Edward Arthur Milne: Stars in his eyes

Edward Arthur Milne
Edward Arthur Milne
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He was a boy from Hull who became a famed astrophysicist and influenced the outcome of the First World War. Lucy Oates reports on how EA Milne is finally being honoured.

It might not be as grand as a statue, but the plaque on the entrance to Hymers College in Hull is recognition nonetheless of the achievements of a former student who became a celebrated mathematician and astrophysicist.

Edward Arthur Milne is best known for developing the theory of kinematic relativity, which offered a plausible alternative to Einstein’s general theory. However, Arthur, as he was known, also made a significant contribution during the First World War, when he was part of a highly skilled group of mathematicians who developed a technique that enabled anti-aircraft and naval guns to accurately target Zeppelin bombers.

With the centenary of the Great War approaching, Dr Chris Coulson, of Marlborough Avenue in Hull, whose father was Arthur’s cousin, was determined to ensure that the achievements of his distant relative were recognised.

Chris, who spearheaded the campaign to have the commemorative plaque erected outside Arthur’s former school, said: “People have forgotten about Milne, but he was extremely important at the time. Those outside his field don’t realise the contribution he made in the First and Second World Wars. Up until then, it was really just luck whether the guns actually hit anything.”

Arthur Milne was born into poverty in 1896, but his parents, Sidney and Edith, believed that education was the key to a better life for their children. Sidney was head of St. Mary’s School in Salthouse Lane, Hull, and Edith taught at the city’s Osborne Street School, but, by law, had to give up work when she married. The couple’s three sons all received a good education, including extra tuition at home.

This paid off when Arthur won a scholarship into Hymers College, where the head teacher, Charles Gore, spotted his potential and later raised the money needed to secure him a scholarship to Trinity College at Cambridge University.

When war broke out in 1914, Arthur’s poor eyesight meant that he couldn’t enlist. Little did he realise that he’d be able to make a much greater contribution to the war effort using his mathematical skills. The request for his help came via Archibald Hill, a fellow in physiology at Trinity College, who went on to win a Nobel Prize in 1922. Hill was approached by Sir Horace Darwin, a son of Charles Darwin, who was an inventor and engineer involved in making equipment for the government’s munitions department. When Darwin expressed concern that Zeppelins were difficult to shoot down, Hill came up with the idea of positioning two mirrors a mile apart to determine their location. He seconded Arthur, who was only in his second year at university at the time, onto a team tasked with developing a solution to the problem.

Chris explained: “The mirrors had grids across them and men stationed beside them to record the location of the Zeppelins. Hill’s team had to devise the formulas needed to work out their exact position. This was hugely complex, and depended on wind speed, air density, temperature and humidity.

“Arthur would hang out of a small plane to take air temperature and pressure readings, and wind speeds. They used the information to produce tables for the gunners, which were so good that they were used in the First and Second World Wars. The mirrors were taken all over this country and France. Arthur helped set them up and showed people how to use them.”

Hill’s team later decamped to the Gunnery Training School at HMS Excellent in Portsmouth, where Arthur was made a lieutenant in the Royal Navy Reserve so that he could continue his work. They devised sound detection techniques to accurately locate the Zeppelins at night. As with the mirror system, the equipment they used was relatively simple and inexpensive – in this case, a series of trumpets – but they applied complex mathematical formulas to pinpoint the position of the planes.

Arthur’s wartime achievements led to him being made a Fellow at Cambridge and securing a post at the Solar Physics Observatory at the tender age of 23, despite the fact that he never completed his degree.

Chris explained: “Ballistics unleashed Arthur’s flair for taking a fresh angle to problems. He tumbled into astronomy via ballistics and meteorology. At Cambridge, while in his 20s, he wrote a series of papers that were fundamental to interpreting the spectra of stellar atmospheres, which were welcomed by observatories in Europe and America.”

This breakthrough cemented Arthur’s reputation and his career progressed at an astonishing rate. At the age of 30 he became a Fellow of the Royal Society, an exclusive fellowship of the world’s most eminent scientists, and at just 32 years of age he became Rouse Ball Professor at Oxford University. When asked what the best thing about Oxford was, Einstein is said to have replied “EA Milne”; a clear indication of the high esteem in which Arthur was held by his contemporaries.

Chris added: “Arthur came back to visit Hull and would wear his old Hymers scarf. He was very proud of the school and its role in getting him out of poverty.”

Although Arthur achieved great acclaim at a young age, his later years were blighted by Parkinson’s disease. His life and career were cut tragically short when, in 1950, he collapsed and died of a heart attack on his way to give a lecture. He was just 54 years old and had been widowed twice.

Meg Weston Smith, 80, of Hampstead, London, is one of Arthur’s two surviving children and has written a book about his achievements.

She revealed: “From 1940 to 1945, I was in America as an evacuee. I came home at the age of 12 and my father died when I was 17. He was very unwell during those five years and seemed distant. I never really knew him. By that time, he was a single parent to four children and I’m sure we’d have been a handful for anyone. Writing the book altered my perspective as I was able to find out more about this young, energetic person that I never knew. I was very fortunate to be able to speak to many of the people who knew him.”

Meg, who visited Hull recently for the unveiling of the plaque in her father’s memory, said: “He had everything against him; he was from a poor background and overcame such difficulties. I think that’s the message I’d like to convey - if you’re tough enough and strive enough, you can win through. My father did.”

Beating the Odds: The Life and Times 
of EA Milne by Meg Weston Smith was published earlier this year by the Imperial College Press.