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Sir Michael Berry (Physics, 1962)

It hardly seems six decades since I graduated from Exeter University with an Honours degree in Physics, and 6.35 decades since I travelled to my interview in Exeter from my home near London. As the train entered the rolling countryside of Devon and especially its red earth, I, an urban boy with little experience of nature, knew instantly that this was where I wanted to study.

My main subject was physics. The very first lecture course exposed us to Einstein’s relativity. Our attention was grabbed by this revolutionary physics, contrasting strikingly not only with the pre-twentieth century mechanics I had learned at school, but also with its low-key delivery by the undemonstrative Dr Portman (whose hobby was rumoured to be checking the arrival times of trains at Exeter St David’s station). Two other lecturers I remember with affection were my tutor Dr Grew, and Dr Klein, from whom I learned beautiful mathematics (twenty years later, we wrote a research paper together).

In my first year I took psychology as a subsidiary subject. This was disappointing. The subject was dominated by behaviourism; discussion of internal mental states was forbidden, and the brain replaced by a black box with inputs and outputs. Instead of deep insights into the human mind, I learned about rats in mazes. But there was a happy outcome of that course, useful in my later scientific life: we were taught statistics.

To satisfy my wider intellectual ambitions, I sat in on philosophy lectures, and enjoyed the wide-ranging discussions I had hungered for at school. Recently, I learned, from the Exeter University graduation anniversary booklet, that one of my philosophy friends, Po Chih Leong, has enjoyed a distinguished international career as a film director. One of my memorable life experiences was being invited to Po Chih’s 21st birthday celebration in Soho, and being introduced to the exquisite variety of Chinese cuisine.

For the first two years, I lived in Reed Hall. This was an instructive experience for a boy from a family of modest means (my father was a taxi-driver and my mother a dressmaker), and only the second person in my extended family to go to university. I discovered that those I had thought of as ‘posh boys’ (no girls there, of course) were no different from anyone else. My first room-mate, Beverley Knott, became a lifelong friend after I met him by chance several years later.

My second room-mate was Michael Evans, still a firm friend. For the third year, we moved to a flat in Dawlish, in the bohemian household of the geography lecturer Ewart Johns, more famous as an artist whose later book ‘British Townscapes’ made people aware of the beauty of urban houses with their roofs and chimney pots. For a few months, I rode a motorbike to and from the university, but in the freezing mornings it took half an hour before my hands were warm enough to remove my gloves and take notes at lectures. In the winter evenings, farmers crossed the unlit narrow roads with their cattle at milking time, and I finally stopped motor-cycling after a recurrent dream that I would drive into them and wake up inside a cow.

Michael and I were joined by Eve, who became my first wife. We decided to explore Dartmoor, starting by hitch-hiking to Two Bridges and walking north through the ancient twisted trees of Wistman’s Wood to the remote Cranmere Pool. The moor is treacherous; we had been warned that it is easy to get lost. But with the innocence of the theoretical physicist that I later became, I decided we could navigate by the sun instead of with a compass, and avoid walking in circles by finding a river and following it. But clouds hid the sun, and Cranmere Pool was near the source of several major rivers whose courses disappeared and reappeared every few yards. We survived, though more by luck than judgement.

In Exeter, I decided I would try my hand at theoretical physics. It is a strange activity: scribbling (nowadays also tapping away at the computer), to seek what I now call the elementary particle of sudden understanding – the clariton. The head of physics, Professor Conn, suggested I apply to study for a Ph.D with Professor Kemmer at Edinburgh; but he replied along the lines: “What we do here is very mathematical, and you might find it too difficult”. As a second option, Professor Conn suggested I try Professor Dingle, newly arrived in St Andrews. This was the best advice I ever received. Dingle welcomed me, and what I learned during my three years with him contributed much to the physics I created during my subsequent half-century in Bristol. 

Our son Daniel was born in the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital. Nineteen years later, Daniel returned to Exeter, and earned a first-class honours degree in mathematics. We moved to St Andrews when he was a few weeks old. Almost immediately, there was the Cuban missile crisis; during those terrifying days, I saw, from the theoretical physics building, nuclear-armed bombers from the RAF Leuchars air base taking off and landing – but that is another story.

More information about my life in physics is on my home page: