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Dick Sillitto.    In Memoriam.
29 April 2005.

It is an honour for me as well as a sad task to be asked to say a few -I fear inadequate- words about Dick, a friend for almost half a century.

We came to Edinburgh in the Autumn of 1957, the year of the first Sputnik. Dick and Winifred were among the very first people we newcomers got to know. We were neighbours in more than one sense -academically in the university, because my husband Hermann had been appointed Professor of Astronomy - and Astronomy is a near relative of Physics; and also at home, as we lived at the Royal Observatory almost within stone’s throw of the Sillittos’ famous upside-down house on Blackford Hill where they moved a few years later.

One of our first social functions at the University was the Annual Physics Dinner, organised, I think, by the senior students, and attended by staff and spouses. We all sat at one long table, with Professor Feather in the place of honour. I wonder if they still have these dinners - they would need a lot more than one table to accommodate the same group today. And so, we were kindly received into the academic community where Dick, though still a very young man, was an old hand, a lecturer in Physics who had links with the Department of Astronomy. And so, also, began almost fifty years of friendship, in and out of science.

Winifred and I were young home-based mothers in the early days, and we soon got to know each other. I well remember climbing up the flight of steps to their spectacular eerie for a cup of coffee, or to collect Winifred in the evening to go to our Gaelic classes in the extra mural department of the university. It was some time before I discovered that Winifred was taught Physics in Belfast by the same professor who examined me in Dublin.

Meantime the astronomers on top of the Hill were looking outwards into the new world of space and computers. Dick was one of those who was particularly sympathetic with this renaissance and took an active interest in it. He faithfully attended the observatory colloquia which were set up to bring in outside experts and inspirers. His participation, I know, was greatly appreciated, and continued throughout our time, and indeed to the end of his own university years.In a lighter mood, I remember also some happy social events at the Observatory in which he and Winifred joined as part of our astronomical family.

His son has told something of Dick’s long and distinguished career in Physics. I would like to add a word about his connection with our Department. He was involved on the teaching side through an Astronomy course in the Physics degree, started as early as 1960 when MichaelSmyth, who is one of Dick’s oldest friends, became the university’s first lecturer in astronomy.

We of the older generation talk about the Physics Department. It is now known as the Physics and Astronomy Department, an amalgamation where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and one of Britain’smost prestigious centres of research. That union took place after Dick’s time at the university. But it was no sudden take-over. The two Departments were integrated academically for more than twenty years through a combined degree in physics and astronomy, called Astrophysics. Again, Dick was closely involved on the Physics side of the syllabus - which included his own almost legendary course of lectures on Quantum Mechanics. A whole generation of Astrophysics students took that famous course. One of them said to me recently that having listened to Dick Sillitto on Quantum Mechanics, he has been at it ever since: his lectures were rigorous and erudite, but wonderfully illuminating. As a teacher of undergraduates Dick had the reputation of being patient and approachable. I heard the same from many of thestudents who came our way. They were in awe of his learning, but not of him. He was a perfectionist but no pedant. Every student whom he ever taught would give the same verdict.

After Dick’s eightieth birthday two years ago, his son had the lovely idea of compiling the greetings and reminiscences which came from colleagues and former students all over the world. What is most striking when you read this Birthday Book is how Dick’s gift of communication emerges as the recurring theme of all those who passed through his hands at university: they use words like "lucid", "bright" and "beautifully clear" in reference to his teaching. What Dick imparted went beyond physics. One of his former students, Howard Firth, Director of the Orkney Science festival, wrote in his tribute: "Of all the skills that we need to draw upon in life and in science, clarity of thought is up there at the very top, and Dick Sillitto’s teaching simply glows with it". Another alluded to "the beauty of Optics".Optics was the field in which Dick was internationally renowned; but to him it was much more than a utilitarian science; it was something truly beautiful, like art or music. It is not surprising that Dick loved these, too. It was all of a piece.

To me, Dick was the embodiment of a scholar. He was deeply interested in learning, and in passing on the fruits of his study and reflection to the next generation - one of the ancient ideals of a university. His academic prestige brought him into the spheres of some great scientists, quite a few of whom he himself had launched; and in thecourse of a long career he had dealings with many important people in the university, at the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and in the Institute of Physics. But it made no difference. Dick was always the same Dick -without a trace of vanity or self-importance, kind, polite, helpful.The passing years found him still the same. I think that is what made him such a very special and lasting friend to so many of us.

And he had many friends, including his numerous university colleagues. But I think he was at his best among just a few friends at a time. He was a thinker, not a great talker, certainly not a chatterer, and what he said was worth listening to. His and Winifred’s home was an oasis of serenity. They loved books and beautiful things, paintings and ceramics. I have a particularly happy memory of dinner in the Blackford Hill house on a summer evening, looking out over the city of Edinburgh, and talking about some of the great masters of Dick’s earlier days -Whittaker, Born, Schrodinger - because Dick was immensely knowledgeable not only on the latest developments in physics, but on its history and its roots. When his teaching life came to a close, our venerable university conferred on him the rare title of Emeritus. It was especially fitting, because Dick could never really retire, or give up the pursuit of his beloved Physics. He was and remained always the scholar. I had the joy of visiting him just last summer in their beautiful home here in Dunbar, sadly for the last time.

It was a privilege to have known him.

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