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Colin O. Hines, seen here in the department of geophysical sciences at the University of Chicago, 1964.

Special Collections Research Center / University of Chicago Library

When the Soviet Union grabbed the world’s attention in October, 1957, by launching Sputnik, Dr. Colin Hines was more attentive than most.

Every time Sputnik, the first artificial Earth satellite, flew over Ottawa, Dr. Hines and a team of pioneering space scientists tuned into the Soviet’s metal sphere as it zoomed by.

After three nearly sleepless days and nights of observations and calculations, the team at the federal Defence Research Board had the orbit. They dispatched a telegram to the World Data Center in Washington with the first valid determination of Sputnik’s orbit reported in the Western Hemisphere.

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It was the kind of intellectual puzzle Dr. Hines thrived on during his scientific career, though his much bigger achievement was envisioning and calculating invisible forces at work in the heavens. Dr. Hines died Sunday at 93.

He had such a knack for physics that he graduated at the top of his class at the University of Toronto in 1949. He landed a job at the Defence Research Board, which was ramping up studies on the region of the atmosphere known as the ionosphere, which can play havoc with radio communications and radar. He impressed his supervisors, who sent him to Cambridge University in England in 1951 with a federal scholarship to obtain his doctorate.

James Watson, Francis Crick and Rosalind Franklin were cracking DNA’s code at Cambridge at the time, and physicists were making leaps in understanding of cosmology and the atmosphere cloaking Earth. At one point during his stay at Cambridge, the confident Canadian, 24 years old at the time, corresponded with famed physicist Albert Einstein over interpretations of Einstein’s observations.

Returning to Canada after his studies on “motions in the ionosphere,” Dr. Hines joined the radio physics team at the Defence Research Telecommunications Establishment in Shirley’s Bay, near Ottawa.

He would go on to write dozens of scientific papers, of which “Internal atmospheric gravity waves at ionospheric heights” was perhaps the most important. It described how the waves propagate and behave in the atmosphere, and explained things such as strange wobbles seen in the trails of meteors streaking through the atmosphere toward Earth.

Atmospheric gravity waves occur when a uniform layer of air blows over a large obstacle, such as a mountain or an island. The waves propagate up through the atmosphere and as they reach thinner, higher air, their amplitude increases, which explains the wobbles in the meteor trails. The waves are vital for transferring energy and momentum between layers in the atmosphere and can manifest themselves high in the sky as washboard clouds. They can also create what scientists now call high-altitude “surf zones” and turbulence, now all too familiar to pilots and air travellers flying near and over mountain ranges.

“At the time it was quite a bombshell in the atmospheric community,” says Richard Peltier, a physics professor at University of Toronto, who studied under Dr. Hines and later worked with him at the university.

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Dr. Hines also used his slide rule and the laws of physics to advance knowledge of how Earth’s magnetosphere is buffeted and shaped by the solar wind.

“Fifty, sixty years ago his ideas were a really big deal, but now his work has been absorbed by the community and these ideas, we totally accept them without thinking where they came from,” says Prof. Peltier, who recently helped the University of Toronto create a physics scholarship to honour Dr. Hines.

David Tarasick, a senior research scientist and ozone authority at Environment and Climate Change Canada, also studied for his PhD with Dr. Hines. “Colin’s work on gravity waves was seminal, in that it opened whole new fields of inquiry, as upper atmospheric scientists realized how such small-scale waves affected their observations, and how ubiquitous they were,” Dr. Tarasick says.

Colin Oswald Hines was born in Toronto on June 4, 1927, the youngest of five brothers. His mother, Winnifred, stayed home to care for the family. His father, Oswald Hines, was a manager at Woods Manufacturing Co. and later a stockbroker.

Dr. Hines credited an elementary-school teacher for drawing him into science by showing him how refraction – and the laws of physics – makes sticks appear bent when submerged in water. The world of physics appealed because “it provided an answer to the way the universe works,” his daughter Karen Hines says.

Dr. Hines met Bernice Bishop at university and they married in 1947. Their first child, David, was born in 1955, followed by Michael in 1956. Margot Lynn was adopted as a 15-month-old in 1962, and Karen was born in 1963.

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Dr. Hines spent a decade working for the federal government, but he grew frustrated as the space race heated up in the early 1960s and launching satellites to probe the atmosphere became the high priority. Dr. Hines’s dream of creating an advanced physics institute was rejected by top federal bureaucrats – one of whom fell asleep in a meeting to discuss the proposal, a slight Dr. Hines noted 35 years later in a 1997 report on his work on the birth of the magnetosphere.

He had plenty of job offers and left to take a position at the University of Chicago in 1962 and to, as he put it, “lick my wounds.”

Dr. Hines said that some of his happiest times, professionally, were in Chicago. But the city proved too rough for his young family. They returned to Canada in 1967 after one of the children was bullied in a park near their home.

Colin became a physics professor at the University of Toronto, and Bernice, a physiologist, taught at the university for 25 years.

Growing up with scientists as parents meant “we never thought things like refraction, blood vessels and ozone-blue mountaintops were just magic,” Karen says. “That said, they never for a second suggested they weren’t magical.”

Her mother charmed the children by explaining how animal and human bodies function. And her father had ready explanations for colourful sunsets at the family cottage at Otty Lake, near Perth, Ont., and how waves on the water were connected to the ripples in the sky and clouds.

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Dr. Hines held both himself and his students to high standards. “He would say you should do it three different ways to make sure you get the same answer,” Dr. Tarasick recalls.

He was also adamant that no editor – or graduate student – should change the wording in his research papers. When challenged, “he would fax me a copy of the page in Fowler’s Modern English Usage that proved his point,” Dr. Tarasick says.

Dr. Hines would also take on scientific critics, in one case going so far as to publish a paper on their “fallacious mathematical procedures.”

He was a defender of basic research. In one letter to the editor in 1964, Dr. Hines lamented the brain drain, which saw many Canadian scientists enticed to work in the United States. In another letter in 1967, he pointed to “half-truths” used by a federal industry spokesman to justify axing a space research program that “could have become a unique contribution to studies of Canada’s natural environment.”

Karen says her father soured on the “politics” at the University of Toronto, and left academia in the late 1970s. He then turned to the stock market, and had some success with his “alternative approaches” until losing money in a downturn.

Dr. Hines then returned to space research as chief scientist at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico in mid-1980s. He and Bernice maintained a long-distance marriage, as she continued teaching at the University of Toronto.

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In retirement, Dr. Hines took to writing fiction and published a novel, Murder at Arecibo, based loosely on his work. He and Bernice, who had crisscrossed England and Scotland on a motorcycle and sidecar in the early 1950s, travelled widely and pursued their interests in theatre and music.

Bernice developed dementia, which eventually prompted the sale of their home and a move to a seniors residence. A few years later, in 2015, the couple relocated to Kensington Gardens, a long-term care home in Toronto, where they were often seen holding hands in the hallways, even after Bernice was in a wheelchair. She died in 2016.

Dr. Hines leaves his four children and two grandchildren. Until shortly before his death, Dr. Hines continued to play the stock market from his room in the nursing home surrounded by his books, his oil paintings and a framed letter from Albert Einstein.

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