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Frontiers Magazine

Professor Archie E Roy: a great man of science

Howie Firth March 19, 2013 Spring Issue 2013
Professor Archie E Roy

Warm and human, first and foremost interested in people, a fantastically popular lecturer, a profound thinker, a man who pushed at the margins of ideas, and an indefatigable story teller. These were some of the descriptions of the late Professor Archie Roy that were given at his memorial service in Glasgow University Chapel on 14 March.

Archie Roy was known nationally and internationally as an outstanding scientist and an inspirational lecturer, and he was a regular contributor to the early years of Orkney Science Festival, visiting venues on the mainland and in the islands to give talks on astronomy and on psychic research which attracted large audiences.

At the service the Astronomer Royal for Scotland, Professor John C Brown, described some of Archie Roy’s many achievements. He was the author of several world-renowned textbooks in astronomy and over 70 scientific papers on astronomy and on neural networks and models of the brain. His exceptional ability in astronautics led to him being asked in the 1960s to do calculations on lunar trajectories for NASA in the preparations for the mission to put a man on the moon. The calculations had to be done on an old-fashioned mechanical calculator, and Professor Brown recalled arriving at the university and asking for Archie Roy, to be told by his secretary: “Follow the clatter.”

A bet on the Moon

Archie Roy’s judgment on the progress of the lunar mission was precise. The University Chaplain, Reverend Stuart MacQuarrie, told the story of the bet that he had made, back in November 1964 – that a man would land on the moon by 1971. Archie Roy had placed £20 with William Hill and got good odds; and in 1969 he won his bet and received £1200. “I think probably William Hill kept away from Archie thereafter,” observed Mr MacQuarrie.

Professor Brown spoke about Archie Roy’s great ability as a lecturer, and remembered meeting him first as a schoolboy of 16 going to an evening class that he had heard about in Paisley. Archie Roy was also a university  tutor for almost 60 years, he said. He was ambidextrous, and used to delight audiences by drawing perfect circles with both hands at once or writing across half of the blackboard with his left hand and then completing the line with his right hand.

He was also the perfect proof-reader – I never saw him miss an error. He could also make a point about content. He would say: ‘I wouldn’t change a single word of this … and the single word that I wouldn’t change is that one.’ ”

“He had an ability to focus – to penetrate deeply into something he was fascinated by,” said Professor Brown. It might be an astronomical problem such as the Caledonian 4-body problem, or it might be an aspect of the history of astronomy such as the origin of the constellations.

In the same way, Archie Roy probed issues in psychic research and the paranormal, and was the founding president of the Scottish Society for Psychic Research. His investigations convinced him that existence did not end with death, and he used to enjoy summing it up by saying: “If I die and I find out I have not survived, I will be very surprised!”

Keeping a journal

And amongst the memories of the masterly lecturer, the brilliant researcher, the acclaimed raconteur, came a further aspect to his life with the news of the discovery of the diary that he had started to write at around the age of 18. His son Ian told the story and read some of the extracts that showed the hard challenges that his father had had to overcome in order to follow his chosen career.

My father was, as is perhaps the norm in Glasgow, never one for speaking much about his innermost feelings and certainly little of his own background, perhaps due to the somewhat difficult home life he grew up in, resulting in his developing of a considerable nervous disorder, affecting his ability to eat in the company of others. Then, at the age of 17, he contracted tuberculosis and was subsequently interned at Bridge of Weir sanatorium, and it was there that he started to keep this journal.

What was most striking from his writing at this time – aged only 19 – was his complete commitment to his chosen science and his determination to return, against all odds, to Glasgow University to pursue his passion, at a time when TB was more than likely to claim the life of sufferers and when his primary interest in ‘astronautics’ was considered little more than fantastical by the mainstream. So, I’d like to share a couple of entries from this diary which I feel best illustrate this part of his life and which I have found both fascinating and humbling.”

August 10th 1944
On Saturday, Mother, when we were walking along the Bottom Avenue, asked me whether I would not like to enter business, and certainly I feel myself that I have a business mind, although I am simultaneously so romantic in temperament. Mother’s idea was that, as the possessor of a shop or two, I would be my own employer and, if I felt at any time, not entirely fit, I could take a rest from work. It appears to me that there are several flaws in Mother’s argument but at the same time, the prospect of building up a successful business has its appeal.

My mother, of course, has no idea as yet, of my own plans and it with these ambitions before me that I have been debating the usefulness of taking her advice. I have come to the conclusion after some thought, that the course of returning to the university, and studying maths, physics, chemistry and astronomy, is the more certain way of furthering my astronautical career. If I entered business, I might in that way, run the lower risk of breaking down in health again, but I cannot see how it helps my plans. I might find spare time enough to make astronautics my hobby, but the idea has no appeal. Astronautics is my life, and returning to my studies being the best way of serving that science, I shall go back to the University.”

More from the journal

January 16th 1945
I am home. I arrived here yesterday at five, and even now, on Tuesday evening, I find it hard to believe that I am awake. Bridge of Weir seems to be a dream, though I shall never forget it or the people I met there.

Before I left, I had a long talk with the Chief. He was very kind, wanting to know my plans for the future. I told him I wanted to go back to study Maths, Science and kindred subjects. I did not tell him I meant to devote my life to astronautics. I wanted him to let me home, not send for a mental specialist.

September 2nd 1945
Father paid the bills but only after the telephone was cut off. He was asking me about my fees for the Varsity. He didn’t seem too happy about them.

I had a letter from the Registrar saying that a place has been kept for me so if all goes well, I start in October. Strewth! How unsettled I feel at times. At others I think of the goal I have set myself and decide that nothing will stop me.

October 13th 1945
I have no fees to pay, thanks chiefly to Mother who saw the Registrar, and the Carnegie Trust secretary sent us a most encouraging letter in which he promised further help. Now I can attack my work with that worry, at least, off my mind.”

And, recorded the programme for the service, Archie Roy would go on to become on of Scotland’s leading astronomers.

Over an incredibly productive and diverse life he had countless friends, colleagues, students, advisees, followers and admirers who were inspired by him.”

A birthday treat

Professor Brown described the 80th birthday celebration that they had prepared for him in the Astronomy Department. There was afternoon tea with students and then a visit to the Glasgow Science Centre planetarium – ‘a great resource for which Archie had long campaigned’. There he had been asked by Professor Brown and the Science Centre to mark the occasion by giving a lecture. It was, declared Archie Roy afterwards, his ‘best ever birthday treat’.

The image of the tall man with the brilliantly acute mind, the great clarity of thought, the elegance of expression and in Professor Brown’s words, ‘the eternally ready smile’, was in the minds of those present as the voices of the choir soared through the height of the chapel.

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About The Author

Howie Firth

Dr Howie Firth is a writer and physicist from Orkney, with a deep interest in history and philosophy. He is director of Orkney International Science Festival.