Degree Speeches

Summer 2000


Professor Richard Brook, OBE, FREng

Public Orator, Professor Neil Halliwell, presented the Honorary Graduand at the Degree Congregation held on Friday 14 July 2000 at 3.00pm

Chancellor, Mayor of Charnwood, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen; and - most important of all - New Graduates of Science and the Arts.

Our honorary graduate today was born in Leeds in 1938 and celebrated his first graduation day in 1962. Like many of you sitting here, he became a Bachelor of Science. His degree - Honours, First Class - was in Ceramics.

Dismiss any fleeting notion that Richard John Brook was set on becoming a potter, or that he intended to work in porcelain at nearby Stoke-on-Trent. He was first and foremost a scientist and he left Leeds to begin doctoral studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Why Massachusetts?

His decision to go there sounded the first note in what would be the persistent theme of a distinguished career. Richard John Brook was attracted by the reputation of a single individual, the late Professor W.D.Kingery, whose work he had read and admired. The young postgraduate completed a thesis on 'Nickel-ferrite thin films' with the eminent professor and in 1966 was awarded the equivalent of our PhD degree.

Afterwards he went on teach and conduct research at the University of Southern California.

At the time, USC might have seemed an odd choice for a scientist. It had established its reputation as a university for the professions - chiefly medicine and the law. And, of course, for the theatrical profession. Their most famous graduate was the movie star John Wayne, who had left USC with a degree in acting. (I bet not many of you knew that.)

So why did the young scientist with a growing reputation go to Southern California?

USC had decided it must either expand its research activity or else resign itself to a place in the second league. It launched a campaign to attract talent from the scientific community and among the brightest of its new stars was Dr F.A. Kroger, an outstanding solid-state chemist and author of the standard work on point defects in crystals.

And yes. Richard John Brook was drawn there by the work of this single individual. He went to join him as Assistant Professor of Materials Science.

While in California, Professor Brook's reputation was enhanced by work on the defect chemistry of oxides, with emphasis on the electrical properties of insulators and on the kinetics of microstructure development in ceramics. In 1970 he returned to the UK as group leader for electrical ceramics at the Atomic Energy Research Establishment in Harwell.

This time it was the work of Freddy Clarke - Dr F.J.P. Clarke, the cheerful and creative head of materials development that attracted him; and while at Harwell he was drawn more deeply into studies involving the general processing of ceramics. In 1974 he became Professor and Head of the Department of Ceramics at his alma mater, the University of Leeds, lured this time by the challenge of working with alongside one of the university's greatest luminaries, Lord Boyle (who was that rare beast, a politician with a true belief in the value of the academic world).

At Leeds, Professor Brook's research interest in processing oxide and non-oxide ceramics continued; and he was at the forefront of many technological advances relating to their fabrication. In 1988 an ambition to work with Professor Gunther Petzow, the distinguished German metallurgist, led to a period of three years spent among the scientific elite at the Max-Planck-Society in Stuttgart (Professor Brook is still an Honorary Professor at the University there).

Then he went to Oxford University, first as Cookson Professor and, in 1995, as Professor of Materials Science and a Fellow of St Cross College. Surely there was a particular academic inspiration that drew him there? There was. Sir Peter Hirsch, a seminal research worker in the application of electron microscopy to the mechanical behaviour of metals, and an academic leader with a genius for creative research administration.

While at Leeds, Professsor Brook had become involved in university leadership as Dean of Engineering and in this capacity he began to advise the government on funding issues relating to university and industrial research, specifically involving ceramic products.

This connection persisted, and in 1994 he took leave of absence from Oxford to become chief executive at the Engineering and Physical Sciences and Research Council, the body responsible for administering government funds for university research across the whole of Science and Engineering. As usual there was a siren voice. This time it belonged to Sir Alan Rudge, its founder-chairman, a pragmatic visionary who persuaded Professor Brook that he was needed to help reshape and administer this influential funding body. It is a job he is still doing and still enjoying.

Professor Brook has published more than 180 papers in the scientific literature and has been awarded more than 10 patents. He is a Distinguished Life Member of the American Ceramic Society and is a past-President of the Institute of Ceramics and of the British Ceramic Society. He is Membre d'Honneur of the Societe Francaise de Metallurgie et de Materiaux, and is the first recipient of the Stuijts Award of the European Ceramic Society. He is a member of the Senate of the Max Planck Society. He became an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 1988 and a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering in 1998. He has been associated with the editorial boards of six journals and is currently editor of the Journal of the European Ceramic Society.

I have spoken of Professor Brook's thesis on Nickel-ferrite thin films; of the chemistry of oxides; the electrical properties of insulators; the kinetics of microstructure development in ceramics; and much else besides of scientific lore, all of it related to his distinguished career. Professor Brook is undoubtedly a learned man. But a profound simplicity lies at the back of all his learning, and it is this simplicity which most appeals to him today.

For I was wrong to say, "Dismiss the potter and put the business of porcelain out of your minds." Professor Brook relishes the fact that his work is part of a great tradition stretching back thousands of years to the potter's ancient art and understanding of clay, the simplest of domestic materials. They shaped it and baked it into vessels and dishes. He develops the newest outlets and applications, which range from the homely: the non-corroding qualities of fridge magnets; to the hi-tech: the tile coverings for the space shuttle.

An equally simple guiding rule of life has led him from that summer's day in Leeds, in 1962, when he graduated Bachelor of Science in Ceramics, to this one in Loughborough, at which he is to be awarded an Honorary Degree as Doctor of Science.

At the outset Richard John Brook had no more idea than you, our new graduates, about where his degree would take him. He never planned it out on the back of an envelope. So the way he has built his career is something you might well reflect upon.

Here at university you have learned to work intensively both as individuals and as members of a group. You will build on this experience, and it will shape your entire life. Its value? First, the work has given you a belief in your academic worth, symbolised in the certificate that each one of you is holding. Second, it has taught you to judge who is inspiring to work with; who is comfortable to be with; who you can rely on.

Professor Brook built his career by trusting his judgement and going off to work with people of real worth. He travelled across the world to take up the challenge they presented. In Professor Kingery, Dr Kroger, Dr Clarke, Lord Boyle, Professor Petzow, Sir Peter Hirsch, Sir Alan Rudge and many others, he worked with people he believed to be good, clear, stimulating thinkers. He was prepared to learn from them. Today, he will tell you, the greatest satisfaction in his working life comes from the opportunity he now has to meet the minds of young academics and help them use their talents creatively by offering them a framework that enables them to flourish.

You are all leaving us today after taking your own first major academic step in life - 'degree' literally means 'a step'. All of us at Loughborough hope that, as you take further steps in your career, you will encounter people as impressive as those who shared their values and ideas in mutual partnership with Professor Brook, and people as simply inspirational as Professor Brook himself.

Chancellor, I present to you and the University, Richard John Brook, Officer of the Order of the British Empire, Bachelor of Science, Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, for the award of the degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa.

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