Professor Sir Brian Hoskins FRS

Doctor of Science

17 July 2008 – Orator: Professor Paul Valdes

Madam Chancellor, Brian Hoskins

There is one subject which the British are famous for talking about. It is a national pastime and is often the first thing that we discuss, or indeed more normally moan about, when we meet a stranger. It is a subject that we never seem to bore of, and which could almost be used as a test of British citizenship. I am of course talking about the weather. Professor Sir Brian Hoskins is no different to the rest of us in his fascination for the weather but he is one of the lucky few who have turned this fascination into a distinguished academic career. You may have not seen him giving a weather forecast on the TV, but the work of Brian Hoskins has helped to transform our understanding of weather so that even the most grudging will now admit that the forecasts are not too bad these days.

Brian Hoskin’s connection to Bristol goes right back to earliest days. He is a son of Bristol. He was born in Bristol and brought up a few miles from here in the Westbury-on-Trym and the Coombe Dingle areas. In fact, overlooking the university’s playing fields. When he wants to, he can still turn on a wickedly strong Bristolian accent. His natural skills as a mathematician became apparent very early on when he helped in his father’s greengrocer shop. Adding up all those customer bills gave him a speed and accuracy in mental maths of which I am in awe, and have rarely seen emulated even by some very eminent mathematicians!

Brian went to Bristol Grammar School, just a few 100 yards from where we are now. From all accounts, it was a very successful few years. Not only did his reputation as a mathematician begin to grow (for instance, he achieved 100% in his scholarship level exams) but he also showed himself to be a talented all-rounder. He was captain of the hockey and cricket teams, and this love of sport continued throughout his career. I tried to find some stories about his school days but failed. Brian describes himself as a real goody-goody until he met his wife, Jackie. I won’t dare say what happened then!

After school, he went to Trinity Hall, Cambridge where he continued to excel at mathematics. He was taught by the previous vice-chancellor of this university, Professor Sir John Kingman. But it was the application of mathematics to meteorology that really interested him, and in his PhD work he developed a mathematical theory on the formation of warm and cold fronts. This theory has been hugely important and has helped to lead a revolution in our understanding and ability to predict the weather. It remains one of the most highly cited meteorology papers of all time, and is still regularly referenced more than 30 years after its publication.

Most people would be satisfied with just one such achievement in their academic career, but for Brian this was just the start of a huge body of highly influential work on a variety of weather related problems. He has improved our understanding of how high and low pressure systems form and how they keep our weather in the UK so variable. He was also one of the pioneers of computer modelling of our environment and improving our understanding of the large scale circulation of the atmosphere. But this strength in the theory of weather is matched by a real ability actually to forecast it. I can think of many experts in the theory of weather, myself included, who really struggle to produce a good weather forecast. Brian is unique in being equally at home studying the latest weather chart or deriving the fundamental equations that govern our atmosphere.

After completing his PhD he spent a few years in the United States, at Princeton and the National Centre for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, before returning to the UK in 1973 where he joined a small group of academic meteorologists at Reading University. He has been based there ever since, although recently splitting his time between Reading and leading the Grantham Institute at Imperial College London. His academic success was rapidly rewarded with promotion to a professorship in 1981 and he subsequently led the department for six years. Under his leadership the group expanded to become the largest Meteorology department in UK, although this was quite simple since it is the only one; but under his leadership it also became one of the largest and most successful Meteorology departments in the world.

It was also during the 1980’s that Brian’s work expanded into climate change, a subject area that soon became almost a more popular talking point than weather. It also thrust Brian into the media limelight. I well remember seeing him cycle to work, being pursued by a van load of TV reporters who were covering his appointment as a special advisor to the then secretary of state for transport, Cecil Parkinson. Of course Brian left the TV van well behind, not only because he was a very fast cyclist, but also because Reading traffic during rush hour is as bad as Bristol’s and cycling is always better.

His research on climate change continued to expand and Brian increasingly took on a major new role by contributing advice to a wide range of national and international organisations and conferences. One of the earliest of these events was at the Vatican, during which he met the Pope. The Pope gave him a gift as a thank-you for attending the event, but Brian somewhat shocked the Pope by asking for a second one. With his normal impish charm, Brian explained that he needed a second gift because he wanted to give them to his two daughters, Brooke and Bryony. The Pope happily gave the second gift, but I suspect he always remembered the scientist who asked for a little bit more!

Brian’s commitment to ensuring that good science informs climate change policy continues to flourish. He made major contributions to the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and to the Stern report on the economics of climate change. He was also a member of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution which recommended the UK should aim for a 60% reduction in emissions of carbon dioxide by 2050. More recently he is one of five world-class experts appointed to the government’s new climate change committee, whose first task will be to advise the government on whether the 60% target should be raised to 80%. Advice which will have important implications for all of us.

Brian has received many awards for his work. He became a fellow of the Royal Society in 1988 and received a CBE in 1998 for his services to Meteorology. When collecting his CBE he committed the appalling mistake of accidentally turning his back on the Queen during the ceremony! Fortunately the Queen was clearly not too shocked because in 2007 Brian was also knighted for his services to environmental science.

I could go on and describe all of the many achievements and awards that he has received, but we would be here a very long time so I have decided to speed things up. Put simply and briefly, Brian is one of the leading environmental scientists of his generation.

But such a description does not really do Brian full justice. His strength is not only in his scientific achievements. He combines strength of intellect with a very warm, friendly and humble personality. He will charm you with his humour and with his enthusiasm for all things. His house is often full of academic visitors and they are always made to feel welcome and at home. When I worked at Reading, he and his wife Jackie, regularly hosted parties which were the highlight of the year, and which often ended with a sing-song whilst Brian improvised on the piano (music, particularly singing, being another love of his life).

Brian also has combined his love of research with a love of teaching. His commitment and effort have always been outstanding. Even when he is at his busiest, he will normally keep his office door open and will welcome anybody, whether it is a first year undergraduate struggling to understand a lecture or a postgraduate student stuck on a particularly tough problem. As my life gets busier, I am only just appreciating how difficult and demanding this is and how generous Brian is with his time.

Before closing, I want to take this opportunity to add a very personal note to my oration. I have known Brian for more than 20 years. We first met in 1985 when I became one of his research assistants and we have continued to work together ever since. He has guided and helped me through the career challenges of a young (and now not so young) academic and he has always been hugely generous with his time, offering support, help and advice. This has been done with a humour and an infectious enthusiasm that could not fail to motivate and inspire. For many years, I have been fortunate that he has been my friend and mentor and one of my real heroes. I owe him a huge amount and I take this opportunity to thank him for this inspiration and guidance.

Madam Chancellor, it is my great pleasure to present to you Professor Sir Brian Hoskins as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa.

Edit this page