Obituary: Professor Bill Price

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The Independent Online
A TRIO of brilliant former students, all born within a few miles of one another, were held up by our teachers as examples to be emulated by those of my generation who studied chemistry and physics at the University College of Swansea in the early 1950s. Professor WC Price was the last of the three to pass away, writes Sir John Meurig Thomas (further to the obituary by Professor Ronald Burge, 16 March). The others were Professor DH Hey and Dr EG ('Taffy') Bowen.

All three were exact contemporaries and products of the grammar school in Dylan Thomas's town; they were all active sportsmen at the University College; and all were in due course elected Fellows of the Royal Society - no mean record for a centre that only in 1920 was elevated from being a Technical College to a constituent of the University of Wales. Its small departments consisted of mere handfuls of inspired teachers and innovative researchers working under conditions that, were they to be attempted in the present age of cost-effectiveness, would be prime candidates for closure.

While Bill Price held the prestigious Wheatstone Chair of Physics at King's College, London, Donald Hey held the no less estimable headship of Chemistry there. In the early 1950s they had a highly successful collaborative programme in the application of infrared spectroscopy to the structural elucidation of organic compounds. Taffy Bowen played a seminal role in the development of radar and was the first person ever to obtain airborne radar echoes both from aircraft and from ships. He was later chiefly instrumental in constructing the renowned Parkes Observatory in Australia, the country of his adoption where he died in 1991.

Bill Price was not only a lovable person, he was also a phenomenally able scientist. Possessed of exceptional skill as an experimenter, he was in addition no mean theoretician. Indeed his first paper published with PM Davidson, a junior lecturer in Swansea, in the Proceedings of the Royal Society for 1930, dealt with the quantum mechanics - then newly born - of the hydrogen molecule. Price's quest in later years to explore the energies of the electron orbitals in molecules stemmed from his deep insights into the chemical physics of polyatomic systems.

In 1940 a charming young Yorkshireman came under Bill Price's influence at Cambridge. He was Morris Sugden, later Research Director of Shell, Master of Trinity Hall and Physical Secretary of the Royal Society. Sugden, who died prematurely nine years ago, never ceased to acknowledge his debt to Price, and took great pride in his first ever publication (with Price and AD Walsh) on the 'Ionisation Potentials of Polyatomic Molecules' which was reported in Nature, September 1941. This extraordinary article, a landmark in chemical physics, describes the results of their quantitative determinations of the ionisation energies of no less than 31 molecular species. (Present-day authors, conscious of the pressures on funding and of accountability would be tempted to divulge such a wealth of data in a series of 10 or so articles.) Of greater significance than the prodigality of the results was the unrivalled accuracy of their measurements. Thus, in quoting the ionisation energy of acetaldehyde as 10.1811 +/- 0.0007eV , they stated: 'This is the most accurate ionisation energy so far determined for a polyatomic molecule.' The reader must resist the temptation to regard this as no more than punctilious numerology: it should be recalled that Rayleigh was led to the discovery of argon because of differences (in mass) in the fourth place of decimal.

It is widely acknowledged, as Professor Burge made clear, that Bill Price was of Nobel Prize-winning class. Yet he carried his learning lightly. He never sought public or private acclaim. He loved his science, and hated no person. He had no enemies. He possessed that shining Faradaic simplicity, profundity and purity which is why we all adored him.

(Photograph omitted)