Cymru Culture

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Scientists of Wales: Gareth Roberts

(June 01, 2016)


Gareth Roberts (1940-2007)

Professor Gareth Roberts, University of Durham
Professor Gareth Roberts
Image courtesy of and © University of Durham

School reports present challenges to teachers and pupils. For my own part, as a pupil, I was often more irritated than pleased, especially by ‘could do better’. How did my teacher know when I knew – really knew- how hard I had worked to achieve a modest performance. I felt similarly, in an intellectual sense, in the context of subjects in which I had little interest or capability and for which I knew – really knew -- that I had made little effort. But perhaps the most hurtful comment was ‘disappointing’, because it left me feeling guilty that I had not played my part alongside the teacher on my journey of learning.

When I became a teacher I appreciated what anguish most of my teachers had felt. In the context of completing scores, if not hundreds, of reports the sheer boredom of trying to be fair and supportive was always a challenge, especially when the base instinct often was to be coldly analytical and condemnatory. Today, teachers are urged, even required, to give only positive comments; there is prohibition on negative comments. It is debatable whether this trend towards being economical with the truth always serves all pupils well. Certainly there would be condemnation of ‘bone idle’ and ‘will have to work hard to achieve a low grade’ which I recall from reports of forty years ago.

It is most unlikely that the teachers of Gareth George Roberts had any such concerns because he sailed through everything, excelling from a young age. He was born on 16 May 1940 and raised in a Welsh-speaking family. He had a seemingly unfair allocation of innate intellectual ability; at his primary school (Penmaenmawr National School) he was nicknamed ‘Professor’ and at his secondary school (John Bright Grammar School, Llandudno) his performance at 16+ (Ordinary Level in those days) was exemplary, with 10 Grade A. And yet, by his own admission, he hated both primary and secondary education. He does not indicate why. Could it have been that the curriculum lacked sufficient variety of challenge? What met the needs of the average pupil did not do so for the gifted and talented?

By his own standards it must have been disappointing to him at Advanced Level to have attained Grade B in physics, pure mathematics and applied mathematics. However, in his courses at higher education (at the then University College of North Wales in Bangor) his talent again shone through in the form of a First Class Honours degree in physics, the only one of his year. During two vocations he worked at United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA), Harwell, with a view to specialising in nuclear physics but the experience put him off that career completely.

Despite his undoubted academic prowess and his avowed hatred of school, his life was not that of a studious loner. On the contrary he was an enthusiastic sportsman especially in football (the traditional preferred code of soccer in north Wales at the time and still largely true today) to the extent of having a trial for Manchester City.

He was invited to do research at Bangor under Professor Richard Tredgold whose inspiring lectures opened his mind to the challenges of quantum mechanics in the context of semi-conductors, that is the study of the flow of electricity in solids, which allow flow in only one direction not both as do normal metals. This was the time when computers were beginning to be used extensively in science to speed up times of computation. Roberts was at the forefront of pioneering users of this new facility. He reports that he had something of a Eureka experience similar to that attributed in folklore to Archimedes, the similarity being that the idea came to him while in the bath.

At the age of 23, while still doing his initial Ph.D. research, he was appointed to an assistant lectureship at Bangor. This early experience whetted his appetite for teaching and administration in higher education, two aspects in which he later excelled. A chance conversation at a social function resulted in his moving in 1966 to Rochester, New York to join the Xerox Corporation at a salary unbelievably higher than at Bangor. After two years with Xerox he returned to the UK to re-establish a research link with Professor Tredgold at the New University of Ulster. His rise as a leader of research and departmental leader soon followed in Ulster and contributed to his appointment to the Chair of Applied Physics in Durham University in 1976. By now his field of specialism was molecular electrons using organic materials. Honours and awards were bestowed on him in abundance, not least that of election as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1984.

Professor Gareth Roberts at the Ogden Centre, University of Durham
Professor Gareth Roberts
at the Ogden Centre, Durham University
Image courtesy of and © University of Durham

From 1985 to 1991 he enjoyed the best of both the academic and industrial worlds of basic research. He started a new group at Oxford University and was Research Director of THORN EMI a huge international company specialising in the development of television, brain scanning and stereophonic sound.

At this point in his career at the age of 51 more of his time and energy went into strategic planning and education administration, but still keeping his research groups. In 1991 he became Vice-Chancellor of Sheffield University, where he did pioneering work in promoting links between the university and the city. He served on several government committees, such as influential ones related to the funding of universities and the supply of science teachers. He was knighted in 1997.

Without question Roberts was a man of stature in his direct involvement with original research in molecular electronics and in university administration. He was possessed of enormous personal energy and a desire and determination to promote efficiency in all he took on. His career epitomised his conviction that the art of progress is to preserve order amid change and to preserve change amid order. His last formal post was as President of Wolfson College at Oxford University from which position he showed incisive vision about the nature of education at all levels, at home and abroad. At no time did he use his cancer as justification for taking his duties at a more leisurely rate and was at work up to 48 hours before his death on 6 February 2007 at the age of 66.

On his end-of-term report, dated 29 July 1949, when he was 9 years of age, his class teacher wrote, ‘Gareth never lets anything beat him; he should go far’. Was there ever a more accurate prediction?

Neville Evans, June 2016

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

     ERH 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., 2016


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