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Scientists of Wales: Professor Colyn Grey Morgan

(March 01, 2018)


Professor Colyn Grey Morgan

Professor Grey Morgan was a pupil at local primary schools in Garnant and at the Amman Valley Grammar School, Ammanford, Carmarthenshire. Two thrilling, even hazardous, science experiences at his primary school could be seen as the seed of his interest in physics, which was refined by a superb teacher at the grammar school. His research interest was in the processes of electrical discharges in gases, culminating in pioneering work with lasers. He was very influential in establishing the continuing strong links between the physics department at Swansea University and CERN in Switzerland, home of the Large Hadron Collider.


Colyn Grey Morgan, in 2010
Colyn Grey Morgan, in 2010

He was born on March 29th, 1925 in Pontypridd, Glamorgan, which is some 10 miles north of Cardiff. After a few years his family moved some 50 miles west of Cardiff to the village of Garnant not far from the town of Ammanford. His primary schooling between the ages of 6 and 11, after a short period in the local infants school, was received in Garnant Council School, now Ysgol Y Garnant. In a recollection that he contributed to a publication in 1991 marking the 75th anniversary of the school’s founding Colyn notes that it was ‘a happy, welcoming and caring place’. He also recalls some ‘terrifying’ experiences, such as being tested, ‘in reading out loud and multiplication tables in front of the class and the visit of the School Nurse’.

On the curricular side two occasions are recalled as funny. The first was a visit by a ‘formidable, middle-aged lady’ who sought to impress on the pupils the dangers of drinking untreated milk and of the evils of alcohol; the latter was illustrated by setting alight a saucerful of methylated spirits, some of which spilled on the wooden floor and almost set the classroom on fire. The second memorable event was an attempt by a student teacher to make glass from sand using a bunsen burner. ‘His antics in joining up the gas mantle on the high-level gas lamps to the bunsen by a rubber tube, while standing precariously on a stool placed on a table, would be worthy of a Frank Spencer episode in the TV series.’ Is it conceivable that these two experiences set Colyn on his career to follow a discipline that pursued curiosity through experiment of excitement and hazard?

After Garnant the next exposure to general education was at Amman Valley Grammar School. In particular the science seed was truly planted and caringly nurtured, especially by his physics teacher, Mr John Andrew Owen, ‘... he stimulated my interest in physics. He was so thorough and clear- today I reckon he would have occupied a Chair, such was his calibre’. This quotation comes from a letter (dated 26 January 1993) to me.

On one occasion during a practical physics session in school Colyn was using a spectrometer (a sort of microscope to identify different colours in the spectrum). He was especially interested in the yellow glow in a glass tube containing sodium vapour when electrodes in the tube were connected to the terminals of a battery; this arrangement is similar to that of street lamps. Mr Owen offered the familiar explanation that the glow arose from the collision of electrons with sodium atoms to produce more electrons to sustain an electrical discharge (current) across the tube. Colyn posed the question: Where did the first electron come from? Much to his amazement, Mr Owen did not have an answer! This incident remained with Colyn throughout his career and informed his choice of research – the importance of the pursuit of the single electron (or other particles), the initiatory happening. Incidentally, it is to Mr Owen’s everlasting credit as a teacher that he confessed ignorance; he could have tried to fob off his enquiring pupil with some fanciful, unfounded utterance.

From the grammar school Colyn went to the then University College of Wales at Swansea to follow a course of undergraduate studies in electrical engineering; after three years he emerged with a First Class Honours degree. This was followed by a period of National Service during which he worked on radar equipment, specifically on erratic electrical discharges (sparks) that frequently caused failure of operation.

In 1948, on returning to the university to do postgraduate research in engineering, he accidentally found himself in conversation with Frank Llewellyn-Jones who was on the staff of the neighbouring physics department. FLl-J is the subject of a previous article in this series of Scientists of Wales. The upshot of this conversation was an invitation to Colyn to become a physics research student under the supervision of FLl-J. The focus of the research was to investigate single electrons i.e. to detect one, not a current of them, ‘Curiously enough since then I’ve always been involved in detecting single atoms, nuclear and subnuclear particles, be they protons, neutrons, mesons, quarks etc’. (letter of 26 January 1993).

After being awarded his Ph.D. Colyn had the deserved good fortune to win a Royal Society Research Fellowship that enabled him to stay at Swansea to continue as a post-doctoral fellow, again working closely with FLl-J.

In 1956 came a change of career and place of work when he joined a fusion research group at the Atomic Energy Authority at Harwell, Oxfordshire, England. At this time there was considerable research interest and political anticipation in the possibility of generating electrical power (for industrial and domestic purposes) from nuclear fusion, which is the process of the controlled combination of atomic particles, with release of energy, as compared with the process of fission, the uncontrolled separation, such as was experienced a little over 10 years previously in the form of the atomic bomb. This dream of abundant, even limitless, energy from fusion has still not been realised. The basic problem is that of containment and control of the collision between particles. It is always a matter of wonder why distinguished people, especially scientists, make somewhat outrageous predictions about good things to come from research and development in science and technology. Perhaps they should heed the wisdom of Niels Bohr (the ‘father’ of modern physics in the 20th century) who noted that prediction was always problematic, especially with regard to the future.

The long-term prospect of remaining in nuclear fusion research did not appeal to Colyn, so it was with much relief that he heard that he had been accepted as a lecturer in physics in Swansea; he took up this position in September 1960. He remained in the department, ultimately became Professor and Head of Department, until his retirement in 1992.

By 1960 the physics department at Swansea was well-established as a centre of research excellence under Frank Llewellyn-Jones. The principal focus of interest was on electrical discharges in gases, that is, the flow of charged particles, positive and negative, between two electrodes placed in a glass enclosure. When the electrodes were connected to a source of high voltage the charges would flow in opposite directions to form a current (sometimes a spark although that was not the desired outcome).

Colyn’s enthusiasm for research and combative style of discourse, coupled with a sympathetic amiability, made him an effective group leader. A distinctive aspect of his work was to pioneer the use of powerful laser beams to ignite fusion reactions; this he did in conjunction with researchers at other universities and at the Rutherford-Appleton Laboratory (RAL), near Harwell. A new facility was set up at the RAL, with Colyn as Chairman of its Management Committee. Another aspect of his commitment arose from his time as Visiting Scientist in 1965 at CERN, the famous European Centre for Nuclear Research in Switzerland. This initial link between CERN and the physics department at Swansea blossomed into a flow of graduates for full-time and part-time engagements; this flow continues. Perhaps the most well-known participant in this exchange is Dr Lyn Evans, formerly director of the Large Hadron Collider Project (and the subject of a previous article in this series: The Swansea-CERN connection).

An indication of the high esteem in which Colyn was held in the UK and elsewhere can be gained from the following selections from the eulogy spoken at his funeral (17 November 2017) by the Reverend Dr Noel Davies, who was minister at the chapel in Swansea where Colyn and his wife Menna attended over many years.

He had a sharp mind, great wit and a big heart…’ (Professor David Llewellyn-Jones, son of Frank)

.. a great person, most loyal friend….with deep knowledge and experience’ (Professor Yosr EzzEl Din Gamal, Cairo University)

He was loved by everyone….He was one of the founding fathers of the Central Laser Facility…’ (Professor J. Ll. Collier, Rutherford-Appleton Laboratory)

He was full of enthusiasm and managed to inspire the students by his restless energy and warm personality….’ (Dr Mike Price, CERN)

‘….how inspiring, kind and helpful…..a man of vast knowledge yet witty, humble and helpful….’ (Professor Lee Sing, Kuala Lumpur Iniversity)

‘…will be remembered best as a real character, a personality and truly inspirational and for me the mentor who instilled my interest and confidence in doing physics…’ (Dr Dewi Lewis, CERN)

Colyn was a gregarious person, always willing to speak to various audiences about physics, ranging from lectures at meetings of august societies, such as the British Association for the Advancement of Science, to talks at meetings of local discussion groups.

After a very busy career and almost–as–busy early years of retirement Colyn and Menna left Swansea to live at Little Chalfont, Amersham to be near their son and his family.

He died peacefully on 28 October 2017.

Neville Evans, March 2018

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


Professor Meirion Wyn Roberts; December 2017
Professor Sam Edwards; September 2017

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., 2018

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