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Scientists of Wales: Dyfrig Jones

(March 01, 2017)


Dr Dyfrig Jones

Dr Dyfrig Jones

Despite an undistinguished school career, Dr Dyfrig Jones rose to become a physicist of international repute, displaying excellence in both experimental and theoretical aspects of his field. This was a rare combination, exemplified in his two doctorates, at Aberystwyth and Cambridge. His field of specialism was the variety of radiation in the upper atmosphere, notably in the ionosphere and the vicinity of Jupiter and Saturn. An ardent Welshman, he displayed his patriotism by taking the unusual step of making the first international announcement of one of his major findings at a science meeting at the National Eisteddfod in 1986. He died in 1989 at the age of 49.

Dyfrig was born on 16 August 1940 in his mother’s family home in Crwbin, a small village in Carmarthenshire. His father was the vicar in the nearby parish of Dryslwyn in the Tywi Valley. In 1943, when Dyfrig was three, his father was appointed vicar of nearby St. Dogmael’s near Cardigan, an area that throughout his life Dyfrig looked back on as paradise. He attended the local Church-in-Wales Primary School and later moved to Cardigan Grammar School. He was not a notably conscientious pupil at either school, with the exception of mathematics in which he displayed high ability and fervent enthusiasm.

At about the age of 13, he, like his contemporaries, was asked for his future career. His reply was ‘a vicar’. This was something of a surprise, if not a shock, for his teachers who had not associated his mischievous behaviour with such an austere calling. By way of explanation, Dyfrig stated, ‘My father is a vicar and he seems to have a good life’. It is not known whether this explanation was an honest comment or a misplaced teenage view of his father’s work. Either way, the school’s response, typically narrow of the period (1950s), was to place Dyfrig in the ‘arts’ set, to follow history, Latin and subjects deemed to be a suitable preparation for a prospective cleric. The curriculum in those days for ‘arts’ sets was very narrow in sciences, a distinctly unsuitable outcome for Dyfrig. The almost inevitable outcome at 16+ (O-level) for Dyfrig was, at best, a modest one, apart from mathematics. When it came time to choose A-level courses the outlook was very limited. Mathematics was an obvious first choice, and, after careful thought, geography seemed to be within Dyfrig’s competence. But what he really wanted to follow was physics and chemistry, despite his O-level experience. Conversation with the chemistry teacher ended in complete rejection, but the physics teacher was much more positive and flexible in attitude. He set Dyfrig a challenge: pass O-level physics in one term and you can follow the A-level course. The physics teacher played his part by giving Dyfrig open access to the laboratory, where relevant experiments were set out. This was the ‘dawn’ for Dyfrig, with spending time in the laboratory being like living in Aladdin’s cave. The challenge was met and in due time success was achieved at A-level, followed by entry to the university at Aberystwyth. He was ‘home’ in educational terms.

He was a good undergraduate student, but his distinctive ability blossomed in his research studies which he pursued after graduating.

He achieved his Ph.D for devising a new way of analysing ionospheric meaurements (the ionosphere is a region where there are electrically charged particles at about 70 to 1000 km from the Earth; it enables radio communications around the curved surface of the Earth), an area of research excellence in Aberystwyth for many years. Dyfrig moved to the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University after gaining a three-year post-doctorate research fellowship at St. John’s College; here he gained his second doctorate for studies of ‘whistlers’, a phenomenon of strange sounds first detected by telephones in the late nineteenth century. This was followed by a two-year spell as research assistant back in Aberystwyth.

Ionosphere in the Earth's atmosphere By Bhamer, updated to SVG by tiZom (English Wikipedia) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Ionosphere in the Earth's atmosphere,
showing height above the Earth's surface, temperature (K) and electron density

From 1970 he was appointed to a two-year fellowship in the Netherlands to work at the European Space and Technology Centre (ESTEC), which later became the European Space Agency (ESA); in due time his fellowship became a staff post, spanning nine years. It was during this period that Dyfrig made distinctive, pioneering developments and for which he achieved international recognition. In 1979 he returned to Cambridge as a research scientist at the British Antarctic Survey (BAS).

For many years, research at Aberystwyth has deployed the technique of sending radio signals to the ionosphere and studying signals which return to the Earth following reflection from different levels in the ionosphere For his Ph.D research at Aberystwyth Dyfrig worked with his supervisor, Dr Derwent Maude, and developed a new way of analysing measurements of these returning signals (and hence gleaning information about the ionosphere). This work showed that it was necessary to conduct correlation measurements on every frequency separately because waves of different frequencies travelled at different speeds. This insight was a breakthrough at the time and became the model adopted by other researchers.

At Cambridge his doctorate was awarded for studies on ‘whistlers’, a feature of space physics that was first identified in 1894 by Welshman W.H. Preece (Earth Currents, Nature, London 49, 554, 1894) and explained theoretically by another Welshman, O.Ll. Storey of Llangollen (Phil. Trans. Roy. Soc. London, A246, 113-14, 1953).

While working at the European Space Agency, Dyfrig developed a digital correlator for a geostationary satellite to obtain wave spectra. Previously, spectra were measured by analysis of the frequencies of original data, but there were clear advantages to having a correlator with the satellite, not least the significant reduction in the data sent back to Earth. The stunning success of the correlator advanced the studies of plasma waves and electromagnetic waves and led to Dyfrig’s main study – that of plasma radiation at about 25,000 km when the plasma concentration falls rapidly. (Plasma is a term used to describe a mixture of negatively charged electrons and positively charged ions; some describe it as a fourth state of matter with solid, liquid and gas). He developed a complex theoretical explanation of the radiation. At first, this was in competition with six other theories; its complexity baffled even Professor Phil Williams, a space-terrestrial scientist of international standing based in Aberystwyth. For Professor Williams it was a tenet that any theory in physics should in its essence be simple, so he was initially doubtful of Dyfrig’s thinking. However, he was won over, not least because a very important feature of the theory was that it gave very accurate predictions of the outcomes of critical experiments.

The first of these experiments was done on radio signals from Jupiter as measured by the spaceship Voyager; Dyfrig’s theory was wholly vindicated. Further vindication came from similar studies of Saturn again from Voyager. Even more extensive affirmation came from the use of data from Dynamics Explorer 1, a satellite that orbited the Earth.

Dyfrig’s love for Wales and all things Welsh was always evident. Perhaps the most striking evidence of this was his choice to first reveal his theory to explain the data from Voyager in the Annual Science Lecture at the National Eisteddfod in Fishguard in 1986. This was a distinctive departure from the usual practice of scientists with something distinctive to share with other scientists, namely, to present a paper at an international conference of specialists or to publish technical paper; this latter procedure happened later when Dyfrig’s theory was published in the authoritative journal Nature.

Another, mildly mischievous example of his proud patriotism occurred when he was invited to present a paper at an international conference, where translation facilities were available and presenters were invited to choose their favoured language. Dyfrig started his presentation in Welsh! The translators were at a loss, so Dyfrig relented and spoke in English.

It was a cruel turn of fate that at the height of his powers he was struck by a brain tumour from which he died on 6 August 1989. Who knows what other heights he would have scaled and brought others in his wake? His gravestone in Cardigan cemetery carries the Welsh inscription, Gwyddonydd a Gwladgarwr (Scientist and Patriot).

Among the numerous tributes which came from all over the world, it is arguable that he would have been most appreciative of a Welsh poem composed in his honour by Emrys Roberts, one-time Archdruid of Wales. In its seven verses, it refers, with accuracy and sensitivity, to aspects of his incisive insights in ionosphere studies, to the vigorous sincerity of his patriotism and to the irony of his final illness.

Neville Evans, March 2017

If you enjoyed this, you'll also enjoy these by Dr Neville Evans, in his series Scientists of Wales:

     Ewart Jones, December 2016
Elwyn Hughes
; September 2016
Gareth Roberts
; June 2016
Ezer Griffiths; March 2016

Handel Davies; December 2015
Mathematicians of Wales; September 2015

Professor Eleri Pryce; June 2015

William Robert Grove; March 2015

Frank Llewellyn-Jones; December 2014

Professor Julie Williams; September 2014

Ieuan Maddock, F.R.S.; June 2014

John Houghton, F.R.S.; March 2014

David Brunt, F.R.S.; December 2013

Professor John Beynon; September 2013

John Meurig Thomas; June 2013
Robert Recorde and William Jones; March 2013
Richard Tecwyn Williams, F.R.S; December 2012

Lyn Evans; September 2012
E G Bowen; June 2012


cylchgrawn Cymru Culture magazine
Published by/Cyhoeddwyd gan:
Caregos Cyf., 2017

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