There are many theoretical high energy physicists who will tell you of their wonderful time as students in the theory group in Southampton, England. I’m one of them. I think a huge component of that is due to Ken. He founded the group, nurtured it, and led it for many years. As a nearly completing undergraduate who was somewhat certain about what I wanted, after a lot of fastidious researching of various options, I picked the Southampton group very carefully back then. I had it set in my mind that I wanted to do research in string theory, and was looking for a group that felt dynamic and energetic, and while I got offers from some good places (including the excellent group at Durham which I was later to join as a faculty member 11 years later), there was a spark that I felt when I visited Southampton’s group, the group Ken founded way back in the early ’70’s.
The group was more than just Ken, of course, but the fact that such great faculty And staff were there, and doing great work, was part of his building process. Tim Morris, who was to be my advisor, and who was doing interesting things in string theory, was one such person who impressed me greatly. I was so glad I went there, from the moment I first arrived, and I loved those days so dearly.
It all began (as many will tell you) with Ken’s “pep talk” where he would tell the prospective students who were visiting the group about the possibly crazy decision they were making (to go into a highly technical field with few employment prospects in academia)… essentially reminding us that we’d better be doing it for the love of the subject. I think that we all were in awe of him, and perhaps a little afraid early on, but later I’m quite sure we all loved him as the spiritual father of the group that he was, being so kind, gentle, and extremely supportive of us young hopefuls. It is an honour to say that for a short while, on paper, he was my Ph.D. advisor at first, the topic being the Hagedorn temperature of string theory. Actually it was an administrative device (something to do with how the paperwork for the SERC studentships was handled), and his name was in many a beginning student’s file until it was time to connect with the advisor they’d work with. Once the time came, I became the student of Tim Morris, the person I had come to the group to work with.
I recall that everything seemed to flow through Ken, at least as far as I could see, filtering into the style of the seminars, the group meetings that really nurtured the students and helped them get the best out of themselves through presentations of their work (and I am sure that was true for the postdocs and younger faculty too), and the various social activities, from visits to the pub -darts night!- to various parties throughout the year. It was a wonderful group to be in, full of great faculty who were inspired to do some of their best work in a supportive environment with great leadership. I’ve been lucky to be part of several great groups over the years, some of which also have considerable renown for having great atmosphere, for being great places to work, and I miss them all. But none of them – except Southampton – had all that and also felt like a close family as well. That difference was due to Ken.
Thanks, Ken for giving so very many of us an excellent start in our research careers. You’ll be missed.
(Visit an obituary page, with tributes and details of tomorrow’s funeral service, here.)