James Stirling (1953 - 2018): tributes to a remarkable academic life

Scientists, students and friends have paid tribute to James Stirling, Imperial’s first Provost, who died on 9 November.

A renowned theoretical physicist and respected academic leader, Professor James Stirling CBE FRS pioneered groundbreaking advances in quantum chromodynamics and particle physics phenomenology. His work resulted in more than 300 research papers, including some of the most highly cited of all time in the physical sciences.

These contributions, and his transformative work as Provost, resulted in Professor Stirling receiving an honorary doctorate of science from Imperial in October.

’Passion for physics’

Professor Michele Dougherty , Head of the Department of Physics at Imperial, said: “James believed strongly that one of the most important parts of his job was making people feel valued for their work, and he was passionate about enabling others. Lots of people say those words, but very few follow through on them in the way that James would. Becoming Head of Department was a scary prospect for me at first, but James always had confidence in me, and would contact me regularly to tell me this. Knowing that he thought I was doing OK made those first few months so much easier.

“What I always appreciated about James was that he was so very good at listening to people and understanding different perspectives. Despite being extremely busy, he always made you feel like he had all the time in the world for you. The word nice is overused, but James truly was an incredibly nice man. As a leader, he was kind, considerate and unfailingly fair.

“James’ enthusiasm for physics never abated. As Provost, and even after his retirement, he maintained a keen interest in the Department’s work, even in fields outside his own research area. We will all miss his passion for physics, his unwavering support, and his wise leadership.”

’Exceptional and kind, successful and considerate’

Dr Jess Wade , Research Associate in the Department of Physics, said: “As an early career researcher at a university as big as Imperial, it is easy to feel like no one notices you. James Stirling didn’t let that happen. He took everything we said seriously, he made time for us and he was honest with us. Every time I saw him in an audience or a corridor I felt reassured.

“He was obviously a phenomenal physicist, but not all great physicists make great leaders - and James Stirling was the best leader we could have hoped for. He demonstrated that you could be exceptional and kind, successful and considerate. I don’t think he’ll ever really go - he transformed particle physics, he transformed imperial and he made all of us think we could do it, too.”

Making the world a better place

Professor Jo Haigh , Chair of Atmospheric Physics at Imperial, said: “James’ positive, supportive, no-fuss attitude made working with him a pleasure. In addition to his contributions to physics he will remembered for his influence in just making the world a better place to live.”

Stephen Ramsey , Imperial’s former scientific glassblower, said: “It is with great sadness that in my retirement I have heard the news of the passing of James, it was a great honour to demonstrate the art of Scientific Glassblowing to him back in May and present him with a gift.”

The University of Manchester’s Professor Brian Cox described Professor Stirling as “a towering figure in theoretical physics for many years and a big influence and help to me in my career, and to a generation of particle physicists.”

Role model

UCL physicist Professor Jon Butterworth wrote : “I’m pretty grumpy about role models and (often unjustifiably, I think as I get older) harsh on my senior colleagues, but James was someone I looked up to and admired from very early in my career as a particle physicist. Probably from the very start, since he was the “S” in the MRS parton distributions (Alan Martin and Dick Roberts being the M and R). These were one of several widely-used parameterisations of the quark and gluon content of the proton.”

He added: “James was friendly and modest, and always had time for people (even mouthy students with naive questions). He was often just the most grown up, nicest person in the room when things got heated. His book with Keith Ellis and Bryan Webber is a pre-LHC classic on what we needed to know and do… It was brilliant working with James and I will miss him.”

Cardiff University cosmologist Professor Peter Coles recalled being interviewed by Professor Stirling for an academic post: “It says a lot for his personality that what I expected to be a fierce grilling when he led the questions on my research, turned out to he a friendly (yet challenging) discussion of some of my publications which he had clearly read extremely carefully.”

Intellectual brilliance

Professor Stuart Corbridge, Vice-Chancellor of Durham University, wrote : “James’s field was theoretical elementary particle physics, with a particular emphasis on ‘phenomenology’, the confrontation of theoretical predictions with experimental results, and the use of experimental data to shed light on the fundamental theory of particles and forces.

“Typically, his research was penetrative and insightful, and he had the gift of explaining complicated concepts and ideas simply. His textbook on ‘QCD and Collider Physics’ with Keith Ellis and Bryan Webber has been the standard reference in the field for over 20 years. For more than 25 years, his collaboration with Alan Martin, Dick Roberts and later Robert Thorne, set the standard for understanding what is going on inside the proton. The quality of his research is widely recognised in the community and his election as Fellow of the Royal Society in 1999 was no surprise.

“James was intrinsically a humble and modest person but his intellectual brilliance, coupled with a very strong work ethic, meant that his services were always in demand.

“James was ground breaking in every sense and utterly reliable. The structures and processes he established in Durham, Cambridge and Imperial, bear testament to his intelligence and organisational powers.”

Student memories

Several former Imperial College Union student leaders shared their experiences of working with Professor Stirling.

Tom Wheeler, who served as President of Imperial College Union in 2014/15, said: "I had the honour of working with James Stirling during my term as Union President. He was in touch with me days after I was elected and invited me into his office to learn about the impact I wanted to make, and ensure he understood the frustrations and challenges facing the student body. He was tenacious and focused, kind and compassionate. I can say with total confidence that your time at Imperial was made better due to his leadership."

Lucinda Sandon-Allum, who was Union President in 2015/16, said: "He was an extraordinary man who led an exceptional life and I know he will be sorely missed by all. I had the great privilege of working very closely with James during my year as President and felt so fortunate to see the difference he truly made to the lives of every student at Imperial. My deepest sympathies go out to his family - I know the Imperial community will cherish his memory dearly."

Nas Andriopoulos, who served as Union President in 2016/17, said: "I had the privilege and honour of working with him for just a year but, in that period, I witnessed the dedication he showed for the lives of students at Imperial and a unique compassion with which he led. One quality that stands out to me above all others, is that he possessed an unusual caring for every student at Imperial."

Nick Burstow, Deputy President (Education) in 2017/18, said: “For someone who occupied such an important position, Professor Stirling was down-to-earth, approachable, and totally committed to improving things for students.

"Professor Stirling also left a lasting impression on me personally. As every Deputy President (Education) before and after me will tell you, the first time representing your fellow 18,000 students at a high-level College committee can be daunting. But Professor Stirling always took the trouble to make me, and my fellow DPEs, feel at ease and involved in discussions.

“As Professor Stirling’s colleagues mourn his passing, I think it is only right that we students acknowledge and celebrate someone who dedicated the last years of their working life to improving academia at Imperial. Professor Stirling will be remembered by many as the first Provost of Imperial, but he will be remembered for so much more by the people fortunate enough to have known him." Photos and graphics subject to third party copyright used with permission or Imperial College London.

Deborah Evanson
Communications and Public Affairs