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Bailey, Victor Albert (1895–1964)

by R. W. Home

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

Victor Albert Bailey (1895-1964), physicist, was born on 18 December 1895 at Alexandria, Egypt, eldest of four surviving children of William Henry Bailey, a British Army engineer, and his wife Suzana, née Lazarus, an expatriate Romanian linguist. After William's death, Victor was raised by Suzana, chiefly in Egypt, and became fluent in French, Italian and Arabic. From the age of 12 he was educated on scholarships at a French school in Beirut and at King Edward VI School, Southampton, England. He won the latter's chess and sports championships before going up in 1913 to The Queen's College, Oxford (B.A., 1920; D.Phil., 1923). He read mathematics for a year, then switched to engineering. Following the outbreak of war, he was assigned to the Birmingham Small Arms Co. and in June 1918 was drafted into the Signals Corps, Royal Engineers, but poor eyesight kept him in England.

Returning to Oxford, he graduated with first-class honours and worked as a research student and demonstrator in the electrical laboratory under J. S. (later Sir John) Townsend. Bailey immersed himself in studying the conduction of electricity in gases. On completing his doctorate he was appointed associate-professor of physics at the University of Sydney in 1923. The department there was small and lacked a coherent research programme, but Bailey was able to continue investigating the drift and diffusion of electrons, and thus to provide an opportunity for some advanced students to gain experience in research. On 31 August 1934 at the district registrar's office, North Sydney, he married Joyce Hewitt, a 23-year-old pianist from New Zealand.

In 1934 Bailey and D. F. Martyn published an influential analysis of the 'Luxembourg effect', the modulation of a passing radio signal by an intervening powerful source, first noted by an observer in Holland as interference from Radio-Luxembourg on a signal received from Switzerland. The analysis relied heavily on Bailey's familiarity with electron behaviour since it depended on the novel idea that the mean velocity of the electrons in a region of the ionosphere, and hence the ionosphere's absorbing power in that region, could be significantly affected by a powerful radio signal passing through it. The theory quickly won wide acceptance, although Bailey later modified it when he correctly predicted that 'gyro-magnetic' resonance would occur as a result of free electrons at the point of interference of the two waves rotating in the Earth's magnetic field. On this basis, he proposed that radio signals might be used to generate artificial aurorae in the upper atmosphere for experimental purposes!

Bailey had earlier collaborated with the entomologist A. J. Nicholson in developing, in mathematical form, interesting ideas on the balance of interacting populations of host and parasite species; their work generated a series of papers that influenced the field of population statistics. Bailey delighted in mathematical manipulation and also published on such topics as the graphical solution of differential equations and the mental multiplication of large numbers.

Promoted professor (of experimental physics) in 1936, Bailey set up intensive training courses for the Australian armed services in the new, secret techniques of radar during World War II. His heavy workload probably contributed to his persistent heart problems which led him to decline to run the school of physics when Professor O. U. Vonwiller retired in 1946. Bailey unsuccessfully applied in 1949 for Vonwiller's chair which was not filled until Harry Messel was appointed in 1952. Next year Bailey became research professor.

In the postwar period he extended his investigation of the gyro-interaction phenomenon and of wave propagation in ionized media, steadily including in the analysis more of the many variables involved. Bailey was widely recognized as a leading authority who achieved results in what has come to be known as 'plasma physics'. He was elected a fellow of the Australian Academy of Science in 1955. After retiring from the university in 1960, he enthusiastically advocated the counter-intuitive idea that the Sun carries a net electric charge. This idea led him to make predictions about the interplanetary magnetic field, but the notion has never been widely accepted.

Bailey's tolerance in matters of religion aroused the ire of many bigots. A likeable eccentric who deliberately flouted conventions for which he could see no justification, he inspired students with his ebullient enthusiasm for physics, which gave rise to many stimulating if sometimes wild ideas. En route to take up a visiting professorship at the Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C., he died on 7 December 1964 at Geneva, Switzerland; his wife survived him, as did their two sons and two daughters who all became scientists.

Select Bibliography

  • R. W. Home, Physics in Australia to 1945 (Melb, 1990)
  • Australian Journal of Science, 27, 1964-65, p 227
  • Nature (London), 205, 9 Jan 1965, p 128
  • Australian Academy of Science Yearbook, 1967, p 45
  • Historical Records of Australian Science, 7, pt 2, 1988, p 179
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 12 June 1949
  • Times (London), 24 Dec 1964
  • Bailey papers and Physics Department files (University of Sydney Archives).

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Citation details

R. W. Home, 'Bailey, Victor Albert (1895–1964)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bailey-victor-albert-9405/text16531, published in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 31 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

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