Godfrey Harry Stafford (1920-2013)

29 August 2013

A former president of the Institute of Physics, Godfrey Stafford, has died at the age of 93.

Godfrey Harry Stafford (1920-2013)

He was director of the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (1969–81), and Master of St Cross College, Oxford (1979–87). He was one of the leaders on the international stage who helped to transform particle physics in Europe from its early days in modest university facilities to huge national and international laboratories, of which CERN is the outstanding example.

This evolution took several decades and the path was strewn with pitfalls and challenges. Stafford worked quietly but with great enthusiasm and determination to encourage people to focus on the real issues, and to put aside their vested interests in support of the bigger picture. His influence continued long after his retirement in 1987, and even in his final years he had valuable advice for those planning the next energy-frontier machine, the International Linear Collider, where his expertise in superconducting radiofrequency technology was particularly relevant. There could be no more fitting tribute to his work, and that of like-minded colleagues, than the global efforts that culminated in the discovery of the Higgs boson last year.

Stafford was born in England in 1920, but moved to Cape Town in South Africa, aged eight, where he attended Rondebosch Boys High School (cradle of a number of physicists including Nobel laureate Alan Cormack), and the University of Cape Town under Prof. R W James, one of the fathers of x-ray crystallography. Stafford completed his MSc in cosmic ray physics in 1941, but was then caught up in the Second World War, initially with the South African Navy (degaussing ships) based at Robben Island, which later became notorious as the prison in which Nelson Mandela was confined. He was then seconded to the Royal Navy in 1942, where he worked on the development of radar, initially at the Admiralty Research Establishment near Haslemere, Surrey.

His natural modesty was such that it was not easy to learn of his key contributions, but one of them has been recorded. During the D-Day landings, British ships were grouped closely together in the Mulberry Harbours. They were all equipped with defensive radar (to detect incoming aircraft dropping mines at night) and supposedly operated on carefully chosen frequencies to avoid interference. However, due to inaccurate calibration, this system failed badly. Stafford was sent on a fast boat, with a suitcase of electronics, to visit each ship in turn and retune their radar systems. In the process, one of the ships (HMS Scylla) was hit, but fortunately Stafford escaped injury and was able to complete his work – one of many acts of heroism at the time, carried out by brave men and women who would say they were just doing their job.

After the war, Stafford did his PhD at Cambridge, spending time at the Atomic Energy Research Establishment, Harwell, under Sir Basil Schonland. In 1950, he returned to South Africa (the Centre for Scientific and Industrial research in Pretoria) but in 1954 accepted an offer from Gerry Pickavance to join his Cyclotron Group at Harwell. The Rutherford High Energy Laboratory (RHEL) was formed in 1957 with Pickavance as its first director, and Stafford as head of the Proton Linear Accelerator (PLA) Group. In a pioneering paper in 1961, he and Tony Banford described how a future superconducting proton linear accelerator would be able to operate continuously, instead of at the 1% duty cycle of the PLA. By 1963, with the PLA operating, Stafford was made the first head of the High Energy Physics Division, with a major responsibility – to develop the research programme for Nimrod, the new 7 GeV proton synchrotron. He and Pickavance did a wonderful job of encouraging university physicists from all over the country to form teams and to create a unified user community for the Nimrod programme, which played a major part in establishing the quark model of subnuclear particles, the cornerstone of the current Standard Model of particle physics.

Stafford was appointed director of RHEL in 1969, beginning the most challenging but also the most creative phase of his career. Incredibly, it had just been decided to shut down Nimrod prematurely, which would surely have led to the complete closure of the laboratory. Thus Stafford’s first job was to get that decision reversed, and he achieved this in meetings of the Nuclear Physics Board, in which he convinced everyone that this was scientifically illogical. He then set to work to establish on-site science and technology activities to give the laboratory a long-term future.

In 1971, recognising the increasing usage of neutron beam facilities by university researchers at Harwell and elsewhere, Stafford established a Neutron Beam Research Unit to support this diverse community in solid state physics and materials science, and to investigate options for future developments. The unit worked on plans for a proposed high-flux beam reactor on the Rutherford site, and subsequently facilitated the entry of the UK to the Institut Laue Langevin in Grenoble. In 1975, the Rutherford Laboratory (RL), as it had become, merged with the ATLAS Computing Laboratory, an Electron Beam Lithography unit was formed, and a High Power Laser project was approved. Like Nimrod, this was to provide central facilities beyond the scale that could be accommodated in an individual university, and it has continued its dynamic growth ever since.

In 1974 an ambitious accelerator project (Electron-Positron Intersecting Complex - EPIC) was proposed. This proved to be too expensive for the Science Research Council to support, so creative thinking was called for. Stafford, after a very thorough review, led an initiative to replace Nimrod by a high-current proton accelerator serving as a pulsed source of neutrons by spallation from an external target. This was a stroke of genius – it re-used Nimrod’s infrastructure and the laboratory’s accelerator expertise. However, it faced fierce opposition from some neutron physicists who were focused on reactor-based sources, but the advantages of a pulsed source for many areas of science were eventually appreciated, and the ISIS facility was born. It has led the world ever since, with a huge user community of diverse scientists from the UK and all over the world.

Although EPIC was not approved, associated R&D led to the development of twisted filamentary superconducting cable, which proved to be extremely robust with respect to quenches on ramping the current. Known universally as “Rutherford cable”, this is used world-wide in equipment such as MRI scanners, and in accelerator magnets such as those at the Large Hadron Collider in CERN.

In 1979, RL merged with the Appleton Laboratory, adding atmospheric science and space science to its activities. The Appleton colleagues were understandably nervous about the merger, but Stafford went out of his way to ensure that the Rutherford people gave them a warm welcome, offered first-rate technical services and so on. The most serious concern on record appears to be that the Appleton people used to make precision wooden models of their satellite equipment, but found that the RL had no sufficiently skilled carpenters! Godfrey Stafford is acknowledged for making a major organisational effort to keep their Infra-Red Astronomical Satellite (IRAS) project on course and on time, since it was caught up in the move from Ditton Park. RAL Space has grown enormously over the past 30 years, and has become a thriving part of the laboratory.

When Stafford resigned as director general of the Rutherford and Appleton Laboratories (RAL) in 1981, Nimrod had just closed after making honourable contributions to physics, and the diversified laboratory was rich with new projects, all of them to be developed successfully in the decades ahead.

For the particle physics community using RAL, the closure of Nimrod necessitated wider horizons. Stafford had always encouraged the development of close links with CERN, DESY and US labs. RAL took on the role of a national “staging post”, enabling UK physicists to offer equipment and services that made major contributions to experiments (from the largest superconducting solenoid magnets to the most innovative pixel-based tracking detectors), taking advantage of the wonderful engineering services that had been built up at the laboratory. This mode of operation whereby a national laboratory provided support, as of right, for university research groups, became known as the “Rutherford model” and was much copied.

After leaving RAL, Stafford devoted himself full time to his duties as Master of St Cross College, Oxford, a post he held from 1979 till his retirement in 1987. He took a number of important initiatives for the development of the college, not least to move from a wooden hut to permanent accommodation in the heart of Oxford, and to greatly increase the number of graduate students. The college has continued its healthy expansion, building on Stafford’s work.

He was a member of the Nuclear Physics Research Committee of CERN (1964-70), one of the founding members of the European Physical Society (1965), chairman of the CERN Scientific Policy Committee and vice-president of the CERN Council (1978-81), president of the European Physical Society (1985-86), and president of the Institute of Physics (1986-88). He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1979 and received a CBE in 1976 for services to science.

In his later years, Stafford maintained his friendships with many members of the physics community, and continued to attend seminars on particle physics and accelerator science. He had always something interesting to offer, such as technical information on superconducting devices, and excellent advice on issues of management and scientific leadership, in which he excelled.

The entire particle physics community in the UK, and the communities that emerged with the broader application of accelerators (neutron spallation, synchrotron radiation) owe a great deal to Godfrey Stafford. His vision and leadership established the concept of national laboratories with a dual role: partly to provide a service to the university community, and partly to carry out their own research, and how to strike the right balance. Stafford will long be remembered, with great fondness, for nurturing many contributions to a vibrant science culture in the UK and world-wide. Our generation stands on the shoulders of Godfrey Stafford and his illustrious colleagues who, with great vision, determination and honesty, created the multi-disciplinary laboratories for big science that we now take for granted.

He was a great family man, and many who worked at RAL were privileged to get to know his wife Goldy (they married in 1950 and she died in 2003), as well as their son Toby and twin daughters Anne and Liz, who survive him, and also five grandchildren. Godfrey Stafford died on Monday 29 July 2013.

Remembered by friends of Godfrey Stafford

Max Wallis, grandson of Godrey Stafford and a professional poet, wrote the following poem, which he read at his funeral:

‘You will remember him in empty chairs and wishbones
at family meals. He will sing in columns
of cold air at night when you cannot sleep and the wind
is your only guideline. A surprise
those wrinkles, as you age, those ears: huge
like young eyes ... he will be matter turned to energy
in stars, the earth, the sky.’

                                                © Max Wallis