Schonland: African son of science

15 May 2007

He developed radar in Africa in 1939, launched the continent’s premier science council and was a world expert on lightning. Basil Schonland served as advisor to Field Marshal Montgomery in World War II, led atomic energy research in the UK and was knighted by the Queen.

Go to Eastern Cape Madiba Action This Eastern Cape son of science finally received recognition as “Scientist of the Century” in South Africa in 1999, was granted a posthumous award and sparked a biography.

‘Mighty Atom’
St Andrew’s College in the Frontier Country town of Grahamstown at the turn of the century could not have foreseen the child prodigy on their hands when 10-year-old Basil Schonland entered the foyer in 1907. He matriculated four years later at the tender age of 14 – with the highest mark in the country. Notably bright but small of stature, his prophetic nickname at school was “Mighty Atom”.

With a BA (Physics) from Rhodes University College under his belt and an OBE for service in France in WWI, Schonland enrolled as a research student at Cambridge University in the UK. Pioneering nuclear physics research was under way, and Schonland made a name for himself with research on the scattering of Beta particles.

But the call of Africa propelled him to Cape Town in 1922 to take up the post of lecturer and soon professor of physics at the University of Cape Town.

As Brian Austin puts it in his biography Schonland: Scientist and Soldier, facilities for research in South Africa at that time were very primitive compared to what Schonland was used to in the UK. Isolated from the international research community, he turned to something completely different.

Chasing storms
He pursued the study of lightning, and the exciting period between 1937 and 1939 (at the University of the Witswatersrand and as director of the Bernard Price Institute) saw him chasing storms, photographing lightning and measuring the electrical fields under thunderclouds.

His work was internationally regarded as the biggest advance in the field since Benjamin Franklin’s work in the late 18th century.

When war clouds gathered in Europe in the late 1930s, the need to develop radar was urgent. Commmonwealth countries were secretly invited to send scientists to the UK for a briefing on the new concept of radar. No one went from South Africa.

However, Schonland met distinguished New Zealand scientist Sir Ernest Marsden on a ship in Cape Town after the UK briefing. Copies of vague documents and notes made during the UK discussions were all Schonland had to work on.

South Africa’s own radar system
Incredibly, he and his team developed their own radar system, which was fully functional in South Africa just three months after the outbreak of World War II. “All they really received from the UK . was that it could be done and ‘how’,” wrote Military History Journal author Dr FJ Hewitt.

In 1941, while on a special visit to England, Schonland was asked to stay. He became a member of the famous “Blackett Circus” – a group of scientists who scientifically addressed problems and worked with generals in the field. It was the start of operations research as we know it today.

With the invasion of Normandy, France, in 1944, Schonland was appointed personal scientific advisor to Field Marshal Montgomery.

There was a happy post-war sequel. Schonland’s early African radar team remained in touch, and when Sputnik 1 was launched in 1957, they improvised tracking equipment and established its orbit in just two days.

The expected lifetime of Sputnik was published in Nature – giving the world the first accurate prediction of Sputnik’s expected lifespan, which proved correct to within 15%.

Pan-African science
In December 1944, Schonland was recalled to South Africa by General Jan Smuts to establish and become first president of the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). The CSIR’s first pan-African programme of scientific collaboration was a historic event, held in Johannesburg in 1949 and attended by 100 delegates from 25 countries south of the Sahara.

Representatives from Europe, the US and Australia were also there in a “panoply of nations never before seen under one roof in South Africa”, wrote Brian Austin in his essay “African Science and One Man’s Vision”.

They formed the Scientific Council for Africa South of the Sahara (CSA), which convened over 10 years until apartheid and the growth of independence movements got in the way. The “winds of change” had begun blowing across the country by 1960, and colonial links were starting to sever.

Anti-apartheid protest
In 1962, Schonland resigned his then post of Rhodes University’s first Chancellor in protest at South Africa’s apartheid legislation, which segregated previously “open” universities.

South Africa was no longer able to lead, apartheid was anathema to the world, and in 1965, riven with political differences, the CSA was disbanded.

By then, Schonland had already returned to England as the director of an atomic energy research unit at Harwell. He was knighted by the Queen in 1960 for his services to British science, and was a Faraday Medallist for 1962.

Schonland was voted South Africa’s Scientist of the Century in 1999, and was posthumously awarded the Order of Mapungubwe (in the gold class) in 2002.

This article was first published in Eastern Cape Madiba Action, winter 2007 edition. Republished here with kind permission of the author.