David Tabor 1913-2005

I was sorry to learn that David Tabor, Emeritus Professor of Physics at Cambridge University, died on Saturday at the age of 92. Tabor was a brilliant and insightful experimental physicist whose name is perhaps not very widely known outside the scientific community. This is a pity, because he has a substantial claim to be considered one of the founding fathers of nanoscience.

Tabor began his research career in Australia, working for Council for Scientific and Industrial Research on lubricants and bearings. After moving to Cambridge University in 1946, he essentially created our modern understanding of the nanoscale origins of friction. His classic monograph on friction, written with F.P. Bowden in 1950, The Friction and Lubrication of Solids, is still in print and still very much worth reading. Tabor’s work on friction made him understand the importance of understanding the nature and structure of surfaces at the atomic level, and his group in the Cavendish Laboratory made major contributions to the development of surface science. Perhaps the highlight of his work on fundamental surface physics was his development of an apparatus to measure the van der Waals force between atomically smooth mica surfaces. This Surface Forces Apparatus, developed in the late ’60’s and early ’70’s in collaboration with his students Winterton and Israelachvili, was a technical tour de force, able to control and measure the separation between two surfaces with Angstrom resolution.

Tabor retired in 1981, but he was frequently to be found in the Cavendish Laboratory throughout the next 20 years. I joined the Cavendish as a lecturer in his old group in 1989, and thus I was lucky enough to be able to spend a great deal of time talking to him in that period. He was a great man to discuss physics with; despite his eminence and many honours he was modest and unassuming, yet with a tremendous insight into the way matter behaves at the nanoscale. Indeed, the recent surge of experimental studies of friction made possible by new tools like the atomic force microscope has only served to remind people how accurate Tabor’s intuition was.

6 thoughts on “David Tabor 1913-2005”

  1. The scientist, the person – David Tabor might have died, but the science he created, the outcome of the brilliant and pathfinding research he did in the field of friction is there to stay and guide us for years to come.

    My highest respect to this respect to this brilliant scientist and great person.

  2. A wonderful thing about being a scientist is that your work has an immortality about it. A browse through 300+ year old copies of “Philosophical Transactions…” will reveal who was doing what then. Work performed using the surface forces apparatus in particular will be important for some decades to come, allowing David Tabor the scientist the immortality that his work deserves.

    However, David Tabor the man is something that should also be remembered. I was a member of the same group from 1990-1994, when he frequently turned up to talk to students and postdocs about how they were doing (especially during coffee breaks); he would chat about most things, but would also inquire about research. He did not seem to mind what people wanted to talk to him about. There was not even a hint of arrogance about the man, a quality that in all probability has something to do with your statement that his name is not known widely outside the scientific community.

    He asked me for feedback on the polymer-related chapters of his book (3rd ed. – Gases, Liquids and Solids) when I was a PhD student in case it was reprinted. I now have a signed copy of this, which will help me ensure that I never forget him.

  3. Let us condole with all tribologists, physical and chemical communities in the loss of the great scientist, the renowned tribologist Prof. David Tabor. Tribology – the science to which creation and success he gave his exceptional contribution, is here today to lead us in our future development in research, engineering practice, and education.

    The Society of the Bulgarian Tribologists

  4. I met David Tabor a few times when I was a postgraduate at the Cavendish Laboratory. As well as being an outstanding scientist he was a charming gentleman and I am saddened to hear of his death.

Comments are closed.