's Dwingeloo Observatory (4, 7–13, 21, 34, 84). For operation on the Parkes telescope, he constructed a sensitive parametric-amplifier receiver to enable radio astronomers to undertake leading-edge research on the faint HI emission from galaxies other than ours. In 1962 he returned to Australia and installed this new equipment. Although its sensitivity was not quite as good as another cooled 20-cm parametric system installed a few months previously for the measurement of the 'continuum' (mainly synchrotron) emission from radio sources, it was unique in that its bandwidth of 150 MHz was more than an order of magnitude larger than available on other systems. This meant that HI emission from galaxies with velocities Doppler-shifted over a range of more than 30,000 km s–1 could be observed without the receiving system having to be re-tuned. Unfortunately, in contrast to a multi- channel system used on the telescope, the output was only a single channel that could be swept in frequency across the band. Some rotating galaxies viewed edge-on have a radial velocity range of several hundreds of kilometres per second, and measurement of their HI emission profiles by means of a set of observations with the channel frequency progressively advanced could be time consuming. Nevertheless, during the following four years Brian used his system successfully to investigate the hydrogen emission from our Galaxy, the Magellanic Clouds, and several other galaxies (14–16, 20, 24, 25, 30, 31, 38, 67). In 1966 he and J. A. Koehler (his PhD student at the time) claimed the first detection of HI gas clouds located in space between galaxies (29). However, although the existence of intergalactic HI clouds was indeed later confirmed (in other directions), it is generally accepted that the 1966 detection was not real, and was the result of instrumental baseline variations across the observed spectra.

Brian's amplifier design expertise was acknowledged internationally. In 1963, the Institute of Electrical Engineers (London) awarded him and J. T. de Jager the Electronics Division Premiums for their 1962 publication 'Optimum performance of paramagnetic diodes at S-band' (12).

The birth of molecular cloud research: The first detection of radio emission from interstellar molecules (hydroxyl)

In 1963 an overseas radio astronomy discovery set the scene for Brian's subsequent long involvement in investigating the physics and chemistry of the dense molecular clouds and their stellar nurseries in our Galaxy. For some years previously, astronomers had believed that it should be possible to detect narrow-band radio emission from interstellar molecules, but searches failed because the frequencies of the radiation in the radio spectrum were uncertain. However, in 1963 a team of US astronomers detected two spectral lines at the frequencies of 1665 and 1667 MHz from an interstellar molecule (the hydroxyl radical OH). The lines were actually in absorption – OH gas was absorbing the wideband 'continuum' radiation from an intense background galactic radio source known as Cassiopeia A. This object was too far north to be observed with the Parkes telescope. However, J. G. Bolton, then the Director of the Parkes Observatory, reasoned that the discovery could be confirmed and extended by observations towards the strong radio emission in the direction of the central region of our Galaxy, which passes almost directly overhead at Parkes. Strong HI absorption of the central radio emission had already been detected towards the Galactic Centre, produced by the large amount of hydrogen spread along the line of sight to the Centre. Because this line-of-sight is perpendicular to the rotation of our Galaxy, the observed radial velocities of the gas were close to zero. Additional weaker absorption at a radial velocity near –50 km s–1 (that is, towards the observer) was produced by hydrogen concentrated in an expanding spiral arm some ten thousand light years out from the Centre. It was believed that a similar absorption pattern would also be produced by OH molecules in the same gas clouds. Accordingly, the 21-cm receiving system that Brian had brought back from the Netherlands was modified for operation at the OH frequencies. OH absorption near zero velocity was detected unambiguously (17) but the results were not quite as expected. As Brian related at a symposium held on 22 November 1991 at the Parkes Observatory to celebrate the telescope's thirtieth birthday (102):

The first observations at 1665 and 1667 MHz covered a very narrow spectral range, and we thought that our improvised receiver had a monumental baseline slope; but in the middle there was, clearly, an absorption feature which we reported in Nature. It was three months before we were again allocated telescope time and discovered that the weak absorption feature was only part of a much broader and deeper absorption which was hardly visible in the 21-cm line.

Brian and his co-workers had in fact discovered a dense molecular cloud centred at a velocity near +50 km s–1. This discovery created some consternation, because the cloud appeared to be located near the Galactic Centre, in front of the radio emission, yet had a substantial positive radio velocity that was inconsistent with the accepted galaxy model of general uniform circular motion plus an expanding spiral gaseous arm. An acceptable interpretation did not eventuate until detailed studies of the structure of the central absorbing clouds and radio emission were carried out in the 1970s.

In another surprise, an American group using the Harvard Observatory 60-ft antenna discovered another unexpected wide absorption feature centred at a velocity near –130 km s–1. This indicated that another expanding molecular cloud was present along the line of sight to the Centre. Such negative velocities had not been covered in the Parkes observations with the single-channel receiving system. However, Brian and his co-workers began a series of observations using a 48-channel spectral-line system, and found that the total extent of the absorption covered a total velocity range extending from –230 to +100 km s–1 (22). Further OH absorption was detected in all directions along the Galactic Plane within two degrees of the Galactic Centre, and for the first time it was possible to identify individual molecular clouds.

Another success followed. Theory indicated that there should be two additional OH lines at nearby frequencies, but initially the frequencies were not known. However, D. W. Posener from the CSIRO Division of Electrotechnology produced new predictions of 1612 and 1720 MHz, and further observations towards the Galactic Centre at these frequencies revealed appropriate OH absorption (19). The researchers were puzzled that the intensity ratios of the four lines differed from the laboratory and theoretical predictions, and although they explained the results in terms of high optical depths in the clouds, they also correctly commented that 'an alternative explanation, such as perturbations of the populations of the (involved energy) levels, cannot be excluded'.

In spite of the many OH successes, thanks to an unfortunate twist of fate Brian and his co-workers missed out on identifying an important new OH spectral feature while observing the intense radio source Sagittarius B2 located near the Galactic Centre. As Brian related at the 1991 Parkes symposium (102), the 1665-MHz OH absorption profile showed a curious spike, which virtually extended up to the zero‑intensity line. Because the multi- channel filter system was in use, and was in the process of being checked, he assumed that someone had actually pulled out one of the filters during the observations. R. X. McGee, a CSIRO collaborator in the program, had also ignored the spike because he was aware that the filter associated with the spike had given trouble previously. 2 Unfortunately for the observers, the spike turned to be a very narrow 'maser' emission line produced in the OH cloud by enormous amplification of background radio emission – the microwave equivalent of the laser. US radio astronomers had detected the lines in other OH clouds, but for some time could not interpret their results. They finally published their discovery of the important new physical process in 1965.

Brian and co-workers went on to study the Galactic Centre OH in more detail (18, 22, 23, 26, 28, 32, 33, 50), and extended their research to OH molecular clouds in other regions of our Galaxy (35–37, 39–41, 44–49, 51–62, 72–74).

The Australian OH research was acclaimed internationally; the fact that Brian was asked to write reviews (for example 21,34, 84) indicated that he was regarded as an authority on the subject. The OH results set the scene for a continuing era in which molecular clouds in galaxies are studied both individually as regions containing massive star formation and collectively as tracers of the large-scale structure of the galaxies.

Expansion of molecular-line studies

In 1968 Brian had a brief flirtation with the newly discovered pulsars, stars emitting pulses of radiation at very regular intervals generally shorter than a second (42, 43). One of his pulsar chart records showing the pulsed emission was reproduced on one side of the first Australian $50 banknote. At that time, astronomers overseas were hunting for microwave spectral lines associated with many other molecules, and Brian realised the importance of such discoveries in unravelling the chemistry and chemical evolution of galaxies. Accordingly, he decided to expand his field of interest to include other molecular species. Not content with extending the studies of molecules already discovered [for example water vapour (H2O) (63) and methyladyne (CH) (70,71,78)], in 1971 he and Radiophysics co-workers set up a fruitful collaboration with chemists from Monash University led by R. D. Brown. The aim was to investigate Galactic chemistry and in particular to search for molecules believed to be the 'building blocks of life'. The chemists established the frequencies of spectral lines of target molecules in their laboratory, and joined the radio astronomers in searches using the Parkes telescope. Through this process the team detected the interstellar lines of the organic molecules thioformaldehyde (64), methanimine (65), acetaldehyde (68), methanol (69) and methyl formate (77). Brian presented review papers on interstellar molecules at the 1973 General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union and associated symposia (66, 75, 76), and later at an annual meeting of the Astronomical Society of Australia (79). As a result of his research on molecular clouds, in 1974 he was awarded the Walter Burfitt Prize by the Royal Society of New South Wales for contributions to the field of radiophysics.

In 1977, to improve the performance of the Parkes radio telescope at shorter wavelengths, the reflecting surface in the innermost 17-m diameter was upgraded and new receiving equipment was added. Although the new surface operated well at wavelengths down to 7 mm and provided some sensitivity at 3.5 mm, Brian and his collaborators discovered only one new spectral line (of acetonitrile) (80), although detecting lines of other molecular species already discovered by astronomers using northern hemisphere telescopes (81). Their attempt to detect interstellar glycine, one of the important 'building blocks', by searching for several of its spectral lines using overseas radio telescopes, was unsuccessful (83).

The 4-m millimetre-wave telescope and carbon monoxide survey of the southern Milky Way

By 1970, overseas research was showing that many of the interstellar spectral lines of interest to radio astronomers had wavelengths too short for the lines to be detectable using the Parkes telescope. To enable Australian research in this field to be competitive internationally, Brian proposed the construction of a 30-m diameter radio telescope operating at millimetre wavelengths. Unfortunately, the timing of this initiative was bad. As one of us (JBW) has commented: 3

It would have been a great leap in Southern Hemisphere millimetre-wavelength research, and was years ahead of competitors anywhere in the world. The problem was that the plans for this coincided with plans to build the Australian Synthesis Telescope, the Compact Array forerunner. Paul Wild (the then Chief of Radiophysics) got the Astro people together for a vote and just about everyone voted for the interferometer... After this, Brian threw in his lot with the AST [Australian Synthesis Telescope] project.

Although a formal proposal for the millimetre telescope was made to the Australian Science and Technology Council (ASTEC) in 1972, it was withdrawn in 1975 and replaced with a proposal for the AST, to be located at Parkes and to incorporate the Parkes telescope. Brian provided major contributions to the final AST design, to ensure that it included a capability for spectral-line research.

At the same time, the immediate need for a millimetre-wave telescope in the southern hemisphere remained. Undaunted by his earlier failure, Brian obtained funding for a 4-m millimetre-wave telescope. It was constructed in the grounds of the CSIRO Radiophysics Laboratory at Marsfield, New South Wales, and commissioned in 1979. Brian directed its research until 1987, when operation of the telescope ceased, enabling its technical support staff to concentrate on the construction of equipment for the new antennas of the Australia Telescope (AT), the evolved AST. The 4-m telescope operated at wavelengths near 3 mm, which included the wavelength (2.6 mm) of a spectral line of carbon monoxide (CO), one of the most important molecules for the study of cosmic molecular clouds. The receiving system provided an instantaneous bandwidth of a few hundred megahertz, large by the standards of the day. This was large enough to cover the range of Doppler frequency shifts resulting from the radial velocities of the detected molecular clouds in our Galaxy. Brian collaborated with Chinese astronomers, notably Jing Shen Wang from Kunming Observatory, to provide a capability for observation of narrow spectral lines, such as occur in cold clouds (96, 100).

The 4-m radio telescope was used for studies of several molecular species, for instance a study of the formyl radical (HCO+) in which Brian participated (90). However, Brian directed the most important programme, the first extensive survey of the 2.6-mm CO emission from molecular clouds along the southern Milky Way (which defines the plane of our Galaxy) (85–89, 91–93, 95, 98, 99). The study extended from 1981 to 1988, and Brian was involved in it for the whole period despite an emergency quadruple heart bypass and repair of his mitral valve in 1984. The survey provided the distribution and radial velocities of Galactic molecular clouds, and these parameters were transformed into cloud locations within our Galaxy. In conjunction with the results of a previous complementary survey of the northern Galactic plane, the cloud distribution revealed large-scale Galactic structure consistent with a four-armed spiral.

Management roles in the CSIRO Division of Radiophysics

In addition to his research, Brian played major roles in the development of CSIRO's radio astronomy group. In management, as mentioned previously, he was Deputy Director of the Parkes Observatory for three years, and also the Leader of the Cosmic Radio Group between 1968 and 1979. During this period, the Radiophysics Laboratory (led by E. G. Bowen initially, then by J. P. Wild) also included other groups, covering solar radio astronomy (led by J. P. Wild intially, then by S. Smerd when Wild became Chief of the Division), cloud physics (J. Warner), aerials (H. C. Minnett) and computing (M. Beard).

In 1972, after NASA had constructed a 64-m antenna at its Canberra Deep Space Communication Centre at Tidbinbilla, Brian helped set up the Australian Radio Astronomy Panel to allocate time for radio astronomy observations when this antenna was not being used to track spacecraft. Negotiations with NASA led to the installation of a 'third cone' at the Cassegrain focus of the antenna, to house receiving equipment operating in radio astronomy frequency bands. Radio astronomers also used NASA receivers at the other cones for very-large- baseline interferometry (VLBI), involving simultaneous observations with other radio telescopes in Australia and overseas.

By the mid 1970s, the Australian radio telescopes built in the 1960s (Parkes radio telescope, Molonglo Cross Array, Culgoora Radioheliograph) were continuing to yield good research. However, it was apparent that, because many other countries were building a new generation of sensitive instruments, Australia's astronomers needed a new instrument to remain competitive internationally. A consortium of CSIRO and several Australian universities proposed the construction of the AST, a radio-telescope interferometer array that included the Parkes Telescope. Its design goals included operation over a wide range of wavelengths, ability to image with high sensitivity and positional accuracy, a dedicated spectral-line capability, and ability to combine with other telescopes to form vast interferometer networks. As a member of the Design Study Group established to design the AST, Brian was the principal author of the first proposal submitted to ASTEC in 1975. Design concepts were tested by a CSIRO–Australian National University two-element synthesis telescope (TEST) project linking the 64-m and a movable 18‑m radio telescope at Parkes. Brian was a member of the AST Steering Committee and its Vice-Chairman between 1979 and 1982. He was responsible for preparing the scientific case for the instrument, and the principal author of the final submission for government funding in 1981. Unfortunately, the project failed to obtain government support.

Following the 1981 appointment of R. H. Frater as Chief of the Division of Radiophysics, the project evolved into the AT. The plan contained several strategic differences from the AST. A Compact Array, a radio interferometer of (finally) six 22-m antennas, would be built on the site of the Culgoora Radioheliograph near Narrabri, New South Wales, making use of the existing support services (offices, accommodation and so on) and providing added rationale for terminating the Radioheliograph operation. The 'Mopra' Telescope (another 22-m antenna) would be constructed on Siding Spring Mountain near Coonabarabran, between the Compact Array and the Parkes Telescope. A location near the Australian National University's Siding Spring Observatory was planned with the intention of sharing the Observatory's services. The relative locations of the three telescopes would enable these instruments to be used together as an effective Long-Baseline Array or as part of a VLBI network. In effect, the original plan of a single compact array (that is, the AST) was replaced by a set of three instruments that could be operated individually or together, at the expense of a loss of more than half the collecting area of the compact array. As inducements for government support, CSIRO would operate the AT as a National Research Facility under guidelines set by ASTEC. It would be available internationally on the presumption that, on a quid pro quo basis, this would give Australian researchers access to overseas facilities not available in Australia. It would be constructed as an Australian bicentennial activity, with an opening planned during 1988. One of us (JBW) believes that the major design change resulted from a private discussion between Brian and R. H. Frater. Brian also played a major role in the campaign for AT funding and approval. He was responsible for making the scientific case for the instrument: he successfully argued that the new facilities be capable of operation at wavelengths down to 3 mm to enable the study of important molecular lines.

The AT construction was approved in August 1982 by the Australian (Fraser) government. However, the government changed hands shortly afterwards, and the new (Hawke) government requested a review of the project by a Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works (PPWC). Brian and M. Wiltshire (PPWC secretary) compiled the Statement of CSIRO Evidence and Brian participated in the presentation at the hearing (Inquiry on funding of the Australia Telescope) in 1983. The construction project was finally approved in November of that year. From its inception in 1982 to 1991, Brian was a member of the AT Advisory Committee that oversaw the development, construction, 1988 September opening, and subsequent operation of the AT. During the construction period, Brian produced a periodic progress newsletter, AT Countdown, and gave presentations on the Australia Telescope and the science that could be carried out with it (94, 97). At the opening of the AT on 2 September 1988, R. H. Frater, AT Project Director as well as Radiophysics Chief, acknowledged the 'key support' that Brian had provided at various stages of the project.

In addition to his involvement in the AT project, Brian produced several background papers on behalf of the Division for internal CSIRO reviews in 1979 and 1986, plus other important strategic documents on behalf of CSIRO. The latter included a 1976 CSIRO submission to the Interdepartmental Committee on Astronomical Observatory Facilities (jointly with H. C. Minnett, then Chief of the Division of Radiophysics), and a 1977 Division of Radiophysics submission to the Committee of Inquiry into CSIRO (jointly with H. C. Minnett).

Membership of societies and committees

Brian was a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society (1964), Senior Member of the Institution of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (USA) (1964), Fellow of the Australian Institute of Physics (1967), and Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science (1974). The Australian Academy of Science citation notes that Brian 'has gained an international reputation as a pioneer and leader in...the technical development of very sensitive receivers...and the exploration of the Galaxy by means of the emission and absorption of spectral lines in the microwave spectrum', and 'has proved himself to be an outstanding research director'.

He was an active member of many national committees. From 1966 to 1982 he was a member of the National Committee for Radio Science, chairing the Committee in the period 1975–1980. He was a strong supporter of the Astronomical Society of Australia from its foundation in 1966, and served as its President in the period 1987–1989. From 1971 to 1977 he was on the Editorial Committee of the Australian Journal of Physics, and from 1977 to 1980 represented the CSIRO Executive on the Board of Standards of the Australian Journals of Scientific Research. From 1977 to 1980 he chaired the Academy of Science Committee on a National Communications Satellite, recommending scientific uses for a proposed satellite. He was Chairman of the National Study Group 2 of the International Radio Consultative Committee (CCIR) from its inception in 1977 to 1990. In the period 1979–1981 he was a member of the Astronomy Advisory Committee to the Minister for Science.

Brian actively promoted scientific collaboration between Australia and other countries, notably China, the USSR, the Netherlands and Germany. He was Convenor of the ad-hoc Committee for Astronomy under the USSR–Australia Science Agreement from 1977 to 1992.

Brian was a much-respected and frequent player on the international astronomy stage. As a strong supporter of URSI, he attended many General Assemblies between 1952 and 1993; he was also a member of the URSI Council from 1975 to 1980. He was also a frequent participant at the General Assemblies, held every three years, of the International Astronomical Union (IAU). From 1970 onwards he was involved in many IAU committees, particularly the IAU Commissions related to the Galaxy, the Interstellar Medium, and Radio Astronomy. From 1976 to 1994 he was extremely active as Chairman of the IAU Working Group on the Protection of Molecular-Line Frequencies, which established and upgraded a list of spectral lines most important to radio astronomy. Related to this, from 1979 to 1982 he was the IAU delegate to the CCIR. In 1978 he chaired the scientific organising committee for the inaugural Asian–South Pacific IAU meeting. From 1979 Brian was a member of the Inter-Union Commission on the Allocation of Frequencies (IUCAF), which represents the interests of URSI, IAU and the Commission on Space Research in the protection of radio frequencies for radio astronomy, Earth exploration and space research. He actively chaired the group from 1987 to 1995.

Protector of radio astronomy

Brian's most valuable legacy for a successful future in radio astronomy almost certainly lay in his efforts both nationally and internationally to keep the frequency bands used and planned for use by radio astronomy free from man-made interference. Radio astronomy involves the reception of extremely weak cosmic signals, many orders of magnitude weaker than man- made transmissions associated with services such as radio, television and radar. Therefore radio astronomy is not generally possible at frequencies used by these services. Fortunately, the regulation of radio spectrum usage has been organized through the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a specialized agency of the United Nations Organization, and many of the frequencies used by radio astronomers are now protected. Protection for observations of interstellar molecules has been particularly difficult to obtain because the observed frequencies are set by nature, and thus there is no flexibility in choice of frequency bands. In view of the ever-increasing demands for additional frequency bands for new or expanding communication services, radio astronomers need to fight hard to maintain or improve the protection for their observing bands.

One of us (JBW) worked closely with Brian on frequency protection for over twenty years and considers that in this area Brian was an unsung hero. In addition to his participation in IUCAF and the IAU Working Group on protection of radio astronomy frequencies, from 1965 onwards Brian was closely associated with the ITU's work on radio astronomy protection. He took over the national responsibility, which had previously been carried out by A. J. Higgs, also of the Division of Radiophysics. Input for ITU meetings was organized through national and international study groups for the individual services using the radio spectrum. National Study Group 2 dealt with matters related to the national protection of radio astronomy, Earth exploration and space research. The work included discussions and negotiations with the Department of Transport and Communications on Australian policy in these areas.

The protection negotiations were quite complex and compromises were sometimes needed (82, 101). With a patient, logical approach, Brian excelled at the meetings, and radio astronomy benefited. The conclusions from the national meetings were merged into an Australian document and subsequent documents providing a technical basis for ITU World Radio Conferences that set the international radio regulations. He represented Australia and IUCAF in the World Radio Conferences of 1979 and 1992.

Brian played a critical role at one stage during the 1979 conference. This three- month meeting was particularly important because it revised all the frequency bands that were previously allocated to the various services using, or planning to use, the entire radio spectrum out to 275 GHz. In line with the proposals submitted by the countries involved in the conference, an interference-free allocation to radio astronomy for the main OH lines appeared ensured. However, towards the end of the meeting, some US delegates with interests in a new satellite communication system began to lobby for support of an allocation in the OH band. Had this occurred, future observations of OH would have been badly affected. When it appeared that the UK might change its position and spearhead a general support for the allocation, I (JBW) was still at the conference and contacted Brian, who had returned to Sydney at that stage. He immediately initiated world- wide complaints to the UK administration from the many countries with active astronomy groups, and as a result of this pressure the move was aborted.

Brian also participated in a Joint Interim Working Party meeting to complete a report to the 1992 conference. After this meeting D. Hartley, Australian Delegation Leader from the Australian Department of Transport and Communications, informed Brian that he was very impressed with his handling of radio astronomy matters, noting that radio astronomy had achieved a very high profile as a result.

One particular national problem was the protection of existing Australian radio telescopes from new ground-based transmitters with planned locations sufficiently close to the radio sites for their signals to cause interference. On one occasion, a new gold/copper mine was planned for installation only eight kilometres from the Parkes Observatory. Brian led an exhaustive enquiry that demonstrated that the intervening topography would not sufficiently shield the Parkes telescope from the radiation emitted by the DC motors of the ore crushers. He suggested modifications to the mine design that would reduce the radiation to acceptable levels. Some of the modifications were included, and the mine has now been operating for several years without affecting observations with the Parkes telescope.

Brian was very active as IUCAF Chairman. For example, during the 1980s, observations of the 1.6-GHz OH spectral lines began to suffer from interference from transmissions associated with a Russian satellite system GLONASS. Brian was tenacious in following up the matter, working in conjunction with the GLONASS administration. As part of a plan to eliminate the interference, a sequence of tests took place in 1992 with observations at fifteen observatories around the world. This evaluation formed the basis for formal agreements between the GLONASS administration, IUCAF and several national governments that have led to interference-free OH observations. Brian later played a leading international role when it appeared that the OH observations would be threatened by transmissions from the US satellite system IRIDIUM.

In summing up Brian's activities in radio astronomy frequency protection, one of us (JBW) believes that the successes achieved by Brian's involvement are his most important legacy to the successful future of radio astronomy.

Radio astronomy in retirement

Brian retired from CSIRO in 1992 but continued his interests in radio astronomy, his involvement with ATNF as an Honorary Fellow, and his participation in some committees. During the thirtieth birthday celebration of the Parkes radio telescope he presented a talk on early spectral line astronomy with the instrument (102). He prepared a history of the first forty years of frequency allocation (103), and gave presentations on 'Radio astronomy and the international telecommunications regulations' (104) and 'Reminiscences of early 21-cm research at the CSIRO' (105) at appropriate overseas conferences. Typically, in 2003 he participated actively in the 25th General Assembly of the IAU, held in Sydney. In the session 'The Early Development of Australian Radio Astronomy', he presented three talks: 'Joe Pawsey and his influence on the development of Australian radio astronomy', 'Early observations of H-line in Sydney', and 'URSI (Sydney) 1952: the first international meeting of radio astronomers'.

How Brian will be remembered: Perspectives from others

A review of Brian's many scientific successes could give an impression that Brian may have been a radio astronomy 'boffin' whose great dedication, single-mindedness and devotion to science allowed little time for him also to enjoy a less-focused, social life. It appears that some of his scientific peers found him a 'driven' person, at times even ruthless in pursuing his goals, a bit 'distant' and 'political'. However, other colleagues provide perceptions of a 'warmer' and sensitive person. Mal Sinclair, former Head of the ATNF Receiver Group, has commented that when he first worked with Brian in the 1960s, Brian's attitude was one of 'Master and Apprentice'. However, in later years a warm social friendship eventuated, sailing being a common love. He regarded Brian as the 'ultimate political animal' in respect to science politics. He noted the mellowing effect that resulted from Brian's marriage to Jill.

Accolades are given by Dick Manchester, former research collaborator and a current Federation Fellow at ATNF:

Brian was a very political person. He worked tirelessly to advance the interests of the Radiophysics Division, whether it was the direction of the science or the development of new instrumentation. He played a major role in promoting the development of an Australian synthesis array, right from early 1975 when he encouraged (us) to 'think bigger' in our ideas of extending the Parkes interferometer, through to the decision to locate the proposed array at Narrabri and the subsequent push to obtain funding for what became the Australia Telescope Compact Array.

Dick McGee, former Senior ATNF Principal Research Scientist and one of Brian's early research collaborators, also recalls Brian's politicking side, pointing out that Brian appeared to be well acquainted with a number of influential Canberra public servants, even being on the Governor-General's guest dining list at one time. As evidence of Jill's moderating influence, he recalls: 'we took part in a Palm Sunday peace march in ~1988 and were surprised to meet Brian and his wife Jill marching with Quakers'. Dick's wife Lynn Newton recalls with pleasure many kindnesses from Brian. In particular, there was one occasion when, as a new young assistant at Radiophysics, on her first trip to Parkes she backed a CSIRO car into a tree near the telescope. To avoid any repercussion for the new assistant, Brian took the blame for the accident.

General perceptions from Brian's family and friends highlight his 'human' side, revealing a person who was sensitive, loving and generous. In his eulogy, his son Tony provided some insight:

Brian was strongly influenced by his parents Ray and Jess. He once wrote in a letter 'because of Ray's fathering and my own life pattern, I feel at ease with everybody, and feel no differently towards the rich and powerful as I do the poor and humble. I admired Ray's basic honesty and dependability and Jess' practicality. From both my parents I put high value on creativity.'

On tolerance:

Brian rarely complained about things. One of the few things I found was a section where he wrote 'I am uneasy with superstition, ignorance-dressed-up-as-knowledge, intolerance, fascist politics and wanton destruction of the environment.'

On appearance:

Most of you know Brian as having a beard. Well he didn't always have one. In 1978 I came down with the mumps which I passed on to Brian. As a result of his not shaving Brian grew a beard and Jill liked it so much that he has kept it ever since! Brian was Santa at CSIRO one year and wore a white cotton-wool beard. One cheeky kid thought he would show up Santa and pulled off the beard to reveal a not-too-shorter grey beard underneath! Never did a kid look at Santa with such surprise again!

As a sentimental father:

As a father Brian often surprised me with sentimental things from my past. Some examples include a few Christmases ago putting up at Kirribilli Christmas decorations I made at school when I was six. He found photocopies of my hands and feet that we made at his work when I was seven, little red sneakers I wore when I was two, plus a little curtain that was in my creche at the time I was born.

Other perspectives have been contributed by Brian's stepchildren Mandy and Peter Miles. Mandy considered that Brian 'was a gentle caring man who showed great patience and perseverance in all he did.' From Peter:

Firstly, my strongest memories of Brian were his sense of humour and patience. Brian's intellect was unquestioned, but he had an uncanny knack to be able to recall and recant many a topical point in a discussion to some equally and amusing or hilarious experience earlier in his life which had some direct or indirect linkage. He had a real feel for the raconteur, but more than his story-telling expertise was his extreme patience to sit back and take in the conversation, and then like a coda at the end of a symphonic piece he would contribute his oft hilarious anecdote...there was always much laughter around the dinner table. Secondly, and equally memorable was his subtle yet profound generosity. I witnessed many instances of the understated acts of kindness and generosity to those less fortunate than himself. Never seeking acknowledgment or notoriety, just happy to make anonymous acts of kindness with no fuss or fanfare.

Brian's hobbies

During his lifetime, Brian developed several interests outside radio astronomy, and in some areas he achieved some successes. He bought a block of land in Castle Crag, New South Wales, in about 1970, and contributed to the design of a house built on the site. His wife Jill recalls:

It was a house designed basically by Arthur Baldwinson, though part of Brian's contribution was to design a self-supporting flight of stairs. Baldwinson thought that what Brian was designing would be an impossibility, and was astonished at his skill.

Brian was interested in art, and began creating his own sculptures and paintings in the 1970s. Tony's eulogy quotes Brian's comment:

My drawing teacher used to say 'You never make a mistake'. In class we weren't allowed to use rubbers. If we made some mark on the page, we had to go with it. And it was amazing where it could lead...I have used the dictum in many other areas. It helps me to profit from something I could regard as a 'mistake' – to work with it, rather than against it.

Jill believed that 'Brian and I expanded and nourished each other's deep love of music and the Arts during our marriage.' More recently, Brian fruitfully collaborated with Australian artist Joan Brassil on several projects by providing the sounds from space for her installations, including one at the Museum of Contemporary Art and another at the Mt Stromlo Observatory. The collaboration was mentioned by Joan in an ABC television programme ('Somewhere between Light and Reflection') examining her work, broadcast on 4 September 2005. Brian featured prominently in this programme. Tony's eulogy mentions one of Brian's less-successful achievements: 'Later in life he battled away at his clarinet. Brian showed great persistence despite not having nearly as much natural talent as in other areas of his life.'

Brian's love of boating took off in the late 1970s. One of us (JBW) recalls that Brian then owned a 'rubber duckie' and organized several Division of Radiophysics 'regattas' in Pittwater. Subsequently he and Jill owned 26- and 33-foot sloops, enjoying sailing weekends at Pittwater and later sailing with the Coastal Cruising Club.

Brian in retirement

In 1991 Brian and Jill moved to Magnetic Island, off the coast of Townsville, in north Queensland, where their sloop 'Narama' was then berthed. Here they lived for the rest of the decade, spending their summers south at their Kirribilli apartment in Sydney. Brian loved the unspoilt quality of the island and thrived as part of a creative community of environmentalists, artists and musicians. He became involved in local politics, contributed a monthly 'Found in Space' column for the Magnetic Times newspaper, and lobbied hard to prevent the development of Hinchinbrook Island. At the same time, as already mentioned, he still continued to be active in radio astronomy.

Brian and Jill subsequently moved to the Henry Kendall bayside retirement village at Bonnell's Bay, Morriset, New South Wales, enabling not only closer access to health facilities, but also access to an affordable marina berth. Brian sailed his 33-foot yacht from Townsville to Lake Macquarie, the considerable physical effort resulting in a major mitral valve infection. Both Brian and Jill took on roles of Welfare Officer at the village for the following three years.

Brian died peacefully in his sleep on 22 July 2004. He is survived by Jill, Tony, Peter and Mandy. Jill recalls that 'it was only a few hours before his own death, which he knew to be imminent, that he summed up his own life as one of joy'.

About this memoir

This memoir was originally published in Historical Records of Australian Science, vol.17, no.2, 2006. It was written by:

  • J. B. Whiteoak, CSIRO Australia Telescope National Facility, Sydney (corresponding author)
  • H. L. Sim, CSIRO Australia Telescope National Facility, Sydney

Numbers in brackets refer to the bibliography.

Acknowledgments

The authors are grateful to Tony Robinson for an email copy of the text of his eulogy, and to several people for contributing information by email and/or telephone: Jill Robinson (including comments by her children), Mal Sinclair, Dick Manchester, Dick McGee and Lyn Newton.

Notes

  • 1 Quoted in 'Vale Brian Robinson: a great Australian', Magnetic Times, 31 July 2004, p. 1.
  • 2 R. X. McGee, 'Letter to the Editor', ATNF News, No. 53, February 2005, p. 1.
  • 3 Quoted in H. Sim and W. Orchiston, 'Brian John Robinson: 1930–2004', ATNF News, No. 54, October 2004, pp. 11–13.

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  60. Caswell, J.L., Robinson, B.J. and Dickel, H. (1971). A search for southern OH-IR objects. Astrophys. Lett., 9: 61–64.
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  63. Johnston, K.J., Robinson, B.J., Caswell, J.L. and Batchelor, R.A. (1972). Water sources, associated with OH emission in the Southern Milky Way. Astrophys. Lett., 10: 93–98.
  64. Sinclair, M.W., Fourikis, N., Ribes, J-C., Robinson, B.J., Brown, R.D. and Godfrey, P.D. (1973). Detection of interstellar thioformaldehyde. Aust. J. Phys., 26: 85–91.
  65. Godfrey, P.D., Brown, R.D., Robinson, B.J. and Sinclair, M.W. (1973). Discovery of interstellar methanimine (formaldimine). Astrophys. Lett., 13: 119–121.
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  74. Caswell, J.L. and Robinson, B.J. (1974). Positions and 1665 MHz line profiles for 10 northern OH emission sources. Aust. J. Phys., 27: 629–635.
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  78. Gardner, F.F., Robinson, B.J. and Sinclair, M.W. (1976). Observations of interstellar CH at 9 cm wavelength. Aust. J. Phys., 29: 211–226.
  79. Robinson, B.J. (1976). Molecular astronomy. Proc. Astron. Soc. Aust., 3: 12–19.
  80. Blackman, G.L., Brown, R.D., Godrey, P.D., Bassez, M.P., Ottrey, A.L., Winkler, D. and Robinson, B.J. (1977). Detection of J=2–1 emission of acetonitrile (CH3CN) in Sgr B2. Mon. Not. Roy. Astr. Soc., 180: 1P–3P.
  81. Balister, M., Batchelor, R.A., Haynes, R.F., McCulloch, M.G., Robinson, B.J., Wellington, K.J., Yabsley, D.E. and Knowles, S.H. (1977). Observations of SiO masers at 43 GHz with the Parkes radio telescope. Mon. Not. Roy. Astr. Soc., 180: 415–427.
  82. Robinson, B.J. and Whiteoak, J.B. (1979). Does the radio spectrum have room for radio astronomy. Proc. Astron. Soc. Aust., 3: 396–400.
  83. Brown, R.D., Godfrey, P.D., Storey, J.W.V., Bassez, M.P., Robinson, B.J., Batchelor, R.A., McCulloch, M.G., Rydbeck, O.E.H. and Hjalmarson, A.G. (1979). A search for interstellar glycine. Mon. Not. Roy. Astr. Soc., 186: 5–8.
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  86. Robinson, B.J., Whiteoak, J.B. and McCutcheon, W.H. (1982). Southern galactic plane CO survey. Int. J. Infrared & mm Waves, 3: 63–76.
  87. McCutcheon, W.H., Robinson, B.J., Whiteoak, J.B. and Manchester, R.N. (1983). Distribution of CO in the Southern Milky Way. In Kinematics, Dynamics and Structure of the Milky Way, Proceedings of Workshop, Vancouver, Canada. pp. 165–170. (Reidel: Dordrecht.)
  88. Robinson, B.J., Manchester, R.N., Whiteoak, J.B. and McCutcheon, W.H. (1983). CO distribution along the Southern Milky Way. In Surveys of the Southern Galaxy, Proceedings Workshop, Leiden, the Netherlands. pp. 1–15. (Reidel: Dordrecht.)
  89. Manchester, R.N., Whiteoak, J.B., Robinson, B.J., Otrupcek, R.E. and Rennie, C.J. (1983). Latitude distribution of CO in the southern hemisphere. In Surveys of the Southern Galaxy, Proceedings Workshop, Leiden, the Netherlands. pp. 137–141. (Reidel: Dordrecht.)
  90. Batchelor, R.A., Robinson, B.J. and McCulloch, M.G. (1984). HCO+ in NGC 6334. Proc. Astron. Soc. Aust., 5: 363–367.
  91. Riley, P.A., Wolfendale, A.W., Xu, C.-X., Manchester, R.N., Robinson, B.J. and Whiteoak, J.B. (1984). Correlation of gamma-ray fluxes with southern hemisphere CO data. Mon. Not. Roy. Astron. Soc., 206: 423–432.
  92. Robinson, B.J., Manchester, R.N., Whiteoak, J.B., Sanders, D.B., Scoville, N.Z., Clemens, D.P., McCutcheon, W.H. and
    Solomon, P.M. (1984). The distribution of CO in the Galaxy for longitudes 294° to 86°. Astrophys. J., 283: L31–L35.
  93. McCutcheon, W.H., Robinson, B.J., Manchester, R.N. and Whiteoak, J.B. (1985). Distribution of CO in the Southern Milky Way and large-scale structure in the Galaxy. In Milky Way Galaxy, IAU Symposim No. 106. p. 203. (Groningen, the Netherlands.)
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  96. Wang, J.S., Robinson, B.J., Huang, G.C. and Otrupcek, R.E. (1987). A 28-kHz resolution acousto-optic spectrometer. In Astrochemistry, IAU Symposium No. 120. pp. 111–114. (Goa, India.)
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  99. Robinson, B.J., Manchester, R.N., Whiteoak, J.B., Otrupcek, R.E. and McCutcheon, W.H. (1988). CO survey of the Southern Galaxy. Astron. & Astrophys., 193: 60–68.
  100. Wang, J.S., Robinson, B.J., Otrupcek, R.E. and Huang, G.C. (1989). A high-resolution acousto-optical spectrograph suitable for CO observations of dark clouds. Proc. Astron. Soc. Aust., 8: 207–211.
  101. Robinson, B.J. (1991). Protection of passive bands in Australia, India, and Japan. In Light Pollution, Radio Interferometry, and Space Debris, IAU Colloquium No. 112. (Ed. D.L. Crawford.) p. 189. (Astronomical Society of the Pacific: San Francisco.)
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