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Roger F. Griffin (1935–2021)

Griffin made fundamental contributions to stellar spectroscopy, particularly in studies of binary stars. He also published the well-known “Photographic Atlas of the Spectrum of Arcturus” before such works could be produced in digital form.

Published onJan 10, 2022
Roger F. Griffin (1935–2021)

Griffin in 2007. Photo courtesy Richard Griffin.

Roger Francis Griffin died on Friday, February 12th, 2021.

The contributions which Roger Griffin made to stellar spectroscopy have been fundamental, far-reaching and long-lasting. Some of the innovations he introduced include the measurement of stellar radial velocities by cross-correlation, the detection of extrasolar planets through precise RV signals, and the evaluation of the effects of the instrumental profile on stellar spectra. Among his many other contributions to astronomy were the discovery of total eclipses in the 2nd-magnitude system γ Persei, and the widely circulated “Photometric Atlas of the Spectrum of Arcturus” [1].

It was Roger’s nature, and also his preference, to work alone rather than in a group, and in his senior years encroaching deafness caused him to shun conferences, so there were only limited opportunities for the younger generations to discuss his work with him. He adhered rigidly to his own standards, arguing the case repeatedly (though few listened) for good ventilation and an absence of internal heating in a dome in order to avoid the “dome seeing” that was bothering some of the new installations then being built, and campaigning tirelessly to fend off constructions by Cambridge University that threatened the observing conditions at the Cambridge Observatories. He also sought energetically to preserve correct forms of English whenever it was within his preserve to do so, and he tried earnestly to retain a youthful body, largely through long-distance (marathon) running and daily short cycle rides.

Early Research

Roger’s Ph.D. research commenced with a run-of-the-mill investigation of the relationships between critical features in late-type stellar spectra as measured by R. O. Redman’s “narrow-band” photometric method. Redman, then Director of the Observatories, was an observational astronomer. He was also a realist; the climate of Cambridge was far too variable for absolute photometry, so he designed a scheme for recording the ratios of photometric brightness in a selected spectral feature to that in a relatively featureless region nearby and compared the results to ratios measured similarly on standard stars. Roger had obediently commenced research on blue-region features (Fe I lines and the blue CN band) but recognized a number of shortcomings in the design and construction of the spectrometer. He spent the latter part of his thesis research rectifying them and building a replacement instrument.


Roger’s first move away from his alma mater was to Pasadena in 1961 as a Carnegie Fellow. A research topic was not assigned. However, the Third Cambridge (3C) Catalogue was hot off the press, and the possibility that some of the sources were small in size generated considerable interest among Cambridge astronomers, so for his initial project in Pasadena he took advantage of access to the Palomar 48-inch Schmidt and 200-inch telescopes. In an endeavor to contribute some precise source positions he selected 42 candidate fields and photographed them with the 48-inch, learning and mastering those techniques in very short order. He measured the plates manually at Caltech and reduced the data in a two-stage process by referring to a grid of faint background stars. His interest was piqued by finding that several of the radio sources appeared to be near compact-looking optical sources. He submitted the results for publication — including a full description of the methods and the associated errors — but the referees were (to put it mildly) unhappy with the work of someone with no training or background in astrometry. In the end the only way he could publish his work (“Positions of optical objects in the fields of 42 radio sources” [2]) was to strip it of all the “discussion” sections. The protracted exchanges with the journal delayed the publication and brought little encouragement to a keen early-career scientist. Significantly, all this took place just before the discovery of quasars as unique radio sources. Had his timing been critical, or plain unlucky?1

Photographic Stellar Spectroscopy

It was also during the spring of that year in Pasadena that Roger was introduced by Wal Sargent to the Mt. Wilson 100-inch telescope and its inviting capability for accurate high-dispersion spectroscopy. It took only a few experimental exposures for him to recognize a medium that had high potential and to which he believed he could contribute usefully; photography was a manual technique that yielded better results the harder one tried. The only known reference set of high-dispersion stellar spectra at the time that covered the entire optical region was the Utrecht Atlas [3]. While undoubtedly a very useful tool for stellar spectroscopy, it did not represent well the large population of Galactic stars that were G–K giants. Arcturus was then well placed for observing, and Roger was soon in his element accumulating ideally-exposed, fully-widened plates spanning the whole of its optical spectrum, while also grappling with the uncertain properties of the official intensity calibration system.

A Photometric Atlas of the Spectrum of Arcturus

The spectra which Roger acquired during 1961 were traced at Caltech using a microphotometer in conjunction with a magnetic-ink calibration curve, yielding output in direct-intensity units. An additional set of plates, taken two years later during another 100-inch observing run, formed a somewhat complementary set to back up the first set, and from them he selected the tracings that were finally published in the loose-leaf binder that constituted the “Photometric Atlas of the Spectrum of Arcturus” [1] a.k.a. “Arcturus Atlas”— a widely used reference for many years.

The “Procyon Atlas”

A parallel effort to photograph the visible region of the spectrum of the F-dwarf standard Procyon (α CMi) a few years later also became a popular product, though it differed importantly from the “Arcturus Atlas” by being digital. There was neither equipment nor computing technology for generating digital copies of the Arcturus plates, and the tracings that were published are not linear in wavelength, although the scale change with wavelength is very small at the high dispersions involved. Cambridge then acquired a Joyce–Loebl digitizing microphotometer, and it was used to digitize all the Procyon plates. For the “Procyon Atlas” it was possible to co-add duplicate spectra (except those containing telluric lines) in order to raise the signal-to-noise ratios of the output. Again, the spectra were published in loose-leaf format, but in a box that made handling the pages rather easier. It was published by Roger and Elizabeth Griffin in 1979; they mailed orders by carrying the wrapped books to a local post office by bicycle and paying for the postage in stamps. For selected orders a scheme was devised using the correct amount in red or green penny or halfpenny stamps and designing “α CMi” in a two-tone picture. One ingenious recipient mailed back a thank-you note inside a large envelope that similarly read “Ta!” in the same two-tone colored stamps.

Improving Photographic Procedures

Roger was thoroughly self-taught. He experimented with developing plates by brushing (rather than by rocking the developing bath), in a largely successful attempt to overcome Eberhard effects, and incorporated other minor changes to the accepted conventional methods, such as restricting the length of the arc spectra in order to avoid contaminating the stellar spectra where the arc lines were very strong. He worried a lot over the accuracy of the intensity calibration system, and he felt the method employed at Mt. Wilson contained serious biases. Some years later he designed (and had built by the Cambridge Observatories’ workshop) a greatly improved standalone calibration spectrograph. It had the advantage of being portable, and could be unscrewed into numerous nesting pieces that fitted into a regular daypack. He also investigated the development process, discovering that the standard times recommended for rinsing plates were far too short — his processed plates never showed the brown discoloration that indicated a failure to rinse out the chemicals adequately. Amidst all this he learned how to adjust and collimate the 100-inch coudé spectrograph to near-perfection, and it was widely remarked among the research staff in Pasadena that any observer who followed Roger in the observing schedule would be happy to find an instrument left “in perfect adjustment.” Fortunately for posterity, he was meticulous in the notes on the many measurements he made (in addition to the actual observations).

The Cambridge RV Spectrometer

Despite his having a good grasp of a wide range of astrophysical topics, instruments captured Roger’s interest the most, and his post-doctoral work saw him developing a novel technique of measuring stellar radial velocities by spectrum cross-correlation. This was the embodiment of an idea first proposed by Peter Fellgett (then a staff member at the Observatories when Roger was a graduate student) and discussed at some length but never taken further (Fellgett was not an instrumentalist).

In 1962, back in Cambridge after the interesting year in California, Roger began experimenting with the 36-inch spectrometer in order to convert it to perform spectrum cross-correlations. In principle, when a suitable glass or film template spectrum of a standard star was scanned slowly past the spectrum of a target star as imaged by the spectrograph, then when the two were in register the amount of light transmitted through the pair would be minimal, and — if the transmission were measured with a photomultiplier — it could be made to register as a “dip” on a moving chart. After months of experimentation Roger was able to record a rudimentary “dip” for a bright star, and he then set about optimizing the throughput. The chief element to optimize was the template (he called it the “diaphragm”): should it (a) be of high contrast, (b) include blended lines, or (c) occupy the full available length? Tests showed that the diaphragm needed to have infinite contrast (“soot and whitewash”) below a specified intensity level. Including blends was good, because the whole then more closely resembled a real stellar spectrum.

Roger created a physical diaphragm manually, which seems amazing in this age of all-digital instrumentation. The microphotometer which the Observatories owned was fitted with a moiré fringe that displayed the carriage positions. Having worked out the required readout positions of all the significant features to be included, he scanned an unexposed photographic plate slowly along the carriage of the microphotometer, turning on or off a lamp fitted at its focus such that a “bar” resembling each spectral feature was recorded on the plate. This was a tedious all-night occupation, but it was worth it. The remaining—and in fact the most effective—optimization was to increase the length of the diaphragm from its trial 4 cm to the full aperture of 15 cm, which involved another nocturnal episode with the microphotometer. It also entailed obtaining a large plano-convex lens to fit the full range of the optics correctly. As a manufactured one would be a special order and thus prohibitively expensive, Roger purchased a cuboidal block of perspex (lucite), turned it to the right shape on a lathe, and polished its surface with a household brass polish. It worked very well, expanding the image size by only 1 cm (which was trivial, since this was a Fabry lens).

The spectrograph thus optimized could give acceptable dips on 8th-magnitude stars. Redman, who had spent longer than he cared to remember measuring line positions on photographic spectra from the DAO’s 72-inch telescope, challenged Roger by offering a magnum of champagne if he (Roger) could measure fifty 9th-magnitude stars to a precision of 3 km/s in one night. Roger thrived on such challenges, and in short order he had tweaked the instrument further and was able to claim the prize on December 1, 1967. He then commenced a number of programs of stellar radial-velocity (RV) measurements that included an eclectic mix of objects with suspected binarity culled from the literature, as well as other objects proposed in more systematic studies. Each night included observations of at least one of four standard stars, 90 degrees apart in R.A., in order to establish the true zero point of his instrument and to quantify the expected errors. Roger had always been satisfied that his method was revolutionary. As he himself stated, accurately (but much later): “No one would think of going back to the old method nowadays.”

Roger published a full description of the RV spectrometer [4], expecting the papers describing his results would be welcomed. That, however, was not the case. As with his Carnegie efforts at astrometry, peer reviewers seemed not to appreciate that this new-fangled method could outdo so startlingly the traditional methods on which this upstart junior had not had to cut his teeth. Even when he determined orbits for some of the IAU “standard velocity” stars, the community remained unimpressed — except, happily, for Michel Mayor (Geneva, Switzerland), who visited for a month in 1971 in order to follow through the design so that his own team could build a more sophisticated one — the CORAVEL. Roger then adopted a tack that he had practiced in other quite different circumstances when persuasion had failed: to evolve a line of persistence that would win his arguments through “importunity2.” Thus was conceived the long-running series of “Photoelectric Radial Velocities” in Observatory Magazine, intending one new SB1 orbit per issue, either of stars already published but with inferior elements, or of objects whose binarity he had discovered. He used to joke that if the series were to stop, his wife would start receiving flowers of condolence3. When he reached Paper 100 he stepped up the rate of stars per paper in order to have a chance of keeping abreast of his store of good orbits. That continued until papers 263–5 (in 2019–20), when the series sadly came to an end, its author a victim of Alzheimer’s disease, accentuated by the isolation imposed by COVID-19 lockdown measures.

The Palomar RV Spectrometer

During a Mt. Wilson observing run in late 1970, Jim Gunn (then at Caltech) suggested to Roger that they design and build an RV spectrometer for the 200-inch coudé focus; Roger was to manage the hardware, Jim the software. Roger allowed himself just three months in the U.K. to design and oversee the construction of the instrument (coinciding by happenstance with the first three months of his firstborn’s life; “parental leave” was not in the cards in those days). In April, he carried the carefully packed instrument as hand-luggage on a non-stop 747 flight from London to Los Angeles. Two hours across the Atlantic, the plane received a message that there was a bomb on board, so it was obliged to turn back to Glasgow (Scotland) and make an emergency landing, offloading its passengers rapidly but keeping their luggage on board. The call proved to be a hoax, so Roger did not have to witness his precious spectrometer go up in flames. The story had a happy ending, because when he and Jim took the instrument to Palomar for their first observing night and assembled its two elements, it worked as intended the first time (and this was in the total absence of emails, or even postal communications owing to a protracted postal strike). The Palomar instrument [5] was superior to the Cambridge prototype in several important regards. Being managed by software was an enormous advantage. In addition, it included an option to isolate different parts of the diaphragm, in order to check for “Doppler mismatch.” The intended science program included star clusters, whose systemic velocities could differ significantly from one another (and from zero), so a means of testing that the instrument’s zero point was set correctly was therefore important. Roger designed 10 flaps that could open selected “windows” over the diaphragm. In keeping with his lifestyle, he deployed a child’s Meccano motors to move them; why go to anything unnecessarily sophisticated and expensive?

The observing program with the instrument focused on the Hyades cluster, resulting in a very thorough study of its membership, multiple systems, and distance modulus. The latter — an important scaling quantity in Galactic physics — was determined precisely to be 45.3 ± 2.3 pc [6], which strongly consolidated the then current astrometric solutions and confirmed the need to update the traditionally accepted value of ∼40 pc.

Instrumental Profile of a Spectrograph

Roger cared deeply about the fidelity of observations: their calibrations, reductions, accuracy, and precision. Efforts spent interpreting data could be wasted if the data were flawed. He was assiduous in his methods to derive the most representative zero points for his own RV observations, and was scornful of referees of his papers who suggested that those reaches of the discussions were unnecessarily long. He went to considerable length to investigate the instrumental profile of the Mt. Wilson 100-inch coudé spectrograph, taping a laser to the polar axis and making a series of exposures to measure the faintest wings as well as the central core of spectral lines. The observations were digitized and co-added. He provided a full description of the profile and numerous inescapable facts that it demonstrated in the “Introduction to the Atlas” [7]. It was particularly interesting that some scattering of energy from the central core into the wings arising from small errors in the ruling of the grating and other scattering agents caused a total loss of 5–10%. However, it was commonplace to utilize high points in an observed spectrum to define the “continuum,” thereby ignoring the fact that the continuum itself had been depressed and that a correction of 5–10% needed to be added to all equivalent widths measured on the spectra. Once again, rather little attention seems to have been paid to that overarching result.

His published description included examples that demonstrated the importance of this research. In them he applied a suitable “instrumental profile” to high-resolution (double-pass) solar spectra of molecular O2 bands, and successfully reproduced the observed telluric oxygen features in both the “Arcturus Atlas” and the “Liège Solar Atlas.” The three papers, published contiguously with the 1969 one cited above and occupying 43 pages, are thorough and definitive, and read (and in a sense were) more like a thesis than regular papers. But it is not certain whether his painstaking care garnered the attention it deserved.

Precise Stellar RVs

Roger’s contribution to this field was conceptual and did not involve special instrumentation. It emerged in his thinking as a result of work on the red spectra of Arcturus and Procyon. Both spectra inescapably bore (mostly weak) absorption features of water-vapor, and much stronger ones of telluric oxygen: the A-Band (head near λ 7593 Å), the B-Band (head near λ 6867 Å), and the α-Band (head near λ 6276 Å). Wavelength scales for the stellar spectra were routinely derived by solving the grating equation based on measurements of identified stellar lines. However, if telluric lines were used as the fiducial spectrum instead of stellar lines, by dint of their greater narrowness they would be less prone to measuring errors. Moreover, if the oxygen spectra were used as the wavelength fiducial, they would have travelled precisely the same path through the spectrograph as the stellar light. They therefore represented a near-perfect fiducial spectrum for RV measurements, as systematic errors arising from imperfect alignment of the laboratory and stellar light-paths were avoided and would yield much more accurate RVs. Those ingredients (only with a more controlled source for the internal fiducial wavelength scale) were what was required to be able to determine stellar RVs to a precision of 10 m/sec [8] — and the world is now able to achieve and improve on that goal. An iodine cell has replaced telluric lines as the fiducial scale, but it was Roger who first recognized the imperative of using an internal source, which opened up the new industry of stellar exoplanets.

Discovering the Total Eclipses of γ Per

The 2nd-magnitude composite-spectrum binary system γ Persei (V = 2.9) has been measured for RV variations for decades and studied astrometrically for nearly as long. However, its period of 14.4 years is long enough that it needs measurements that are more precise than those in the literature to determine its orbit with sufficient confidence. The photographic RV measurements made in the mid-20th Century were not precise enough, and although the astrometric orbit indicated that the orbit was tilted close to edge-on, the elements derived from the single-lined spectroscopic binary (SB1) solutions differed by several weeks with regard to the all-important dates of conjunction (when eclipses might occur). Roger’s SB1 orbit should have been sufficiently precise to decide the issue, but the lack of equally precise data from past orbital revolutions was a drawback. However, he was sufficiently convinced that an eclipse would occur in mid-September 1990 that he obtained morning twilight time to observe it with the Palomar 200-inch coudé spectrograph (the Mt. Wilson 100-inch then being closed). He had another observing run at Calar Alto Observatory in Spain during the first week of September, so with typical panache he duly observed in Spain until dawn on September 7th, then left abruptly to fly to Madrid en route to Los Angeles, carrying a box of unexposed plates kindly donated by Calar Alto, as Palomar no longer supported photographic work. Resurrecting the darkroom and coudé spectrograph for his project was mostly a hunt for parts that had “walked,” but he did get ready in time and observed the star in morning twilight for 15 nights — and it did eclipse. It was in totality for 8 days (∆V ∼ 0.3, ∆B ∼ 0.55, ∆U ∼ 0.9). It was a tremendous triumph! γ Per now ranks as the second brightest eclipsing system in the northern sky, the first being (coincidentally) β Per.

Other Astronomical Pursuits

Roger concerned himself with a number of other astronomical interests; he was not always and only occupied with stellar RVs. Since he worked alone, he had perforce to shoulder all the demands of observing, data reductions and data analysis, year in year out. That left little time to take on even related topics, though he always gave his frequent mid-week cross-country runs high priority. His broad and inquiring mind relished the kind of challenges that Brian Marsden also used to enjoy, such as calculating whether it was the northern or the southern side of a northern-hemisphere East–West wall that saw the more sunshine in mid-summer [9], or when the shortest twilights occurred [10]. He assiduously kept up with the literature and was quick to pounce on what he perceived as erroneous statements or results, such as demoting Albireo from its status as an astrometric double or claims that Arcturus was a double system. He pursued high standards and expected others to do likewise. Consequently, some of his published book reviews could be bitingly critical (e.g., [11] and [12]), though often softened with rather pointed humor.

He was a stickler for good English grammar, regarding the correct use of plural nouns as a hallmark of gentlemanly breeding (unfortunately he tended to not countenance women in his field at the same level, barring a few exceptions). Split infinitives made him squirm, while modern trends to tamper with the classical Oxford English language drew the half-sarcastic, half-despairing comment, “It seems that nowadays there’s no noun that cannot be ‘verbed’!”. Wholescale revisions of the language in the 1662 “Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer” were anathema, as was any change that appeared to him to be merely for change’s sake.

Lifelong Persistence

That same determination, coupled with resistance to change, was reflected in everything about him: his manner, routines, habits, outlook, physical attributes like style of dress, and psychological ones like opinions. It was as if he had painted an image of what he expected of himself, and simply stuck to it for life. That is seen readily in his science, and those were precisely the attributes required for following up long-period binaries, “long” implying not just many years but many decades. In his own words: “A while ago, lots of people observed ‘easy’ stars with large amplitudes and short periods, and they mopped them up. The long-period ones were too boring — but I quite like working on them. But then I’m not easily bored! I can watch them for a lifetime, and nobody can catch up...”. In so saying he was admitting his ambition to be competitive and to win, but he never allowed that desire to cause any shift in his standards. Roger was immensely industrious. His papers on SB orbits, whether in “The Observatory” or elsewhere, were thorough in the extreme, both in their histories and in the small details of orbit perturbations that could be responsible for modulations in the elements derived. Each analysis was accompanied by a full history gleaned from the literature (he frequently pointed out errors in the papers as he went), and was followed up with an assessment of the elements of the binary and their implications for the evolution of the system. His list of 540 publications in the ADS only tells half the story, because the great majority were single-author papers, and almost all were at least several pages long. A 171-page paper entitled “Photoelectric Radial Velocities, Paper XVIII: Spectroscopic Orbits for Another 52 Binaries in the Hyades Field” [13] is a masterpiece of energy, effort and attention to detail. For many years he wrote his drafts by hand, using pen-and-ink. He was particularly attached to a Parker-51 fountain pen that had been his father’s and was distraught when he finally wore out the nib and a minuscule change of habit was thus forced upon him.

Roger served on several U.K. Committees, and was President of the IAU’s former Commission 30 (Radial Velocities) from 1973–76. He was involved in designing a high-resolution spectrograph for the Anglo-Australian Telescope, but opted out when he found that his goal-posts were being moved. On a more parochial level, he sometimes offered extensive advice about the maintenance and repair of the Cambridge Observatories’ 36-inch telescope — the instrument which he used for RV measurements for so many years that it became almost de facto his — but there always seemed to be stronger voices or more pressing reasons why he was rarely heeded. On the other hand, he was considerably fortunate in being permitted to continue to benefit from the unchallenged use of it for a great many years, well beyond the University’s formal retirement age of 67. Still, elements of competition were never far below the surface; he was an editor of “The Observatory” for 22 years, a deliberate attempt to outlast other editors, but now overtaken by David Stickland’s length of service, while his series on binary star orbits easily overtook any other series of published papers.

Roger the Scientist

Roger was gifted with a near-encyclopedic memory and an alarming capacity for mental arithmetic: tools that served his science particularly well. Nevertheless, some critical link in the necessary chains of communication which were part of that science seemed inadequate. Each of his research projects was innovative in some significant way, and in almost every case his efforts to describe that significance in a publication met objections from journal referees, sometimes head-on. His writing style was dismissed as too wordy (which it was), but he reckoned that if Churchill could be as wordy as needed then it was not a fault. It is not clear what ruffled his critics, but he soldiered on, doing what he believed in, seemingly content to be in a minority of one but sometimes a little sore that what he knew to be quality work was so readily overlooked. He had become a personification of the old adage that “a prophet is not without honor save in his own country.” His determination to continue to follow long-period binaries (some had periods not far short of 100 years) was not shaken when his own RV spectrometer suffered from serious ageing problems and lacked skilled maintenance, obliging him to beg time on RV instruments elsewhere — chiefly on the Geneva CORAVEL in southeastern France, the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory’s spectrometer in Victoria, plus a few visits to the Geneva southern CORAVEL at the European Southern Observatory, until his own CORAVEL, dogged by communication issues for some years, was finally brought into full working order in 1999.

Lifelong Performances

To what extent did he bring any of this later dissatisfaction upon himself? It is instructive to take a look at the early influences in his life.

Roger had displayed significant interest in science from a young age. He had a fertile and inquiring mind, and the war-time blackout offered an amazingly fortuitous opportunity to observe the night sky to depths that no child would be able to do nowadays. Given the opportunity to leaf through “The Splendour of the Heavens” [14] at age seven, he decided thereupon to become an astronomer when he was old enough. He seemed fascinated by numbers and gathered data about almost anything — from rainfall to particulars of the stations of London’s metro system. He displayed his observations graphically, whilst also developing an ability to store and retain facts. He could, and did, size people up rather easily, and learned to retain a degree of control over adults by maintaining a perfectly straight face whatever unlikely comments he made. His father was heard to state more than once, in some exasperation, “I never can tell when that boy is speaking the truth.” That desire to tease remained a lifelong characteristic.

Born of relatively elderly parents, neither of whom had an academic background (though before her marriage his mother had taught at a well-established school for girls), his upbringing had been gentle but strict, shaped by wartime privations, Edwardian influences, and a strong adherence to the Christian faith. He proceeded effortlessly through local infant and junior schools, and won a scholarship to Caterham School, where again he shone, achieving top grades throughout and earning the school’s top academic award and, in 1954, winning a Major Open Scholarship to St. John’s College, Cambridge University. One school contemporary described him as “quick, bright and highly charged, always busy about something with intensity.” He was no great athlete then and preferred to avoid ball games because of considerable myopia (a legacy from scarlet fever when he was six). His gifts were unusual; he could walk the length of the school gym on his hands, throw a small object with unerring accuracy with his left hand (he was born ambidextrous), and play the hymns for school assemblies in ascending keys without needing music. During those years he built himself a 6-inch reflecting telescope, complete with illuminated dials and a drive whose gears he salvaged from war-surplus hardware. He also built an electrically-operated rain gauge that attracted interest as well as data when he took it to College. He continued to make professional-quality observations of variable stars, communicated them to the British Astronomical Association, and was allowed “day release” from school to attend the BAA’s monthly meetings in London.

At University he applied himself assiduously to course work, selecting Physics and Geology as main topics. He found or made time to construct a detailed topographical map of the geology of the Isle of Arran (Scotland), which was placed on display in the Earth Sciences department for many years, and he continued with his observations of variable stars. For the latter, he obtained permission to use one of the telescopes at the Cambridge Observatories. On fine nights he would climb out of College (all-night absence was not sanctioned in those years) and cycle there for as much observing as the weather allowed. He obtained prizes for Tripos performances in the first two years, and ended up with an upper-second degree, which qualified him for a research studentship at the Observatories under Professor R. O. Redman.

Somehow Roger never left those years behind. When elected to a Research Fellowship at College that entitled him to living quarters, he offered coffee frequently and gained the friendship of undergraduates whose standards chimed with his, particularly in attending Chapel services, going for runs, or circuit training at the University’s gym. It was during his year in California that he first encountered Yogi Bear on television, and because he was frequently heard imitating the character’s voice and expressions his colleagues there nicknamed him “Yogi,” an epithet which he undoubtedly enjoyed and which he retained all his life (even in semi-formal matters at College).

He took up long-distance running fairly seriously while a Research Fellow. One evening a friend asked him, in all innocence, whether he was intending to run the annual “Boundary Run” the next day, a non-competitive 26-mile route around the boundary of the City of Cambridge, mostly on soggy ploughed fields. Although no stranger to distance running by then he was no master at it, and was sufficiently ashamed of his performance that he determined to train regularly. Two years later he headed the field. From then on he went on runs whenever circumstances allowed, and when attending a conference he would take the opportunity to join like-minded others for quite long runs (Table Mountain in Cape Town was a tough but interesting challenge). In later years he turned to official marathons, running “London” eleven times until age 78, and coming in with times that placed him very high in the relevant age-group.

Roger the Indefatigable

How much of Roger’s productive career was molded by an unwillingness to change? When the achievements of the cross-correlation method were beginning to be duly appreciated, his Palomar work on cluster RVs and his high-resolution stellar spectroscopy were earning him a favorable reputation, he did receive a few accolades, such as a research fellowship from The Royal Society (U.K.), the Jackson-Gwilt Medal and Gift from the U.K. Royal Astronomical Society, and a Fellowship from his own Cambridge College of St. John’s. More to the point, he was offered a staff position at Gröningen University in the Netherlands, but this he turned down. A reason that he gave was that his mother was getting on in years and he preferred to stay in relatively close contact. A more likely reason was his unwillingness to uproot himself from his productive scientific routines and suffer the consequences of all that went with it. A psychoanalyst might well have identified that refusal as a kind of Faustian pact. The price he paid for foregoing the advantages of the move revealed itself in later years in occasional grumbles. When noting how many people’s work doesn’t get the appreciation it deserves during their own lifetimes, he commented, “Either nobody will support me because what I’m doing is so old hat, or nobody will support me because it hasn’t risen above their horizon yet.” True or not, it didn’t deter him from continuing unabated the mammoth tasks that he set himself in Cambridge. Figure 1 illustrates progress from a modest, though noble, attempt to involve himself with telescopes while a youngster, through an early-career sequence both at home and abroad, to the senior years in Cambridge, well entrenched in the pursuit of truly long-period systems which certainly garnered some admiration. The title of a talk he gave at IAU Symposium 285, “Spectroscopic Binaries: Towards the 100-Year Time Domain” [15] was no exaggeration.

Figure 1. A lifetime of observing. Top left: Roger with his home-built 6-inch, c. 1953 (Photo: source uncertain). Top center: Roger at the Cambridge 36-inch telescope, c. 1960 (photo credit: John Kilgour, St. John’s College, Cambridge, U.K.). Top right: Roger at the Palomar 48-inch Schmidt telescope, 1961 (self portrait). Bottom left: Roger looking up the polar axis of the Mt. Wilson 100-inch, 1961 (self portrait?). Bottom center: Roger at the Cambridge 36-inch, with the original RV spectrometer, c. 1991 (photo credit: uncertain). Bottom right: Roger at the Cambridge 36-inch, 2008 — the RV spectrometer donated to the (British) Science Museum in 1991, had been replaced by the Cambridge CORAVEL controls and a dedicated PC (photo credit: Dr. Robert Argyle, Institute of Astronomy, Cambridge, U.K.).

Having to fight for recognition whenever his active imagination urged him to leave the beaten track for realms where new solutions were needed had left its mark and colored his outlook permanently in a variety of ways. Certainly there was nothing wrong in being different or competitive, and he had already proved that he could perform well in endurance activities. He always maintained that astronomers who wished to observe at altitudes of ∼14,000 ft (such as Mauna Kea) need to arrive there slowly to acclimatize in order to bypass the ill effects of altitude sickness. To prove his point, he hiked on different occasions to the summit of Mauna Loa (the twin neighbor of Mauna Kea) and spent a comfortable week up there in complete isolation. He enjoyed hiking and hill walking, usually outpacing his companions on the Lake District Fells or on hilly U.S. National Parks trails4. He went on well-planned solo hikes along the Cascade Crest Trail, arranging depots of provisions in advance, and sometimes enduring inclement weather even in midsummer. On three occasions he cycled from Cambridge to Haute-Provence Observatory in southeastern France for observing runs with the Geneva CORAVEL. On one such occasion he was accompanied by his younger son, then aged 17. On another occasion he cycled with his elder son from Land’s End in southwestern England to John O’Groats in northern Scotland. Family holidays invariably included hiking and camping in fairly remote and sometimes rather inhospitable conditions, the core attraction being the unfamiliar challenges then faced. As Figure 2 (left) shows, Roger could stand for a long time in an inverted position. He was a phenomenal runner; in 1995 (Figure 2, center) he ran 66 laps of the local half-mile road formation, much to the admiration of the neighbors, in a sponsored charity effort that was reported in the Cambridge newspaper.

Figure 2. Left: Roger doing a handstand at a beach in Scotland, 1969 (photo credit: Elizabeth Griffin). Center: Roger finishing a sponsored run, 1995 (photo credit: Cambridge Evening News). Right: Roger at the summit of Mt. Meru, en route to Mt. Kilimanjaro, 2005 (photo credit: Rupert Griffin).

As a young adult Roger often undertook exploits without what he regarded as unnecessary preparations. One summer’s day, intending to catch a train to spend the weekend at home, he was struck by the beauty of the weather, and although his conveyance was an ancient sit-up-and-beg bicycle his small suitcase fitted into the handlebar basket so he decided on the spur of the moment to cycle all the way (a mere 75 miles). Similarly, when attending a “reading party” in the Lake District Fells with undergraduate friends, as packed lunches were being dispensed before a day of hiking Roger declared, “I will carry mine on the inside,” and proceeded to eat it there and then, thus avoiding the encumbrance of a bag. When he had observing time on the Mt. Wilson 100-inch telescope he often left the rest of his party (mainly family) to be taken up to the Observatory in the scheduled car, while he himself cycled — a fairly formidable ascent of over 4,000 ft in 20 miles. As a senior he seemed anxious to disregard his chronological age for as long as possible. When at age 83 he was asked if he went out for walks, he replied, “That is too slow; I prefer to run.” And when at age 70 he and his elder son hiked successfully up Mt. Kilimanjaro, he purposely brought Yogi Bear along too (Figure 2, right).

At a recent conference, “A Universe of Binaries,” held in the historic town of Telc in the Czech Republic, a two-page poster paper entitled, “Roger Griffin, Grandfather of Stellar Radial Velocities” summarized the improvements to research, specifically to binary stars and thence to astrophysics, which his inventions had brought about. Most of the attendees had heard of a CORAVEL but many had no idea who first developed the concept. It is high time that at least this little corner of astronomy’s history be straightened out.

Rest in peace, Roger. You proved your point!

Acknowledgments. I am indebted to our sons, Rupert and Richard, for their tireless efforts to worm out facts. The photos in Figures 1 and 2 were selected from the “Roger collection”, scanned and maintained by Richard Griffin.

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