Professor Samuel Devons

Physicist and historian of science
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The Independent Online

Samuel Devons, physicist and science historian: born Bangor, Carnarvon 30 September 1914; Lecturer in Physics, Fellow and Director of Studies, Trinity College, Cambridge 1946-49; Professor of Physics and Acting Director of Laboratories, Imperial College London 1950-55; FRS 1955; Langworthy Professor and Director of Physics, Manchester University 1955-60; Professor of Physics, Columbia University 1960-84 (Emeritus); married 1938 Ruth Toubkin (four daughters); died New York 6 December 2006.

Samuel Devons, Emeritus Professor of Physics at Columbia University, had several successful and eminent careers. After achieving early scholastic success, he served his nation in various capacities during the Second World War. Subsequently, he became a renowned experimental researcher studying properties of nuclei, an innovative teacher and promoter of scientific education, and a highly regarded communicator and historian of science.

Born in Bangor, Samuel Devons was the son of an emigrant, David Isaac Devons, named after his Lithuanian town of origin, Devoniske. He was a Jewish minister to small communities in Wales and the Midlands. Samuel was one of six children; his father died when he was 12 years old. At the age of 16, he won a scholarship to read Physics at Trinity College, Cambridge, where his courses included those taught by J. J. Thomson, discoverer of the electron. After graduating in 1935, he continued his studies and research at Cambridge, with his doctorate awarded in 1939.

As a student and later, Devons treasured the legacy of the Cavendish Laboratory in writing and discussion, with emphasis on the heritage provided by Thomson and Ernest Rutherford, the discoverer of the atomic nucleus. His affections for and connections to Cambridge continued throughout his life. In 2005, he travelled to London to be honoured for his 50 years as a Fellow of the Royal Society and subsequently celebrated his 91st birthday at the high table of Trinity College.

At the time of his doctorate, Britain's involvement in the war consumed the nation. Devons worked as a scientific officer in the Air Ministry on anti- aircraft barrages, and subsequently on microwaves and radar. He became a UK-US liaison officer and made frequent trips to the MIT Radiation Laboratory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where US research and development on radar was headquartered, and where I.I. Rabi (who received the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1944) was Director of Research. At the very end of the war, Devons served as a British intelligence officer in Germany interrogating surrendered scientists.

After the war, he taught physics over successive years at Cambridge University, Imperial College, London and Manchester University, where he was also Director of Physics. In accepting the position of Langworthy Professor at Manchester in 1955, he followed Rutherford's example. He concentrated on nuclear physics experiments, and achieved a substantial reputation in that field.

After visiting for a year in 1959, he accepted a professorial appointment at Columbia University, New York. Attractions included the inspired leadership of Rabi, as well as the Pupin, Pegram and Nevis Laboratories, with facilities for acceleration of elementary particles. When he arrived, the Columbia physics department had an air of excitement reminiscent of Cavendish at its height: maximal parity violation had recently been proposed and found, and discovery of a second neutrino type was imminent.

Devons' productive scientific career at Columbia continued forefront research into properties of nuclei, including experimental and theoretical studies of gamma ray emission by metastable light nuclei. He used heavy nuclei to capture muons, a heavy electron-like particle, to form atoms. These emit X-rays that characterise the nuclear electric charge properties. He also engaged in detection of rare decays of the pion, including its very rare beta decay - a process analogous to the nuclear emission of an electron. Amidst a very active research and teaching career, he chaired the Columbia Physics Department in the years 1963-67.

In 1957, he had travelled on a Unesco technical aid mission to Argentina. In later years, he held visiting appointments at Andhra University in India and at the Weizmann Institute and Hebrew University in Israel. He was a Fellow of the American Physical Society. In 1970, he was awarded the prestigious Rutherford medal and prize of the Institute of Physics.

Devons had a unique, though well-grounded, perspective of science. He advocated persuasively the use of logarithms for instant calculation. Most physicists know fundamental physical constants; Devons was unique in keeping in his memory the logarithms of all the fundamental constants - permitting him to calculate with addition rather than multiplication, and so provide numerical answers almost instantly.

He produced and starred in films on the lives of famous scientists, choosing background music with fine taste - his favourite being Vivaldi's Four Seasons. He also brought a special excitement of life to colleagues and students. An example was his admiration for the humour of the Marx Brothers; he was known on occasion to spontaneously sing - with all the appropriate mannerisms - "Oh Lydia, oh Lydia, say, have you met Lydia? Lydia the Tattooed Lady" . . . and then complete all the lyrics.

More broadly, his enthusiasm over the great ideas of science was contagious. But he was quick to see the limitations to what can be learned from books; he felt strongly that learning by doing was best. Devons's career in teaching undergraduates mirrored this emphasis on learning by doing. In 1970, he became director of the History of Physics Laboratory at Columbia's Barnard College, and devoted increasing energy to the task of opening science to non-scientists. His teaching emphasis was to provide early opportunities for undergraduates to design experiments, an experience that even professional scientists often postpone to late in their education. As teaching and communication tools, he worked with students to recreate experiments by renowned scientists of history, and recorded many on film.

During the 1980s, he organised the Joseph Priestley Society at Columbia, to promote interactions among university faculty, high school teachers, and science museum administrators. Devons served as president and organised discussions and seminars.

Retired in 1984, he remained just as active as an Emeritus Professor. His never-flagging curiosity constantly led him into new projects, both scientific and humanitarian. He was a renowned scholar on various historical aspects of physics, particularly on the lives and works of Newton, Franklin, Thomson, Volta, Rutherford and Rabi. As recently as November 2004, when he was 90, he gave a well attended and well received Physics colloquium at Columbia (known as King's College prior to the American Revolution) on "Benjamin Franklin: electron, electricity and King's College, New York". Connections between physics and other sciences, particularly biology, always attracted his interest and were promoted by Devons.

He was devoted to Columbia University, constantly looking hard for improvements. A generation of Columbians knew him as the mace-bearer at the annual Commencement ceremonies, marching with his splendid beard and scarlet Cambridge robes. But many also recognised that he devoted enormous energies to preserving and restoring the contacts among faculty members at the Faculty House, and in fostering the Emeritus Professors in Columbia (EPIC), a group he founded in 1999. He envisioned EPIC to be a repository of institutional memory in an age of rapid turnover and increasing administrative centralisation.

Samuel Devons worked all his life to broaden the intellectual world in which he and his colleagues lived. A memorial service is being planned at Columbia University for May.

Frank Sciulli