Professor Sir Hermann Bondi

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Sir Hermann Bondi: Mathematician at home with the cosmos, relativity and the worldly concerns of government

Sir Hermann Bondi, who has died aged 85, was a brilliant scientist, a world-class mathematician, and an enfant terrible among cosmologists who emerged as a top science adviser and administrator. He was touched by genius, modulated by human insight and political perception, and driven at great speed by enormous intellectual energy. With enthusiasm and alacrity, he leapt from job to job, claiming - with typical black humour - that it was bad for anyone to get into a rut because "ruts are like graves, only longer".

Bondi relished this homespun joke, telling his children that people get to the top either through brilliance and dedication, or by sheer luck. "I am one of the lucky ones," he declared. But everyone knew that his meteoric rise over three decades was a product of brilliance, determination, flexibility and sheer intellectual power. He soared from wartime internment as an enemy alien, via mathematics and astronomy, to national space boss, chief scientist at two government departments, and, finally, master of a Cambridge college.

Beaming at you from behind huge spectacles, framing his Austrian-tinged sentences meticulously, he might have been mistaken for the archetypal hand-waving "boffin" of light fiction. The reality was very different. Bondi was an organiser, shaped by determination to be understood, by intellectual weight and by a manifest desire to be on top.

He was tough and seemingly tireless, a good skier and a climber who, in advancing years, still enjoyed the physical pressures of the dawn-to-midnight public life demanded of the highest fliers on the international circuit.

It was characteristic that he always managed to get through reports - and airports - faster than anyone else and, when the rest were flagging, would know exactly where to get a quick lunch. Above all, he could look at old problems with great freshness of mind, and overturn accepted ideas with a disarming combination of sheer speed, clear and incisive analysis and a childlike, bubbling, sense of fun.

These, perhaps, were the qualities which, as government chief scientist, Sir Solly (later Lord) Zuckerman commended to Lord Carrington, then defence secretary, when, in 1971, he suggested that Bondi would be a good choice for chief scientist at the Ministry of Defence. At the time, Bondi was coming to the end of a four-year term as director of the troubled European Space Research Organisation (Esro) in Paris. There, he had won an array of uphill battles to gain the support of governments and technical staff to establish a convincing technical base for international cooperation in the emerging suite of new high technologies.

During this period, Esro's sister organisation, Eldo (the European Launcher Development Organisation), died of escalating costs and technical conflicts, arising largely from the participating countries' individual defence requirements. Space launchers were mainly a military matter. Similar conflicts affected Esro but, largely through Bondi's determined guidance, the organisation survived to evolve into the burgeoning European Space Agency. Characteristically, he attributed this success to his managers.

After a brief hesitation, Bondi accepted Carrington's request, and became, as Carrington later said, an instant and outstanding success. "Everyone who worked with him understood and enjoyed him and, above all, respected his judgment," he wrote.

In 1977, Bondi became chief scientist at the Department of Energy for three years, seeking to integrate the long-term resource and environmental imperatives into energy policy. Through confidential meetings at Ditchley Park, the Oxfordshire conference centre, and elsewhere, he brought new light into government thinking, laying the technical foundations for Britain's first serious long-term energy policy. It was one of his sorrows that, through the short-term market force obsessions of the Thatcher administration, his groundwork was thrown away.

He was still, however, only the third scientist in Whitehall history to hold the top post in two government departments, the others being Zuckerman and Alan Cottrell, both of whom went from defence to the Cabinet Office and sought sought much greater public invisibility.

Bondi was different. As a top civil servant, he strode briskly - and sometimes noisily - along the knife-edge of critical brilliance and absolute loyalty, aware that some still saw him as a dangerous and unpredictable outsider. In truth, he was far from being an ivory-tower scientist. He had kept a sharp eye on defence research since his involvement in radar development in the second world war. Typically, when asked to take on this seemingly very specialised job, he was already up to speed.

Bondi's assignment of his success to "luck" was largely one of his jokes. Yet, at the beginning, it had been partly true. He was fortunate, for example, to have left his native Vienna before Hitler took over, and so not as a refugee - it was outstanding mathematical ability and the recommendation of the great Abraham Frankel that had carried him in 1937 to Trinity College, Cambridge. While still a schoolboy at the Realgymnasium, in Vienna, Bondi knew that he wanted to study with the mathematician and astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington; Hermann's father, a doctor interested in the scientific aspects of medicine, supported him in making the arrangements. And it was clear foresight that led Hermann to cable his family in March 1938 that they must get out before the Anschluss. They did, finally getting to New York, where they thought their son would soon follow.

He did not: in Cambridge he found his feet and, very quickly, recognised Britain as his natural home. As often with the greatly gifted, he seemed wholly unaware of the arrogance of his certainty in triumph, not only academically in mathematics and theoretical physics, but in every aspect of life. Before the end of his first year, he was granted a special award, which he found unexpected and moving. "The warmth and readiness to look after me when the fortunes of my family suffered collapse because of enforced emigration made a deep and lasting impression upon me," he wrote in later life.

Perhaps it was inevitable that, from this period, Bondi emerged as an unswerving, if critical, Anglophile. Then, in May 1940, he was interned as an enemy alien, spending more than a year under guard in camps in the Isle of Man and Canada. The great Max Perutz (obituary, February 7 2002), also interned as an alien and later to emerge at Cambridge as a world leader in molecular biology, wrote of Bondi as an irrepressible and brilliant young man "cheering up his fellow prisoners with entertaining ad-hoc lectures on vector geometry".

Bondi, without bitterness, remembered the slowness of the British government to recognise friend from foe. Most of all he was grateful for the friendships with other brilliant scientists which arose among the internees, significant among them being his fellow Austrian, Tommy Gold (obituary, June 24 2004), whose outstanding abilities had brought him to Cambridge shortly before the war to study engineering. By autumn 1941, both had been released and were briefly back at Cambridge (Bondi had been awarded a BA in his absence). Within a few months, Gold followed Bondi into Admiralty radar research. They joined a group led by Fred Hoyle (later Sir Fred, obituary August 23 2001), dealing with theoretical aspects of centimetre radar.

It had a number of special problems, such as "ground clutter" interference. Bondi, among other things, led a research team with all its cumbersome equipment to the top of Snowdon (Hoyle's idea), to make systematic measurements of these effects. The experiments were a great success except that, on the way down after weeks on the summit, highly secret data was briefly lost in deep soft snow by a faller who let go of his knapsack. This and the data were eventually retrieved, at substantial cost, by a company of commandos.

At about this time, Bondi unravelled the theoretical physics underlying the behaviour of electrons in a magnetron, the secret device at the heart of centimetre radar. The device had been developed pragmatically at Birmingham University under Mark Oliphant, coming into use without a full understanding of how it worked. Bondi's work on magnetron theory and his meeting and friendship with Hoyle and Gold became the basis for a highly creative period of theoretical astronomy and cosmology at Cambridge between 1943 and 1954.

The behaviour of electrons in a magnetron turned out to be highly relevant to new theories of rotating fluids and to stellar and planetary accretion, then being developed by the Cambridge mathematician and theoretical astronomer Raymond Lyttleton. Bondi's collaboration with Lyttleton was at the cutting edge of highly specialised mathematics, visible only to an elite academic audience.

His friendship and collaboration with Hoyle and Gold, however, burst on the public as the first large postwar scientific controversy. Together, they emerged as the terrible trio of cosmology who turned ideas upside down by producing an intuitively comforting steady-state hypothesis of the universe. There was no need to postulate a big bang or other cataclysmic events, they explained, because matter is being created and destroyed continually in a balanced way throughout the universe.

True, after much argument, the steady-state hypothesis lost the day, but its challenge opened cosmology to new generations of thought. Like James Jeans and Eddington, Bondi brought extraordinary perceptions of the mystery and vastness of the universe to ordinary people. His management skills were much less visible, though they characterised his work as professor of mathematics at Kings College London (1954 - 71, then titular professor till 1985, and emeritus till his death), and emerged (on their best behaviour) when he became master of Churchill College (1983-90). This was a position of which, as a boy, he could not even have dreamed, but which he fulfilled - during a difficult period for university science - with creativity, humour and skill.

Bondi might easily have been trapped in the esoteric rut of mathematics. At the age of eight, he found he could read, understand and do the exercises in undergraduate texts. It was Gold who convinced him that intelligence is not specific, a message which informed much of Bondi's later activity and advice. He took on unexpected tasks, such as advising on the Thames flood barrier. He was quietly disappointed that industry never sought his services.

Nevertheless, he routinely sought to increase the exchange of scientists between the universities and industry, to provide greater flexibility in both student training, to encourage people to take on new, testing, invigorating activities. Bondi shook everything up: when the dust settled, things were usually much improved, and Bondi would grin and turn to a new problem. He married Christine Stockman, a physicist who was one of Hoyle's postgraduate students, in 1947. She survives him, as do their two sons and three daughters.

Anthony Tucker

[The obituary by Anthony Tucker has been revised since his death in 1998]
Bernard Lovell writes:

At the age of 47, Hermann Bondi had achieved all that a distinguished scientist could hope for. At King's College London, he was regarded as an eminent mathematician, particularly in the theory of relativity, notably for his work on gravitational waves. He had been elected a fellow of the Royal Society (1959), had been intimately involved with astronomical affairs as secretary of the Royal Astronomical Society (1956-64) and was an influential member on committees of the Science Research Council.

Then, in the summer of 1967, the Department of Education and Science released the news that he had been appointed director general of Esro. I had been closely involved with him in discussions for UK involvement in a large optical telescope (eventually materialising as the Anglo-Australian Telescope at Siding Spring, Australia) and asked him, in disbelief, why he was taking this extraordinary step into the arena of international finance and politics. "Well", he replied, "you must know that there are just two things I enjoy - talking and travelling."

He certainly had a full measure of both for the next 17 years. He succeeded Pierre Auger, a famous scientist but not a good manager, and later confessed that the years he spent in Esro nearly strained him to breaking point. Ten European nations were striving to get into space with insufficient money and a variety of motives, and it was remarkable that Bondi maintain the coherence of the group and of more than a thousand scientists scattered across Europe.

His appointment to Esro had been for three years, and no doubt both he and the governing council would willingly have extended this period, but, at the critical moment of decision, Lord Carrington pressed him to retum to London. Once more Bondi's desire for talking and travelling found a valuable outlet. Although the details of his work during the six years he spent at the MoD are shrouded in secrecy, it is not hard to envisage the outlines. They were the years of the cold war, with Europe fearful of the consequences of an attack from the Soviet Union, and with the major debates in Britain about the virtues of modifying the Polaris nuclear missile or purchasing a new American system.

After six years of that life, with constantly changing superiors (he was then serving his fourth secretary of state and sixth chief of defence staff), even Bondi had talked and travelled enough within the confines of defence, and, in 1977, he moved to the Department of Energy as chief scientist, and became involved with the problems of nuclear energy generation and with renewable energy sources - such as the Severn barrage. At these posts, Bondi had become a civil servant with the rank of permanent secretary, an office at which there is an almost inflexible rule of retirement at 60. Bondi could not envisage retirement with any degree of pleasure, and, again, good fortune favoured him. The Department of Education and Science faced difficulties in finding a suitable person to become chairman of the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC); here, the retirement rules were not so definite, and Bondi suggested to the DES that he be appointed.

So, in the autumn of 1980, he moved his office to the headquarters of the NERC in Swindon and, for another four years, handled many problems in ecology and oceanography, and carried the responsibility for the Geological and British Antarctic Surveys - although, to his regret, he never visited Antarctica.

Hermann Bondi, mathematician, astronomer and civil servant, born November 1 1919; died September 10 2005.

Tuesday September 13, 2005 Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006