We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
Harris, John Edwin [Jack] (1932–2009), metallurgist and science writer, was born on 2 June 1932 at Oak Cottage, Penhow, near Chepstow, Monmouthshire, the elder son of John Frederick (Fred) Harris (1906–1978), then a road foreman for the rural district council, later an assistant surveyor, and his wife, Emily Margaret, née Prosser (1910–1980). Both parents had strong Welsh coalmining connections. Emily Harris encouraged and coached her son Jack and, some years later, his brother Rex, to gain entry to Larkfield Grammar School at Chepstow. From there both went on to study metallurgy at the University of Birmingham. For Jack this was followed by three years of research (1953–6) under Voya Kondic, also at Birmingham, leading to a PhD degree. During this time he met Ann Foote, a nurse at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, and daughter of Peter James Foote, boarding-house proprietor. They married at the Congregationalist church in Worcester Road, Malvern Link, on 9 June 1956. They had two sons and two daughters.

In 1956 Harris was recruited by British Thomson-Houston (part of Associated Electrical Industries), which was bidding to construct the nuclear reactors for Berkeley power station. Thus began a lifetime's work in nuclear power. After three years with British Thomson-Houston, Harris joined the Central Electricity Generating Board at its new Berkeley Nuclear Laboratories (where he remained until his retirement in 1989). There he began work on the high-temperature mechanical properties of magnesium alloys used for fuel cladding and fuel element components in the new Magnox reactors. The in-reactor dwell time of a Magnox fuel element was limited not by the amount of energy that could be extracted from the uranium but by the ability of its cladding to remain intact. Irradiation at high temperatures produced shape changes in the uranium that the cladding had to accommodate if the highly radioactive fission products were not to escape into the reactor circuit. Harris did much to further understanding of high-temperature deformation and fracture in these materials emphasizing, in particular, the role of vacancies (vacant lattice sites) which are relatively mobile at the temperatures of interest. In 1965 he was put in charge of the post-irradiation examination team at Berkeley Nuclear Laboratories where he oversaw careful analysis of data and a series of design adjustments that led to a near doubling of the energy extracted from the fuel.

Operation of the Magnox reactors brought to light significant mechanical problems caused by corrosion. Harris observed that such effects are ubiquitous: examples can be found in other reactor systems, reinforced concrete, ancient buildings, and even an ‘expanding rust cement’ invented to seal the joints between the cast-iron roof sections of the British Museum reading room. A description of this work, together with pieces written to celebrate the centenary in 1981 of electricity supply in the UK, were the first of many articles written by Harris for the non-specialist reader. These revealed his scientific curiosity, an eye for oddities, and his most winning asset (both in print and in person): a wonderful, often self-deprecating, sense of humour. Notable were his monthly opinion piece in Materials World, the journal of the Institute of Materials, Minerals, and Mining, which ran from 1992 until his death; his editorship of Interdisciplinary Science Reviews (1996–2001); and a regular column for Science and Public Affairs (2002–5).

Harris had a keen social conscience and his support for nuclear power but opposition to nuclear weapons led him to take a leading role in the British Pugwash Group, an organization of scientists that seeks a world free of nuclear weapons. These and many other interests, including art appreciation and penal reform, were reflected in his writings. His book (with David West), Metals and the Royal Society (1999), provided an insider view of the first fifty years of the British nuclear power programme and the personalities who shaped it.

In 1973 Harris was awarded the degree of DSc from Birmingham University in recognition of his fundamental work on physical metallurgy; in the same year he was elected a fellow of the Institution of Metallurgists and was also a member of the Weiler working party on prison adjudications, writing a minority report. In 1979 he was awarded, with Vernon (Wally) Eldred of the UK Atomic Energy Authority, the Royal Society's Esso gold medal for energy conservation in recognition of the work that had led to increases in discharge irradiation levels for Magnox fuel. In 1981 he was appointed MBE for his services to the Central Electricity Generating Board. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering in 1987 (a distinction later shared with his brother, Rex), a fellow of the Royal Society in 1988, and a fellow of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce, also in 1988. In 2006 he received the Sir Andrew Bryan award for his contributions to the work of the Institute of Materials, Mining, and Minerals. He gave public lectures at the Tate Gallery (1984) and the Molecule Club (1985 and 1987) and presented a Friday evening discourse at the Royal Institution (1998). He lived latterly at Church Farm House, 28 Hopton Road, Upper Cam, near Dursley, Gloucestershire, and in his Who's Who entry playfully named his club as ‘Cam Bowling (non-playing member)’. He listed among his recreations ‘studying decay of buildings’, and he was an adviser on corrosion to St Paul's Cathedral and other historic buildings. He died of a heart attack at his home on 3 February 2009; his funeral was held on the 19th at St George's Church, Cam, Dursley, with cremation at Gloucester crematorium. He was survived by his wife, Ann, and their four children.

Ian Crossland

Sources  

The Guardian (5 March 2009) · The Times (30 March 2009) · Materials World (June 2009), 53 · Memoirs FRS, 56 (2010), 151–69 · WW (2009) · personal knowledge (2013) · private information (2013) [Rex Harris, brother] · b. cert. · m. cert. · d. cert.

Likenesses  

photograph, repro. in Memoirs FRS

Wealth at death  

£399,653: probate, 6 Nov 2009, CGPLA Eng. & Wales