In conversation with… Professor Malcolm Longair, physicist and Jacksonian Professor Emeritus of Natural Philosophy in the Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge

December 2020

Photo of Malcom Longair
Professor Malcolm Longair

In 1932, a young student named P C Ho arrived in the UK to study at the University of Cambridge, supported by a grant from the Hubei Province in China, working alongside Ernest Rutherford, the father of nuclear physics. Mid-way through his studies, his funding ran out and he had to return home. Decades later, Yan Huo contacted the Cavendish Laboratory enquiring about his grandfather P C Ho.  He uncovered the story of Ho’s aborted studies and subsequently created the P C Ho Studentship Programme so that selected postgraduate students would not experience the same fate through a lack of funding.

Professor Malcolm Longair and the Cavendish Laboratory are extraordinarily grateful to the Huo Family Foundation for its support in funding PhD students with a £3m endowment. Fionn Bishop, who started in October 2019, is the first student to receive this grant and her specialty is in the field of experimental high energy physics, exactly P C Ho’s area of expertise. 

The Cavendish Laboratory is one of the most prestigious physics establishments in the world – the photograph below includes nine Nobel Prize winners – and its students have been involved with some of the most ground-breaking science in the whole history of physics.

Malcolm beams with pride when he talks of the Cavendish students. “It is a real highlight to see these young students excel. You put a student onto a problem you don’t understand yourself and, more often than not, they come back with a solution. You can’t put a value on that.”

About 20% of students will become professional academic physicists and many others go into industry, commerce and finance but, regardless of what they subsequently do, Malcolm says their physics training teaches them how to tackle difficult problems, often involving many blind alleys along the way. “Science is a grey world. That is what makes it exciting! Physics is not easy and you should not be phased by failure”. The lab’s top priority is physics for the benefit for society and it must ensure young people come through the programme with this positive vision.

As science develops and changes, so too must the laboratory. The current facility needs to grow to enable it to have a more extensive approach whether that is a meeting of minds or as an incubator for start-ups. “We have observed the development of a multidisciplinary approach to physics in the last fifty years which has created a new ecosystem of research.” One thing that will remain is the long term aim of providing value by mixing fundamental physics and its application to society.

Malcolm is clear that it is a tough path and that some bright students find it difficult to take the pressure. Science works by making mistakes and trial and error is often necessary to make breakthroughs. “We must use the students’ fresh minds to solve the most difficult problems and, in order to do this, we must remove anything that imposes a barrier to communication”.  The Laboratory ensures that there is a vibrant atmosphere and that everyone in the 1500-strong laboratory is on first name terms to break down any hierarchy and bring out the originality of the individual. “Hierarchy can get in the way. You have to find your own future”.

After an exceptional career, holding the positions of Astronomer Royal for Scotland in Edinburgh and Head of the Cavendish Laboratory as Jacksonian Professor, Malcolm now runs the development programme at the laboratory. He worries that people view Cambridge as elitist but describes the trickle-down effect playing a crucial part in attracting the next generation of students from right across the whole of the country. “I am from a simple background in Dundee in Scotland. I want people from any background to feel inspired. When people go back home and tell others about their work, they start to instil the mentality of ‘if this person did it, then I can too’.”

Cavendish Laboratory students, 1932
P C Ho seated second row, far left