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Emeritus Professor Ben Whitaker

Colleagues will be sorry to learn of the death, on 21 September 2022, of Emeritus Professor Ben Whitaker, former Chair in Chemical Physics in the School of Chemistry.  The following tribute has been contributed by Professor Colin Fishwick.

Born 15th May 1956, Ben took a first class BSc in Chemical Physics from the University of Sussex in 1978 and followed that with a D.Phil entitled ‘Laser Induced Emission Spectroscopy Using Polarised Light’ in 1981 from the same university, under the supervision of Prof Tony McCaffery. Ben’s research was driven by a passion to understand the fundamentals of chemical reactions that was stimulated by his undergraduate and D.Phil work. Two periods of post-doctoral study followed in France, firstly at the Université de Provence in Marseilles and then at the Université de Paris-Sud. Ben then returned to Sussex, firstly as a Research Fellow, and subsequently with a personal Advanced Fellowship from the Science and Engineering Research Council, focusing on the fundamental dynamics of reactive and non-reactive collisions of molecules and atoms in the gas phase. During his Fellowship Ben spent some time at Cornell University working on novel imaging methods for monitoring chemical reactions.

In 1989 Ben was appointed to a lectureship in Physical Chemistry here at Leeds which was followed by promotion to Senior Lecturer in 1995, Reader in Chemical Physics in 1999 and to a chair in Chemical Physics in 2004. Ben was Head of the Physical Chemistry Section between 2012 and 2017.

Leading on from his collaborations with Cornell, Ben constructed one of the first imaging experiments in the UK. In this technique, following a chemical reaction, a product is ionized and then accelerated to an array detector. The position of the ion image on the detector gives spatial information about how the product moves following reaction and the time between ionization and detection is related to the product’s energy. Combining spatial and energy information led to new insights into the mechanisms of reactions and photodissociations.

Ben also pioneered Laser grating spectroscopy and used the technique to both gain information on chemical reactions, but also as a remote and non-intrusive probe for temperature fields in flames and engines. Ben’s most recent work in chemical physics generated several important papers on coherent control; in this process a laser pulse is shaped to promote a particular dissociation pathway. The technique has the potential to significantly enhance the selectivity and specificity of key chemical processes. Ben led a number of EU consortia in chemical physics, ion imaging and combustion, and was awarded the Sugden Prize for Combustion Chemistry in 2002 (jointly with Prof GGW Sheppard).

Ben was at the forefront of developing novel interdisciplinary research institutes such as the Centre for Self Organising Molecular Systems (SOMS) and associated undergraduate courses in nanotechnology. The interdisciplinary nature of the Nanotechnology Degree helped lead to the formation of the highly successful Natural Sciences programme, hosted here in the School of Chemistry.

Ben was also an accomplished and enthusiastic teacher, and many of his students and collaborators have gone on to highly successful careers in academia and industry.

Away from the laboratory, Ben was interested in the role of the World Wide Web on chemical information transfer and publications, publishing several important papers and being part of a HEFCE consortium looking at electronic publications.

Towards the latter part of his career, Ben was very interested in the links between Art and Science and received grants for a number of artistic works that were exhibited at the University and elsewhere in Leeds.

Ben was a great colleague-one of life’s enthusiasts, and will be sorely missed.