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Paul Barnes

(Elected 2007)


Professor Paul Barnes has a long and distinguished history at Birkbeck, both in academia and administration. Having completed a BSc in Physics in 1963, he gained a PhD in Physics and the Chemistry of Solids at Cambridge in 1967. Four years later he became a lecturer in Crystallography at Birkbeck, and was appointed to a personal chair in Applied Crystallography at London University in 1994.

"I call myself an applied crystallographer, which means almost anything," he says.

"Everyone lately has been talking about the Cern Hadron collider, a huge particle accelerator built to re-enact the conditions of the Big Bang. My research uses a similar machine called a 'synchrotron', which generates the most powerful X-rays in the world. These powerful beams penetrate materials and reveal how they are formed and how they work.

"My interests are X-ray and neutron diffraction (especially fast in-situ powder diffraction with synchrotron/neutron sources), computer simulation and a bit of electron microscopy; all applied to materials like zeolites, ceramics, cements, hydrates – particularly those with an industrial application. Basically if it diffracts, we'll try to look at it; if it doesn’t diffract, we might even still look at it."

He continues:

"Our mission is to understand the structure and kinetics of functional materials and how they behave. In our time we have had occasion to study bulk rock analysis, drug polymorphism, rubber-based materials and micro-mechanical structures. We are concerned with the general application of all applied crystallography techniques to modern materials."

On the administrative side, Paul served as a Governor of the College and as College Dean.

The Governors represent the last point in the College’s decision-making process. Paul says he encountered a wide range of issues in this role, ‘from everyday affairs, such as smoking areas in College, to whether a person or department would remain in the College. I always felt that I had to be sure I had voiced any relevant concerns and voted, if there was a vote, in the best interests of everyone.’

As College Dean, he had two functions: to oversee the award of various College funds and scholarships to needy students; and to help resolve disputes and advise staff and students in difficulty.

"I gained particular pleasure whenever I discovered evidence to show that a worthy student had been enabled to continue in study as a result of financial aid," he says.

"I’ve been most proud of staying sane enough to carry out leading research while keeping students’ interests at heart. Birkbeck students achieve the highest level of scholarship while, incredibly, maintaining their daily work and commitments."

Paul is planning an active and productive retirement:

"I intend to carry on with my research at Birkbeck and UCL, but my reduced teaching and administrative load means that I can indulge more in some of my hobbies, which include my interests in music."


President, Master, Distinguished Governors, Graduates and Guests.

Paul Barnes is one of a band of academics for whom Birkbeck has been an emphatically and agreeably one-stop shop. He joined the Department of Crystallography in 1968 following a degree in physics from Bristol University and the completion of a PhD in the physics and chemistry of solids at the Cavendish Laboratory of the University of Cambridge. He came to work as a postdoctoral researcher in the Liquids Group established by the formidable J.D. Bernal, who had just retired, handing over leadership of the group to Brian Finney. Paul came with an expertise in so-called Monte Carlo methods for simulating matter, and brought this to bear on the understanding of the behaviour of water molecules at different temperatures and pressures. I’m not sure if Paul ever wore one of the t-shirts said to have been worn by members of the Liquids Group during the political turmoil in Poland in the early 1980s; when everywhere else there were slogans and icons proclaiming support for Lech Walesa’s union Solidarity, the crystallographers sported t-shirts proclaiming their allegiance to ‘Liquidarity’.

In 1971, Paul was appointed to a lectureship in the department of crystallography and switched affiliation from the liquids group to the Industrial Materials Group. But, even if his research interests were no longer wholly aqueous, he nevertheless remained a kind of amphibian, for a large part of his work still concerned hydrated materials, for example in the setting of concretes of different compositions under various conditions. In 1976, Paul took over the leadership of the Industrial Materials Group, and was to head it up continuously for the next 30 years. The study of industrial materials always had to compete for visibility in a department of crystallography in which, under the leadership of Tom Blundell, there was an ever-increasing emphasis on biological applications. It was largely due to Paul’s energetic leadership that the importance of the work being done by the Industrial Materials Group continued to be recognised both by industry and by research councils, thereby maintaining both its funding and its intellectual impetus.

In 1980, a remarkable new piece of equipment became available to researchers in industrial materials, with the opening of the synchrotron on Daresbury in Cheshire. In the years that followed, Paul Barnes was to spend much of his research time slaving over hot synchrotrons, whether in Cheshire or in Geneva. And hot is just about right. The apparatus consists of a large torus into which electrons are first fired and then flogged round and round the racecourse by powerful and carefully-focussed magnets until they approach the speed of light, at which point they are unleashed on whatever unsuspecting piece of matter has piqued Paul’s curiosity. A million times more intense than those emitted from a hospital X-ray machine, the  X-rays penetrate the material and are absorbed or diffracted in complex patterns by the molecular structures they encounter within it, enabling those structures to be precisely modelled.

Not that the process is anywhere near as easy or straightforward as looking at the state of your lungs or fillings. For a long time, many of the techniques of X-ray diffraction suffered from the drawback that they offered only one two-dimensional images from which three-dimensional structures had to be inferred. Other techniques require the material to be studied to be ground to a powder, which averages out the irregularities in the material. This does not matter where the aim is to map the regularly-repeating molecular lattices of a uniform compound. But many if not most of the materials that surround us and on which we depend are much lumpier and more irregular than this: our world is a matter of what the ancient world called ‘mixed bodies’, rather than of elements or absolute arrangements – altogether an affair more of porridge than snowflakes. In the case of heterogeneous aggregate materials like cement, it is important to be able to study the material in its actual condition and in real time as it changes, flows, mixes or transforms in response to varying conditions. Paul was involved in the late 1990s in developing a technique known as Tomographic Energy Dispersive Diffraction Imaging, or TEDDI, that made this possible. Taking sequences of scans through the TEDDI technique (tomographic meaning literally ‘drawing in slices’) allows the building up of a composite 3D picture of the interior of a material. Because the technique is much faster than previous techniques, it also makes possible a kind of time-lapse photography of interior changes to the material. One appreciative account of a paper Paul gave in Seattle spoke with amazed appreciation of a video ‘in which the audience was treated to a journey, a la Star Trek, down the pore of a zeolite’.

Paul has also fulfilled a vitally important administrative role in the college through the office of College Dean that he occupied for many years. In an administrative structure in which every other officer’s role or representative function is clearly demarcated, the Dean’s role is to act as a kind of stem cell or free radical, who is able to deal with problems, difficulties and grievances from all parts of the college, and in particular to provide an interface between staff and students. One senses that all that early understanding of lubricating process must have been come in useful in this role. In fulfilling this function, Paul became one of the members of the Faculty of Science who was most widely known and respected in all parts of the college. His role as Dean made him a frequent visitor to platforms like this, and he has always taken great delight in saluting the success of students from all the areas of the college as they passed before him.

The other role which Paul has filled with singular humanity and commitment was that of chairman of the scholarships committee and a number of other bodies in the college charged with making awards and providing support to students who were in financial difficulty. It was an absolutely vital responsibility and one that Paul carried out with a mixture of unswerving fairness and inexhaustible good humour.

The roll-call of distinguished crystallographers who have become fellows of Birkbeck meant that I often had to seek his emergency advice when preparing orations of this kind. I will never forget the ad hoc tutorial about fivefold symmetry he gave me, equipped only with a notepad and pencil, in preparation for one oration about a colleague of his. I understood then why Paul had built up the reputation he had as a teacher, able to discern and convey the essential principles of a topic with swiftness and precision. That I have retained the memory of the experience more vividly than its content is my deficit; alas, all I can recall at this date is that the interesting thing about fivefold symmetry is that it is never, ever found in nature, apart from sometimes, when it, well, is. On this occasion, since my subject has been the man who had so often been my nark on the inside, I have had to fend for myself, with the sorry results to which you have all today been subject. I can only hope that my allegations about the workings of synchrotrons and tomographic imaging have not induced too many winces in my subject, whose gaze you will see I am nervously avoiding.

Despite being so well known and widely admired through the college, few beyond his immediate colleagues will know that Paul was also for many years a top-level gymnastics judge, a responsibility that required him to travel widely, for example to serve in the Los Angeles Olympics, once again, something for which his familiarity with the behaviour of other kinds of high-energy particles will have equipped him well.

Paul Barnes has given 40 years of service to his students, his colleagues and his discipline. He has imparted a unique style and tone to Birkbeck which we must strive to maintain in the future. In the meantime, we can take consolation from a new and, we hope, equally long association between Paul and the college, an association we inaugurate now by welcoming him as Fellow of Birkbeck.