Obituary for Jack Meadows

Posted by pt91 at Aug 10, 2016 03:20 PM |

In 1965 Jack Meadows applied for two advertised Lectureships to start Astronomy and the History of Science as the University of Leicester was expanding its Science Faculty. He had degrees in both subjects and was appointed to both positions.  He was keen to develop courses and build a viable department, but faced the immediate problem of attracting students to a place where he and his subjects were unknown. However, Divine intervention was at hand. On Christmas Eve, just after Jack had given his first term of lectures on asteroids and meteorites, the largest recorded meteorite ever to have hit the UK, broke up and landed at Barwell, a nearby town in the county. Jack led one of the parties searching for fragments. The international media attention and a paper in Nature co-authored by Jack, have ensured the association of Astronomy with Leicester ever since. Jack became Professor and Head of the Department of Astronomy and History of Science in 1971. But the achievements of this genial and witty polymath extended beyond these two subjects, which remained lifetime interests. Jack also pursued his interests in information science and established a centre for Primary Communication research in the University. His influence spread as he developed links with leading organisations such as the Institute for Information Scientists and the Library Association. Jack wrote over 250 papers and his 30 or so books covered a wide range of topics, including stellar evolution, solar physics, Maxwell’s equations and their applications, the future of the universe, primary communication, communication in science, astronomy in English literature, information science, and many more. He formed research groups and supervised graduate students in a wide range of topics. Jack served the university with great distinction as Dean of the Faculty of Science and later was the first scientist to become Public Orator at a time when degrees were conferred in Latin. He was also active nationally on the Council of the Royal Astronomical Society, where he promoted planetary science and the publication of work by observatories. In 1986, Jack moved to Loughborough University in 1986 as Professor of Library and Information Studies where he became the Director of the British Library-funded Library and Information Management Research Unit (subsequently Library and Information Statistics Unit (LISU)).  During his time at Loughborough he also served as Head of Department (1986-1990), Dean of Education and Humanities (1992-1995) and finally Pro-Vice-Chancellor (1995-1996).

Arthur Jack Meadows was born in Sheffield on 24th January 1934. He was the son of Alice and Harold, who worked as a cook in the RAF during the War, and then moved from town to town to take up any catering or service job he could find to make ends meet. Jack attended more than 15 schools including, at age 16, Archbishop Tenison’s School in London, where the headmaster recognised his potential and encouraged him to apply for Oxbridge.

After National Service, where he learnt fluent Russian, he took a First in Physics at New College Oxford, staying on to complete a DPhil in Astronomy. Then, as a Fulbright Scholar he travelled to the USA and subsequently spent 18 months working as Assistant Professor at the University of Illinois – Champaign Urbana. On his return to the UK, Jack took a position as Lecturer at the University of St. Andrews, where he stayed until 1963. Due to his proficiency in Russian Jack was then appointed as Assistant Keeper in the Slavonic section of the British Museum library, where he stayed until he moved to Leicester. In keeping with his broad interests, while at the British Museum he also studied further at University College London, where he was awarded an MSc in the History and Philosophy of Science. It was this experience, together with the challenges of working with large physical science datasets that helped to develop his interest in the science of information organisation, communication, storage and retrieval.

Jack was a stimulating and entertaining lecturer and built up a team to teach Astronomy modules for 'Combined Studies' students. Later Jack introduced a joint honours degree with the maths department in Mathematics with Astronomy, which attracted few students but of excellent quality.  Then he and the Head of Physics, the space physicist Ken Pounds, pioneered a joint degree in Physics with Astrophysics which proved to be particularly popular and was very valuable in recruiting Physics students at a time when there was a dearth of applications for single subject Physics.  The joint degree idea proved to be so popular that other universities soon introduced it and most Physics departments now offer such degrees.  With increasing links in teaching and research, it was then a natural step for the Departments of Physics and Astronomy to merge as the two heads decided to do.

Jack, pictured third from right, as part of the search party for the Barwell meteorite of 1965.
Despite his encyclopaedic knowledge, Jack was a modest man with a great sense of humour and could enliven any occasion or conversation. Being with him at lunch or dinner, meetings, concerts, cricket matches, or in church was never dull.   He was more than just an academic star – he was also a friend and mentor to many who were fortunate enough to meet him, students and colleagues alike. He was always encouraging, supportive, and cheerful, offering wisdom and insight as well as warmth and humanity. His wry sense of humour is exemplified by his listing among his recreations in Who’s Who ‘sleeping in meetings’.

He had a magnificent mind right up to the end – always ready with a quotation from one of the many poems and speeches he knew by heart; a carefully chosen song; one of the terrible puns he was renowned for; or his thoughts on the cricket score.

He was a regular worshipper at Leicester Cathedral, where for many years he was also a warden. He and his wife, Jane, were welcoming and gracious hosts to friends and colleagues at summer afternoon tea parties held in their beautiful garden, which she cherished.

Jack received several prestigious honours in his lifetime, including being awarded an Honorary Doctor of Science Degree from the City University, and being made a Life Vice-President of the Library Association. He was one of the world’s most influential information scientists and, at a conference in his honour at Cranfield University in 1999 on “Is there a future for Informatics? A strategy for the 21st Century”, many speakers mentioned their personal experience of and high regard for Jack. In 2006, the International Astronomical Union named an asteroid in his honour - Asteroid 4600 Meadows. He is quoted at the time as saying ‘I am delighted to think that there is an object in the solar system that will carry my name long after I am dead.'

Jack died peacefully at Queens Medical Centre in Nottingham on 18 July 2016 with family members at his side, listening to one of his favourite pieces of music – the Mozart Clarinet Concerto. He is survived by his wife, Jane, whom he met while at Oxford, their children, Alice, twins Mick and Sally, eight grandchildren, and by his sister, Mary and her family.

He will be sorely missed by his family and countless friends, colleagues, and students around the world.

Aftab Khan and Michael Meadows, 10 August 2016

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