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Balazs Gyorffy, 1938-2012

Professor Balazs Gyorffy

Professor Balazs Gyorffy

14 November 2012

Balazs Gyorffy, Emeritus Professor of Physics and Senior Research Fellow at the University of Bristol, died on 25 October after a short illness. Professor Robert Evans pays tribute to an outstanding scientist and a valued colleague, best described as a force of nature.

Balazs was born in Eger, Hungary. In 1956, realising that as a 'class enemy' he would be barred from higher education, Balazs left on a train bound for Vienna. When this was stopped by Russian soldiers he and his mates jumped off, ran through marshland, bribed a guard with watches and broke through the iron curtain into Austria.

Ending up in the US, Balazs entered Yale University where he studied Electrical Engineering and Physics, obtaining a BSc in 1961. His entry into Yale was facilitated by the fact that he was a swimmer of Olympic standard. He continued in Yale completing his PhD on the theory of pressure effects on the output of gas lasers in 1966. His PhD advisor was Willis E. Lamb Jr., Nobel Laureate in Physics.

Balazs came to the UK in the same year and held postdoctoral research appointments in UCL, Queen Mary College and Sheffield University before joining the Physics Department of the University of Bristol as a lecturer in August 1970. His presence was felt from day one. This tall, athletic, handsomely moustached, charming, and argumentative man brought new energy and ideas.

By 1972 he was setting a new research agenda. Balazs was promoted to Reader in 1980 and to Professor in 1987. Balazs retired, rather the University ceased to pay his salary, in 2003. As Emeritus Professor his scientific productivity continued unabated. He published three papers in 2012 and was collaborating with several colleagues on new pieces of work until the final days of his illness.

Balazs Gyorffy was a theoretical physicist working across a broad area of solid state physics. Perhaps as a consequence of his training with Willis Lamb, Balazs always attempted to bring fundamental, first-principles approaches to the difficult problems he tackled.

Balazs was probably the first to coin the term electron ‘glue’ to describe the role of electrons in determining the structure and properties of metallic materials. He is perhaps best recognized for his seminal contributions to the theory of metallic alloys (mixtures of two or more atomic components) where he developed a powerful and tractable approach for calculating the electronic structure that continues to be a key tool for materials scientists. This only one of the topics Balazs pursued. Throughout his career he published more than 260 scientific articles.

Balazs was frequently a visting professor. His ability to enthuse young researchers, and to re-invigorate some of the more senior ones, led to many invitations for extended stays. Balazs was a charismatic lecturer who took no prisoners. Those students who survived a Gyorffy undergraduate course often went onto great things. His talents were best reserved for final year undergraduates where his enormous enthusiasm and deep knowledge of theoretical physics were much appreciated. It was in postgraduate teaching where Balazs showed exceptional commitment. He was a fierce advocate for postgraduates continuing their formal education beyond BSc.

Balazs was more than a leader in his discipline; he was an inspirational, generous and entertaining colleague. He possessed incredible energy and passion for everything that he engaged in - not only his research and scholarship.

His interests were wide and politics was a particular passion. He was an active member of the Cotham and Redland Branch of the Labour Party and regularly made clear his views. As an enthusiastic member of the University Arts Lectures Committee, Balazs brought a scientific perspective and with it a string of new ideas.

Balazs was a member of Bristol Central Swimming Club and of Gloucester Masters. In 2009, he held the European Masters record for the 200 metres freestyle (age group 70-74). I recall how upset he was when ‘a young East German stole’ his record. Balazs continued swimming in competitions until well into 2012 when his illness made this impossible.

There are many anecdotes about Balazs and all are true. Several involve his forgetting to take or mislaying his (US) passport but somehow managing to talk his way back into the UK. Sometimes this entailed a telephone call from the Border authorities to the Registrar, usually in the early hours of the morning, seeking confirmation that a certain Professor Gyorffy was indeed employed by the University of Bristol. On one occasion in the 1970s Balazs was driving from Bristol to a conference in Manchester with a Hungarian colleague. Happily talking physics and singing songs from the old days, they were unaware of the motorway exit to that fine city. It was only when another passenger woke up and noticed they were about to enter Scotland that they realized that had gone slightly too far.

Many of us who knew Balazs imagined that a person with such spirit and such physical presence would be immortal - as is a force of nature. Sadly we were mistaken. 

  • A memorial event will take place at 2pm on Saturday, 17 November in the Tyndall Lecture Theatre, School of Physics (entry from the rear Royal Fort entrance). The Gyorffy family together with the School of Physics warmly invite those who knew Balazs to celebrate his life. The memorial event will be followed by a reception with drinks and nibbles.

A full version of this obituary can be read here.