Professor Samuel Devons

Physicist and historian of science


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

News
The clocks go forward an hour at 1am on Sunday 30 March
news
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor finds himself in a forest version of London in Doctor Who episode 'In the Forest of the Night'
TVReview: Is the Doctor ever going stop frowning? Apparently not.
Sport
footballMatch report: Real fight back to ruin Argentinian's debut
News
Bruce, left, with Cream bandmates Ginger Rogers, centre, and Eric Clapton in 1967
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Money
Welcome to tinsel town: retailers such as Selfridges will be Santa's little helpers this Christmas, working hard to persuade shoppers to stock up on gifts
news
News
i100
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Architect Frank Gehry is regarded by many as the most important architect of the modern era
arts + entsGehry has declared that 98 per cent of modern architecture is "s**t"
Arts and Entertainment
Soul singer Sam Smith cleared up at the Mobo awards this week
arts + entsSam Smith’s Mobo triumph is just the latest example of a trend
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker