Professor Sir Hermann Bondi
Scientist with a sense of social responsibility
Monday 12 September 2005
Hermann Bondi was immensely influential in many aspects of the public life of Britain. As Master of Churchill College, Cambridge, 1983-90, and, before that, as Professor of Mathematics at King's College London, as Director of the European Space Research Organisation (ESRO), and as Chief Scientist at the Ministry of Defence and of the Department of Energy, Bondi was among the most significant achievers of the second half of the 20th century.
In clarity of expression, speed of thought and precision at presenting an informed point of view, he was unmatched. His Viennese-accented English only served to make his structured sentences more compelling to those who listened. And every discerning politician, of whatever party, and senior civil servant did listen. Lord Healey says: "The big thing about Hermann was that he was a scientist who had a sense of social responsibility."
Hermann Bondi was born in 1919 in Vienna, the son of Samuel Bondi, a medical practitioner who specialised in the problems of the heart. Quite unlike many Austrian and German Jews who arrived in Britain in the 1930s, Bondi did not come as a refugee. On the contrary, amazingly, he arranged as a schoolboy at the Realgymnasium in Vienna to obtain entrance to Trinity College, Cambridge, for the very good reason that he wanted to study under Sir Arthur Eddington, Plumian Professor of Astronomy at Cambridge and one of the foremost mathematicians of the age.
Bondi said that it had helped that he had the endorsement of the great Hungarian mathematician John von Neumann and the supportive goodwill of the physicists Leo Szilard and Eugene Wigner. But it was characteristic of his demonic energy that Bondi should have shown such amazing initiative for a schoolboy. On arrival in Cambridge, he gained the reputation of being prodigiously clever.
In November 1938, reading the British press, Bondi realised the peril in which his Jewish parents in Vienna were soon going to find themselves; they were unaware of the situation, since the Nazis controlled the Austrian press. He sent them a telegram telling them to get out at once and they were able to join him in Cambridge. Family was all- important to Bondi, who in 1947 married Christine Stockman, herself a talented science teacher.
In 1940, having completed Part III of the Cambridge Maths Tripos, Bondi found himself interned and sent to Canada. Actually, this was no personal disaster. He and other internees, including his lifelong friend Max Perutz and Tommy Gold, a Trinity undergraduate who would later become Professor of Astronomy at Cornell University, educated one another. Soon, good sense in government prevailed and in 1942 Bondi returned to work in the Admiralty on the refinement of radar techniques, which brought him into contact with Fred Hoyle, and shortly afterwards they were joined by Tommy Gold. Together, in the 1950s, Bondi, Hoyle and Gold would cause controversy when they proposed the "steady-state" theory for the origin of the universe, which challenged the idea that the universe had begun with the explosion of a super atom (what Hoyle called the "big bang" theory). This was to give Bondi an entrée into American science at the highest level.
As soon as the war ended, in 1945 Bondi was given a post of Assistant Lecturer in Mathematics at Cambridge and a full university lectureship, 1948-54, resuming his fellowship at Trinity. At the age of 35, he was made Professor of Mathematics at King's College London, a post which he was to occupy for 16 years before being translated to Titular Professor in 1971, Emeritus since 1985. Sir Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, says:
The work of which Bondi was most proud was the study he made of gravitational radiation with Felix Pirani and Ray Sachs at King's College, where he built up a leading research group on general relativity.
In the public mind, he was associated with Tommy Gold and Fred Hoyle in championing the steady-state theory of the universe. He engaged in wide public debate defending the theory. If that theory is not now accepted, it did contribute greatly to discussion at the time. Bondi's book on cosmology [Cosmology, 1952] has been a classic and has had great influence in astronomical studies.
Everyone knows his name in our subject through his work on relativity and also through his ideas on accretion - the basic theory of what happens when a star or a black hole is embedded in a cloud of gas and its gravitational pull accretes that gas. The "Bondi Accretion" and the "Bondi Radius" are most common in astrophysical discourse.
I first went to hear Bondi when in 1955 he gave a lecture at King's College, Cambridge on "Ethics of an Agnostic"; during his time at King's College London, he was active in the British Humanist Association, of which he was later to be president between 1982 and 1999. What struck me was not only the integrity with which he put forward his non-believing view, but the respect with which he treated those of Christian belief. He would always put two sides of a discussion in his comment.
In 1967, partly on the recommendation of Denis Healey, Secretary of State for Defence, and Roy Jenkins, who had been Minister of Aviation, Bondi was appointed Director-General of the European Space Research Organisation. Bondi inherited a set-up which was, to put it mildly, in far from an optimal state; he greatly improved it and gave it a stronger focus on science. I vividly recollect going with a group of my parliamentary colleagues to the ESRO headquarters at Darmstadt in Germany; sceptical colleagues changed their minds, listening to the intensity of Bondi's belief in the value to humankind of space research.
In 1971, after his success, or maybe because of his success, at ESRO, the Conservative government appointed him as Chief Scientific Adviser to the Ministry of Defence, with the knowledge that no scientist could speak as effectively as Bondi to the top brass of the British services. He gained huge respect from field marshals, admirals and air chief marshals who came to the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee, and to the Foundation for Science and Technology where Bondi was so familiar a figure, always intervening with the most pertinent questions, in that unmistakable voice, prefaced by "It seems to me . . ."
In 1977, Tony Benn, as Secretary of State for Energy, had come to find it exceedingly difficult to work with Dr Walter Marshall of the Atomic Energy Authority. With Harold Wilson's support he appointed Bondi in Marshall's place. Benn and Bondi had in-depth discussions about the electricity-giving anti-pollution advantages of a Severn Barrage. Alas, this project was never to materialise.
Bondi considered his greatest achievement to have been his report on the flooding of London, following the floods of 1953, which finally resulted in the Thames Barrier. At that time, the civil servant who had most to do with him was the formidable Dame Evelyn Sharp, of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. She says that Bondi, almost single-handed, persuaded the department and the ministers, Duncan Sandys and Keith Joseph, to back a project which could have seemed to be geared, at considerable expense, towards safeguarding against a risk that might never happen. But if the risk materialised, the disaster would be at many, many times the cost of preventative action. Bondi lived to see the beginning of the terrible events over the past weeks in the Mississippi Delta, an area he knew well.
Bondi was president of the Hydrographic Society between 1985 and 1987, an honour which was accorded to him after a highly successful stint as chairman of the National Environment Research Council (NERC) from 1980 until 1984. He was before his time in recognising the acute dangers of global warming.
In 1983 he was asked to be Master of Churchill College, Cambridge, and held the post until 1990. The present Master, Sir John Boyd, says
Hermann, as a great scientist of top global repute, was not only an ornament for the college but a strong and engaged living presence, always looking ahead, always generous and supportive. He was passionate about education of the young, a prop and stay for Alec Broers and myself as his successors as Master of Churchill, and, above all, one of the wittiest and most charming minds which one could meet, backing this up with personal financial generosity to students. He had a passion for liberty and it was appropriate that he should head the college because of his often-declared belief that Winston Churchill saved the world.
It was entirely appropriate that Bondi should give the title Science, Churchill and Me to his 1990 autobiography. Perhaps one of Bondi's most lasting contributions was the part that he played in the cause of public education in science. He was president of the Society for Research into Higher Education for 16 years from 1981. He had first come to public attention in the 1950s with articles in the old Illustrated London News, explaining, in layman's language, some of the problems of science. This brought him to the attention of television, where he was one of the first, along with Dr Jacob Bronowski, to be a populariser of scientific method. On visits to Churchill, I saw how superb he was with the very clever students who came to the college - but also superb at explaining science to the rest of us.
He was very blunt. Over the 37 years in which I wrote a weekly column for New Scientist, I used to ring him up from time to time to check information and opinions. In a charming way, he would say either "That is cant" - a favourite word - or "You are justified in holding that opinion."
When I got into huge trouble over the visit of the Select Committee of the House of Commons to Porton Down and was had up at the Bar of the House of Commons, with the Speaker putting his black cap on, Bondi took it on himself, with his friend, Solly Zuckerman, the government chief scientist, to intercede on my behalf. Indeed, he was the best man in Whitehall at dealing with Zuckerman.
Even when he faced the difficulties associated with Parkinson's disease, Hermann and Christine Bondi opened the hospitality of their home in Cambridge. My wife and I stayed with him two years ago, and his main topic of conversation was the future of the village colleges in the area. But perhaps my abiding memory will be of a dinner at his daughter Liz's house in my constituency in West Lothian where he displayed his overwhelming driving force, curiosity. On that occasion, it was curiosity about the Scots; usually it was curiosity about anything in the universe, and particularly the universe itself.
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