OBITUARY: International solar scientist Ian Elliott

Prof Ian Elliott
Prof Ian Elliott

Ian Elliott was one of the top astronomers on the island of Ireland.

Much of his career was spent studying our own sun, and the head of Armagh Observatory praised his contribution to science on both sides of the border.

Ian Elliott as Bangor Grammer rugby player in early 1950s

Ian Elliott as Bangor Grammer rugby player in early 1950s

Born on September 5, 1936, in Bangor, Co Down, he was the son of David Blair Elliott and of mother Annie (nee Morrow), both teachers.

He studied at Bangor Grammar School where he became a track athlete and rugby player – playing for the school’s First XV in the early 1950s.

He then transferred to Mountjoy School in Dublin where he prepared to enter Trinity College.

He succeeded in gaining entrance to the university, and completed a doctorate in solar science there in 1967.

Dr Ian Elliott

Dr Ian Elliott

He also lived in the USA for around a year-and-a-half during the early 1960s, where he worked as a research assistant at Sacramento Peak Observatory (based atop a roughly 9,000ft-high mountain in New Mexico).

He also later spent time at the Canary Islands’ Roque de los Muchachos Observatory.

Asked to describe his work his son Simon said: “How the sun works; the dynamics of it.

“Why it’s so powerful, and what kind of changes the sun goes through. It’s the astronomy of our nearest star.”

For the whole of his professional life until his retirement in 2001 he worked at Dunsink Observatory outside Dublin, which his son Simon described as ‘like the Republic’s equivalent of Armagh Observatory’.

As well as carrying out research, he was also an avid enthusiast for getting young people – and the public at large – interested in science.

He worked on popular art projects like the creation of a giant and astronomically-accurate sundial sculpture in Dublin’s Sandymount area, and got children to create a haystack version of Co Meath’s Newgrange prehistoric monument (which is aligned with the sun at the winter solstice).

At the time he retired he was assistant professor at the observatory, but he was also deeply involved in a string of other organisations.

He was a member of the Royal Dublin Society and served on its science committee and council for 25 years.

He had a leading role in the the Astronomical Science Group of Ireland (or ASGI, set up in 1974 to promote better cross-border contact among astronomers), and represented Ireland on the global stage during summits of the International Astronomical Union.

He was also a committed Anglican, and was heavily involved with Kilternan Parish Church, representing the congregation to the diocese.

Simon said he saw “no contradiction at all” between his hard scientific rationality and his faith; once, he had even taken to his church pulpit to deliver a lecture on astronomy.

Professor Mark Bailey, director of Armagh Observatory, said: “I knew Ian professionally and had a great respect for him, his ideas and his work; and indeed have many fond memories of times spent together, whether at scientific meetings or public outreach events.

“He was always cheerful and invariably willing to help whenever he could with any question no matter how small.”

He particularly noted his work with the ASGI, and said: “It’s a pleasure to have been able to count him as a friend and as a source of inspiration”.

Friend Charles Mollan, writing in the Irish Times, called him a “trailblazer for promoting science among the public”.

He said: “It’s perhaps characteristic of a modest man that he chose not to tell people of his cancer and anticipated death.”

He had fought what was believed to have been a successful battle against the disease, but it returned later and ultimately claimed his life on May 10. He was 78.

His funeral was at his parish church, and he was cremated and interred at the churchyard. He is survived by widow Dorothy (nee Ardill, whom he wed in 1966), sons Gordon, Simon and Andrew, two daughters-in-law and two grandchildren.