Ernest Laing

Born: February 12, 1931;

Died: January 23, 2024

Professor Ernest William Laing, who has died aged 92, was a formidable mathematician and physicist at Glasgow University who researched a wide range of topics and worked on the ZETA device, the UK’s (and the world’s) first large fusion machine.

He was born in Belgium to his Belgian mother Valentine and his Scottish father William. The family settled in Scotland six years later, where Ernest excelled at school and began his studies at the University of Glasgow in 1948.

Graduating in 1952 with a first class degree in mathematics and natural philosophy, he began his PhD in the department of natural philosophy, led by the inspirational Professor Philip Dee. Studying under Professor John Gunn, he completed his thesis Nuclear Forces and Spin-Orbit Coupling in 1955.

After a short fellowship at Glasgow with Gordon Moorhouse, he joined the fledgling fusion effort at Harwell, working on the stability of ZETA. He returned in 1960 to lead a new plasma physics effort in Glasgow and was joined in this enterprise by John Taylor and John Cumming. In 1966 he became a senior lecturer, was promoted to reader in 1976 and in 1980, professor; the following year he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

Professor Laing first researched stable configurations of a plasma pinch, work which became significant in the later development of ZETA into a new configuration (the reversed-field pinch, HBTX), and became a long-standing consultant for Culham Laboratory, created in 1962 as the new UK centre for magnetically confined fusion.

He developed his research interests across a wide range of topics, embracing magnetic traps, force-free magnetic configurations, and dynamical invariants in plasmas, before turning his attention to laser-plasma interactions, including the free-electron laser (the first one of which in the UK was created at the Kelvin Laboratory at Glasgow) and high-energy density physics associated with laser-plasma interactions.

He continued to work in magnetised plasmas in the context of external heating of tokamaks (wave mode conversion) before branching out into the theory of waves in electron-positron plasmas, building into a fully relativistic kinetic pair plasma description with applications in pulsar astrophysics.

Throughout his career Professor Laing supervised dozens of research students, contributing enormously to the pool of expertise in plasma physics (and general science) in the UK and launching many significant scientific careers. He was also keen to support science across the country, generously offering his time and experience to assist academic activities across a range of institutions.

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He brought his considerable analytical skills to bear on his teaching and administration: he was honours physics class head for many years, before succeeding Professor Sir John Gunn as head of the department of natural philosophy in 1982-86, and then Dean of the Faculty of Science 1988-1990.

Professor Laing chaired the Institute of Physics (IOP) Plasma Physics Group in the 1980s, and was active in the Science Research Council (SRC) throughout his career. He authored several books (with academic colleagues W McFarlane & R B Gardiner) in the undergraduate-level series Solving Problems in Physics (Oliver & Boyd), the research title Plasma Physics (Chatto & Windus), and acted as Series Editor for the IOP Plasma Physics Series.

Though Professor Laing retired in 1995, he remained active for the next 20 or so years, regularly publishing research articles with colleagues at home and abroad. He maintained a 70-year connection with the university and was an immensely able, inspirational, kind and thoughtful colleague: a true professional. He is greatly missed.

Ernest Laing is survived by his wife Olive (whom he married in 1956), his sons Alan and Kenneth, and his grandson Andrew.