Obituary: Professor R. V. Jones

M. R. D. Foot's obituary of R. V. Jones [19 December] inevitably concentrated on his outstanding contribution to winning the war. I write as one of the thousands of students who were taught by him, writes Roger Lindsay.

"R.V." 's first-year Natural Philosophy course at Aberdeen taken by all Science, Engineering and medical students was the most wonderful mind- opening experience. It is the part, above all, of my degree course that I have had cause to recall; rarely for facts and always for approach. Intellectual rigour was central to all he did. Early on he emphasised to us "Occam's Razor", which, simply stated, says: "Accept the simplest explanation that fits all the facts at your disposal."

Whilst the science was rigorous, the lectures were FUN and many of them memorable for the way in which the practical demonstration lifted any clouds of misunderstanding and seared the principle on to the brain. Like the experiment to measure the speed of a bullet for which in front of an astonished audience he drew a service revolver from the folds of his gown and drilled the two rotating discs at the other end of the bench. The gunshot and the applause were deafening.

A full first-year turn-out of perhaps 200 students could be quite high- spirited. On one occasion a cornet began to be blown sporadically and tunelessly at the back of the theatre. Eventually and a little grittily, R.V. called the cornet-holder to descend to the front and then confiscated the instrument - but not before giving us a solo that would have done Louis Armstrong proud.

Another measure of his range, humour, concern for lucidity of thought and understanding of scientific principle came in his exam questions. For example, "If action and reaction are equal and opposite" (an oft-stated principle in physics), "how does a horse pull a cart?" Or, "If you have studied past Physics exam papers and observed any trends in the types of questions, state what the trend was, then set your own question and answer it."

In 1979, after watching a natural history television film of a sidewinder snake moving speedily across a desert at right angles to the direction pointed by its head, I thought to write to R.V. suggesting that explaining the movement of the sidewinder would make an excellent exam question. But I should have known! After kindly thanking me for my suggestion and clearly explaining in a few words what we both had seen on television and I had not understood, he revealed that he had anticipated my thought by some 30 years.

In 1949 he had set the following question:

"There are three things which are too wonderful for me, yea, four which I know not:

"The way of an eagle in the air; the way of a serpent upon a rock; the way of a ship in the midst of the sea; and the way of a man with a maid"

Proverbs xxx,18-19

What explanation would you give to Solomon for any three of the foregoing?

As a good Intelligence Officer, R. V. Jones stood by Occam's Razor, writes A. B. Sainsbury. He also perceived the truth of another law, defined by his colleague John Crow - "Do not believe what you wish to believe until you perceive what you ought to have perceived."

And then - and here whimsicality took over - he adumbrated Crabtree's Bludgeon, a fearful blunting of Occam's Razor: "No set of mutually inconsistent observations can exist for which some human intellect cannot conceive a coherent explanation, however complicated." In which case, he observed, all the Intelligence Officers can do is to stand by Occam. But Crabtree? Unmentioned by obituarists so far, he was Jones's greatest spoof, though his genesis was shared with a number of contemporaries, including a distinguished Professor of German and a subsequent Public Orator of London University.

He and his cronies at the Athenaeum created a fictitious character, 44 Christmases ago, as a joke on the literary fraternity to see how many of them would be honest enough to acknowledge that they had never heard of him. He is still commemorated by the annual Crabtree Oration, and it was for this some years ago that Jones mused on

the human tendency to seek complicated explanations that I have often seen in intelligence committees and elsewhere. It almost became necessary in Crabtree's case because, although we early orators took great care never to have Crabtree in two places at the same time, subsequent orators sometimes threw such caution to the winds

- which led to some bludgeoning.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm today
Arts and Entertainment
Bianca Miller and Katie Bulmer-Cooke are scrutinised by Lord Sugar's aide Nick Hewer on The Apprentice final
tvBut Bianca Miller has taken on board his comments over pricing
Elton John and David Furnish exchange marriage vows
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
in picturesWounded and mangy husky puppy rescued from dump
File: James Woods attends the 52nd New York Film Festival at Walter Reade Theater on September 27, 2014
peopleActor was tweeting in wake of NYPD police shooting
newsAstonishing moment a kangaroo takes down a drone
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: EWI / IWI Installer

£23000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of design...

Ashdown Group: IT Support Analyst - Chessington

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Service Desk Analyst - Chessington, Surrey...

Recruitment Genius: Technical Support Analyst / Helpdesk Support Analyst

£16000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client is the UK's leading ...

The Jenrick Group: Finance Manager/Management Accountant

£45000 - £55000 per annum + benefits: The Jenrick Group: Finance Manager/Manag...

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'