David Cornwell (Physics, 1965)
David is now retired, but previously worked at the European Commission in Brussels.
I was born in 1947 to a working class family in north east London (relatives thought our parents had bought above themselves when they purchased a house in Wanstead for £600 in the months before the war). On passing the old eleven plus I went to Leyton County High School (LCHS) for Boys, a grammar school, which in 1968 became a comprehensive school. My brother had left school and gone out to work aged sixteen. When I reached that age my parents were asked to go to the school and were told that it would be a waste if I didn’t stay on for sixth form and go to university.
At this point, during the autumn term in 1964, I heard that someone was coming from Oxford and that I was one of the people he wanted to interview. I met Neil Tanner for the first time in the school library on an October morning with the sun streaming in through the windows. This (perhaps) triggered a typically whimsical, but probing question from him. He threw a coin onto the table and asked something like ‘why doesn’t this coin start to rotate?’ Neil wanted to have a chat about the application of physical principles, rather than whether I could do the mathematics, which he knew I could.
I was subsequently awarded the Baring Open Scholarship, worth £60 a year (a considerable amount at a time when my father earned less than a thousand pounds a year and I received £280 p.a. as a grant from the local education authorities), and went up in October 1965. When I arrived Hertford was still considered a ‘hearty’ college, and very low down the Norrington Table. It is therefore perhaps worth mentioning, though I do not wish to be nasty to my good friends and colleagues, that there were six of us physicists, three from public schools and three from grammar schools and the public school graduates eventually got poor seconds or thirds while the grammar school graduates got good seconds or firsts.
It was only decades later that I slowly discovered how unorthodox Neil’s manner of working had been; indeed, how unpopular his scheme had been with many others at the university. I spent six years at Hertford, the last three simultaneously at the Theoretical Physics Department where I did my D.Phil. My subsequent career would take too long to recount other than by saying that I was successively: a research physicist, Lieutenant RN, and a principal engineer / lecturer / consultant / administrator (the last with the European Commission in Brussels).