Astronomer Royal’s book takes a fascinating look at the sky and stars

Astronomer Royal John C Brown from Dumbarton.

By Bill Heaney

Which Scotsman inspired Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity?  Which planet is on third made of diamond?  How big is the Universe?

Find out the answers to these questions and many more in this new book from Astronomer Royal for Scotland, John C Brown OBE and Rab Wilson, renowned Scots poet and National Trust Scriver in Residence at Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway, Ayrshire.

John C Brown is, of course a Dumbarton man, who was brought up in Dumbuck Road, and whose alma mater is Dumbarton Academy.

This fascinating guide to our skies and beyond brings together science and art to convey the beauty of our vast cosmos and its scientific workings.

Combining an accessible introduction to astronomy with original space-inspired poetry and haiku, and featuring hundreds of stunning images, Oor Big Braw Cosmos shows you space as you have never seen it before.

The book has been published by Luath and is available on-line and in good bookshops for £25. Dumbartonians qualify for a 20 per cent discount and can get a copy of the book p&p included for just £20 from John at Look out for vidos soon of Rab reading reading poems at

One review by Dava Sobel, author of Longitude, states: “The universe is too big to traverse on foot, or via any vehicle yet devised, so humans have to probe it mentally. Some describe its majesty with mathematical formulae. Others encompass it through verse. This delightfully audacious book does both. The result it positively four-dimensional.”

It brings together the latest cosmic thinking with a Scottish twist, says. Chris Lintott, presenter of The Sky at Night.

Many of you will remember John C Brown from school as the Academy pupil who was mad about the moon, the sun and the stars.

He ventured into the world of astronomy through the lens of a homemade telescope.

And eventually reached the astronomical heights of academia by ascending to the titles of Astronomer Royal for Scotland and Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Glasgow.

Professor Brown, who was born in Dumbarton in 1947, said: “The first instrument I made was just a spectacle lens and a magnifying glass taped on opposite ends of two cardboard tubes (calendars, toilet rolls and so on) which slid in and out to focus.

“Later, I built more substantial telescopes, helped and supplied with metalwork bits by my engineering dad.”

He said: “My first dim recollection of getting keen on the stars is when I was about eight when I read a science fiction story which I think was by Patrick Moore.

“What I clearly recall is when I was 10 – in 1957 – Sputnik was launched, Jodrell Bank opened and my Uncle Joe showed me Comet Arend Roland through binoculars (it was quite like Comet Hale Bopp of 1997), and the start of Patrick Moore’s monthly Sky at Night – the longest running TV programme ever.

“At around the age of 11 or 12, I got in tow with my dad’s photographer friend Eddie Cotogno, who lived in Bellsmyre Avenue.

“He was a bit crazy but filled me full of enthusiasm by telling me stories about the sky and giving me lenses to make telescopes.

“Later, I built more substantial telescopes, helped and supplied with metalwork bits by my engineering dad.

“As a family we were never rich, at least by any financial measure, but we had unlimited supplies of support for each other and enthusiasm for doing things.

“So the fact that telescopes were much more expensive then than now did not get in my way and to see the moon’s craters through simple telescopes you make yourself is fantastic.

“By the time I was 16 or so I had started a school astronomy club and we later built a 15cm telescope for it from a kit.

“I also started going by bus and ferry to Paisley Museum and Coats Observatory, attending evening astronomy talks there by Archie Roy and Mike Ovenden.

“Much of this was made possible by the advice and encouragement of my Dumbarton Academy teachers – Harry (“Cuddy”) Mair of Chemistry, Johnny Robertson of History, and especially John McIntyre of Physics.

“Not only did John get me going to the Paisley lectures and chasing the headmaster for telescope funds, but it was he who suddenly made physics seem really clear, simple, and closely related to the everyday world.

“Without him I might not have gone into astronomy professionally.”

He added: “Around the time I became a student at Glasgow University, I also made a couple of complete telescopes (12 and 22 cm) including the mirrors.

“This was great fun but took a lot of time and patience.

“I studied physics and astronomy (and also maths), physics being the main route then into astronomy, although not the only one.

“The Astronomer Royal for Scotland before me – Professor Malcolm Longair – studied Electronic Physics first.

“Despite having a lot of studying to do, I managed to keep making telescopes and having fun looking at the sky as an amateur. I also had summer jobs in astronomy in Edinburgh and Harvard.

“Back then, as now, permanent jobs in astronomy were not that easy to come by and I was fortunate that the then Regius Chair of Astronomy at Glasgow, Professor Peter Sweet, seemed to think I was talented.

“He offered me a teaching job while I was doing my PhD research on the theory of the newly discovered hard X-rays from the sun.”

Professor Brown has had a series of academic posts in Glasgow University and temporary visiting research jobs in many countries, working on a variety of astronomy subjects, not just the sun.

In 1984, he was appointed to the new Glasgow Chair of Astrophysics and was by then very active in promoting astronomy by public and schools’ lectures.

In 1994, a decision was made to appoint a new Astronomer Royal for Scotland, Malcolm Longair having returned to Cambridge, and the Queen, in February, 1995, honoured John with that appointment.

As tenth Astronomer Royal for Scotland, he was the third Scot to hold that title, and the first for whom the post is not based in Edinburgh University and Royal Observatory.

It is now an honorary title, but with the unwritten duty of promoting astronomy, especially in Scotland.

In addition to his regular teaching, research, and management job as Glasgow (Regius) Professor, he puts a lot of time into giving talks and planetarium shows in schools.

He also uses various unusual routes, such as talks involving astronomy and magic, and provides astronomy input to an Edinburgh Fringe Comedy.

Professor Brown said: “All these activities are great pleasure, especially talking about space to primary school children.

“It is great to share with them the pleasure I have been getting from the stars ever since I was their age.”

John Brown’s family life is almost as interesting as his job.

John Brown at various stages in his life, including one photograph taken at school, Dumbarton Academy.

His paternal grandfather (John) was a toolmaker and a member of a family of keen cyclists known as “The Bicycling Broons”.

His grandmother was of Irish extraction and was a very able pianist as was her brother Jim Jackson, who emigrated in the California Gold Rush, playing piano for silent movies, working with Buffalo Bill and being at one stage allegedly a Keystone Cop.

His Campbell grandparents were of pure Scots ancestry and his father trained as an engineer before joining William Beardmore, at that time an engineering and steel giant on the world scene, where he became manager of the heavy machine shops until he retired.

Professor Brown said: “I still have memories of a visit to Beardmore’s blast furnaces, the nearest thing to Hell I ever saw – and of playing chess with the later author Tom Stoppard while at tea in the home of his father, my dad’s boss, Ken Stoppard.

“At home Dad’s main pastime was oil painting in which he was gifted, teaching local evening classes, selling commissioned work, and exhibiting by invitation – and generally making, fixing and decorating anything and everything including bits of my telescopes. He was a quiet man but a good raconteur and joke teller to good friends.

“Mum was a dedicated housewife and mother but turned her hand to various crafts, including sewing and rug-making. I have one sibling, my older brother James Callen, who retired after many years in naval research work following his PhD in mechanical engineering.”

In 1965, while they were both Glasgow University students, Professor Brown met and married Margaret Isobel Logan, daughter of Dr James C.P. Logan (dermatologist) and Helen M.L. Muggoch (botanist). They have two children, Stuart and Lorna,

Following her BSc in Zoology and PhD in aphid (greenfly) population dynamics, Margaret’s career took her into secondary school biology teaching and later part-time laboratory demonstrating and later into Educational Evaluation.

Professor Brown said: “My wife’s part-time working was what enabled us to have such great times with the children, including extensive travel and quite long periods living abroad, enriched by pursuit of numerous pastimes from rock-hounding to Navajo rugs, and from music and ballet to puppets and the Wizard of Oz.”

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