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OBITUARY: 'PROFESSOR NEVILLE BROWN' (1932 – 2018)

By Michael Clarke and Julian Lewis

RUSI Journal, vol.163, no.4 – August/September 2018

Professor Neville Brown, who has died aged 86, combined an exceptionally long academic career with exceptionally wide academic reach, achieving distinction in subjects ranging from history and strategic studies to climate change and astronomy. From the outset he was pulled in two distinct directions: physics, with special reference to meteorology, and history, with special reference to social evolution and climatic change.

Typically, he resolved his scholarly "split personality" by taking two distinct degrees – Economics with Geography at University College, London, in 1954, and Modern History at New College, Oxford, three years later. In successfully seeking to combine these disciplines he became equally a scholar of science and society, at one stage deferring early exploration of the dangers of climate change for a stint in the Pentagon, on behalf of the Ministry of Defence, assessing President Reagan's proposed anti-missile system, the Strategic Defence Initiative.

As chairman of the Council for Arms Control in the closing phase of the cold war, Brown backed multilateral approaches to nuclear disarmament, whilst firmly opposing the weaponisation of space under any circumstances. He received a personal chair in International Security Affairs (1980) and a Doctorate of Science in Applied Geophysics (1995) from Birmingham University, and was elected Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1990. From 1991 through to 2012, he was a Professorial Associate Fellow at Mansfield College, Oxford, as his prodigious literary output intensified.

Neville George Brown was born on April 8, 1932, the son of an Oxfordshire outfitter and of a schoolteacher, from whom he inherited his pronounced and soothing West Country 'burr'. Raised in Watlington and educated at Lord Williams's Grammar School, Thame, he secured a place at Oxford which he chose to defer until 1954. After his National Service as a Lieutenant in the meteorological branch of the Fleet Air Arm, it was in the field of international relations that he first made his name – in 1960, as an unusually youthful winner of the Trench Gascoigne essay prize of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) for an examination of the future of sea power and geopolitics.

A lectureship at Sandhurst quickly followed before Brown was chosen to be one of the first two Research Associates at the new Institute for Strategic Studies. In 1964, though relatively a novice, he was recruited to join the established historians, Donald Cameron Watt and Frank Spencer, in a three-volume landmark study, A History of the World in the Twentieth Century.

His contribution, the final volume covering 1945-63, was a notable achievement – brief but not fragmentary, authoritative without being didactic. It demonstrated a personal style that he was to develop much further in his subsequent work and it set a standard of rigour below which he never fell. His intellectual canvas eventually ranged from history and international security to applied geophysics and what he termed ‘planetary development’, being mischievously different in the way he co-opted the term from other areas of astrophysics.

In 1965, Brown began his long association with Birmingham University, where he combined his academic work with practical experience in Africa, the Middle East and Far East, as a Defence Correspondent for specialist journals and magazines including the New Scientist and New Statesman. Throughout the 1970s and 80s, he wrote extensively on politics and defence, often being published by the RUSI. His background as a meteorologist was never far away from his work, as he explored the applications of air power, missile technologies and the natural world’s limitations on the development of new weapons systems.

Brown's work was always intellectually restless, never conventional. He was one of the earliest scholars to appreciate the geopolitical consequences of accelerating climate change and his 1977 award-winning Future Global Challenges turned out to be highly prophetic.  It is possible to draw a clear intellectual line of development that few others could have followed from that pioneering study to his last published work in 2017, Cosmic Threats: A Planetary Response – an analytical but quite moving plea for a problem-solving international consensus that would owe less to political abstractions and more to flesh and blood, and imagination.

Although a humanist, Brown was perpetually fascinated by the interaction of science and spirituality. He traced the way in which man’s differing understanding of the cosmos translated into religious and political beliefs, as well as the way science and human imagination had interacted over two millennia. In his last decade, he produced what he termed a ‘Planetary Trilogy’: Engaging the Cosmos, Astronomy, Philosophy and Faith (2006); The Geography of Human Conflict: Approaches to Survival (2009); and The Bounds of Liberalism: the Fragility of Freedom (2014). His essential thinking was very clear in the Trilogy. The combination of cultural change, ecological stress and huge, uneven leaps in applied science, produces great churn both within and between societies. Whether the trends and interactions thus produced go well or badly for mankind will depend upon the ability of human imagination to manipulate them in favourable, rather than disastrous, directions.

Brown was a man of great warmth and humanity which infused all his writing. His professorial colleagues, Yvonne Elsworth, John Hedley Brooke and Brian Salter, all testify to his creativity, intellectual breadth and academic rigour. Former RUSI Director, Michael Clarke, describes him at the Institute "engaging in discussions and questions about contemporary security with the same rigour that he engaged his Oxford colleagues on astrophysics". The MP and Defence Committee chairman Julian Lewis recalls Brown's academic integrity and generosity with his time – cheerfully spending three hours in detailed study of a book manuscript before composing three sentences of pre-publication endorsement. For 45 of his 58 years' professional writing, his always neatly handwritten drafts were scrupulously transcribed by his dedicated secretary, Jill Wells.

Many former students benefited from his wisdom and erudition, not least Yu-Ying Lu-Rikuhashi, later lead curator and head of the Japanese Collection at the British Library for more than 20 years. They married in 1974, having met in the mid-1960s, when Brown supervised her degree essay on "Japan's Role in the World". Yu-Ying survives him, together with a vast network of friends, admirers and beneficiaries of his visionary work.

Professor Neville Brown, born 8 April 1932, died 28 May 2018