top of page

Early Years

I was born (12 April 1935) and bred in Edinburgh under the gorse-clad slopes of  Blackford Hill.   My earliest memories are of the War years and of the fireworks when it all came to an end.  I recall gas masks,  bombers overhead on their way to and from the Glasgow docks,  and the absence of bananas, for which I had a peculiar craving, having tasted one before the War.


I joined the cubs at the age of 8 and learnt how to sew on buttons,  tie reef knots, bowlines, clove hitches, and sheetbends,  skip a hundred times, and cook bannocks over an open fire, skills that have stood me in good stead throughout life. 


My school from 1943 to 1953 was George Watson's Boys' College, which taught us where to place apostrophes.  There was also a George Watson's Ladies' College ('George Square'); now the two are happily merged in a very fine school.  We had a joyful Reunion in October 2013 of those who left the school  60 years earlier in 1953;  memorable for the Bunnahabhain that was drunk that evening!  


I took the Scottish Leaving Certificate with six 'Highers' (Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, English, French and Latin) and one 'Lower' (History) which taught us that the greatest event in the history of the world was the Battle of Bannockburn, 1314, recently commemorated and re-enacted in June 2014!   I then specialised in maths and physics, and gained a bursary to Edinburgh University in 1953.


But before that, I spent a three-month term of my final school year on exchange at the Lycée Henri IV in Paris. This was my first trip outside Scotland, and it opened my eyes to a life beyond kilts, bagpipes, haggis, and the poems of Robbie Burns; mind you, there's naethin' the matter wi' a' that!  

The mathematics teaching at Edinburgh University was superb --  A.C. Aitken and W.L.Edge on the Pure side, Nicholas Kemmer, Robin Schlapp and Andrew Nisbet on the Applied.  Aitken dazzled us with computational virtuosity on the blackboard, for which he was famous.  Edge took us walking on the Pentland Hills and further afield, deeming such outdoor exercise to be good for developing geometrical intuition.  Here you see the Stùc a' Chroin club that Edge founded, with Ben Vorlich in the background.  Edge is on the extreme right of the photo,  I am beside him, Robin Schlapp is centre front, Charles Glennie behind, and Ian Porteous crouched in front; photo April 1958.  


Kemmer (who succeeded Max Born in 1953 as Tait Professor of Mathematical Physics) lectured without notes, giving the impression that he was creating the subject from first principles with every lecture.  I resolved to follow this inspiring example throughout my own lecturing career some years later. 


I spent four happy years at Edinburgh University,  graduating in 1957 with first class Honours in Mathematical Sciences.  With Edge's rather grudging support,  I took the Scholarship Exam to Cambridge, and surprised him by winning a scholarship to Trinity College -- £60 a year, a minor fortune (on top of a State grant) for a student in those days.  

I spent the Long Vacation of 1957 in Canada, working on the section of the trans-Canada pipeline that was then being laid  some miles south of Winnipeg. The work was gruelling, but well-paid, so that I was then able to hitch-hike to Vancouver and back to Montreal with many adventures, on about a dollar a day, in time for the student charter flight back to Scotland; the DC4 stopped to refuel in Gander and again in Shannon, before finally depositing us back at Prestwick, south of Glasgow. 



I was at this time the proud owner of an  MG TC 1937;  here you see me in 1958 with my sister Lindesay who is a gifted pianist; she has channeled her musical talent to my daughter Hester and her children, a channel that bypassed me in the process. 

MG TC 1937.jpeg

At Cambridge, I took the BA degree becoming a Wrangler in 1958,  and was lucky  to be taken on by George Batchelor as a PhD student, working in the field of Turbulence in which he was an acknowledged world expert.  Cowling's famous monograph on Magnetohydrodynamics had been published just one year earlier, and I jumped at the opportunity to work in the hybrid field of Magnetohydrodynamic Turbulence which became the title of my 1962 PhD thesis.  Throughout my years as a research student, I undertook work as a student supervisor, six hours per week for Downing College; only through this teaching did I really begin to understand in depth the subjects of fluid dynamics, electromagnetic theory, and associated mathematical methods.

In 1959, I was a student participant, together with Donald Lynden-Bell at the  Ecole d'Eté des Houches in the Haute Savoie,  and drove there  in the MG, with Donald as navigator.  That year the course was on The theory of neutral and ionized gases, and we had a brilliant series of lectures. Les Houches provides a spectacular setting for creative thinking, and I have returned there at every opportunity.  The photo here shows Van Hove (subsequently Head of the Theory Division at CERN) lecturing to the 1959 class; Donald and I are in the front row, extreme right.


Donald, an experienced mountaineer,  induced me to climb  the Aiguille du Bionnassay with him one weekend during the course. 


We reached the ridge to the summit at about 9 a.m. on the Sunday morning,  already too late because the snow was melting and we sank knee-deep with every step.  We dug into a bivouac in the snow, and pummelled each other all day to keep warm until the snow froze hard again. We descended at midnight under a full moon. During that unforgettable day, Donald taught me the laws of thermodynamics in a way I had never previously understood.


In 1960, I attended the Tenth International Congress of Applied Mechanics, in Stresa in Northern Italy.  I was immediately a convert to this series of Congresses, which bring together every four years a wonderful range of experts and personalities in the field of (now) Theoretical and Applied Mechanics.  This was my initiation to the international dimension of my subject.  I have now attended thirteen of these Congresses.  The most recent (the  23rd ICTAM, as it is now called) was held in Beijing, 2012; the next will be Montreal (2016).


In 1961, I was very lucky to be appointed to a Cambridge University Assistant Lectureship, and then to a Teaching Fellowship at Trinity College.  I gave my first course of 16 lectures on Oscillations and Waves during the Easter Term, April-June 1961.   I walked into a large, very noisy, first-year class for my first lecture trembling with nervous anticipation.  Without a word,  I wrote on the blackboard a quotation from the poet Swinburne: "And behold . . . the waves be upon you at last".  There was a reassuring cheer and applause and stamping of feet from the class; the ice was broken, my nerves recovered, and I was able to proceed, noteless in the style of Kemmer, and with no further difficulty.  My career as a University Lecturer was launched.

bottom of page