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The history of
Astronomy in
Wales:
Introduction



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Summaries
of the Subject



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Wales



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THE HISTORY OF
ASTRONOMICAL RESEARCH
IN THE
UNIVERSITY OF WALES


Introduction

Whereas the University of Wales has a dominant role in astronomical research in Wales today, it was only in the 1970's that astronomy became established as a major activity in its constituent institutions. Indeed, the growth of astronomy in the University of Wales in the period up to the middle of the 20th century was relatively slow, even though physics and mathematics had prominent positions from the start. However, important work relating to the theory of the structure of stars and the theory of sunspots was carried out in the 1930's and 1940's in Swansea and Bangor, mostly by Thomas Cowling.



Early astronomical activities

University colleges were founded in Aberystwyth in 1872, in Cardiff in 1882, and in Bangor in 1883. They came together to found the federal University of Wales in 1893. University College Swansea was established as a new institution within the University of Wales in 1920.

From the outset, the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, had a Department of Mathematics, Natural Philosophy and Astronomy. Despite the inclusion of the term natural philosophy in its title, it existed in parallel with the Department of Physics. I have no record of any astronomical work being carried out there. The department was replaced by separate departments of Pure Mathematics and Applied Mathematics in 1909 and the word astronomy was lost from the names of Aberystwyth departments. [1]

Similarly, when the University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire was established in the old infirmary on Newport Road in Cardiff in 1882, the college had a Department of Mathematics and Astronomy. The teaching and research in the department was carried out single-handedly by Henry William Lloyd Tanner (1851-1915), who had been appointed Professor of Mathematics and Astronomy in 1893. Tanner was a mathematician, who specialised in partial differential equations and complex numbers: he was honoured for his research in mathematics by being elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1899. Mathematics was his principal interest and activity. However, Tanner did have an interest in astronomy and was a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society from 1890 until his death. He also became a member of the Astronomical Society of Wales. Working with Mr. George Carslake Thompson, an amateur astronomer from Penarth, Tanner published a scientific paper about Leonid meteors observed in 1896 from Penarth in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (vol. 57, page 158). [1-6,21]

The University College of North Wales, Bangor, was presented with a six-inch refracting telescope in the 1920's as a gift by the sisters of the Rev. Arthur E. Brisco Owen. The telescope was initially housed in university buildings in the centre of the city. In preparation for the total solar eclipse of 29th June, 1927, the telescope was moved to a new observatory on Ffriddoedd Road, under the direction of the Head of the Department of Physics, Prof. Edwin A. Owen. Equipment was set up, including a spectrograph, in an attempt to observe the eclipse and to photograph the flash spectrum. These attempts were defeated by cloud. Descriptions can be found in contemporary newspapers (see the Holyhead Chronicle, 1st July, 1927, page 7). The telescope remained in the Brisco Owen Observatory on Ffriddoedd Road for many years. Eventually it was dismantled and was stored in the Physics Department buildings in the city centre. The objective lens suffered slight damage (a small chip) when it was being used in a laboratory experiment. The telescope was lost when the School of Physical and Molecular Sciences was closed during university cutbacks in the late 1980's. [7,8]

Prof. George Hartley Bryan, F.R.S. (1864-1928), professor of mathematics at the University College of North Wales, Bangor, between 1896 and 1926, was a coauthor of the book Elementary Mathematical Astronomy with Examples and Examination Papers. The book was originally written by C. W. C. Barlow and George Bryan in 1892 when Bryan was a Fellow at a Cambridge college, before arriving in Bangor. It became a useful textbook for university-level study. The book was republished in several revised editions through to the 1950's (including, at times, with Andrew Crommelin and Harold Spencer Jones as coauthors after Bryan's death). Despite this early contribution to astronomy, Bryan's research interests were mostly in applied mathematics and he is remembered as an early pioneer in aviation, particularly for developments in the theory of aircraft. [1,3,7,9] Meanwhile, Gwilym Owen (1880-1940), professor of physics in the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, between 1919 and 1937, was the author of several popular science books in Welsh. These included: Athroniaeth Pethau Cyffredin (1907); Cwrr y Llen (1914); Rhyfeddodau'r Cread (1933); and Mawr a Bach, sef Sêr ac Electronau (1936). He sometimes gave a strong emphasis to astronomy in these works. [10-13] These publications are discussed in more detail on the companion page dedicated to books and journals. Despite their efforts to bring astronomy to a wide audience, there is no evidence that either George Bryan or Gwilym Owen carried out research in astronomy.



Thomas Cowling in Swansea

In 1933 a new assistant lecturer joined the Department of Mathematics at University College Swansea. His name was Thomas George Cowling. He was to carry out research into the theory of the structure of stars of fundmental importance.

Thomas Cowling was born in London in 1906, where he attended school. He then studied at Oxford University, obtaining a first class degree in mathematics in 1927 and afterwards a diploma in education. Cowling began research with the distinguished astrophysicist E. A. Milne at Oxford between 1928 and 1930, becoming Milne's first ever research student. He transferred to Imperial College, London, in 1930, and moved to Swansea three years later to take up the lecturing post.

Thomas Cowling was an applied mathematician who specialised in the structure of stars. In Swansea he worked on the problem of convective instability in stars. He was able to describe the conditions under which gas inside stars will move upwards in the process of convection. At Swansea he also worked to understand the theory behind sunspots and the role of magnetic fields in producing cooler regions in the Sun's visible surface. During his time at Swansea he published a number of important theoretical scientific papers about the physical processes operating in stars, in particular a two-part series called The Stability of Gaseous Stars in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

His Swansea papers include:

  • T. G. Cowling, The magnetic Field of Sunspots, Monthly Notices R.A.S., 94, 39-48, 1933.
  • T. G. Cowling, The Stability of Gaseous Stars, Monthly Notices R.A.S., 94, 768-782, 1934.
  • T. G. Cowling, Convection in Stars, The Observatory, 58, 243-247, 1935.
  • T. G. Cowling, The Structure of Sunspots, Monthly Notices R.A.S., 96, 15-20, 1935.
  • T. G. Cowling, The Stability of Gaseous Stars (second paper), Monthly Notices R.A.S., 96, 42-60, 1935.
  • T. G. Cowling, The Structure of Sunspots, The Observatory, 59, 49, 1936.
  • T. G. Cowling, Remarks on L. Biermann's paper ``Konvektion im Innern der Sterne'', Astronomische Nachrichten, 258, 133, 1936.
  • T. G. Cowling, Retardation of shells emitted by novae, The Observatory, 60, 167-169, 1937.

In 1937 Cowling left Swansea to take up a lectureship at the University of Dundee. The following year he moved from Dundee to the University of Manchester where he remained until 1945. [14-17]



Thomas Cowling and Robert Newing in Bangor

Cowling returned to the University of Wales in 1945 when he was appointed to a professorship in the Department of Mathematics at the University College of North Wales in Bangor. He returned to the study of the theory of sunspots and the role of magnetic field lines in producing relatively cool regions at the visible surface of the Sun. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in March 1948, a significant scientific honour.

Already in the Department of Mathematics at Bangor when Cowling arrived was Robert Albert Newing. Newing had been born in 1913 and studied for his doctorate in theoretical physics with William (later Sir William) McCrea at Imperial College, London. He was appointed an assistant lecturer in mathematics in Bangor. Newing later worked with Thomas Cowling on oscillations in stars.

The papers published by Cowling and by Newing based on their work in Bangor included:

  • T. G. Cowling, On the Sun's General Magnetic Field, Monthly Notices R.A.S., 105, 166-174, 1945.
  • T. G. Cowling, The Growth and Decay of the Sunspot Magnetic Field, Monthly Notices R.A.S., 106, 218-224, 1946.
  • T. G. Cowling, Alfvén's Theory of Sunspots, Monthly Notices R.A.S., 106, 446-456, 1946.
  • T. G. Cowling, A working hypothesis of solar flares, The Observatory, 68, 108-109, 1948.
  • T. G. Cowling & R. A. Newing, The Oscillations of a Rotating Star, Astrophysical Journal, 109, 149-158, 1949.

Thomas Cowling left Bangor in 1948 to become a professor in the Department of Mathematics at the University of Leeds, where he remained until his retirement in 1970, and where he continued as an emeritus professor until his death in 1990. The importance of Thomas Cowling's work was recognised by the award of the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1956 and the Bruce Medal of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific in 1985.[14-17]

Robert Newing continued with his interest in rotating stars and in relativity. He died in 1984 having served the Mathematics department in Bangor for many years. [18,19] In the same department, Llewelyn Gwyn Chambers had an interest in theoretical cosmology, in addition to his main research interests in mathematical physics and applied mathematics.[19,20] He published a paper The Hund Gravitational Equations and the Expanding Universe in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1960 (vol. 120, no. 3, pp. 263-270).



The recent period

The state of astronomical research in the University was transformed in the 1970's. A Department of Applied Mathematics and Astronomy was founded at University College Cardiff, with several lecturing staff being appointed between 1973 and 1975 with interests in astronomy and astrophysics, including stars, the interstellar medium, galaxies and the astrophysical consequences of general relativity. These built on the foundations laid by Terry John in the Department of Applied Mathematics and Mathematical Physics, who had published a number of research papers about opacity in stellar atmospheres in the previous decade.

The Physics Department of the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, pursued research into the upper atmosphere of the Earth and the interface between the Earth's magnetic field and interplanetary space, including aurorae. These activities began with the appointment of Granville Beynon as Professor of Physics in 1958: he established a successful upper atmosphere research group.

These activities have continued to the present time, and perhaps therefore fall outside the scope of this historical survey.

The main centre of astronomical research at University College Cardiff (U.C.C.) transferred to the Physics Department at the time of the reorganisation of departments following the merger of U.C.C. with the University of Wales Institute of Science and Technology to form the University of Wales College Cardiff in 1988. The department changed its name to the Department of Physics and Astronomy in 1991.

These developments made possible the period of active research into astronomy in Wales that we witness today.



References

[1.]   D. E. Evans, The University of Wales: A Historical Sketch, University of Wales Press, Cardiff, 1953.
[2.]   A. H. Trow & D. J. A. Brown, A Short History of the College, 1883 to 1933, University College of South Wales, 1933, pages 24 and 112.
[3.]   Royal Society fellowship details at the Raymond and Beverley Sackler Archive at the web pages of the Library of the Royal Society.
[4.]   A. J. Kinder, Index of Obituaries Appearing in R.A.S. Publications, at the website of the Library and Archives of the Royal Astronomical Society.
[5.]   Obituary of H. W. L. Tanner in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, 76, 271, 1916 [a scanned copy is available here].
[6.]   G. C. Thompson & H. W. L. Tanner, Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, 57, 158, 1897.
[7.]   J. G. Williams, The University College of North Wales: Foundations 1884-1927, University of Wales Press, Cardiff, 1985, p.382.
[8.]   Holyhead Chronicle, 1st July, 1927, p. 7.
[9.]   C. W. C. Barlow & G. H. Bryan, Elementary Mathematical Astronomy with Examples and Examination Papers, publ. W. B. Clive & Co., London, 1892.
[10.]   E. A. Owen, Gwilym Owen, in Y Bywgraffiadur Cymreig, 1941-1950, gydag atodiad i'r Bywgraffiadur Cymreig hyd 1940, eds. R. T. Jenkins, E. D. Jones & M. B. Davies, publ. Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion, London, 1970.
[11.]   G. Owen, Athroniaeth Pethau Cyffredin, Cwmni y Cyhoeddwyr Cymreig (Cyf.), Caernarfon, 1907.
[12.]   G. Owen, Rhyfeddodau'r Cread, Hughes a'i Fab, Wrexham, 1933.
[13.]   G. Owen, Mawr a Bach, sef Sêr ac Electronau, University of Wales Press, Cardiff, 1936.
[14.]   T. G. Cowling, Astronomer by Accident, Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics, 23, 1-18, 1985.
[15.]   H. Jeffreys, The President's Address on the Award of the Gold Medal to Professor Thomas George Cowling, Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, 116, 229-230, 1956.
[16.]   L. Mestel, Thomas George Cowling, Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, 37, 105-125, 1991.
[17.]   R. J. Tayler, T. G. Cowling (1906-1990) (obituary), Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society, 32, 201-205, 1991.
[18.]   I. P. Williams, Robert Albert Newing (1913-1984) (obituary), Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society, 26, 575, 1985.
[19.]   Scientific Research In British Universities 1959-1960, published by the Department of Scientific And Industrial Research, printed by Her Majesty's Stationery Office, London, 1960.
[20.]   Scientific Research In British Universities 1962-1963, published by the Department of Scientific And Industrial Research, printed by Her Majesty's Stationery Office, London, 1963.
[21.]   Obituary of H. W. L. Tanner in Proceedings of the Royal Society A, vol. 91, pp. lxix-lxxiv, 1915.



Web resources

The following external Web pages may be of interest:





 

   
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