R. V. Jones Scholarship

ASPE is pleased to offer the R. V. Jones Scholarship valued at $2,000. The scholarship will support the student winner in the form of waived conference and tutorial fees and a stipend to cover the travel costs to the ASPE Annual Meeting.

Who was R. V. Jones?

R.V. Jones held the Chair of Natural Philosophy in the University of Aberdeen for a full 35 years, from his  appointment in 1946 (on the recommendation of Winston Churchill) to his retirement in 1981. This fact, of course, appears in all the many tributes that have been written, but his tenure of the Chair and his work as an academic physicist at the University have too often received little comment. Naturally, his immense and unique contribution to the war effort must always remain at the forefront of the country’s memories of him. And, after the war, his distinguished work in scientific intelligence, his service on many national committees, and his authorship of fascinating and lively accounts of his work undoubtedly took great effort and commitment. But his position at Aberdeen was no mere backdrop to these activities, and those who had the privilege of being taught by him, or working with him, know that his was a very special gift for scientific enquiry and communication.

Much of R.V.’s work at Aberdeen involved unusual and novel instrumentation pushed to the ultimate limits of precision. He stood in a tradition of physicists who see accuracy of measurement as a key to both scientific and technological advance, and therefore a worthy subject for study in its own right. His innovations were remarkable. Working with J.C.S. Richards, he developed a series of instruments that detect mechanical movements through measurement of electrical capacitance. Jones and Richards used these “capacitance micrometers” in seismometers that were comfortably sensitive enough to record the daily tidal tilt of the then Natural Philosophy Building, and in microbarographs that detected the atmospheric sound waves from the detonation of China’s first atomic bomb on the other side of the world. The influence of this work was similarly profound. Some 18 years after its 1970 publication, one of his “capacitance micrometer” papers was cited as a key precursor in the introduction to a short paper in Physical Review Letters. That paper, by Binnig, Quate and Gerber, announced the invention of the Atomic Force Microscope, which immediately revolutionised our ability to view and to manipulate matter at the level of individual atoms. It would surely have won its authors a Nobel Prize, had Binnig not already just received one for his work on the closely related Scanning Tunnelling Microscope.

Another favourite instrument was the “optical lever” which uses a beam of light as the ultimate, lightweight pointer. Such a pointer can be made almost arbitrarily long, and so can amplify tiny motions without disturbing the object being measured. The principle had been known for many years, but R.V. took up the idea, further improved its sensitivity, and then applied it to the study of the seemingly abstruse phenomenon of radiation pressure. Radiation pressure refers to the mechanical force exerted by light. In normal, terrestrial circumstances this force is tiny – far smaller, for instance, than the already very small forces which spin Crookes radiometers in sunlit windows of opticians’ shops, and with which it is sometimes confused. However, radiation pressure has a major effect on the cosmic scale, in the stability of stars and the behaviour of the interstellar medium. It is therefore disconcerting that, before R.V.’s experiments, theoreticians could not agree whether this force became larger or smaller on immersion in a transparent, liquid medium. Working with Richards and, later, with B.C. Leslie, R.V. was able to make a direct measurement even in the potentially overwhelming presence of all the everyday convection forces in the liquid. The force went up, in precise proportion to the phase refractive index. However, the extremely detailed theory of Professor Sir Rudolf Peierls, developed in a series of papers in response to the work of Jones and Richards, still gave a significantly different result. Many other theoreticians at all levels of distinction contributed before the discrepancy was finally resolved satisfactorily, and in complete agreement with the experiments. Jones himself also wrote on the theory, and in this connection I would like to quote the words of Sir Charles Franks, when presenting R.V. for the honorary degree of LLD at Bristol. Einstein had never worked on this problem, but in a memorable phrase Sir Charles remarked that Jones’s approach came closest to the “trenchant naivety” of the great man. This trenchant naivety, the ability to look anew and from unexpected directions, surely characterised R.V.’s approach to physics, and to much else.

These are, of course, examples only. R.V. worked on many other instruments and carried out other, 2 equally challenging experiments in relativistic optics and other areas, placing yet further demands on measurement technique, and again causing consternation, even confusion, to the theoreticians. Is it too fanciful to see, in R.V.’s ever-fruitful and ever-disconcerting choice of subjects for study, the mind of the consummate practical joker, as well as the far-sighted physicist? In any event, some of the deep discrepancies raised in this work have still to be fully resolved.

As a communicator, R.V. was equally prolific and enthusiastic. He energetically took up the particularly Scottish tradition that the Professor should lecture to first year classes, and for these lectures he developed the remarkable repertoire of demonstrations that enthralled generations of students and later formed the basis of his Royal Institution Christmas Lectures. Sadly, his illustration of momentum conservation, presented with the aid of a pistol and live ammunition, was one favourite demonstration that did not make the transition. For the Honours examinations, he introduced the much dreaded Natural Philosophy Paper V, where questions such as “Give your reasons for believing that the moon is not made of green cheese” struck fear into the hearts of students and instructors alike. Working with W.J. Bates, an optical physicist and a fellow instrument designer of great ingenuity, he introduced a Masters course in Principles of Instrument Design, which was unique in the U.K. and, indeed, the world. This course has left no direct progeny at Aberdeen, but elsewhere highly successful courses have been modelled on it, and its alumni can be found in key positions in the instrument industry world-wide – a few even in the U.K. Outwith the University, RV. fostered links to schools and to the public, through public lectures on such learned topics as “The Theory of Practical Joking and its Relation to Scientific Method”. He took a leading hand in the organisation of events such as the 1967 British Association Technology Fair in Aberdeen, and he cultivated personal contacts with schools throughout the region.

His many essays on the advance of technology show another aspect of R.V.’s gift for communication. In these papers, many of them invited by the major learned societies, he analysed and tried to pass on the secrets that made his own thinking so creative, and to chart the creative successes of previous generations of physicists and engineers. At a time before “lateral thinking” had been thought of, he highlighted such stimuli to innovative thought as the “other way round” principle. An old-fashioned wheelbarrow has a fixed axle, around which the wheel rotates; this arrangement is perfectly satisfactory at first but, as wear sets in and the wheel’s central hole becomes enlarged, the wheel will begin to wobble on the axle. Now, however, consider the design turned the other way round: fix the wheel to the axle, and let wheel and axle rotate in the forks. Wear is no more or less rapid, but the rotation remains perfectly stable. What works for the wheelbarrow can work to correct, or avoid, many other errors of design.

A central theme throughout these writings is the relationship between science and engineering, and the importance of that relationship to technological advance and to national success. He wrote strongly of the need to expand the study of engineering in universities, alongside that of physics. True to that principle, he encouraged the emergence of engineering in the University of Aberdeen, and had a warm working relationship with Professor T.M. Charlton. R.V, refused to accept a distinction between invention and discovery, seeing the same necessity for creativity in both, and he stressed the interdependence of both an art and a science of engineering. Of all his writings on these subjects perhaps the most distilled is a short paper published in 1984. The article starts with the example of three great British physicists and Nobel Laureates – Dirac, G.P. Thomson and Cockcroft – with whom R.V. attended the 1951 Copenhagen conference organised by Niels Bohr. Dirac, famously, had graduated first as an engineer, but so also had Cockcroft, while in Thomson’s case it was his equally distinguished physicist father, J.J., who had started in engineering. R.V. then develops again his theme of the essential synergy between physics and engineering, condemns the aloofness between the disciplines, and warns of the detriment to both, particularly in education. As so often, R.V.’s clear and individual insight challenged prevailing prejudices, and this particular article should be required reading for all members of both disciplines.

In peace, as pre-eminently in war, R.V. Jones was influential in the counsels of the nation. He was an author, a national and a public figure, yet still found time to develop the arts of practical joking, and of playing the mouth-organ. His human qualities made him equally at ease with men and women of all 3 stations. His profound respect for the courage of the fighting men of the armed forces earned him their respect in return. His own courage showed in his fortitude in face of the personal bereavements he suffered in later life. In all these ways he was a rare man indeed.

But it must surely be as an extraordinary and inspirational Natural Philosopher that we, in his University, should above all remember him.

M.A. Player April 1998

This biography of R. V. Jones was written by M. A. Player. This biography was shared with ASPE by Graham J. Siddall.

R. V. Jones Authored Books: Most Secret War | Instruments and Experiences: Papers on Measurement and Instrument Design (Wiley Series in Measurement Science and Technology) | Reflections On Intelligence | Running a Practice