On the Loss of a Giant

At the turn of the year I wrote about the death of Ed Kramer, one of the two key people in my life who turned me into the person I am as a scientist. I am deeply saddened to learn about the death of the other crucial individual who influenced the course of my career so substantially, Sir Sam Edwards. I have written previously a little about Sam but it seems timely to say a little more to celebrate his life, his wisdom and the impact he made on the field of soft matter he was so influential in creating (along with Pierre Gilles de Gennes).

My interactions with Sam were very different from those with Ed Kramer, in some ways more distant lacking the intensity of the two years of near-daily contact I had with Ed during my time as his postdoc. But Sam was there for much longer in my life, offering me his wisdom, his support and the benefit of his contacts over an extended period. But, aside from the purely professional, there was one absolutely vital statement he made to me that meant that I stayed in science and had the confidence to attempt to combine motherhood and a career. At the time that it became clear a lectureship was going to open up in polymer physics at the Cavendish I went to see him to discuss the situation. I pointed out that I wanted to start a family. I have never forgotten his response

‘Intelligent women should have families’

he said, making it clear that were I pregnant at interview he, for one, would not hold this against me (he was at the time Head of Department as well as Cavendish Professor). Remember this was a very long time ago when such attitudes could not be counted on; perhaps they still cannot.

At various points Sam was Chair of the Science Research Council (the single predecessor of EPSRC and BBSRC) and de facto Chief Scientific Advisor to the Ministry of Defence, though that probably wasn’t the job title at the time. Of course he was also head of the department of Physics in Cambridge, Cavendish Professor and a Pro Vice Chancellor, I think the first Cambridge ever had. He had a very strong belief in the importance, not just of physics, but of contributing to the community wholeheartedly to give back for what he had himself received. As a Welsh grammar school boy who won a scholarship to Cambridge immediately post war, he never forgot his roots and that his grandfather had been down the mines. He felt strongly he owed something to the country that had enabled him to progress from these roots to the highest levels in academia and he had a palpable sense of public service and duty.

If you look around the country at Sam’s protégées it is clear many of us imbibed the message that his life conveyed. Numerous of those who worked with him have gone on to leadership and public roles. Of those I know well I can think of 3 PVC’s/Deans (Richard Jones at Sheffield, Tom McLeish at Durham and Ken Evans at Exeter). That cannot be a coincidence. Mark Warner is running the Rutherford Schools’ Physics project  operating from the Cavendish; Robin Ball was Director of the Complexity Science CDT at Warwick. Two of us are currently serving on Royal Society Council (Mike Cates and myself), something he himself did, becoming a vice-president for a year. We all learnt from Sam that involvement with these larger spheres is both important and interesting, a message that many scientists don’t necessarily ever hear or receive.

But Sam never gave up his science. He had a reputation at the Ministry of Defence for being incredibly thorough at taking notes during meetings, but in practice he was often working on solutions to the latest problem that had caught his interest in his notebook. His interests were wide and, after his retirement he started up the whole new field of granular solids practically single-handedly although not without controversy. Many of us felt he was unlucky not to share the 1991 Nobel Prize with de Gennes, but the pair of them maintained a very close relationship until de Gennes untimely death, even if it was a relationship tinged with a hint of rivalry.

He was a non-executive director for various companies and always maintained close links with industry. That his name was widely celebrated at Unilever was a source of mixed pride: he was remembered for solving the equations for polymer viscosity that enabled the company to make a loo cleaner (Domestos I think) that hung around the bowl for longer and therefore disinfected more efficiently. He wasn’t sure that that was the product he really wanted to be associated with! His close links with industry had major importance for me in that he was able to pull all the relevant parties together to create a  linked grant from government and industry on the topic of colloids, at £3M a huge sum back in 1992 for the Cavendish to win. This was a grant I was then fingered to lead. His was the hard work that brought the grant to fruition, but I was one of the group who derived the benefit of scientific credit. This wasn’t the first time he had done so for me either: he had previously brought Food Physics to the Cavendish with another major grant which I then took the scientific (and experimental) lead on. My scientific reputation, if you like, derives from his vision. It was demanding to fulfil that vision but I had a strong financial platform on which to build.

As I write this, and having circulated the news of his death widely over email, the messages that come back to me all use words like affection and fondness in their remembrances, plus words recalling his wisdom and humanity. For instance, as Randal Richards wrote (and he was one who had never worked directly with Sam)

He will indeed be missed not just for his scientific insight but also for his warm humanity and an ability to treat all as equals be they fresh PhD students or Margaret Thatcher (who appointed him as chair of the Science Research Council!).

This attitude of equality is something I identified when I wrote about Sam some years ago, another key characteristic we should all bear in mind in our own behaviour.

Finally, there is no doubt that Sam was a bon viveur. He was an opera aficionado who frequented Glyndebourne, and a serious wine buff. His room in his college (Gonville and Caius) had a small (former bedroom) room off it in which he stored a huge cache of wine. This collection was legendary. I cannot comment on his knowledge of wine because I would never have been able to catch him out, although I did once see one of my junior colleagues do so. In fact, I didn’t always appreciate his taste in wines although over the years I managed to consume quite a lot of it. Sam’s solution to many situations – trying to win grants, win friends from industry or just to entertain visitors – was to host a good dinner.

Indeed one of his last pieces of advice to me was to hold dinners as a way of making progress in tricky negotiations, one I didn’t follow (at least until I became Master at Churchill, at which point I seem to be far more involved in formal dinners than at any point previously). At a dinner given by ICI in his honour around his 80th birthday in Caius, I realised – not for the first time – my ability to consume wine was not up to everyone else’s and I was all set to leave the red wine in my glass rather than drink it and slide under the table. At that point Sam held up his glass and said

‘at current prices I think this wine would fetch around £150 a bottle’

– he had of course laid it down long before when the price was more moderate. I looked at my glass, calculated that it contained £30 worth and felt obliged to drink it all! He had strong views about wine. Quotes abound. There was the hotel at which he picked up the wine list and remarked scornfully there wasn’t a bottle on it that was fit for more than being flushed down the toilet. And he said, more than once, that life was not long enough for the Gamay grape.

Of course, his shrewdness and his wisdom extended far beyond the wine cellar. For many years I would trip along to his office and pour out my latest conundrum, including long after he had retired. He would offer me the voice of experience and encourage me every step along the way. He had invested in me in the sense of procuring the grants he then handed over to me; he wanted to make sure I, and all the associated research, flourished and did all he could to ensure that.

RIP Sam. You will be missed by so many. A good friend, mentor and collaborator whose reach went far beyond those who actually formally worked with him. A ground-breaking theoretical physicist (read Stealing the Gold if you want to read his seminal papers and the impact they had on all around in the fields of spin glasses and soft matter) who set the field alight in the UK and far beyond.

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