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Jones, Derek Hugh Powell, 1934-2020 (astronomer and mathematician)



Derek Hugh Powell Jones was born in Pinner, Middlesex in 1934. At the start of the second World War, age 6, he was evacuated to British Columbia, Canada, where hot summer nights spent sleeping on a porch helped instil a love for the stars and astronomy. On his return to England, age 11, he studied at the Royal Masonic School, Bushey, Hertfordshire. From 1953-1955 he served as a National Serviceman with the RAF, Scientific Advisor’s Branch. He read mathematics at Christ’s College, Cambridge, graduating as Senior Optime in 1958.

At the invitation of Dr Richard Wooley, Jones attended the RGO Summer School at Herstmonceux in 1956, 1957 and 1958. There he met fellow student Thelma Anne Gray, whom he later married and had five children with. After graduating from Cambridge, Jones joined the staff of the RGO as a scientific officer, initially working as part of the 28” Refractor team and later joining the 36” Yapp Reflector team.

In 1961, he was awarded a Harkness Fellowship by the Commonwealth Fund and spent 21 months in California observing red dwarf stars at the Mount Wilson Observatory. This work formed the basis for his PhD, taken at London University in 1965. From 1965-1969 he was seconded to the Radcliffe Observatory in Pretoria as Cape Observer. There he made regular spectroscopic observations to determine radial velocities as well as photometry of RR Lyrae variable stars. After four years in South Africa, he was invited to the Mount Stromlo Observatory near Canberra in Australia where from 1969 to 1972 he continued his work on RR Lyrae variables and made a number of investigations in stellar kinematics.

He returned to the RGO in 1972, working on the Isaac Newton Telescope and conducting research into galactic structure, cataclysmic variables and pulsars. Much of his time from 1981-1994 was focused on the construction and operation of the Isaac Newton Group of Telescopes in La Palma, where he was Project Scientist for the one-metre Jacobus Kapteyn Telescope and later Telescope Manager of the 2.5-metre Isaac Newton Telescope. He lived on La Palma from 1988 to 1991 and again from 1993 to 1994.

During the 1970s he was captain of both the RGO Hockey Club and Observatory Quiz Team. Derek was an active member of the RAS, editing their monthly notices from 1977-1982. He also edited the ‘Observatory Magazine’ from 1973-1977. From 1975-1990 he was Visiting Lecturer at the University of Sussex. Following his retirement from the RGO in 1994, he remained active in supporting amateur astronomical societies, was an Emeritus research staff member at the Institute of Astronomy Cambridge, and for 13 years taught an astronomy course at the University of the Third Age. He died in January 2020.