Recollections from 1956–1982


page under construction
Date: 1956–1982
Author: Stuart Malin
Title: Recollections (t.b.c.)
About: Malin's story begins in 1956 when he attended his first Summer School at Herstmonceux. Appointed to the staff in 1958, Malin started work in the Magnetic Department. He then spent two years at the Radcliffe Observatory in South Africa before returning to his former department at Herstmonceux in 1965. By then, control of the Herstmonceux site had moved from the Admiralty to the newly formed Science Research Council. However, as part of the transfer, although still based at Herstmonceux, the Magnetic Department was administered not by the Science Research Council (SRC) but by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). Malin remained at Herstmonceux until 1976 when the department was moved to Scotland. He remained in Scotland until 1982 when he resigned to take up the post of Head of Astronomy and Navigation at the National Maritime Museum where he was based on the Observatory site.
Images: t.b.c.

Copyright: Text & images © Stuart Malin, 2024






Vacation Courses at Herstmonceux Castle, 1956–1958

When a notice appeared on the KCL Physics Department notice board inviting applications for a summer vacation course at the Royal Greenwich Observatory, Herstmonceux Castle, I decided to go for it.

This was the first summer (1956) after Dr (later Sir) Richard Woolley had become Astronomer Royal and had moved from Canberra to take over the RGO at Herstmonceux.  On arrival at London Airport he was asked by reporters what he thought about space travel.  Possibly through jet-lag or more likely because he was hopeless at public relations, he replied “Utter bilge”, a remark that was to plague him for the rest of his life.  A couple of years later, after the first artificial satellite had been launched, he was asked if he would care to revise his opinion on space travel.  To his discredit, he gave the thoroughly pathetic answer “It depends what you mean by utter bilge.”

But he did get some things right, one of which was the institution of summer vacation courses for undergraduates as a way of introducing them to the world of professional astronomy.  The scheme was to bear an abundance of fruit.  There are very few leading British astronomers who did not get drawn to their careers by attending one of the courses.

The first one was rather slim and took place before the post-war move to Herstmonceux was complete and there were few facilities or telescopes.  I received a travel warrant and was met at Pevensey Bay Halt (made famous by Spike Milligan, who was stationed in nearby Bexhill during the war, as “the last outpost of British Railways”) and taken to the castle to join about five other students.  We were accommodated in attic bedrooms in the castle and could buy lunch in the staff canteen, but there were no arrangements for an evening meal other than to give us the use of the kitchen.  There was a morning and evening mini-bus run to the village to ferry staff to and from work, and we could hitch a lift to get provisions from the village shops.  None of us had much idea about cooking – me least of all – but somehow we managed.  I remember potatoes featuring prominently on the menu.  These we peeled in a machine that was designed for sack-loads of potatoes rather than the few we used.  This made timing quite critical – the interval between them being not properly peeled and reduced to tiny marbles was only a few microseconds.  Similarly with the heavy-duty masher that would spread our humble ration of potato as a wafer-thin inside coating to the enormous caldron, with about ten percent fired out of the top.  I don’t know what Mrs Marples, the Canteen Manageress (and much later Lady Woolley, but that is another story), thought of our abuse of her kitchen, and much admire her restraint in not telling us.

Each student was assigned either to a department or to an individual astronomer.  I was given to Bernard Pagel – I hope he was grateful.  My task was the measurement of radial velocities from the spectra of stars on photographic plates, which I found to be rather exciting.  I don’t know where the spectra had come from – certainly not Herstmonceux as there were no suitable telescopes there at the time.  On either side of the star spectrum there was a spectrum of iron from a source at the telescope, and therefore stationary.  The spectral lines from the star were displaced slightly relative to the corresponding iron lines because of the Döppler effect and this displacement was measured for a number of lines using a screw micrometer attached to a microscope.  The mean displacement could then readily be converted into radial (i.e. line-of-sight) velocity.  I was not very fast nor, I suspect, very accurate, but I threw myself into it with a will. 

After lunch on most days we would be given a lecture in the chapel.  Bernard Pagel and Olin Eggen bore the brunt of the lecturing, but others were given by various department heads and by the AR (the full title of Astronomer Royal was seldom used).  It was a privilege to be lectured to by such an august astronomical company, but straight after lunch was not the best time and, probably along with most of the others, I would doze off as soon as the first slide came up and the lights went down – a practice I have continued to this day, though with steadily decreasing feelings of guilt.  The late nights we kept did not help.  I would like to say that they were spent in looking at the stars, but that would not be true, not least because, despite being one of the sunniest sites in England, the Sussex nights were not special and only one in four, on average, was clear.

The evenings, after the nightly saga in the kitchen, were our own, except for Wednesday night, when country dancing in the ballroom was more-or-less compulsory.  This, together with playing Bach fugues on the piano, was one of the AR’s fetishes and no astronomer with any ambition would dream of being absent.  Besides, it was quite good fun and one of the few chances to get to grips with the host of young lady scientific assistants that the AR had collected.  This was before the introduction of electronic computers and nearly all of the heavy routine calculations were done by school-leavers with a few A-levels.  The AR must certainly be given credit for his ability to pick out pretty girls.  When the country dancing was over, the girls were all loaded into the observatory bus and shuttled off to the station, while we lonesome bachelors wandered forlornly back to our attic.  But at least the ice had been broken and we could follow up friendships the next day in the office, or after lunch in the extensive grounds.

Besides the beautifully restored Elizabethan castle (how many workplaces include a chapel and a ballroom?), the observatory had wonderful romantic gardens.  When the observatory first moved there from London many of the staff were accommodated in wooden huts to the south of the castle – strictly segregated into men’s and women’s hostels, which were separated by a common room with table tennis and similar facilities.  Being over a mile distant from the village, those who were not addicted to table tennis had to make their own entertainment in the evenings and this inevitably led to a steady stream of weddings.  Whenever this happened there would be a staff collection for a wedding present followed by a presentation in the staircase hall, attended by all staff and made by the AR.  He was primed by somebody with the basic data about the couple, but always started proceedings by announcing the forthcoming union as though it had been a newly discovered comet: e.g. 1956f, for the sixth wedding of that year.  These were embarrassing occasions both for the couple and for the AR, but tradition had to be maintained.  When my own turn came in 1963 Irene and I were lucky as the AR was abroad and the presentation was made by his Chief Assistant, Dr Hunter, who was much better at such things.

I had greatly enjoyed the first student course and signed up as soon as possible for the next one the following summer.  This was much larger and rather better organised than the first one, with a bus to take us out to The Chestnut Tree, a local restaurant, for our evening meal.  During one such meal, there was a sudden lull in the conversation and from the radio in the kitchen came the words “… enjoying the advantages of mains drainage”, an expression that has stuck with me ever since.  There were also girls on the course (as there were on the second course of the first year, but I was unaware of this at the time), but they were, with one exception, no competition for those provided by the observatory.  The exception was Charlie Sheffield’s girlfriend.  They had both managed to come on the course and treated it as a government-funded honeymoon in the most delightful of settings.

But Charlie at least did work during the day.  He and I were assigned to Eggen that year and shared a large office with John Alexander, who had just joined the permanent staff.  Charlie was a crossword maniac and was never happier than when he was worrying away at an anagram (except possibly at night).  We got involved in discussing the viability of hot-air balloons – this was long before the modern propane-powered ones had appeared on the scene – and undertook calculations involving mass, temperature-gradient, conductivity and so on.  But the results could only be verified by an experiment.  I recalled a Boys’ Own Paper article about making one from gores of tissue paper with a meths-soaked wad of cotton wool wired on at the bottom.  This we constructed and it worked quite well, even narrowly failing to set fire to the room in which we tested it.  But Charlie wanted something on a bigger scale.

He came into the office one day, after a trip to Eastbourne, with most of the contents of a model-making shop – balsa wood, tissue paper and dope.  (The sort of dope used for tightening tissue paper on balsa frames, I should clarify.)  Astronomy was abandoned as we designed and constructed possibly the largest hot air balloon since that of the Montgolfiers, standing some ten feet high.  After our lucky escape with the pilot version, it was clear that this was to be an outdoor balloon.  The launch had to be suitably marked, so we (“we” by now included most of the students and a few of the staff) arranged for a party to which all the girls and selected others were to be invited.  We obtained the firkin of Merrydown as well as other booze, with the aid of Arthur Milsom and Harry Cook, whose peaceful bachelor flat in the castle attic we students seasonally invaded.  The balloon was suitably decorated with its name “EGGEN” (for Extra-Galactic Geophysical Experimental Nephoscope) on one side and “Mars or bust” on the other.  It later emerged that many of the girls rightly feared for their modesty if the EGGEN failed to reach Mars.

Ideally we should have waited for a less breezy night, but we had little choice, so at dusk the launch went ahead.  With four stalwart(ish) students to hold it in place, the pre-heating pie-dish of meths was set alight and, after it was thought to have done its job, the smaller dish of cotton wool and meths that was to fly with EGGEN and provide a bit of weight at the bottom for stability was installed.  This was then lit and the students released their hold.  Whether they failed to release simultaneously, whether there was a skittish gust of wind, or whether there was a design fault is not clear, but the device rose swiftly into the air and then turned on its side, allowing the flame from the burner to catch the fabric.  However, it continued to rise, blazing impressively, to well above the height of the castle before plunging spectacularly into the moat.  This is all recorded on black-and-white photographs somewhere.  The experiment was deemed a resounding success, and we all repaired to the attic for the party.  That, too, was a success, but, as ever, the young ladies were whisked away by the observatory bus before any serious harm could be done.  The castle residents finished off the liquor and went to bed.  Only in my case at least the night didn’t end there, as detailed earlier.

This event set the pattern, and successive student groups (there were two sessions each summer) were expected to do something outlandish, such as the Great Telephone Plot of the following year.  Before proceeding to the following year, however – I was greedy enough to come three years in succession – there are a few more events of the second year to record.  The most important of these was my first proper girlfriend, Linda Mather.  She had joined the staff from school after taking her A-levels, as was the pattern for scientific assistants.  She was assigned to the AR’s department and shared the office with John Alexander (whom she later married), Charlie and me.  The boy-friend/girl-friend relationship ran its course over the next couple of years and then faded out, but we remained – and still remain – friends.

Other notable friends made on the second course were Gordon Walker and Terry Deeming.  We all hit it off very well and agreed to meet up again at Herstmonceux the following year, which we did.  Terry was extremely talented and could easily have pursued a musical career rather than an astronomical one.  To give some idea, he played the piano part of César Franck’s Sonata for Violin and Piano at a concert one year.  As a result he decided that the violin was a more useful instrument than a piano for social music-making, as well as being more portable, so he took it up.  The next year he performed the same piece at a public concert, but this time playing the violin part.  He was a student at Birmingham University, where Professor Zdenek Kopal was the leading astronomical light.  Kopal used to show visitors the department’s rather small telescope and describe it as “the largest telescope of its size in the World!”  Gordon was a Scot and proud of it.  He could quote long passages from Robert Burns and did so frequently.  We used to spend the evenings together playing table tennis, eating Wagon-wheels and gathered around Terry while he performed on the piano.  Both Terry and Gordon went on to become successful professional astronomers, Terry in Texas (where he died young) and Gordon in Canada, where he pioneered the discovery of planets orbiting nearby stars.

For my third Herstmonceux vacation course (what indulgence), I was working with the AR.  While it was a privilege to work with such an eminent scientist it was also rather daunting as, despite his best efforts, he was never an easy man to get on with.  Once again we were measuring spectral lines with a screw micrometer, this time from coudé plates obtained at Mount Wilson.  One of us would look through the microscope and bisect the line while the other would read the micrometer and record the result.  We took turns at each job.  Linda was also part of the team.