Chris R. Burger: My Dad Alewyn

Last updated 2021-09-30

Why this page?

I originally wrote most of this page in 2001. I had decided to blow my dad's trumpet. He'd never have done it himself, and I thought he deserved it.

Late in 2003, he suffered a stroke, and succumbed to pneumonia after two operations and three weeks in hospital. At his funeral, I heard several tributes from former colleagues and life-long friends. Some of them contributed details of my father's life of which I'd been unaware, that I've subsequently added to this page.

A Brief History of Alewyn P. Burger

Alewyn Burger was born in 1927. He had a distinguished academic career that included a PhD (cum laude) in 1955 from the Technische Hoogeschool in Delft, Holland. It is said that he was one of few graduates of the institution that was offered a professorship at graduation. He was a mathematician, with a special interest in meteorology and atmospheric modelling.

Solutions to some of the analytical problems of weather modelling that he worked on in the Fifties and Sixties were instrumental in the eventual successful implementation of weather forecasting algorithms on supercomputers. Perhaps the best synopsis of one of his contributions to atmospheric modelling comes from the 1990 publication of the American Meteorological Society (Boston MA) titled "The Atmosphere--A Challenge: The Science of Jule Gregory Charney", edited by Lindzen, Lorenz and Platzman. Chapter 10 (pp. 159 to 176) by Joseph Pedlosky deals with Charney's work on baroclinic instability. I include a few extracts:

[p.159]"Dynamics of long waves in a baroclinic westerly current" [1947] was Jule Charney's first major contribution to dynamic meteorology. It also marks the emergence of the theory of baroclinic instability to explain the existence of fluctuations in the atmospheric general circulation.

Nowadays the importance and centrality of the phenomenon of baroclinic instability is so ingrained in our basic understanding of both dynamic meteorology and physical oceanography, and reference to it so frequent in the current scientific literature, both theoretical and descriptive, that it is unnecessary to have to argue the general significance of Charney's early paper to our field... Near the end of his life he expressed the view that this first work was his most influential...

[p.171]My own guess is that initially Jule's paper had primarily a "cultural" influence. That is, people were aware of its existence and the main line of its arguments and could accept the fundamental thesis of the paper with regard to baroclinic instability [a term not used in the paper] as the source for extratropical cyclogenesis. It would be some time before others were prepared to go as deeply into the problem with, of course, the exception of Eady who was working along parallel and independent lines...

[p.172]Charney's theory seemed to imply stability at long waves and instability for short waves; Eady's model implied the reverse!... The first paper to attempt to clarify the issues was J S A Green's numerical calculation in 1960. This remarkable paper demonstrated quite clearly the existence of unstable modes in the region hitherto thought stable in Charney's paper. For some reason, the remarkable consequences of Green's results were not digested, so that when Burger took up the problem analytically, there remained considerable confusion about the original problem as formulated by Charney. Whereas Green did not emphasize the contradiction between his results and Jule's, Burger's paper focuses entirely on this question. By a beautiful but very indirect argument, Burger demonstrated that with the exception of a countable set of wavelengths, all wavelenghts are unstable. The curve Jule had found is, in fact, a marginal curve for only one mode of instability. Generally speaking, this mode also has the largest growth rates. The modes Burger and Green found at larger wavelengths, however, have growth rates of the same order (if smaller) as the mode Jule found and cannot be considered physically insignificant. The spatial structure of these modes is different and reaches maximum amplitude at higher altitudes. The original curve found by Jule is therefore a parameter boundary between the first two of an infinite number of separate modes of instability and not a threshold between stable and unstable regions as he believed.

It is a measure of the influence of Charney's original paper that there was at the time great difficulty in accepting Burger's very nonintuitive result. I believe most people accepted at face value as natural the requirement that the shear must exceed some critical, beta-dependent value. The physically simpler models of Sutcliffe and Phillips seemed to support this conclusion. Burger recalls that his paper was turned down by Tellus, and he resubmitted it to the Journal of the Atmospheric Sciences. Burger was invited to Woods Hole to lecture in the summer of 1961 with the intention of meeting Lin, Charney, and Kuo to discuss his manuscript. Later in the summer, Burger remembers meeting with that group and Norman Phillips and reviewing the content of the paper. He recalls that at the end, Jule made a summarizing statement that Burger refers to as "magnanimous", and asked Burger's permission to present his results at a forthcoming conference. I believe Jule's response to this development in the theory, which could only be considered as a statement, at least, of the incompleteness of his own work, shows two things. First, it demonstrates his fundamental intellectual integrity and honesty. Second, it also demonstrates the distance he had traveled since the publication of his thesis. His accomplishments were already many and various and could easily provide the psychological support anyone requires to accept as profound a criticism of one's work as Burger's was. To the end of his days, however, as reflected in his conversations with Platzman, Jule remained skeptical of the importance of the additional instabilities found by Burger.

Nevertheless, the fat was in the fire. Not long after Burger's article was published, Miles published a series of articles which considerably clarified the nature of the relationship between the various modes of Jule's original problem. Largely due to the efforts of Green, Burger, and Miles, the unanticipated, subtle nature of the original problem was rather completely revealed...

His continued work in this field resulted in around 40 papers, including a series of papers into the Nineties, on simplifying numerical weather models to take advantage of the dissimilarity of the vertical dimension of the atmosphere relative to the other two dimensions.

One of the basic constants of dynamic meteorology, the Burger number (B or Bu) was named for him. In the first volume of the Geophysics Reviews in 1963, Norman Phillips of MIT presents a review of geostropic motion in the atmosphere and oceans, that includes some pertinent comments:

[p.127]Burger (1958) was the first to recognise the existence of these two types of geostrophic motion on the earth...

[p.162]Burger's analysis of the difference between type 1 and type 2 motions explained the difficulty..., when referring to the failure of previous models to explain atmospheric motions on a planetary scale.

While his research was always his passion, he assumed a number of administrative responsibilities throughout his career. He spent most of his working life with the CSIR (South Africa's Council for Scientific and Industrial Research). He was the founding director of its National Research Institute for Mathematical Sciences from 1961 to 1973. He became one of the CSIR's Vice Presidents in 1973, responsible for several research institutes and for the CSIR's budget to fund basic research at South African universities. It was this responsibility that lead to his next assignment in 1977: Becoming the Scientific Advisor to the then Prime Minister, John Vorster. In this capacity, he oversaw the nation's research budget, including support of organisations such as the CSIR and the various universities. He retired from this position in 1981 under PW Botha, and pursued his research activities as a part-time consultant. The day before his stroke was also his last day at work.

Apart from his work in dynamic meteorology, he also made a major contribution to the development of Operations Research in South Africa. The Operations Research Society of South Africa (ORSSA) carries a history of OR in South Africa. The article, written by some of the country's leading lights in OR, relates how Gerhard Geldenhuys of Stellenbosch University was invited to report on the potential applications of OR in South Africa, and to present a series of lectures in Pretoria. This work provided many researchers with their first exposure to the subject. This core group went on to establish the discipline at half a dozen universities and many of the country's largest companies. Some of the applications mentioned include mail and maize distribution, the steel and insurance industries and eventually even the nuclear industry. The piece concludes with the statement: The role that the CSIR played in the early days of OR in South Africa, and the positive effect of the support that Dr A P Burger provided to OR, can hardly be overstated. On the one hand, NRIMS was at the leading edge of interesting applications for OR. On the other, appointments through which OR was promoted as academic subject and applicable discipline were made from the ranks of NRIMS at various South African universities and industries.

He was a competitive athlete in his youth, specialising in middle distance running and amateur boxing. He also played the piano, often treating the children to a recital of some Paderewski on a Sunday afternoon. He could read most of the major European languages, and amazed me in 1991 by conducting an ostensibly fluent Swedish conversation with a Finnish visitor, more than 40 years after having completed his post-doctoral studies in Sweden. His language abilities went far beyond just speaking them. He edited and translated several dozen Christian books, and published a local newspaper and a Christian magazine for several years. In his seventies, he passed the examinations to become an accredited language worker.

He was a fellow of the Royal Society of South Africa (1981) and the SA Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns (1968), a winner of the Academy's Havenga Prize for Mathematical Sciences (1973), a founding fellow of the Academy of Science of South Africa (1996) and an Honorary Professor of Applied Mathematics at the University of Stellenbosch (1979). He also served as Chairman of the SA Mathematical Society (1961 to '63 and 1973 to '75), President of the Joint Council of Scientific Societies (1972 to '73) and the SA Society for Atmospheric Sciences (1989 to '91 and 1995 to '97) and Council member of the SA Council for Natural Scientists (1988 to '91).

During the last year of his life, he was invited to submit his CV for a new Who's Who publication titled "The 2000 Greatest Intellectuals of the Twentieth Century".

The Family Man

My strongest impressions of him in my early childhood were not of a working dad. I remember mainly how my dad never complained that he was busy, or had too much to do. Evenings were spent with the family. However, when everyone had gone to bed, he would spend hours working on his job and his research. I do not recall him losing his temper once. I guess I thought at the time that's just how dads are, but the pressures of adult life have driven home the fact that his way of doing things certainly was not the way of least resistance.

The Burgers had six children, of whom five survived into adulthood. The children are slow breeders, with the first grandchild only arriving in 1994.

The eldest daughter, Yolande, and her husband Dave are both civil engineers. Yolande works in Pretoria, while Dave oversees road construction projects in north-east Africa and west Asia. They have two boys, Michael and Daniel, both well on the way to becoming engineers themselves.

The second, Ingrid, is a Christian missionary at Kwa Sizabantu, not far from Durban in South Africa's KwaZulu-Natal Province. She is a phychologist by training.

The third, Marleen, is a businesswoman in Cape Town. She manages projects in the computer industry and does interior decorating. Her husband Ben is an accountant who runs a recruitment agency and maintains business interests in both Cape Town and Vancouver, Canada. They have two children, Dylan and Gina, both young professionals.

I am the only son, and still live near Pretoria, relatively close to where I grew up. I joined the started working for the CSIR, the same organisation that my father worked for through most of his career, in 2003. I am an electronic engineer, working with radio frequency management, mobile networks and unmanned aircraft. I previously worked in information security, intelligent transport systems and Artificial Intelligence (AI) applications. I fly part-time as a professional pilot, and ran a small flying school for more than a decade. I have a daughter, Lisa, who lives in California.

The youngest daughter is Linda, who lives on the slopes of Table Mountain in Cape Town with her husband Eddie. Linda is a computer scientist who manages R&D activities for a supplier of telecommunications equipment. They have two daughters, Mia and Kayla. Both are embarking on university studies.

While Alewyn continued to pursue his meteorological research until his death in his late seventies, he was not only concerned with his field of study. He was an active practicing Christian. At his funeral, Dr Louw Alberts, a life-long friend and well-known academic and senior civil servant in South Africa, mentioned that Alewyn had been the only director-general in the civil service who routinely opened meetings in prayer. He summarised Alewyn as "a man in whom there was no guile".

For as long as I can remember, my parents were involved in a regular Sunday Bible study group. My dad always assumed responsibility in the Christian milieu, and continued to do so to his death.

He was involved with the Institute of World Concerns, a UK-based Christian charity for which he was southern African director. His role was one of social research, to ensure that contributions from the Institute were used to greatest effect. In this capacity, he was one of the first individuals to organise a conference on the subject of AIDS. During the mid-Eighties, few realised the extent of the problem, and he brought together role players from government, the community and the medical fraternity to formulate strategies to deal with the pandemic. With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that his concern was not misplaced, and government would have done well to heed the timeous call.

Thinking back, my overriding impression is not one of a hot-shot academic or a brilliant career man. While it is true that he had impressive abilities and achievements in a wide range of fields, his intellect was not his most striking feature. He had a wonderful sense of humour, and had a supreme sense of priority and balance. He truly had time for the little things in life.

This piece is being completed just a few weeks after his death. The sense of loss has not passed, and I still occasionally find myself absent-mindedly reaching for the phone to share something with him, only to replace the handset with a sigh. However, my most intense feeling is not one of grief. It is one of gratitude, for the privilege of having had a father and mentor who truly submitted himself to his Maker. He made the most of his 76 years on earth. It was a privilege to have been able to spend almost four decades with him.

Soli Deo Gloria!

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