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George Rowlands, 1932-2021

It is with great sadness we announce that Professor George Rowlands passed away on 3rd April 2021. George contributed enormously to the life of the Physics Department over a period of more than 50 years and his presence will be acutely missed by all who knew him. As a theoretical physicist, George applied his mathematical expertise to a whole range of different fields, including plasma physics, magnetism, ultrasonics, space weather, superfluidity and non-linear dynamics. He collaborated widely and published some 230 papers, his first in 1957 and his most recent in Dec. 2020. George was always keen to encourage students and junior staff, happily giving his time to engage with whatever interesting problems they presented - even leading to publications on bird flocking and distribution of football scores. George was a great character, an inspiring colleague and an engaging companion.

Born in Chirk, North Wales, George chose not to join his father’s undertaking business but to be the first from his family to enter university. Although the idea of “widening participation” was unheard of in the ’50s, a grammar school education meant George didn’t need to join the majority of his village down the pit and was able to follow his passion for mathematics and physics at Leeds University both as an undergraduate and then as a doctoral student of Edmund Stoner. In later life, George was hugely supportive of outreach activities and regularly welcomed prospective undergraduates at Open Days.

Following his PhD, a spell working for the Atomic Energy Commission, and tours of Canada and Russia, in 1966 George joined the new University of Warwick as a Senior Lecturer in the embryonic physics department, with just eight staff and the first undergraduates arriving. And he stayed here for 55 years, contributing immensely to the teaching, research and culture of the department as it grew and matured to an establishment with over 1000 staff and students. The success of the undergraduate programmes owes much to George’s insight that what we teach should be valuable and interesting for the majority of students, who don't want to be like us, as well as for the few that do. Warwick’s research originally focused only on condensed matter physics, but George’s expertise could be applied across many fields – indeed whatever the topic under discussion he would usually be able point to a relevant result derived in his thesis – which encouraged a broadening first into plasma physics, then non-linearity, chaos and beyond. Throughout his career, and for his twenty years as an Emeritus Professor, George worked across and between research groups, especially with research students with whom he developed a special rapport – his support and encouragement launched many an academic career and their enthusiasm kept him young in spirit. Even through the Covid-19 isolations of 2020/21, and increasingly frail and unwell, George kept his interest in physics and was always eager to discuss (mostly from a social distance) with visitors just passing his flat or with research students seeking his advice.

For many, George embodied the life of the department, making it a welcoming and friendly community. While many of his exploits cannot be described in a published obituary, almost everyone who met George will remember at least one with affection! Successive heads of department found it necessary to quell his antics, yet every year George upstaged them with his Christmas party speech.

Outside of physics, George was an active sportsman. He was talented at soccer (he loved to tell the story of trying and failing to man-mark subsequent Liverpool and Irish superstar Steve Heighway in the last-ever Warwick staff vs student football fixture), squash and cricket, until an eye injury from a champagne cork (while serving the ladies). Well into his later years he continued to play tennis as an active member, on and off the court, of the Warwick Boat Club, near to the house in Warwick where George lived with his two sons, Gwilym and Matthew, and his first wife Gwenda. He was married to his 2nd wife Inga for over 25 years (living with her initially in Warwick and latterly in Kenilworth), for whom he was the principal carer during her difficult final years. George was much loved by his 9 grandchildren and 8 great-grandchildren; he was well-supported by the community at the Virgins & Castle, immortalised in art, and earned the historic title of Keeper of the Pound.

As always we need to let George have the last words; these from the festival held to honour his 80th birthday:

“Physics is my hobby as well as my job. I’ve been very fortunate for the last 60 years to work in an area which I love and which still fascinates me when I look at the world around me in my every-day life. There’s always something new to discover, and there’s always a new challenge. I think it’s that constant novelty, and also the interactions I have with the younger generation of research students, which helps keep me feeling young.”

You can hear George’s life story in his own words through this extended interview from 2014.

Sun 04 Apr 2021, 13:25 | Tags: announcements, Staff and Department