Renowned radio astronomer and imaging pioneer is dead at 86

L.A. Cicero Ronald Bracewell with Von Eshleman

Ronald Bracewell, left, and Von Eshleman, emeriti professors in electrical engineering, examine the horn antennae that Bracewell used in 1969 to determine that the Sun is moving relative to the cosmic background radiation.

L.A. Cicero Ronald Bracewell

Ronald Bracewell

Ronald N. Bracewell, professor emeritus of electrical engineering whose work in magnetic resonance imaging and radio astronomy made him an internationally renowned scholar and a pillar among the technical sciences faculty at Stanford, died on Aug. 12 of heart failure at his home on campus. He was 86.

Bracewell's contributions to the international scientific community—indeed, to society at large—were as a mathematician, physicist and radio astronomer. Among his many honors were his affiliations as fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, fellow and life member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and membership across leading American, Australian and international astronomical societies alike.

For his fundamental contributions to medical imaging, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in 1992 honored Bracewell with foreign membership to its Institute of Medicine—the first Australian to achieve the distinction. Bracewell earned degrees in mathematics, physics and electrical engineering from the University of Sydney, and a doctorate in physics at Cambridge University.

Bracewell came to California in 1954 and joined the Stanford faculty in 1955. He held the Lewis M. Terman Professorship and taught classes until 1991. He co-wrote the first text on radio astronomy in 1955 and authored a handful of books, plus numerous articles and chapters, in his various fields of expertise. His works have been translated into Russian, German, Chinese, Japanese and Dutch.

In 1994, Bracewell received the IEEE's prestigious Heinrich Hertz Medal for his pioneering work in image reconstruction, as applied to radio astronomy and computer-assisted X-ray tomography. For his service in those areas of science, in 1998 Bracewell was named an officer of the Order of Australia—an appointment akin to British knighthood.

"Many of Ron's inventions have flourished in other fields of science and engineering," said Umran Inan, professor of electrical engineering at Stanford. "For example, CAT scans and, basically, the imaging of objects by scanning them through radio and electromagnetic methods are all things that originated with him."

During World War II, Bracewell designed and developed microwave radar equipment in the Radiophysics Laboratory of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Association, the national government body for scientific research in Australia.

In 1961, Bracewell constructed a large and complex radio telescope west of Stanford's main campus that consisted of 32 dishes and produced daily solar maps that NASA used during the first manned landing on the moon. The radio telescope, now dismantled, is regarded as the first of its kind to give output automatically in a printed form that could be disseminated worldwide by teleprinter.

"The number of different fields he has contributed to and written things about is huge," said Inan, whose awe of Bracewell upon first arriving at Stanford as a doctoral student grew into friendship over the last three decades. "The intensity of his contributions and the longevity and the breadth has surpassed anything that I have seen from anyone else in my 34-year career here."

And even in retirement, Inan said, Bracewell routinely worked in his office in the David Packard Electrical Engineering Building, met regularly for years with graduate students and, just two days before he died, enjoyed lunch with fellow emeriti faculty of the Space, Telecommunications and Radioscience Laboratory (STAR Lab)—a group within the School of Engineering that researches electromagnetic waves and remote sensing, communicating and signal processing.

"He was working hard all the time and wanting to do things," said Inan, current director of the STAR Lab. "He'd be active here in the corridors even at 86 years of age, and most recently he has been putting together a compilation of his works."

In addition to the seminal text, Radio Astronomy, which Bracewell co-wrote with J. L. Pawsey, Bracewell contributed chapters to dozens of other books and published 200-plus papers in more than 40 different scientific periodicals.

Imaging in astronomy led to participation in development of computer-assisted X-ray tomography, in which commercial scanners reconstruct images of areas inside the body using an algorithm developed by Bracewell. He served on the founding editorial board of the Journal for Computer-Assisted Tomography, to which he also contributed publications; gave regular graduate-level lectures on imaging; and wrote an important text on imaging in 1995.

Among colleagues at Stanford, Bracewell also was known for his insatiable appetite for knowledge in general, whether it was regarding local flora or foreign languages. The Stanford Alumni Association often called on Bracewell to lecture on topics related to space, Renaissance technology and scientific illiteracy; through the alumni association, Bracewell published a book titled The Galactic Club: Intelligent Life in Outer Space.

In 2005, the Stanford Historical Society debuted a 300-page book by Bracewell that catalogs the more than 350 species of trees on campus, titled Trees of Stanford and Environs. Over the years, Bracewell led many tree tours around campus and, in the late 1970s, taught an undergraduate seminar titled I Dig Trees.

Born in Sydney on July 22, 1921, Ronald Newbold Bracewell's wide scope of intellectual interests began with a broad education during his early years in Australia. Bracewell had said he first began studying trees in grade school and that, later in his youth, he was surrounded by them while tending hives for a beekeeper friend in the hills west of his hometown.

Antony Fraser-Smith, an emeritus faculty member of the STAR Lab, has an office close to Bracewell's and reminisced last week about how the ever-curious Aussie would relentlessly rib him about New Zealand, Fraser-Smith's homeland. In his office, Fraser-Smith held up an empty jar he keeps on the shelf of the dark brown, salty food paste known as Vegemite—ubiquitous in Australia and New Zealand but seldom found elsewhere.

"He would pass insulting comments about New Zealand in my presence, and I would do the same to him, and it was just wonderful," Fraser-Smith, a research professor emeritus of electrical engineering and geophysics, recalled with a laugh. "I'm going to miss that more than just about anything else."

Son Mark Bracewell said his father's fame as a radio astronomer steered him away from that profession completely. But then about five years ago, the freelance Internet programmer got into amateur astronomy and, last week, acknowledged he may just have been slow to warm up to the wonders of space.

"He just made me a sundial last week for my home," said Mark Bracewell, who lives in San Jose. "You couldn't be around him and be unaffected."

A memorial on campus will be planned in the weeks ahead and likely be held after the start of the upcoming academic year. Bracewell and his wife, Helen, lived on campus for the past 51 years.

In addition to his son and wife of 54 years, Bracewell is survived by a daughter, Wendy, who lives in England, and two grandchildren. Bracewell also has a brother named Mark, who lives in Melbourne, Australia.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be made either to Stanford's tree planting program (Stanford Grounds Services, Stanford, CA 94305; attention: Herb Fong) or to the Stanford Historical Society (P.O. Box 20028, Stanford, CA 94309).