Professor R N West Professor R N West


Professor R. N. West (1938 – 2016)

By his friend and colleague, Hugh Young

Roy West was a highly gifted physicist who spent 23 years (1965 – 88) at UEA. When he left, I was his sole co-Professsor of Physics  and, by compiling this obituary, I have the opportunity to acknowledge a small portion, a very small portion, of my indebtedness to him. 

Roy specialised in positron physics and became a leader of world stature on the effects of positrons in solids. In achieving this, he won the largest grant, up to that time, that any UEA research group had ever received. It was used to construct a positron beam facility. The latter, like all else Physics-related at UEA, is long gone. But the structure to house it, at ground level and abutting the back of the old MAP building is still there and is a continuing memorial to Roy.

A typical Physics Department of the 1980s provided service teaching – to Biologists, Engineers, Chemists, Geographers etc. But UEA, in its wisdom, had Schools who felt capable of teaching their own Physics. True or not, the end result was that UEA's Physics sector lacked undergraduate teaching and, as a result, was threatened with closure. 

To avert this misfortune, Roy strove to great effect. The Science Research Council made available c1985 a limited number of fully-funded 'New Blood' posts, these to be won on the basis of scientific merit; Roy was awarded one. And then, in 1987, he persuaded Anglia Television to fund a Chair and a Lectureship – a stunning achievement. But the University refused the offer because, it was said, they couldn't afford the overheads. This convinced Roy (correctly!) that UEA intended to close Physics and off he went to where he was better appreciated, as Head of Physics at the University of Texas at Arlington. 

What I have said so far describes a few of Roy's achievements but not the personal qualities he brought to bear in his every enterprise, professional and private. Within the Physics Sector, he was ready to tackle any problem with good humour and even comedy. I would call him Sergeant Bilko, after the hero in the then hugely popular TV series. Bilko, by various stratagems, always got his soldiers eating out of his hand, and thereby achieve some desired result; this was because he was fundamentally liked and trusted; and so it was with Roy and his colleagues, whether they were his technicians, graduate students or academic colleagues such as me! In fact Roy's charisma was unbounded and I illustrate this by referring to the posts offered (previous paragraph) by Anglia Television. Roy and I met their senior executive at a Norwich hotel and I arrived with my head full of facts and figures. Maybe Roy too; but he didn't find them necessary. He quickly established they were fellow (persecuted!) smokers and in no time at all was saying we should settle matters quickly and proceed to enjoy our lunches – which we did!   

But Roy had other, more intractable, battles to fight on behalf of Physics – against other interests at Senate and Council – and then I would liken him to an American soldier very different from  Bilko – General 'Blood and Guts' Patten. He would dominate from the turret of his tank, as it were, the Senate and Council Chamber 'battlefields' around him. He would fight brilliantly and heroically and leave wounded hostiles lying around; but even so, the odds were insuperable, the final battle was lost and Physics perished. 

And with so much happening, Roy, a single parent, found the energy to tend to the every need of his three small sons – their meals, their school runs, their homework, their bedtimes. Then, at work he would engage in research of world class and, at one point I remember, he was designing curtains and décor for a Physics coffee room! Nothing escaped his attention! At that point, I had been a Professor at UEA for 17 years and Roy for, at most, two. But I was happy to let this human dynamo take over. 

And despite everything I have said, it turns out I knew only a little of Roy's early life and scientific work. This is clear to me now after I'd read of the contribution at Roy's funeral service of his sons Simon, Daniel and Michael; they honour their father in a touching, affectionate way. Also, though I knew he'd had two decades of happiness with Victoria, the extent and depth of it was only revealed to me by her heartbreakingly beautiful funeral eulogy. How tragic that it was ended by Altzeimer's inflicting itself so cruelly.  Edited versions of the contributions by Roy's sons and Victoria follow next.

By his sons, Simon, Michael, and Daniel West                   

Roy Neil West was born in Croydon, in the south of London, March 27, 1938. He was the only child of Grace Webber (known as “Pinky” and twin sister to “Bluey”), who raised him as a single mother in her parents home. 

The early days of the second world war would shape many of his childhood memories. He grew up poor though he would never say deprived. Until he reached the age of 7 or 8, Roy had never seen a car other than an emergency vehicle. He had never seen a banana or a fresh egg. Red skies over London, and the sound of air raid sirens would find him peddling his tricycle down the street, ringing the bell shouting “Germans, Germans, Germans!” until his mother called him into the bomb shelter. He and his friends were also fond of collecting pieces of shrapnel from bomb sites. He grew up in a world without men – all of them off at war. One of the few in his life, his grandfather Charles Webber, became the father figure in his young life. “The Old Man”, as Charles was known, was brilliant, irascible, intolerant of children and a charmer - which would go along way to inform Roy’s personality. For a time during the blitz, he was separated from his mother and evacuated to the countryside, as where many other children for their own safety. When he arrived home he recalled the men returning, marching down the main road, with their spectacular military vehicles and military bands. Growing up in the middle of the war, he never knew the world was supposed to be any different. It changed so slowly afterward that he hardly felt the transition. But it helped shape the person he would become.

When Roy was nine, the entire Webber family migrated to Australia on the famous “Ten Pound Ticket”, as part of an Australian government incentive to increase immigration after the war. Most of the family returned four years later, while those who remained have by now made a material difference to the population of Queensland.

An early passion for cycling, on both two and three wheels, increased with age. A racing tricycle propelled him to a national record at the age of 21. He completed the trip from Land’s End to London in 15 hours and 26 minutes, a record held for more than sixteen years.  Between the years of 1959 and 1961 Roy amassed multiple trophies for cycling and tricycling. He biked throughout his life, regularly putting younger men to shame. He was known to compete in area races including the notorious Hotter Than Hell marathon in Wichita Falls where he came in the top one hundred, outracing cyclists a third of his age, a humiliation he would also frequently inflict on his sons.

With memories only of emergency and military vehicles in childhood, Roy came to love cars, a passion that fueled ownership of a long and mainly distinguished line of automobiles from the practical to the exotic, including a Frog Eyed Sprite, a Jaguar XJ6 and a handful of Lotuses. Many of these were taken apart and then put back together again, occasionally on the kitchen table.  He put himself through night school, earning his PhD while in his spare time helping out on the pit crew of racing driver Sir Gawaine Baillie at the Brands Hatch race track. Roy even consulted with his favorite automobile manufacturer, Lotus, and provided information and insight around the consequences of metal fatigue. His love for the Lotus brand resulted in the purchase of a 1969 Lotus Elan later in life, a car the he frequently needed overseas parts for that where reluctantly provided by his children. 

Anyone who listened to the soundtrack of “Oh What a Lovely War” with Roy could attest to his nostalgia for the war songs of his youth. But jazz became Roy’s cup of tea.  Ever enthusiastic about music, Roy even cajoled the famed Modern Jazz Quartet to perform at the University of East Anglia during his tenure. Other favorites included Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald - and on another note, an unfortunate fondness for The Carpenters and Barbara Streisand. 

Roy became a role model through his distinguished career as a professor and scholar and as remarkable father. 

Roy began pursuing his PhD at Birkbeck College in the early sixties under the supervision of Norman Cusack and was subsequently awarded it in 1966. Both moved to the University of East Anglia in Norwich where Roy was involved in experimental studies in his field of theoretical physics. He was soon promoted to the rank of lecturer, an honor at his young age. 

Some of Roy’s colleagues described his achievements in his field at a celebration of 60th birthday and his work in these excerpts:

“In these early days Roy made pioneering contributions to his chosen field, for example the formulation in 1969 of the two-state trapping model - a cornerstone for the interpretation of positron-based defect studies. Roy is the `W' in the LCW theorem along with Dennis Lock and Vic Crisp, a theorem has been widely applied since its publication in 1973. Roy's authoritative book Positron Studies of Condensed Matter, published in 1974, has become a `bible' for several generations of graduate students entering the field, and is still quoted regularly in research papers. In the late 1970s Roy developed the use of medical gamma, or Anger cameras in two-dimensional angular correlation studies of Fermi surfaces in metals and alloys. An imaginative step forward at the time, typical of Roy's lateral but practical thinking, this approach is used widely to this day.

In the 1980s Roy's interests broadened to include slow positron beams and their applications to surface and near-surface phenomena. He became a member of the positron consortium at Brookhaven National Laboratory, where the installation of two Anger cameras at either side of the intense positron beam line led to a number of important papers on surface electronic structure. In this same period Roy became Head of the School of Physics at UEA, approaching his administrative duties with the same zeal and fervor that were always a feature of his scientific life.

Roy was always a prominent member of the scientific community. He is justly proud to have contributed to every International Positron Annihilation Conference since the first in Detroit in 1965, and he served on the International Committee for these triennial meetings. Roy was also inducted as a fellow in the American Physical Society.

In the midst of a prospering career, Roy raised three sons; Simon, Daniel and Michael as a single father - with the aid of grandparents and the occasional housekeeper (who were frequently commissioned to make Marmite sandwiches, a task never verbally agreed to in their required job duties.) Roy raised his sons whilst working as a full time department head. All the while he found the time to drop the boys off at school, attend parent/teacher meetings and still have time for fish and chips and a VHS every Friday night. 

In 1987 Roy crossed the Atlantic with his three sons to become Head of the Physics Department at the University of Texas at Arlington. He continued to play a leading role in the field of electronic structure, contributing to the development of new and powerful data reduction techniques.

In 1989, Roy married Victoria Gillette and became stepfather to Victoria’s children, Natalie, Barron and Carter. Together they traveled all over the globe for Roy’s lectures and research. 

Roy retired in 2004 and took up cycling again, racking up thousand of miles a year on his beloved Colnago bicycle. He researched his family lineage, making contact with half siblings he had no knowledge of previously. He also proudly gained his U.S. citizenship. Avid skiers, Roy and Victoria moved to Denver, Colorado in 2007 where Roy mastered the blue/black course at Breckenridge at 68 years old.


By his wife, Victoria 

Roy was an extraordinary man -- a brilliant man. But he wouldn’t have said so. He told me often enough that he was “just ordinary.” And he meant it. 

But, I knew better. I knew it from about 20 minutes into our first date, on that January afternoon at a coffee shop on Lover’s Lane called Massimo’s. We talked and talked. He could talk about anything. And he did! Theatre, fiction, history, music, motorcars, bicycling, and the foreign places he’d been . . ..  He was one of the most interesting people I’d ever met.

He had, as he put it, “the gift of the gab.” His stories were enchanting, full of endearing anthropomorphisms.

But, best of all, Roy made me laugh. He was good at that, making people laugh. His wit was quick and clever.

Roy loved people. He revealed himself as the most humane of men. His was not noblesse oblige. He appreciated people from all walks of life and interacted easily with them. And, so, everybody grew to love him.

As did I.

Roy was also a romantic. In the early days of our courtship, he sent me flowers every week, until my home was filled with them. He called me “darling.” Once, we had scheduled a date on what turned out to be one of the rarest of Texas nights, when it snowed at least 3 inches. But that didn’t stop him. He drove all the way from Arlington, in the dark, past cars scattered and abandoned in ditches along the highway, to my home in Richardson, to keep our date, and he was only a few minutes late. 

When he found out I enjoyed the composer Samuel Barber, he surprised me with tickets to a Dallas Symphony Orchestra event featuring Barber’s works.

He told me he dreamed of taking me on a weekend to Paris. And, after we were married, he did.

We traveled the world, he and I. Roy loved to travel. And his career afforded him that opportunity. He attended conferences and lectured throughout Europe and the Scandinavian and Nordic countries, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, the Far East, and the Communist Block countries. And he made friends wherever he went. His friends then welcomed me into their homes and lives, and consequently, I, too, traveled not as a tourist, but as a friend. It made all the difference. Roy opened up the world for me in ways I couldn’t have imagined.

You’ve heard about his distinguished career in experimental physics. Impressive, yes; but understandable, to us outside the physics community, never! But, his knowledge and skill translated to an ability to do almost anything. Over the years, I stayed constantly amazed by his talents, which ranged from designing balsawood derby-car winners to building beautiful wrap-around-the-room bookcases; from repairing car engines to rebuilding an old Lotus, from racing bicycles to mastering a blue-black ski run, from playing clarinet to playing bridge, from drawing beautiful French city-life scenes to designing and constructing a beautiful staircase, from completing impossible cryptic crosswords to writing a physics textbook so good it was plagiarized by the Russians. And, I should add, he wrote it completely in iambic pentameter. That was the part of which he was most proud.

And, Roy could dance! As a teenager, he and girlfriend Kathleen Wittingham, often spent Saturday evenings at the local ballroom. I’m grateful to Kathleen Wittingham. When we were first dating, Roy often took me to the top of the Hilton Hotel on Central Expressway and Mockingbird, where we danced to a three-piece combo of piano, bass, and drums. He held me close and guided me around the floor like we were floating on clouds. At home, he often danced me around the kitchen floor, to background music or a tune he hummed. So romantic. I loved it. I loved him.

He found a poem he liked to read to me, written by John Betjeman, once Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom. The poem is titled:

“A Subaltern’s Love Song,” 
which I will read to you now.

MISS J. HUNTER DUNN, Miss J. Hunter Dunn,
Furnish’d and Burnish’d by Aldershot sun,
What strenuous singles we played after tea,
We in the tournament—you against me!

Love-thirty, love-forty, oh! weakness of joy,
The speed of a swallow, the grace of a boy,
With carefullest carelessness, gaily you won,
I am weak from your loveliness, Joan Hunter Dunn.

Miss Joan Hunter, Miss Joan Hunter Dunn,
How mad I am, sad I am, glad that you won.
The warm-handled racket is back in its press,
But my shock-headed victor, she loves me no less.

Her father’s euonymus shines as we walk,
And swing past the summer-house buried in talk,
And cool the verandah that welcomes us in 
To the six-o’clock news and a lime-juice and gin.

The scent of the conifers, sound of the bath,
The view from my bedroom of moss-dapled path,
As I struggle with double-end evening tie,
For we dance at the Golf Club, my victor and I.

On the floor of her bedroom lie blazer and shorts
And the cream-coloured walls are be-trophied with sports,
And westering, questioning settles the sun
On your low-leaded window, Miss Joan Hunter Dunn.

The Hillman is waiting, the light’s in the hall,
The pictures of Egypt are bright on the wall,
My sweet, I am standing beside the oak stair    
And there on the landing’s the light on your hair.

By roads ‘not adopted’, by woodlanded ways,
She drove to the club in the late summer haze,
Into nine-o’clock Camberley, heavy with bells
And mushroomy, pine-woody, evergreen smells.

Miss Joan Hunter Dunn, Miss Joan Hunter Dunn
I can hear from the car-park the dance has begun.
Oh! Full Surrey twilight! Importunate band!
Oh! Strongly adorable tennis-girl’s hand!

Around us are Rovers and Austins afar,
Above us, the intimate roof of the car,
And here on my right is the girl of my choice,
With the tilt of her nose and the chime of her voice,

And the scent of her wrap, and the words never said,
And the ominous, ominous dancing ahead.
We sat in the car park till twenty to one
And now I’m engaged to Miss Joan Hunter Dunn.

Roy was the man of my choice.

It is tragic and cruelly ironic that it would be Alzheimer’s that took Roy from us. From me, from his sons, Simon, Daniel, and Michael, from his step-children, Natalie, Barron, and Carter Henderson, from his friends and colleagues, too many to name, from his new-found brother, Clive West, and from his cousin Teddy Martin, whom he thought of as a little brother.

Roy will be returning to England soon, where he wanted his ashes to be scattered. We will hold a wake for him, in an English pub, and all his British friends and colleagues will be in attendance. Roy’s sons have come up with a wonderful tribute, to take place there after the wake. They are organizing a bicycle ride, in collaboration with the British Alzheimer’s Society, to raise funds for the fight against Alzheimer’s. 

The ride will be from London to Land’s End, the reverse of the time trial Roy won so many years ago. When Roy made that ride, as you have heard, it took more than 15 hours, and that was in excess of at least 22 miles per hour. The Alzheimer’s Society will provide pace cars, sag wagons, rest stops with refreshments, and medical attendance, things Roy didn’t have. 

Roy’s sons will be preparing themselves physically to ride the distance with the many others who choose to participate. Roy’s friends and I, being a bit older, will ride in pace cars, or meet the group at Land’s End. There, his sons and I will scatter Roy’s ashes from the cliff into the sea.