I’ve been putting off this particular blog post. In March of this year, my PhD supervisor David Bailin died suddenly. This unexpected loss left a shadow over many peoples’ lives.
Today we are celebrating his life at the meeting house at Sussex University where he worked. I am giving a talk. This is what I am going to say:-
My name is Malcolm Fairbairn and I was a PhD student of David Bailin’s here at the turn of the millennium.
I’ve been asked to say a few words about David from the point of view of one of his PhD students.
I have remained in academia and I am used to giving talks to potentially aggressive rooms full of theoretical physicists, nevertheless I find it particularly intimidating to fulfil this role today as I feel a great responsibility to do justice to someone who was so universally loved and respected. Plus I can’t use powerpoint!
Let me start by saying that David was a first class physicist with a formidable array of skills and we were all in awe of his particle physics expertise and experience and I will come on to that a little bit. However for his PhD students (sorry DPHIL STUDENTS!), he was much more than this, he was a great role model as a human being. During my preparation for this talk today I spoke to a few of my peers who were also his ex PhD students (George Kraniotis, Thomas Dent and Maria Angulo-Lopez, with sincere apologies if you are here and I didn’t get in contact, feel free to put your hand up at the end) and the thing which struck me the most was that we all seemed to use the same terms to describe him and his effect upon our lives, that he was very kind, that he had unlimited time for us even though he was clearly very busy and that he was an extraordinarily decent human being. He has certainly left a lasting impression on each of us.
As you probably know, David started his academic career playing a role in the understanding of the standard model of particle physics. While his two most famous books today (both authored with Alex Love) are on quantum field theory and SUSY, I have met senior physicists working at CERN in the 70s who treated his book on weak interactions as a standard reference as they tried to understand their data.
Later on he became interested in string theory and since I was interested at that time in understanding the interconnection between string theory and cosmology at a deeper level I managed to blackmail him into supervising me.
I recall that as a PhD supervisor he first came across as being quite direct, which was a bit scary, but he also put us at ease and did things like making sure that we addressed him as David (we forget, it was a long time ago and he was a very senior and universally respected member of the department so this was not at first immediately obvious) I remember him specifically saying with a mischievous grin “if you call me professor Bailin I will have to call you Mr. Fairbairn” putting me at ease without making me feel awkward.
He then supported us as we found our feet as physicists.
David’s attitude to string theory was to make links with observations and his great hope was that a compactification could be found which gave rise to the standard model. Conversely I think he hoped that deviations from the standard model would at some point enable us to learn about string theory. Because of his interest in making links between actual data and string theory, he soaked his PhD students in particle phenomenology, whether they were working on extremely mathematical aspects of orbifolds, or had more cosmological interests as I did. He made sure we all attended the UK beyond the standard model meetings regularly and it is very clear to me now that exposure to these meetings certainly had a lasting impact on my career and changed the direction of my research.
Sussex has always been a wonderful department and it was very special at that time with a seemless continuum of expertise from string theory to particle physics to cosmology to astronomy, the likes of which I have never really seen anywhere else in my travels. Together with Beatriz de Carlos, Mark Hindmarsh and Ed Copeland David helped arrange exchange trips with Spanish Universities (where Tom and I met Alessandro Ibarra, Jose Ramond Espinosa and the rest of the group of Casas and Quiros) and we hosted regularly students from other Universities, I remember meeting a very young Silvia Pascoli and Jon Urrestilla in this way.
When he went to visit CERN for a few months, he made sure that we came out to visit him there and he looked after us carefully, making sure that we had money and accommodation as well as taking us on a trip up into the Jura mountains. This trip to CERN was a hugely important experience for me and left a lasting impression until many years later when I was lucky enough to get a job there. I also remember during that trip Tom and I meeting and exploring Geneva with a very young Spanish physicist called Veronica Sanz….
Tom recalled to me the times when David had bad cases of sciatica but still managed to give him supervisions, albeit from a horizontal position to ease the pain!
So he was an excellent facilitator, however, outside this David was more to us than simply an academic supervisor. Over time and in interactions with him we realised that he was a thoroughly decent man. I have to say that as a boy from Wigan with a chip on his shoulder it was a revelation to me that such a sophisticated gentleman, wearing blazers and driving a jaguar could also be a staunch labour supporter. He never failed to call me or anyone else out when I or they said something stupid (which I am eternally grateful for). He taught me to be more tolerant of different people and less tolerant of injustice.
Both Maria and I happened to be in the process of getting married to non EU citizens during this period of time and he was a constant source of unwavering support to both of us.
He has stayed with us in other ways too, for example, when I was asked to become union representative for Physics at KCL, there was a moment I am not proud of when I hesitated and considered the potential effect of this upon my career within Kings. Of course I then reflected upon what David would do or say, and I could hear his voice in my head admonishing me quite strongly for even considering saying no.
I think that at this point I should read out just a few of the things that people sent me to say about David.
“I gave for several years a masters course at the University Autónoma de Madrid (UAM) on Supersymmetry, and my main reference was his book, which I found excellent in every aspect… Apart from that I have very good memories of him. He was an extremely friendly and accessible person. His passing is a great loss and we will miss him.”
“I remember some of his advice during one of the perennial pparc arguments that it’s never a good idea to try and get your research area more funding by attacking other areas – departments and schools should stick together. If funding people see scientists putting each other’s research down they could come to the conclusion that they should all be cut”
“you hear scary stories about women in science but he always made me feel just part of the group”
“He was an excellent scientist, a great colleague and a wonderful, generous friend.”
“I learnt from him not just about physics but also how to think about things”
And I will end with the last paragraph from the nice piece George Kraniotis wrote in memory of David, the full version of which I will put up on my blog. These are George’s words, and I think that it’s fair to say the sentiment is shared by all of his students:-
“Many times humans make the mistake to believe that their beloved ones will always be physically around. Especially when their beloved ones have been larger than life as David was. Unfortunately life is cruel in this respect. David left us suddenly last March, resting now in a neighbourhood of Stars. However, people never die as long as their living beloved ones keep remembering them. I will miss you dearly David and I will honour your memory forever.”