(Basil) John Mason (1923-2015)

18 February 2015

Sir John Mason, a renowned meteorologist and former president of the IOP, died on 6 January 2015 at the age of 91.

John Mason

Born in Docking, Norfolk, on 18 August 1923, he attended Fakenham Grammar School and started at University College Nottingham, but his studies there were interrupted by the Second World War. He was commissioned into the RAF’s radar branch and served as a flight lieutenant, becoming chief instructor at the Fighter Command Radar School.

When the war ended he worked in telecommunications then resumed his studies at Nottingham, where he completed a University of London external degree and was awarded a first. He joined Imperial College in 1948 and was appointed lecturer in the postgraduate department of meteorology. There he formed a world-leading research group to study the physical processes of cloud formation and the release of precipitation, as well as the electrification of thunder storms.

He wrote the first monograph on The Physics of Clouds (1957), in which he presented a mathematical expression for the formation of clouds, known as the Mason Equation. Following a one-year visit as a research professor at the University of California, he was appointed the world’s first professor of cloud physics in 1961 and wrote a further publication, Clouds, Rain and Rainmaking, in 1962 which became the authoritative book on the subject.

In 1965 he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society and received the IOP’s Charles Chree Medal, and in that year he moved to the Meteorological Office as director-general, taking his research group with him to form a new branch of the Meteorological Office. He continued his research, especially on charge generation in thunderstorms, for which he received the Bakerian Lectureship of the Royal Society in 1971 and its Rumford Medal in 1972.

Sir John modernised and equipped the Meteorological Office to become a leading world centre for climate prediction and research, using the most advanced mathematical models and the most powerful computers. He replaced traditional empirical forecasting with objective numerical techniques, at first covering only western Europe and the north Atlantic, then gradually extending to cover the whole of the Earth by the time of his retirement in 1983. For these achievements he was made a Companion of the Bath in 1973 and knighted in 1979.

Following his retirement he became director of the Acid Rain Research Project, which involved some 300 scientists from 30 institutes affiliated to the Royal Society or the National Academies of Norway and Sweden. The results, conclusions and recommendations for remedial action were discussed in a week-long conference at the Royal Society that was attended by three prime ministers.

His publications included Acid Rain and its Effects on Inland Waters (1992) and, as editor, Highlights in Environmental Research – Professorial Inaugural Lectures at Imperial College (2000). He also wrote a memoir, The Meteorological Office (1965-83), which is available on the Royal Meteorological Society website.

He received the IOP’s Glazebrook Medal in 1974 and served as the Institute’s president in 1976-78. He was also vice-president and treasurer of the Royal Society (1976-86), receiving its Royal Medal in 1991, president of what was then the British Association for the Advancement of Science (1983-84), and president of the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST) in 1986-94 and its Chancellor (1994-96).

He was also a fellow and later an honorary member of the Royal Meteorological Society (RMS) and was RMS president (1968-70), received its Symons Gold Medal (1975), and endowed its Mason Gold Medal for outstanding contributions to the understanding of meteorological processes in 2006.

Sir John held honorary doctorates from 12 universities, was pro-chancellor of the University of Surrey (1980-85), and opened the Mason Centre for Environmental Flows at the University of Manchester in 2004.

In 1948 he married Doreen, with whom he had two sons, Nigel (a professor of physics at the Open University) and Barry (a civil servant in the Ministry of Transport).