Batchelor, George Keith

(1920-2000), fluid dynamicist

by H. K. Moffatt

© Oxford University Press 2004 All rights reserved

Batchelor, George Keith (1920-2000), fluid dynamicist, was born on 8 March 1920 in Melbourne, Australia, the elder child of George Conybere Batchelor (b. 1897), an electrician and warehouseman, and Ivy Constance Berneye (1899-1943). He had one sister, Doris Ivy (b. 1928), and a stepsister Anne, from the second marriage of his father in 1946. Batchelor's great-grandfather David Scott Batchelor had emigrated from Broughty Ferry, Scotland, in 1852 to work on the construction of the Catholic cathedral in Melbourne. His grandfather George Batchelor was a wholesale distributor of books and magazines.

The Batchelor family settled in 1929 at 107 Eglinton Street, Moonee Ponds, in the northern suburbs of Melbourne, where George lived throughout his teenage and university years until his departure for England in 1945. He attended Moonee Ponds West state school (1929-30), Essendon high school (1931-4), and Melbourne high school (1935-6). He developed an early love of physics and mathematics, and a fierce ambition to succeed. His father, recognizing his son's talents, was prepared to make the necessary financial sacrifices to support his subsequent university career; with the additional aid of prizes and scholarships, Batchelor was able to study physics and mathematics at Melbourne University (1937-40). He was then drawn to work in aerodynamics at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research's division of aeronautics (later the Aeronautical Research Laboratory) in Melbourne, as a result of which he gained his MSc degree in 1941.

Batchelor's aim had for some time been to travel to England on graduation to pursue research for a PhD. During the Second World War this was impossible, and he therefore remained at the division of aeronautics in Melbourne, working on practical problems in aerodynamics related to the war effort. His interest in fundamental problems of fluid dynamics developed during these years. In particular, he recognized the phenomenon of turbulence as the greatest challenge in fluid dynamics, and resolved to devote his energies to this field of research as soon as the war ended. He wrote to Geoffrey Ingram Taylor, the great British authority on turbulence, who agreed to take him on as a research student.

On 27 January 1944 Batchelor married Wilma Maud Rätz (1918-1997), who had trained as a social worker at the University of Melbourne. In January 1945, the end of the war being then in sight, he and Wilma embarked for England on a cargo ship, the Umgeni, on a voyage that lasted ten weeks, travelling via New Zealand, the Panama Canal, Jamaica, and New York and then in convoy across the Atlantic. On arrival in Cambridge, Batchelor settled immediately to work on turbulence as a research student at Trinity College and in close partnership with A. A. Townsend, a fellow Australian based at the Cavendish laboratory, skilled in the experimental techniques required for the study of wind-tunnel turbulence. Taylor was himself engaged on other problems, and was evidently happy to give Batchelor and Townsend free rein in their research.

Batchelor rapidly made his mark in the subject through his brilliant interpretation of the papers of the great Soviet mathematician A. N. Kolmogorov. Batchelor presented his critique of this work, and of parallel lines of enquiry by Onsager, Heisenberg, and von Weizsäcker, at the sixth International Congress for Applied Mechanics held in Paris in 1946; this was his début on the international scientific stage, and marked him as a rising star of the subject. Over the next fifteen years he published a succession of profound studies of turbulence and its applications not only to aerodynamics, but also to chemical engineering, the dynamics of ocean and atmosphere, and the magneto-hydrodynamics of interstellar gas clouds.

In 1947 Batchelor became a fellow of Trinity College; he resisted the temptation to become deeply involved in college teaching, jealously guarding his time for research and for the development of a research group of outstanding young fluid dynamicists. He and Wilma designed their own house, Cobbers, in Conduit Head Road, Cambridge, and here raised a family of three daughters, Adrienne (b. 1947), Clare (b. 1950), and Bryony (b. 1953).

Batchelor's monograph The Theory of Homogeneous Turbulence (1953; repr. 1960, 1970) provided the definitive account of the subject as then understood, and was for several decades an indispensable reference work. On the basis of his research in turbulence, Batchelor was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1957. In the previous year he had founded the Journal of Fluid Mechanics, which soon established itself under his firm editorship as the leading international medium of publication of papers in all aspects of fluid mechanics, theoretical and experimental.

By this time Batchelor was firmly established as a lecturer in the mathematics faculty in Cambridge. He recognized the need for a more coherent framework for research activity than was provided by the Cambridge colleges, and was instrumental in establishing in 1959 the department of applied mathematics and theoretical physics, which initially occupied rooms in the new museums site but which in 1964 moved to buildings in Silver Street vacated by Cambridge University Press. Batchelor was appointed head of department in 1959, a position for which he was so naturally inclined and qualified that he held it until his retirement in 1983. This tenure was challenged by Professor Fred Hoyle in 1964, but Batchelor secured a majority in a vote within the department which led to his reappointment as head and to Hoyle's dramatic, not to say tempestuous, departure from the department to found the new institute of theoretical astronomy on Madingley Road. Batchelor had been promoted to a readership in 1959, and was elected to the newly founded professorship of applied mathematics in 1964.

Batchelor's Introduction to Fluid Dynamics (1967), a textbook of great depth and authority, rapidly became the standard text for advanced university courses. The book is characterized both by its exceptional thoroughness and lucidity, and by the emphasis that Batchelor places on the physical interpretation of mathematical results, important for the development of physical intuition as a vital ingredient of any attack on problems involving complex physical processes.

In the course of writing this book Batchelor recognized that the techniques of turbulence theory could equally be applied to problems involving the dynamics of fluids in which small particles, drops, or bubbles are suspended. He developed these ideas in a powerful series of papers in the early 1970s, and coined the term 'microhydrodynamics' to describe this new field of study, which was largely created by his efforts and by those of the new group of research students and senior visitors drawn to work with him in this area.

Batchelor did everything he could to develop links with scientists in the former Soviet Union and eastern Europe throughout the 1960s and 1970s, when travel and exchanges were still severely restricted. He provided great moral support for colleagues in Poland, and was a regular participant at the biennial meetings in fluid mechanics held during these years in Poland, one of the few locations where fluid dynamicists from East and West could meet for free discussion of scientific problems. Perceiving a need for more active European co-operation in scientific research, he helped to establish in 1964 the European Mechanics Committee (later renamed the European Society for Mechanics), which he chaired until 1987. This committee was responsible for stimulating the great series of Euromech colloquia, which were run with an informality of style and an economy of resource that Batchelor was always at great pains to preserve.

Batchelor set little store by honours, yet received many: he was elected to foreign membership of the academies of Sweden, France, Poland, USA, and Australia, the land of his birth, and he won several medals and prizes. It was perhaps the G. I. Taylor medal of the American Society of Engineering Science, awarded in 1997, that he cherished most, for he held his mentor in deep esteem; he edited the four volumes of Taylor's Collected Papers (1958-1971), and wrote his biography, The Life and Legacy of G. I. Taylor (1997). Batchelor himself devoted his life to promoting the great Cambridge tradition of fundamental research in fluid mechanics of which Taylor had been a prime exemplar.

Batchelor was a man of intense vision, and of strongly held views that were frequently orthogonal to accepted wisdom. In his major initiatives, he faced considerable initial opposition, but his record as founder editor of the Journal of Fluid Mechanics, as founding head of the University of Cambridge department of applied mathematics and theoretical physics, and as co-founder of Euromech speaks for itself, and firmly establishes him as a leading figure of twentieth-century science. A man of meticulous and painstaking standards, he was an unfailing source of support and sound advice for his many research students over four decades. Batchelor suffered symptoms of Parkinson's disease from about 1995 onwards, and the sudden death of his wife, Wilma, came as a cruel blow in 1997. He moved into rooms in Trinity College in 1999 with a view to writing his memoirs, but his health continued to decline, and he died at Midfield Lodge Nursing Home, Cambridge Road, Oakington, Cambridge, on 30 March 2000, shortly after his eightieth birthday. He was cremated at Cambridge crematorium on 10 April 2000.


H. K. Moffatt, 'G. K. Batchelor and the homogenisation of turbulence', Annual Review of Fluid Dynamics, 34 (2002), 19-35
H. K. Moffatt, memorial address, Trinity College, Cambridge, 4 July 2000, Annual Record, Trinity College, Cambridge (2000)
G. Batchelor, 'Research as a life style', Applied Mechanics Review, 50/8 (Aug 1997)
personal knowledge (2004)
private information (2004)
The Times (12 April 2000)
Daily Telegraph (18 April 2000)
T. J. Pedley, The Guardian (12 April 2000)
J. R. C. Hout, The Independent (17 April 2000)
d. cert.

RS |  U. Glas., Archives and Business Records Centre, corresp. with Sir E. C. Ballard

R. Shepherd, oils, 1984, U. Cam., department of applied mathematics and theoretical physics

Oxford University Press 2004 All rights reserved


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