Obituary: Professor Barrie W. Jones (1941–2014)

Posted on Nov 4, 2014 in News | 1 comment

Obituary: Professor Barrie W. Jones (1941–2014)

It is with great sadness that we note the passing of Prof. Barrie W. Jones, on Saturday 4th October. Barrie died peacefully in Milton Keynes Hospital, finally succumbing to a series of infections that he had been fighting for the last few months of his life.

Barrie first remembered becoming interested in astronomy at the age of 10, following a public talk and observing session about the planet Mars, at Cardiff Municipal Observatory. Inspired by this, he soon took to work, building his own Newtonian reflecting telescope, complete with a 6” mirror that he ground, polished, and silvered himself.

Barrie’s interest in astronomy took him to the University of Bristol, in the early 1960s. Whilst studying for his BSc in Physics, he became president of the university’s astronomical society, continuing his passionate pursuit of astronomy as an amateur whilst he studied for his undergraduate degree.

Following his BSc, Barrie stayed in Bristol, undertaking a PhD project in experimental solid-state physics. This allowed him to develop skills that bore great fruit when he final managed to move from studying physics to researching astronomy, during his first post-doctoral position.

In that post, working in Bristol’s gamma-ray astronomy group, Barrie was heavily involved with the construction and launch of stratospheric balloons. Those balloons, laden with large gamma-ray telescopes, attempted to observe targets such as the pulsar in the Crab Nebula by getting above the bulk of the atmosphere – soaring at around 40,000 metres, drifting with the wind, before landing in a variety of locations across the UK, and even across the channel!

After his post-doc position, Barrie took up another post at the University of Bristol – a tenured lectureship in architecture. In that post, he taught both physical and mathematical content to the university’s undergraduate students – teaching courses such as “Maths for Architects”, “Acoustics of Buildings” and the physics of human vision. His tenure in Bristol was short lived, however, as in late 1969, he emigrated with his young family to take up a research assistant position at Cornell University, where he carried out research constructing and using cutting edge far-infrared and sub-millimetre detectors, which were launched to high altitude from the famous White Sands missile base, in an attempt to detect the microwave background radiation.

Barrie_mid2004_cropped Medium Web viewAt the end of his one-year research assistant contract, Barrie was offered a further full-time research position at Cornell, building from scratch an experiment designed to study the damping (or lack of it) of seismic waves that were detected by seismometers placed on the Moon by the Apollo missions. Barrie took up the challenge, getting experimental results that provided a very good match to the observations carried out on the Moon, and led to a greater understanding of the properties of the lunar surface.

Barrie and his family returned to the UK in 1972, when he accepted a lectureship at The Open University, which had opened its doors to students just three years earlier. He would remain at the university, and based in Milton Keynes, for the rest of his life.

During his time at The Open University, Barrie inspired countless undergraduate students, particularly through the university’s astronomy courses, which he played a major role in establishing in the early 1980s. At the same time, Barrie continued to carry out an astonishingly varied program of research that included studies of alternative energy sources (such as solar energy), the cooling of infrared space observatories, and investigations of ‘shadow bands’, a rare phenomenon observed during total solar eclipses. Indeed, Barrie’s passion for solar eclipses, and his interest in shadow bands, was something he maintained for the rest of his life – travelling overseas to observe a number of eclipses before his travels were brought to an end by ill health in his final years.

Barrie’s research into astrobiology began in earnest in the mid-1990s, when he began to work with two PhD students on dynamical studies of the orbits of exoplanetary systems. Working with his PhD students David Underwood and Nick Sleep, he pioneered research into the question of whether any of the newly discovered exoplanetary systems could host potentially habitable planets. Using dynamical methods, Barrie and his students investigated every system that had been discovered, and published several highly cited papers showing those systems in which Earth-like planets could survive for sufficiently long in the “habitable zone” of their host star to allow life to develop and thrive.

At the same time as leading his cutting-edge astrobiological research, Barrie was appointed as the head of the Physics Department at The Open University – a post he filled with great distinction for a three-year term from January 1999. Barrie’s time leading the OU’s Physics department was one of great growth – leading to him successfully renaming the department ‘The Department of Physics and Astronomy’, in reflection of the growing strength in astronomical research within the group.

It is into this environment that I came to know him – in October 2006, I started a three-year postdoctoral position working with Barrie (who had officially retired the day before my post officially began). Barrie and I worked together on a variety of astrobiological problems, studying the influence of Jupiter on the impact rate experienced by the Earth and the different impact regimes experienced by the terrestrial planets. Barrie was an inspirational mentor, a great friend and colleague, and it was a tremendous privilege to work with him for those years.

Beyond his research achievements, Barrie was an excellent advocate for astronomical outreach. He gave regular talks to local astronomical societies, giving a great deal back to the amateur astronomical community from which he came. He was often interviewed for radio and television pieces, and appeared on the Sky at Night twice – in 1973, talking about an eclipse of the Sun in Africa, and again in 2004, talking about the search for planets around other stars.

He acted as the president of the Society for Popular Astronomy for a term between 2000 and 2002, and published several popular astronomy books – including “Life in the Solar System and Beyond” and “The Search for Life Continued: Planets Around Other Stars”, in which he used his inimitable and gentle style to communicate his passion and knowledge of astronomy to a general audience. In recent years, he also published two very well received works of fiction, as he took advantage of his retirement to fully explore his passion for writing.

Barrie was an active member of the national and international astronomical communities – organising several specialist discussion meetings of the RAS, and serving as a member of their council for a number of years. He spent more than 20 years working in a leadership role within IAU Commission 46: Astronomy Education and Development (including three years as vice-president, prior to ill-health in 2006). In recognition of his excellent astrobiological research, the Astrobiology Society of Britain awarded Barrie the David Wynn-Williams memorial prize in 2006, and he was a long-term member and ardent supporter of the society and its goals.

Outside of work, Barrie loved to travel, exploring the world with his wife Anne. I remember with particular fondness his stories of a trip to Botswana, in 2002, to observe that year’s total eclipse of the Sun. Barrie and Anne were also incredibly welcoming and gracious hosts, and Barrie’s love of life (and a good drink or two) was often cited by those at The Open University who remembered with great joy his successful stint as head of Physics and Astronomy there.

Barrie’s death is a great loss to the British astronomical and astrobiological communities, within which he was held in high esteem and regarded with great affection. He will be very fondly remembered.

He is survived by his wife, Anne, and their children and grandchildren.

— Jonti Horner

One Comment

  1. Thank you Jonti, for this very informative and colourful tribute to my husband, Barrie. The interdisciplinary aspect of astronomy together with his talent for communication and teaching at all levels- including primary school children-will I am sure be remembered and appreciated by many. My thanks to all who encouraged and supported Barrie in this.

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