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Dr WM Gibson, 1926-2023

Dr WM Gibson

21 July 2023

(William) Martin Gibson, a member of the University’s then Physics Department from 1949-53 as a Research Associate and 1960-85 as Senior Lecturer and Reader, died in February aged 96 at Addenbrookes Hospital, Cambridge. His colleague, Vincent Smith, offers a remembrance.

Martin was born in Repton, Derbyshire and educated at Liverpool Collegiate School from 1939 to 1943. The school was evacuated to Bangor, North Wales, where Martin began a love of walking in the mountains. He won scholarships to Caius College, Cambridge, where he graduated in Natural Sciences (Physics) in 1946. He continued to a PhD in Nuclear Physics at the Cavendish Laboratory, using photographic emulsions as detectors of the products of nuclear reactions initiated by the Cockcroft-Walton accelerator. While at Cambridge, Martin met Joan Parris (both had become Quakers), and they were married in 1949. Children followed: Stephen, born 1953; and Penny, born 1955.

Martin came to Bristol as G A Wills Research Associate in 1949, shortly after Cecil Powell had received the Nobel Prize for the discovery of the pi meson using the emulsion technique. A fortunate extension of Martin’s work took him to Norway one summer to start a small research programme at the University of Bergen. This gave him new friends and the start of an appreciation of the wider world.

In 1953, Martin applied unsuccessfully for a lectureship at Bristol, but was offered one at Queen’s University, Belfast (QUB), instead. They had used the Bristol shortlist as the easy way of finding someone “to bring new life into a static department”, as Martin put it. While at QUB, Martin taught physics to engineering students and took part in research collaborations using accelerators at Birmingham and Liverpool. In those days, collaborators communicated by exchanging letters in the post, and carbon copies (cc:) were just that!

In 1957, Martin successfully applied for a job at Glasgow University, but this was ”trumped”, in his words, by an invitation from the newly established CERN Laboratory in Geneva, to set up and head a group to use photographic emulsion detectors for experiments on the accelerators under construction and proposed – elementary particle physics rather than nuclear! Martin, Joan and their two young children flourished in the new environment. He reported: “Mountains within sight and easy driving distance”. Martin particularly enjoyed the international flavour, improving his schoolboy French, although he remarked that thankfully most of the physics discussions were in English.

In 1959, Martin suffered two bleeds into the brain from an aneurysm. The first produced a severe headache, the second, a few days later, involved an immediate trip to the hospital. There he was operated on by Aloys Werner of the Cantonal Hospital, whose humanity and courage were appreciated by Martin and Joan as much as his skill. "Courage" because at that time in Geneva both arteriography and operative intervention were disapproved of in such cases. There was an operation to close off the aneurysm, a second to remove as much more of the affected artery as was safe, and a third one to prevent a possibly fatal recurrence, but with considerable risk of paralysis on one side. This was explained in detail beforehand to Martin and Joan, but both decided independently to take that risk. Fortunately, there proved to be another artery to supply the affected part of the brain, and to the great relief of all, especially the surgeon, all went well.

Martin returned to work at CERN as the Proton Synchrotron began operation: Martin’s group worked with visiting teams using the emulsion technique. But Martin felt his calling was to combine research with teaching, so he served his three years at CERN, then was appointed to Bristol in 1960 as Senior Lecturer. He continued to participate in emulsion experiments at CERN, in collaboration with other European institutions, notably in the measurement of the magnetic moment of the Lambda hyperon. But the emphasis had already shifted to bubble chambers and electronic counters.

In 1965, Martin formed a Bristol research team jointly with a newly appointed Australian colleague, John Malos, and they performed a series of counter experiments at the Rutherford High-Energy Laboratory at Chilton, near Oxford, using the Nimrod proton synchrotron. By 1971, as UK particle physics research concentrated on CERN instead of national laboratories, Martin worked on an experiment at the new Intersecting Storage Rings, spending a year living in Geneva with his family. This was followed by a series of experiments as a visitor from Bristol, using the Hyperon beam in the West Area fed by protons from the SPS, in increasingly large international collaborations. Martin had a full teaching load at Bristol, including supervising PhD students, among whom was the author of this obituary. As a spin-off from his teaching, Martin found time to write textbooks: Basic Electricity (Penguin Books, 1969; 2nd edition Longman, 1976.); Nuclear Reactions (Penguin, 1971; 2nd edition as The Physics of Nuclear Reactions, Pergamon, 1976); and, jointly with Brian Pollard, Symmetry Principles in Elementary Particle Physics (Cambridge Monographs on Physics, 1976.) All these were well received and popular. He was promoted to Reader in 1967.

Martin was appointed External Examiner in Physics to Makerere University, Uganda, from 1985 to 1987. This involved three annual visits to Kampala (accompanied by Joan at their own expense.) They found Uganda was devasted by civil war and struggling to recover at the end of it. Following their retirements in 1985, Martin and Joan had applied to VSO for voluntary work overseas: Joan to use her experience as a physiotherapist, Martin his practical or teaching skills. But joint placement of elderly volunteers was difficult to find. However, at the end of their first visit to Uganda, they crossed the border into Kenya. This was a country with need for voluntary work but developed enough to reduce uncertainty and insecurity. Through Quaker connections, Joan was offered the opportunity to run a disabled children’s clinic in Malava, a few miles north of Kisumu, Kenya’s third largest city, while Martin taught at Malava’s Girls’ Secondary School. This proved to be a very rewarding year in Malava; Joan already had experience in rehabilitation of partial paralyses from before the 1950s start of polio vaccinations in the UK. It is estimated that Joan’s work resulted in over 60 disabled children being able to have a near normal life after being virtually abandoned by their families.

On their return to England, they downsized and moved from Bristol to Saffron Walden, to be closer to their first grandchildren, since Stephen and his wife were GPs in Ware. Later Penny settled as a consultant paediatrician in Guildford. Martin kept his teaching skills alive for a while by tutoring in physics at his old college in Cambridge. They were welcomed into the local Quaker community, and Martin served as Treasurer of the local Meeting from 1994 to 2010.

Joan died in May 2017, aged 98. Martin is survived by his children Stephen and Penny, four grandchildren and two great grandchildren.

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