Remembering Professor Sir Eric Ash (1928 - 2021)
4 October 2021
Prof. Polina Bayvel, Head of the Optical Networks Group (ONG), pays tribute to former Head of the Department of Electronic and Electrical Engineering (EEE) - and her mentor - Sir Eric Ash.
When Eric Ash joined University College London's (UCL) Department of Electronic and Electrical Engineering (EEE) in 1963, the department’s annual report that year noted that this was an ‘acquisition of very special significance’.
And so it proved to be the case.
Eric spent 22 years at UCL, a large proportion of his research career, and the place where many of his most significant contributions were made. These, together with his personality, presence and sheer intellectual power are still remembered and are felt in the corridors of the department.
Eric’s research was broadly in the areas of physical electronics, acoustics and optics, both physics and applications. His work included most fundamental properties of imaging systems and ways to design them - using all types of waves. His 1972 Nature paper ‘Super-resolution aperture scanning microscope’ showed that the ‘Abbe barrier is not entirely impenetrable’ and was, in fact, the first experimental demonstration, with electromagnetic waves, of subwavelength resolution imaging - proposed by E H Synge in 1928! Eric’s work laid the foundations to scanning near-field optical microscopy, widely cited including in many Nobel Prize lectures, most recently by Betzig, a 2014 Nobel Prize Laureate in Chemistry.
Impact and significance
His impact on UCL and the EEE department was enormous, and he always had an absolutely original way of looking and describing even the commonplace. Most importantly, he was very generous with his time and wisdom and the greatest beneficiaries were his students, whom he mentored (as in my own case) most of their professional lives. These were brave people – working with Eric could be very stretching – he was a demanding supervisor and had a string of brilliant students. Most of them went on to great things, reaching the highest levels in academia and major research laboratories in industry. Eric had written a manual for PhD students entitled ‘For those about to’, issued to every PhD student. It was a bible for all postgraduates and formed the basis of successful research careers!
Although he was generous with his time, Eric never compromised on standards. He set very high standards and expected all to aspire to those levels too. The department had an unbelievably impressive history and Eric made sure that was not going to be compromised. Teaching, research and administration had to be of the highest levels. Moreover, he managed to collect the most exceptional of individuals to join the staff. I witnessed myself how Prof. Gareth Parry and Prof. John Midwinter, whom he hired (amongst so many others), went on to transform the department in the 1980s. In the mid-1980s, the department boasted what was an extremely high number of Fellows of the Royal Society, three active members of the professoriate, ‘the jolly good Fellows’ (Ash, Davies and Midwinter), and two Emeritus (Cullen and Barlow).
He instilled an incomparable spirit, a sense of duty, pride and excellence, but also of warmth and personal attention, to both staff and students. We were privileged to see his original approach to problem solving and a wicked, hugely original sense of humour. There were many parties and social events, and his tutorial groups were always treated to sherry a few times per term! He was a committed feminist: he understood the plight of women and their difficulty of making progress in a largely male engineering world, and did all he could to balance the inequity, often by mentoring and providing advice.
He always insisted on all academics being present in the department during term time, and that teaching comprise the most basic courses, such as ‘Fields & waves’. He typed up his own notes and asked that all the students should do so also, to prevent any difficulties due to bad handwriting!
Eric had a brilliant mind that spanned physics and engineering. He stretched the boundaries. Many physics colleagues remember being challenged on many occasions. Early morning questions, before the world woke up, would often crop up, the idea that vacuum field fluctuations could explain spontaneous emission were not uncommon at all hours, unwelcome though they were after a sleepless night with young children!
Life post EEE
He left the department in 1985 to become the Rector of Imperial College, having never set out to be a university manager – our department had approx. 20 staff and Imperial had thousands! But it turned out in this area, too, he had exceptional talents; probably because he was so generous, endlessly curious and insightful about people and able to get the best out of them, through respect, modesty and deep insight. At his 80th birthday party, in 2008, commemorated with a Festschrift Seminar at the Royal Society, former colleagues, staff and students flocked from far and wide to express this respect & affection.
After 8 years at Imperial, he became a highly successful Treasurer of the Royal Society, where he is also remembered fondly and with great respect. His spirit continues to permeate our department and EEE would likely not occupy the internationally leading position it does without his lasting influence and inspiration. We can only attempt to carry on his legacy and it is only right that the new undergraduate laboratory in our department will bear his name with pride.
My fondest memories
I remember, Eric literally spoke in unforgettable and original thoughts – kind of aphorisms, often quoted, passed on from person to person.
On the status of Royal Society University Research Fellowships (URFs) in Oxbridge – he commented that they were considered as ‘gilded postdocs’ (in contrast to the more enlightened universities, such as at UCL, who would consider them as academic staff).
On retiring, he noted that ‘One can never retire, they just stop paying you’.
On competition in research, he noted that it was akin to ‘running a 100m race, with each runner running in their own closed tunnel, and it is only when one emerged (or published) – it would be visible who won’.
And of course, on being elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society, he would say with a twinkle in his eye, ‘You must realise what this means, after FRS – there is only Nobel Prize and death – and there is no Nobel Prize in Engineering!’.
Eric played a huge, enormous part in my life, in so many ways, in finding me a first industrial internship at GEC Hirst Labs, and thus starting my research career, to writing me tens of references, always encouraging, always kind.
I will miss him very much.
Additional memories from staff and students
- Prof. Kumar Wickramasinghe FRS
Eric had a special style for conducting research. He believed that to be successful you needed a “killer instinct” towards the research - i.e keep working at it without giving up in the face of disappointment until you get to the bottom of whatever you are searching for. Eric never took anything for granted - and that included some of the fundamental laws of physics - he needed to prove them to his satisfaction. I remember one occasion when he had one of his students work on an idea of his. We only had one powerful laser in the group and the student needed to pipe the light through a fibre from an adjacent lab. He was calculating how much loss there would be and whether the laser beam profile would make it difficult to re-focus the light once it got to its destination. He was taking too long over it and Eric got very frustrated. He took a drill and wanted to drill a hole in the wall that separated the two labs and send the laser light right through the hole! The student said, "but Professor, there are electrical wires inside that wall". Eric looked at him and said look, the probability of me drilling into a wire in that wall is very very small, and he drilled right though the wall! The end result was that the field of Photo Displacement Microscopy was born!’
- Prof. Gareth Parry FREng
It did not take me long to work out what was special about my new department at UCL when I joined in January 1983. I had written my first research proposal. Eric sat down with me to review it. The second version was much better. “Best to get some industrial support” Eric said. So, he wrote to a friend in Philips Research Laboratories and got that sorted. Then he found me a PhD student. We were sorting out a new mortgage for the move to London. Eric wrote to his bank manager see if he could help. There always seemed to be time to help when I needed it. But he was a demanding boss. The UCL-Imperial Interdisciplinary Centre for Semiconductors attracted a lot of attention at high places in Government. I was on a family visit in Wales when I had a call from Eric to ask where I was! I told him and he said, “Everyone is on holiday, but you are the nearest, so can you get back tomorrow, I have a visitor who wants to discuss interdisciplinary research!”. The visitor was Margaret Thatcher. I made it! Although he was a demanding boss, Eric instilled in all of us the importance of setting and not compromising high standards but supporting all to achieve.
- Prof. John Midwinter OBE FREng FRS
I came to join the Department of Electronic and Electrical Engineering (EEE) in the first place because both Eric and I were giving lectures on a summer school in Cambridge (I think) and apart from both speaking, we listened in on each other. Sometime shortly after, Eric asked me if I had ever thought of joining UCL-EEE to which I replied, quite truthfully, "No". He then asked if I would be interested if he could organise something and I said something like "I will think about it" but with no idea what he had in mind. A few days later he called me to say he had persuaded BT to fund a Personal Chair for me at UCL so that I could leave BT Labs where I had led the optical fibre communications programme. Looking back, I doubt anybody other than Eric would have had the confidence and charisma to pull off such a feat. And so the second half of my working career was launched - 20 very enjoyable years at UCL.
- Prof. Hugh Griffiths FRS
I joined the Department of Electronic and Electrical Engineering (EEE) on 2 January 1982, and perhaps naively turned up at about 8am (I'd been used to working in industry, where we started at 8:30). Not surprisingly, no-one was yet in. But Eric was the first person I saw, and he made me welcome and took a genuine interest in what I had done and would be doing.
I taught a first year course with him, on 'oscillations and waves', I think. He had devised a tutorial question based on a piece in New Scientist about the Bay of Fundy in Newfoundland, entitled 'A Dam Shame', about the effect that a newly-installed dam was having on the period of the tides. The question was: 'calculate the Q of the Bay of Fundy'. It was a vivid example of his way of looking at problems in new and unusual ways, and of his sense of humour.
I remember the event that was held when he left UCL to go to Imperial. He said that he'd imagined that when his time as Head of Department at EEE/UCL came to an end he had imagined that he'd go back to being a research professor and get on with his research, but when the opportunity to move to Imperial came up it was too good to ignore. The event was in the main part of College, with the former Provost, Sir James Lighthill and the following Head of Department, now Sir David (DEN) Davies, and many others. In his speech he said he remembered the time when he was working at STL in Harlow and had been offered a job at UCL under Harold Barlow. He thought he ought to find out a bit about Barlow, and was told that he was 'the last gentleman in the business'. He continued: "I found out that this was not in fact true. Alex Cullen is the last gentleman in the business".
That was typical - it was a clever remark because it was a compliment to both of them!