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Letter to my lecturer (Nonesuch autumn 2016)

Professor Cecil Powell in 1950 © University of Bristol Library Special Collections

7 November 2016

Earlier this year we asked you to tell us about your favourite lecturer, past or present. Many of you nominated Nobel Prize-winner and Bristol physicist Professor Cecil Powell (1903-1969), and here’s why.

Dear Professor Powell,

Several people inspired me at Bristol, but none as truly as you did. The clarity and simplicity with which you delivered your lectures, usually without reference to notes, could have been models for the Education Department.

I remember the first time I met you as if it was yesterday. In early October 1962, at the end of Welcome Week on a Saturday morning in the Department of Physics at Royal Fort, it was my first university lecture, and I arrived well before time, which was not a habit I would upkeep! The lecture theatre was already quite full and a few members of staff were making some preparations at the front. After a while, one of them began speaking – I took him to be a lab assistant – but as he continued, I realised that it was you, the professor.

You were so unassuming, you see, but spoke in such a clear, simple, yet authoritative way. This was atomic and nuclear physics, stage one (I suppose they call them modules now). You took us on an overview, as you saw it, of the ultimate structure of matter. I think it must have been enthralling because I went away and turned my notes into an essay.

One morning, you arrived to a lecture and announced a change in some constant on a list you had typed up for us – the result of some research from your lab on the top floor of the building perhaps. Somebody told me that you had a Nobel Prize from your work on mesons and pioneering photographic plate method in 1947; I wondered how such a celebrated scientist could be so humble and caring to his rather green students. I discovered that you invited third year students to your house, but I never reached that stage as I was a general honours undergrad, and spent my final year reading mathematics only.

In the mid-60s, I wrote to you from Makerere College in Uganda to congratulate you on some honour conferred by the then Soviet Union. You replied promptly in your lovely handwriting to say that receiving letters like mine were the nicest things that happened when receiving such international recognition. I wish I had kept that letter.

To say thank you is grossly inadequate. But nonetheless… thank you.

Michael Beere (BSc 1965)

Further information

Take a trip down memory lane and back to the lecture theatre by reading more about the favourite lecturers of other alumni. Do you have a favourite lecturer? Let us know as we'd love to hear from you.