Brian Warner (25 May 1939–5 May 2023)

08 May 2023 | Tribute Patrick Woudt.
Brian Warner
Brian Warner

25 May 1939 – 5 May 2023

Brian Warner was one of the most distinguished astronomers in South Africa. His name is synonymous with Astronomy at the University of Cape Town. When he arrived at UCT in 1972 he was the founding Chair of Astronomy in the newly established Department of Astronomy. He remained chair and head of department for 33 years until his retirement at the end of 2004.

Brian was born in Crawley Down in England on 25 May 1939. He obtained his BSc (1961) and PhD (1964) from University College London. His early days in Astronomy were characterised as a very keen amateur astronomer and later, professionally, as a stellar spectroscopist. Brian’s work on abundances in late type stars (the topic of his PhD) and the associated work on Barium stars still holds significant impact to date. More than half a dozen papers on atomic oscillator strengths of various elements and photospheric abundances from the mid to late 1960s continue to be cited more than 55 years later. After his PhD, Brian was a senior research fellow at Balliol College (Oxford) in the United Kingdom; and associate professor at the University of Texas in Austin, in the United States.

When Brian came to South Africa in 1972 to start the Department of Astronomy at UCT, he brought high-speed photoelectric photometry to South Africa. The introduction of this novel technique to South Africa at the time of the creation of the new Sutherland station of the South African Astronomical Observatory, meant that the southern skies were now accessible for the study of
high-time domain astrophysics. His eagerness to observe the southern skies is best illustrated by the fact that in July 1972, Brian was the first observer on the newly established reflector in Sutherland (the 20-inch telescope), ahead of the formal opening of the site in March 1973. In the years that followed Brian established himself firmly as the international expert on high speed photometry and cataclysmic variables.

Over his long and remarkable academic career, Brian received numerous honours and awards for his outstanding scholarship. He was an NRF A-rated researcher throughout his active research career. He obtained a DSc from the University of London in 1972, a DSc from the University of Oxford in 1986 and a DSc (honoris causa) from the University of Cape Town in 2009. He was a Fellow of the University of Cape Town, an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and of University College London. His contributions to astronomy through his publications span a staggering 63 years from 1960 to 2022.

Brian represented South African astronomy at various national and international levels. He was vice-president of the International Astronomical Union from 2003 to 2009, during a time when South African astronomy underwent rapid growth with the building of the Southern African Large Telescope and the successful bid for the Square Kilometre Array. He was one of the founding members of the Academy of Science of South Africa and was awarded the Academy’s
Science-for-Society Gold Medal in 2004. Other significant recognitions include the John F.W. Herschel Medal from the Royal Society of South Africa and the Gill Medal from the Astronomical Society of Southern Africa.

In 1999, Brian became one of three distinguished professors at UCT. He chose the title Distinguished Professor of Natural Philosophy, most appropriately, as his academic interests reached far beyond astronomy, including, amongst others, the history of science (particularly early astronomy at the Cape and the work of John F.W. Herschel). The remarkable “Flora Herschelliana” (Brenthurst Press) by Brian and John Rourke published in 1998, exemplifies Brian’s unique combination of profound academic scholarship and an all-round knowledge and interest in the natural world around us. This knowledge he shared enthusiastically and widely. Drives with Brian to the Sutherland observatory in the Karoo made the fascinating geology en-route come alive thanks to his broad academic scholarship and love for sharing the beauty of the natural sciences.

Brian is best known internationally for his work on Cataclysmic Variable stars. In 1995 he completed the seminal research monologue on Cataclysmic Variable stars (Cambridge University Press) – a book that remains essential reading today for all researchers in the field as the primary reference for all things `cataclysmic’. The book earned Brian the prestigious invitation to give an invited discourse at the triennial General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union in August 1997.

Brian was an all-round academic, an astrophysicist, a natural scientist, a ‘Renaissance Man’ with a tremendous knowledge of natural history and classical music, who once made his own harpsichord. His humorous side is captured best in his two books of poems, Dinosaurs’ End and Scatological Verse, where he explores topics in natural history in various irreverent styles.

In recent years, Brian’s mobility was increasingly affected by a number of strokes. During the pandemic, when every aspect of departmental life moved online, Brian joined the weekly departmental discussions with staff and students on zoom, to remain connected to the staff and students in the department he started 50 years earlier.

Over his illustrious career Brian supervised 17 PhD and 15 MSc students, many of whom have become global research leaders in the area of cataclysmic variable stars. His generosity of spirit is reflected not only in the support and mentorships of students but also through the sharing of his deep knowledge with society in general through public talks and summer schools. He gave his time freely to chair a number of boards, including the Board of Trustees of the South African Museum and the Board of Extramural Studies at UCT.

His lasting legacy in the development of high-time domain astrophysics is reflected in the broad range of impactful astronomical discoveries in high-time domain astrophysics with the Southern African Large Telescope and the SKA precursor telescope, MeerKAT - half a century after those first observations from Sutherland - by the next generations of astronomers he supervised and mentored.

Brian is survived by his ex-wives Carol and Nan, his children Dianne and Philip, grand-children Savannah and Jessica and two great grand-children Harvey and Emily.

He will be dearly missed by all who knew him.

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