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.