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.

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.

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 Schwarz, 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.

J. C. Brown and A. E. Roy

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive - OTE £25,000

£13000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to be part of a ...

Recruitment Genius: 1st Line Technical Support Engineer

£19000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT and Telecoms company ar...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Manager - Visitor Fundraising

£23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Visitor Fundraising Team is responsi...

Recruitment Genius: Developer

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Day In a Page

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future