“Shaped by the past”: our scientific legacy


Since our University opened its gates in 1832, it has hosted a steady stream of forward-thinking students and professors. In particular, Durham has produced notable scientists over the years, who have helped the University achieve the prominent status it holds today. You may spot some of their names on lecture theatres and campus buildings, but how well do you know their stories?

Arthur Holmes proposed the theory of plate tectonics
Arthur Holmes proposed the theory of plate tectonics

The Physics Department has been a home to renowned scientist Sir Arnold Wolfendale, who taught at Durham between 1965 and 1992 and still remains an emeritus professor. He made important contributions to the study of cosmic ray particles, which are charged particles that continuously bombard the Earth but whose origin still remains controversial. He is known for developing two novel techniques: the neon flash tube, used widely in cosmic ray, neutrino and quark studies, and the ‘solid iron’ spectrograph. Sir Wolfendale is a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and the Royal Society. We have a lecture theatre at the Calman Learning Centre named in his honour.

Professor George Rochester FRS discovered one of the fundamental building blocks of nature, originally called ‘V particles’, along with Clifford Butler in 1947. Today, V particles (or kaons) are recognised as the first observed particles containing the strange quark. In 1955, he was appointed the Head of the Physics department and finally retired in 1973.

Noteworthy scientists from the Chemistry Department include James Feast and Judith Howard. James Feast contributed to many fields, but is best known for his work on Electroactive Polymers. Between 2006 and 2008 Feast was president of the Royal Society of Chemistry. In 2007, he was awarded the Royal Medal of the Royal Society which is deemed as one of the most prestigious awards for research in the UK.

Judith Howard CBE FRS, a professor of Chemistry from 1991 to present day, is one of the world’s most distinguished crystallographers and is well known for developing fast data collection methods for research into organic metals and thin films and for designing bio-sensor materials. In 1999 she was awarded the Royal Society of Chemistry Prize for Structural Chemistry. She was also the first female Head of a Chemistry Department of any university in the United Kingdom.

From the world of geology and geography at Durham comes one of the most eminent geologists of the 20th century: Arthur Holmes FRS. He was a pioneer of the new discipline of geochronology and, using radioactive chemistry, estimated the age of the Earth to be 1.6 billion years in his 1913 book The Age of the Earth. He contributed to the theory of continental drift and put forward a theory that has come to be known as plate tectonics. The Arthur Holmes Medal of the European Geosciences Union is named after him. Further, our University’s Department of Earth Sciences has an Arthur Holmes Isotope Geology Laboratory, and there is a crater on Mars that carries his name.

Lastly, Gordon Manley, the head of the department of geography from 1928 to 1939 and curator of the Durham University Observatory, set up the Durham temperature series dating back from 1659. It is the longest series of temperature records in existence and is still maintained to this day. Manley’s 1952 book Climate and the British Scene, was one of the great contributions to British climatology. Manley was also President of the Royal Meteorological Society.

The scientists and academics mentioned here are only a handful of remarkable people who have taught, worked and studied at Durham. Looking at the list of accomplished alumni and staff, one truly believes that Durham University is “shaped by the past, creating the future”!

Image: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

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