Keith Briggs

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Basil Hugh Briggs 1923-1994

list of BHB's papers | Bright Sparcs biographical entry | Atmospheric Physics, University of Adelaide

Basil Hugh Briggs (1923–1994) - an appreciation

by Graham Elford and Bob Vincent. Reproduced (with corrections) from Journal of Atmospheric and Terrestrial Physics, Vol.56, No.12, pp.1533-1534, 1994. Copyright (1994), reproduced with permission from Elsevier.

Dr Basil Briggs, the 1992 recipient of the Harrie Massey Prize for outstanding contribution to Physics in Australia, died in Adelaide on 28 February 1994 after a short illness. For several years, he had lived with a developing cancer condition.

Basil Briggs had a long and distinguished career in radio science and University teaching. He was a pioneer in the development of radio techniques for studying the structure and motion of the lower ionosphere, and was a world leader in the interpretation of radar scatter from irregularities in the ionosphere. His own survey of the field was given in the Harrie Massey Prize Lecture, published last year in the Australian Journal of Physics (46, 127, 1993).

Basil was born in Bradford, U.K., and was awarded a scholarship to Cambridge University in 1941. He graduated in 1942 with a war-time accelerated science degree, and was sent as a Junior Scientific Officer to the Telecommunications Research Establishment at Malvern, the home of British radar. For the next 4 years he was a member of a select group of about six people in the Radio Circuits Section. It was here that he acquired his subtle experimental skills in radio science.

Having completed the Tripos at Cambridge in 1946, he joined the Radio Research Group within the Cavendish Laboratory and was awarded the degree of PhD in 1952. From 1946 to 1961, the Cavendish Radio Research Group under J. A. Ratcliffe was pre-eminent in ionospheric research; Basil stayed on at the Cavendish, supervising research students and continuing his own research activities. Through this period, the Cavendish Laboratory Radio Group was the Mecca for radio-scientists and so it was that Basil became known to members of the international community in his field. These Cambridge contacts were reinforced over the years and are reflected in his voluminous correspondence.

The 15 years that Basil spent in the Cavendish with his mentor, Jack Ratcliffe, had a profound effect on his understanding of how radio could be used as a tool for studying the atmosphere, and in particular the ionised regions above 60km. In Basil Briggs, Jack Ratcliffe found a mind that matched his own, for they both had the gift of presenting subtle concepts in simple scientific language. In 1962, a few months after J.A.R. and Basil had left the Cavendish, Ratcliffe was talking to a visitor from the Physics Department at Adelaide and reflecting on our good fortune in having Basil join the Department, and then Ratcliffe added "Basil Briggs is - I think - the soundest physicist I know". That remark may find a resonance with some who read this tribute.

With the winding down of the Cavendish Radio Group in 1961, Basil Briggs sought a post in another University - it was fortunate for Adelaide and, as Basil readily affirmed later, for him, his wife and family that the Physics Department at Adelaide was at that time advertising for a senior lecturer. It was in Adelaide that Basil found the climate, space, finance and support from colleagues to develop his ideas on radio studies of the ionosphere.

About a year or so after Basil's arrival in Adelaide, he proposed the building of what was to become the world's largest low frequency radio telescope - not for astronomical purposes - but rather for looking in detail at the lower ionosphere. The proposal was for a 1km x 1km array of 89 crossed dipoles on 2MHz, each with its own coaxial feeder connected to 89 receivers in the central laboratory, where the receiver outputs could be displayed and analysed in various ways. The concept was imaginative, bold and yet elegantly simple and, almost 30 years on, it is still a great research instrument. It is now undergoing a major upgrade so that it can be used for transmission, as well as for reception. It has been a fertile research tool for a generation of postgraduate students and has led to the publication of well over 250 papers. The Buckland Park Array, as it is known worldwide, stands as a unique reminder of the brilliance of its creator.

In the late 1940s while at the Cavendish, Basil Briggs joined with a small group to develop a mathematical procedure to deduce the horizontal motion of the ionosphere from the radar signals detected on spaced antennas (see Journal of Atmospheric and Terrestrial Physics, 56, 831, 1994). Subsequently, and over many years, Basil refined this correlation procedure, and for at least the last decade, he was clearly acknowledged as a world leader in this area, receiving many requests to give lectures - the most recent being in New Zealand in July 1993.

While most of his experimental work was confined to the ionosphere below 100km, he had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the whole of the Earth's ionised regions and the methods used to study them. Some of his work at Cambridge and his early work at Adelaide was involved with the effect of the whole ionosphere on radio transmissions from satellites, particularly the interpretation of the scintillation of the signals in terms of the structure of the ionosphere. By any standard, his lectures were quite outstanding. Some of his students from the sixties, now themselves respected research scientists, have reflected on those days, using such terms as "an outstanding lecturer, brilliant, extraordinarily clear". He lectured at all levels to classes from 10 to 200. His lectures were masterful, carefully crafted, concise, and presented with an unfaltering command of the English language. His neat blackboard work is legendary - his ability to produce almost perfect circles with an effortless sweep of the hand was the envy of his colleagues.

To Basil Briggs, the supervision of higher degree students was a privilege. To all his students, he was their mentor and friend, sharing his wisdom and unhurriedly guiding them through the dry periods of their research. He encouraged the students in the publication of their results and yet only rarely added his name to a paper to which he had contributed. A colleague, commenting on this recently, wrote "He was always generous to a fault, placing the well-being of his colleagues before his own, and on occasions withholding his own name from a collaborative paper so that his student could gain greater benefit from its publication".

For 25 years, Basil was a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of the Journal of Atmospheric and Terrestrial Physics. As well as choosing referrees [sic] to review submitted papers, he read all the papers himself. Often, other editors sought his views as a referee. The drawers of his filing cabinets were an extraordinary repository of his correspondence with authors all over the world. Here were the files of a task without reward, and of which his colleagues knew very little. He was literally a man of letters - many of them hand written - giving generously of his wisdom and insight.

Despite his quiet reserved manner, Basil Briggs was a most approachable person. He was always available to students, and he had one generous characteristic that endeared him to staff and research students alike - he never denounced any idea. If he saw a flaw in the proposal or argument, he always first commented on the good points, and then suggested another way of looking at the situation so that the good points were enhanced and the flaw was no longer an issue.

Basil was a very practical person with natural hand skills - he thus appreciated the contributions of all the technical people concerned with the establishment and maintenance of his many radio experiments. The respect was mutual, and enhanced the quality of his work.

Basil was a humanist, and his world view was based on science - he was much drawn to the philosophical writings of Jeans and Eddington and to some of the ideas expressed in the recent writings of Paul Davies. He was a compassionate man, wise and gentlemanly, a gifted scholar, and a truly great friend to his close colleagues. He enriched the lives of many, both in Australia and overseas.

For almost 50 years, Basil Briggs worked at the frontiers of ionospheric research, and maintained an enthusiasm for this work that was inspirational. In 1992, his scholarship was formally recognised internationally by the award from the Institute of Physics in the U.K. of the Harrie Massey Prize for outstanding contribution to Physics in Australia.

He is survived by his wife Gill, and five children. They were of the greatest support to Basil in his life, his work and, finally, in his illness.

GRAHAM ELFORD and BOB VINCENT University of Adelaide

Basil Briggs (right) at a field day of the RSGB Cambridge & District Amateur Radio Club in the 1950s.

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