Sir Francis Graham Smith (Royal Astronomer 1982-1990)

Sir Francis Graham Smith in his potting shed on Anglesey

Next Thursday, Sir Francis Graham Smith will celebrate his 101st birthday. Sir Francis is a quite extraordinary man and his illustrious scientific career is far from over. Perhaps he is taking inspiration from fellow Rossallian, Dr William Frankland, an immunologist who remained very much engaged in the world of academia until shortly before his death at the age of 108. Indeed, Sir William was the oldest ever guest to have appeared on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Desert Island Discs’. He was a sprightly 103 when he sat down to share his favourite records. He chose Elgar’s Nimrod in memory of his comrades and friends who died on active service in the Far East during the Second World War. 

Last autumn, Sir Francis Graham Smith was profiled in a revealing interview with Adam Walton for BBC Wales’ ‘Science Cafe’. Several weeks ago, I listened to the recording of this interview late one night when I was struggling to sleep. As Sir Francis reflected upon his career with humility, eloquence and excitement, it was impossible not to be swept up in his enthusiasm. The oldest ever guest on the ‘Science Cafe’, Sir Francis spoke with extraordinary clarity about the early days of radio astronomy. Of course, Sir William and Sir Francis are highly impressive because of the extraordinary contribution that they have made within their chosen fields. Their longevity is impressive but it is not, of itself, the most striking aspect of their lives. We should feel incredibly proud of the fact that both of these Rossallians continued working when the majority of their contemporaries had long since retired. We talk about the importance of being lifelong learners and, hopefully, we model that through our inquisitiveness and desire to intellectually engage with the world around us. We want our children to retain a sense of wonderment with the natural world around them. Similarly, we hope that they will think deeply about life, relationships and their responsibility to society. Above all else, we hope that our children will demonstrate a concern for humanity and engage with politics, current affairs and issues such as global warming and conflict resolution. To stop learning is to stop existing. Life is a journey of discovery and it does not conclude until we take our very last breath on this planet.

Of course, life often gets in the way of our resolve to learn a new language or read the pile of books that accumulates on our bedside table. The day-to-day business of living absorbs a good deal of our physical, emotional and intellectual energy. However, the relative brevity of life is something of a challenge given the enormous amount of knowledge that we might reasonably wish to acquire. I find that the passing of each year lends a sense of urgency to my desire to learn about subjects which I have hitherto neglected.

What inspires one about both Sir Francis and Sir William is their utter dedication to their chosen disciplines. They are intellectual heroes not just on account of their brilliance but because of their refusal to bow to the inevitable challenges of old age. Sir Francis Graham-Smith continued to publish well into his nineties and his 2016 volume, ‘Eyes on the Sky’ is a fabulous exploration of how technology can be engaged to give us a more in-depth picture of the nature of the universe. Sir Francis charts the growing popularity of astronomy and discusses how observational astronomy has become internationalised. He applauds new partnerships such as the ‘Square Kilometre Array’ and celebrates the fact that amateur astronomers can now contribute to the collection of data for major research projects. From an astronomical perspective, Sir Francis’ pioneering work in radio astronomy has allowed us to look further back in the past than figures like Galileo or Copernicus would ever have dreamed possible but his intellectual gaze remains firmly focused upon the future. He sees a world of opportunity and a world of possibility. 

The Michelson Interferometer

Sir Francis left Rossall in 1941 and attended Downing College in Cambridge where he took both his MA and PhD. In the late 1940s, he went on to work on the Long Michelson Interferometer. This was a radio telescope built by Martin Ryle alongside a rifle range in Cambridge. It was this telescope which produced the groundbreaking ‘Preliminary Survey of the Radio Stars in the Northern Hemisphere’. It was on this project that Sir Francis met his wife Elizabeth, who was also working with Ryle during the very early days of radio astronomy. Sadly, she passed away in 2021.  

Sir Francis went on to become Professor of Radio Astronomy at the University of Manchester and, in 1981, was appointed director of the Nuffield Radio Astronomy Laboratories at Jodrell Bank. From 1975 until 1981, he was Director of the Royal Greenwich Observatory. An avid beekeeper until well into his nineties, Sir Francis remains a much revered figure in the world of radio astronomy, and his opinion is still sought on a wide range of technical issues. Along with figures like Sir Fred Hoyle (1915-2001), Sir Francis was one of the towering figures of twentieth century British astronomy. Like Hoyle, Sir Francis has an ability to make incredibly complex subjects comprehensible to the layman. In that sense, he paved the way for media scientists such as Brian Cox and Adam Rutherford. 

It is well worth listening to Sir Francis’ interview on BBC Wales and you might also want to catch this interview with Sir William Frankland. He gave this interview to BBC Hardtalk at the age of 106!

 So Happy Birthday Sir Francis! May you continue to be enthralled by the wonders of distant galaxies for many years to come. You are an inspiration to current Rossallians over eighty years after you left Fleur de Lys House.