Dick's life with physics, page 1


Richard M. Sillitto, BSc, FInstP, FRSE, FellowOSA

In his last year at Dumfries Academy 17-year-old Dick Sillitto was enthralled by a course on simple harmonic motion, given by an enthusiastic maths teacher.   Then, as an undergraduate in the Natural Philosophy department of Edinburgh University, he found the same excitement in the mathematical physics lectures of Tait Professor Max Born.   Born's exams would not be approved nowadays; "you always learnt something new from them" Dick would recall in later years.  The pass mark could be lower than 30%, and only one of his fellow students, Ian (J W S) Cassells, ever achieved the first-class 90s.  Dick's talents lay rather in the physics of Professor Barkla's department, and particularly in the Optics laboratory of 'daddy Milne'.   In those days both departments were housed in the 1853 hospital building between Drummond Street and High School Yards.

In 1943, at the end of 3 years' study, Dick was offered a job by Barkla but his call-up for war service could not be delayed.   Directed to the Admiralty Signals Establishment in Lythe Hill House, Haslemere, he worked in a team designing and testing infra-red signalling devices.   His immediate boss was Donald McGill who later had a major influence on the way physics was taught in Scotland's schools.   It was a stimulating environment, involving contact with many excellent scientists, engineers and mathematicians, naval officers and industrial representatives.   A memorable few weeks occurred for Dick when he worked in Witley with Gold, Bondi and Hoyle on a project using optical techniques for detecting targets in noisy radar displays (a visit to Gold's --- or was it Bondi's? --- flat in Lubetkin's Highpoint in London may be to blame for Dick's later interest in modern architecture).   Another mind-blowing experience was reading the collected works of Augustin Fresnel --- and finding that all the clever optics which he and his colleague Eric Stanley had discovered, had already been thought of by Fresnel.

Dick's skills impressed the industrialists he met, and in the summer of 1946 he was persuaded to consider employment with optical instrument and glass manufacturers, Chance Bros of Birmingham.   However, when it was discovered that he was only 23 years old, he was told that he was not eligible for the salary that went with the job in mind.   Instead, he decided to return to Edinburgh to convert his unclassified War Regulations Honours degree to a classified one.   But Norman Feather, Barkla's successor as Professor of Natural Philosophy, suggested that he start straight in on a PhD, and this he did in October 1946.  The proposed topic was a search for the Kapitza-Dirac effect, a predicted diffraction of free electrons by a spatially periodic light field.  It soon became clear that the available technology was still inadequate, and the project was abandoned.

During this year Dick supplemented his income by teaching an evening class in the Heriot Watt College, in Chambers Street, where W H J Childs was Professor of Physics.   He also attended an evening class in Workshop Practice there; as a result he was one of the few academics who were allowed to use the machines in the Edinburgh University physics workshop.  Between whiles he was thinking deeply about the fundamentals of quantum mechanics in response to questions raised by his fiancée as she studied for her honours degree in Experimental Physics at Queen's University, Belfast, where K G Emeléus was professor.

In September 1947 Dick and Winifred were married, almost 3 years after their first meeting in Haslemere, and in October Dick was appointed Assistant in the Edinburgh Department of Natural Philosophy, with responsibility for the honours optics laboratory and many tutorial duties.

Dick Sillitto in 1944, by Eric Stanley

Dick Sillitto
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