Roger Griffin: A Reflection

This page contains the text of an Address given at Roger’s memorial service which was held on 14 May 2022 at St. John’s College Chapel, Cambridge. The Reflection was prepared by Roger’s two sons and delivered by his elder son, Rupert.

This page was last modified on 2024 January 2
A 6-minute read

[PHOTO: Roger taking his photo in a telescope mirror: 20kB]

Above: Please forgive the pun! This particular reflection of Roger shows him in autumn 1988 at Calar Alto Observatory. We (and he) are looking down the telescope tube to the primary mirror of the 2.2-metre telescope (or 87-inch as Roger always referred to it); he had steered the telescope tube towards the horizon to facilitate this photo. Also visible is the reflection of the secondary mirror (and its own image of the primary mirror including Roger!) whose rear face obscures the lower-left corner of the picture.

Roger Francis Griffin was an extraordinary man. If he was taciturn in public this belied a fearsome intellect and an equally fierce independence. Roger’s lifetime’s accumulation of achievement and publication – including the longest series of papers in the history of astronomy – attests to his astonishing commitment to his work. Roger was so brilliant in his time, so intelligent and persistent, that he was paid, handsomely, to do whatever he pleased and be professionally answerable to no-one, for effectively his entire career. If that was unlikely in Roger’s day, I venture that it would be even less likely now. It was certainly unusual, not to say jammy, yet Roger had carved out for himself the niche that best enabled the expression of his formidable abilities. He treasured most his membership of this College, which he held for all but a short period since he came up in 1954. As Roger dealt with life he always came back to his love of St. John’s College, of all that it stood for. I would like to extend sincere thanks on behalf of Roger’s family for everything the College has been to him, and done for him, over that long period, for being the bedrock on which Roger had built his approach to life.

Roger was brought up in a traditional, churchgoing family during the war, and the family values of modesty, hard work and reverence for scripture he always espoused. It was at a children’s party at a neighbour’s house when he was about 6 that he let the others play games while he was drawn into another world behind the sofa, engrossed in a copy of Hutchinson, Splendour of the Heavens. At the end of the evening his hosts kindly gave him the book to take home, and Roger announced to his mother that he intended to become an astronomer. Which he duly then did, contributing professional-calibre observations to the British Astronomical Association at just thirteen years old, using instrumentation he had built from scratch himself. The doggedness and intensity with which he then pursued the subject for the rest of his entire life is something at which one can only marvel. To follow such a research drive wherever it leads, for its own sake, stopping at nothing to get to the bottom of it, is an admirable thing.

Roger revolutionised his field, working largely alone. At a basic level he favoured clarity and changelessness, which of course he had found in physical science. The behaviour of the universe, and that of logical processes of deduction, can be counted upon to remain constant in a way in which interactions with humans may be less reliable. Facts don’t lie or have bad moods one day, and there is huge beauty to be found in that. Roger perhaps appreciated an exquisite similarity here to the constancy of the doctrine of the Christian faith, which ironically gave him something by which to put comprehension of the cosmos into some perspective. He could easily be inclined to be morose on such account; the title page of his thesis(1) bore verse 18 from Ecclesiastes, Chapter 1; For in much Wisdom is much Sorrow. Alison Rose’s documentary Star Men catches him brilliantly explaining the essential difference between a sulk and a misery. When she asks if Roger is afraid of death, he replies that he is not worried; as a Christian he must believe in eternal life – but Eternity is a very long time. I don’t know what you do all that time!

While he saw such sorrow in wisdom, Roger — nicknamed Yogi, after Yogi Bear — had a reputation for teasing and japery. Dry ice in people’s tea. Dazzling torchlight shone into the eyepiece just as the poor student peered into the telescope. Temperature monitors confused with liquid nitrogen. That sort of thing. Escorting me home from school one day when I was about 7, he facilitated a trap for me and he got to watch as I rode my bicycle headlong into a lamppost. I can still hear him howling with laughter! At a similar age I was just grasping the concept of taxation. I was aghast at the sheer amount of money the government must receive off everyone by taking VAT. What on earth do they do with it all?, I asked my father. He replied darkly, They buy bombs.

Roger’s self-taught expertise with optics was well known. It used to be said that anyone following Roger at the great Mount Wilson telescope would inherit a spectrograph in tip-top adjustment. One session of observing at the 100-inch he noticed the guiding image to be comatic, which no-one else had spotted, and he was given special, highly-irregular permission to correct it. The superintendent handed him an enormous hex key, with which Roger then made a fundamental adjustment to the collimation of the main mirror. Of course, he could see exactly which pad to move, and by exactly how much, and he corrected the fault perfectly in one iteration. Roger’s dedication to gathering data was equally well known. Colleague Jim Gunn recalls one night working with Roger at Palomar as the sky was clouding over. Roger insisted on continuing to observe Arcturus, but was finally persuaded to go to bed when the count-rate reduced to just 1 photon per second – that was from one of the brightest stars in the sky viewed with the world’s largest telescope!

Roger had indefatigable zest for practical exploits. One day as a student here he set off home for the weekend. It was such a nice day that instead of riding to the station he rode all the way to Banstead, Surrey, some 75 miles. I can imagine him, a fit young thing cruising along the old A10 on his three-speed bike with his suitcase wedged corner-wise in the basket! He undertook some extraordinary overseas travels when such things were not commonplace. Whilst on professional missions he contrived to include solo hiking adventures in many of the world’s great wildernesses. The extract you have just heard illustrates his love of huge landscapes and his contentment with solitude in them, even when — as often happened — practicalities were against him. I was hardly more than a baby when we were high in the Swiss Alps and the tent collapsed on us in the night under the weight of snow. He took us to the beautiful islands of the Azores, where we were variously drenched, eaten alive by mosquitos, flooded out or blown away – and we loved it so much we went back for more! Back in Cambridge he was a running companion to many, and latterly he loved leading runners one-quarter of his age on midnight runs to Grantchester under the light of the full moon. He cycled three times from here to Haute-Provence for observing runs, sometimes taking in high Alpine passes en route just for fun. On other occasions he would fly to Marseilles and ride from there. There’s no-one else who would get up at 3 in the morning, travel all day until dusk on a complicated itinerary that included not only an international flight but also 100km of tough, uphill bike-ride, arrive at the destination without even time to make a cup of coffee before then staying up all night working! He was only 60 then, and this was before he’d got into running the London Marathon. One day in his mid-70s Roger received a junk-mail advertisement for a mobility scooter. He wrote back, enclosing copies of several marathon certificates:

Sirs, I am insulted to receive an advertisement for your buggy. I can assure you that without it I can go at speeds ranging up to an incredible 8 miles per hour, and I have a range of more than 25 miles on a single charge!

The high point, perhaps, was his trek up Mount Kilimanjaro when he was approaching 70. Having first-hand experience of altitude acclimatisation, he designed his own itinerary. We took a week to get up there, and we spent the night at 19,000 feet. That was a one-off, to which no words can do justice.

Roger saw the world clearly from his unique point of view. In the heat of an argument once his wife tried reasoning with him: Come now Yogi, it’s love that makes the world go round.

No it isn’t, he retorted, it’s angular momentum!

Dear Yogi, of course you were absolutely right. May you rest in peace.

Rupert Griffin, May 2022

[PHOTO: Roger and Rupert at the summit of Kilimanjaro: 58kB]

Above: Roger and Rupert at the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro on 3 March 2005.

Footnote (1) — We resisted the urge to boast on our father’s behalf about the number of theses he had submitted. The particular thesis in question was entitled Direct Photoelectric Measurement of the Intensities of Important Features in Stellar Spectra, and was one of three we have encountered which he submitted between February 1960 and January 1962, each in support of candidature for a Fellowship of St. John’s College under Title A. These works are not to be confused with his B.A. dissertation (1957) nor that for his Ph.D. (1960).