Australia’s best boffins

I was delighted this week to see that ABC Radio’s The Science Show has created a list of the Top 100 Australian Scientists. The scientists are listed on their website. Amongst them is the world’s first boffin.

Zoology boffins

I studied zoology at the University of New South Wales so was pleased to see on Robyn William’s (the host of the Science Show) list for NSW several zoologists that I had studied with and was acquainted with.

First was Mike Archer who “helped unravel the history of Australia’s mammals and wants to bring back the Tasmanian tiger”. Professor Archer was one of the best lecturers we had in the UNSW zoology school—he was highly knowledgeable and a brilliant communicator.

Then, Tim Flannery “a palaeontologist, mammal biologist and passionate environmentalist”. Tim was doing his doctorate when I was doing my Honours. Like Archer, he is a great communicator and one of Australia’s great polymaths.

Thirdly, Charles Birch (1918-2009) who “studied Australian insects and helped invent modern ecology”. Birch was a lecturer at our rival, the University of Sydney.

The world’s first boffin

However, further down the list was Robert Hanbury Brown (1916-2002) who “built radio telescopes, including one in Narrabri—and was rumoured to be the original ‘boffin’ when the term was coined.” Now here was something tantalising.

A boffin is defined as “person engaged in innovative research”, especially in aviation and earlier as an “elderly naval officer”. The word appeared during WW2 but no one is entirely sure how it came to be used. One idea is that it is a reference to Nicodemus Boffin, a Charles Dickens’ character from “Our Mutual Friend” (1865) who pursues a late-life education, employing someone to teach him to read. Therefore it may have been poking fun at scientists as trying to appear cleverer than they are.

Robert Hanbury Brown (1916-2002)

Hanbury Brown is most famous for his work on intensity interferometers (by measuring the difference between two light waves a distance apart you can measure characteristics of stars). His work covered radar, radio astronomy and quantum optics.

Hanbury Brown while attending a secondary college studied for an external bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of London (he received at the age of 19).

While doing his PhD at Imperial College, London, Hanbury Brown was recruited to the Telecommunications Research Establishment (TRE) in 1936.

The TRE was one of the most important war time research institutes of WW2 developing radio navigation, radar, infra-red detection and heat seeking weapons. The TRE was led by Robert Watson Watt. One of their colleagues is reputed to have coined the word “boffin” and Watson Watt considered Hanbury Brown to be the prototypical boffin. Hanbury Brown’s autobiography is called “Boffin”.

In 1962 Hanbury Brown moved to Australia to work at the University of Sydney. He then built the Narrabri Stellar Intensity Interferometer consisting of two 23 ft telescopes. With the  Using it, Hanbury Brown succeeded in measuring the diameters of 32 stars. He developed the first empirical temperature scale for hot stars. He had intended to stay in Australia for two years but stayed for 27. In 1986 he received the Companion of the Order of Australia.

Which means we can claim the first boffin as an Australian.