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David Stirling Robertson (1920-1999)
Papers and lecture notes 1937-1987

MSS 0166

Biographical Note

David Stirling Robertson was born at the family home ‘Maroonika’ in Stirling, South Australia on 5 September 1920. He was the son of Thornburn Brailsford Robertson, the inaugural Professor of Biochemistry and General Physiology at the University of Adelaide, and Jane Winifred (Jeannie), the daughter of Sir Edward Charles Stirling, surgeon, scientist and politician and the inaugural Professor of Physiology at the University of Adelaide. David’s father, the brilliant researcher Thornburn Brailsford Robertson, died from influenza in January 1930.

David Robertson completed his Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Adelaide in 1941 and went to work as an engineer for Amalgamated Wireless Australasia. He then completed his Master of Science at the University of Birmingham under the supervision of Rudolph Peierls, where he worked on the radio frequency aspects of the Birmingham Synchrotron under Professor Marcus Oliphant.

In 1950 he took up the position of Science Officer at the Long Range Weapons Establishment at Salisbury, South Australia where he worked on Doppler radar, progressing to Principal Science Officer at Weapons Research Establishment in 1954. In the same year he completed his PhD at the University of Adelaide under Professor Leonard G.H. Huxley, one of the first group of Physics PhDs at the University of Adelaide.

In 1964 he was appointed a Fellow, and subsequently Senior Fellow, of the Research School of Physics at the Australian National University in Canberra where he also worked with Oliphant on a particle accelerator.

In the same year he visited Brookhaven National Laboratory, USA, where he developed an interest in a particular aspect of particle beam dynamics. The accelerator project work at ANU came under a cloud and, amid some controversy, he resigned and continued his work as Principal Research Scientist at Brookhaven before returning in 1966 to the Space Research Group at the Weapons Research Establishment where he took part in ground breaking work on Very Long Baseline Interferometry.

Robertson headed a group of research scientists with higher degrees in physics, and encouraged an entrepreneurial approach to projects. The publication of their work in 1969 on evidence for superluminal expansion led to international recognition for the group.

Robertson’s long association with electronic equipment commenced with ham radio in early youth, and he maintained a 500W transmitter at his Mt Lofty home. This transmitter, together with receivers in Adelaide, Burra and Kulpara, were used to make the first observations on meteor trails with the radar meteor astronomy program at Adelaide in the 1950s.

A brief visit to the National Radio Astronomy at Charlottesville in Virginia and work at the Brookhaven Laboratory, further inspired his enthusiasm for the VLBI program.

Robertson’s achievements were recognised by the award of the Professional Officers Association’s medal for excellence in scientific leadership in 1971 and a Doctor of Science degree from the University of Birmingham in 1975.

Robertson retired from the Weapons Research Establishment in 1980 and died in 1999.

These papers were purchased from the family as part of the Brailsford Roberson Collection in 2011.

‘Physics in Adelaide: the 1950s – a decade of change’ / Alastair Blake (2013)

Contents Listing

Series 1: University of Adelaide

Maths III ms lecture notes (2 folders)
Physics III ms notes (in spring folder)
Physics III ms lecture notes 1941 (in spring folder)
Physics ms lecture notes (undated – in spring folder)

Notebooks (ms lecture notes)
- Pure Maths II
- Maths III
- Maths III Term III
- [Maths: potential differential equations] Dated 1942
- Coordinate geometry
- Wave mechanics, Dr Tomlin
- Wave mechanics vol. II
- Photon & electron, Prof. Green
- Meteors, Electrons & ions in bases, Plasma
- E.M. theory, Prof. L.G.H.H. [Huxley]
- Transmission lines, L.G.H.H. [Huxley]
- Functions of mathematical physics, L.G.H.H. [Huxley]
- Integral transforms etc, L.G.H.H. [Huxley

[Radio station] VK5RN Mount Lofty station log (made before trip to England in December 1937)
[Radio Manual] Section 7: Generators of square and pulse waveforms (typescript, Gestetner copy)
Diary of 1938 trip to Europe, including postcard of Hitler sent by Robertson from Germany.
Diary was a gift from E. & V. de Mole.


Series 2: University of Birmingham

M.Sc. thesis: ‘The radio frequency system of the Birmingham Synchrotron’ (University of Birmingham, May 1948)

[Notes and reprints re Birmingham Synchrotron]
- MS notebook re synchrotron
- Typescript ‘Useful data on Birmingham Synchrotron 2/10/1946’ 2 p.
- letter from Robertson to Dr Taylor, on behalf of Professor Oliphant, 29/11/1946 re cee tuning of synchrotron
- 2 letters from Denis Taylor of UK Ministry of Supply to Oliphant 20/11/1946 and 5/12/1946 re development of synchrotron and supply of R.F. system
- typescript ‘R.F. system for 1000 MeV. Synchrotron at Birmingham University’ [11] p.
- agenda for ‘Meeting Feb 20th to discuss the R.F. Unit for the Birmingham University Synchrotron’

Typescript (Gestetner copy) ‘Introductory Survey of radar principles’ [based on courses given at the TRE School during the war]. Preface by L.G.H. Huxley, written by Miss E. Jones, L.G. Steedley, P.L. Taylor, G. Duckworth. L.G.H. Huxley, J.A. Clegg, W. Cochrane and Miss M. Bruce. Dated 1 February 1946. Sections 1-7, 18 (2 folders)

Typescript (Gestetner copy) ‘Birmingham Synchrotron R.F. system’ / L.U. Hibbard, Physics Dept, University of Birmingham. 8th October 1947
- graphs and diagrams of synchrotron magnetic field, acceleration time, magnet voltage and current, R.F. power amplifier, variable inductance and R.F. output transformer
- reprints of articles by L.U. Hibbard, J.S. Gooden, L.G.H. Huxley, K.A. Macfadyen, M.L. Oliphant and others
- typescript (Gestetner copy) ‘The calculus of residues – synopsis of results’ 11 p.


Series 3: University of Adelaide PhD thesis

‘The reflection of radio waves from meteor trails, with applications to the measurement of upper atmosphere winds’ August, 1953.


Series 4: Australian National University

Ms notebook ‘Synchrotron notes, A.N.U. Physics’

Notebooks (ms lecture notes)
- Relativity, dated 1963
- Theory of fields
- Classical mechanics


Series 5: Doctor of Science (Physics), University of Birmingham, 1975

- ‘High resolution radio astronomy and contributions to particle accelerator theory’ Thesis (D.Sc.) University of Birmingham, December 1973. With 3 photographs of radio telescopes.
- Booklet: Proceedings at a congregation of the University of Birmingham … 11th July 1975 (Robertson in absentia)
- Degree certificate


Series 6: Other

Brookhaven National Laboratory publications
- The Brookhaven AGS: Alternating Gradient Synchrotron [1961]
- Proceedings of the 1963 Summer Study on storage rings, accelerators and experimentation at super-high energies …
- Brookhaven National Laboratory: a centre for nuclear research and development [1965]
- Telephone directory June 1966

Photocopy: ‘The Mariner 9 Quasar experiment: Part I’ / D.S. Robertson and others (JPL Technical report 32-1526 vol. XIX)

Reprint from Nature ‘Special relativity and very long baseline interferometers’ / David S. Robertson 9/10/1975

‘A review of the scientific & engineering expertise in the A.D.S.S. which could be applied to non-defence R&D’ / compiled by J.R. Baxter and D.S. Robertson (Weapons Research Establishment, Australian Defence Scientific Service, Dept of Defence, July 1975)

List of publications by D.S. Robertson, up to 1976 (computer printout)

Letter 28/8/1980 D.J. Mudgway, Jet Propulsion laboratory, CIT, to Robertson wishing him luck on retirement

Letter 2/6/1987 Jayant Narlikar to Robertson re gravitational bending and quasars

Group photograph, Weapons Research Establishment? David Robertson in front row, first on right (1960s?)

Physics II: Second Year Laboratories Practical Notes 1983


Cheryl Hoskin
November 2017

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