STIAS Lecture Series: Prof. Brian Warner

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13:00 - 14:00
Con de Villiers Lecture Hall

Prof. Brian Warner, Distinguished Emeritus Professor of Astronomy at the University of Cape Town and STIAS fellow, will present a talk with the title:

From Salt River to SALT

The South African Astronomical Observatory is the oldest scientific institution operating in South Africa. Built in the 1820s near the confluence of the Salt and Liesbeek rivers it was the Royal Observatory, Cape of Good Hope, run by the British Admiralty, until the 1970s, when it transferred ownership to South Africa and moved its principal instruments to Sutherland, in the Karoo. The largest single optical telescope in the southern hemisphere was built there during the past decade: the Southern African Large Telescope.

The lecture, which will be well illustrated, will start by looking at the beginnings of the observatory, and the work of some of the early personnel,  including artists Thomas Bowler and Charles Piazzi Smyth, and other non-astronomical activities such as the first photographs taken in the southern hemisphere and the invention of the air conditioner. Much of the astronomical work during the nineteenth century was of a very routine nature; nevertheless by the end of that century, under the Directorship of Sir David Gill, the Cape Observatory was recognised as the scientific equal to the best anywhere in the world, engaged in the pioneering development of observational astrophysics.

By the middle of the twentieth century the increase in sky brightness caused by expansion of residences and industries in the vicinity of the observatory severely limited the use of the observatory telescopes, so a search was made for a better site, through which the move to Sutherland was initiated.

Although the old Royal Observatory site remains as the administrative headquarters for the SAAO, active observational work is now carried out at Sutherland, which has expanded and continues to grow as a major multi-national astronomical site.


Brian Warner was born in England and started his astronomical education at University College, London, travelling to the Radcliffe Observatory in Pretoria to collect his doctoral material and was later Radcliffe Fellow at Balliol College, Oxford. After five years at the University of Texas in Austin, in 1972 he was appointed the first Professor of Astronomy at the University of Cape Town where he was Head of Department until retirement (with the title Distinguished Professor of Natural Philosophy) in 2004. He continued to teach and to carry out research and was re-employed at UCT two years ago as a Senior Scholar.

He has doctoral degrees from the University of London and from Oxford University, and a DSc degree, honoris causa, from UCT. He has served on the Boards of Trustees of the South African Library and the South African Museum (as Chairman, 1991  – 1999). He is an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of South Africa (President 1981 – 1983) and of the Royal Astronomical Society and of University College, London, and was a Vice President of the International Astronomical Union (2003 – 2009). His the only honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand, a Founding Member of the Academy of Science of South Africa, a Fellow of the Third World Academy of Science, a member of the Association Internationale de Bibliophilie, and a Founding member of the Society of Bibliophiles in Cape Town.

Among other honours, he has been awarded the John Herschel Medal of the Royal Society of South Africa, the South Africa Medal of the South African Association for the Advancement of Science, the Gill Medal of the Astronomical Society of South Africa, and the Science-for Society Gold Medal of the Academy of Science of South Africa.

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