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Laureation address – Professor Eric Priest FRSE FRS

Professor Eric Priest FRSE FRS
Honorary Degree of Doctor of Science

Laureation by Professor Clare Parnell
School of Mathematics & Statistics


Vice-Chancellor, it is my privilege to present for the Degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa, Professor Eric Ronald Priest.

Eric was born in Birmingham in 1943 and spent a happy childhood developing a keen interest in science and at school he was especially drawn to mathematics. He went on to study mathematics at Nottingham University. After graduating in 1965, he moved to Leeds to work on his PhD with TG Cowling FRS, an eminent British astronomer who was one of the founders of a new subject called magnetohydrodynamics. This unifies Maxwell’sequations of electromagnetism with the equations of fluid dynamics and is used to understand the subtle interaction between plasmas and magnetic fields throughout the cosmos, and particularly on the Sun. After only two years’ study for his PhD, Eric was appointed to a Lectureship in Applied Mathematics at the University of St Andrews.

During the 1960s, solar physicists around the world were struggling to explain the mechanism behind very powerful explosive solar flares. The key problem was how so much magnetic energy can be transferred into heat and acceleration of the Sun’s plasma in just a few minutes. The answer is “magnetic reconnection”, a process which allows magnetic field lines to reconfigure so the system can attain a lower energy state. It was Eric’s work unifying the contradictory results of others in this field that was the start of his illustrious career.

Eric founded and built up over many years the Solar Magnetohydrodynamic Theory group in St Andrews, which is now 30 strong and is one of the finest such groups in the world. He was promoted to Professor in 1983. His work over the last 45 years has led to major breakthroughs in understanding many diverse areas of solar physics, including coronal heating, sunspots, magnetic instabilities, magnetic structures and wave interactions. He has edited 15 books, written 3 research monographs, the latest due out early next year, and published more than 450 journal papers.

Eric has been awarded many prizes and received many accolades, most notably he was elected a member of the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters in 1994, awarded the Hale Prize of the American Astronomical Society in 2002, elected a Fellow of the Royal Society also in 2002, and presented with the Royal Astronomical Society’s Gold Medal in 2009. In recognition of such achievements, he was appointed to the James Gregory Chair of Mathematics at St Andrews in 1997 and the Bishop Wardlaw Chair in 2002.

He has balanced his prestigious academic work with many other activities. He enjoys spending time with his wife Clare and their four children. After 20 years of hill-walking, he has completed all of the Munros; the mountains in Scotland over 3,000ft. He also sings in two local choirs and is handy at bridge.

For Eric, being open-minded is crucial, both as a scientist and as a Christian. In particular, he feels that we should be open to the diverse insights of others and allow our ideas to change and evolve. With energy and enthusiasm he has encouraged several town-gown activities including the James Gregory Public Lecture Series on Science and Religion.

Vice-Chancellor, in recognition of his major contribution to solar physics, I invite you to confer on Professor Eric Ronald Priest the Degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa.

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