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Murray Edwards College
University of Cambridge

Dr Owen Saxton: Rayleigh Medal

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    11 July 2018

    We're delighted that the Institute of Physics has awarded its Rayleigh Medal and Prize to Dr Owen Saxton (Emeritus Fellow, and former DoS and Senior Tutor)

    The citation describes him as “a brilliant thinker whose best work was far ahead of its time”; it mentions the Gerchberg-Saxton algorithm for phase retrieval from intensity measurements, now a key feature of phase retrieval methods in optical and X-ray imaging; the development (with Joachim Frank and Wolfgang Baumeister) of correlation methods for finding images buried in noise that ultimately won cryomicroscopy the 2017 Chemistry Nobel Prize; and creating (with Martyn Horner) the image processing system Semper which made these and other tools widely available.

    Dr Saxton said: “This award underlines how difficult it is at the time to recognise which results will prove of lasting value, and so how vital it is always to support a wide base of scientific exploration.  I have been very lucky to surf a tide of once unimaginable advances in computing speeds – and fortunate too that helping enthusiastic students understand physics re-energised me whenever research stalled!  I’m hugely grateful for the College’s backing throughout a rather unconventional career.”

    Dr Saxton was a Fellow from 1983 until retirement in 2016 as an Emeritus Fellow.  He will be remembered by many students, having been DoS in Natural Sciences for almost three decades, and at various times Praelector, Admissions Tutor and Senior Tutor.  For most of this time, he was a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Materials Science & Metallurgy, though his teaching was largely within the Department of Physics.  He won the European Ernst Ruska Prize for Electron Microscopy in 1996.  He was a founder of Synoptics Ltd (now SDI Ltd) in 1985, and the University’s Senior Proctor in 2012-13.

    The Rayleigh Medal and Prize is named after Lord Rayleigh (John William Strutt), the second Cavendish Professor (between Maxwell and JJ Thomson), and President of the Royal Society.  Rayleigh is known for discovering Argon, Rayleigh scattering (why the sky is blue), for Surface Acoustic Waves, and numerous advances in optics, waves and quantum mechanics; first year students are familiar with his resolution criterion for imaging instruments.

    The award is made for “distinguished contributions to theoretical, (including mathematical and computational) physics”.