Obituary: Mike Sendall

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The Independent Culture
IN 1993 Mike Sendall came across an iceberg lettuce from Salinas, California, which had a "URL" on the wrapper, the "Universal Resource Locator" address used by the World Wide Web. At last he was convinced that the Web, which he had encouraged and nurtured since its earliest days in 1989 and which was later described by Newsweek magazine as the greatest invention since the printing press, had lift-off.

Sendall, an only child, was born in 1939 and educated at the King's School, Peterborough. Among the broad range of subjects which interested him deeply throughout his life, science was his first love and in 1958 he went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, to read Physics and Chemistry. In 1965 he obtained his PhD at the Cavendish Laboratory under Otto Frisch, working on an assortment of remarkable gadgets invented to analyse photographs of particle collisions taken using detectors called bubble chambers. It was during this period, while programming the Edsac and other early calculating engines, that he developed his fascination for computers.

In 1968 Sendall moved to the European Laboratory for Particle Physics (Cern) in Geneva, joining Lucien Montanet's group to work on bubble chamber studies of particles called K-mesons. These particles reveal the mysterious preference that nature has for matter rather than anti-matter which accounts for the very existence of the universe. This unsolved puzzle still intrigues particle physicists, with important results being published at Cern as recently as June this year.

From 1972 onwards Sendall devoted much of his career to the design, implementation and operation of computer-based systems for data collection from the increasingly complex detectors being exploited at Cern's particle accelerators. His open and unassuming personality, never seeking credit for himself, made him an ideal adviser and supervisor.

Sendall understood that information had to be disseminated to be useful. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s he struggled cheerfully with one obscure text mark-up language after another to create what was, at the time, considered to be user-friendly documentation. Cern's users, several thousand physicists, work mainly at their home institutes around the world, coming together at the laboratory only for periods of detector preparation and data taking. Sendall perceived very early that international computer networking was a technical breakthrough tailor- made to satisfy their need for global information sharing.

Most importantly, he realised the vast potential of open systems at a time when many people were locked into supplier-specific approaches. From 1980 to 1986 he chaired a pan-European working group (known to many as "ECFA sub-group 5") which established particle physics, and in particular Cern, as one of the hotbeds of academic networking.

The stage was being set for the invention of the World Wide Web, and future history books will recount how, almost alone, Sendall supported the pioneering work of Tim Berners-Lee, then working in his group. After reading Berners-Lee's prophetic 1989 proposal for what would become the Web, Sendall wrote on the cover "Vague but exciting", and added at the end - "And now?" The rest is already history.

In 1992 Sendall took on the important responsibility of Secretary of Cern's Large Hadron Collider Experiments Committee, set up to recommend which LHC experiments should be approved and to monitor the subsequent development and progress of these experiments. To this key task, he brought his customary meticulousness and diligence.

Sendall's modesty hid a much deeper culture. He was a polymath in the classic English mould - a type which may be disappearing. His highly developed sense of humour made him a memorable raconteur and he could delight an audience or participate in erudite discussions equally and with characteristic gentleness. Those who were lucky enough to hear him tell of his attempt to report the discovery of a Colorado beetle in France to the local gendarmerie, or of his troubles importing into France a case of vintage claret purchased at a Sotheby's auction, will not forget either story.

In 1989 Mike Sendall was diagnosed as having multiple myeloma, a form of bone marrow cancer. He faced up to the situation with courage and dignity, living a full life until the very end. Lovingly supported by Peggie Rimmer, his constant friend and companion for 30 years, he fully acknowledged what was happening, while playing down the impact and inconvenience. He spent his last hours watching a television broadcast in Arabic, to refresh his knowledge of that language.

Dennis Michael Sendall, physicist and informatician: born Peterborough, Cambridgeshire 7 October 1939; married 1990 Peggie Rimmer; died London 15 July 1999.