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R. Hanbury Brown

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Biography

R. Hanbury Brown was a British engineer who developed anti-submarine radar systems during World War II and used this research to study distant stars in the 1950s.

Brown was born in India in 1916 and was the son of a British army officer who managed weapons factories. His grandfather was also in the imperial service, having worked on irrigation projects in Egypt and India.

He attended London University and considered becoming a classics scholar, but decided to pursue engineering. In 1936, as Nazi power expanded in Continental Europe, Brown was asked to join a top-secret project to design a system that could detect German aircraft and submarines. This team, headquartered in Bawdsey manor in Suffolk, built the world’s first radar system, which proved integral to British victory in the war. Brown was later sent to the United States to help Americans implement this technology.

After the war, scientists at Manchester University invited Brown to participate in astronomical observations. They believed that Brown’s experience with radar could advance the study of two stars, Cygnus A and Cassiopeia A, known for their heavy radio emissions. Using two widely spaced dishes, Brown and Richard Twiss created an interferometer to capture these signals and measure the size of the stars.

They then decided to pursue the tougher course of measuring a star’s diameter based on the amount of light it emitted. Brown and Twiss accomplished this goal by using two army surplus anti-aircraft searchlights. Each searchlight had a five-foot mirror. For six months, they focused these lights on the star Sirius. The data they gathered based on the light the star gave off matched the dimensions that were already known about Sirius. Brown would build a larger version of the interferometer in England and, in the early 1960s, in Australia, where he could obtain a better view of the stars. He taught in Sydney until moving back to England in 1986.