Professor E Roland Dobbs (1924-2016)

Professor John Saunders, Department of Physics, shares an obituary as we remember and celebrate Professor E Roland Dobbs’ life

Roland Dobbs was the founding head of the Department of Physics at Royal Holloway and Bedford New College, serving as head from the merger of Royal Holloway College and Bedford College in 1985 until his retirement in 1990.

He planned, and secured funding for, the new Wilson Laboratory at Royal Holloway, including a purpose built laboratory for low temperature research with supporting infrastructure, to accommodate the new Department. He was previously Head of the Department of Physics at Bedford College University of London, 1973-85, and was Hildred Carlile Professor of Physics, 1973-90.

Over this latter period his main research interest was acoustic studies of quantum fluids at ultra-low temperatures, including studies of the Higgs-Anderson modes of superfluid He-3. Superfluidity of He-3 was discovered in 1972, for which the Nobel Prize for Physics was awarded in 1996 to Osheroff, Richardson and Lee. Following Roland’s retirement, as Emeritus Professor, he completed a definitive monograph: Helium Three (Oxford University Press, 2000), which extends to more than 1000 pages.

Previously Roland was founding head of the Department of Physics at the University of Lancaster (1964-73). He was responsible for initiating research groups in low temperature physics at both Royal Holloway and at the University of Lancaster. These have both developed into world-leading low temperature laboratories, and both are the UK members of the European Microkelvin Platform.

A theme of Roland’s research was the application of physical acoustics (sound), and especially ultrasonics, to the understanding of condensed matter (solids and liquids). This work included the development of novel techniques, such the electromagnetic generation of ultrasound. Roland studied condensed noble gases (1955-73), metals and superconductors (1973-76), before embarking on the ultrasonic studies of superfluid He-3 referred to above. He was awarded a D.Sc in 1976, and a Honorary Fellowship of the Institute of Acoustics in 2007.

Roland was active in both University and UK Science Research administration. He was Vice-Principal, Bedford College (1981-2) and Dean of the Faculty of Science, 1980-2; Chairman of the Board of Studies in Physics, University of London, 1982-5; Vice-Dean, 1986-8 and Dean, 1988–90, Faculty of Science, University of London. He served on the Physics Committee of the then Science Research Council (1970-73) and subsequently Science and Engineering Research Council (1983-86). He was Convenor, through the Institute of Physics, of the UK Standing Conference of Professors of Physics (1985-88).

Roland combined great charm, with political astuteness, vision and good judgement. He was not one for rhetorical flourishes, but was extremely effective in getting things done. He has left a lasting legacy both intellectually, through the Departments of Physics he founded, and particularly through sowing important seeds of ultralow temperature physics research in the UK. He was supported throughout by his wife Dorothy, who was Head of English at City of London Girls School, until her death. Following the move to London, they shared their time between a flat in the Barbican and a farmhouse in the Sussex village of Ripe, the produce from which was a feature of the Royal Holloway Department’s life. He is survived by three children, Jane, Richard and Jeremy.