James Walters Remembered (part 1)

Last updated September 28, 2020 by Andrew Brown

Following the death of CTAMOP stalwart, James Walters we remember our colleague and friend this week with several pieces from those who knew him best.

James’ Cousin, Rosemary, gave the eulogy at his funeral, and has kindly provided us with a copy for those who weren’t able to attend.

I’m Rosemary, one of James’s first cousins and I am both honored and humbled to give this tribute. I don’t know how it is your families but as cousins we tended to meet up at family weddings and funerals, promising each other “we must meet up again in other circumstances” and then life moves on. Not having spent more time with James in adult years is a regret we all share, and I have learnt so much about James in the last week. As my cousin Anne said, James was married to the university and his colleagues and students were his family. I am very grateful to friends and especially to his colleagues who have filled in many gaps and I unashamedly confess to plagiarizing some of their comments.

This week I have received so many e mails or phone calls about James and all talk about James as a quiet modest man, with a ready wit and good humour and whose formidable intellect was always present, but not always apparent.

My fun memories are of our childhood summers, spent mostly at Pickie pool or Ballyholme beach, with our cousins. It seemed the summers were long and sunny, picnics on the beach, while we played, scrambled over the rocks to Pickie pool, dived from great heights in competition with each other. Although I have a vague memory that perhaps James was not a fan of the diving. James was particularly close to his older cousin Robert, who sadly passed away almost exactly one year ago. 

There were the childhood scientific experiments my father took us out on, measuring the depth of water from the wee rowing boats at Bangor to the seabed. I also remember James sitting at our dining room table with my brother James and my father, solving complicated algebraic equations and discussing matter, ions and black holes.  I was about 10 at the time, trying earnestly to be clever and scientific, and failing miserably.  There were long, very long games of chess with James and my brother, another skill I never learnt.

James attended Sullivan Upper prep department, where his school reports describe him as a quiet hardworking, studious boy. He then attended Sullivan upper grammar school, one school report writing “excellent” after a maths exam scored 100%. To encourage the rest of us mere mortals another described his algebraic exam result as “disappointing”. The mark was 80 something! His interests in the latter years included the debating society, the French circle, and somewhat surprisingly the boys hockey team. I’m told he was once picked for the rugby team, but felt cheated of a Saturday morning he could have spent studying maths. ‪He was house captain and in his final year a prefect.

He then won a scholarship to study at Trinity college Cambridge. His parents were rightly proud but sadly, while James was only 18, just two weeks into his first semester, his mother died.

As with most Cambridge scholars James enjoyed life there, making life-long friends with whom he kept in touch and it was there he developed his passion for cinema. His tastes were conservative, Hollywood musicals and epics such as Ben Hur and Spartacus. He jested that one of his ambitions at Cambridge was to have an “all -flick week”, i.e. visit the cinema every day for a week. At that stage he was completing his PhD and we doubt if this cinema week ever occurred! However, even in later years James would describe a good day as one that ended re-watching an old movie! 

Having completed his PhD at Cambridge, James moved home to N Ireland as a lecturer at Queens University Belfast. He advanced through his academic career and was appointed Professor of theoretical physics early in the 1990’s. He taught both undergraduate and postgraduate courses, his students describing him as one of the best lecturers ever and again that caring attribute showing, as he took his students out for coffee or lunch, visiting some when ill, attending their family weddings and fulfilling, as I said earlier, being part of the family at Queens.

He supervised many Phd students; among them Ann Kernoghan, Jenny Blackwood, Sharon Gilmore, Tony Yu, Charlie Starrett, Martin Mc Govern and Professor Mary Mc Alinden CMath FIMA at Nottingham Trent University, with whom he did collaborative work.

He published at least 200 research papers spanning 50 years from 1970 until his last, co-authored with Colm Whelan in July 2020.

He also published three books.

He was acknowledged as a “giant in his field”.  Measurements of atomic collisions were performed all over the world to test his predictions that were invariably correct.  

He was a appointed a member of the prestigious Royal Irish Academy in 2003  and  in 2005 he was elected Fellow of the American Physical Society for many significant contributions to atomic collision theory, a rare honour for a non American scientist.

Although retired, James continued giving lectures and publishing papers his last only a few months ago I July of this year.

A very fitting short tribute to James was posted by his department:

“Professor James Walters, a fellow of the Institute of Physics and a member of the Royal Irish Academy has played a key role in in the CTAMOP and the school for nearly 5 decades, contributing significantly to the building up of Queens as a Centre of Excellence for theoretical  and computational Atomic Physics, and the training of generations of researchers active in this field.”

What a legacy, to inspire the next generations and indeed beyond, one of whom recently had work experience with James. Donal, the son of Francesca Shearer who was a colleague and good friend of James is with us today is now in his second year studying mathematics at Queens!

But beyond this legacy, James has left a rich network of friends and colleagues who will miss him dearly, to some he was like a fixed star in the universe, a constant in their life, to some he was like a brother and those involved in the study of atomic collisions, they have lost their brightest star.

As a family we have had great comfort knowing his life was so rich in friendships.


About CTAMOP:

We are a Research Cluster of the School of Mathematics and Physics at Queen’s University Belfast in Northern Ireland. Our research interests are focused primarily on computational and theoretical physics.

Old Physics Building

The Old Physics Building,
where CTAMOP is situated.