Dr John Pain - Obituary


John Pain

A tribute to John Pain who died on 21st February 2016.

It is with much sadness I report the death of John Pain on 21st February. John has had a significant and unique association with Imperial College since 1954, until he retired in 1987 and this association continued until his death. John was born in February 1922. He spent the war years flying off aircraft carriers, with postings in the Arctic (escorting convoys to Russia), the Pacific and the Mediterranean (the southern part of the invasion of France in 1944) - amongst others. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and Bar. He also served as a Fighter Combat Instructor at the Fleet Air Arm Advanced Flying School at St. Merryn in Cornwall (considered to be the creme de la creme of training for the best pilots). At the end of the war, he packed in flying and went off to St Andrews to become an undergraduate in the subject of his lifelong interest: Physics. He joined Imperial College’s Physics Department in 1954 where his research specialised in Plasma Physics. In addition, he undertook additional roles as Admissions Tutor and academic in charge of ‘A’ level practical examinations. He retired in 1987 but continued his association with the Department returning to Imperial for the Thursday lunch-time concerts which were always a source of great delight to him. His classic textbook ‘Vibrations and Waves’ is renowned. At the age of 90 his publishers asked him to produce a more contemporary version of his classic text on Vibrations & Waves. This 7th edition, ‘Introduction to Vibrations and Waves’ was published in March of last year with co-author Patricia Rankin (class of ‘78, and currently Professor of Physics at University of Colorado).

He became my mentor when I joined Imperial in 1968 and under his wing I learned the fundamentals of undergraduate administration. He remained my mentor until his recent death. My life has been all the richer for having known this special man and I, and many others, do not forget his inspiration.

Some anecdotes follow:

Tom Kibble, Emeritus Professor, Imperial College
‘In the early 60s, soon after I arrived, I often used to run up and down the stairs (mainly between Levels 5 and 8). For some reason, John challenged me to a race, perhaps from 3 to 8 and/or vice versa. Though I was a few years younger, I was clearly less fit, because he won by a significant margin. John's memory really was astounding. At least in some cases, I recall that in meeting a former student he could not only remember the name but also his exam grades. ‘

Keith Arundale (class of ’74)
‘John Pain was a super guy and a wonderful tutor. I always remember the large quantities of Hirondelle wine that he often used to serve at the end of the tutorials (definitely made them worth attending!) and his great love of the Financial Times which he was always reading and encouraged us to do likewise (probably why I ended up becoming an accountant!). Of course who can forget his famous book "The Physics of Vibrations and Waves" which I still have on my bookshelf.’

Meg Southwood (class of ’74)
‘John Pain was a great guy. Please relay our sympathy to his family. I still have the green book - "The Physics of Vibrations and Waves". There must be tens of thousands of this book in the houses of all the IC Physics Alumni. This thin volume has its place in history!

Marie Still (class of ’74)
'I would also like to add my condolences. Dr Pain was also my tutor and I have hugely fond memories of him. In particular his patience with a not very bright Physics student'

Edmund Turcu (class of ’74)
‘I also have the John Pain’s book, which I treasure. He was a good teacher and a good man. He will be sadly missed.’

Gareth Parry, Emeritus Professor of Physics, Imperial College
‘I first met John Pain in 1969 when I travelled from a small village in mid-Wales to attend an interview for admission to the Physics Department. John was the admission tutor and he sat a small group of us in his office on level 3 of the Blackett Laboratory and told us to get two “B grades” in Physics and Mathematics and he would be delighted to take us! He then took us to the basement to see some of his research group’s work on plasma physics. His enthusiasm was infectious and I travelled home determined to get into Imperial at all costs! John was a graduate of the United States Naval Aviation Academy, Florida and of the Universities of S Andrews, Aix- Marseilles and London. He first taught physics at Imperial in 1953. By the time I came to Imperial he had been giving a course on Vibrations and Waves for a number of years and he had just produced the first edition of what became a classic teaching text “The Physics of Vibrations and Waves”. He updated the book regularly and by 2005 had produced the 6th edition. He was an inspiring lecturer; the pace of the lectures was very fast and in those days students had to take their own notes and buy the text book! I still have my notes from John’s course. John continued as admissions tutor for many years working with Linda Jones in the office on level 3. They were a superb team and all undergraduate students got to know them well and they both got to know all the undergraduates. John had an amazing memory for names. After retirement he moved to Oxford but still kept in touch with the Department, mainly through Linda, but he would call in to see me when he visited and was still keen to update his book well into retirement. I have a signed copy of the first edition which brings back a lot of good memories.’

Peter Smy (class of ’57 and Professor of Electrical Engineering, University of Alberta (retired))
‘I first saw John Pain when he started the first lecture of the 2nd year acoustics class at Imperial in 1955. He came in and started to lecture to all 100 of us when an almighty periodic din started up outside- builders! It was hopeless. John went to the open window which was well above head height -at its bottom, hoisted himself up, and shouted "Go away!"in his best naval officer fashion. The noise stopped and he had us in his hands for the rest of the course- and of course some of us for much longer. The naval officer routine didn't always work in those days and John very typically could laugh about it (afterwards!). I remember when I worked for him as a graduate student he returned from one of his very rare forays on the Underground. He had carefully selected a no smoking carriage and found a number of passengers smoking. He took the matter up with them -I presume, with the appropriate manner and accent and told us that the whole carriage turned on him. The class war was alive and well during those times. I am sure that he gave as good as he got during the exchange but I know that he got real pleasure from retelling the story and noting how the times and mores had passed him by. I cannot believe that he has gone.’

Patricia Rankin (Class of ’78 and Professor, Associate Vice Chancellor for Research, University of Colorado)
‘John Pain taught me that the value of an education lies in how well you learn to think. When you met him you wanted to go to Imperial College. When he taught you about vibrations and waves you wanted to teach. Most importantly though, spending time with him made you want to live up to his expectations. He epitomized decency and the value of an individual living with integrity. He was energetic – I was never sure if he did demonstrations in class to help us understand or to show us how fit he was. He challenged his students to take advantage of living in London – to go to the theatre, concerts, and exhibitions, and to be able to discuss more than science. He made me part of a group of lively minds. It was an honour to work with him on updating his book for a new generation of students – everyone deserves a teacher like John Pain.’

Chris Impey (Class of ’77 and a University Distinguished Professor in the Department of Astronomy/Steward Observatory at the University of Arizona)
‘Who can forget the dynamic, restless energy of John Pain; watching him was a lesson in physics. His tutorials epitomized the purest form of learning. Students were challenged to grapple with fundamentals but given a safe place to do so, and he always stressed the elegance of the subject and encouraged the curiosity that's at the heart of science. He was broad and encouraged me in creative writing and in making connections between Science and the Arts. My copy of Vibrations and Waves, for reasons too complex to explain, is signed by Muhammed Ali. That's fitting; as a mentor and educator, John was indeed the Greatest.’

John (Jinx) Cooper ( Emeritus Professor, JILA and Physics, University of Colorado )
‘I first met John in 1959 when I started graduate study in Plasma Physics at Imperial. John was always cheerful and helpful. He pushed the pram full of delicate equipment when we moved into the new Blackett building. I left for Colorado in 1965. However somehow we remained in touch and swapped recommendations for books (non-physics) to read. In recent years my wife, Ann, and I have, on our visits to Oxford, looked forward to and enjoyed hospitality and reminiscences with Pat and John at their home. He is missed.’

Brian May (Class of ’69)
‘I'm very sad to hear of the passing of John Pain. He has to be one of the greatest lecturers I ever saw. I and my best friend Tom Short experienced his magic together and it's remained one of strongest memories of our first days as 'freshers' in the Physics department around 1970. Dr Pain delivered a series of lectures on Vibrations and Waves with a clarity and flair that I have never seen equalled. He used his whole body, and every inch of the available space, to illustrate how things vibrated under a restoring force proportional to displacement ( see? - it's still in my brain!) and his boundless energy and enthusiasm was as inspiring as it was infectious.
I also know it was John Pain who made the decision to admit me to the University, and he took a personal interest in my progress, as I believe he did in every one of his admissions. He knew the name of every student on the first day - something unique again, in my experience. Well 94 is a great innings but I can only wish him a peaceful place in the next life where his exceptional talents and commitment are appreciated. He certainly was and IS appreciated by us.
RIP John Pain.’

Tom Short (Class of ’69)
‘ I am sorry that you have lost an old colleague and friend. I think Brian has captured how we felt about John Pain and the high esteem in which we held him. I tried to use him as a model when I did some physics lecturing in my early career but I was only a shadow of the real thing. When I arrived at IC I felt completely out of my depth and that everyone was much cleverer than I was. However, JP's lectures were so exciting and stimulating that he infected us with his own love of physics which confirmed to me that I was in the right place after all. It is a great loss but he leaves a huge legacy of generations of physicists who were inspired by him.’

Geoff Pert (Emeritus Prof. University of York)
As one of his former graduate students I kept in touch with John. I always enjoyed his phone calls and contact through e-mail. Up to the end he remained his same ebullient self – a joy to talk to. This was typical of him. He maintained contact with many of his former students and colleagues. All remember him as a lovely man. He will be greatly missed.
I remember John so well from my student days. As an undergraduate he was one of the best lecturers we had, teaching acoustics – not one of the most exciting subjects. But his enthusiasm conveyed itself to the students as he bounced along delivering his pearls of wisdom. Greatly liked for his personality, as well as for his lectures; he was undoubtedly one of the most popular lecturers to those who attended his course. In later years he became responsible for student welfare in Physics – a task for which he was exceptionally well suited. By the time of graduation, he used to know each of150 or so students personally.
I was one of a fortunate and select group of John’s former PhD students. He was an exceptional supervisor in that he encouraged you to pursue your own aims within broad limits, but was always there when you needed him. It was during these postgraduate years that I got to know John really well. I must have been his third or fourth PhD student. By then he was already very busy with undergraduate welfare matters as well as dealing with two or three research students, yet I never recall him not finding time for me. He was at his best helping in times of stress. In my case this involved talking through times when the project was going badly – often talking about some, but not many, of his war experiences to put my troubles into context. It is this side of him I remember so well, his interest in his students as people, not simply as scientists, and helping to reduce the stress and inherent difficulties of research. I have always considered myself extremely fortunate to have had John as my supervisor, and to work in his laboratory with the technician Arthur Chapman, who also provided good pastoral care. In later years once I started to supervise PhD students I always tried to follow his example and endeavoured to mentor their welfare as well as their studies.
When I completed my PhD, I ran into difficulties with a major company, who had financially supported me as a student, but had reneged on the nature of employment promised. As soon as he heard of this John went straight in and sorted them out, arranging a fellowship at I C. When this ended he organised a post with Peter Smy at the University of Alberta. This was very successful. Peter and I got on very well together and I regard it as the real start of my career. Without John’s considerable help I would not have achieved the success I have had in later years. I very much look to him both as an example and as the catalyst for myself as a scientist. It is impossible to express how grateful I feel to him. I feel very strongly that anything I achieved in later years is due in no small part to him.
Some memories: John weight training with the lab technician in the first year lab; group dinner Christmas 1961 when the waiter came in and announced that Kennedy had been shot; a conference in Paris in 1963. It goes on.
One further point I must make concerns John’s book. It is a very fine text (probably the best in its field) and will remain as a memorial to him. I am very pleased that he managed to complete the shortened version and see it into print.

Professor Sir Colin Humphreys, CBE, FREng, FRS (Director of Research, Department of Materials Science and Metallurgy, University of Cambridge)
When I was at Luton Grammar School I applied to do Natural Sciences at Cambridge, and as a back-up applied to do Physics at Imperial College. Imperial got in first with the offer of an interview, and so I found myself sitting in John Pain's office. I well remember him asking me if I preferred going to parties or doing Physics? I thought it wise to say "Physics". He then said, "If you want to go to parties, choose Cambridge, but if you really want to do Physics, come to Imperial!" He said this with such enthusiasm and glee that I totally believed him! So I withdrew my application from Cambridge and went to Imperial, starting in 1960. When I subsequently saw John in the Physics building, amazingly he remembered my name, and we had a number of good conversations. He was a most remarkable man.


Our thoughts are with his wife, Pat: it was a wonderful relationship of love, companionship and support


Linda Jones

Linda Jones
Department of Physics