Samuel De­vons

The Jewish Chronicle - - OBITUARIES -

Born Ban­gor, Septem­ber 30, 1914. Died New York, De­cem­ber 6, 2006, aged 92.

A DIS­TIN­GUISHED physi­cist, who acted as a vi­tal link to the pre-war pi­o­neers of nu­clear physics, Pro­fes­sor Samuel De­vons was a Fel­low of the Royal So­ci­ety for 51 years but spent most of his ca­reer in high en­ergy nu­clear physics in the US.

He was born in North Wales where his fa­ther, Rev David Isaac De­vons, was min­is­ter. He was a cousin of the em­i­nent Daiches fam­ily, headed by Rabbi Salo Daiches in Ed­in­burgh.

David Isaac left Lithua­nia soon af­ter 1900, in his early 20s and, ac­cord­ing to fam­ily leg­end, re­ceived his sur­name from a Bri­tish im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cer who used his town of ori­gin, Devoniske, some 30 miles south of Vilna.

His yeshivah ed­u­ca­tion qual­i­fied him to serve small pro­vin­cial com­mu­ni­ties in York, Ban­gor, Coven­try and Hanley (Stoke-on-Trent), where he died in 1926 at the age of 45.

His wife, Edith, was left a widow with six chil­dren. A pub­lic ap­peal was made through the com­mu­nity to help the fam­ily, who re­set­tled in Manch­ester. De­spite hard­ship — eggs were a rare treat — the chil­dren throve on an in­tel­lec­tual diet of long Shab­bat dis­cus­sions and made their mark in dif­fer­ent fields.

Samuel, the fourth child, who had ear­lier won a schol­ar­ship to Hanley High School, went to North Manch­ester Gram­mar School. At 17, he was its first pupil to win a schol­ar­ship to Cam­bridge, he and his late older brother, Ely (a fu­ture eco­nomics pro­fes­sor at the LSE) both be­ing awarded Manch­ester City Coun­cil schol­ar­ships.

He grad­u­ated from Trin­ity Col­lege in 1935 and gained his PhD in 1939. In 1938 he mar­ried Ruth Toubkin of Manch­ester.

Dur­ing the Sec­ond World War he served as se­nior sci­en­tific of­fi­cer in the Air Min­istry and Min­istry of Air­craft Pro­duc­tion, work­ing on anti-air­craft bar­rages, radar and mi­crowaves.

He moved round the coun­try and, at the end of war, was posted to the USA as UK-US li­ai­son of­fi­cer based at the Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy.

In 1946 he re­turned to Cam­bridge as lec­turer and fel­low of Trin­ity and di­rec­tor of stud­ies. He worked on the lin­ear ac­cel­er­a­tor at the Cavendish Lab­o­ra­to­ries un­der No­bel prize-win­ner Lord Ruther­ford, known as the fa­ther of nu­clear physics. In 1949 he pub­lished The Ex­cited States of Nu­clei.

Later, while in Lon­don as physics pro­fes­sor at Im­pe­rial Col­lege from 1950-55, he took his young daugh­ters to the chil­dren’s gallery of the Science Mu­seum, fir­ing them with his love of ques­tion­ing and skill at ex­plain­ing.

In 1955, when he was elected to the Royal So­ci­ety, he re­turned to Manch­ester as Lang­wor­thy Pro­fes­sor of Physics and lab­o­ra­tory di­rec­tor at Manch­ester Univer­sity.

But he grew frus­trated at bud­getary con­straints and, af­ter a sab­bat­i­cal at Columbia Univer­sity, New York, where he worked with an­other physics “great”, Isi­dor Rabi, who won a No­bel prize for mag­netic res­o­nance de­tec­tion, he be­came pro­fes­sor of physics in 1960 un­til re­tir­ing in 1985.

He was chair­man of Columbia’s physics de­part­ment from 1963-67 and di­rec­tor of its Barnard Col­lege His­tory of Physics Lab­o­ra­tory from 1970-85.

Far from an ivory-tower aca­demic, shrouded in heavy nu­clei, muons, atoms, X-rays and nu­clear elec­tric charges — the heart of his re­search, dis­tilled in his ed­i­tor­ship of High En­ergy Physics and Nu­clear Struc­ture (1970) — Pro­fes­sor De­vons wanted to made science ac­ces­si­ble to non-sci­en­tists.

He en­cour­aged stu­dents through hands-on ex­per­i­ments and pro­moted in­ter­ac­tion among staff at univer­si­ties, schools and science mu­se­ums. He fos­tered in­ter-science links, edit­ing Bi­ol­ogy and Phys­i­cal Sci­ences in 1969.

He held a visit­ing pro­fes­sor­ship in In­dia in 1967-68 at Andhra Univer­sity and Is­rael in 1973-74 at the Weiz­mann In­sti­tute and He­brew Univer­sity. He was a long-serv­ing mem­ber of the Weiz­mann In­sti­tute’s board of gov­er­nors. He won the Ruther­ford medal and prize in 1970 and gave the Ruther­ford me­mo­rial lec­ture in Aus­tralia in 1989. He was made a fel­low of the New York Academy of Sci­ences in 2001.

With his feel­ing for his­tory, he recre­ated his­toric physics ex­per­i­ments, such as those of Cavendish in the 1770s and We­ber and Kohlrausch in 1858, fol­lowed by Franklin, Fara­day and Volta. For him a “beau­ti­ful ex­per­i­ment” had to make a ma­jor dis­cov­ery, be not too ex­pen­sive or ab­struse, and be within the reach of stu­dents.

Made emer­i­tus pro­fes­sor on re­tire­ment, he stayed ac­tive in his field and in 1999 launched EPIC, Emer­i­tus Pro­fes­sors in Columbia, as a repos­i­tory of schol­arly wis­dom. When he stepped down as found­ing pres­i­dent in 2004 he was made pres­i­dent emer­i­tus by ac­cla­ma­tion.

He is sur­vived by his wife, Ruth; four daugh­ters, Susan, Ju­dith, Amanda and Cathryn; 12 grand­chil­dren and three great-grand­chil­dren.

Pro­fes­sor Samuel De­vons: hands-on ex­per­i­menter

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