Professor Raymond A. Lyttleton, F.R.S.


I was introduced to Professor Raymond Lyttleton (affectionately known as "Prof" to me) in early 1990, when I was a 1st-year undergraduate at Cambridge. He had been quite weak physically in the last few years of his life, and needed a helping hand with the simplest of things. I assisted him with his work and correspondences at the Institute of Astronomy over the years that I knew him, and very much enjoyed spending long hours with him watching entire Test Matches and hearing stories from days gone by. He was still quite agile mentally, and had lost none of the dry wit that had earlier made him famous and much sought after as a lecturer and speaker. He was never short of something to say, and right until the end he still had a sharp inquisitiveness about the world around him. His company is very much missed and I've composed this page as a kind of tribute to the old man who was quite a legend.

His Life

Ray Lyttleton was born in Birmingham on 7 May 1911, and was educated (or "uneducated" as he put it) at King Edward's School, Birmingham. From there he went to Clare College; he achieved a First Class in the Mathematical Tripos, and was awarded the Tyson Medal for his performance in Schedule B (as Part III Maths was then known). He then embarked on a Ph.D. in Cambridge, but by his own admission his career only really took off when he was awarded a Procter Visiting Fellowship at Princeton University, U.S.A.. There, he was assigned to work with Henry Norris Russell, who introduced him to the problem of how the angular momentum of the planets of our solar system had arisen. R.A.L. proved that the dynamical problems could be overcome by assuming that the Sun had passed by a nearby star and thereby accumulated matter, which would later form the planets. This idea was readily accepted at the time, and as a corollary, R.A.L. was the first to suggest that Pluto may have been an escaped satellite of Neptune.

He then returned to Cambridge, and took up a Fellowship at St John's College, which he held for his entire life. In the late 1930s, he persuaded a young physicist named Fred Hoyle to collaborate on problems involving stellar genesis and evolution which produced a series of revolutionary papers leading up to the Second World War. A major breakthrough occurred after the war when it was confirmed by radio telescopes that hydrogen was abundant in interstellar space, and many theories have been formed using this notion.

He then turned his attention to the stability of rotating liquid masses, extending and correcting earlier work by Jeans and Poincare. The resulting monograph earned him the Royal Society's Royal Medal in 1965. During the same period, he also investigated the formation and structure of comets, which has been documented in his book, The Comets and their Origin. He was always a non-believer in the "Oort Shell" which is said to exist in the outer realms of our solar system, from which the comets are supposed to originate. In the 1960s, R.A.L. became involved in theoretical geophysics and believed that the theory of plate-tectonics was a definite non-starter. He believed in the Ramsey collapse of the inner core, in which a sudden phase-change occurred, the principal effect being the shrinkage of the radius of the Earth by about a tenth of a millimetre per year. He hypothesised that this consequence explained the many eras of mountain-building, and the work is documented in the controversial book The Earth and Its Mountains.

During the vacations in Cambridge, he worked as a technical consultant at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena , U.S.A. for nearly twenty years. Whilst he was there, he noticed that the accepted value for the mass of the planet Mercury may be in error, and produced calculations to show its true value. He continued to lecture and supervise at Cambridge until his retirement, and as Emeritus Professor of Theoretical Astronomy in Cambridge, he fought his ongoing battles with the scientific Establishment right to the very end. After a debilitating illness, he died on 16 May 1995.

Further Achievements

Unlike most mathematicians, Ray Lyttleton was also a fine sportsman, and played cricket for Cambridgeshire C.C.C. and Warwickshire 2nd XI. In the late 1950s, he gave a radio broadcast on the swerve and swing of a cricket ball, which caught the attention of Sir Donald Bradman. The corresponding article appeared in Bradman's classic 1959 book, "The Art of Cricket". Ray Lyttleton and The Don kept up a regular correspondence, especially in later years. In addition to his cricketing prowess, R.A.L. was a fine golfer with a low handicap.

In 1956, R.A.L. presented a 5-part television series on the B.B.C. entitled "The Modern Universe", which inspired a generation of aspiring astronomers such as Sir Martin Rees. He also produced a play -- "A Matter of Gravity" which was broadcast on B.B.C. radio. This historical play, written in 1968, dramatises the science and the controversies around the time when the planet Neptune was discovered in the 19th century.

Published Books

The Comets and their Origin (1953)

The Stability of Rotating Liquid Masses (1953)

The Modern Universe (1956)

Rival Theories of Cosmology (1960)

Man's View of the Universe (1960)

Mysteries of the Solar System (1968)

Cambridge Encyclopedia of Astronomy (co-ed. & contrib.) (1977)

The Earth and its Mountains (1982)

The Gold Effect (1990)

Published Scientific Papers and Books (.pdf format)

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