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Knighthood for Imperial theoretical physicist in Birthday Honours list

Monday 14 June
by Tom Miller

Theoretical physicist John Pendry was taken aback on receiving the news that he was to be honoured with a knighthood for his services to science, announced in The Queen's Birthday Honours list on Saturday 13 June.

"It was a great surprise to me, but a pleasant one of course," said Sir John, 60, Professor of Theoretical Solid State Physics, a post he has held since 1981.

His peers were quick to congratulate him, highlighting his outstanding track record in solid state theory and optics.

image: Sir John Pendry"He is the leading theorist in optical materials in the world today," said Professor Peter Knight FRS, head of the department of physics and president of the Optical Society of America. "We're absolutely delighted in the department that Sir John has been recognised for his contribution to physics. Its a wonderful thing," he said.

Professor Will Stewart FREng, formerly of Marconi Company and a long-time collaborator of Sir John said: "I am extremely pleased that John's seminal work has been recognised. He is a model collaborator. His energy, innovative approaches and willingness to listen makes him a pleasure to work with."

The last serving member of the physics department to be knighted was Sir George Paget Thomson, Professor of Physics from 1930-1952. Sir George shared the Nobel prize in 1937 for the experimental discovery of the diffraction of electrons by crystal.

Sir John's knighthood is the third honour for physics at Imperial in the space of a few weeks, following the election of two new Fellows of the Royal Society from the department.

In 2000, Sir John published a series of papers building on forgotten work by Russian physicist Victor Veselago from 1968, which laid the theoretical ground for the development of special left-handed or metamaterials that could be used to form perfect lenses.

Professor Stewart added: "Of course his contributions in solid state theory are substantial but the recent work on metamaterials and imaging is particularly notable - this really is revolutionizing our ability to control RF and TeraHertz electromagnetic fields and John's work has been at the centre of developments."

Since leaving his post as Principal of the Faculty of Physical Sciences in 2002, Sir John received an EPSRC senior research fellowship, and has pitched himself into full time research. He is fantastically productive. These last two years hes been working on metamaterials, and this work has absolutely blossomed, said Professor Knight.

Currently, Sir John is working on new optical materials developed jointly with colleagues at the Marconi Company, which may lead to DVD disks with much higher information density, and to higher resolution optical lithography for computer chips.

"These metamaterials promise to turn optics upside down by breaking through the limits on resolution imposed by conventional technology," he says. "They are also having an impact at the other end of the electromagnetic spectrum in Magnetic Resonance Imaging, work that is being developed with collaborators at Hammersmith campus, Professor Joe Hajnal and Dr Mike Wiltshire, of the MRC Clinical Sciences Centre. We are already seeing breakthroughs on the experimental front and I expect more to come this year."

Speaking in March this year he was open-minded about the eventual applications for metamaterials: "I believe that the really valuable applications have yet to be dreamt of. Think back to when the first lasers were made, the reaction was that they were just incredible, but what the hell would we do with them?"

Sir John, a theorist, has proved consistently insightful when asked to describe the relevance of physics to the world.

Challenged in 1997 to give the College a glimpse of where he saw research in his discipline heading, he described physics as a practical, enabling discipline 'showing how to do things thought impossible, helping others refine their approach.'

"Physics is to the rest of science what machine tools are to engineering," he wrote in an essay.

"We have to keep this in view at a time when physicists are being challenged as to their relevance and asked what it is they make for society. A sensible answer requires a more subtle question. [Harold] Hopkins [former professor of physics at Imperial] did not manufacture many endoscopes, a few were enough to show the way, and I am sure that he never performed any surgery. How should we measure the value of what he did do?"

Biographical Notes

Sir John's early work focused on surfaces and photonics, particularly photonic band gaps.

His previous appointments were at Bell Labs, USA, Cavendish laboratory, Cambridge, and Daresbury Laboratory, Cheshire. He took his MA and PhD at Downing College, Cambridge. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and a Fellow of the Institute of Physics in 1984.

He has held all the senior scientific appointments possible at the College: Dean of the Royal College of Science from 1993-1996; Head of the Department of Physics from 1998-2001 and first Principal of the Faculty of Physical Sciences from 2001-2002.