Dick's life with physics, page 9


Freedom for Dick to get to grips with five problems in optics which had intrigued him for years.   But first, there was a book to work on.   Longman's had asked him to edit and update Longhurst's Geometrical and Physical Optics.  He started on this with enthusiasm after moving to Dunbar in the spring of 1991, taking the train to Edinburgh from time to time to spend a day in the library.   After one such trip he was exceptionally tired; his GP suspected a problem with his heart, but the ECG seemed normal.   However, he got more and more tired throughout the next few months and the following summer had a severe attack of angina, the day before he and Winifred were to set off on a visit to the Peřinas.   He was forbidden to fly. With visits to clinics and with Longman's pushing him for a completion date, he had to abandon the book.   Medication did make life easier for him and he continued with a variety of activities, though he had to spend a week in the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh in October 1993.

In the next few years he made several visits to Imperial College, for JMO board meetings and for IOP Optical Group conferences; to Milton Keynes as consultant for the rolling re-write of the Images and Information course; and to Reading to present his final report on the MSc course and to give a lecture.  By request, this lecture was a repeat of one Dick had given in April 1993 to a meeting of the History of Science group of the IOP, subtitled The durability of Maxwell's electromagnetism.  In a letter to Emil in August, he wrote

The April meeting was an odd one.   It was the biennial conference of the History of Physics Group of the IoP, which got mixed up with the annual Edinburgh Science Festival, and with the James Clerk Maxwell Foundation which is an Anglo-American body committed to inspiring the young to follow in James Clerk Maxwell's footsteps; they have just completed the purchase of JCM's birthplace (14 India Street) from its previous resident owner.

So the meeting was advertised through a variety of channels, and the speakers included an actuary who had been sorting out Maxwell's ancestry; an art historian who had been collecting and sorting the paintings of Maxwell's cousin Jemima Wedderburn, which included a lot of family sketches and drawings; a professional scientific historian who has made a special study of the development of the electromagnetic theory; and Sir Brian Flowers and myself who were asked to talk about science!

  What kind of audience we could expect no-one could predict, but in the event they included some high-powered physicists, some low-powered physicists, a few lawyers, and others.   There were twice as many people as had been planned for, and Brian Flowers and I talked at very different levels, so I'm not at all sure how my talk went over.   I think it was quite a feat, though, to talk about quantum optics without a single equation!   Whether it was worth it - except for me - I'm not sure.

In 1992 Emil had invited Dick to join the Editorial Board of Progress in Optics, and in 1993 he was elected to Fellowship of the Optical Society of America.   The Science Faculty in Edinburgh was 100 years old on 18 February 1994; Dick collected information from his former colleagues and compiled an account of the history of the Physics department for inclusion in the book marking the occasion.   Another happy occasion was the Electron Physics symposium in honour of Peter Farago.   Dick spoke about Peter's early years in Edinburgh, after the symposium dinner in the RSE rooms on 1st April.  
In August, Jan and Vlasta Peřina spent a ten day holiday in Dunbar.   This overlapped with their son's attendance at the 44th Scottish Universitites Summer School in Physics, Quantum Dynamics of Simple Systems held at Stirling.   Roy Glauber, who had taken part in the 10th Summer School at Carberry 25 years before, was among the lecturers at the School.   The School's directors invited Dick to a social gathering to meet him again, and it was a happy coincidence that Jan was able to go too.

Refereeing and book reviews - for the Journal of Modern Optics, Contemporary Physics, and various Institute of Physics and Optical Society of America journals (e.g. review of book by Treiman) - kept Dick in touch with physics for almost the rest of his life, with some breaks.   As a referee he always took great care to suggest logical and grammatical improvements, and further references, for papers which were not suitable as they stood, and enjoyed the many occasions when the authors later thanked 'an unknown referee'.

Severe anaemia saw him in hospital for a blood transfusion in November 1995.   Despite occasional hypoglycaemic episodes he was in fine fettle for his golden wedding celebrations in September 1997.   But a year or so later he was very anaemic again, collapsing while queueing for baked potatoes in a café in Dalkeith.   While in hospital he found reading impossible until his grandson lent him the first Harry Potter book (he refused to read any of the later books in the series).   Coeliac disease was diagnosed in May 1999 and after only a week without wheat he was transformed into a happy active man, gradually recovering his ability to understand scientific literature.

A gluten-free diet does not fit well with diabetes and the need for regular carbohydrate, and hypoglycaemic incidents happened more often.   A particularly severe one occurred in the early hours of Christmas Eve, 2001.   A locum in his first appointment was sure Dick had had a stroke - a possible misdiagnosis which Dick's own GP had been warned about in medical school - and there was nothing to be done for him.   When the doctor left at dawn Winifred did another test and found that Dick's blood sugar had increased.   The necessary injection of glucose was at last given after Dick had been unconscious for 5 or 6 hours.   His memory was badly affected but it did improve slowly, helped by the reminiscences sent by former colleagues for his 80th birthday on 3rd March 2003.

A change of insulin type in the spring of 2004 gave fresh hope and some further improvement in memory.   He thoroughly enjoyed the event in the James Clerk Maxwell Building in October, when David Vass, Norman Fancey and Francis Barnes retired - the end of an era in the Physics department.  

However when Emil came to Dunbar in December it was clear that Dick was far from well.   Peter Farago died on the last day of the year, and Dick worked on his obituary with Murray Campbell and John Wykes helping by email, as did Alastair Rae, himself terminally ill.   Emil had brought a copy of the Born-Einstein Letters, and a month later sent The End of the Certain World, the biography of Born written by American Nancy Greenspan who had visited Dick during her research for the book.   These were the last books Dick was able to read.   He commented that each illuminated parts of the other.   But he was sad that he could no longer remember what were the five problems he had intended to work on himself.  In the end it was bowel cancer that killed him, unsuspected until two months before his death on 19 April 2005.

Dick was a gentle, sensitive man, feeling deeply for other people's troubles.   He was courteous to all and willing to listen, even to those he disliked or disagreed with.    Ecologist Fred Last's description of him is typical of many tributes:

Dick was always Dick  -  level-headed with his own brand of humour and utterly dependable  -  he was a delight.
But I like best the way Margo Rowlands remembers him:
. . . and somehow fun to be with.

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