The Pettifer Prize is presented annually to the best first year Physics student and it honours the memory of Dr Robert Pettifer, who joined the department in 1972 until his retirement due to ill-health in 2007.
He was a pioneer of the exploitation of synchrotron radiation, which is intense x-radiation produced by electron/positron particle accelerators. His scientific legacy is wide ranging having studied topics as diverse as protein crystallography and magnetostriction, but he is most widely recognised for his contribution to the experimental and theoretical development of x-ray spectroscopy, specifically Extended X-ray Absorption Fine Structure (EXAFS), which allows the atomic arrangement of matter to be unravelled, even in non-crystalline materials.
In the early days of synchrotron radiation, when facilities were few and far between, he developed instrumentation and techniques for spectroscopy at the NINA synchrotron radiation facility at Daresbury, and later at its successor, the SRS, where he worked on projects including optical luminescence, x-ray absorption and, latterly, the Borrmann effect. During a sabbatical at the synchrotron laboratory in Hamburg (DESY) he designed and built a monochromator and an absolute X-ray energy calibration device to assist his research on metallo-enzymes. Later at the European Synchrotron Radiation facility (ESRF in Grenoble) he developed high precision ionisation chambers and developed a technique for measuring femtometer atomic displacement via x-ray spectroscopy. Despite illness, he remained actively engaged in research until his untimely death in 2008. Robert wanted to do the most exciting science: he decried "stamp collectors" as he called them! Perhaps the originality and impact of Robert's science is best illustrated by the fact that he is co-author of no less than four papers in the prestigious journal Nature, a rare achievement for any scientist, let alone an experimental physicist.
Above all it was Robert's infectious love of physics and his sense of excitement with the subject which will have inspired many, many generations of our students. He was a tremendous teacher and took pride in being able to explain the most complex physics to the layperson as well as the undergraduate. His idol was Richard Feynman, the doyen of physics communicators and possibly the most famous living physicist in the world during Robert's career. No wonder that the prize awarded annually in Robert's name is the boxed set of Feynman's inspirational Lectures on Physics.
Robert is remembered fondly and with great admiration by those of us who had the privilege of working with him. Through the Pettifer Prize, presented by his wife, Mary, he continues to ensure that our most excellent students can share some of his excitement and inspiration.