The SETI community has lost another of its pioneers, with the passing on 13 August 2007 of noted radio astronomer Ronald N. Bracewell. At the time of his death, Prof. Bracewell was the Lewis M. Terman Professor of Electrical Engineering (Emeritus) at Stanford University, where he had taught since 1955.
Born in Sydney, Australia in 1921, Ron Bracewell served during the Second World War as a microwave and radar engineer at the Radiophysics Laboratory of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), Sydney, before completing his Ph.D. in Physics at Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge. He returned to CSIRO as a Senior Research Officer at the Radiophysics Laboratory, prior to coming to the US in 1954, first lecturing in the Astronomy Department at the University of California, Berkeley, and the following year moving across the bay to Stanford.
In 1955, Bracewell co-authored with J.L. Pawsey, his former supervisor at CSIRO, Radio Astronomy, probably the first textbook in this emerging discipline. Other significant publications include the standard EE textbook The Fourier Transform and its Applications (1965), the popular SETI book The Galactic Club: Intelligent Life in Outer Space (1974), several works on image processing, and two books on trees found in the vicinity of the Stanford campus. Ron strongly believed in the possibility that advanced extraterrestrial civilizations would explore the cosmos by constructing autonomous robotic probes, and today these hypothesized exploration vehicles are universally known as Bracewell Probes.
At Stanford in 1961, Ron Bracewell and his grad student Govind Swarup (later to become director of India's National Centre for Radio Astrophysics) constructed an innovative 4 GHz spectroheliograph on the Stanford campus, a pencil-beam interferometer with micro-steradian resolution. Consisting of 32 3-meter dishes in a Mills Cross arrangement, that design inspired The SETI League's own Very Small Array (VSA) project, to which Ron contributed design expertise. My first direct contact with Ron Bracewell occurred upon the dismantling of the Stanford spectroheliograph in the late 1970s, with Ron contributing one of the dishes to San Jose City College. I was teaching there at the time, and this Stanford dish became my students' first radio telescope (as well as a forerunner of today's Project Argus instruments).
Ron Bracewell had a strong interest in Optical SETI, and presented papers at each of the OSETI conferences sponsored by SPIE, the international photo-optical society. He introduced significant modifications to the Fast Fourier Transform which facilitate improved image processing, and developed algorithms still widely used by SETI League members for candidate signal analysis. I shall remember Professor Bracewell every time I fire up my Digital Signal Processing computers.
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this page last updated 18 August 2007
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