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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese and DiCaprio, at an awards show in 2010
filmsDe Niro, DiCaprio and Pitt to star
News
i100
News
In this photo illustration a school student eats a hamburger as part of his lunch which was brought from a fast food shop near his school, on October 5, 2005 in London, England. The British government has announced plans to remove junk food from school lunches. From September 2006, food that is high in fat, sugar or salt will be banned from meals and removed from vending machines in schools across England. The move comes in response to a campaign by celebrity TV chef Jamie Oliver to improve school meals.
science
Sport
England captain Wayne Rooney during training
FOOTBALLNew captain vows side will deliver against Norway for small crowd
Life and Style
Red or dead: An actor portrays Hungarian countess Elizabeth Báthory, rumoured to have bathed in blood to keep youthful
health
News
peopleJustin Bieber charged with assault and dangerous driving after crashing quad bike into a minivan
News
peopleHis band Survivor was due to resume touring this month
News
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Life and Style
fashionModel of the moment shoots for first time with catwalk veteran
Sport
Radamel Falcao poses with his United shirt
FOOTBALLRadamel Falcao's journey from teenage debutant in Colombia to Manchester United's star signing
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

Front-Office Developer (C#, .NET, Java,Artificial Intelligence)

£30000 - £45000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: Front-Of...

C++ Quant Developer

£700 per day: Harrington Starr: Quantitative Developer C++, Python, STL, R, PD...

Java/Calypso Developer

£700 per day: Harrington Starr: Java/Calypso Developer Java, Calypso, J2EE, J...

SQL Developer

£500 per day: Harrington Starr: SQL Developer SQL, C#, Stored Procedures, MDX...

Day In a Page

Chief inspector of GPs: ‘Most doctors don’t really know what bad practice can be like for patients’

Steve Field: ‘Most doctors don’t really know what bad practice can be like for patients’

The man charged with inspecting doctors explains why he may not be welcome in every surgery
Stolen youth: Younger blood can reverse many of the effects of ageing

Stolen youth

Younger blood can reverse many of the effects of ageing
Bob Willoughby: Hollywood's first behind the scenes photographer

Bob Willoughby: The reel deal

He was the photographer who brought documentary photojournalism to Hollywood, changing the way film stars would be portrayed for ever
Hollywood heavyweights produce world's most expensive corporate video - for Macau casino

Hollywood heavyweights produce world's most expensive corporate video - for Macau casino

Scorsese in the director's chair with De Niro, DiCaprio and Pitt to star
Angelina Jolie's wedding dress: made by Versace, designed by her children

Made by Versace, designed by her children

Angelina Jolie's wedding dressed revealed
Anyone for pulled chicken?

Pulling chicks

Pulled pork has gone from being a US barbecue secret to a regular on supermarket shelves. Now KFC is trying to tempt us with a chicken version
9 best steam generator irons

9 best steam generator irons

To get through your ironing as swiftly as possible, invest in one of these efficient gadgets
England v Norway: Wayne Rooney admits England must ‘put on a show’ to regain faith

Rooney admits England must ‘put on a show’ to regain faith

New captain vows side will deliver for small Wembley crowd
‘We knew he was something special:’ Radamel Falcao's journey from teenage debutant to Manchester United's star signing

‘We knew he was something special’

Radamel Falcao's journey from teenage debutant to Manchester United's star signing
'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York