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Prof Gordon Bryce Donaldson

Physicist and academic;

Born: August 10, 1941; Died: November 28, 2012.

Gordon Bryce Donaldson, who has died at the age of 71, was professor of applied physics at the University of Strathclyde. He was a leading expert in the design and application of superconducting devices, widely used for measuring tiny magnetic fields.

Born in Edinburgh, he was brought up in Glasgow, and his knowledge and love of the city and the Firth of Clyde was sparked by enthusiastic teenage explorations on his bicycle. After attending Glasgow Academy, he won a scholarship to study physics at Cambridge University in 1959, where as a member of Christ's College he remained adamant that the Glasgow Herald was the only paper worth reading. He stayed at Cambridge for his PhD, working at the Mond laboratory on tunnelling in superconductors.

On graduating in 1966 he was appointed lecturer in the physics department at the newly established Lancaster University, where he continued to work on low-temperature superconductors.

Following a sabbatical at the University of California, Berkeley, he moved back to Glasgow in 1975 to a lectureship in the department of applied physics at the University of Strathclyde. He founded a new research group to make and use superconducting devices.

From modest beginnings (two staff and one tiny laboratory) the group grew steadily until in the 1990s it had more than 20 members, plus a host of collaborators worldwide. He was appointed professor of applied physics in 1985, and was head of the department for two periods of several years each.

Prof Donaldson made many contributions to superconducting technology, most notably a technique to measure minute magnetic fields using gradiometers, which he invented during his time at Berkeley. These instruments are based on SQUIDs (superconducting quantum interference devices), whose usefulness Prof Donaldson developed and championed. The uses of SQUID-based gradiometry are remarkably diverse, for example, non-destructive testing of materials (such as examining aircraft chassis for minute cracks) and medical imaging of heart and brain function (such as in epilepsy patients).

His research interests extended well beyond the University of Strathclyde, and with the discovery in 1986 of high-temperature superconductivity he was a leading contributor at a golden period in superconductivity research. The explosive interest in the field led to the establishment of a UK National Committee for Superconductivity, for which he acted as co-ordinator for three years. In this role he visited all UK superconductivity groups many times. He was especially proud of having established the Cambridge Winter School in Superconductivity, first held in 1991, for intensive training of junior researchers from across the UK and beyond. He also led Government missions and fact-finding visits to the US, Europe and Japan.

Numerous appointments and honours confirmed the esteem in which he was held. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and was convenor of their physics panel, and was a trustee of the James Clerk Maxwell Foundation. He was editor of the journal Superconductor Science and Technology, and chairman of the low temperature group of the Institute of Physics in London.

Through all this time he was much involved in university teaching. He was particularly fond of his How Things Work course, which he developed and taught for 15 years, in keeping with his passion for useful practical physics and engineering. That passion was no less evident in his home life, where he delighted in designing innovative and sometimes improbable solutions to DIY problems.

He thrived on the international social interaction so important for scientific creativity. There were sabbaticals to the University of Virginia in 1981 and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation in Sydney in 1999, where he made lots of new friends and brought home many research ideas. There were also visits to China and India, and lectures at summer schools throughout Europe. He organised and chaired major international conferences in Glasgow and Edinburgh, plus smaller specialist meetings. During his Australian sabbatical it was his enthusiasm and customary way of making a good case that led to another international conference in Sydney.

While maintaining a distinguished international research profile, he found time to serve on the University of Strathclyde's senate and was a valued member of the university court, playing a key role in the work of its estates group, bringing his deep knowledge and love of Glasgow and its engineering tradition to university decisions about properties, from the banks of Loch Lomond to post-industrial sites in Easterhouse.

Although he suffered from progressive osteoporosis throughout his retirement, he retained his professional and social interests, and his sudden death drew numerous expressions of shock and sympathy from his extensive circle of friends from around the world and all stages of his life. His magnanimity, sense of humour and good heart were widely noted, and many former colleagues expressed gratitude for his generous help and encouragement at an early stage of their careers, emphasising how much he contributed to their progress. There will be a memorial event in Prof Donaldson's honour at the leading international superconductivity conference in Massachusetts this summer.

He is survived by his wife Christine, his son Ian, daughter Anne, and two grandchildren.

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