John Holt, Professor of Experimental Physics, dies aged 90

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John Holt was a dedicated experimental physicist whose work had a deep impact on our understanding of the physics of matter at its most fundamental level and contributed to the development of the atom bomb.

He was one of the few remaining links with the momentous days of the 20th century after the discovery of nuclear fission and was later one of the pioneers of elementary particle physics research which blossomed after the Second World War.

John Riley Holt was born in 1918 in Runcorn, Cheshire. His father worked in a boat builder’s yard, and his mother’s family owned a bakery and confectionery shop that his father eventually took over.

Holt attended Runcorn County Secondary School, leaving at 16 with excellent matriculation results, and he proceeded straight to the University of Liverpool’s physics department in 1934. This department was propelled on to the world stage with the arrival of James Chadwick in 1935, the year he won the Nobel Prize for his discovery of the neutron. Chadwick brought the resources into the department to build a cyclotron, a newly invented research tool. Holt graduated in 1938, winning the Oliver Lodge Prize for the best undergraduate, and was taken on by Chadwick as a research student. Chadwick described him later as the best research student he had ever supervised. Holt was set to work to study artificially produced radioactive isotopes, during which activity he began to acquire the superb experimental skills that he was to put to good use in later life.

In 1939 two events were to change the direction of his research: nuclear fission was discovered, and the outbreak of war caused the scientific community to turn its attention to defence. It was soon realised that nuclear fission could be used to make a very powerful weapon.

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