The Old Bostonian Association

Victor John Emery (BGS 1944-1951)


This article appeared in the Autumn 2001 edition of The Old Bostonian.

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences has 3,600 fellows and 600 foreign honorary members. It was founded by John Adams during the American Revolution, past fellows including George Washington, Albert Einstein and Winston Churchill. The Academy now has more than 150 Nobel laureates and 50 winners of the Pulitzer prize among past and present fellows.

Recently 185 new fellows and 26 foreign honorary members have been elected. They include distinguished and eminent scholars, scientists, artists, business executives, educators, and public officials. A ceremony on 13th October welcomed among others King Juan Carlos of Spain, musician Stephen Sondheim, Woody Allen, former US Secretary of State, Madeline Albright, and Victor Emery, born at 1 Oxford Street, Boston, in May 1934.

The eminent physicist whose first academic award came in 1950 when he won the Parry Gold Medal, awarded to the top scholar of the year, has joined the pantheon of great scholars, scientists, and artists as a member of the most illustrious academy of its kind in the world. "I am delighted that my accomplishments in physics have earned me the right to be in such good company," Victor said.

Now 67, Victor was educated at Staniland School and BGS, going on to earn his BSc from the University of London in 1954 and a PhD in theoretical physics in 1957 from Manchester. Before becoming a fellow of the University of California at Berkeley in 1959 he was a research associate at Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge. He returned to England in 1960 to take a lecturing post at the University of Birmingham until joining the Brookhaven National Laboratory in 1964 as an associate physicist, going on to receive tenure as a senior physicist in 1967. In 1995 he received Brookhaven's Distinguished Research and Development Award.

Earlier this year, he won the Oliver E. Buckley Prize in Condensed Matter Physics for his "fundamental contribution to the theory of interating electrons in a one-dimension". The theory is now believed to be of crucial importance for understanding high temperature superconductors.

The second article appears in Paul Mould's book Centennial Anthology, published for the 100th birthday of the Old Bostonian Association.

VICTOR J. EMERY was a pupil at BGS from 1944 to 1951. He won the Parry Gold Medal in 1951 and went to Hull University, where he gained his BSc and MSc then took his PhD in theoretical physics at the University of Manchester in 1957. He took a post at the University of California, Berkeley and, while there in 1960, together with Andrew Sessler he made the dramatic prediction that liquid helium-3 would experience superfluidity, that is flow without friction, at temperatures very close to absolute zero. This theory was later confirmed experimentally.

As a result of this breakthrough, he was invited to join the Brookhaven National Laboratory's Physics Department in 1964. After joining BNL, Victor worked on fundamental theories for the behaviour of helium-3/helium-4 mixtures and later turned to the theory of organic conductors and superconductors, a topical issue during the '70s and early '80s. Here he provided deep insights into general many-body aspects of boson and fermion systems. Through this work, Victor became one of the world's leading theorists in the study of phase transitions, where substances change among liquid, solid and gas.

Emery's work with low-temperature superconductivity laid the foundation for his concentration over the next nine years on the theory of high-temperature superconductivity. Discovered in 1986, high-temperature superconductors have the potential to bring superconducting technology into everyday use.

As physicists world-wide struggled to understand this phenomenon, Emery presented one of the first believable theories, identifying the nature of the superconducting material's 'holes', which are the carriers of the supercurrent. In detail he correctly pointed out that the holes tend to sit mainly on oxygen, rather than on copper, contrary to initial popular belief. His model for the electronic structure of the copper-oxide planes is the starting point for many analyses of high-temperature superconductors and is commonly known as the 'Emery model'.

Victor is considered among the world's leading experts and spokesman for this revolutionary field; he has now proposed that high-temperature superconductivity occurs because the mobile holes would like to coalesce into a liquid state but are prevented from doing so, because they are electrically charged.

Victor Emery received tenure at Brookhaven National Laboratory in 1967 and was named Senior Physicist in 1972. In the Physics Department he led the Cryogenics Group from 1973 to 1977 and the Solid State Theory Group from 1975 to 1984 and again since 1994. He has also served as Associate Chairman from 1981 to 1985. Internationally recognised as one of the world's leading physicists, he won the BNL Distinguished Research and Development Award in 1996.

The 1995 Nobel Prize in Physics was won by David lee and Robert Richardson of Cornell University for their 1972 discovery that the isotope helium-3 can become superfluid at a temperature of 0.002 on the Kelvin scale, very close to absolute zero. Their prize-winning research, however, was sparked by the paper Victor Emery and Andrew Sessler had written in 1960.

In 1997 Emery gave the 326th Brookhaven lecture, entitled 'high Temperature Superconductors - The First Ten Years' and he used simple, non-technical terms to illustrate his lecture. He explained how key experiments at BNL had led to deeper insights into the atomic structure and forces of electricity and magnetism, that underlie the mechanisms of high-temperature superconductivity. To give an example of the Meissner effect, one part of his basic research, he showed how a 200-kilogram Japanese Sumo wrestler could float inches off the ground on a thin magnet.

Throughout the world Victory Emery is known as a leading physicist and he started his education at Staniland School and Boston Grammar School.

The third article, again written by Paul Mould appeared in the Boston Target on 24 July 2002..

In 1944 six boys went from Staniland School to Boston Grammar School: Gordon Butcher, Victor Emery, Peter Luff and myself were all ten years old; Peter Day and Noel Holgate were eleven.

Gordon Butcher unfortunately was killed in an accident with a coal lorry at the top of Frampton Place before he reached the age of eleven.

Peter Luff ran the Meccano Club from his home down Woodville Road but the other four of us together ran the Demon Sports Club from a loft above the garage, where my father kept his bread vans in High Street.

Our cricket and football teams were quite successful: Peter Day was a very good fast bowler and a fast, skilful centre forward; Noel Holgate centred many a useful cross for him from the left wing; because of our build, Victor Emery and myself were fullbacks, Victor on the right, I was always left-back.

When we cleared the ball, it was certainly cleared but neither of us were particularly fast.

Put Victor in the water, however, and no one could catch him. He was a goal-scoring star of the ultra successful Boston water polo team that never lost a match for three seasons. In the late 1940s there was a popular one mile swimming race up the River Witham from near the Sluice Bridge. Ken Johnson from the Liquorpond Street fish and chip shop won the first time I watched but the next year Victor Emery won and repeated his victory every time he entered.

Victor lived in Oxford Street, not far from our shop, so we often walked to school and back together and sometimes did our homework together but he was interested in science and I preferred English, history and languages, so that did not last.

By 1952 Victor was at Hull University and I was in the RAF, so we saw little of each other.

He had won the Parry Gold Medal at the Grammar School in 1951 and, as a matter of interest, Peter Luff also won the Parry Gold Medal in 1952; one of the few occasions when pupils from the same class became the school's best scholars.

Just before I was demobbed in 1954 I went to Hull University on a course and I hoped to meet up with Victor again but I never saw him, as he had moved to the University of London, where he gained his BSc that year and, in 1957, a PhD in theoretical physics from the University of Manchester.

For two years he was a research associate at Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, then he was a Fellow at the University of California at Berkeley until 1960 when he became lecturer at the University of Birmingham.

It was while Victor was at Birmingham that I saw him for the last time; he was visiting his parents and called in the shop to see me.

He had married a nurse from Leverton and it was difficult to realise this imposing, confident university lecturer was the lad whose hearty laughter I remembered from the day when we listened together to the Charlie Chester Show or practised our prowess with our air pistols.

Victor joined the Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York in 1964 as an associate physicist and received tenure in 1967.

He was promoted to senior physicist in 1972 and served as the associate chairman of the Physics Department from 1981 to 1985.

In 1995 he received the BNL's Distinguished Research and Development Award and in 2001 he was awarded the American Physical Society's Buckley Prize in Condensed Matter for the work he had done 25 years previously.

On October 13 2001 the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, at a ceremony at their headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts welcomed 185 new Fellows, including Richard Avedon, Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Riley Bechtel, Woody Allen, Madeline Albright, King Juan Carlos of Spain and Victor Emery.

For a Bostonian to be honoured in such exalted company has never happened before and may never happen again.

Past members have included George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Daniel Webster, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Albert Einstein and Winston Churchill.

If on that day in 1944 when we started at the Grammar School, someone had said that one of us would become a Fellow of the AAAS, we would have told them to pull the other one.

Victor had been suffering from Motor Neurone Disease for the last two years and the progressive debility interfered with his work until finally he could no longer go to his office.

He died on Thursday at the age of 68.

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Updated 21 February, 2005