Key Figures on Campus: Dr J. Idwal Jones

Dr J Idwal Jones studied for a BSc and PhD at the University of Wales and became a fellow of the same institution. He came to Hull in the late forties and was a member of the Hull Electronic Engineering Society. By the 1950s he was lecturing in the Physics Department, becoming Assistant Director of the Physics Laboratories in 1961. In this article, alumnus Bill Bailey (Physics 1967) recounts his memories of this ‘key figure on campus’.

I will always be grateful to him for guiding me through my last year with a light touch and great humour. He took pride in providing us with a sound scientific education which gave us the self-esteem and confidence to have varied and rewarding careers.


Dr. J Idwal Jones B.Sc., Ph.D. the Assistant Director of Physics Laboratories at the University of Hull, became my tutor in my final year, 1967. What a stroke of luck this was!

I first became aware of him when heading towards Newland Park for our first Maths lecture of the day. He would be coming in the opposite direction on his way to Physics and his office on the second floor. He cut a distinctive figure: very determined, graceful walk, immaculately turned out in a smart suit the colour of which matched his intense slate grey eyes, with dark grey hair swept back from the pointed features of his face. The four Pure Maths/Physics students were assigned to him for a weekly tutorial, first thing on a Friday morning, prompt. Alan Frost, Mick Martin, Phil Woodward and I were enraptured by the sessions. He squeezed as much as he could in the time allotted, answering our questions, helping us with our assignments and explaining the more esoteric elements of Physics (e.g. entropy) in plain and simple terms.

He was totally disarming and appeared to enjoy our company as much as we his. It was a perfect example of science as a social activity with a joint pursuit of enlightenment. He was confident and relaxed to such an extent he would occasionally light up a Cadet, his preferred brand of cigarette. I found it incongruous that a successful academic should smoke such a cheap brand on a par with tipped Park Drive and Woodbines, which were also popular at the time.

He told us of his time as a research student of Sir Laurence Bragg, who received a Nobel Prize in 1951 for his work on the law of X-ray diffraction, and his futile attempts to grow a beard. He asked me why I grew one. I explained that on a weekend visit home during the first term my mother took exception to the side burns that I had cultivated. She threatened to refuse me admission if I returned for the Christmas vacation with them still in place. So I joined them up, she seemed satisfied and I have never shaved it off to this day.

Idwal was confident and secure in all that he did, exuding enthusiasm whether leading a tutorial, which we were privileged to attend, seminars, the third year laboratory or lecturing. During the latter he had a unique and, for students, helpful style. After covering a topic he would question our understanding and if there was still doubt he would say, “I’ll leave you to discuss it and come back in a minute to let me know if there is still a problem”. He would then depart from the door by the dais at the front of the lecture theatre. On re-entry we could smell the tobacco smoke where he had been having a nifty drag.

Dr. Jones also extended his expertise into the laboratories. As Joint Honours students we were expected to complete the same number of experiments as the Special Physics students. This was sometimes an intolerable pressure on our workload, which also included Pure Maths lectures and examples classes.

We were expected to complete an experiment a week. For the first two years this was achievable, particularly if you were prepared to put in an extra afternoon to complement the 2 x 3 hour sessions allocated. Experiments became increasingly sophisticated in the Third Year Laboratory. Here Dr. Jones was in charge and led the activities in a calm, supportive and thoroughly professional manner. These practical challenges were tough and hardly any students reached double figures for experiments completed throughout the year, which, because of finals, was barely 20 weeks. No matter, because as far as Dr. Jones was concerned his maxim was quality in depth rather than rushing through an experiment and producing inconsequential results.

One experiment that presented a particular challenge concerned an AC current bridge which refused to work even with the help of a demonstrator (one of a group of research students). He was as baffled as I was and finally having spent two weeks on this intractable problem we referred it to Dr. Jones.

“First check the source of power,” he advised whilst interchanging the terminals. The meters immediately sprang into life. “Fundamental,” he said and added, with a look of disdain, to the hapless research student, “I was brought up to the era of string and sealing wax. We relied on the fundamentals, unlike you sophisticated lot fed on quantum physics.”

Another experiment presenting a challenge to complete successfully was concerned with the structure of a crystal. An electron beam was fired at a crystal down a vacuum tube. By examining the resultant pattern of scatter on a screen placed behind the crystal, the atomic structure of the material could be determined. Unfortunately on this occasion the intense beam from the centre of the electron emitter passed straight through the crystal creating a distorted image which was impossible to analyse accurately. To remove this ray Dr. Jones had a unique solution. A small piece of well chewed Wrigleys Spearmint gum was deposited on the middle of electron gun thereby absorbing the central beam of electrons. Result: a perfect image. Dr. Jones offered one further word of advice and that was not to chew the now contaminated piece of gum. This solution would not have been necessary in modern times because Blu Tack is now available.

Being our final year Idwal was very generous in presenting us with an unusual and much appreciated leaving present. Virtually all exam questions were knowledge based with related follow-up calculations. In one of the papers I was able to answer 4 of the 12 options and so was one short. The first II were printed on one page and turning over found question 12 to be a gift requiring no particular technical knowledge but imaginative creativity. It read, “Physics is regarded by some as a pure science but it has many practical applications. Describe, with examples, how it has impacted on our lives in the twentieth century,” or words to that effect. Thus I was able to provide the examiners with the required five questions after 3 hours exhaustive mental exercise.

As it was our last set of exams we missed out on the usual feedback. The latter would have been fascinating to say the least. This final act confirmed our view of Dr. Jones as an original lateral thinker and scientific iconoclast who could always be relied on to throw up the unexpected yet relevant challenge.

I will always be grateful to him for guiding me through my last year with a light touch and great humour. He took pride in providing us with a sound scientific education which gave us the self-esteem and confidence to have varied and rewarding careers.

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