James Stirling: renowned physicist, respected academic leader, trusted colleague

The late James Stirling, Imperial’s first Provost, was honoured for his contributions to physics in a memorial lecture.

Professor Stirling passed away in November 2018, shortly after his retirement as Provost, a role that saw him responsible for leading Imperial’s core academic mission.

“James sought understanding, in the physics of particles and forces, and in academic administration and leadership. This spirit lives on and is worthy of celebration” Professor Alice Gast President of Imperial

In a special lecture, Professor Sir Tejinder (Jim) Singh Virdee, Professor of Physics at Imperial and CERN researcher, gave an overview of Professor Stirling’s contributions to the field and specifically to the discovery of the Higgs Boson at the Large Hadron Collider.

Professor Virdee said: “James was a rare individual. Throughout his career, he was honest in thought and in deed. He was modest, as anyone who interacted with him will know, and very kind.

“He was universally liked and widely admired within our community – both theoretical and experimental.”

Crucial underpinning work

An internationally respected physicist, Professor Stirling’s work focussed on the “phenomenology” of particle physics, a field which bridges the mathematical models of theoretical physics and observed experimental data. His work resulted in more than 300 research papers, including some of the most highly cited of all time in the physical sciences.

Professor Stirling’s research underpins much of the work done on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, the largest and most powerful particle accelerator ever built. The LHC was used to confirm the existence of the Higgs Boson in 2012, almost fifty years after it was first suggested.

The LHC collides protons at very high energies to probe nature moments after the big bang. A detailed knowledge of the proton’s composition is therefore essential for us to make sense of the results that we obtain at colliders like the LHC, Professor Virdee explained. Professor Stirling spent much of his career on this crucial underpinning work.

Much of Professor Stirling’s work focussed on development and application of quantum chromodynamics (QCD), the theory of the strong interaction between quarks and gluons – the fundamental particles inside the proton. His contributions were central to discoveries in physics, confirming QCD as the correct theory of strong interactions and in computing precise predictions for all types of processes at hadron colliders such as the LHC.

Professor Stirling was a pillar of the renowned ‘MRST/MSTW’ collaboration, which set the standard for determining the quark and gluon distributions in the proton.

Challenging expectations

Introducing the lecture, Imperial’s President Alice Gast shared her personal reflections on James as a colleague and friend. She said: “Phenomenologists are the people who always confront theory with experiments; those who always challenge expectations with facts.

“One could say that James was a phenomenologist in all areas of his life. I saw this in his leadership as Imperial’s first Provost. He always addressed any question, any idea or any assumption with an evaluation of the facts.

“He sought understanding, in the physics of particles and forces, and in academic administration and leadership. This spirit lives on and is worthy of celebration.”

Personal Reflections

Following the lecture, James’ colleagues and friends gathered to share their tributes to the acclaimed academic leader.

Professor Alice Gast added: “A provost and president work very closely together on challenging problems and exciting opportunities. The path forward is seldom straightforward. There are twists and turns along the way.

“Navigating such winding pathways requires a lot of thought and insight and a lot of work. For me, James was a compass, an ordinance survey map, a pocket torch and a walking stick. James taught me a great deal about the UK, Imperial, academics and people. His insights were always valuable, and our greatest joys together were sharing ideas and finding the right way forward.”

Muir Sanderson, Chief Financial Officer at Imperial, shared his reflections on his former colleague and friend, with a tribute he had also given at James’ memorial service in Durham Cathedral earlier this year. Muir said: “James was so smart, so able to put you at ease, so genuinely interested in what you have to say… He brought a deep understanding of what academic excellence looks like to everything he did at Imperial.

“More importantly, James was kind. He had time for everyone…everyone who met him was struck by how much he cared.”

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