Obituary: Professor Peter Sweet

Rigorous Glasgow astronomer

PETER SWEET, Regius Professor of Astronomy at Glasgow University from 1959 until 1982, is immortalised in the terms "Eddington-Sweet Circulation" and "Sweet-Parker Reconnection". His pioneering research on flows in stellar interiors and on magnetised plasmas laid the foundations for future work in these fields.

In particular, the Sweet-Parker theory of magnetic energy release in solar flares, which have important terrestrial effects as well as being a key physics problem, is a widely used reference point for all subsequent work in this area of plasma astrophysics.

Sweet's interests were reflected in some of the subsequent appointments to Glasgow staff - notably R.C. Smith (now at Sussex University) in stellar rotation, and R.M. Green and J.C. Brown in flare theory. Green further developed the Sweet-Parker theory, while Brown, current Regius Chair and 10th Astronomer Royal for Scotland, led solar studies in the direction of combining theory and space mission data utilisation, at the same time forging (with Professor E.W. Laing) a productive Astronomy and Astrophysics union with the Plasma Physics Group in Natural Philosophy.

This guaranteed the flourishing of Glasgow's long-standing reputation in solar activity, which dates back to the "Wilson Effect" in sunspots, named after Alexander Wilson, the first incumbent of the Glasgow Chair (founded in 1760). Glasgow doctoral graduates in solar physics are now to be found in many corners of the academic globe, and are currently heavily involved in Nasa's dedicated solar flare mission RHESSI on which Glasgow has Nasa Co-Investigator status.

While Sweet's own direct research contribution became less visible after laying these foundations, he continued to be a giant intellect and major influence whose opinions were widely sought, and at times feared. When he and Professor T.G. Cowling of Leeds appeared at meetings together (for instance, the International Astronomical Union Symposium in Paris 1970), many a speaker was in trepidation as to which of them would question his or her ideas.

More importantly, Sweet's astonishing mastery of mathematical physics and its applications, his perpetual search for rigour and clarity, and his unrelenting patience as teacher and supervisor, were an unforgettable inspiration to generations and launched many a graduate into academia who might otherwise have been lost to the world of personal gain.

When N-particle computer simulation codes were the new hot topic in plasma physics, Sweet took joy in devising codes showing the essential results on a pocket calculator with N= 8 particles when others were boasting of using 100,000. (As an undergraduate, Hugo Schwartz, now of CTIO Chile, said, "You haven't had Professor Sweet yet? He's the guy who writes in a scribble and speaks too quietly, but is the best teacher you could ever have.") Sweet's brilliant stamp lies hidden on the subsequent work of many and, in his later active years, he was even persuaded to allow his name on several further papers to which his input had been invaluable.

Born in Beckenham, Kent, in 1921, Peter Sweet was educated at Kingsbury County Grammar School, London, and was Wrangler 1942 on a Major Open Scholarship in Maths at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. After three years as Junior Scientific Officer in the Ministry of Aircraft Production, he returned to Sidney Sussex (where he took a master's degree and where his PhD was supervised by Fred Hoyle).

Thereafter he was Lecturer in Astronomy, first from 1947 in Glasgow University, then from 1952 until 1959 at University College London, where he was also Assistant Director of the Observatory, and a Visiting Fellow at the University of California at Berkeley in 1957-58. During his subsequent 23 years in the Glasgow Chair, succeeding W.M. Smart, he was Dean of Science, 1973- 75, and Senior Visiting Fellow at Nasa's New York Institute for Space Studies, 1965-66.

By the time of his retirement in 1982 he had, with Professor John Gunn of the Department of Natural Philosophy, prepared the ground for the eventual creation (in 1986) of the now joint Department of Physics and Astronomy - one of the earliest departments so titled and now one of many across the UK.

Sweet's teaching and research excellence stemmed from his perfectionism as well as his brilliance, a trait which carried over into all his activities and consumed much of his time. The old University Gardens Observatory that Sweet came to in 1959 had not been built for the staff and student numbers it soon had under his leadership, leading him into a major planning exercise for a new observatory to be sited on Glasgow University's estate at Garscube, on the outskirts of the city, and decanting of staff from University Gardens to other accommodation.

By the time the Garscube Observatory was completed and opened in March 1969 by the seventh Astronomer Royal for Scotland, Professor H. Bruck, staff and student numbers had grown so much that Astronomy has since occupied twin sites.

Peter Alan Sweet, astronomer: born Beckenham, Kent 15 May 1921; Junior Scientific Officer, Ministry of Aircraft Production 1942-45; BA Scholar, Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge 1945-47; Lecturer in Astronomy, Glasgow University 1947-52, Regius Professor of Astronomy 1959-82, Dean of the Faculty of Science 1973-75; Lecturer in Astronomy and Assistant Director of the Observatory, London University 1952-59; married 1947 Vera Parnell (died 2002; two sons); died Poole, Dorset 16 January 2005.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
News
Campbell: ‘Sometimes you have to be economical with the truth’
newsFormer spin doctor says MPs should study tactics of leading sports figures like José Mourinho
Sport
football
Life and Style
Agretti is often compared to its relative, samphire, though is closer in taste to spinach
food + drink
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
Kelly Osbourne will play a flight attendant in Sharknado 2
people
News
Down-to-earth: Winstone isn't one for considering his 'legacy'
people
News
The dress can be seen in different colours
i100
Sport
Wes Brown is sent-off
football
Voices
Lance Corporal Joshua Leakey VC
voicesBeware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Life and Style
Alexander McQueen's AW 2009/10 collection during Paris Fashion Week
fashionMeet the collaborators who helped create the late designer’s notorious spectacles
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?