Colourful geophysicist and historian whose polymathic areas of expertise ranged from Reagan’s ‘star wars’ programme to climate change
The Times – 9 August 2018
Although his fellow academics were wont to describe Professor Neville Brown as a polymath, one whose areas of expertise ranged from climate change to President Reagan’s “star wars” programme, he saw himself more as a scholar with a split personality. The divide first manifested itself in 1951 when he embarked on a degree in economics and geography at University College, London, and followed it with one in modern history at New College, Oxford.
After that he floundered for a bit, wondering what to do with his life, not least because it had been put on hold while he waited to find out if he was medically fit enough to do his National Service. He had applied to join the RAF, but his medical examination had revealed something untoward with one of his lungs and this, it was felt, would require 12 months’ observation. By the time he was given the all clear, National Service was being phased out.
“Her Majesty’s forces would never bother me again,”
he recalled thinking at the time.
“It seemed altogether too pettifogging to get this assurance in writing.”
But he had not factored in his mother, who saw an advert in The Sunday Times for budding meteorologists to apply for a short service commission with the Fleet Air Arm. She persuaded him to try for it and he found himself spending seven wintry months on the storm-beaten Pembrokeshire coast. Then one day, when he was given the job of delivering classified documents from the British embassy in Moscow to the Cabinet Office, fortune smiled upon him. He took the liberty of reading the cables en route and found there was a way of combining his two disciplines, history and geophysics. He would become a strategist.
It was in the field of international relations that he duly 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 (ISS). In 1964, although a relative 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 showed a personal style that he was to develop in 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.
With a professorial shock of white hair, a preference for reading with a magnifying glass and a distinctive, forward-leaning walk, with small, quick steps that seemed to be a contradiction of his slow and mellifluous voice, he looked and sounded the part. He even had his boffinish eccentricities: he slept on a futon, liked to eat toasted cheese with pineapple slices for breakfast and would have dinner, which included saké, at 5.30pm sharp. One family friend recalled being asked to find a match to light an indoor barbecue on a camping stove and when he returned with one found Brown sitting patiently, wearing a builder’s hard hat. He had a semi-tame fox called Rommel that he would leave food out for at night, much to the consternation of his neighbours.
Brown’s work was intellectually restless, never conventional. He was one of the earliest scholars to appreciate the geopolitical consequences of accelerating climate change and his 1977 Future Global Challenges turned out to be highly prophetic and brought him to the attention of Margaret Thatcher, with whom he once fell into deep conversation at an embassy function.
With praise for this research ringing in his ears he went to America for a stint at the Pentagon, on behalf of the Ministry of Defence, to assess President Reagan’s proposed anti-missile system, the Strategic Defence Initiative, better known as 'star wars'. His views were not entirely sympathetic. As chairman of the Council for Arms Control in the closing phase of the Cold War, Brown backed multilateral approaches to nuclear disarmament, while firmly opposing the weaponisation of space under any circumstances.
Neville George Brown was born in 1932, the son of Harold, an Oxfordshire outfitter, and Nelly (Jones), a schoolteacher, from whom he inherited his pronounced West Country burr. Raised in Watlington, just under the escarpment of the Chiltern Hills, he was educated at Lord Williams’s Grammar School, Thame. As a young undergraduate in 1951 he and a group of friends set off for East Berlin to attend an international students’ rally. When given short shrift by the American soldiers at Checkpoint Charlie, because they had no military permits, the friends doubled back to Innsbruck through the Soviet control border, then to Prague, and back to East Berlin. When they arrived they were hailed in the local papers as “The Innsbruck Heroes”.
In 1965, with two degrees and his stint with the ISS under his belt, Brown began a 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 1980s Brown 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.
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 on the ability of human imagination to manipulate them in favourable, rather than disastrous, directions.
For his academic endeavours Brown received a personal chair in International Security Affairs, a doctorate of science in applied geophysics from Birmingham University, and a fellowship of the Royal Astronomical Society. From 1991 through to 2012, as his prodigious literary output intensified, he was a professorial associate fellow at Mansfield College, Oxford, in which connection he met President Carter, with whom he discussed climate change.
It is possible to draw a clear intellectual line of development that few others could have followed from his pioneering studies in the 1970s to his last published work in 2017, Cosmic Threats: A Planetary Response – an analytical but moving plea for a problem-solving international consensus that would owe less to political abstractions and more to flesh and blood, and imagination.
Many former students benefited from his erudition and friendship, not least Yu-Ying Lu-Rikuhashi, later the 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”. She survives him. They had no children but like Mr and Mrs Chips, they liked to say, they “adopted” many students.
The MP and Defence Committee chairman Julian Lewis recalled Brown’s academic integrity and his generosity with his time – he would cheerfully spend 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 transcribed by his dedicated secretary, Jill Wells. Some would arrive by fax in the middle of the night.
He had a certain joie de vivre as well as a romantic spirit, enjoying barn dancing while being at his happiest when walking in bluebell woods. Such was the warmth of his personality that he once managed to talk his way through Libyan passport control without a visa, shortly after the shooting of WPC Yvonne Fletcher, and then talk himself back through because he had neglected to pick up his suitcase.
But Brown could also be refreshing in his honesty. Asked to assess a book written by a colleague, he declared it “very good”. When asked to expand on what he meant by this, he said:
“Good in the sense that it is not immune to criticism.”
Professor Neville Brown, polymath, was born on April 8, 1932. He died of pneumonia on May 28, 2018, aged 86
[For Julian's Tribute to Neville at his Funeral and Memorial Service, click here.]