Tuesday, 9 March 2021

RIP David Brink 1930–2021

I read the sad news yesterday that David Brink died in the early hours yesterday morning.  

David Brink made a significant impact into the theory of nuclear physics starting from his DPhil thesis from Oxford in 1955.  It is still highly-cited today as the source of the Brink-Axel hypothesis (along with a development from Peter Axel in 1961) which states that each excited state of a nucleus should have a giant dipole resonance associated with it, with a structure largely independent of the details of the excited state.

He made important contributions across nuclear structure and reaction theory, and it is his work applying the Skyrme interaction using the Hartree-Fock procedure that has influenced my research the most.  His paper with Dominique Vautherin (in Phys Rev C) is one which my PhD students all have to work through in order to understand the basis of the methods I use in much of my own research.  The paper has been cited over 2,000 times (according to the ISI database) and I might account for about 1% of those citations. 

I did know David Brink personally, and most of my interaction dates back a bit before I really interacted closely with his nuclear physics research work.  I think I can recount the sum of my memories of him without making an overly-long blog post.

Applying to Oxford

From secondary school I applied to Oxford to study Physics and Philosophy.  My school (a local comprehensive in Essex) had no particular links to Oxford, or much recent history of sending pupils there (I was the only applicant from my year) but they did at least encourage me to apply.  On getting to the stage in my education to potentially apply to university,  I had little or no idea about universities in general and that it made some kind of sense to go to as "good" a university as you could.  I was thinking of probably applying to polytechnics via PCAS though in the end I didn't, partly because I plumped for physics as a subject to study and that were mostly offered only by universities which one applied to via UCCA in those days.  Anyway, I was not particularly aware that Oxford was considered a top university, but went to some open days at the suggestion of my school, as I did also to Cambridge.  The open days were college-based, and I looked at more modern colleges - I remember going to St Cats and St Anne's - thinking that might be the right kind of place for a neophyte like me.  I liked the visits very much and decided to apply

In the end I applied to St Cats.  I was called up to one of the teachers at school one day to say that St Cats had got in touch to say that while they do in principle accept students for physics and philsophy, they were not going to take any this year, so I'd be better changing to another college, and they suggested Balliol, which was the principal phys-phil college (them taking more than any other college).  So, my application was amended to Balliol and I was called up for interview there in December 1991, having sat the entrance exams at school shortly before that. 

I went to Oxford for interviews wearing my standard attire of the time, which involved my favourite jumper with holes all down one of the arms, and a duffel coat which was a bit less ragged, but not quite elegant either.  I remember being slightly surprised when lots of the other applicants turned up in suits, even to the parts of the process in which we were just hanging out in college, accommodated for a night or two (or more depending if other colleges called us up for interview that week, which did happen).  There was one other girl I met, Vicky Whitford, also up for physics, who was dressed in cool grungy clothes, but who then transformed into a very smart uniform for the time of her interview itself.  I just didn't think to take any smart clothes with me.  Not that I had any apart from my school uniform.

Anyway - I mention the clothes partly because being the only one with no smart clothes was something I remember from the time, but also because I remember my interviewers having to remind me to pick up my coat, hanging on the back of the office door when I left with a series of unintentially comedic lines like "Oh, don't forget your coat!" to "we wouldn't want to be left with it here" and "not that it isn't a nice coat.  It is a nice coat ..." and so on.  At least it covered up the tatty jumper!  The office I was in for that interview was David Brink's office, above the Senior Common Room.  In the interview were me, David Brink, David Wark, Jonathan Hodby (those three there for physics) and Bill Newton-Smith (for philosophy).  I don't remember all the questions I was asked in what I remember as quite a short interview (about 20 minutes).  I do remember that David Brink showed me a postcard and asked me what, physically, was wrong with the picture.  It was a Japanese style print with a mountain in the background and a lake in the foreground.  There was a reflection of the mountain in the lake, but it was off to one side.  I saw what was wrong, and struggled to articulate it in the language of a physicist, and in the end David prompted me by asking what is particular about an incident light ray, a reflected light ray, and the normal to the surface at which it is reflected and I said the right thing - that they are all in the same plane. 

As an Undergraduate at Oxford

I was duly accepted to Balliol and spent three years there studying physics (I switched from phys-phil to just physics during the first year).  Around the beginning of the first term David Brink invited all the new physics + phys-phil students to his house for a little party, which I took to be a tradition of his.  We all navigated together to his house somewhere down Cowley Rd (an unknown part of town to us who had just arrived as Undergraduates, but I think I remember the address as being on Divinity Rd).  I remember meeting his wife Verena there, I think the only time I did meet her, and somehow coping with the small talk.  My abiding memory, though, is the communal unspoken sense of not knowing what to do when it was clearly time we should be leaving because it was late.  In the end, I piped up and said I think it was time I was heading back and there seemed to be a sense of relief that somebody had said it.  Indeed, one of the other phys-phil students (Clare Brown) thanked me for it!  Funny how these are the memories that abide from that time.

At Oxford, a key part of the education was in tutorials and every week I had to attempt and submit problems in physics and philosophy to be discussed in tutorials, and some of these were with David Brink.  In these tutorials, David gave the impression of being somewhat of a scatty professor, but it was only an impression.  If there was a problem that the students were stuck on, he'd look at it.  Say "ah" repeatedly in a way that sounded like it indeed was a sticky problem, rub his hands up and down his thighs as if a bit of help with blood circulation would help things, and then, when it looked like he might have forgotten how to speak, or might possibly have passed away (I thought him old, but he was only early 60s then) he would come out with the most impressive resolution of the problem, which was just perfect in terms of communicating to undergraduates like me, as well as so obviously being correct. 

The tutorials were in his office above the Senior Common Room - the staff room for the fellows of the college.  I didn't know at first that this was the purpose of the big room below his office, but what I did know is that up next to his office was a door out onto a flat roof which usually seemed to be kept unlocked.   One night, then, after drinking with a group in the college bar, I somehow thought of suggesting we go up to this roof, and so we did. One of the College porters came to get us.   I don't remember his name, but he was the stern Scottish one, and he let it be known that we were in serious trouble for trying to break into the Senior Common Room.  As he led us through the quad in dim evening light, Iain Corby from the year above me, who had a reputation as a conservative sort, suggested we run away.  This seemed very wise since in the low light, the ability of one man to lead a large bunch of students across the grass did indeed seem rather limited, so I walked, or ran, off, leaving the porter to take some fraction of the group to the lodge.   My name was, however, given in as one of the perpetrators of this great crime and I did receive some ticking off later.

I think David Brink left Balliol on extended leave after my first year to take up a position in ECT* (European Centre for Theoretical Nuclear Physics) in Italy as director of the institution, so I did not have him as a tutor beyond my first year.

Postgrad and later

I stayed on at Oxford to do a DPhil in theoretical nuclear physics.  It was David Brink's subject, though I don't think I realised that when I embarked on my D.Phil (and indeed, David was still away in Trento, Italy).  My choice of nuclear physics came from having enjoyed the optional paper in my final year - a combined nuclear and particle physics paper, if I remember rightly - and that in part because I enjoyed learning from the particular tutor who taught it.  It was not necessarily the most sensible choice, since it was a subject on the wane in Oxford.  They had already made a deliberate decision that particle physics was the future where nuclear physics was the past, and all the experimental effort was shifted to particle physics, with a few of the older theorists (like Peter Hodgson and Brian Buck) still keeping on with nuclear physics.  I, in fact, joined a mostly experimental group working in the condensed matter department which really did nuclear physics, but which was physically sited in the building which had access to the low temperature facilities needed for their work.  The group was run by Nick and Jirina Stone, with Jirina being a theorist who became my supervisor.  

I spent much of my postgraduate student time in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, as I was funded and co-supervised from there, and didn't see much of David Brink.  I do remember meeting him once or twice when back in Oxford both during my DPhil and after, but perhaps the largest role he directly played in my life then was to be my internal examiner for my viva.  Although I remember what question he asked in my undergraduate admission interview, I don't remember what he asked in my DPhil exam.  I only remember one question, from the other examiner, Ted Barnes, which asked me to compare nuclei to metals.  I suppose that was the question I struggled with most and hence remember still now!  I think, more importantly than passing my thesis, David helped behind the scenes supporting my early career with references and reviews to help me get established at Surrey and in the UK community as a young researcher. 

The last time I saw David was, I think, when he came to Surrey to give a seminar, which according to my email records might have been in January 2008.  That would make sense as I recall he was talking about a paper he published in 2007 with Stancu.  This revisited old work the pair had done together (also with Hubert Flocard) in 1977 on the tensor part of the Skyrme interaction.  It had just been rediscovered by others and a mass of new interest in the topic had caused a flourishing of new results.  

More recently another Brink and Stancu paper was published, in 2018, following up on the subject. This was nearly his last research paper, with another (with Angela Bonaccorso) coming later in 2018.  I don't know if there are any others to be finished up and published by co-authors, but even 2018 is an amazing 62 years after his first paper was published, a single-author paper on the shell-model applied to Pb-208.  That paper, I suppose, was just a diversion from his main PhD work.

and finally

well, I said this could be a fairly short post recounting my interactions with David.  In the end, it was not so short.  David Brink was involved in my life as a physicist either directly or through his work since I first met him in 1991, 30 years ago, which is after all not a short time. 

These were my personal reminiscences.  In the email announcing his death his close friend and collaborator Angela Bonaccorso linked to a paper she wrote about David in 2006 where one can more written about him.  No doubt more obituaries will follow, including a full article in the Royal Society's Biographical Memoirs journal, since all FRSs get an extensive obituary there.  I look forward to reading that when it comes.

I don't think I have a picture of David of my own.  Taking pictures of my University lecturers was not something which occurred to me, though there may well be one somewhere of PhD viva day.  Here is a picture I found online from the website of the same meeting where Angela presented the paper just linked to:



  1. Thanks for writing this. I have pretty hazy memories of Balliol days, and it was good to be prompted of some things I had forgotten, and to hear your perspective on them too. My main (only) recollection of David Brink was from the tutorials, and don't think I'll ever forget the "sense" of them and of being in the presence of such a sharp and insightful mind. I remember the ritual as we went through our homework (I think I always had Greg as tutorial partner), a few words announcing "question 1", then silence, the "ahs", the rocking of the chair onto its two back legs, the glances at Greg as we wondered if the chair would break, the pause, more "ahs", the focus, and then after an eternity we would reach the crisis point: Would it be an insightful analysis and then gentle correction of our flawed attempts, or would it merely be time for question 2 and a repeat of the experience? I remember being quite inspired by one time when Greg (sorry!) had tried to answer a question in what I thought was an odd and probably wrong way, ending up with a sum, which he'd then attempted to turn into an integral (which didn't work out). Rather than saying "don't do it like that, do it like this", David was able to continue from there and make it work, which was a really positive experience and encouragement to follow every path to its end. [if you read this, Greg, please don't deprive me of my undoubtedly false memory!]. I feel lucky to have been at Balliol when he was there*.

    * and when you were there too, Paul!

    1. Thanks for adding to the reminiscences Danny. I forgot the rocking back on the chair! Your memory might be hazy but I've been trying to think of who my tutorial partner was, and I can't think.

    2. Was it Gareth?

      I was partnered with Sandy so I think it must have been.

    3. I suppose I would have been partnered with one of the other phys-phil students to begin with. I don't remember being in tutorials with Gareth... but I just don't really remember.

  2. Dear Paul et all,
    I just came across your blog. It is amazing that what you says largely overlaps with some of what I have written for David's funeral, namely "Let me tell you what was our daily life as David's students. At the Department of Theoretical Physics there used to be a coffee room where coffee was served between 11 and 11:30. We would try to be there on time to seat around David who would be chatting with other senior members of the department or some visitor. There would always be someone bringing up some interesting and challenging new problem. Everyone gave an opinion, the atmosphere was competitive. Most of the time David would win the set...and as his students you cannot imagine how proud we felt. All other students were jealous of us. No other supervisor was so nice, helpful, respectful of us as David was. I can guarantee this was THEIR independent opinion, and of course, we, David's kittens would completely agree. But..but, it was not at all easy to be David's student. First of all we needed to have detective skills. David was very busy and very elusive. In those days there was no email, no SMS, nothing. The only way to be sure that he was inside was to look for his bicycle. If the bicycle was outside we would knock at the door of his office and if we were lucky he would answer and let us in. In spite of all his many commitments we always managed to have at least one chat per week with him. Another reason why it was not easy to be his student was that David had a very original way of understanding things and finding the way out to problems. During our conversations often he would stop talking and be silent for five to then minutes rubbing his hand on his forehead. Then he came up with some equation, or a drawing or something like that and he would tell us: I think it is like this...I think we should get something like that...etc. I (we) would stare at him speechless and in wonder. Where did the "oracle' came from? Most of the time this was the end of the meeting. I (we) left his office rather puzzled, worked desperately hard for one week and if we had managed to understand his line of thought, after pages and pages of calculations, we would find exactly what he had predicted. We all knew it was like that, we all passed this info to each other, generation after generation: listen to David, he is always right, just try to reproduce the miracle of his craftsmanship in physics. "

    Best, Angela

    1. Thanks Angela. That's a lovely description.

    2. Hi Paul, as you predicted there is going to be an article in the Royal Society's Biographical Memoirs journal, they asked Sukumar and myself. Do you think we could include what you and Co. wrote on your blog? Hope all is well with you, Thanks Angela

    3. Hi Angela,
      all is good with me, thank you. Please do use anything written here for the article in Biographical Memoirs. I look forward to reading it

  3. Thanks Paul, I will send the stuff when is nearly ready. Do you think I could also include Danny Chapman's comment?

    1. I'm very happy for you to include any of my comments above!