Issue 42

11 March - 21 April 1997

IC Reporter


An appreciation of Professor Bryan Coles

Bryan Randall Coles

Bryan Randall Coles, who died suddenly on 24 February 1997, was an emeritus professor in the Department of Physics. He will be remembered for his major contributions to the physics of metals, his encyclopaedic knowledge and intuitive understanding of the physical properties of metallic alloys and compounds, and for his friendship to many scientists, young and old alike.

He was born in Cardiff on 9 June 1926 and brought up in Wales, obtaining his BSc in metallurgy from the University of Wales, Cardiff: he was fond of saying, "my parents thought that a working-class lad with that degree would always find a job in the South Wales steel industry".

He studied for a DPhil at Oxford, where he worked with the eminent metallurgist William Hume-Rothery and developed a lifelong interest in the physics of transition metals and alloys. In 1950 he moved to IC to take up a lectureship in metal physics, and he subsequently became senior lecturer, reader and from 1966 professor of solid state physics.

His years at IC saw exciting developments in research on metals and alloys to which he has made many important contributions. He built up a prominent research group in experimental solid state physics and provided it with inspiration and dynamic leadership, so it is no coincidence that many of his former research students and postdoctoral fellows have remained in this general area of research.

Bryan Coles had close links with the USA. Partly because of these, the work of his group at IC was greatly enhanced by postdoctoral fellows and visiting scientists from America. His inaugural lecture, in 1967, entitled 'Solid state physics - in particular metals', was a classic and is recommended reading for any young solid state physicist or materials scientist.

Bryan's facility with language, founded on a wide knowledge of English literature coupled with an innate sense of humour, delighted his colleagues and led to some memorable and elegant phrases. To quote one example, in a review on the Kondo effect, referring to the strange low-temperature behaviour of dilute CuFe alloys, he observed: "What we ascribed to some kind of metallurgical craziness turned out to be the cornerstone of the temple". It was Coles who coined the evocative term 'spin glass' to describe the state of frozen-in magnetic disorder.

Inevitably, as time progressed, he became more involved with university and scientific administration. At Imperial College, he was dean of the Royal College of Science from 1984 to 1986, and College pro rector from 1986 to 1990. There was considerable pleasure when he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, in 1991: this richly deserved honour was a fitting climax to a distinguished career, which continued with his appointment as emeritus professor at Imperial College following official retirement in 1991.

He took up research with renewed vigour after his years as pro rector and travelled extensively and published some 30 papers. He was engaged in discussions about new experiments on his last day at IC, three days before his sudden death. We have lost a great solid state physicist, who will be sorely missed by his worldwide circle of friends and colleagues.

Appreciation by David Caplin, professor of physics, Imperial College and Keith McEwen, professor of experimental physics, Birkbeck College.

A commemorative meeting will be held at a future date.

PHOTO : Photography by Nick Jackson, Blackett Lab Photography and Publications.

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(c) Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine, 1996
Last Revised: 11 March 1997