Hanbury Brown was born in 1916 and graduated from the University of London in 1935. He spent the next decade on secret radar research at the Air Ministry research station at Bawdsey and the US Naval Research Lab in Washington. After working as an engineering consultant for two years, Hanbury Brown got a job at Manchester University, where Sir Bernard Lovell was starting to build the Jodrell Bank radio telescope. In 1956, with Richard Twiss, he invented the Hanbury Brown and Twiss interferometry technique - which went on to be widely used in astronomy and quantum optics.

In 1963 Hanbury Brown moved to Australia as professor of astronomy at Sydney University. He returned to the UK in the mid-1970s and published his autobiography - Boffin: A Personal Story of the Early Days of Radar, Radio Astronomy and Quantum Optics - in 1991.