I was born in Bolton and attended the local primary school, before joining Bolton School. After two years’ National Service in the Royal Air Force I went on to Trinity College, Cambridge University, where I received my undergraduate degree, with a major in theoretical physics.
For several years I then worked in industry as an employee of Imperial Chemical Industries, where I developed interests in areas more commonly associated with engineering, rather than physics.
My first academic position was at the University of Edinburgh and, while there, I developed a close research collaboration with Fritz Horn, a colleague at Imperial College, London. Fritz moved to Rice University in Houston Texas and, shortly after, I was invited to join him for a year as a visitor on leave from Edinburgh. After returning to Edinburgh I received a further invitation from Rice to return on a permanent basis as a full professor. At that time British universities were facing an uncertain future at the hands of politicians so, after hesitating for some time, I accepted the offer and, in 1968, I moved my family to the United States, where we have been ever since.
Between then and the present I have held academic positions at Rice University, the University of Houston, and Princeton University, where I occupied an endowed chair in the Engineering School until my retirement in 1998. During that period I also spent several sabbatical leaves at other institutions, the most notable being a year as a ‘Sherman Fairchild Distinguished Scholar’ at the California Institute of Technology (‘Caltech’) and an invitation to return to my old college in Cambridge as a ‘Visiting Fellow Commoner’. (These are two of the very few remaining ‘sinecures’, since they both provide residential accommodation and other benefits at no cost and require no duties from the incumbent!)
In the year 2000 I was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London.
What is your connection to Bolton School? Were any other members of your family here?
I was a pupil on a ‘Foundation Scholarship’, as I believe they were called at the time. No other family members attended the school. Indeed, I believe at the time I was the first member of my family to extend my education beyond primary school. We were not well off. My father worked for the local ‘Coop’ grocery stores and his income was quite inadequate to meet the school fees, so I am immensely grateful for the financial support I received, both from the school itself and from government sources that no longer exist.
What is your fondest Bolton School memory?
Very hard to select among so many good memories, but certainly the many good friends I made, both among my contemporary pupils and among the teachers.
Did any member of teaching staff particularly inspire you while you were at school?
I cannot recall any really bad teachers, but three stand out for their influence on my academic studies and my life in general.
First, Mr JC Blakey, who really understood the nature of mathematics and transmitted to us his enthusiasm. Today it is unlikely that a mathematician so accomplished would not be teaching in a university, so the school was very fortunate to have his services. He also shared with us his enthusiasm for hill walking and I continued to join him on trips to the Lake District or the Pennines long after I left school; indeed, almost up to the time of his death.
Second, Mr WF (Bill) Jary, who taught chemistry and came very close to making me into a chemist! Indeed, though I graduated from Cambridge with a degree in physics, many of my subsequent research publications were related to problems close to the interface between physics and chemistry.
Third, Mr Frank Greene, who taught English and strove relentlessly to make us write succinctly and well. Though I have written extensively on my research, and colleagues have quite often disputed my conclusions, they rarely seemed in any doubt about what I was saying, thanks to Mr Greene!
What do you feel your experience at Bolton School has given to you personally?
I really don’t know how to begin answering this. Virtually all aspects of my professional and personal lives have been influenced deeply by my experiences at Bolton School and at Trinity.
What is the best career advice you can give to Bolton School pupils today?
Other than urging the young to plan their careers about something they really enjoy doing there is little advice i can give, particularly since I have been so long away from Britain.
What do you think about Bolton School’s 100 Campaign aim to re-establish genuine open access through its bursary fund?
I am, of course, very enthusiastic about it. I feel very disturbed that young people from families, like my own, with limited financial resources might not be able to experience the benefits of an education at Bolton School.