John Jefferson obituary

Other lives: Theoretical physicist who overcame early disadvantage to enjoy a distinguished scientific career at Dera in Malvern

My friend and colleague John Jefferson, who has died aged 75 of Parkinson’s disease, was a distinguished scientist and talented amateur musician. Coming from an unremarkable background, and overcoming early disadvantage, he produced several significant papers in theoretical physics.

John’s studies were wide-ranging and included high-temperature superconductors and the fundamental physics of quantum computers. He supervised numerous PhD students and postdoctoral fellows at the Defence, Evaluation and Research Agency (Dera), Malvern, and was a visiting professor at King’s College London, and Lancaster and Oxford universities.

Born in Hull, John was the son of Vera (nee Allen) and George Jefferson, a welder. After leaving his secondary modern school in 1962, aged 15, he became an apprentice at the Hawker Siddeley Aviation works at Brough, which eventually became part of British Aerospace.

While attending a day release scheme at Hull technical college, John discovered physics. His A-level in the subject took him only one year. John’s delayed academic career now began to gather speed, and in 1971 he obtained a first-class physics degree at Hull University, acquiring the prize for top student. He continued to a PhD (1974) on semiconductor theory, then spent three years as a postdoctoral fellow at Nottingham University working on the so-called “intermediate valence” compounds, which are notoriously difficult to model.

John and I first crossed paths in Nottingham, where as junior members of the theoretical physics group, we shared a house. He had married Janet Howson in 1970, and so would arrive at our shared house on Tuesday morning and leave on Friday afternoon to return to the family home in Hull.

Academic posts in theoretical physics were then extremely hard to come by, so in 1977, John took a post at GCHQ in Cheltenham. His CV records four papers written at GCHQ which were “not published in the open literature for security reasons”. However, he was keen to return to academic physics, and in 1982 was appointed as a principal scientist at the Royal Signals and Radar Establishment (RSRE, later Dera) in Malvern. There, his career blossomed. He supervised many students and organised many conferences and was eventually promoted to the rank of Dera fellow.

In Malvern, John and his family enjoyed walking in the hills and entertaining. He was known as a kind and gentle man, and by his students and children alike as a patient and talented teacher.

John had met Janet as a teenager through music, when both he and her brothers played with the Railway Silver Band in Hull. He was a trombonist, conducted brass bands, and occasionally played solo. He also loved classical music, playing in a number of orchestras in the Malvern area.

Janet survives him, as do his children, Lisa, Michael and Paul, his grandchildren, Maxwell, Oliver and Charlotte, and a sister, Jenny. Another sister, Audrey, predeceased him.

Tim Sluckin

The GuardianTramp

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