Obituary: Thomas Peter Hughes 1929-2023

  • Date

    Thu 30 Nov 23

Tom Hughes

Tom Hughes came to the University of Essex from the National Physical Laboratory soon after the University opened in 1965 as a Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Physics. He immediately formed a small group of staff and students working in the field of laser produced plasmas.

Since the high powered lasers needed for this work were not available at that time, Tom set about designing and building a laser for himself. This was a mammoth task and took several years to complete.

In 1971, on top of his teaching and research commitments, Tom was appointed Dean of Students. A post which he held for three years. As part of this position he organised the running of the Dean of Students office. It is indicative of Tom’s planning and foresight that the operation of the DoS’s office continued for many years until the University became very much bigger.

The field of laser produced plasmas moved rapidly ahead because of the potential route to thermonuclear fusion and Tom felt that the literature had become too fragmented. He set about collating the published research papers. In 1976, his seminal book “Plasmas and Laser Light” was published. This was a 540 page book which reviewed and commented on approximately 1000 publications and was well received, particularly in university libraries around the world and in research groups working in the field.

In the late 70s work was started on the Central Laser Facility (CLF) at the Science and Engineering Research Council’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. Tom was involved in the setting up of this Laboratory which provided a very high power laser called VULCAN for use by UK Universities and international collaborators. The plasmas produced by VULCAN were very extreme: very high temperature and density as well as being very short lived. It is challenging to find out exactly what is happening under such conditions and a great deal of effort is put into diagnostics of these plasmas. Tom’s particular interest at VULCAN was in laser scattering diagnostics of laser produced plasmas. This uses a second lower powered laser, usually of a different colour, to probe the plasma produced by VULCAN. Tom and his research students and collaborators became regular users of this facility and produced a number of excellent research papers which were highly thought of internationally.

At Essex Tom became Head of the Department of Physics. He was bold and innovative and with his gentle but persuasive manner he could carry his ideas into practice. He was an excellent HoD. He was so good at this that he was persuaded to extend his appointment and he remained as HoD for 6 years. His skill with people meant that the Department of Physics was a harmonious place to work. Tom was promoted to Reader.

By the late 1980’s lasers were beginning to be used widely in industry and the National Health Service. Tom felt that the Physics Department should put on an M.Sc. course in Lasers and their Applications. His approach was typically very innovative and in the beginning seemed very risky, financially, to many people. The students would spend the autumn term studying the basics of lasers and their operation and properties and in the spring term there would be 5 intensive, one week courses which would be organised and run by experts from industry. These courses would be open not just to the M.Sc. students but also from paying members from industry, commerce and the NHS. The wide diversity of these courses (telecommunications, medicine and surgery, metrology, machining and welding, optical signal processing) proved very popular and the courses and the M.Sc. were a great success and ran for many years.

Away from work, Tom’s interests were sailing and music. He was an accomplished pianist and in his early years at the University he took a great interest in the “Wyvern Singers” of which he was the chairman for some years. The Wyvern Singers later became the University Choir which is now a successful part of the University life. It may not have survived if Tom had not taken a guiding role early on. He was also a keen sailor and in the 70’s kept a 28 foot wooden sailing boat at Brightlingsea. He spent as much time as he could sailing off the east coast and across the North Sea to The Netherlands, Belgium and France.

Tom retired from Essex in 1994 after almost 30 years. He went to work as a consultant at the Joint European Torus (JET) at Culham Laboratory. There he worked on the scattering of gyrotron radiation. This technique proved a powerful diagnostic of the fusion plasma produced in JET. JET was an important milestone and was the first device to produce significant energy output from fusion at that time. The results lead onto the construction of the ITER project at Cadarache in France which is currently nearing completion.

After 10 years as a consultant to JET Tom finally retired to Papa Westray in the Orkney Isles. As his mobility decreased in recent years he moved to York where he died on 3rd November 2023.

This obituary was contributed by Emeritus Professor Thomas Hall.

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"Tom was a senior member of the Physics Department when I was appointed a lecturer in 1985. Tom was a kind and helpful member of staff. I will always remember his long laser lab which was a sight to behold in the basement of the Physics building."
Professor Anthony Vickers

"Tom interviewed me as a prospective student on the MSc Lasers and their Applications course back in 1981. I then realised he was a man with a deep knowledge of science and who really cared about the futures of his students. As a result, I enrolled on his wonderful course and thoroughly enjoyed his lectures on physical optics and learning from his respected team including Rodney, Maurice and others.

"Later in the decade I met up with Tom again as he investigated alpha particle scattering of gyrotron radiation at JET, where he always took a great interest in my research, was hugely inspiring and offered much good advice. Meeting him at conferences, he was always such a friendly character with wise things to say. After he retired, he offered great support for my application for Fellow of the Institute of Physics. What a role model he was. Thank you, Tom, for being a great teacher and mentor."
Neil Salmon

"I had the good fortune to work with T P Hughes in the earlier years at Essex University, Physics Dept and tried to keep up with him in later years. It was harder when he was way up north but was keen to keep in touch.

"I was sad to learn today he had passed on and was glad to read Prof Tom Hall’s account. Clearly he was a great asset to Essex University and did value later visits there while Tom was stlll there. I personally was greatly helped by his kindness and hard work."
Michael Nicholson-Florence

"Very sad to hear of Tom's passing. I have a number of memories that I hope others may enjoy my sharing.

"As a student in the 60s, I was one of many who greatly benefited from his enthusiasm and keenness to involve the student body in both scientific and leisure activities.

"I remember one experimental project he and Tom Hall encouraged, just for the fun of it. A small group of us were given access to their lab, including a small laser and other bits of kit, to demonstrate optical communication - a novel concept in those days. Using an electro-optic crystal driven by the ignition-coil from a car(!) we were able to convert the output of a radio into modulated light, send it across the lab and then detect it and convert it back to sound. Carried out across a couple of evenings, this formed no part of our official physics course but was very enjoyable and hugely educational.

"This encouragement to participate extended to Tom's sailing interest and the great support he gave to the University Sailing Club. I recall a project to build our own rescue boat which was assembled in his home garage. He had produced a very simple design which looked like a very boxy landing craft! Sheets of marine ply were screwed together and then smothered in fibre glass and resin to seal it all up. (A lot of subsequent cleaning up in his kitchen!) While it was all rather primitive, the boat happily survived its test launch - although I don't believe it was ever very practical!

"Another memory involved two or three of us being given access to his one-design sailing boat, which was moored in the River Colne, off Wivenhoe Quay. Unfortunately, we managed to damage some of the woodwork on the foredeck - so, to put repairs in place, more boat visits than we had envisaged were required.

"Another sailing initiative of Tom's was to liaise with the Ocean Youth Club so as to put an Essex University team into the Tall Ships Race from Plymouth to La Coruña, in north-west Spain. We were sailing a smaller boat - not one of the big square-riggers - but it was a great experience.  Tom organised a 16-mm cine-camera for me to record the event and then persuaded the Shell PR department to edit it for us and add a soundtrack. (I would love to know where this film ended up!)

"Later, Tom was one of a number of physics colleagues who showed great hospitality - giving me somewhere to stay when I returned to lecture on the Masters course.

"A hugely generous man who, as well as being an excellent scientist, freely gave a lot of time to encourage and support the wider university community. Will always be remembered fondly."
Andy Walker, Professor Emeritus Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh 

"I am very saddened to learn the passing of one of my advisors during my time as an Undergraduate at Essex. Tom was very kind and understanding during a very difficult time in my life. Tom was like more than a father to me. The world is better place because of men like Tom. I suppose I never really got the chance to thank him for all that he did. May he rest in peace."
Balbinder Dobe