Ron Bracewell

Ronald Bracewell, renowned radio astronomer, mathematician and physicist, dead at 86


Ronald Bracewell, left, and Von Eshleman, emeriti professors in electrical engineering, examine the horn antennae that Bracewell used in 1969 to determine that the Sun is moving relative to the cosmic background radiation.

Ronald N. Bracewell, professor emeritus of electrical engineering whose work in magnetic resonance imaging and radio astronomy made him an internationally renowned scholar and a pillar among the technical sciences faculty at Stanford, died at his home on campus Sunday. He was 86.

Bracewell's contributions to the international scientific community—indeed, to society at large—were as a mathematician, physicist and radio astronomer. Among his many honors were his affiliations as fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, fellow and life member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and membership across leading American, Australian and international astronomical societies alike.

For his fundamental contributions to medical imaging, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in 1992 honored Bracewell with foreign membership to its Institute of Medicine—the first Australian to achieve the distinction. Bracewell earned degrees in mathematics, physics and electrical engineering from the University of Sydney, and a doctorate in physics at Cambridge University.

Bracewell joined the Stanford faculty in 1955, held the Lewis M. Terman Professorship and taught classes until 1991. He co-wrote the first text on radio astronomy in 1955, and along with a handful of other books in his various fields of expertise, his works have been translated into Russian, German, Chinese, Japanese and Dutch.

In 1994, Bracewell received the IEEE's prestigious Heinrich Hertz Medal for his pioneering work in image reconstruction, as applied to radio astronomy and computer-assisted X-ray tomography.

"Many of Ron's inventions have flourished in other fields of science and engineering," said Umran Inan, professor of electrical engineering at Stanford. "For example, CAT scans and, basically, the imaging of objects by scanning them through radio and electromagnetic methods are all things that originated with him."

During World War II, Bracewell designed and developed microwave radar equipment in the Radiophysics Laboratory of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Association, the national government body for scientific research in Australia.

In 1961, Bracewell constructed a large and complex radio telescope west of Stanford's main campus that consisted of 32 dishes and produced daily solar maps that NASA used during the first manned landing on the moon. The radio telescope, now dismantled, is regarded as the first of its kind to give output automatically in a printed form that could be disseminated worldwide by teleprinter.

"The number of different fields he has contributed to and written things about is huge," said Inan, whose awe of Bracewell upon first arriving at Stanford as a doctoral student grew into friendship over the last three decades. "The intensity of his contributions and the longevity and the breadth has surpassed anything that I have seen from anyone else in my 34-year career here."

And even in retirement, Inan said, Bracewell routinely worked in his office in the David Packard Electrical Engineering Building, met regularly for years with graduate students and, even as of last Friday, enjoyed lunch with fellow emeriti faculty of the Space, Telecommunications and Radioscience Laboratory (STAR Lab)—a group within the School of Engineering that researches electromagnetic waves and remote sensing, communicating and signal processing.

"He was working hard all the time and wanting to do things," said Inan, current director of the STAR Lab. "He'd be active here in the corridors even at 86 years of age, and most recently he has been putting together a compilation of his works."

In addition to the seminal text, Radio Astronomy, which Bracewell co-wrote with J. L. Pawsey, Bracewell contributed chapters to dozens of other books and published 200-plus papers in more than 40 different scientific periodicals.

Imaging in astronomy led to participation in development of computer-assisted X-ray tomography, in which commercial scanners reconstruct images of areas inside the body using an algorithm developed by Bracewell. He served on the founding editorial board of the Journal for Computer-Assisted Tomography, to which he also contributed publications; gave regular graduate-level lectures on imaging; and wrote an important text on imaging in 1995.

Among colleagues at Stanford, Bracewell also was known for his insatiable appetite for knowledge in general, whether it was regarding local flora or foreign languages. The Stanford Alumni Association often called on Bracewell to lecture on topics related to space, Renaissance technology and scientific illiteracy; through the alumni association, Bracewell published a book titled The Galactic Club: Intelligent Life in Outer Space.

In 2005, the Stanford Historical Society debuted a 300-page book by Bracewell that catalogs the more than 350 species of trees on campus, titled Trees of Stanford and Environs. Over the years, Bracewell led many tree tours around campus and, in the late 1970s, taught an undergraduate seminar titled I Dig Trees.

Born in Sydney on July 22, 1921, Ronald Newbold Bracewell's wide scope of intellectual interests began with a broad education during his early years in Australia. Bracewell had said he first began studying trees in grade school and that, later in his youth, he was surrounded by them while tending hives for a beekeeper friend in the hills west of his hometown.

Antony Fraser-Smith, an emeritus faculty member of the STAR Lab, has an office close to Bracewell's and reminisced on Monday about how the ever-curious Aussie would relentlessly rib him about New Zealand, Fraser-Smith's homeland. In his office, Fraser-Smith held up an empty jar he keeps on a shelf of the dark brown, salty food paste known as Vegemite—ubiquitous in Australia and New Zealand but seldom found elsewhere.

"He would pass insulting comments about New Zealand in my presence, and I would do the same to him, and it was just wonderful," Fraser-Smith, a research professor emeritus of electrical engineering and geophysics, recalled with a laugh. "I'm going to miss that more than just about anything else."

Son Mark Bracewell said his father's fame as a radio astronomer steered him away from that profession completely. But then about five years ago, the freelance Internet programmer got into amateur astronomy and, on Monday, acknowledged he may just have been slow to warm up to the wonders of space.

"He just made me a sundial last week for my home," said Mark Bracewell, who lives in San Jose. "You couldn't be around him and be unaffected."

While friends and family are awaiting an official cause of death, they believe Bracewell may have had a fatal heart attack. About five years ago, heart problems triggered a "near-death experience" and required around-the-clock monitoring for a time, his son said.

A memorial on campus for Bracewell will be planned in the weeks ahead and likely be held after the start of the upcoming academic year. Bracewell and his wife, Helen, lived on campus for the past 51 years.

In addition to his son and wife of 54 years, Bracewell is survived by a daughter, Wendy, who lives in England, and two grandchildren. Bracewell also has a brother named Mark, who lives in Melbourne, Australia.


R. Bracewell, Stanford radio astronomer

San Jose Mercury News -- August 17, 2007

Lisa M. Krieger

Ronald N. Bracewell, 86, a Stanford mathematician, physicist, and radio astronomer whose tools are used to scan both the vast heavens and the frail human body, died of a heart attack Sunday at his home on the Stanford campus.

Mr. Bracewell designed and constructed antenna dishes that listen to the stream of noisy radio waves radiating from space, offering astronomers a window into the universe. The Bracewell Observatory on the Stanford campus, since dismantled, produced the daily solar maps that NASA used during the first landing on the moon.

The same mathematical algorithm behind the dishes has been applied to imaging tools in medicine, such as computer-assisted X-ray tomography, which depicts ailments such as stroke and cancer.

"It created a new set of eyes," said Von R. Eshleman, a professor emeritus of electrical engineering.

Mr. Bracewell's inventions have flourished in many fields of science and engineering, said Umran Inan, professor of electrical engineering at Stanford.

"He couldn't buy the instruments he wanted, so he built them," applying his deep understanding of fundamental principles of math and physics to practical uses, Inan said.

A warm and intensely curious man, Mr. Bracewell's interests ranged from etymology to extraterrestrial life. He liked to sing in French and debate ancient cultures. The Stanford Alumni Association often called on Mr. Bracewell to lecture on topics related to space, Renaissance-age technology and scientific illiteracy.

He was particularly passionate about anything arboreal. Upon arriving at Stanford in 1955, he set about identifying every species of tree on campus. To boost student interest in the campus arboretum, in the 1970s Mr. Bracewell taught a popular seminar called "I Dig Trees." At the age of 84, he published a 300-page book cataloging 350 different species, titled "Trees of Stanford and Environs."

"Ron had an amazing gift for sparking lifelong scientific curiosity in his friends and students through his warmth, humor, friendship, and ingenious thinking about the world around us," said Bob Lash of Redwood City, a physician and amateur radio astronomer who formed the group Friends of Bracewell Observatory Association.

Mr. Bracewell, a professor emeritus who held the prestigious Terman professorship in electrical engineering, was a regular presence at the David Packard Electrical Engineering Building even in retirement. He met regularly with graduate students and, last Friday, enjoyed lunch with fellow emeriti faculty of the Space, Telecommunications and Radioscience Laboratory (STAR Lab), a group that researches electromagnetic waves and remote sensing, communicating and signal processing.

"He was working hard all the time and wanting to do things," said Inan, the STAR Lab's director. "He'd be active here in the corridors even at 86 years of age, and most recently he has been putting together a compilation of his works."

Mr. Bracewell's intellectual interests had their foundation in a broad education during his childhood in a rural suburb of Sydney, Australia. Entranced by nature, he recalled collecting caterpillars from trees, feeding them leaves, and watching them spin cocoons until great butterflies and moths emerged.

"It focused my attention on the living environment," he wrote. "Marvelous green grubs from the camphor trees remain clear in my memory."

Mr. Bracewell graduated from the University of Sydney in 1941, studying mathematics and physics. During World War II, Mr. Bracewell designed and developed microwave radar equipment for the national government body for scientific research in Australia. Radar, a tool used to find airplanes and ships at night or in deep fog, has been credited with helping the Allied nations win the war.

He joined Stanford's electrical engineering faculty in December 1955. He designed Stanford's 32 dish radiotelescopes in 1961, which produced daily temperature maps of the sun reliably for eleven years, the duration of a solar cycle. He followed this with a second major radiotelescope in 1971, which employed advanced math concepts, applied to both solar and galactic studies.

Following the puzzling performance of Explorer I, the first satellite launched by the United States, he published the first explanation of the instability of spinning satellites. He recorded the signals from Soviet-launched Sputniks I, II and III. Later, he invented an infrared interferometer that could lead to the discovery of planets around stars other than the sun.

Mr. Bracewell was the first to propose the use of autonomous interstellar space probes for communication between alien civilizations as an alternative to Earth-based radio transmissions.

In 1988, he was named an officer of the Order of Australia for his contributions to humanity in the fields of radio astronomy and CT medical imaging - the Australian equivalent to British knighthood.

But for all of Mr. Bracewell's passion for the skies, one of his favorite subjects was a century-old mulberry tree in the Main Quad at Stanford.

"Thanks to Ron, I now look at pinecone patterns with the same fascination that I do the cosmos," said Lash, the founder of the Friends of the Bracewell Observatory Association. "We will greatly miss him."

Ronald Newbold Bracewell

Born: July 22, 1921, in Sydney, Australia

Died: Aug. 12, 2007, at Stanford

Survived by: his wife, Helen Bracewell; his son, Mark Bracewell of San Jose; his daughter, Wendy Bracewell of England; his brother, Mark Bracewell of Melbourne, Australia; and two grandchildren.

Services: A celebration of his life will be held at Stanford, at a date to be determined.

Memorial: Tree-planting donations to Stanford Grounds Service, Stanford, Calif. 94305 or Stanford Historical Society, Box 20028, Stanford, Calif. 94309.

Scientific innovator, Stanford engineer Ronald Bracewell dies at 86

San Francisco Chronicle  Friday, August 17, 2007

Steve Rubenstein

Ronald Bracewell, a retired Stanford University engineering professor internationally known for developing magnetic imaging as a tool that revolutionized medicine and for developing radio astronomy that helped NASA plan its lunar missions, has died.

Professor Bracewell, 86, died Sunday of an apparent heart attack at his home on the campus in Palo Alto.

A Stanford professor since 1955, Professor Bracewell was a pioneer in the creation of magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, a common diagnostic tool for doctors.

"Many of Ron's inventions flourished in other fields of science," said his friend and colleague Umran Inan, a fellow Stanford engineering professor. "The imaging of objects by scanning them through radio and electromagnetic methods are all things that originated with him."

Professor Bracewell was born in Sydney and received a bachelor's degree from the University of Sydney and a doctorate from Cambridge University. During World War II, he worked to create microwave radar in Australia.

During his first year at Stanford, he co-wrote the first text on radio astronomy, the first of dozens of books he would help write. In 1961, he built a huge radio telescope at Stanford consisting of 32 dish antennas. NASA used the facility to produce maps used for the Apollo moon landings.

Professor Bracewell also was an expert arborist, writing a book and teaching a course about the 350 species of trees of the Stanford campus. He led many campus tree tours and, in the late 1970s, taught a class titled "I Dig Trees."

He continued to teach until 1991. In later years, he met with graduate students, compiled his works, lectured on space exploration, and wrote another book on imaging.

He is survived by his wife of 54 years, Helen, and by his children, Mark of San Jose and Wendy, who lives in England.

Plans for a memorial service on campus are pending.

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