John A. Wilson died yesterday, Monday 14th October 2013. On hearing the news I just felt sad that his light had gone out, and so I thought I would write down a few memories of the kind man that gave me my first job, at Bristol University.
I met John in 1985. I was 25 years old, desperately struggling to finish my D.Phil., and very glad of the prospect of a job. I didn’t know what to make of John: he talked in a language I didn’t understand. And I expect he didn’t know what to make of me. But a job was a job – and I had never had never been employed as a physicist before!
From the start I was not at all clear what John wanted me to do: this was before the days of written ‘forward job plans’, and I think he thought I was more able and knowledgeable than I was. I think I was supposed to help supervise his PhD students, but I was frankly useless. They were a very competent lot, so we just discussed what John might possibly want everyone to do. I learned a lot – in fact it was in these years that I came to understand the breadth of physics and the narrowness of my previous vision.
One problem was that the strange language he spoke was ‘chemistry’, and we were all physicists. His knowledge was encyclopaedic: he knew the properties – or likely properties – of every compound you could imagine. And he understood their properties in terms of things I barely understood at the time e.g. ‘d’-band overlaps, s-f hybridisation, and spin-orbit coupling. And he wasn’t bluffing: he could really ‘see’ his way through the landscape of materials and was constantly searching for new compounds that might show hidden properties that no one else had bothered to notice.
John was really a prospector, but searching for interesting science rather than gold or oil. In the same way that a prospector can read a landscape, and tell a story about each stone, so John could understand the stories linking compounds and crystals.
His encyclopaedic knowledge was the result of reading extensively, and in the days before pdf and ENDNOTE, he had developed a filing system of bewildering complexity. Each paper had several symbols and letters (e.g. αθ4B-22) written on its top corner. I never knew what his system was and he cannily never disclosed it. But he could find you papers on any compound you named: He would look upwards and ponder for a moment, and then stride over to the filing cabinet and produce the paper.
It was during my time at Bristol that high-temperature superconductivity was discovered, setting the condensed matter physics section all-a-flurry. And John was in his element – able to see his way through the complex crystal structures and chemical compounds better than anyone. But although John thought he could see the explanation, others were unable to see his vision.
In fact convincing other people of his vision was a persistent problem – probably to do with his use of ‘chemical’ descriptions rather than physical ones. But he didn’t help himself.
I remember him complaining about a research proposal not being funded, and the comment returned to him was that he had “not said what he planned to do”. His response was that he would never disclose which compounds he planned to investigate in a research proposal because the people on the research panel would steal his ideas!
Above all I remember him just being a kind man at a time when I personally needed kind people. I feel sad that I was probably a disappointment to him, but I think in the long run he probably wouldn’t have minded.
I don’t know how he died, but I hope it wasn’t anything to do with his feet: for several years he used to rest his feet on a box of Technetium which he kept under his desk. I recall him being a little surprised at the screech of the scintillation counter as the radiation safety officer checked the box, which was then swiftly moved to a more appropriate home.
I would not be at all surprised to find out that John had a plan for an investigation of technetium compounds and who knows – perhaps it would have been the elusive element to produce a new series of compounds showing a new kind of ordering. Time will tell.