John Hearnshaw is Emeritus Professor of Astronomy at the University of Canterbury.
Dr. William Tobin: astronomer; b July 28, 1953; from July 6, 2022
OBITUARY: William Tobin, who died in France aged 68, was a renowned Kiwi astronomer and, later in life, a vocal opponent of Brexit.
As a British expat who had not lived there since the early 1980s, he was frustrated and angry that he could not vote in the 2016 Brexit referendum or the UK general election. However, he discovered that he was nonetheless eligible to run for Parliament.
So in 2019 he showed up at Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s headquarters in Uxbridge and South Ruislip under the slogan “Don’t vote for Tobin, let Tobin vote!”
Five people ignored his pleas, giving him the lowest vote count of any candidate in the entire election. His press release after the count read: “The Prime Minister asked the people of Uxbridge and South Ruislip to vote for him, and 25,351 out of 48,157 did so. I asked them not to vote for me and 48,152 people answered my call. That’s a massive majority! This beautifully illustrates Tobin’s quirkiness.
He was born in Manchester and obtained his first degree in natural sciences at the University of Cambridge. There, he befriends a group of female medical students from Newnham College. His signature charm activity was punting on the River Cam with a gramophone on deck.
He remained in close contact with his Cambridge friends throughout his life and they regularly visited the family in Brittany after his retirement from the University of Canterbury.
After Cambridge, he did an M.Sc. and Ph.D. in observational astronomy at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, followed by a postdoctoral lecturer position at St Andrews (1979-82), and five years at the Laboratory of Space Astronomy and the Marseille Observatory. . It was in St Andrews in 1981 that he met his future French wife, Laurence.
He arrived at the University of Canterbury in April 1987, as a lecturer in astronomy. He had relatives all over New Zealand, after two Tobin brothers emigrated here in 1871.
His grandfather, Charles O’Hara Tobin, was born in New Zealand and served as chaplain to the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in Malta during World War I.
Tobin was also director of the Mount John Observatory and is known for his definitive biography of French astronomer Léon Foucault. He served the university for 19 years, until April 2006.
The core of Tobin’s life was his deep reverence and appetite for science, which guided his life. But on top of that his characteristics were a remarkable sense of humor and fun, great loyalty to many friends all over the world and always wanting to support the underdog in any controversy.
Some described him as slightly eccentric, but any eccentricity was always charming and endearing.
His academic interest was in the spectra and photometry of blue stars, and he made a special study of the beta star Pictoris while working at Mt John. He was able to confirm the observation of comets frequently colliding with the star.
He also studied eclipsing binary stars in the Magellanic Clouds and produced many light curves of these stars, in collaboration with his doctoral student Glenn Bayne.
Another interest was the history of astronomy, which led to an extensive study of the past transit of Venus expeditions, as well as the well-researched and widely acclaimed biography of Foucault, which was published by Cambridge University Press in 2004.
Tobin was a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand and a regular contributor to the society’s magazine with articles and book reviews.
He retired from Canterbury in 2007, in order to spend all his time with his family in Vannes, Brittany. Laurence had taken up a teaching position in Vannes a few years earlier. For several years, he had been going back and forth between France and New Zealand, but he found this way of life too painful.
Nonetheless, he maintained a close connection with New Zealand, returning there five times between 2008 and 2017. The first of these was accepting an Erskine Visiting Fellowship at the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Canterbury in 2008.
On other occasions he came to the Starlight Conference in Tekapo in 2012, the Mount John Observatory 50th Anniversary Conference in 2015 and he made other visits in 2016 and 2017, the last of between them being with Laurence and her Christchurch-born daughter Melanie. .
He had a wide circle of friends in New Zealand and excelled in repartee and friendly conversation. He loved good food and good wine, so he was always good company at dinner parties.
At a party for a dozen people in Christchurch in 2016, he recalled that he was a student at Stockport Grammar School near Manchester, one of England’s oldest and most renowned boys’ schools. But he noted that there was a sister school for girls next door and that one of the school rules prohibited sex with girls through the fence.
This story produced gasps and lots of hilarious laughs, but was a classic albeit slightly risque remark from Tobin. He certainly loved New Zealand and acquired dual British and Kiwi nationality.
His decision to stand for Parliament in 2019 was prompted by the fact that there were around 2 million disenfranchised British expats living abroad, many of them in mainland Europe, and around 2.2 million foreigners in the UK who were also unable to vote.
In the 2016 Brexit referendum, 17.4 million voted to leave and 16.1 million voted to stay. Tobin noted that the combined 4.2 million ineligible voters might well have yielded a very different outcome had they been allowed to vote.
Subsequently, the British government changed the electoral rules for expatriates, but too late for the Brexit referendum, and Tobin was never able to exercise his new voting rights, with the next British election not scheduled until in 2024.
Tobin was first diagnosed with cancer in 2012, but he never complained and carried on with his activities, going to conferences on all sorts of subjects at the University of Vannes and pursuing numerous projects.
These include a six-week lecture trip to China in 2018, trips to Italy, New Zealand and the United States, as well as running for Parliament, writing numerous articles and demonstrate against the war in Ukraine every Saturday morning in Vannes.
For all who knew William Tobin, we will greatly miss his academic excellence as an astronomer, his warm friendship, and his endearing wit, charm, and eccentricities.
With thanks to Laurence Tobin and Professor Alison Downard, University of Canterbury, for helpful information and helpful comments.