27 June 2022

Professor David W Hughes, 1941-2022

Professor David Hughes, who was a member of staff in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Sheffield between 1965-2007, before becoming an emeritus professor, passed away on 6 June 2022.

David W Hughes

David Hughes excelled at maths and physics at school, so he chose to study physics at the University of Birmingham, graduating with a BSc in 1962, followed by a DPhil in solar physics in Oxford (New College), which he completed in 1965. David joined the physics department in Sheffield immediately after leaving Oxford, initially as an assistant lecturer, then lecturer (1968), senior lecturer (1984), reader (1990) and professor of astronomy (2001) until his retirement in 2007. David loved lecturing, research, writing and supporting his students: “Astronomy fascinates me precisely because we’re always studying things we don’t know – but we are learning all the time."

David’s research concentrated on small bodies of the Solar System, primarily comets, asteroids, meteoroid streams, their origin and evolution and interaction with the Earth. His early research within Tom Kaiser’s space physics group involved a large radar telescope in Bradfield which quantified the flux and size distribution of sporadic and shower meteors. As a member of the European Space Agency (ESA) Solar System Working group in the late 1970s, David played a key role in plans for potential European missions to comets, which culminated in his appointment as a co-investigator on two experiments on ESA’s GIOTTO probe which flew past Halley’s Comet in 1986, and later a co-investigator on the ESA Smart-1 mission to the Moon, and co-investigator of a UK experiment aboard ESA’s Rosetta probe. He published over 200 research papers and as similar number of general interest articles for New Scientist, Astronomy Now, Sky & Telescope.

David was heavily involved with the introduction of astronomy teaching at Sheffield in 1973, with a particular emphasis on his research interests including the origin the Solar System, the Sun and Moon, and the history of astronomy. Astronomy in Sheffield has subsequently flourished to become one of the UK’s leading centres for the delivery of undergraduate astronomy and astrophysics teaching.

Professionally, David Hughes served on the Council of the Royal Astronomical Society for 12 years, and the British Astronomical Association for six years, and was a Vice President for both societies. For a decade he was an editor for Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (MNRAS), one of the leading astronomy and astrophysics journals. In 1990 asteroid 4205 was named David Hughes in recognition of his contribution to minor body research and the popularisation and teaching of Solar System astronomy.

David wrote books on the Moon, the Solar System, the Story of the Universe, and most notably the Star of Bethlehem, having published a paper on this in 1976 in Nature. David was a larger-than-life individual, so was also a regular broadcaster on radio and TV and was an advisor for Channel Four (Equinox) and BBC (Horizon) science programmes on the Star of Bethlehem and the Tunguska Explosion. David delivered a large number of highly informative and entertaining public lectures throughout his careers, including astronomy societies. After his retirement, he combined his love of lecturing, travel and meeting people by lecturing on cruise ships for the Smithsonian. One highlight was the successful observation of total solar eclipse from the ship’s deck in the South Pacific by all guests and crew (approximately 4000 people).

David filmed a BBC Horizon special, 'The Comet is Coming’, at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich in 1980, in preparation for the return of Comet Halley. Here he met Carole Stott, whom he married in 1985, and the couple had two children, Ellen and Owen. One of the last things he did was to paint a Solar System mural with Carole and their granddaughters. David was an inspiration to many and will be sorely missed by his past and present colleagues in the Department of Physics and Astronomy.