Graduation address: Professor Malcolm S Longair CBE

Honorary Degree of Doctor of Science
Laureation by Professor Kenneth Falconer

Friday 23 June 2017

Chancellor, it is my privilege to present for the degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa, Professor Malcolm Longair.

Throughout Malcolm’s life, two places have had special significance: the Cavendish Laboratory, which is the Physics department at Cambridge University founded in 1874 by the Scottish scientist James Clerk Maxwell, and Scotland.

Born and educated in Dundee, Malcolm graduated in 1963 from Queen’s College Dundee, then a college of this University. He joined the Radio Astronomy Group at the Cavendish for his PhD to study astrophysics and cosmology under Nobel Laureate Martin Ryle. This was a golden age when advancing technology in radio astronomy was enabling a vast range of discoveries, including quasars, pulsars and cosmic background radiation. His research flourished, bringing together observations of radio sources and cosmological theory, and he remained in Cambridge as a lecturer, finding time for visiting positions at the California Institute of Technology, Princeton and the USSR Space Research Institute. Affectionately named The Scottish Lecturer, his roots were always apparent.

In 1980 Malcolm was appointed to the triple position of Astronomer Royal for Scotland, Regius Professor of Astronomy at the University of Edinburgh, and Director of the Edinburgh Royal Observatory. In particular, he took on responsibility for the operation of the UK InfraRed Telescope and later the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope, both located nearly 14,000ft above sea level on Mauna Kea in Hawaii. Working at infrared and millimetre wavelengths, these innovative telescopes were able to penetrate vast cosmological distances and enabled the structure of distant galaxies to be explored. Malcolm’s leadership is widely credited for the success of the pioneering research that utilised these instruments.

After ten years Malcolm returned to the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge as Jacksonian Professor of Natural Philosophy and in 1997 he became head of the rapidly expanding laboratory. He continued to promote and develop millimetre and submillimetre observational cosmology. He was allocated observation time on the newly launched Hubble Space Telescope and in 1995 he identified far distant galaxies of a new and unexpected type, comprising giant galaxies at the centres of clusters of galaxies. His involvement with the Hubble Telescope has continued over many years and he is currently on the advisory committee for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to Hubble, to be launched in 2018.

Malcolm’s 300 papers or so and dozen books extend far wider than just his distinguished contributions to astrophysics. He has written on the acoustics of Venetian churches jointly with his wife, Deborah Howard, a renowned expert on Italian architecture. He is dedicated to the public promotion of science, for example his delightful book Alice and the Space Telescope describes the construction of the Hubble Telescope for non-specialists, and he presented the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures on The Origins of our Universe in 1990.

Retirement in 2008 has not diminished his energy. For over ten years Malcolm has been Chair of the International Advisory Board of SUPA, the Scottish Universities’ Physics Alliance, of which St Andrews is a major partner. He is Director of Development for the several hundred million pound rebuilding of the Cavendish Laboratory due for completion in 2020. He has continued to develop historical interests: a recent book presents quantum mechanics from a historical perspective, last year he published a 650-page A Scientific History of the Cavendish Laboratory, and he is an expert on the work of James Clerk Maxwell, as many of us heard this morning.

His visits to Scotland are not purely scientific: together with Deborah he regularly visits the Scottish hills – they completed climbing all the Munros in 2011 and are now well into the Corbetts – the next highest tier of Scottish mountains.

Chancellor, in recognition of his contributions to astrophysics, to Scottish science and to the public understanding of science, I invite you to confer the degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa, on Professor Malcolm Longair.

Professor Kenneth Falconer
School of Mathematics and Statistics

Response from Professor Malcolm S Longair CBE

It’s a great honour to be awarded this honorary degree of Doctor of Science. All the more so since in all possible senses St Andrews is my alma mater.

I needn’t tell you St Andrews is one of the world’s great universities. Universities in Scotland build on the great Scottish tradition of genuine belief in the central importance of education. Let me repeat that: the central genuine importance of education. They’re the fruits of what was called in the old days ‘a school in every parish’. That’s where it began. Then came the Scottish Enlightenment and its glorious aftermath.

When I was a little boy growing up in Dundee, my parents and my teachers understood this absolutely. And they provided the essential encouragement and support that made me value education above everything else. And all I can say is: it works! It works, it really does!

I’ve experienced this tradition first hand through my involvement in the Scottish University Physics Alliance (SUPA). The investment of over £100 million by the Scottish Funding Council in physics and astronomy rejuvenated these disciplines, and St Andrews benefitted very greatly from these investments. But it’s more than that. SUPA is a remarkable collaboration across eight physics departments in Scotland and enables Scotland to push very far above its numerical weight in impact in physics, astrophysics and cognate subjects. These statements are fully backed up by the remarkable improvement in the REF results since the funding for SUPA came through.

And I ask you, where else in the UK could this have happened? I know places where it couldn’t! But in Scotland, this idea of spirit, of collaboration, of invention, is paramount to its success. It depends on vision, trust and energy, and that has happened in Scotland. It’s a wonderful continuation of the Scottish tradition of the appreciation of the value of education, and this must be maintained. Let me repeat that again: this tradition of the valuation of education must be continued indefinitely.

I applaud the great achievements of the University, and I am certain of its future success. I repeat my heartfelt gratitude for this great honour the University has bestowed upon me. Thank you very much.  

Professor Malcolm S Longair CBE