Tom Faber

Cambridge physicist associated throughout his life with the family publishing firm
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Thomas Erle Faber, physicist and publisher: born London 25 April 1927; University Demonstrator in Physics, Cambridge University 1953-58, Armourers' and Brasiers' Fellow 1958-59, Lecturer in Physics 1959-93; Fellow, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge 1953-2004, Treasurer 1963-76; chairman, Geoffrey Faber Holdings Ltd (formerly Faber & Faber (Publishers) Ltd) 1977-2004; married 1959 Penelope Morton (died 1983; two sons, two daughters), 1986 Elisabeth van Houts (one son, one daughter); died Cambridge 27 July 2004.

In the preface to Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats (1939), T.S. Eliot makes acknowledgement to "Mr T.E. Faber", who would have been 12 at the time of publication. (I cannot say which Practical Cat he inspired.) From childhood, Tom Faber participated in the family firm of Faber & Faber, publishers of new literature and poetry and of anthologies, including the works of Eliot, Sacheverell Sitwell and William Golding.

Much later, after the death of his father, Sir Geoffrey Faber, who founded the firm with Maurice Gwyer in 1925, Tom became a director (in 1969) and chairman (1977) of the Faber companies. Owing to Tom Faber's skill and ingenuity as a businessman, Faber still flourishes and serves the world of literature, after the tornado of take-overs that destroyed other independent publishing firms.

Faber was also a physicist of distinction, a University Lecturer at Cambridge for 35 years. He was the son and grandson of Oxford dons: his father was a Fellow of All Souls, and his maternal grandfather, Sir Erle Richards, had been Chichele Professor of Public International Law. Tom Faber was educated at the Dragon School, Oxford and Oundle, and in 1945 won a Scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he read Natural Sciences, and specialised in Physics. Following a double First he was elected to a Research Fellowship after only two years of research.

In 1953 he moved to Corpus Christi College, where he was a Fellow for the rest of his life. As College Treasurer from 1963 to 1975, he saw the college through a difficult period of inflation. Whenever a college discussion was getting nowhere, he could be relied upon to make the unanswerable intervention that brought his colleagues back to the root of the matter.

Faber began research in 1948 in the Royal Society Mond Laboratory, part of the Cavendish Laboratory, on a problem in superconductivity: on the mechanism of how the metal tin loses its electrical resistance on being cooled to below 3.7 degrees above absolute zero. He gained a reputation for perfectionism and for the elegance of his work: the economical demonstration of phenomena and the analysis that explained them. His studies played an important part in understanding how electrons move in amorphous materials.

His next field of study was on the electrical and optical properties of liquid metals, appropriately under a research fellowship from the Armourers' and Brasiers' Company. He worked especially on lithium, which is a theoretically simple but practically difficult metal. In his book Introduction to the Theory of Liquid Metals (1972) ) - "introduction" being an understatement - he began to apply his literary and imaginative mind to the communication of science: this highly mathematical treatise, containing much original research, is a work of clarity and wit and begins with a jest.

Faber went on to a third field of research, on the physics of the liquid crystals, which have since become household objects in digital watches and telephones. Here too he was a master both of experimentation and theory.

Director of Studies in Physics at Corpus for nearly 40 years, Faber was a brilliant teacher, a master of most of the branches of physics. I remember his gift for describing difficult and complex phenomena in apparently simple terms: he made thermodynamics seem straightforward. He persuaded me to be a botanist, to the benefit both of myself and of the science of physics. Generations of Cavendish Laboratory physicists were inspired by him and given tools for their own research. "Few of us, if any, have matched the power and directness of Tom's understanding", said Professor Mark Warner. "He set standards and a style in the Cavendish."

Tom Faber retired in 1993, and two years later his great book Fluid Dynamics for Physicists was published. Warner draws attention to the wonderful first chapter, which would be a powerful work of literature were it not disqualified by being about the real world and by having lots of equations in it. I wish I had had it by me during my own juvenile brushes with Stokes and Poiseuille.

The author describes himself as "merely an enthusiastic amateur", but it is a work of depth and precision, appreciated by generations of students. The reader comes to realise that fluid dynamics, though the book begins with explaining how a humble syringe works, is the nearest thing there is in this world to a Grand Theory of Everything, from the swimming of sperm to the Great Red Spot of Jupiter.

After he retired Faber developed a third career as a historian. He lived in one of the most extraordinary and mysterious houses in Cambridge. From studying the history of the house he investigated that of the parish. Cambridge is not synonymous with the university: it has a town history as well. Faber applied a scientist's analytical mind to historical questions: he would take a number of verbal descriptions of properties in 14th-century deeds and reconstruct a map from them.

He died, leaving his work well done: the resulting book is ready for publication.

Oliver Rackham