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Scientists of Wales: Professor Sam Edwards

(September 01, 2017)


Professor Samuel Frederick Edwards

Professor Sam Edwards

On July 12, 1994 a ceremony was held at the University College of Wales, Swansea, as it then was, to acknowledge the admission of people of distinction as Honorary Fellows of the College; Professor Colyn Grey Morgan presented Professor Samuel Frederick Edwards. In the opening paragraphs of his presentation, Grey Morgan noted, ‘He is a leading and innovative theoretical physicist…. His outstanding natural gifts and talents were early recognised there (Swansea Boys’ Grammar School), thus laying the foundation of what is, judged against the very highest standards, one of the most brilliant and creative records of achievement of any Welshman or, for that matter, anyone this century’.

He was born in Manselton, about 4 miles from the centre of Swansea, on February 1, 1928, son of Richard and Mary Jane. Up to the age of 8 he attended Manselton Infants School and then moved to Brynhyfryd Junior School, from where he passed the ‘scholarship’ which enabled him to go to Swansea Boys’ Grammar School (SGS). At the time, the local education authority operated a selection process even among the pupils who succeeded within the general 11+ segregation policy. SGS was the top for boys, having just 2% of the cohort. Sam (this was his preferred choice of name, which remained with him throughout his life and career) soon showed distinct aptitude for and ability in mathematics and physics, so it was no surprise when he gained place at Cambridge University, at Gonville and Caius College. Caius is pronounced KEYS at the insistence of the college founder in 1557.

It was fortunate, his own admission, that in 1945 the Cambridge Entrance Examination was held at Easter, i.e. ahead of the A-level examination (Higher Certificate in those days). This enabled him to enter Cambridge without wasting a year as most students did. Throughout his career he acknowledged ‘the benefits of this early experience of concentration of talent (as SGS was) and the wonderful atmosphere of competition and achievement’ (private correspondence).

At Cambridge Sam completed his undergraduate and postgraduate courses with high distinction, achieving the degrees M.A. and Ph.D., the latter, for a thesis on the structure of the electron, being completed during a spell at Harvard University in the USA. It was almost inevitable then that he spent a period in 1952 at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton, an establishment known for its glittering array of international members of the greatest distinction, such as Albert Einstein.

On his return to the UK in 1953, he took up a lectureship at Birmingham University when he joined the eminent physicist Rudolf Peierls in his ‘remarkable department’. Sam recalls (International Journal of Modern Physics B, Vol. 6, 1563-1566), ‘we collaborated on the functional formulation of quantum field theory and found some simple exact solutions’. This period of fruitful research facilitated his appointment as Professor of Theoretical Physics at Manchester University in 1958, at the unusually young age of 30 for such a position. While at Manchester Sam started on studies of the structure of polymers, the area for which he became famous and is still remembered; it followed a conversation with staff of the chemistry department when Sam asked if there were any outstanding problems that they ‘would like me to study’. There were and he responded with amazing success.

In 1972 Sam returned to Cambridge to take up the John Humphrey Plummer Chair of Theoretical Physics and, in 1984, he was elected to that pre-eminent post - the Cavendish Professorship and Director of the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge. Among his predecessors are some giants of physics, such as James Clerk Maxwell, J.J Thomson and Ernest Rutherford. Sam remained at Cambridge for the remainder of his career, retiring formally in 1995, but continued to have a small room at the Cavendish from which he continued his remarkable output of papers on the physics of materials.

As indicated previously, Sam started his research on the structure of the electron, a specific entity in sub-atomic physics, and culminated in a masterly insight into the structure of polymers, substances of complex organisations of large molecules of several chemicals. To quote again from the Presentation Address of Colyn Grey Morgan, ‘… he has devoted his tireless energies to an enormous spectrum of disciplines… quantum field theory, statistical mechanics and thermodynamics, fluid mechanics, electronic properties of semi-conductors… it is perhaps in polymer science that his recent theoretical work and its practical application in industry have had the widest influences… an amazing variety of materials stem from them since they are the basis of so many industrial and household materials including, for example, powders, paints, plastics and personal garments’.

It was to be expected, given his eminence, that he would receive a panoply of awards and honorary degrees from many organisations and universities around the world. Within science his excellence was recognised by his election in 1966 as a Fellow of the Royal Society (F.R.S.). He did not hide himself in an ivory tower, but gave unstintingly of his time and wisdom by serving on a host of committees, some of them as advisory groups to the governments of his time. For these and many other contributions he was knighted in 1975.

He carried his scholarship lightly, being friendly and ebullient in conversation, a connoisseur of wine, food and art.

Sam died on May 7, 2015 at the age of 87.

On a personal note, In 1993 I was compiling information with a view to producing a set of posters on the theme Scientists of Wales, to be sent to all schools and colleges in Wales. To this end I wrote to many scientists outlining my plan. One of them, Sam, invited me to spend a little time with him at his College (Caius), including overnight accommodation, and at his room in the Cavendish. I will long remember the convivial conversation in his room, with its impressive collection of wines, on the first evening, in the company of other scientists of Wales who had been invited by Sam. Then we attended an evening service at the College Chapel, where the choir singing was stunning, before going to dinner where I joined him and other staff at the High Table. The following morning with him in his rather small room, I shared my surprise that such an eminent position should be associated with such pokey accommodation. He explained that this was part of his retirement plan in two years’ time; he would be leaving his ‘official’ room but retaining his ‘small’ room from which to continue his research. Treasured memories, indeed.

Neville Evans, September 2017

If you enjoyed this, you'll also enjoy these by Dr Neville Evans, in his series Scientists of Wales:

     Owen Thomas Jones; June 2017
Dyfrig Jones; March 2017
Ewart Jones
; December 2016
Elwyn Hughes
; September 2016
Gareth Roberts
; June 2016

Ezer Griffiths; March 2016
Handel Davies; December 2015
Mathematicians of Wales; September 2015
Professor Eleri Pryce; June 2015
William Robert Grove; March 2015
Frank Llewellyn-Jones; December 2014
Professor Julie Williams; September 2014
Ieuan Maddock, F.R.S.; June 2014
John Houghton, F.R.S.; March 2014
David Brunt, F.R.S.; December 2013
Professor John Beynon; September 2013
John Meurig Thomas; June 2013
Robert Recorde and William Jones; March 2013
Richard Tecwyn Williams, F.R.S; December 2012

Lyn Evans; September 2012
E G Bowen; June 2012
cylchgrawn Cymru Culture magazine
Published by/Cyhoeddwyd gan: Caregos Cyf., 2017

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